The March 15th conviction of WorldCom’s Bernie Ebbers on charges relating to fraud of US$11 billion is another example of a long tradition of capitalist scapegoating. Ebbers and Ken Lay of Enron and the other protagonists of the last wave of corporate fraud – Federal Reserve Chairman Greenpsan’s “irrational exuberance” – fall in a long line of patsies for a fundamentally criminal system whose essential characteristics have been obvious for over 150 years. In the 1980s the bad guys were Ivan Boesky and Michael Milken – remember “junk bonds”? Now it’s Ebbers and Lay.
Ebbers and Lay are fall guys for an inherently delinquent world economic system. Topical proof of this is how investigation of General Pinochet’s financial vacuum cleaning of public funds during his dictatorship in Chile has uncovered money-laundering by prominent banks like Riggs and Citibank in the US as well as financial outfits in the City of London and Spain. The Pinochet revelations are a timely demonstration that the clunking and grinding of the crooked capitalist machine are perhaps seen most clearly where resistance is strongest, in Latin America.
Before looking at that resistance, it may help to look at the mindset of the people who are so ready to assign untimely death, misery and deprivation to the world’s poor majority in the name of “free trade”. Let’s leave aside glossy PR initiatives like those of British Chancellor Gordon Brown who proposes to borrow against future aid flows to address the consequences of historic injustices without actually changing the larcenous status quo. Saint Gordon wants to tinker with the gears. Someone should let him know – the whole engine is kaput.
Gangsters need planks
Instead, let’s look at this, from the Financial Times op-ed pages of March 16th by Ian Bremmer. Bremmer is writing about energy policy in the US and China:-
“US-Chinese competition for access to oil markets is not the issue. In principle, the global energy market mechanism should prevent such competition from upsetting prices. But the US and China understand their energy interests in different ways. China views long term agreements to lock up energy supply as a means of achieving it’s most basic objectives……. Aligning US and Chinese interests would allow them to coordinate resistance to profiteering on world energy markets and to take the edge off their geo-political rivalry. It would also remove much of the distortion from oil prices.”
Note that slippery “in principle” there. ¬°Caramba! China is distorting the market by seeking to achieve itõ basic objectives? ¬°Puchica! But wait. Isn’t China just one more votary in the sacred confines of the “Free Market”? Can Ian Bremmer be suggesting in the Financial Times that some ill-defined celebrant-ex-machina should – no, no, stop!… oh, too late – “intervene” in the blessed sanctum of the “Free Market”? Let us be careful and clear as we intrude with our feet of clay onto the holy precincts of this pristine, inviolate place – the “Free Market”.
Are we to understand that some grubby, human-tainted political initiative is required to – ouch! ouch! – “regulate” the limitlessly benign glory of “Free Trade”? One moment, please. This article is taking shelter under the heaviest available table in the most central part of this building….. Look! There it goes!…..Whoooooooosssshhh! Kerbaaam!! Whooomph!!! …¬°Caray! Another “principle” crashes to earth. Doesn’t that wreckage have “Free Market” written all over it? Yep, sure does…..
Emerging to inspect the charred carcass, one has to ask what kind of people write this stuff in places like the FT. They abound throughout the mainstream media. Essentially they are highly-polished, well-varnished planks – brilliantly smart in appearance, but unintelligent, hard and thick. It is often difficult to distinguish between the gangsters and the planks. Alan Greenspan, for example, is probably a gangster disguised as a plank. Paul Wolfowitz on the other hand may well be a plank masquerading as a gangster.
Gangsters need planks to bridge the gap between narcissistic public relations fantasy and everyday reality. The purpose of Bremmer and individuals like him writing in the Financial Times, the Economist, the Wall Street Journal and all the other clerkly-treasonous mainstream media is to sketch out autistic “free market” fairy tales to tranquilise the consumerist masses and offer feel-good pap to elites in the wealthy OECD countries. Keeping themselves in lucrative employment, they prop up the insanely unjust global status quo. Fortunately, the rest of the world has other plans and other ideas.
