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Out of the Backyard: New Latin American and Caribbean Bloc Defies Washington December 9, 2011

Posted by rogerhollander in Foreign Policy, Latin America.
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Published on Friday, December 9, 2011 by CommonDreams.org

  by  Benjamin Dangl

Rain clouds ringed the lush hillsides and poor neighborhoods cradling Caracas, Venezuela as dozens of Latin American and Caribbean heads of state trickled out of the airport and into motorcades and hotel rooms. They were gathering for the foundational summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), a new regional bloc aimed at self-determination outside the scope of Washington’s power.

Notably absent were the presidents of the US and Canada – they were not invited to participate. “It’s the death sentence for the Monroe Doctrine,” Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega said of the creation of the CELAC, referring to a US policy developed in 1823 that has served as a pretext for Washington’s interventions in the region. Indeed, the CELAC has been put forth by many participating presidents as an organization to replace the US-dominated Organization of American States (OAS), empower Latin American and Caribbean unity, and create a more equal and just society on the region’s own terms.

The CELAC meeting comes a time when Washington’s presence in the region is waning. Following the nightmarish decades of the Cold War, in which Washington propped up dictators and waged wars on Latin American nations, a new era has opened up; in the past decade a wave of leftist presidents have taken office on socialist and anti-imperialist platforms.

The creation of the CELAC reflected this new reality, and is one of various recent developments aimed at unifying Latin America and the Caribbean as a progressive alternative to US domination. Other such regional blocs include the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) which has successfully resolved diplomatic crises without pressure from Washington, the Bank of the South, which is aimed at providing alternatives to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and the Bolivarian Alliance of Latin America (ALBA), which was created as an alternative to the Free Trade Area of the Americas, a deal which would have expanded the North American Free Trade Agreement throughout Latin America, but failed due to regional opposition.

The global economic crisis was on many of the leaders’ minds during the CELAC conference. “It seems it’s a terminal, structural crisis of capitalism,” Bolivian President Evo Morales said in a speech at the gathering. “I feel we’re meeting at a good moment to debate … the great unity of the countries of America, without the United States.”

The 33 nations comprising the CELAC make up some 600 million people, and together are the number one food exporter on the planet. The combined GDP of the bloc is around $6 trillion, and in a time of global economic woes, the region now has its lowest poverty rate in 20 years; the growth rate in 2010 was over 6% – more than twice that of the US. These numbers reflect the success of the region’s social programs and anti-poverty initiatives.

In an interview with Telesur, Evo Morales said the space opened by the CELAC provides a great opportunity to expand the commerce of Latin America and the Caribbean in a way that does not depend on the precarious markets of the US and Europe. In this respect he saw a central goal of the CELAC being to “implement politics of solidarity, with complementary instead of competitive commerce to resolve social problems…”

While the US is the leading trading partner for most Latin American and Caribbean countries, China is making enormous inroads as well, becoming the main trade ally of the economic powerhouses of Brazil and Chile. This shift was underlined by the fact that Chinese President Hu Jintao sent a letter of congratulations to the leaders forming the CELAC. The letter, which Chávez read out loud to the summit participants, congratulated the heads of state on creating the CELAC, and promised that Hu would work toward expanding relations with the region’s new organization.

The US, for its part, did not send a word of congratulations. Indeed, Washington’s official take on the CELAC meeting downplayed the new group’s significance and reinforced US commitment to the OAS. Commenting on the CELAC, US Department of State spokesman Mark Toner said, “There [are] many sub-regional organizations in the hemisphere, some of which we belong to. Others, such as this, we don’t. We continue, obviously, to work through the OAS as the preeminent multilateral organization speaking for the hemisphere.”

