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Latin America - The Path Away from U.S. Domination

Council On Hemispheric Affairs
Friday, June 2, 2006

An Opinion Piece by COHA Director Larry Birns:

Latin America - The Path Away from U.S. Domination

Washington rumbles with suppressed outrage over Latin America’s latest professions of its sovereignty – Bolivia’s nationalization of its oil and natural gas reserves, and Ecuador and Venezuela’s voiding of their energy contracts. At the same time, Bolivia’s newly inaugurated president, Evo Morales, is a prime candidate to join Washington’s pantheon of Latin American bad boys, presently represented by Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez. Meanwhile, the region’s new populist leadership, also known as the “Pink Tide,” extends its colors across South America and is poised to leap to much of the rest of Latin America. Ostensibly, the “pink tide,” consists of left-leaning South American governments seeking a third way to register their political legitimation to their citizens, as well as their autonomy regarding such foreign policy issues as Iraq.

Meanwhile, Washington’s surprisingly lame regional policy has spurred disbelief even among the hemisphere’s most ardent pro-U.S. governments, like El Salvador and Chile. Some specialists maintain that while the region’s oncoming economic enfranchisement can be understood from a number of perspectives, perhaps the most forthcoming analyses places the roots of the new movement in the bedding soil of Washington’s egregiously failed regional policy.

Throughout the Cold War’s gestation, Democratic as well as Republican presidents have not hesitated to call for U.S. intervention in Latin America, however persistently malignant such excursions turned out to be. These have ranged from coup-making in Guatemala and Chile, to the fostering of civil wars in Central America, with all of these intrusions later proving to be irrelevant, or at least insufficient to protect genuine, even narrowly defined, U.S. national interests. Even more so, they proved to be counter-productive or destructive. As a result, much of the region has become estranged from Washington’s leadership, a legacy now apparent in the difficulties currently being encountered by U.S. policymakers in the areas of trade, drugs and security. No wonder that a series of recent polls undertaken throughout Latin America regarding the Iraq war, and the popularity of the Bush administration, an average of 85% of respondents have voiced their opposition.

Post Soviet Latin America
The demise of the Soviet Union in 1990 allowed the illusion to be born of a new non-ideological hemispheric alignment almost exclusively based on trade, and not, unfortunately, on a reworked and broadened confidence-building relationship between the U.S. and the rest of the Americas. Latin Americans were hoping that these would exhibit at least a passing interest in issues pertaining to social justice and the assertion of exercisable options.

Throughout the years, Washington’s policy towards the region has been fueled by a paroxysm of odium aimed at Havana. In Washington’s eye, Castro, along with such kindred legions as Venezuela’s Chávez and now Bolivia’s Morales, pose a lethal threat to Washington’s Latin American cosmography. Under the Bush White House, the relative closeness of this country’s ties with any other given nation became a function of the latter’s relations with Castro Cuba. Meanwhile, non-ideological programs, such as maintaining the drug war at a satisfactory level and the White House’s almost obsessive interest in privatization and trade, were prioritized first by the Clinton administration and then by the Bush White House.

In affected areas of Colombia, Bolivia, and Peru, already functioning anti-drug strategies prompted a series of U.S. initiatives which usually ended up in failure, as a result of ill-conceived crop fumigation and interdiction processes that led to widespread environmental damage along with illness and disease among locally exposed populations. The particular rights of indigenous communities, along with upholding the region’s sovereignty were among the casualties of these U.S.-led efforts. During this epoch, the Pentagon authored a growing pattern of collaboration, mainly with the Colombian military, but also with the armed forces of Ecuador, Peru, and Paraguay. These collaborations, as a result of burdensome military budgets and other ill-starred priorities, often ended with the wholesale destruction of traditional agricultural practices and the distortion of local economies.

Finding its own way
The policy of replacing meaningful socially-directed aid to the region with increased emphasis on the drug war, as well as stepped up trade in upscale consumables and other luxury items, usually benefited no more than 5% of the populace. Only too late did a number of governments discover that their often flawed economic liberalization policies, encouraged by Washington conservative think tanks and other proponents of the Washington Consensus, not only failed to mend profound social and economic structural lesions, but also predictably contributed to tensions between the haves and the have-nots, both here and abroad. For Latin America, this meant disenchantment with the status quo, along with adding further stress to already strained ties between the north and the south.

