Latin America: Delusion and Reality

Looked at from south of the Rio Grande, the potential breadth and depth of imperial collapse is perhaps less interesting than the nature, scale and ambition of the integration processes under way.

The irony of attacks on Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez by cynical, sadistic country-wreckers like Condoleezza Rica and John Negroponte can be lost only on them. While Venezuela advances steadily towards prosperity and social equity, the Bush regime commits its extraordinary rendition of the US people to military disaster and falling living standards. Speaking to a Congressional hearing on February 7th this year, Rice declared, “”I do believe that the president of Venezuela is really, really destroying his own country, economically, politically.”(1)

People walked out on the fictional Captain Queeg (2) when he took out some silver balls on the court martial witness stand and proceeded to fidget with them as his testimony collapsed into paranoid mumblings.  In real life, Prince of Delusion George W. Bush, has yet to face outright mutiny from his fellow dysfunctional political leaders.  Presumably the motley corporate-behoven crew running the single party US ship of State are waiting until they and the rest of the world are in the lifeboats.

In Latin America people may be more tuned-in to reality. When respected mainstream political analyst and historian Luiz Moniz Bandeira  publicy affirms that Brazil sees a US invasion of Amazonia as its main external military threat, the Bush regime’s jaded-Reaganaut State Department’s “freedom and democracy” rhetoric has clearly lost whatever slap-it-on-thick-maybe-they’ll-never-notice credibility it ever had. Although Bandeira discounts the likelihood of such an invasion, he says it is the main premise for the Brazilian army’s strategic planning. He notes, the US military  “does not exist to defend its national frontiers but rather for planetary domination and aggression to secure sources of energy and raw materials.” (3)

Shifting the perspective

It is now commonplace to argue that the US government is engaged in a losing battle to defend its waning prestige and influence in Latin America. Only the spell of North America’s habitual narcissism renders that interpretation of much interest. Looked at from south of the Rio Grande, the potential breadth and depth of imperial collapse is perhaps less interesting than the nature, scale and ambition of the integration processes under way. If the US has lost influence, the wider imperialist global corporate Thing seems to have adapted well, mutating fast to continue its parasitic gorging on the peoples of Latin America.

Even so, when Captain Queeg toured five Latin American countries recently, his tour underlined the comprehensive failure of his regime’s feints at regional leadership. Serious high level visits by Chinese and Russian political leaders contrast with the contemptible, stagnant “do what we want, or else” corporate arrogance of US govenment diplomacy. In that context, the fact that China has prioritised Ecuador and Bolivia for increased oil and gas investment incentives to Chinese companies (4) is very much worth noting. When Russian and Chinese leaders visit Latin America  they are pushing at a door to the imperial Bluebeard’s Castle the US government left poorly guarded, now prised wide open by the peoples once prisoners inside.

President Putin of Russia visited Cuba in 2000 and Mexico, Brazil and Chile in 2004. Chinese President Hu Jintao also made an extensive visit to Latin America in 2004. Russian Prime Minister Mijail Fradkov visited Brazil, Argentina and Chile in 2006.  Just prior to Queeg’s Latin American jaunt, Russia’s vice-Foreign Minister Serguei Kisliak declared during a speech in Uruguay to the Association for Latin American Integration on March 9th “Russia wants to increase political and economic cooperation with the countries of Latin America”. (5)

The changing compass of Latin American diplomacy and the deep political conflicts its competing integration initiatives have engendered also indicate the extent to which people in Latin America are focusing on their own needs, leaving the North American imperial corporate plutocrat elite and their local allies to negotiate from relative weakness. 2007 has a sparse electoral calendar compared to the 2006 flurry of presidential elections. But the elections in Guatemala in November and those in Argentina in October will probably reveal a great deal about the durability of current trends against the legacy of twenty years of Washington Consensus economic policy, the latest stage in five centuries of colonial subjugation.

What kind of integration?

