It was as startling an about-face as veteran Latin American political observers could recall. Here was Felipe Calderon, the iconic right-winger and George Bush’s latest Latino poodle dog who was awarded the Mexican presidency in fraud-marred elections last July, pumping the flesh with Latin American boogeymen Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales at the January 10th inauguration of Daniel Ortega, once Washington’s Public Enemy Numero Uno, as president of Nicaragua.
Indeed, the Bush administration had done its damndest to keep Ortega and the Sandanista Front from returning to power after 17 years, threatening to revoke visas of Nicaraguans living in the U.S. and a cut-off of aid to what has become the poorest country in Central America under post-Sandanista neo-liberal regimes. Having labeled Ortega "dangerous" to U.S. interests, the Bush White House dispatched a minimalist delegation headed by a low-level cabinet member to his inauguration. But for the resurgent Latin left, Daniel’s ascension to power was a cause for celebration.
Although the pachanga in Managua loomed as the most notable conclave of the continent’s left leaders since Morales’s inauguration in January 2006, the right-wing Calderon chose the occasion to debut upon the stage of inter-American diplomacy, his first foray outside of Mexico since his chaotic December 1st swearing in, and the Mexican president’s strange encounter of a left kind, had knuckles cracking in Washington so loud that you could hear them all the way to Tierra del Fuego.
Incongruity reigned in the Calderon camp. His predecessor, Vincent Fox, had systematically squabbled with Latin America’s left leadership one by one – Nestor Kirschner, Evo Morales, Fidel Castro (who he kicked out of Mexico and with whom he broke off diplomatic relations), and most obstreperously, Hugo Chavez, with whom Fox also broke diplomatic relations after the Comandante called him "a puppy dog of Imperialism."
Even the setting of Ortega’s ascendancy invoked Calderon’s estrangement from the party guests – his right wing, oligarchal party, National Action or PAN, had supported the U.S.-backed Contras who terrorized Nicaragua in the 1980s. Yet here was the new Mexican president in Managua, slapping backs and seemingly desperate to mend fences with the continent’s new left leaders.
Although this was his inauguration, Daniel’s star was eclipsed by that of the brightest astro in the Latin Left firmament, Venezuela’s recently re-elected (with 63% of the vote) president Chavez who was, in fact, being sworn in that very morning across the Caribbean in Caracas, delaying his arrival in Managua and Ortega’s inauguration for several embarrassing hours during which Felipe Calderon was forced to make small talk with leftists.
Meanwhile, in Caracas, Chavez was pledging to bring "21st Century Socialism" to Venezuela and nationalizing previously privatized industries – the electricity and telephone sector, oil exploration along the Orinoco, and Caracas Radio Television, a mouthpiece for the opposition, all of them properties that had once been publicly-owned. "That which has been privatized will be re-nationalized" the Comandante thundered, a declaration that had much resonance up and down the continent.
Among the enterprises threatened with re-nationalization is CANTV, the Venezuelan telephone company, in which Mexican communications tycoon Carlos Slim, the richest man in Latin America and the third wealthiest in the world, had sunk a bundle when he picked up 28% of the conglomerate from the U.S. transnational Verizon. The just-announced expropriation of Carlos Slim’s grab for CANTV made the handshake between Calderon and Chavez, when at last he touched down in Managua, even more tenuous.
During the bruising Mexican electoral campaign, Felipe Calderon had repeatedly used Chavez’s image in hit pieces aimed at his left-wing presidential rival Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) and when the Venezuelan president complained, Calderon’s PAN charged he was interfering in Mexican domestic politics which put further stress on an already strained relationship. Nonetheless, the PAN’s allegations that Chavez was financing Lopez Obrador’s campaign ultimately proved to be a hoax – but was embraced by the Bush regime and the fake news was spread by right-wing commentators, notably Fox News’s Dick Morris, north of the border.
