Latin America is the lost continent when it comes to the Western media. In-depth news or analysis is rare — the norm is to present the week’s top story in a sound bite. Hugo Chávez’s recent foolish embrace of Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a case in point although the Venezuelan President and his antics certainly share some responsibility for the negative coverage of his government.
In the past couple of months, two developments in the region stand out as meriting closer attention: the election in Ecuador of a progressive economist as President, and the move by South American governments toward establishing a form of governance loosely modelled on the European Union.
Rafael Correa’s capture of the Ecuadorian Presidency, with 56.67 per cent of the vote, certainly surprised many observers.
A grassroots campaign was largely responsible for encouraging the country’s large Indigenous organisations to vote against Correa’s rival candidate, the billionaire banana magnate Álvaro Noboa. Larry Birns, the Director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington, writes that ‘Noboa’s unparalleled expenditure of money some of it handed out personally by him was a hardly-concealed effort to buy an election’. Another observer reported that critics charged Noboa with buying votes by ‘giving away computers, wheelchairs, bags of rice, medicine and cash along his $2.3 million campaign trail’, which was more than ‘twice the legal limit for campaign spending‘.
For many Ecuadorians who were treated to Noboa’s spectacle (including his kneeling to publicly pray before speeches), Correa certainly appeared to have more credibility.
Correa believes Ecuador’s export oil contracts must be renegotiated on more favourable terms, while Washington’s huge military base in Manta will have to go, unless the United States ‘let us put a military base in Miami’. In 2005 he resigned as Finance Minister because ex-President Alfredo Palacio continued to embrace neo-liberal economics. A self described left-wing Christian humanist, Correa’s rhetorical eloquence, his fluency in Spanish, English, French and Quechua, along with his PhD in Economics may indeed make the 43-year-old one of the most formidable politicians to come out of Latin America in recent years.
Even before his inauguration, Correa flew to Caracas to sign co-operation agreements while paving the way for his country’s possible admission into the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) — Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro’s counter-proposal to the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA).
Correa’s victory and the establishment of ALBA, among other developments, present a serious challenge to the traditional role of the US in Latin America, which, in part, explains the poor coverage of these events in the Western media.
Most reports portray Venezuela, Bolivia and now Ecuador, as the ‘radicals’ (Cuba is a special case), while Brazil, Argentina and Chile are viewed as the ‘sensible’ administrations who will not upset the markets, place restraints on capital speculation and extreme forms of privatisation, or redirect State revenue towards the general population.
Contradictions, rivalry and disappointments certainly exist in the ‘pink tide’ washing through Latin America at the moment, but there is a point of commonality: regional integration and a shift away from US power.
As the news of Pinochet’s death spread throughout the world last December, the leaders of 12 countries including Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Uruguay met in a two-day summit in Cochabamba, Bolivia. The agreement produced from this gathering, the ‘Cochabamba Declaration’, noted that the Cold War ‘brought with it a weakening of multilateralism’, however:
Recently it has been possible to start constructing alternatives that point towards resuming growth, preservation of macroeconomic balances, emphasis on income distribution as an instrument to eliminate social exclusion and reduce poverty, as well as reduction of external vulnerability.
John Hilley, a Glasgow-based political scientist, recently told Inside Costa Rica that:
In contrast to the business-minded pragmatism of ASEAN [Association of South East Asian Nations], the Latin American union is the product of a specific historical impetus now challenging the failing neo-liberal orthodoxies of Wall Street, NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement] and the FTAA.
Hilley adds, ‘While any institution or political alignment can declare lofty statements of social intent, the Bolivarian reforms now evident across the (South American) region indicate a more revolutionary construct in the making.’
The strengthening of the Southern Common Market (Mercosur); the establishment of the New Television Station of the South (Telesur) in 2005, which is jointly owned by Venezuela (51 per cent), Argentina (20 per cent), Cuba (19 per cent) and Uruguay (10 per cent); and calls for a common currency along with a Bank of the South seem to support Hilley’s view.
Despite these successes, many questions remain about the future integration of the region. Venezuelan oil is funding many of these plans. However, as one Venezuelan official explained to me in Caracas over a year ago, his country does not expect Washington to just sit back and twiddle its thumbs. In April 2002, one of the Bush Administration’s first moves was to support an abortive military coup against Chávez.
Recently, a special CIA Mission Manager on Venezuela and Cuba was created which John Negroponte sub-Secretary of State under Condoleezza Rice has described as functioning actively and in a ‘good position in terms of intelligence‘. In the future, one possible scenario is for Washington to use Colombian paramilitaries to wreak havoc on Venezuela and wear down the regime, in a similar manner to how the Contras were used against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua during the 1980s.
If Chávez and his project fail, one can hardly see Brazil’s Lula (Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva) or Argentina’s Néstor Kirchner taking up the baton for regional integration, despite their countries’ huge resources. On the other hand, the developments in the region go beyond charismatic leaders.
Chávez may be a charmer, Bolivia’s Evo Morales astute and Correa highly eloquent, but these leaders have been elected by millions of people who demand that their representatives in government do more than engage in endless deceit, cheap rhetoric and policies which benefit small, yet powerful interests.
For First World countries like Australia, priding themselves on their functioning democracy and free-market economics, developments in Latin America still have much to offer showing what is possible when people decide to engage directly with politics and question conventional wisdom.
This is perhaps the biggest story coming out of Latin America in recent years. But don’t expect to read about it anytime soon in the mainstream Australian media.
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