Bush’s trip to Latin America is a calculated effort to counter Hugo Chavez’s growing influence in the region and to separate the “bad left” from the “good left”, namely Uruguay and to some extent Brazil. He hopes to add them to the dwindling bloc of pro-US nations, including Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico which he is visiting.
From the beginning the trip is provoking widespread opposition. He will be greeted by demonstrators in Montevideo, Uruguay who are opposed to the special trade agreements being negotiated with the government of Tabare Vasquez. Even members of his ruling party, the Broad Front, are active in organizing the demonstration.
Across the border in Argentina, which Bush will not visit, massive demonstrations are being organized to coincide with his stay in Uruguay. And to add insult to injury, Hugo Chavez, is flying in to take part. While President Nestor Kirchner will not be participating, lower level government officials are. This comes on the heels of a series of commercial and economic accords that Kirchner just signed with Chavez on a trip to Caracas, including the founding of the Bank of the South, which is seen as an alternative to US dominated institutions like the Inter-American Development Bank.
In Colombia and Guatemala, Bush will try to prop up governments shaken by recent political scandals. And in Mexico, his trip is designed to assist Felipe Calderon, one of the last presidents in Latin America to back the orthodox neoliberal free trade policies of Washington. His narrow election victory last year is widely perceived as fraudulent.
On the eve of Bush’s trip the White House declared that he wants to “promote peace and prosperity” and that he will dispense $75 million for a new education program for Latin Americans to study in the United States and $385 million for programs promoting home ownership. These are token programs at best, and will do nothing to relieve the poverty and growing income disparity in Latin America.
New blows to US policy have come in the days leading up to Bush’s trip. Panama has announced it will not sign the free trade agreement with Washington that was being negotiated. And in Nicaragua the new government of Daniel Ortega has just set up a special commission with Venezuela that will oversee the implementation of 15 economic accords, particularly in the areas of energy, agriculture, education and health. A special initiative aimed at alleviating hunger will receive $54 million and $21 million will go to education and building schools. Investments are also being planned to modernize Nicaragua’s electric plants, to construct an oil refinery, and to refurbish Nicaragua’s main international port, Puerto Cabezas.
In South America a radical axis of nations intent on implementing profound social reforms at home and opposing US intervention in the region appears to be taking shape, comprised of Venezuela, Bolivia and the recently elected government of Rafael Correa in Ecuador. Correa has rejected any free trade agreement with the United States and has announced he is closing down the US base on South America’s Pacific Coast located at Manta. Ostensibly set up to help monitor narco-trafficking over the ocean and the nearby Amazon basin, it has become a major operations center for US intelligence gathering and for coordinating counterinsurgency efforts against the leftist guerrillas in neighboring Colombia. Upwards of 475 military personal are continually rotated between Manta and the US Southern Command headquarters based in Florida.
The Ecuadorian Minister of Foreign Relations, Maria Fernanda Espinoza, in announcing the base will be officially closed in 2009, declared: “Ecuador is a sovereign country. We don’t need foreign troops on our soil.”
All three countries are raising the banner of socialism. In Venezuela Hugo Chavez is intent on leading the country to a “new socialism for the twenty-first century.” In Bolivia Evo Morales governing party is called Movement Towards Socialism, a “party of a new type” comprised largely of social movements. And in Ecuador, Rafael Correa in his inaugural address in January called for an opening to the “new socialism for the twenty-first century” and declared that Ecuador has to end “the perverse system that has destroyed our democracy, our economy and our society.”
When Bush returns and finds out that his trip has done little to alter the growing leftist trend of Latin America, the iron fist of the new Deputy Secretary of State, John Negroponte, will take control of US policy. Negroponte as ambassador to Honduras helped run the contra war in Nicaragua in the 1980’s, which murdered thousands of innocent civilians in Honduras as well as Nicaragua, and he is known to believe that more aggressive measures have to be taken against Chavez and the gathering storm in Latin America. He comes to his new post after serving as Director of National Intelligence, and prior to that ambassador in Bagdhad. Given that Condoleezza Rice has little expertise in Latin America, Negroponte will set policy for the region, overriding the few remaining moderates in the State Department’s office of Hemispheric Affairs.
With Negroponte we can expect a marked increase in US covert operations, aimed not only at Chavez in Venezuela, but also at the other governments and the popular movements in the region that are leading the charge against the historic US domination of Latin America and are bent on constructing more equitable societies.
Roger Burbach is director of the Center for the Study of the Americas based in Berkeley, California. He has written extensively on Latin America, including, “The Pinochet Affair: State Terrorism and Global Justice.” He is also the co-author with Jim Tarbell of: “Imperial Overstretch: George W. Bush and the Hubris of Empire.”