What does the War on Libya Mean for the Rise of Latin America?

Lizzie Phelan looks at the repercussions of NATO's war on Libya on African-Latin American relations and the vulnerability of sovereign nations of the Global South in the face of the military and media prowess of the United States. 

The rise of Latin America has been something that I have been very privileged to be able to witness in my lifetime. To see living, breathing examples of socialism, to see vast nations like Venezuela and Brazil lift thousands of people out of poverty and some of the historically most downtrodden and oppressed peoples of this earth regain dignity, to witness the first indigenous president in Bolivia, Evo Morales take power – these are all events that reverberate amongst oppressed peoples throughout this planet. 

But the most important lesson that 21st century socialism has hammered home is that socialism cannot develop according to a rigid formula. But it will develop according to the unique dynamics and contradictions that exist in any given location at any given time. It has shown that a political system should be judged on its content and outcomes rather than its form.

In saying that, whilst 21st century socialism in Venezuela may look different from how it looks in Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil or elsewhere, there are crucial commonalities, namely the assertion of sovereignty from foreign interference, which for a continent that for centuries was treated as Europe and the United States’ back yard is an anti imperialist assertion.

The commonality of this struggle stretches to all corners of the Global South, and in that commonality, Latin America and its sister countries in the Global South find a basis for cooperation towards their common anti imperialist goal of sovereignty. 

The rise of Latin America is not an isolated story, it is also the story of the rise of China, the growing economic prowess of India, Russia, South Africa and other nations who now provide alternative trade partners to what used to be the only show in town – the US and Europe.

And up until three months ago, this remarkable story of progress away from a unipolar world of US-European control, towards a multipolar world, seemed unstoppable. But on March 31, when Britain, France and the US along with the rest of its friends in NATO and the GCC states, unleashed the first of thousands of bombs on the socialist Republic of Libya, this path of progress suffered a setback of grave proportions, the consequences of which are yet to become clear.

For the war on Libya is AFRICOM’s – the US’ project for military control over Africa – inaugural mission on the continent. It is a war on Africa.

Alongside the illegal sanctions on the nation of Zimbabwe, like Libya -another friend of Latin America’s, it is clear that the imperialists are coming straight for what leading figure in the US Black Liberation Movement, sister Viola Plummer said are the two “stalwart countries, who resist the militarisation of the continent”.

And since 1450, when the first of what is estimated to be 5 million African slaves, landed on the shores of the Americas, Latin America and Africa have shared mirror histories of European conquest.

Brazil itself can be considered an African country – it is often said that it has the largest population of Africans outside of Nigeria. In that sense it is appropriate that former Brazilian president, Lula da Silva, did more than any other leader on the continent to strengthen ties between Latin America and Africa, making 12 visits to the continent in his eight years in office.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez also has been a very vocal champion of friendship between the two continents. During his visit to Tripoli, Libya, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the revolution in that African country, he said: “I strongly believe that Latin America will have no future without Africa, the same way Africa will not have a future without Latin America … both of us share the same dream of a better world, a world of free and equal people….Africa cannot ever allow again that countries from overseas come to impose certain kinds of political, economic and social systems. Africa has to be for the Africans and only through unity Africa will be free and great.”

As well as talking about solidarity between the two continents, Chavez stresses the importance of a united Africa not just for Africa, but also for the Global South more broadly. When that is understood, the basis for his, Lula’s, Morales’ and Latin America’s close friendship with Moammar Gaddafi is put into context because Gaddafi is, as former Black Panther, Deedan Kamathi stressed during an interview with Sukant Chandan in Tripoli, the vanguard of the pan-African revolution.

Kamathi said, “Libya became the vanguard country for the pan-African revolution and it also became the vanguard country for the international revolution in terms of – no other African country, even liberated zones in Africa – provided the kind of material, political and ideological support to the liberation movements throughout the world, especially to the liberation movements in the United States and the Carribean. So we salute brother Gaddafi and the Jamahiriya for that and that’s why I’m here today and that’s why we conduct some kind of a media campaign and actual demonstrations and protests in support of “Hand Off Libya” , “Stop the Bombing of Libya” and “No Regime Change”, in fact we need to uplift the Jamahiriya to a higher elevated position and amongst the anti-war progressive peoples all around the world.”

In addition to Gaddafi’s Libya being a vital source of trade and political cooperation between Latin America and Africa, exemplified by the fact that between 2003 and 2009 Brazilian exports to Libya increased by 289 per cent, while Brazilian imports from Libya grew by 3,111 per cent. 41 years of the Jamahiriya also serves as a vital source of revolutionary inspiration for leaders like Chavez, which he paid homage to when he said, “What Simon Bolivar is for the Venezuelan people, Moammar Gaddafi is for the Libyan people. He’s the Liberator of Libya.”