Paraguay votes for a new President in April 2008. Present incumbent Nicanor Duarte said on March 15th, “It is not possible for the North American government to do what it likes in much more sensitive areas like waging war, fixing international prices when it does not have the strength to convince first world countries to drop protectionaist barriers.”(6) This March, Duarte sent his Foreign Minister, Defence Minister and armed forces chief to Bolivia to sign security agreements. Paraguayan Foreign Minister Ruben Rodriguez said “We are going to look at broad themes from commercial integration, cooperation and national defence to regional security”. Among the matters discussed was the Infante Rivarola-Cañada Oruro frontier river port project, part of a proposed East-West corridor from the Pacific ports of Chile and Peru to the Brazilian port of Santos on the Atlantic. (7)

Such infrastructure projects raise the question of the logic behind them. Are they principally to benefit multinational corporations so as to increase profitability for international corporate shareholders? Or are they an integral component of national development plans focused on the needs of peoples? Sketching a definitive taxonomy of which model which countries in the region favour is difficult, as arguments are constant and change as events develop. For example, many commentators view Bolivia as clearly in the anti-neoliberal camp. But acute participants in events like former hydrocarbons minister Andres Solis Rada point to half-baked nationalization policies and Bolivia’s participation in the UN’s imperialist occupation of Haiti. His criticism questions how those policies square with claims of moves towards integration based on solidarity and recovering resources from multinational corporations to benefit local people.

While it is undeniable that the influence of neoliberal bastions like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund may have diminished, the role of outfits like the Inter-American Development Bank, the Andean Development Corporation (CAF) and perhaps too the intellectual and advisory influence of UN’s Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) are less clearly diminished. For example the IADB’s much trumpeted debt forgiveness for countries like Bolivia, Nicaragua, Haiti and Honduras comes with the standard neoliberal conditionalities that have consistently destroyed the capacity of nations to protect the fundamental interests of their peoples.(8) Nicaragua is still under the thumb of the IMF.

Bolivia owes over US$700m to CAF paying over US$100m in capital and interests each year. In this regard, the Banco Sur initiative of Venezuela, Argentina, and now Bolivia is a decisive shift towards financial autonomy for the region creating a funding alternative that eventually may shove the US dominated international financial institutions active in Latin America to the margins, along with their immiserating conditionalities. In wider geopolitical terms, Bancosur may help free countries like Ecuador that are currently tied to the dollar. Pablo Davalos suggests Bancosur  might allow regional currencies to index themselves at a variable rate against the Euro – something unthinkable under current arrangements.(9)

Such broadening of options appears also in the area of telecommunications. Telesur  will shortly begin transmitting  news from the perspective of people in Latin America into Central America from relay stations in Nicaragua. (9) So people will finally have a Latin American regional alternative to CNN and the other corporate imperialist news outlets. Nicaragua joins existing Telesur partners Argentina, Cuba, Uruguay, Bolivia and Venezuela. In the energy sector an organization (OPEGASUR) of South American gas exporters is proposed, comprised of  Venezuela, Argentina and Bolivia. (11)  The planned group will very likely integrate into a worldwide gas cartel along with Russia, Algeria, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Captain Queeg tweaks his balls

These moves aim at integrating Caribbean countries as well as countries in Latin America. Venezuela and Cuba have worked together on determined diplomacy in the Caribbean for years now. Among the fruits of that diplomacy have been the Petrocaribe initiative. Recently Jamaica signed another Memorandum of Understanding with Venezuela aimed at improving its ability to generate electricity from gas. (12) Trinidad and Tobago, whose government has been resistant to Petrocaribe, recently signed a gas agreement with Venezuela which may lead the Caribbean nation to join OPEGASUR. Both Venezuela and Cuba have been assisting countries meet the needs of impoverished people in Latin America and the Caribbean for years with free medical care and educational support ranging from literacy programmes to thousands of university scholarships

The contrast between this kind of creative solidarity and US government practice is dramatic. During his recent visit Latin American tour, Bush-Queeg refrained for a change from attacking Hugo Chavez. His regime can hardly accuse Chavez of anti-Americanism when Venezuela is helping 400,000 low income families in the United States this year with cheap heating oil. As they showed in New Orleans, it is Queeg and his corporate plutocrat cronies who despise the people of the United States. Likewise, their long record of depradations in Latin America has left people there in no doubt how the US government views them – disposable cheap labour and dupes for paying illegitimate foreign debt.