For its part, upon taking office, the Bush administration immediately picked up where the previous administration had left off but also embedded its hard ideological tenets into U.S. hemispheric policy that the Clinton White House had tended to neglect. This was the period that saw the rise of such hard core ideologues and neo-Cold Warriors as Otto Reich and his protégé Roger Noriega, after the former, due to his extremism, was unable to secure a confirmation vote from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to be Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America. The Bush administration’s Latin Americanists now saw the region uniquely through a prism molded by its anti-Havana passions. The administration’s paradigm had the hemisphere divided into a Zoroastrian world of absolute darkness and light. On one hand, it found favor with conservative El Salvador and pragmatic Chile, which had allied themselves with Washington, in contrast to Venezuela and Bolivia, whose leftist politics found left those countries out in the cold.

The Contradiction of U.S. Policy
The decision by Bush to submit U.S.-Latin American relations to an outdated and small- minded game plan, which featured a preemptive and expansionist foreign policy accompanied by an increasingly dysfunctional anti-drug policy, has already pushed strained inter-American ties almost beyond the breaking point. In spite of the economic weight and influence of the U.S market, Latin America’s growing discontent over the failures of the U.S. to make its market entirely accessible to Latin American products, accompanied by the trade advantages enjoyed by U.S. subsidized crops and products, set the stage for an increasingly snarling relationship between North and South.

The failure to introduce reforms that would accelerate real, inclusive growth, was compounded by a series of egregious foreign policy missteps by the Bush administration. Examples of these range from orchestrating the ouster of constitutionally-elected President Aristide in Haiti, to helping finance the abortive anti-Chávez coup of April 2002, to attempting to blackmail Central American and Caribbean countries to join the “Coalition of the Willing” in Iraq, and to supporting favored conservative presidential candidates throughout the area. The latter action, cynically caricatured its profound concern for “free and fair” elections as it threatened the suspension of various forms of aid if the “wrong” kind of “democrat” was elected to office. Also, there was the Reich-Noriega bullying of government leaders and local politicians who didn’t take the “right” position on such issues as the embargo against Cuba, the election of the OAS secretary-general and free trade.

The ferment generated by Washington’s increasingly malign neglect of the region gave rise to what began to be known as a “Pink Tide” movement that today is seen as sweeping across South America. But despite the tendency of Washington right-wingers and other species of conservative think tanks, like Freedom House, to demonize leftist movements like the Pink Tide, its emergence was a natural reaction to pressing trade, security and social justice issues of paramount concern for the region, even though such concerns seemed to have dropped off Washington’s agenda. The Bush administration, now led by the State Department’s Secretary Rice, and the Pentagon, by Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, had no problem accusing these left leaning governments, led by Hugo Chávez, of being threats to the U.S. national interest and of being destabilizing factors to other Latin American countries, even though they could never quite identify the source of that threat. In fact, the reforms enacted by these new populist left-leaning leaders turned out to be far more reminiscent of New Deal reforms than any mythic reemergence of a grand neo-Stalinist era. The strength of the movement mainly stemmed from the rejection by a new wave of enlightened Latin American leaders of the faux democratization which was being offered by various U.S.-backed governments as a miracle cure for the maladies of underdevelopment, but which upon the next dawn, turned out to be only pure snake oil.

New Players
The recent re-awakening of the indigenous civilizations has started to profoundly reshape Latin America’s political landscape. As this new awareness peaked, indigenous communities began to retroactively say “no” to presidential candidates who, once in office, reneged on their glib commitments and proceeded to repudiate campaign pledges to their Aymara and Quechua-speaking altiplano constituents. They then countered these acts of treachery by ousting tainted leaders in Ecuador, Argentina and Bolivia after their presidents had revealed themselves to be anything but bona fide servants of the people. This process ran coterminously with the deepening political involvement of those indigenous groups, who, with an increasingly powerful voice, began saying no to neoliberal reforms with roadblocks and other rejectionist public manifestations. As Latin American populations were spurning traditional politicians and their dusty programs, different actors emerged to capture the discontent by offering new solutions. These were most visible in 1998 with Hugo Chávez’s victory in Venezuela, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s 2002 triumph in Brazil and in Evo Morales’ defining victory in Bolivia last March. While the May 28 triumph in Colombia of Álvaro Uribe, Washington’s most favored South American leader, produced great joy at the State Department, that last insititution had to be disheartened by the strong showing by left-leaning candidate Carlos Gaviria. Even with Uribe’s big vote, Washington is still a bit disenchanted by his strong sense of nationalism and his querulous reaction to any display of U.S. sentiments of mastery over Colombia’s public policy, the war against drugs, or Uribe’s desire to maintain close business-like ties with Chávez.

