Latin America Changes: Obama Heads For a Summit in the Sun

At this weekend's Summit of the Americas US President Barack Obama will meet with Latin American presidents who may end up giving some economic advice to their troubled neighbor in the North. It will also mark the first meeting between Presidents Barack Obama and Hugo Chavez.

After Bolivia
beat the Argentine soccer team led by legendary Diego Maradona by 6 to 1,
Maradona told reporters, "Every Bolivia goal was a stab in my heart."
Bolivia was expected to lose the April 1 match as Argentina is ranked as the 6th best soccer team in the world, and Maradona enjoys
godlike status among soccer fans. This story of David and Goliath in the Andes
is just one of various events shaking up the hemisphere.

At this
weekend's Summit of the Americas US President Barack Obama will meet with Latin
American presidents who may end up giving some economic advice to their
troubled neighbor in the North.

On April
17-19 the Summit of the Americas will take place in Trinidad and Tobago. Most
of the hemisphere's presidents will be in attendance. It will also mark the
first meeting between Presidents Barack Obama and Hugo Chavez.

Before the
larger Summit begins, a Summit for the Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas
(ALBA) will take place in Venezuela from April 14-15. Those planning to attend
this gathering include President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, Evo Morales, Paraguayan
President Fernando Lugo, and others. Chavez announced that this ALBA meeting
will take place with the objective of formulating common positions to bring to
Trinidad and Tobago, including plans regarding the formation of a regional currency, called the Sucre. These leaders are also
likely to lead the push for an end to the blockade against Cuba.

Chavez said
that if the US wants to come to the Summit "with the same excluding
discourse of the empire – on the blockade – then the result will be that
nothing has changed. Everything will stay the same… Cuba is a point of honor
for the peoples of Latin America. We cannot accept that the United States
should continue trampling over the nations of our America."

In a recent
, Fidel Castro noted that Obama planned to lift travel and remittance
restrictions to Cuba, but that that wouldn't be enough – the blockade still
needs to be lifted. "[N]ot a word was said about the harshest of measures:
the blockade," Castro wrote. "This is the way a truly genocidal
measure is piously called, one whose damage cannot be calculated only on the
basis of its economic effects, for it constantly takes human lives and brings
painful suffering to our people. Numerous diagnostic equipment and crucial
medicines — made in Europe, Japan or any other country — are not
available to our patients if they carry U.S. components or software."

The blockade
against Cuba will likely be a hot topic of debate at this weekend's Summit, and
will be partly fueled by tension between Obama and Chavez. Explaining the
failure of the Bush administration in the region, Obama
once said
, it is "No wonder, then, that demagogues like Hugo Chavez
have stepped into this vacuum. His predictable yet perilous mix of
anti-American rhetoric, authoritarian government, and checkbook diplomacy
offers the same false promise as the tried and failed ideologies of the

Yet a closer
look at the region will show that the rise of leaders like Chavez is a result
of more than just neglect on the part of the empire – it has to do with the
disastrous impact of neoliberalism in the region, and a desire among Latin
Americans to seek out alternatives. Considering the current economic
crisis in the US, Obama could learn a thing or two from the policies of leaders
like Chavez, who is incredibly popular in Venezuela, works in solidarity with
many of the region's leaders, and has developed sucessful economic policies in
his country. At the upcoming Summit, Obama should put into action something he said when meeting with the G20: "We exercise
our leadership best when we are listening."

Latin America Changes

Those expecting
an end to the same old Cold War tactics toward Latin America from Washington
may be surprised when Obama continues to treat the region as a backyard. Yet
whether or not the perspective from Washington changes, Latin America is
certainly a different place than it was 30 years ago.

I asked Greg
Grandin, a professor of history at New York University, and the author, most
recently, of Empire's Workshop, if another US-backed coup such as
the one that happened against socialist Chilean President Salvador Allende in
1973 would be possible in today's Latin America. He said, "I don't think
it would be possible. There isn't a constituency for a coup. In the 1970s, US
policy was getting a lot more traction because people were afraid of the rise
of the left, and they were interested in an economic alliance with the US. Now,
the [Latin American] middle class could still go with the US, common crime
could be a wedge issue that could drive Latin America away from the left. But
US policy is so destructive that it has really eviscerated the middle class.
Now, there is no domestic constituency that the US could latch onto. The US did
have a broader base of support in the 1970s, but neoliberalism undermined

explained that in the 1960s and 1970s, security agencies in Latin America built
up their relationship with Washington to "subordinate their interests to
the US's cold war crusade." There was a willingness among the Latin
American middle class to do this, Grandin explained, and the US was also
interested in building the infrastructure and networks to ensure that the
region's new dictators' fanaticism could be led by anti-communism. "Now in
South America, there has been a wide rejection to subordinate their military to
the US," Grandin explained. "In a 2005 defense meeting in Quito,
Ecuador [former US Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld attempted to elevate
the war on terror in the region [as a military priority], and it was roundly
rejected. … As of now, I don't think there has been a willingness for Latin
America to serve as an outpost of this unified war [on terror]."

Grandin wrote in
a 2006 article that the Pentagon has tried to "ratchet
up a sense of ideological urgency" in the war on terror in Latin America.
but these pleas have fallen on deaf ears. "The cause of terrorism,"
said Brazil's Vice President José Alencar, "is not just fundamentalism,
but misery and hunger."

However, the
Latin America Obama will visit this weekend is already significantly different
than the one Rumsfeld tried to convince in 2005. Obama's counterparts in the
south are generally more independent and leftist than they were even four years
ago. But all that can change, and at least some of it depends on how Obama
works with – or ignores – the region.

Outside of
Obama's influence, one question remains: will changes made by leftist leaders
in Latin America be irrevocable, even if the right regains power in the region
in the next five years? Not according to political analyst Laura Carlsen of the
Americas Program
in Mexico City, "In order for that to happen it would take more than just
a change in the government, and I find it unlikely for anything like that to
happen in the short term. It took years for the left in power to build up these
social movements and the development of alternatives. It was the result of that
process that brought these governments into power, and to reverse it you would
have to silence or repress these movements."

I asked Grandin
the same question. "It depends," he said, "the changes seemed
pretty irrevocable in the 1970s and with Reaganism and militarism… The
failure of neoliberalism is certain, but it's hard to say what the response
will be in the long term."

Benjamin Dangl is currently based in
Paraguay, and is the author of "The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia" (AK Press), and the editor of UpsideDownWorld.org, a website on activism and politics in Latin
America, and TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on world events.
Email: Bendangl(at)gmail(dot)com.