Southern Cone energy crisis
Back in the Latin American part of that observable world, events march on apace. In Bolivia, President Mesa has performed lately as a kind of greasepaint de Gaulle, offering his resignation to the National Assembly in yet another attempt at political blackmail. The record so far runs, “Wolf! The oil companies will disinvest! No they haven’t…Oh, OK. Wolf! The IMF will abandon us!….No they haven’t. Oh, OK. Wolf! I’ll resign!…. Oh, all right then, I won’t….well, not today anyway….”
Maybe President Mesa should try crying, “Wolfowitz, World Bank President!” something supremely scary which opens up the truly appalling vista of a World Bank actually worse than it already is. Wolfowitz is no doubt cheering as Mesa tries to push through measures handing over Bolivia’s gas at bargain-of-the-millenium prices to energy multinationals like British Gas, BP-Amoco, Spain’s Repsol and others for the benefit of North American and European shareholders and for customers like Califonia’s Sempra energy company.
In the background, corporate interests and their political frontmen in Bolivia, Argentina and Chile triangulate energy deals among themselves. But at least in Bolivia the “free market” fictions that have dominated economics in Latin America for so long are now abruptly up against resolute opposition. Energy multinationals like Repsol and BP-Amoco (Pan-American Energy/Bridas) may begin to find it much harder playing the regional energy markets, making sweet melodies for their shareholders and siren-songs of destruction for local consumers.
For example, Repsol-Bolivia has sold gas to Repsol’s subsidiary in Argentina, where there is an energy crisis. This deal allows Argentinean energy companies to then sell gas to Chile where there is – yes, indeedy – an energy crisis, so Chile can export gas to North America. For twenty years the World Bank and IMF have insisted that governments refrain from effectively regulating energy markets in accordance with the needs of their peoples. These cosy corporate arrangements may soon break down under political pressures as millions of consumers in Argentina and Chile resist energy price hikes in the next year or so.
CAFTA repression in Guatemala – can a Caracazo be far behind?
The ongoing political crisis in Bolivia over exploitation of its gas reserves and the local outcry about energy debacles in Argentina and Chile is in many ways a direct reflection of resistance to structural “free trade” deceit. Ebbers, Lay and Pinochet may be off the scene but their multitudinous confreres incarnadine are hard at work. Against them, widespread popular grass-roots resistance also reflects rejection of the blackmail long practised by the gangsters’ perennial accomplices, the international financial institutions.
Resistance to US government inspired “free trade” initiatives and World Bank/IMF nostrums, is becoming steadily more forthright and well-organized throughout Latin America. In Guatemala on March 14th, thousands of marchers demonstrated against ratification by their legislature of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). They were viciously attacked by the Guatemalan security forces. The repression was not so extreme as that during the IMF riots in Venezuela in 1989 – called the Caracazo – but as the meaning of CAFTA becomes clear, more political protest and its violent repression are likely throughout the region.
Opposing CAFTA and other “free trade” initiatives is regarded by Washington as tantamount to terrorism. The US government is desperate to nail down free trade deals throughout Latin America as the prospects for US trade and industry deteriorate dramatically against rivals in Asia and Europe. The stakes for the Bush regime are high not only in terms of trade but perhaps more importantly in terms of credibility. It is likely that Congressional opposition to CAFTA in Washington will be metaphorically truncheoned and tear-gassed into submission.
During his time as US Trade representative Robert Zoellick, now deputy Secretary of State, put out the big lie that the CAFTA negotiations were open to participative input and welcomed public discussion. Nothing could have been further from the truth. In Costa Rica, legislators complained vociferously they were being presented with a fait accompli. In Nicaragua, legislators seem to have only just woken up to the full implications of the CAFTA deal on which they may shortly be expected to vote.
