Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Is Latin America on the cusp of the unthinkable?

In March this year, Mauricio Funés won the presidential election in El Salvador. The victory is significant in "ending two decades of conservative rule" and "bringing into power a leftist party built by former guerrillas" from the the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), according to William Booth of the Washington Post.

Of course the Post, as a major element of the corporate media, is downplaying the brutal realities of a history that does not reflect well on the United States. Booth is careful to lay down an implicit link between "12 years of civil war, which left more than 70,000 people dead," and the FMLN with considered use of epithets such as "leftist" and "former guerrillas." This is not to mention the prominence given to Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) candidate Rodrigo Ávila's prediction that "the FMLN would transform El Salvador into a hard-left satellite state of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez." Meanwhile ARENA are merely "conservatives," their role in the US-sponsored state terrorism unworthy of mention, like the fact that ARENA founder Major Roberto D'Aubuisson Arrieta, better known as "Blowtorch Bob," was also founder of the death squads which terrorised, tortured, and murdered countless Salvadorans during over a decade of civil war.

As David Kirsch concludes, after reviewing evidence from various sources including death squad testimony;
It is widely accepted, in the mainstream media and among human rights organizations, that the Salvadoran government is responsible for most of the 70,000 deaths which are the result of ten years of civil war. The debate, however, has dwelled on whether the death squads are strictly renegade military factions or a part of the larger apparatus. The evidence indicates that the death squads are simply components of the Salvadoran military. And that their activities are not only common knowledge to U.S. agencies, but that U.S. personnel have been integral in organizing these units and continue to support their dally functioning.
As reward for his role in the subversion of democracy and a campaign of murderous savagery, notably the assassination of San Salvador Archbishop Óscar Romero, he received a plaque honouring his "continuing efforts for freedom in the face of Communist aggression, which is an inspiration to freedom-loving people everywhere" during "a closed-door dinner for 120 people at the Capitol Hill Club." The Washington Post report on the event quotes Richard Mathias of Young Americans for Freedom, one of the many conservative lobby groups hosting the event, as saying that "death squads have a very negative connotation" which only distracts from Blowtorch Bob's "message of free enterprise, anticommunism, freedom of exports and imports."

The above illustration barely scratches the surface of the terror that consumed Salvadoran society between 1980 and 1992, the legacy of which still resonates strongly in the massive poverty and social unrest that Funés inherits from the outgoing ARENA administration. However, it does quite amply demonstrate that the March election result represents something truly, delightfully, unexpected. Also unexpected, indeed unthinkable, is the response of the White House. The successive Carter, Reagan, and Bush I regimes all funded state repression against the FMLN and the Salvadoran masses, and yet the Obama administration "specifically congratulate[d] Mauricio Funés as the winner of the presidential election" and declared that they "look forward to working with the new government of El Salvador... on our bilateral agenda."

The events in El Salvador are not entirely without precedent. Despite an attempted coup d'etat, orchestrated by the CIA at the behest of the Bush II administration in 2002, and a media strongly aligned against him because of policies that favour the disenfranchised masses, Hugo Chávez maintains a strong democratic mandate and massive public support in Venezuela.

In Nicuragua, Daniel Ortega's Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) returned to power in 2006 after a sixteen year hiatus. Their first term in power followed the overthrow of the brutal Somoza regime installed in 1933 by US Marines after a seven year war to put down Augusto Calderón Sandino's peasant revolt. However the United States, fearful of the consequences for big business of the Sandinistas' attempts at national reconstruction in favour of the poor and disenfranchised masses, funded a CIA terrorist war to overthrow the government. The terrorist war waged by the US proxy forces ("Contras") saw 50,000 casualties and $12bn of destruction (equivalent to 5 million casualties and $25 trillion in the US) before the Bush I administration poured $9m into the opposition UNO in 1990 (the equivalent of a foreign power pouring $2bn into a US election) and the threat of a continued embargo unless Violetta Chamorro of the UNO won saw the Sandinistas leave elected office.