But just as it appeared that this pink tide was spreading to Argentina, Uruguay and Bolivia, and had gained credence and political voltage in Peru, Ecuador, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Mexico and some of the Caribbean islands, two developments could be discerned: first that Chávez had come to be seen by huge numbers throughout Latin America as being the movement’s spiritual leader as well as its sage, just as the staccato-like peppering of the political scene by Chávez’s ADS-like interventions in other countries helped to weaken their already only loosely-connected common front. Chávez is sometimes belied by what his critics see as his buffoonish outbursts and raffish personality, but could well be seen as perhaps the most dynamic leader in the region today – though his power lies more with the streets than the diplomats of other Pink Tide countries.

A Hero for the Poor
As both a committed democrat (having been confirmed by popular vote three times; twice in national elections and once more in a recall referendum), and seen by the majority of Venezuela and much of the rest of Latin America, as an inspired social activist, Chávez appears to embody the region’s greatest hope for the future and the growing despair over his irrepressible style. The Venezuelan leader’s myriad social programs, ranging from medical services for the nation’s poor through an innovative oil for doctor exchange arrangement with Cuba, to a meaningful land reform and educational project, to a broad pattern of discounted oil sales to many neighboring countries as well as directly to deprived neighborhoods within countries, have given luster to his revolutionary credentials. In exchange, he has not asked for tribute, but merely called upon other leaders to do what is best for their own countries. Chávez has also been the region’s chief proponent of increased integration in the case of social justice, as well as promoting cheap petroleum for the Caribbean islands with strained economies, and poor neighborhoods in Boston and the Bronx, while spearheading the effort to construct a gas pipeline running between Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina, with an extension to Bolivia. In spite of the State Department’s most benighted efforts to caricature him as a human right’s abuser, a bully and an anti-democrat, Chávez has demonstrated that he has an incontestable record for transparency and for obeying the law, far more clinically than much of the leadership of his middle class detractors within Venezuela, or Washington’s hypocritical salvos from those who helped to finance a coup to oust him in 2002.

A New Model Dares to Emerge
Furthermore, Chávez and now Morales may, if they politically survive, represent a historic development in Latin America. As long as they remain on the scene, they will be the first democratically elected leaders espousing a mixed economy which contains socialist values that the region has witnessed since Salvador Allende came to power in Chile in 1970. Clearly, up to this point, due to open market competition and Washington’s denigration of a mixed economy that features a vigorous role for the public sector, a sense of civic responsibility has not been available for the average Latin American. The UN has stated that the region has the highest level of concentrated wealth in the world. The result is that the process produces few “winners” and a plethora of “losers” throughout the region.

The values shared by Chávez and now Morales are not without their detractors: The Venezuelan President is attracting the same portion of Washington-backed subterfuge that eventually led to the coups that overthrew Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954, and Allende in 1973. The Bush administration has employed a range of stratagems against its Venezuelan nemesis as part of an intensifying campaign to ridicule, pillory, and perhaps eventually arrange for the demise of his government. Themes ranging from Washington providing strategic funding to nominally, if heavily compromised, domestic “democratic” bodies such as Súmate, to allegedly encouraging acts of espionage and attempts to foment anti-Chávez unrest within the Venezuelan military, are almost daily events. All sense of proportionality has now fled the scene in Washington. When Chávez expels a U.S. embassy military attaché (a relatively junior officer) for trafficking documents with Venezuelan military personnel, and the U.S. retaliates by expelling the second in command at the Venezuela embassy in Washington, this does not advance constructive engagement. It’s as if in return for Chávez launching a rhetorical gonzo jab against President Bush – his beloved “Mr. Danger” – the “Decider” readies the B-3’s to bomb Caracas. Meanwhile, in its totally discredited annual certification reports regarding drug trafficking, human trafficking, human rights abuses and a respect for religious freedom, as well as in the war against terrorism, the administration shamelessly manipulates data in order to come forth with preordained findings, with Venezuela being the target of choice for such skewering.