Many heads of state actually saw the CELAC meeting as the beginning of the end for the OAS in the region. This position, held most passionately by leaders from Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba, was best articulated by Venezuelan President, and host of the CELAC meeting, Hugo Chávez. “As the years pass, CELAC will leave behind the old OAS,” Chávez said at the summit. “OAS is far from the spirit of our peoples and integration in Latin America. CELAC is born with a new spirit; it is a platform for people’s economic, political and social development, which is very different from OAS.” He later told reporters, “There have been many coup d’états with total support from the OAS, and it won’t be this way with the CELAC.”

However, the presidents involved in the CELAC vary widely in political ideology and foreign policy, and there were differing opinions in regards to relations with the OAS. Some saw the CELAC as something that could work alongside the OAS. As Mexican chancellor Patricia Espinosa said, the OAS and the CELAC are “complementary forces of cooperation and dialogue.”

A test of the CELAC will be how it overcomes such differences and makes concrete steps toward developing regional integration, combating poverty, upholding human rights, protecting the environment and building peace, among other goals. The final agreements of the two day meeting touched upon expanding south to south business and trade deals, combating climate change and building better social programs across the region to impact marginalized communities. In addition, the CELAC participants backed the legalization of coca leaves (widely used as a medicine and for cultural purposes in the Andes), condemned the criminalization of immigrants and migrants, and criticized the US for its embargo against Cuba.

Various presidents at the CELAC spoke of how to approach these dominant issues. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega said the CELAC should “monitor and rate” the US anti-drug efforts. As long as the US continues its consumption of drugs, Ortega said, “All the money, regardless of by how much it’s multiplied, and all the blood, no matter how much is spilled” won’t end the drug trade.

Yet there are plenty of contradictions within the CELAC organization itself. The group is for democracy but includes the participation of Porfirio Lobo from Honduras, the president who replaced Manuel Zelaya in unfair elections following a 2009 military coup. The CELAC is for environmental protection, yet its largest participant, Brazil, is promoting an ecologically disastrous agricultural model of soy plantations, GMO crops and poisonous pesticides that are ruining the countryside and displacing small farmers. The group is for fairer trade networks and peace, yet various participating nations have already signed devastating trade deals with the US, and corrupt politicians at high levels of government across the region are deeply tied to the violence and profits of the transnational drug trade.

These are some of the serious challenges posed to Latin American and Caribbean unity and progress, but they do not cancel out the new bloc’s historical and political significance. The creation of the CELAC will likely prove to be a significant step toward the deepening of a struggle for independence and unity in the region, a struggle initiated nearly 200 years ago and largely led by Latin American liberator Simón Bolívar, whose legacy was regularly invoked at the CELAC conference.

In 1829, a year before his death, Bolívar famously said, “The United States appears destined by Providence to plague America with miseries in the name of Freedom.” Yet with the foundation of the CELAC under the clouds of Caracas, the march toward self-determination is still on.

Benjamin Dangl attended the CELAC conference.

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Benjamin Dangl

Benjamin Dangl has worked as a journalist throughout Latin America and is the author of the new book, Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America (AK Press). For more information, visit DancingwithDynamite.com. Email Bendangl(at)gmail(dot)com

 

Barack Obama’s South of the Border Adventure April 25, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in About Barack Obama, Barack Obama, Latin America.
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CB Trinidad Americas Summit Obama

 

By Roger Hollander, www.rogerhollander.com, April 22, 2009

 

It’s amazing what you can learn about a Gringo when you put him together with a bunch of Latinos.

 

Barack Obama, as the adored new president of the giant republic to the North, likely arrived at last weeks Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago expecting to strut his stuff.

 

The President would have been briefed on the question of the Cuban Blockade; the latest shenanigans of his putative hemispheric nemesis, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez; free trade issues, and the like.  But it is not likely that any of his advisors would have thought to advise him about the romantic and spontaneous nature of the Latino soul.

