Posted on July 14th, 2009 No comments
Written by Benjamin Dangl
Published by The Guardian Unlimited
When rallying in the streets of Tegucigalpa for the ousted President Manuel Zelaya, Alejandra Fernandez, a 23-year-old university student told a journalist why she supported Zelaya: “He raised the minimum wage, gave out free school lunches, provided milk for the babies and pensions for the elderly, distributed energy-saving light bulbs, decreased the price of public transportation, made more scholarships available for students.” Others gathered around to mention the roads and schools in rural areas the president had created.
“That’s why the elite classes can’t stand him and why we want him back,” Alejandra explained. “This is really a class struggle.”
But it’s not just because of these relatively progressive reforms that Zelaya enacted that he deserves our support. Nor is it simply because this democratically-elected leader was ousted in a repressive coup led by right-wing oligarchs and military officials trained at the infamous torture and counterinsurgency school, the School of the Americas, now known as Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, based in Georgia.
He also deserves our support because he was ultimately overthrown in response to his plans to organise a popular assembly to rewrite the country’s constitution.
According to Central American political analyst Alberto Valiente Thoresen, Honduras’s current constitution, written in 1982, “was the product of a context characterised by counter-insurgency policies supported by the US government, civil façade military governments and undemocratic policies.” In an assembly made up of elected representatives from various political parties and social sectors, a new, likely more progressive and inclusive constitution could have a lasting impact on the country’s corrupt politicians, powerful sweatshop owners and repressive military institutions.
Many commentators have said that Zelaya sought to re-write the constitution to extend his time in office. Yet nothing indicates that that was the case. Leading up to the coup, Zelaya was pushing for a referendum on 28 June in which the ballot question was to be: “Do you agree that, during the general elections of November 2009 there should be a fourth ballot to decide whether to hold a Constituent National Assembly that will approve a new political constitution?” This non-binding referendum - not plans from Zelaya to expand his power – was enough to push right wing and military leaders to organise a coup.
If the Honduran people approved the formation of a constitutional assembly in November, it would likely take years – as it did recently in Bolivia – to rewrite the document. Zelaya would not be president as he would not be running in the upcoming elections. His term in office finishes in January 2010, too short a time to complete a national assembly’s rewriting of the constitution.
Given that it was the call for the constituent assembly that led to the coup, it appears that the coup leaders are more worried about an assembly in which the people could re-write their own constitution, than Zelaya himself. Clearly it’s the Honduran oligarchs, rather than Zelaya, who are more interested in concentrating and conserving their own power.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Zelaya in Washington today, and one development was that Costa Rica’s president Oscar Arias will act as mediator for the return of Zelaya. But there still is plenty of room for improvement in the US’s stance. The Obama administration should listen to Zelaya’s demands rather than impose preconditions for US support. And it should avoid bullying Zelaya into dropping his plans for the new constitution, or limiting any progressive reforms he may want to enact upon returning to office. The Honduran people should decide what course Zelaya should take, not the Obama administration and certainly not any right wing junta.
Although the Obama administration has been critical of the coup and relatively supportive of Zelaya, it should go much further. Some clear signs that Washington backs Zelaya would be withdrawing the US ambassador from the country, following in the footsteps of the other nations that have condemned the coup. The US should also cut off all of its aid to the rogue government, and end all military aid to the country. These actions would put pressure on the already weak military and send a clearer message to the region that, at this point, Washington is entirely against the coup, and willing to respect demands from Latin American leaders, all of whom have called for Zelaya’s reinstatement.
This past Sunday, after his plane was turned back upon trying to land in Honduras, Zelaya told reporters: “the United States, which has tremendous power, should take action. Specifically, the strongest government in economic matters, in aspects of the sphere of the dollar, for us is the United States. If they decide to live with the coup, then democracy in the Americas is over.”