The Advantages of a Flushed Leader
Chávez, of course, has had the sort of leverage that Allende grievously lacked: with oil at over $70 a barrel, the Venezuelan leader is not only flush with petrodollars, but ready and able to fund revolutionary domestic and regional projects. He holds the additional trump card of an increasingly important strategic resource that has yet to be exploited on a major scale: the heavy crude yielded from the Orinoco tar sands. Furthermore, with a widening slate of regional allies, theoretically including venues like Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Bolivia, and with several other potential candidates in the wings and Mercosur as his eventual roost, Chávez theoretically has the geopolitical heft to stand up to U.S. machinations. At the same time, the already fragmenting loose knit Pink Tide alliance is suffering from some important viperous tendencies, including Chávez’s lamentable habit of self-destructively intervening in the local affairs of other Latin American countries.

Standing up to Washington is a theme that has gained widespread currency elsewhere in South America, as part of a leitmotif of the pink tide movement, which in reality may be a movement that is more apparent than real. The resounding defeat of both U.S.-backed candidates in the OAS Secretary-General race a number of months ago, indicated that the region was no longer entirely willing to docilely follow the diktats coming from the north. Additionally, Brazil’s decision around the same time to deny the U.S. even token observer status at the Arab-Latin American Summit in Brasilia represented a momentous, if symbolic, shift in U.S.-Latin American relations – something like the dog being ready to bite the hand of its owner.

A Rush of New Development
As one of the more dynamic aspects of a now fast moving scenario, Evo Morales in Bolivia has emerged as a particularly plucky figure, unwilling to allow his country’s traditional bended knee posture to the U.S to continue unchallenged. He insists that while wanting to have a good relationship with the U.S., it must be not one based on “submission.” Underscoring this escape from the “Latin American ghetto,” Morales’ travels after winning the presidency, included quick visits to Caracas, Europe, South Africa, Brazil and China, but conspicuously left out Washington, suggesting that the emperor’s ring no longer needed to be kissed. The trip also highlighted another phenomenon of the pink tide, which is an increasing propensity to turn towards multilateral ties with non-traditional partners in order to achieve diversification. Trade between South America and the EU is quickening as the region seeks to construct new economic and political ties around the world, and as Washington becomes an increasingly problematic partner. Nascent bodies such as the Ibero-American Summit and the IBSA (India-Brazil-South Africa) South-South alliance seek to integrate Latin America into a world that looks and acts more like them, and as a way to escape the imperial ukases, traditionally emitted from the State Department.

The forward, if fitful, motion of the pink tide has the potential to profoundly reshape the internal politics of Latin America and grant the region a new and enhanced place in the global pecking order. For Washington, which has been wholly unable to constructively engage this movement and still clings to the disabling vision of a wholly U.S.-dominated “back yard” sustained more by manipulation than by collective regional interests, the pink tide, whatever its centrifugal tensions, presents a serious diplomatic dilemma. Rumsfeld almost derisively indicates that the Pink Tide could be dealt with by a series of U.S. mini military bases (FOLS) or “lilly pads” throughout the region, along with a beefed up and entirely complaisant Latin American military establishment.

If the White House continues to return to a now poisoned well to draw from the very legacy of its past arrogant initiatives that have helped create the disastrous conditions that have so frayed traditional bonds, the rest of the hemisphere can be excused for becoming increasingly alienated from a diplomatic hegemon which has so lost its way that it risks finding itself pushed aside as an outdated and rather useless relic.


This analysis was prepared by COHA Director Larry Birns

June 2, 2006

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, founded in 1975, is an independent, non-profit, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and information organization. It has been described on the Senate floor as being “one of the nation’s most respected bodies of scholars and policy makers.” For more information, please see our web page at; or contact our Washington offices by phone (202) 223-4975, fax (202) 223-4979, or email

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