 

You have to have lived amongst Latin Americans (as I have for the past fifteen years) to understand how natural it was for Chávez to greet Obama with open arms (“Chávez Hates America” Republicans and the lapdog North American mainstream media equate disagreement with a government’s policy with dislike of its people; Latin Americans are generally astute enough to be aware there is a difference).  But what was really not only a stroke of genius but also totally in character was Chávez’s presenting Obama with a signed copy of Eduardo Galeano’s classic masterpiece on U.S/Latin American relations, “The Open Veins of Latin America.” 

 

And how did Obama react?  According to his spokesperson, the president would probably not read the book because it was in Spanish.  Talk about a dud of a response.  And can you imagine Obama presenting Chávez with the North American counterpart to Galeano’s work, I’m referring to Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States?”   I apologize if I’m wrong, but I would bet that President Obama is not even aware of the Zinn’s best seller alternative version of U.S. history, much less read it.  On the other hand, it would be hard to convince me that there is a president of a Latin American republic that is not familiar with Galeano.

 

Next up steps Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega whose speech includes a criticism of US imperialism throughout the 20th century.   In it he mentions the failed U.S. sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961.  Obama’s response?  “I’m grateful that President Ortega did not blame me for things that happened when I was three months old.”  Ha, ha.  Very funny but quite beside the point.

 

But if there was ever a contrast between Latin American and North American leadership, it is exemplified in the person of Bolivia’s young, charismatic and dynamic President Evo Morales (But Obama is also young, charismatic and dynamic, you say?  True, but wait and see).  Morales, the first native president of a nation that is 60% Indigenous, would have arrived at the Summit a bit under the weather, having just come off a five day hunger strike, which he conducted on a mattress on the floor of the Presidential Palace.  Morales is a former coca farmer and labor leader, who in the tradition of Gandhi and California’s great farm worker leader, Cesar Chavez, is a strong believer in the efficacy of the hunger strike as a political strategy.  His longest previous hunger strike lasted 18 days (can you picture Bill Clinton going more than 48 hours without a Big Mac?).  The current fast was to protest tactics used by obstructionist Congressman that were preventing a vote on a measure that would increase Indigenous representation in Congress, and enable elections to go ahead in December in which Morales would be eligible to run for re-election (and where because of his immense popularity he is virtually a shoo-in).

 

Many if not most North Americans can understand direct action or civil disobedience on the part of a Martin Luther King, but from the President of the United States?  How undignified.  And to what end?  Well, here’s what Morales achieved: the obstructionists backed down, and the Congress approved the election law.  Why would they have done that?  Because Morales enjoys enormous popularity among the Bolivian electorate.  He went over the heads of the right wing congressmen and appealed directly to his people, and his adversaries saw that they had no choice but to back down.  Now can you imagine Barack Obama taking advantage of his enormous popularity to engage in such a heart-felt demonstration of his convictions in order to stand up say to the private health insurance industry and its bought-lock-stock-and-barrel representatives in Congress in order to achieve a single-payer universal healthcare plan (which he once supported but now is “off the table”)?  Can you imagine him conducting a sit-in in the Oval Office in order to face down the Pentagon and the merchants of death military contractors in order to rally the kind of popular pressure that would force approval for a substantial reduction in the gargantuan defense budget?  (Try channeling your inner John Lennon, and Imagine!)

 

So what was the interaction between Morales and Obama at the Summit?  First you must realize that for the past year or so, Morales has been the target of right wing terrorists, who have attempted to destabilize his government by brutally attacking his supporters and who have recently failed in an attempt on his life.  So Morales approached President Obama directly at the Summit – man-to-man, no bureaucratic intermediaries, no diplomatic niceties – and (according to Bharrat Jagdeo, the president of Guyana, who attended the session) presented him with specific information about U.S. mercenaries who he said were operating in his country.  The President again came up with a non-response response that was as rote and as lame as his others. He stated that his administration ‘does not promote the overthrow of any democratically elected head of state nor support assassination of leaders of any country’ (which, if true, would be quite a radical departure from past U.S. foreign policy towards Latin America!).  Robert Gibbs, the White House spokesman, confirmed the account.  End of discussion.