CAFTA was never anything except an exercise behind closed doors for local elites to carve up and sell off their countries’ sovereignty for their own benefit and that of US corporations. When something like the finale of the CAFTA pantomime is played out in the US Congress, it will be interesting to see if US legislators fall for the same baloney as their Central American counterparts and as they themselves did when they voted for NAFTA.
They know very well there is no such thing as “free trade”. It is a corporate fiction intended to destroy the capacity of countries and regional blocs of countries to defend the economic interests of their peoples. “Free Trade” is a slogan to cover up the destruction of people’s healthcare and educational opportunities, to ransack the environment and to undermine terms and conditions of employment.
Cuba and Venezuela against the US in the Latin American context
The fiction that something beneficial called “free trade” exists and to which “there is no alternative” has been disproved totally and comprehensively by Cuba. Cuba has suffered 40 years of economic blockade by the United States, incomparably the foremost economic power in the Americas. But despite that crippling blockade, Cuba’s people still enjoy a better quality of life and standard of living than around 60 per cent of the rest of the population of Latin America. This fundamental fact and its implications may never be acknowledged but it remains a most embarrassing and damning truth for the “free market” planks to explain away.
Similarly, the twin fiction that “free trade¬ and “open markets” are necessary for democracy has been categorically scotched by Venezuela, the most democratic country in the Americas. What other country has a recall procedure to revoke the mandate of its President halfway through his presidential term? None. Despite all the resources the US could bring to bear to intervene against the Venezuelan government after the failed coup of April 2002 and the extensive economic sabotage that followed, nearly 60% of those who voted in the Venezuelan recall referendum of August 2004 ratified President Chavez. Yet Venezuela’s government under President Chavez has consistently rejected “free market” formulas and IMF and World Bank recommendations.
In contrast to the determined, vibrant creativity of Venezuela and the stubborn, practical ingenuity of Cuba, the hallmarks of current US government policy in Latin America are death, destruction and sterility. Their “war on drugs” props up narco-terrorist frontman Alvaro Uribe in Colombia and covers up their egregious anti-democratic interventions in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. Decades of corporate over-exploitation of the continent’s mineral and agricultural resouces have grossly exacerbated regional trends of environmental degradation.
Constant US-inspired meddling in local agricultural economies has compromised many countries’ food sovereignty. Sly attempts by corporate agri-business in league with the US government to sneak in GM foods in “aid” consignments accompany outright US government bullying to impose destructive GM agricultural practices as an implicit component of current “free trade” negotiations. Also part of the overall “free trade” package are crude and insensitive attempts by the World Bank and the IMF to railroad countries into water privatization. Governments that string along are likely to pay a heavy political price, as President Mesa discovered in Bolivia last year.
Captain Queeg walks the plank in Latin America
The poor majority in Latin America have proved incredibly resilient and patient under the dead hand yoke of neo-liberalism. But a combination of basic factors is coming into play now. The accumulating effects of environmental degradation and climate change are already affecting agriculture and domestic water supplies in many countries. The growing energy crisis is already hitting Latin American countries hard. As it worsens, “free market” solutions will look increasingly bogus. Electricity, gas and fuel prices are set to take off in economies where wages have been stagnant for several years. The effects will be devastating.
Currently, Cuba and Venezuela offer the best ideas for alternatives for the poor majority in Latin America. In other countries, the traditional political elites are hopelessly bound to US interests and policies. They failed to solve chronic problems of poverty and economic development in the past. They are incapable of coping adequately with the critical energy and environmental problems to come.
George Bush at the helm in the White House resembles the protagonist of “the Caine Mutiny”. His gangster regime is fronting for the US people at a crucial time in their country’s relations with Latin America and the rest of the world. As the Bush mafia wave adios to their old buddy Pinochet, they seem unaware they are walking the self-same planks as Pinochet and Bernie Ebbers before them. Earlier Godfathers like Bush senior, George Schultz and James Baker may have got away with it. But in Latin America, time may well be fast running out for Captain Queeg and his current crew.
TONI SOLO ia an activist beased in Cenral America. Contact via firstname.lastname@example.org