This time, however, there has been no such reaction. The Bush II administration expressed predictable "worries that a re elected Ortega would join forces with Venezuela's Hugo Chávez," according to the Boston Globe, and the Washington Post reported in 2007 of the US's "concern" over "Iranian aid projects." "Despite American warnings," the new Sandinista government has accepted aid "to help finance a new $350 million ocean port and build 10,000 houses" as well as "a $120 million hydroelectric project, to help Nicaragua overcome a power crisis, which has confronted Nicaraguans with blackouts nearly every day." Such troublesome help for the nation's poor from a country "which the Bush administration considers unfriendly" is seen as "problematic."

However, there has been no revival of the US-sponsored terror war that defined the Nicuragua of the 1980s. There has been a similar lack of state and counterinsurgency terror across the region in recent years, perhaps in large part due to the superpower's post-9/11 preoccupation with the Middle East for its re-declared "War on Terror," as can be seen in the growing regional trend towards "leftist" governments. With the Obama administration's declared "bilateral agenda," and Hilary Clinton's recent emphasis on a "new approach to the region," according to the Associated Press, which "recognize that our country is not perfect either," one might well predict a continuation of the trend.

Those who see a departure from imperial ambitions by Washington, perhaps summed up in Clinton's statement that "that some of the difficulties that we had historically in forging strong and lasting relationships in our hemisphere are a result of us perhaps not listening, perhaps not paying enough attention," are mistaken. As ever, what we see is the fabled "change of course" that so often pops up to erase the memories of America's past crimes, and in reality represents nothing more than a change of tactics. The Obama administration's declared goal is "restoring American leadership in Latin America," like many successive administrations that have gone before.

The "change we need," to quote the illusory slogan that dominated the election last November, comes in the form of a shift from sponsoring terror, death squads, and repression, towards "a new era of partnership" wherein the United states shapes the future of the region "through engagement that is strong, sustained, meaningful, and based on mutual respect." In practice, this amounts quite simply to a recognition of Hawkish failure in Latin America and the need for less overt methods of expanding influence.

The first hint of such a position within the acceptable sphere of debate - i.e. what is palatable to the elite interests that dominate political discourse - was in an article on "Latin America's Left Turn" in Foreign Affairs magazine. The article is quick to assert that "there is not one Latin American left today; there are two," and that our reaction to each will define our success. Of these "two lefts," we are told, "one is modern, open-minded, reformist, and internationalist" even though "it springs, paradoxically, from the hard-core left of the past." Meanwhile "the other, born of the great tradition of Latin American populism, is nationalist, strident, and close-minded."

As ever, we must be acutely aware that the use positive and negative descriptors used here do not align with basic facts, but with the utility of each "left" towards the interests of established power. Thus, the "open-minded" left-wing comprises those parties which "rapidly and neatly follow th[e course] of socialist parties in France and Spain and of New Labour in the United Kingdom" whilst the "closed-minded" left has "an almost insurmountable obstacle to its reconstruction on many issues" in the form of "close ties to and emotional dependency on Fidel Castro."

Though, ostensibly, such dovish talk of "understanding" rather than "concern and often more than a little hysteria" is far removed from the aggression of the Reagan doctrine, the basic underlying premise remains the same. The "open-minded" left is so because it "has been able to reconstruct itself" by departing from the "failures" of a past involving "a solid presence in organized labor" and concern for the popular masses and moving instead towards "respect for democracy," which by definition is only possible when "Old-school anti-Americanism has been tempered" and "social policy" fits into "a more or less orthodox market framework."