Even conservative oligarch pin-up Oscar Berger brought up the vicious round up of over 300 undocumented Guatemalans in Massachusetts by US immigration authorities. Mexico’s Felipe Calderon questioned the proposed US anti-migrant border wall. Despite that polite dissent, most of Bush-Queeg’s visit was a mutual ball-fidget with corrupt fascist regional allies like the fraudulently elected, repressive  Felipe Calderon  and Colombia’s narco-terror paramilitary President Alvaro Uribe. In Brazil and Uruguay, Queeg squeezed balls with social democrat “free market” wheeler-dealers Lula da Silva and Tabare Vasquez respectively.

If one looks for viable gametes from all that ball squeezing, three main swimmers spurted out. One is the move to try and impose biofuel crops like sugar cane and maize as monocultures for producing ethanol across Latin America for the benefit of US corporate agri-business and energy giants, made flesh in a signed agreement with President da Silva. Another was the exacerbation of existing divisions in the Mercosur trading bloc whose member countries decisively defeated the Bush regime’s pet Free Trade Area of the Americas initiative. A third was to encourage governments to “stay the course” with neo-liberal policies in the region like Plan Puebla Panama and the South American Regional Infrastructure Initiative (IIRSA) and the ragged looking efforts to tie up “free trade”-in-your-sovereignty deals as the poor plutocrat’s substitute for the Free Trade Area of the Americas.

The second swimmer needs to penetrate and fertilize a collapse of Mercosur as an effective opponent of US  and European double standards on farm subsidies before the influence of Venezuela and perhaps Bolivia shifts the regional trade bloc towards a broader, more socially conscious interpretation of its role. Tabare Vasquez’s pro-US Economics Minister Danilo Astori has played “will he?-won’t he?” from the start of Vasquez’s administration. So one reads a headline in the Financial Times of February 9th  “Uruguay warns on Mercosur policies” over an article saying “Uruguay would consider downgrading its status in Mercosur if the regional trade bloc prevents it from making a bilateral trade deal with the US, the country’s finance minister has said.” A month later one finds furious back-pedalling quoted in Prensa Latina of March 14th “Danilo Astori, considered to be the Cabinet member most inclined towards links with Washington affirmed that “it doesn’t cross my mind” to abandon Mercosur.”

Nicaragua – a battleground again

The first and third swimmers are those designs for ethanol-producing monocultures and Inter-American Development Bank driven infrastructure mega-projects linked to free trade deals like the Central American Free Trade Agreement. These schemes are the practical follow-up  to the neo-liberal policies of privatisation, deregulation and shrinking government social spending that have condemned tens of millions of people in Central America to wretched poverty or migration while enriching a tiny international and local corporate elite. In Nicaragua, with President Daniel Ortega’s election last  November the country has once again become a zone of conflict.

This time it is an economic and ideological battle between global corporate imperialism and the solidarity based Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas driven by Venezuela and Cuba. When Hugo Chavez visited Nicaragua’s historic university city of Leon early in March to announce, among other projects, a US$2.5bn oil refinery he and Ortega were effectively using a kind of economic judo to throw imperial giants like the United States, the European Union  and their Pacific allies. Leon is less than a 100km from Nicaragua’s only important international seaport – Corinto – in an area that is a key part of the IADB’s Plan Puebla Panama infrastructure mega-plan.

