Washington Still Has Problems With Democracy in Latin America

Imagine if Barack Obama, upon taking office in January 2009, had decided to deliver on his campaign promise to “end business as usual in Washington so we can bring about real change.”

Imagine if he had rejected the architects of the pro-Wall Street policies that led to the economic collapse – such as Larry Summers, Tim Geithner, and the stable of former Goldman Sachs employees running the Treasury Department – and instead appointed Nobel Prize-winning economists Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz to key positions, including the Federal Reserve chairmanship.

Instead of Hillary Clinton, who lost the Democratic presidential primary because of her unrelenting support for the Iraq war, imagine if he had chosen Sen. Russ Feingold (D., Wis.) for secretary of state, or someone else interested in fulfilling the popular desire to get out of Afghanistan.

Imagine a real health-care reform bill instead of the health-insurance reform we got – one that didn’t give the powerful pharmaceutical and insurance lobbies a veto.

It goes without saying that Obama would be vilified by the major media outlets. The seething hostility of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh would be matched by more mainstream news organizations, which would accuse the president of polarizing the nation and engaging in dangerous demagoguery.

With most of the establishment media and institutions against him, Obama would face a constant battle for political survival – although he might well triumph through direct, populist appeals to the majority of voters. This is what a number of left-of-center Latin American leaders have done:

In Ecuador, President Rafael Correa was reelected by a large margin in 2009, despite strong opposition from the country’s media.

In Bolivia, Evo Morales has brought stability and record growth to a country with a tradition of governments that didn’t last more than a year. And he has done so in spite of the most hostile media in the hemisphere, as well as unrelenting, sometimes violent opposition from Bolivia’s traditional elite.

And Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has survived a military coup attempt and other efforts to topple his government, winning three presidential elections, each one by a larger margin.

All these presidents took on entrenched oligarchies and fought hard to deliver on their promises.

Morales, the first indigenous president in a country with an indigenous majority, re-nationalized fossil-fuel industries, created jobs through public investment, and won approval of a more democratic constitution. Correa doubled spending on health care and canceled $3.2 billion in foreign debt that he declared illegitimate. Under Chavez, who took control of his country’s oil industry, poverty was cut in half, and extreme poverty dropped by more than 70 percent.

These presidents faced another obstacle to delivering on their promises that Obama would not: the opposition of the most powerful country in the world. The same was true of former Argentine President Nestor Kirchner, who had to battle the Washington-dominated International Monetary Fund to implement his economic policies, which made Argentina the fastest-growing economy in the hemisphere for six years.

Chavez, of course, has been the most demonized in the U.S. media. That is not because of what he has said or done, but because he is sitting on 100 billion barrels of oil. Washington has a particular problem with oil-producing states that don’t follow orders – whether they are dictatorships (Iraq), theocracies (Iran), or democracies (Venezuela).

All of these leaders had hoped Obama would pursue a different, more enlightened Latin American policy, but that hasn’t happened. It seems that Washington, which was comfortable with the dictators and oligarchs who ran the show in the region for decades, still has problems with democracy in its former “back yard.”

Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C. He received his Ph.D. in economics from the University of Michigan. He has written numerous research papers on economic policy, especially on Latin America and international economic policy. He is co-author, with Dean Baker, of Social Security: The Phony Crisis (University of Chicago Press, 2000) and president of Just Foreign Policy. He is also co-writer of Oliver Stone’s current documentary, “South of the Border,” now playing in theaters. He can be reached at [email protected].