Posted on July 14th, 2009 No comments
Written by Benjamin Dangl
Monday, 29 June 2009
Worldwide condemnation has followed the coup that unseated President Manuel Zelaya of Honduras on Sunday, June 28. Nation-wide mobilizations and a general strike demanding that Zelaya be returned to power are growing in spite of increased military repression. One protester outside the government palace in Honduras told reporters that if Roberto Micheletti, the leader installed by the coup, wants to enter the palace, “he had better do so by air” because if he goes by land “we will stop him.”
On early Sunday morning, approximately 100 soldiers entered the home of the left-leaning Zelaya, forcefully removed him and, while he was still in his pajamas, ushered him on to a plane to Costa Rica. The tension that led to the coup involved a struggle for power between left and right political factions in the country. Besides the brutal challenges facing the Honduran people, this political crisis is a test for regional solidarity and Washington-Latin American relations.
Manuel Zelaya Takes a Left Turn
When Manuel Zelaya was elected president on November 27, 2005 in a close victory, he became president of one of the poorest nations in the region, with approximately 70% of its population of 7.5 million living under the poverty line. Though siding himself with the region’s left in recent years as a new member of the leftist trade bloc, Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), Zelaya did sign the Central American Free Trade Agreement in 2004.
However, Zelaya has been criticizing and taking on the sweatshop and corporate media industry in his country, and increased the minimum wage by 60%. He said the increase, which angered the country’s elite but expanded his support among unions, would “force the business oligarchy to start paying what is fair.”
At a meeting of regional anti-drug officials, Zelaya spoke of an unconventional way to combat the drug trafficking and related violence that has been plaguing his country: “Instead of pursuing drug traffickers, societies should invest resources in educating drug addicts and curbing their demand.”
After his election, Zelaya’s left-leaning policies began generating “resistance and anger among Liberal [party] leaders and lawmakers on the one hand, and attracting support from the opposition, civil society organizations and popular movements on the other,” IPS reported.
The social organization Via Campesina stated, “The government of President Zelaya has been characterized by its defense of workers and campesinos, it is a defender of the Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas (ALBA), and during his administration it has promoted actions that benefit Honduran campesinos.”
As his popularity rose over the years among these sectors of society, the right wing and elite of Honduras worked to undermine the leader, eventually resulting in the recent coup.
Leading up to the Coup
The key question leading up to the coup was whether or not to hold a referendum on Sunday, June 28 – as Zelaya wanted – on organizing an assembly to re-write the country’s constitution.
As one media analyst pointed out, while many major news outlets in the US, including the Miami Herald, Wall St. Journal and Washington Post, said an impetus for the coup was specifically Zelaya’s plans for a vote to allow him to extend his term in office, the actual ballot question was to be: “Do you agree that, during the general elections of November 2009 there should be a fourth ballot to decide whether to hold a Constituent National Assembly that will approve a new political constitution?”
Nations across Latin America, including Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, have recently re-written their constitutions. In many aspects the changes to these documents enshrined new rights for marginalized people and protected the nations’ economies from the destabilizing effects of free trade and corporate looting.
Leading up to the coup, on June 10, members of teacher, student, indigenous and union groups marched to demand that Congress back the referendum on the constitution, chanting, “The people, aware, defend the Constituent [Assembly].” The Honduran Front of Teachers Organizations [FOM], with some 48,000 members, also supported the referendum. FOM leader Eulogio Chávez asked teachers to organize the expected referendum this past Sunday in schools, according to the Weekly News Update on the Americas.
The Supreme Court ruled that the referendum violated the constitution as it was taking place during an election year. When Honduran military General Romeo Vasquez refused to distribute ballots to citizens and participate in the preparations for the Sunday referendum, Zelaya fired him on June 24. The Court called for the reinstatement of Vasquez, but Zelaya refused to recognize the reinstatement, and proceeded with the referendum, distributing the ballots and planning for the Sunday vote.
Crackdown in Honduras
Vasquez, a former student at the infamous School of the Americas, now known as Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), went on to be a key leader in the June 28 coup.
