Barack Obama’s South of the Border Adventure April 25, 2009Posted by rogerhollander in About Barack Obama, Barack Obama, Latin America.
Tags: Afghanistan, bailout, Barack Obama, bay of pigs, Bolivia, bolivia politics, bush policies, cuban blockade, daniel ortega, eduardo galeano, Evo Morales, foreign policy, healthcare reform, howard zinn, Hugo Chavez, irqa, Latin America, open veins of latin america, Pentagon, summit of the americas, Venezuela, Wall Street, war profiteers
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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.
Chávez’s Perfect Gift to Obama April 20, 2009Posted by rogerhollander in Art, Literature and Culture, Barack Obama, Latin America, Venezuela.
Tags: Barack Obama, cedric belfrage, eduardo galeano, football in sun and shadow, Hugo Chavez, Latin America, latin america colonialism, latin america politics, latin american history, open veins, richard gott, roger hollander, soccer and politics
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Published on Monday, April 20, 2009 by The Guardian/UK
Some surprise has been expressed in the Anglo-Saxon world that Hugo Chávez should have presented a book to Barack Obama by Eduardo Galeano. Ignorance can be the only defence, the very fault that the Venezuelan president had earlier accused his US counterpart of suffering from. For Galeano is one of the most well-known and celebrated writers in Latin America, up there with Gabriel García Márquez, and his huge output of fact and fiction, as well as his journalism, has been published all over the continent. His books have been continuously in print since the 1960s, read voraciously by successive generations.
It was a brilliant idea of Chávez’s to give Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America to Obama, since this book, first published in 1971, encapsulates a radical version of the history of Latin America with which most Latin Americans are familiar. Its subtitle, Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent, gives a flavour of its contents, which discuss the way in which Latin America has been dominated and exploited by its European invaders (and later by US corporations) for hundreds of years. Written in short episodes, sometimes just paragraphs, it is very characteristic of Galeano’s highly original style, comparable in some ways to that of the Swedish writer Sven Lindqvist, who has a similar capacity to write about history and current affairs in a language that is both poetic and passionate. The late Polish writer Ryszard Kapuscinski might be mentioned in the same breath.
Some resistance to Galeano’s writings in the mainstream conservative culture of the US may have been caused by the fact that his books were published by the socialist Monthly Review press and translated by Cedric Belfrage, a British-born journalist who emigrated to work in Hollywood and became a member of the US Communist party. Belfrage was deported back to England in 1955, in the waning years of the McCarthy era, before establishing himself as a Spanish translator in Mexico, where he translated many of Galeano’s books.
Galeano was born in Montevideo in Uruguay in 1940 and became the editor in the 1960s of Marcha, Latin America’s best and most influential political and cultural weekly. Galeano took refuge in Buenos Aires in 1973, after a military coup in Uruguay closed down his magazine, and founded a comparable review, Crisis, in Argentina, chronicling the events of the dramatic Peronist years between 1973 and 1976, when another coup sent him into exile in Spain. Galeano then expanded his Open Veins into a three-volume cultural and political history of Latin America, titled Memories of Fire, with thoughts and reflections on the events of almost every year throughout the continent.
Chávez will certainly have read Obama’s own biographical writings and will know that Obama is an intelligent and creative writer himself. He would also have guessed that Obama would enjoy and appreciate the writings of Galeano as he seeks to recast US policy towards Latin America. As a North American, unfamiliar with the Latin American passion for soccer, Obama might also benefit from reading Galeano’s Football in Sun and Shadow, a wonderful account of the history of the game, published in 1995. The book was written largely to convince leftwing intellectuals (and Cubans obsessed with baseball), some of whom had a supercilious attitude towards the game, of its political and cultural significance. Galeano celebrated soccer’s broad appeal to the great mass of the people of Latin America, an aspect of the southern continent’s culture that North Americans ignore at their peril.