 

 

So what is my point?  What I am trying to show is that there is a refreshing authenticity about some Latin American heads of state, who can be candid and direct on a person to person basis in a way that we seldom if ever see in North America.  U.S. presidents go in for photo-ops and prepared statements that more often than not occult hidden agendas.

 

The tragic irony here is that Obama’s speedy and dramatic rise to the presidency was largely due to his ability to convince the American people of his own authenticity.  He convinced us that we could believe in him.  It is said that a person who can dissemble while at the same time projecting unimpeachable sincerity has the recipe for wielding immense power.  And Barack has shown himself to be a first class dissembler.  He convinced the American people that his administration would be a “genuine change” from that of previous administrations while in a few short weeks in office he has forged ahead both with President Bush’s major domestic and foreign policies (continued giveaways to Wall Street and the corrupt banking and finance industries on the home front; military escalation in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a disingenuous promise to leave Iraq which he knows the generals will not stand for, and blind uncritical support for Israeli militarism and apartheid in the area of foreign policy).

 

Barack Obama did not get to where he is today by taking principled stands on issues.  He cut his teeth in the corruption riddled cradle of Chicago ward politics, where winning and holding power is the only principle that matters.  His cynical choice of anti-gay bigot Rick Warren to give the Inauguration prayer and his support of the so-called Jewish Lobby and Israel’s war crimes in Gaza are only two of many examples of his going for the votes and principles be damned.

 

It is interesting to note that early on in his career Obama evidenced his ability to project an image as an agent of change while at the same time remaining snuggly in bed with the status quo.  This is what a colleague said of him when interviewed by the Toronto Star in 1990 in a story about Obama as the Harvard Law Review’s first Black editor:

 

“He’s willing to talk to them (the conservatives) and he has a grasp of where they are coming from, which is something a lot of blacks don’t have and don’t care to have,” said Christine Lee, a second-year law student who is black. “His election was significant at the time, but now it’s meaningless because he’s becoming just like all the others (in the Establishment).”

 

 

But I would add a caveat.  Few if any of the Latin American presidents at the Summit, (with the possible exception of Daniel Ortega, when he was the Sandinista guerrilla leader) have sent men and women into battle to kill and be killed.  They are not the heads of state of the world’s largest military power and self-appointed imperial policeman.  While on the other hand, from the moment that Obama’s hand slipped off the Bible on Inauguration Day, it was awash in blood (he is already responsible, for example, for more civilian deaths in Pakistan that result from U.S. unmanned drone missiles than was President Bush).

 

We should therefore not expect Barack Obama to be anything more than a slightly kinder, gentler enforcer of United States imperial mandates.  That is what he has spent his entire life preparing to do.  We need to realize that it is not “change we can believe in” that we should expect from him, but rather “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.”

 

Genuine winds of “change you can believe in” are in fact blowing throughout most of Latin America, especially in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, but also to a lesser degree in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, El Salvador, Paraguay, Chile and Nicaragua.  It is a refreshing breeze, one that North Americans also hunger for but will soon realize that they have been duped once again.

 

Argentina Remembers: Mobilizations Mark 33rd Anniversary of Military Coup April 21, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Argentina, Foreign Policy, Latin America.
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by: Benjamin Dangl, t r u t h o u t | Report

 The weekend that the hemisphere’s presidents met in Trinidad at the Summit of the Americas marked the same weekend that Cuba defeated the US in the Bay of Pigs invasion 48 years ago. At the Summit, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega recalled the invasion in a speech that rightly criticized US imperialism throughout the 20th century. President Barack Obama replied, “I’m grateful that President Ortega did not blame me for things that happened when I was three months old.”

    However, as the US president, Obama inherits a bloody legacy that is still very much alive in today’s Latin America. Just weeks before the presidents met in Trinidad, thousands of Argentines marched once again to demand justice for 30,000 people disappeared in a US-backed military dictatorship.