Chavez put down in Managua with a head of steam, having just declared Venezuela a socialist state ("Socialism or Death!") He had also lashed out at Organization of American States secretary general Juan Carlos Insulza, a blue-ribbon Chilean diplomat, who he called a "pendejo" (fool) for having critiqued his expropriation of an opposition radio station. The exchange stirred bad vibes from Chile’s "socialist" Prime Minister Michelle Bachelet who did not fly into Managua for Daniel Ortega’s investiture.
Seated at the head table at Daniel’s side during the post-inaugural banquet – Evo occupied the other flank with Ecuador’s leftist president-elect Raphael Correa next to him, Chavez welcomed Nicaragua into his "Bolivarian" trade pact (Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia), the ALBA as opposed to Bush’s ALCA (Free Trade Treaty of the Americas) and repeatedly embraced the one-time revolutionary new president. According to published reports, Ortega hedged his bet on the ALBA by accepting a congratulatory phone call from George Bush earlier in the day. Nicaragua remains part of CAFTA, the Central American Free Trade Agreement with Washington.
But despite the dealings behind the scene, Managua this past January 10th was once again the capital of the "lucha" (struggle) against Yanqui imperialism – although the lamentable absence of Fidel (too ill to attend) or Raul Castro (rumored to be on his way) weighed heavily on the party. Banished to the far end of the banquet table and sandwiched between the Saharan delegation and a wall, Felipe Calderon and his wife Margarita Zavala were so inconspicuous that when colorfully garbed senoritas passed out diplomatic souvenirs of Daniel’s installation – the Latin American Merit Medal – the Mexican president was overlooked. The Calderons exited the state dinner hurriedly to avoid a delegation of AMLO’s supporters from the pseudo-left Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) who were special invitees
at Ortega’s gala.
Felipe Calderon had taken pains to assure George Bush that Mexico and the U.S. are "inseparable allies and amigos." While still president-elect, Calderon utilized his first and last meeting with Bush November 8th to reaffirm the partnership. It was not a good moment to talk turkey with the U.S. president, however, coming as it did one day after George Bush had lost control of the Congress to the Democrats.
Since then, there has been a sense of separation between the Mexican president and the lame duck Bush who is sinking deeper in the quagmire of Iraq each day with an opposition congress snapping at his heels. Calderon’s appearance in Managua – the Mexican president who has taken to wearing military uniforms came in civil dress – was a sign of a widening drift between Washington and Los Pinos, the Mexican White House.
President Calderon found a less disinterested reception next door January 16th when he flew into El Salvador to mark the 15th anniversary of the Salvadoran peace accords signed in 1992 at Mexico City’s Chapultepec castle. Although Mexican diplomats mediated the accord, Calderon’s PAN party played no role in brokering the agreement.
Embraced by his right-wing counterpart Tony Saca, a stalwart of the ARENA party which emerged victorious from the U.S.-sponsored bloodletting in Salvador, Calderon had to transit a tense capital as tens of thousands of supporters of the Farabundo Marti Liberation Front (FMLN) which led the Salvadoran resistance, took to the city’s streets to protest the incompletion of the peace accords.
With no Chavez to steal the cameras, Calderon seized the opportunity to push a revised Plan Puebla Panama (PPP), the moribund Fox development strategy that promotes integration of southern Mexico with Central America and the opening of the region to transnational resource exploitation. Both Calderon and Saca, whose political ancestors in ARENA ran one of Latin America’s most notorious death squads, extended an olive branch to the social democratic parties that are sweeping elections all over the continent and sought to blur ideological distinctions. What was more important, the Mexican president insisted, was a "commitment to democracy" and warned against a return to the dictatorships of the past, "whether right or left".
Although Calderon inveighed at length against what he termed "authoritarianism", he presides over perhaps the most egregious and systematic violation of human rights on the continent today, the continuing repression of the popular movement in Oaxaca.
Despite his diplomatic walkabout, Calderon decided to eschew the Correa inauguration in Quito – in just a few short months, Rafael Correa has become Washington/s newest bete noir as he threatens to shut down the U.S. "anti-terror" base at Manta and expropriate U.S.-owned petroleum holdings.