After Zelaya had been taken to Costa Rica, a falsified resignation letter from Zelaya was presented to Congress, and former Parliament leader Roberto Micheletti was sworn in by Congress as the new president of the country. Micheletti immediately declared a curfew as protests and mobilizations continued nation-wide.
Since the coup took place, military planes and helicopters have been circling the city, the electricity and internet has been cut off, and only music is being played on the few radio stations that are still operating, according to IPS News.
The ambassadors to Honduras from Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua were arrested. Patricia Rodas, the Foreign Minister of Honduras under Zelaya has also been arrested. Rodas recently presided over an OAS meeting in which Cuba was finally admitted into the organization.
The military-installed government has issued arrest warrants for Honduran social leaders for the Popular Bloc Coordinating Committee, Via Campesina and the Civic Council of Grassroots and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, according to the Weekly News Update on the Americas.
Human rights activist Dr. Juan Almendares, reporting from from Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, told Democracy Now! that due to government crackdowns and the electrical blackout, there is “not really access to information, no freedom of the press.” He said, “We have also a curfew, because after 9:00 you can be shot if you are on the streets. So we have a curfew from 9:00 to 6:00 a.m.”
In a statement on the coup, Via Campesina said, “We believe that these deeds are the desperate acts of the national oligarchy and the hardcore right to preserve the interests of capital, and in particular, of the large transnational corporations.”
Mobilizations and Strikes in Support of Zelaya
Members of social, indigenous and labor organizations from around the country have concentrated in the city’s capital, organizing barricades around the presidential palace, demanding Zelaya’s return to power. Sixty protesters have been injured and two have died in clashes with the coup’s security forces.
“Thousands of Hondurans gathered outside the presidential palace singing the national hymn,” Telesur reported. “While the battalions mobilized against protesters at the Presidential House, the TV channels did not report on the tense events.” Bertha Cáceres, the leader of the Consejo Cívico de Organizaciones Populares y Indígenas, said that the ethnic communities of the country are ready for resistance and do not recognize the Micheletti government.
Dr. Almendares reported that in spite of massive repression on the part of the military leaders, “We have almost a national strike for workers, people, students and intellectuals, and they are organized in a popular resistance-run pacific movement against this violation of the democracy. … There are many sectors involved in this movement trying to restitute the constitutional rights, the human rights.”
Rafael Alegría, a leader of Via Campesina in Honduras, told Telesur, “The resistance of the people continues and is growing, already in the western part of the country campesinos are taking over highways, and the military troops are impeding bus travel, which is why many people have decided to travel to Tegucigalpa on foot. The resistance continues in spite of the hostility of the military patrols.”
A general strike was also organized by various social and labor sectors in the country. Regarding the strike, Alegría said it is happening across state institutions and “progressively in the private sector.”
The 4th Army Battalion from the Atlántida Department in Honduras has declared that it will not respect orders from the Micheletti government, and the major highways of the country are blocked by protesters, according to a radio interview with Alegría.
The Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), condemned the coup, media crackdowns and repression, saying in a statement: “[T]he Honduran people are carrying out large demonstrations, actions in their communities, in the municipalities; there are occupations of bridges, and a protest in front of the presidential residence, among others. From the lands of Lempira, Morazán and Visitación Padilla, we call on the Honduran people in general to demonstrate in defense of their rights and of real and direct democracy for the people, to the fascists we say that they will NOT silence us, that this cowardly act will turn back on them, with great force.”
On Sunday, Obama spoke of the events in Honduras: “I am deeply concerned by reports coming out of Honduras regarding the detention and expulsion of President Mel Zelaya. As the Organization of American States did on Friday, I call on all political and social actors in Honduras to respect democratic norms, the rule of law and the tenets of the Inter-American Democratic Charter. Any existing tensions and disputes must be resolved peacefully through dialogue free from any outside interference.”
But the US hasn’t actually called what’s happened in Honduras a coup. Hillary Clinton said, “We are withholding any formal legal determination.” And regarding whether or not the US is calling for Zelaya’s return, Clinton said, “We haven’t laid out any demands that we’re insisting on, because we’re working with others on behalf of our ultimate objectives.”