The ALBA planners have taken advantage of that mega-plan (designed to foment benefits for international and local corporate shareholders) in order to site a major ALBA capital investment. They will thus extract maximum transport communications leverage from an ideologically opposed economic investment plan. At the same time, Venezuela is working with Nicaragua to rehabilitate a virtually abandoned existing highway across northern Nicaragua, from  Matagalpa to the backwater Atlantic Coast port of Bilwis – known in Spanish as Puerto Cabezas. While that project falls well short of the long proposed “dry canal” linking Nicaragua’s Atlantic and Pacific Coast, in the short term it represents a very feasible and dramatic improvement on the 16 years of neglect Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast suffered under successive previous neo-liberal administrations.

The arguments over the cultivation of ethanol take on a special meaning in Nicaragua and Central America generally where energy problems are acute. But the strong memory of the results of cotton monoculture which destroyed Nicaragua’s Pacific Coast ecology and of the Nemagon  pesticide scandal in the area’s banana plantations make the US inspired ethanol project extremely controversial. Another sign of the complexity of the ideological fight between versions of neoliberalism and ALBA is the tepid and sometimes outright hostile reaction to Venezuela’s cooperation agreements with Nicaragua. El Nuevo Diario, the flagship newspaper many people regard as the mouthpiece of the social democrat MRS party, hardly reported the visit to Leon by Hugo Chavez, for example, when in countries much bigger than Nicaragua it would have been major front page news.

In this Nicaragua reflects continent-wide ideological divisions. Why is the pro-capitalist social democrat government of Brazil so lukewarm about ALBA and Banco Sur? In fact the main objection the governments of Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay have to the neoliberal model is that the imperial powers operate a double standard on farm subsidies. Presidents Da Silva, Duarte and Vasquez seem to pretend that the mirage of universal free trade will somehow magically benefit their peoples rather than persist in marginalizing the poor majority while handing disproportionate benefits to an already wealthy corporate elite.

Against massive odds, Venezuela and Cuba have demonstrated beyond any argument that strong governments implementing decisive redistributionist economic policies are the best guarantee of prosperity and social equity. Nicaragua is a microcosm of wider continental arguments like the struggle over the raison d’être of Mercosur or the underlying logic of change in Bolivia and Ecuador. Old habits die hard, especially habits 500 years old. The US may have lost influence in the region but it still remains to be seen whether recent changes will eventually lessen Latin America’s continuing dependence on raw materials exports. Without consolidating radical change, the region could end up swapping one kind of imperialism for a different, equally debilitating kind, shared out between the old imperial powers alongside China, India and Russia – with Brazil as the local imperial enforcer.

toni solo is an activist based in Central America – see toni.tortillaconsal.com

1. “Condoleezza Rice: Hugo Chavez ‘Destroying’ Venezuela”, NewsMax.com,  Feb. 7th 2007
2. Protagonist of Herman Wouk’s “The Caine Mutiny”
3. “Desde Brasil, advierten que es posible una invasión estadounidense sobre la Amazonia y la Patagonia”   Télam- MR  17/03/07 in Aporrea.org 17/3/2007
4. “Iran, Sudan and Nigeria off China incentive list”, Richard McGregor, FInancial Times March 2 2007
5. “Rusia profundiza relaciones con Latinoamérica ”  Prensa Latina, March 9th 2007
6. ” Duarte dice que en Venezuela hay sobredosis de democracia” EFE in Prensa Latina March 15th 2007
7. “Bolivia y Paraguay impulsan acuerdos de integración”, Prensa Latina 19th 2007
8. “El BID aprueba un alivio ¿para quiénes?” Jubileo Sur, Rebelión  19/03/2007
9. “El Banco del Sur: La ruta hacia una nueva arquitectura financiera ” Pablo Dávalos, Rebelion, March 19th 2007
10. “Nicaragua se incorpora a TeleSUR” Telesur, in Rebelion 14-03-2007
11. “Sudamérica: Gas natural para la integración”, Mario Esquivel, Prensa Latina, March 14th 2007
12. “Jamaica y Venezuela firman Memorando de Entendimiento” Prensa Latina, March 12th 2007
13. “Venezuela y Trinidad y Tobago proyectan alianza energética”,  Prensa Latina, March 21st 2007

Source: ZNet