Instead, the Mexican president is headed to Davos for the annual get-together of bankers, heads of states, and other masters of the universe on an ice mountain in Switzerland where Calderon will most probably get his first glimpse of an anti-globalization demonstration. Ex-Mexican president Ernesto Zedillo, now the director of the Yale University Center for Globalization Studies, coined the phrase "globalphobe" to describe demonstrations here a decade ago. In addition to Calderon, leaders of the new Latin American left will be on hand – Lula and Kirshner are regular devotees of the Davos séance.
Although Felipe Calderon presses the flesh of the luminaries of the Latin American left, he is doing his best to ignore the left back home. Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who probably beat the right-winger in the much-questioned July 2nd election, has disappeared from the public repertoire of "Fecal" (as his detractors dub him.) Calderon’s backers in the electronic media are also dedicated to making AMLO disappear from the nation’s screens. The Interior Secretary refused to permit the airing of Lopez Obrador’s acceptance speech last November 20th as the "legitimate" president of Mexico. A half hour program, "The Truth Must Be Told", which features a sort of fireside chat with AMLO and Comedy Central-like news, is being transmitted in a 1 AM Tuesday morning time slot to insure a minimum number of viewers. The show’s debut installment failed to air in 12 states due to what the Secretary of the Interior, which controls radio and TV transmissions, called a "technical problem", and the sound quality on the second edition was so poor that Lopez Obrador was inaudible.
For the Bush regime, the Mexican election was not one it could afford to lose. The Latin dominos have been falling left in alarming succession and the line had to be drawn when the wave reached the U.S, border. Despite the tainted vote count, Bush crowned Calderon president of Mexico in a phone call from Air force One not 24 hours after the ballots were cast. Outside of Calderon, Colombia’s Uribe is the only head of a leading Latin American economy that still stands up for U.S. interests in the region.
The front page photos that ran throughout Latin America of Iran’s outspoken president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hugging and mugging with Chavez in Caracas must have sent chills up Bush’s prostate. With U.S. warships sailing into the Persian Gulf and Bush’s troops rounding up Iranian diplomats in Iraq, war seems right over the horizon. Now here was Ahmadinejad invading what used to be called "an American lake" in flagrant violation of the Monroe Doctrine.
The tete a tete between the heads of state of the second and fifth biggest oil producers on the planet, both OPEC members, in a time of falling prices sent a flutter through the markets. Ahmadinejad then winged over to Managua for an "abrazo" with Daniel and promised aid to that desperately poor country stripped to the bone by a president who called himself "El Gordo" and a successor who took his orders from the World Bank.
But despite the induction of Daniel Ortega and Rafael Correa into the ranks of Latin America’s left leaders, 2007 could be a bumpy year for that side of the political spectrum. Correa himself faces a congress in which his party does not occupy one seat in a nation that has had eight presidents in the past 10 years. Like Evo Morales, he has called for the writing of a new constitution.
In Bolivia, Evo is under fire from an "autonomy" movement created by the once-ruling, all-white dominant classes to restore the privileges they enjoyed when an Indian was not their president. Nestor Kirschner who will run for a second term in Argentina this year has unemployment riots on his hands and across the Andes, his "Socialist" neighbor Bachelet is confronted with rioting students and the umbrage of offended Pinochet cultists. Uruguay’s Tabere Vazquez wants to negotiate a bi-lateral free trade pact with Washington (much as Peru has done) before Bush’s fast track authority runs out. Lula, who pledges that his second term will be one of social change in Brazil, won the run-off election with the backing of the banking elite.
Even Hugo Chavez faces problems with establishing "21st Century Socialism" in Venezuela. "You can’t impose socialism over the radio" writes Argentinean-born Marxist Guillermo Almeyra in his Sunday La Jornada column, "in fact, trying to do that would be anti-socialist."
JOHN ROSS will be on the road in the southwest, south, midwest, and Atlantic coast from February through April with his latest opus ZAPATISTAS! Making Another World Possible–Chronicles of Resistance 2000-2006. Write him at firstname.lastname@example.org for suggestions of possible venues and dates.