    On March 24, 1976 a military junta took power in Argentina, and, until 1981, General Jorge Rafael Videla presided over the country in a reign of terror, torture, surveillance and murder.

    On March 24, 2009, in Mendoza, Argentina, colorful marches filled the central streets of the city in remembrance of the coup, and to demand justice. The various banners and placards waving above the crowd were a testament to Argentina’s healthy political diversity in activism and politics – from Maoists selling their newspapers to Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo giving teary hugs to supporters and friends.

    Though the march was organized around one central theme – justice, truth and memory regarding the dictatorship – other themes arose in the crowd as well, including the negative impact of soy production, rising bus fares and political corruption.

    The march was a time to remember when Henry Kissinger gave his blessing to the Argentine military junta in 1976, saying, “If there are things that have to be done, you should do them quickly” and reassuring the torturing, bloody leaders when he said, “I don’t want to give the sense that they’re harassed by the United States.”

    Marches and protests in Buenos Aires on the same day were attended by the famous Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, a powerful human rights movement that for decades has been demanding the truth regarding the whereabouts of their disappeared children. One document read by some of the Mothers explained that still, after all these years, “the slowness of justice generates impunity and impunity only creates more impunity.”

    A column by one leading Mother of the Plaza de Mayo, Hebe Bonafini, explained that her movement is also doing more than just marching and lobbying for justice. Their reach has expanded into all kinds of media and walks of life. They have opened a literary café and publishing house, and hold seminars which 2,800 different students attend. Their “Shared Dreams” project provides housing in poor neighborhoods as well as soup kitchens and daycare centers. Their radio station reaches into neighboring Uruguay and as far away as Brazil.

    During the Buenos Aires mobilizations, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo spoke of the fact that “today there have still only been 44 sentences” for the authors of “a plan of systematic extermination” during the dictatorship. Therefore, the Mothers said, “we have to keep on fighting for truth and justice,” as there are still 526 criminals of the dictatorship that still need to be tried. They demanded an “opening of the all of the archives of the Armed Forces and security to know to the truth.” They also called for the appearance of Julio López, the main testifier in a case against Miguel Etchecolatz, a repressor under the dictatorship.

    Julio López, a political prisoner during the dictatorship, was disappeared in 2006 a few hours before he was scheduled to testify against Etchecolatz. López was last seen on September 18, 2006. Journalist Marie Trigona reported that Nilda Eloy, another survivor of the dictatorship who testified with López to convict Etchecolatz, said, “Most of the evidence suggests that Julio López was kidnapped by the gangsters from the Greater Buenos Aires police force and rightwing fascists …”

    Outside Buenos Aires, other cities remembered these harsh times that still cast shadows over generations upon generations. But this March 24 was also a time of hope and reconstruction. In Cordoba, Argentina, La Perla (The Pearl), a detention and torture center run by the military dictatorship was transformed into a “Space for Memory” and opened to the public. Emiliano Fessia, a member of the HIJOS human rights organization, said of the space, “This will now be a place of life, after being a place of death.”

»


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

El Salvador Votes Away Its Bad Past March 20, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in El Salvador, Latin America.
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by Mark Weisbrot

Last Sunday’s election in El Salvador, in which the leftist FMLN (Farabundo Martí Front for National Liberation) won the presidency, didn’t get a lot of attention in the international press. It’s a relatively small country (7 million people on land the size of Massachusetts) and fairly poor (per capita income about half the regional average). And left governments have become the norm in Latin America: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela have all elected left governments over the last decade. South America is now more independent of the United States than Europe is.

But the FMLN’s victory in El Salvador has a special significance for this hemisphere.

Central America and the Caribbean have long been the United States’ “back yard” more than anywhere else. The people of the region have paid a terrible price – in blood, poverty and underdevelopment – for their geographical and political proximity to the United States. The list of US interventions in the area would take up the rest of this column, stretching from the 19th century (Cuba, in 1898) to the 21st, with the overthrow of Haiti’s democratically elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide (for the second time) in 2004.