If the White House declares that what’s happening in Honduras is a coup, they would have to block aid to the rogue Honduran government. A provision of US law regarding funds directed by the US Congress says that, “None of the funds appropriated or otherwise made available … shall be obligated or expended to finance directly any assistance to the government of any country whose duly elected head of government is deposed by military coup or decree.”
“The State Department has requested $68.2 million in aid for fiscal year 2010 [for Honduras], which begins on October 1, up from $43.2 million in the current fiscal year and $40.5 million a year earlier,” according to Reuters.
The US military has a base in Soto Cano, Honduras, which, according to investigative journalist Eva Golinger, is home to approximately 500 troops and a number of air force planes and helicopters.
Regarding US relations with the Honduran military, Latin American History professor and journalist Greg Grandin said on Democracy Now!: “The Honduran military is effectively a subsidiary of the United States government. Honduras, as a whole, if any Latin American country is fully owned by the United States, it’s Honduras. Its economy is wholly based on trade, foreign aid and remittances. So if the US is opposed to this coup going forward, it won’t go forward. Zelaya will return…”
The Regional Response
The Organization of American States, and the United Nations have condemned the coup. Outrage at the coup has been expressed by major leaders across the globe, and all over Latin America, as reported by Reuters: the Presidents of Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and Cuba have been outspoken in their protests against the coup. The French Foreign Ministry said, “France firmly condemns the coup that has just taken place in Honduras.” Argentine President Cristina Fernandez said, “I’m deeply worried about the situation in Honduras… it reminds us of the worst years in Latin America’s history.”
Even Augusto Ramírez Ocampo, a former foreign minister of Colombia told the NY Times, “It is a legal obligation to defend democracy in Honduras.”
Zelaya has announced a trip to the US to speak before the United Nations. He also stated that he will return to Honduras on Thursday, accompanied by Jose Miguel Insulza, the head of the Organization of American States. “I will fulfill my four year mandate [as President], whether you, the coup-plotters, like it or not,” Zelaya said.
Only time will tell what the international and national support for Zelaya means for Honduras. Regional support for Bolivian President Evo Morales during an attempted coup in 2008 empowered his fight against right wing destabilizing forces. Popular support in the streets proved vital during the attempted coup against Venezuelan President Chavez in 2002.
Meanwhile, Zelaya supporters continue to convene at the government palace, yelling at the armed soldiers while tanks roam the streets.
“We’re defending our president,” protester Umberto Guebara told a NY Times reporter. “I’m not afraid. I’d give my life for my country.”
If you are interested in rallying in support for the Honduran people and against the coup, here is a list of Honduran Embassies and Consulates in the US.
People in the US could call political representatives to denounce the coup, and demand US cut off all aid to the rogue government until Zelaya is back in power. Click here to send a message to Barack Obama about the coup.
Visit SOA Watch for more photos and suggested actions.
Benjamin Dangl is the author of The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia (AK Press). He is the editor of TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on world events, and UpsideDownWorld.org, a website covering activism and politics in Latin America. Contact: Bendangl(at)gmail(dot)com
Posted on May 13th, 2009 No comments
By Benjamin Dangl
May 6, 2009
When George W. Bush went to Latin America, Argentine soccer star Diego Maradona called him “human trash,” and protesters flooded the streets.
Now, when Barack Obama visited, leftist Venezuela President Hugo Chavez wanted to shake his hand, the right-wing president of Colombia, Alvaro Uribe, asked for his autograph and the anti-imperialist book Open Veins of Latin America made an unlikely journey to the White House.
What does the April Summit of the Americas say about the past and future of U.S.-Latin American relations?
“While the United States has done much to promote peace and prosperity in the hemisphere, we have at times been disengaged, and at times we sought to dictate our terms,” Obama told 34 of the hemisphere’s presidents at the summit. “But I pledge to you that we seek an equal partnership … There is no senior partner and junior partner in our relations; there is simply engagement based on mutual respect and common interests and shared values.”