By contrast, the "closed-minded" left has no such "respect" for "economic performance, democratic values, programmatic achievements, and good relations with the United States," with Chávez as ever the case-in-point. On the front of "economic performance," we are told, Chavez is "driving his country into the ground." However, a paper by the Centre for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) quickly refutes the claims that Chavez "does very little for the poor of his own country," that "Venezuela's [per capita GDP] shrank by 45 percent," and that "Venezuela's [economy] failed to grow at all." In fact, the country "has experienced very rapid growth since the bottom of the recession in 2003," after which "the economy has grown by a remarkable 87.3 percent," and "the poverty rate has been cut in half from its peak of 55.1 percent in 2003 to 27.5 percent in the first half of 2007."

But, of course, none of this qualifies as the "economic performance" and "programmatic achievements" that are necessary for "good relations with the United States." The real worry is that whilst cutting the poverty rate in half and offering health and literacy programmes for those living in the slums through the disturbing "presence of nearly 20,000 Cuban teachers, doctors, and cadres in Venezuela," Chávez is "making life increasingly miserable for foreign -- above all American -- companies." Therein lies the crux of the matter. Putting the poor before the rich is the exact opposite of the "economic performance" that the United States requires for "good relations."

All that need be said on "democratic values" is that, at all points on the mainstream US spectrum, they align very neatly with the economic priorities of the elite. Thus Chávez, winning the vast majority of the popular vote in free and fair elections despite the open hostility of the media and being restored to power by the people in the face of the 2002 CIA coup, does not share these values. Terror states such as El Salvador do.

"Distinguishing between these two broad left-wing currents is the best basis for serious policy," according to Foreign Affairs, which returns us to the central issue of the Obama administration's policy in Latin America. The "statesmanlike approach," so the magazine insists, is not "working to subvert any left's resurgence" through state terror as past administrations from Kennedy to Bush I have done, but to help foster a "right left." The recommendations that follow display an interesting concurrence with present Obama policy;
This strategy would involve actively and substantively supporting the right left when it is in power: signing free-trade agreements with Chile, taking Brazil seriously as a trade interlocutor, engaging these nations' governments on issues involving third countries (such as Colombia, Cuba, and Venezuela), and bringing their leaders and public intellectuals into the fold. The right left should be able to show not only that there are no penalties for being what it is, but also that it can deliver concrete benefits.
Meanwhile, as the "wrong left" already exists and "attempts to displace it would be not only morally unacceptable but [far more importantly] also pragmatically ineffective," "the international community should also clarify what it expects" from it. So, rather than state terrorism to control the reason, Washington should not "bemoan the advent of the left in Latin America" but use its "enormous leverage" to "separate the sensible from the irresponsible," already defined against conformity to US national and business interests, "and to support the former and contain the latter." This conforms to the White House policy declaration that "a new era of partnership with countries throughout the hemisphere" is the best way to achieve "economic growth and equality, our energy and climate futures, and regional and citizen security," already defined in US-friendly terms.

Thus, as I argued above, Latin America is witnessing a diversion by the US from the tactics of state terror, but not a diversion from its policy of imperial and economic hegemony. The "right left" is not the left of the 1980s Sandinista government, which Oxfam described as follows;
The cornerstone of the new development strategy, spelled out by the Sandinista Front some years before taking power, was to give priority to meeting the basic needs of the poor majority... In Oxfam’s experience of working in seventy-six developing countries, Nicaragua was to prove exceptional in the strength of that government commitment.
But the new FSLN government, which "has been able to reconstruct itself" and fit into "a more or less orthodox market framework" is a part of this "right left." Workers' Liberty describes the "rightward shift" of Ortega's new FSLN, which has led many former Sandinistas to denounce Ortega for "persecuting revered revolutionary figures-turned-critics," the Guardian noted in January.

The Obama administration is determined to press its interests through use of a reconciliatory tone and diplomatic influence, and constrained from using state-terror as an alternative both by the military situation in the Middle East and the financial situation on Wall Street. If, then, the "wrong left" is to press for genuine economic equality, political freedom, and an end to imperial influence, there has never been a better time than now.