Those of us who can remember the 1980s can see President Ronald Reagan on television warning that “El Salvador is nearer to Texas than Texas is to Massachusetts” as he sent guns and money to the Salvadoran military and its affiliated death squads. Their tens of thousands of targets – for torture, terror and murder – were overwhelmingly civilians, including Catholic priests, nuns and the heroic archbishop Oscar Romero. It seems ridiculous now that Reagan could have convinced the US Congress that the people who won Sunday’s election were not only a threat to our national security, but one that justified horrific atrocities. But he did. At the same time millions of Americans – including many church-based activists – joined a movement to stop US support for the terror, as well as what the United Nations later called genocide in Guatemala, along with the US-backed insurgency in Nicaragua (which was also a war against civilians).

Now we have come full circle. In 2007, Guatemalans elected a social democratic president for the first time since 1954, when the CIA intervened to overthrow the government. Last September, President Zelaya of Honduras – which served as a base for US military and paramilitary operations in the 1980s – joined with Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez when they expelled their US ambassadors. Zelaya defended their actions and postponed the accreditation of the US ambassador to Honduras, saying that “the world powers must treat us fairly and with respect”. In 2006 Nicaraguans elected Daniel Ortega of the Sandinistas, the same president that Washington had spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to topple in the 1980s.

El Salvador’s election was not only another step toward regional independence but a triumph of hope against fear, much as in the US presidential election of 2008. The ruling ARENA party, which was founded by right-wing death squad leader Roberto D’Aubuisson, made fear their brand: fear of another civil war, fear of bad relations with the United States, fear of a “communist dictatorship”. Almost comically, they tried to make the election into a referendum on Hugo Chávez. (Venezuela kept its distance from the election, with no endorsements or statements other than its desire to have good relations with whomever won.)

ARENA was joined by Republican members of Congress from the United States, who tried to promote the idea that Salvadorans – about a quarter of whom live in the US – would face extraordinary problems with immigration and remittances if the FMLN won. Although these threats were completely without merit, the right’s control over the media made them real for many Salvadorans. In the 2004 election the Bush administration joined this effort to intimidate Salvadoran voters, and it helped the right win.

The right’s control over the media, its abuse of government in the elections and its vast funding advantage (there are no restrictions on foreign funding) led José Antonio de Gabriel, the deputy chief of the European Union’s observer mission, to comment on “the absence of a level playing field”. It’s amazing that the FMLN was still able to win, and testimony to the high level of discipline, organisation and self-sacrifice that comes from having a leadership that has survived war and hell on earth.

This time around, the Obama administration, after receiving thousands of phone calls – thanks to the solidarity movement that stems from the 1980s – issued a statement of neutrality on the Friday before the election. The administration appears divided on El Salvador as with the rest of Latin America’s left: at least one of Obama’s highest-level advisors on Latin America favoured the right-wing ruling party. But the statement of neutrality was a clear break from the Bush administration.

El Salvador’s new president, Mauricio Funes – a popular former TV journalist – will face many challenges, especially on the economic front. The country exports 10% of its GDP to the United States, and receives another 18% in remittances from Salvadorans living there. Along with sizeable private investment flows, this makes El Salvador very vulnerable to the deep US recession. El Salvador has also adopted the US dollar as its national currency. This means that it cannot use exchange rate policy and is severely limited in monetary policy to counteract the recession. On top of this, it has recently signed an agreement with the International Monetary Fund that commits the government to not pursuing a fiscal stimulus for this year. And the FMLN will not have a majority in the Congress.

But the majority of Salvadorans, who are poor or near-poor, decided that the left would be more likely than the right to look out for them in hard times. That’s a reasonable conclusion, and one that is shared by most of the hemisphere.

Mark Weisbrot is Co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), in Washington, DC. His column is distributed to newspapers by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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