Such intentions were perhaps most clearly represented in the now-famous handshake between Obama and Chavez. At the start of the summit, Obama strode across the room to initiate a warm greeting with Chavez — much to the chagrin of right-wing pundits and politicians in Washington.
Dick Cheney found the handshake “disturbing,” and Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., said, “I think it was irresponsible for the president to be seen kind of laughing and joking with Hugo Chavez.”
Obama responded to critics by explaining, “Venezuela is a country whose defense budget is probably 1/600th of the United States’. They own Citgo. It’s unlikely that as a consequence of me shaking hands or having a polite conversation with Mr. Chavez that we are endangering the strategic interests of the United States.”
The encounters between Obama and Chavez were followed up with concrete plans to improve relations. Both countries agreed to restore the ambassadors in each nation; the diplomats had been pulled last September when oppression of supporters of Bolivian President Evo Morales was linked to U.S. funding and support.
Obama later said at the summit, “We recognize that our military power is just one arm of our power, and that we have to use our diplomatic and development aid in more intelligent ways.”
Such rhetoric comes at a time when the region is clearly breaking free of Washington’s grasp. Across Latin America, leftist leaders have been elected on anti-imperialist and anti-neoliberal platforms. On April 26, left-leaning Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa was re-elected with 51.7 percent of the votes, showing that the leader is one of the most popular in Ecuador’s recent history; it was the first election since 1979 that did not necessitate a run-off vote.
Statistics also show that many Latin American leaders’ socialistic policies — and independence from Washington — are improving the lives of their citizens.
Inés Bustillo, director of the Washington office of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, a United Nations agency, recently told the Christian Science Monitor that in Latin America, “Between 2003 and 2008, we had average annual growth of 4.5 percent — growth we had not seen since the late 1960s … That growth, and some really sound fiscal policies and expanded social initiatives, led to a 9 percent drop in the poverty rate — 40 million people moving above the poverty line.”
Obama Has a Fan in Colombia
Obama has previously criticized the Free Trade Agreement with Colombia, citing the assassination of labor leaders and violations of human rights as reasons for not supporting the deal. Yet Obama has since made an about-face on the topic. The day after the summit, the Obama administration announced that it will not renegotiate any part of the North American Free Trade Agreement and will continue pushing for the application of FTAs with Panama and Colombia.
Colombia’s Uribe was in on Obama’s plan at the summit, hence his giddiness when he approached the U.S. president to ask for his autograph. Obama complied, writing, “To President Uribe, with admiration.”
Uribe joked of the note to reporters: “Barack Obama signed this little letter for me … I’m going to send this to get framed.”
But is Uribe really the kind of fan Obama needs? The Colombian leader has been regularly linked to violent right-wing paramilitary groups, implicated in gross human rights violations. Just recently, Diego Murillo, a former paramilitary and drug lord in Colombia, said in a U.S. court that he helped fund Uribe’s 2002 election campaign.
And on April 29, Britain quietly announced they would end all military support to the Uribe regime due to his government’s extensive human-rights violations and links to violent paramilitary groups. The military aid had been going on for almost a decade.
In a written statement, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said his government “shares the concern … that there are officers and soldiers of the Colombian armed forces who have been involved in, or allowed, abuses … Our bilateral human-rights projects with the Colombian ministry of defense will cease.”
According to The Guardian, “Investigators are looking into 1,296 cases since 2002 of reported executions of civilians by army soldiers who dressed the victims in rebel uniforms and planted weapons on them to present them as legitimate guerrilla casualties.”
Open Veins in the White House
At the summit, Obama also said that he “didn’t come to debate the past, I came to speak about the future.” Yet the past crept up at every turn. First, Chavez handed Obama a copy of Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano’s 1971 anti-imperialist book, The Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent, “to learn about our history, [because] it is on the basis of this history that we have to rebuild.”