So, returning to my point about the symbolic impact of having living examples of socialism in Latin America and how socialism develops according to the unique dynamics of any given location, for 41 years we have also had the example of Libya, which kicked out the British and the Americans, closed their military bases, and nationalised their oil – and  has achieved for its people the highest standard of living in Africa in a country that was the poorest on this planet. In the west, and in that I do not include Latin America or other nations of the geopolitical sphere that we term the Global South, our orientalist disdain for Gaddafi has meant that in all of those 41 years, we have blinded ourselves to, and missed out on learning from the incredible progress that has taken place within Libya under the Jamahiriya.

And while for Latin America and the Global South, the Jamahiriya provides a great example of what can be achieved, the war on the Jamahiriya also exposes the great vulnerabilities of all nations of the Global South which assert their sovereignty and identity at the expense of US-European domination.

While people across the world, from David Cameron, to so-called anti-imperialists in the west were calling what was in fact a counterrevolution, a revolution against another “Arab despot”, Chavez knew exactly what was going on. Because in another time and in another place, the narrative being parroted out to the world by Al Jazeera and the western media against Gaddafi, could have been the same narrative being spun against him.

And so he said: “I am not going to condemn from afar. That would be cowardly with someone who has been my friend and our friend for a long time, without knowing what is happening in Libya … I am not a coward, I am not fickle.”

Similarly in the very early days of the attempted counterrevolution, Fidel Castro called it out for what it was, an opportunity for NATO to finish off what the US had attempted to start when it bombed Libya in 1986.

But neither Chavez’s attempt at a peace plan, nor denunciations from across the Global South were enough to stop the imperialists in their mission to take the oil rich Benghazi for itself, begin the recolonisation Africa and in the process leave Libya in ruins to the Libyan people and all the other African migrants who have been welcomed by the Jamihiriya

Drawing back for a moment to Latin America, the first victory in the rise of Latin America began at the end of the 18th century with the liberation of Haiti by African slaves and the establishment of the world’s first Black Republic. Today, on behalf of the same oppressor Haiti rose up against, black people are being lynched in Libya by NATO’s “revolutionaries”. Progress is hard won, but easily destroyed.

The lessons from this are twofold. The internationalism once expressed by nations like Cuba who bravely sent soldiers to fight in Angola are no more. Then the Cubans had behind it the threat of a nuclear ally in the Soviet Union. So, until nations in the Global South develop a military prowess that can temper that of the United States, all nations in the Global South are vulnerable to their achievements being snuffed out by Tomahawk cruise missiles in the blink of an eye as we are witnessing in Libya. 

The second lesson comes from the way in which the war in Libya has been termed a “humanitarian war”. This has been possible not just by the criminalisation of Gaddafi himself, but also by the criminalisation of the whole of Africa in the western media.

On the one hand we have the image of Gaddafi the “mad dog”, who dresses “eccentrically” (a racist assertion in itself, when one considers that he wears traditional African dress). That he is a crazy dictator controlling his own people. Nothing then of the universal health care, mass social housing, free university education, equality between black and white people, the high status of women, or the fact that far from being a dictator, Gaddafi has no official power in Libya, he is the symbolic leader of the revolution in much the same way Fidel is in Cuba today. And in regards to Libya being a dictatorship, democracy in Libya works through a system of people’s councils which is far more representative than anything we could dream of having here in England.

On the other hand we have images of Africans, starving, helpless, conflict hungry and unable to do much for themselves. For minds subjected to such images for the length of a lifetime, it is not such a surprise that people cannot contemplate an African Libya that is developed, where people live in peace, with dignity and a high quality of life.

This is cultural imperialism, and the western criminalisation of Asia, Latin America and Africa is perpetrated via imperialisms’ media machine. Al Jazeera was meant to be our beacon of hope in the west, until it became clear what game the Qataris were playing.

Chavez said it himself once, to a Fox news reporter: “The stupid people from Fox News”, he said. So the global South needs to stop allowing the stupid people to speak for it and it needs its own mass media machine to tell the world its own story from its own mouth.

If imperialism is victorious in Libya, not only Africa, but Latin America and the whole of the Global South will have lost a crucial friend. The lessons must be learnt quickly and as the Libyan people know as each day of bombing destroys a bit more of their hard fought for revolution, time is not on our side.

Long live Libya, only together will Africa, Latin America and the Global South rise.

This speech was delivered at Bolivar Hall, Venezuelan Embassy, London at the Latin America Rising event on June 16 2011.