Perhaps Chavez handed Obama the book in part because he knew that Jeffrey Davidow, the U.S. coordinator for Obama’s summit meeting, was also the U.S. ambassador to Chile from 1971 to ‘74, during the U.S.-backed military coup against the democratically elected socialist President Salvador Allende. The U.S.’ funding and support for the violent reign of dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet is well documented.
At the summit, Davidow commented, possibly because of this bloody past, that the more right-leaning governments of Brazil, Chile, Peru and Colombia are “forward-looking, not backward-looking” and that the regional call for lifting the embargo against Cuba is “part of the historical baggage that Latin America carried with it and is almost a reflexive suspicion or anti-Americanism.”
In a recent column, Tom Hayden wrote of a declassified document from 1974 in which Davidow communicated with Chilean officials regarding a “conspiracy on the part of the enemies of Chile to paint the junta in the worst possible terms.”
This violent dictatorship casts a shadow across each page of Galeano’s now-classic book — which, after Chavez handed it to Obama, shot to No. 2 on the Amazon best-seller list. One can only hope that Obama will read this book and improve U.S.-Latin American relations in the post-Bush era, relations that could be marked by camaraderie rather than blood and bullets.
In the afterword to Open Veins, Galeano writes about the stories of where his book ended up after its publication:
The most heartening response came not from the book pages in the press but from real incidents in the streets. The girl who was quietly reading Open Veins to her companion in a bus in Bogotá, and finally stood up and read it aloud to all the passengers. The woman who fled from Santiago in the days of the Chilean bloodbath with this book wrapped inside her baby’s diapers. The student who went from one bookstore to another for a week in Buenos Aires ‘ Calle Corrientes, reading bits of it in each store because he hadn’t the money to buy it. And the most-favorable reviews came not from any prestigious critic but from the military dictatorships that praised the book by banning it.
Now, with the unlikely arrival of this book in the White House, the journey of Open Veins continues, and the story of U.S.-Latin American relations enters a new chapter.
Posted on April 18th, 2009 No comments
By Benjamin Dangl
April 17, 2009
At the Summit of the Americas this weekend, the US will find that the hemisphere is no longer its playground
While George Bush was the most unpopular president ever in South America, Barack Obama could end up being the most popular. To that end, much hinges on this weekend’s fifth Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, where all of the hemisphere’s heads of state – minus Raúl Castro of Cuba – will be in attendance.
In order to break with Bush’s disastrous legacy in Latin American relations, Obama would do well to follow the strategy set out by his vice president, Joe Biden, during his recent visit to Chile: “The time of the United States dictating unilaterally, the time where we only talk and don’t listen, is over,” Biden said.
At the last Summit of the Americas, in Mar del Plata, Argentina in 2005, Bush didn’t listen. Ignoring the region’s leaders and the hundreds of thousands of protesters filling the streets, he tried to shove the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) down South America’s throat one last time. Bush failed in Mar del Plata because he didn’t realize that Latin America is no longer Washington’s backyard.
When Obama meets with Latin America’s presidents this weekend he should treat them as sovereign neighbors, because - from trade policies to military alliances - Latin America has already declared its independence from the US.
Free trade agreements pushed by the US are now being replaced by south-to-south trade deals built through the leftist Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas (ALBA), the People’s Trade Agreement and the European Union-style Southern Common Market (Mercosur). Thanks in part to this autonomy from the US, South America has weathered the current economic crisis better than many other economic regions.
Various diplomatic crises in South America in 2008 – from Colombia’s bombing of a guerilla camp on Ecuadorian soil, to a right-wing massacre of government supporters in Bolivia – were solved in meetings between South American leaders, without the presence of US officials. Last April, when the US Navy announced it would restart its Fourth Fleet in the Caribbean, Hugo Chavez responded that Venezuela would begin joint naval exercises with Russia in the same area.
Obama could begin to acknowledge South America’s independence by ending the US economic embargo against Cuba. The region’s leaders have called for an end to the US embargo, which inhibits the freedoms and livelihoods of Cuban citizens. Though Obama has announced some plans to lift travel and remittance restrictions on Cuba, ending the rest of the embargo would send a clear signal to Latin America that the US is ready to treat the region with respect.
Aside from the Cuban embargo, the biggest fault lines at the upcoming summit are likely to emerge around economic policy and trade. “The Free Trade Area of the Americas is the law of the jungle, only the strongest survive,” Evo Morales told me back in 2003, before he became Bolivia’s fist indigenous president, and was still a union organiser and coca farmer. “From the point of view of the indigenous people here, the FTAA is an agreement to legalise the colonisation of the Americas.”
Obama shares some of Morales’ sentiments. The new US president has been a critic of the free trade agreement with Colombia because of that country’s violations of labour rights and its repression of unionised workers. In a newspaper column in June 2005, Obama explained his stance against the Central American free trade agreement, citing its lack of environmental and labour regulations, and said that “the larger problem is what’s missing from our prevailing policy on trade and globalization - namely, meaningful assistance for those who are not reaping its benefits.”
Such views will be warmly received by the region’s presidents, many of whom see the alleviation of poverty as way to curtail organized crime and narco-trafficking – two topics sure to be discussed at the summit, and were part of the discussions between Obama and Mexico’s president Felipe Calderón during Obama’s brief stop there yesterday. To make progess at the summit, Obama should withdraw US support and financing for the disastrous Plan Colombia, stress non-military solutions in the drug war, and develop economic relations with Latin America than benefit a majority of its population. Doing so would make a clean break from the Bush years, and show that the US is interested in being a neighbour, not an empire.
After all, at this weekend’s summit, Obama may have no other choice but to lead by following, because as Evo Morales once told a reporter, “If the 19th century belonged to Europe and the 20th century to the United States, the 21st century will belong to America, to Latin America.”
Posted on April 18th, 2009 No comments
Written by Benjamin Dangl
Thursday, 16 April 2009
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.
Bolivian President Evo Morales just completed a five day hunger strike to push through legislation that allows him to run again in general elections this December. And 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.
Evo Morales on a Hunger Strike
When opposition party members in Bolivia left a Congress session on April 9, refusing to pass a bill that would allow for general elections in December of this year, Evo Morales began a hunger strike while thousands of government supporters rallied in the streets in support of the bill. Morales began the fast to pressure opponents into passing the legislation, which in addition to enabling elections, would give indigenous communities broader representation in parliament and give Bolivian citizens living abroad the right to vote in the December elections. The opposition blocked the bill in part because they said it would give Morales more power and did not significantly prevent the possibility of electoral fraud. On April 12, opposition members returned to Congress when Morales agreed to changes regarding a new voter registry.
During his hunger strike, Morales slept on a mattress on the floor in the presidential palace and chewed coca leaves to fight off hunger. Morales said that this was the 18th hunger strike he participated in; before becoming president, Morales was a long-time coca farmer, union organizer and congressman. He said the longest hunger strike he had been on lasted 18 days while he was in jail, according to Bloomberg. But Morales wasn’t alone: 3,000 other MAS supporters, activists, workers and union members also participated in the hunger strike, including Bolivians in Spain and Argentina.
Early in the morning on April 14, once it was official that the Senate passed the bill, Morales ended his strike. “Happily, we have accomplished something important,” he told reporters. “The people should not forget that you need to fight for change. We alone can’t guarantee this revolutionary process, but with people power it’s possible.”
This controversy erupted just weeks after Bolivia’s new constitution was approved in a January 25 national referendum. Among other significant changes, the constitution grants unprecedented rights to the country’s indigenous majority and establishes a broader role for the state in the management of the economy and natural resources.
Summit of the Americas: Cuba, Obama and Chavez
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 column, 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 past.”
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 it.”
Grandin 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? No, 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.”
This weekend’s summit, where Obama and Chavez will shake hands for the first time, might offer some glimpses into the region’s future.
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.