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Dubious Presidential Advice on Latin American From the Council on Foreign Relations

Turning Back the Clock on Cuba

by ROBERT SANDELS

The Council on Foreign Relations issued a report in May on what the  next president should do to improve US Latin America policy. The report  (U.S.-Latin America Relations: A New Direction for a New Reality) was  written by a task co-chaired by Charlene Barshefsky, former US trade  representative, and Gen. James T. Hill, former head of the US Southern  Command. It has received considerable enthusiastic approval.  How could it  not when it contains the line, "If there was an era of U.S. hegemony in  Latin America, it is over" [1]

What do they mean "if"? Anyone capable of doubting that there was an  era of US hegemony is a fool, and anyone who thinks it is over is  misinformed.

Starting off smartly on the wrong foot, the authors assert that the  problems facing US diplomacy in Latin America are not our fault.

"Recent strains in the US – Latin America relationship," argues the  report, "although real, are less a result of alleged U.S. policy failings  than a product of deeper changes…."

It is not so much that the recommendations flowing from this deeply  flawed assertion are uniformly bad – many are admirable – but rather that  the report is poisoned at the outset by its unquestioning acceptance of the  hegemonic premises whose damage to the region the report purports to repair.

Adopting orphaned premises

The report could only have been written in the form it is in by  adopting the hoary mythology that US policy has been benign, though possibly  bumbling at times. Where is the evidence to support the assertion that the  United States has had a "long-standing focus" on democracy; or the claim  that US objectives have been the promotion of "prosperity, and democracy  throughout the hemisphere"? Democracy promotion has never been a US policy,  in Latin America except as a cover for hegemonic ambitions, as the long  history of interventions, invasions and subversions amply demonstrates.

Without the democracy-promotion fallacy as a cover, many of the  report’s assertions are revealed as justifications for continuing US  interventionism, albeit on a more sophisticated level than we have seen  under recent administrations.  Praising by way of faint damnation, the  report offers this zinger of understatement:  The US focus on "free and fair  elections," has been "insufficient" in dealing with "fundamental concerns."

When it looks at individual countries, the report offers little in the  way of historical context to explain current tensions.  It fails to ask, for  example, the reasons for Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s hostility toward  the policies of the US government, contenting itself with repeating Bush  administration talking points about the "authoritarian" Chavez.

"Since being elected in 1998," says the report, "he has used oil  profits to fund high-profile public projects and welfare programs while  ruling by decree and systematically eradicating checks on his own power.  More worrying in the regional context, he has also embarked on a campaign to  alienate Latin America from the United States and promoted foreign policies  that could destabilize the region (such as pushing for recognition of the  Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia [FARC] as a political rather  than terrorist organization)."

There is no mention here that Chavez has repeatedly renewed his  authority through democratic elections and referendums; no mention that his  limited power of decree was legislatively approved; no mention of Washington’s  support for the coup attempt against him in 2002, which might help explain  his antipathy toward the current United States government; no mention that  his regional policies, far from destabilizing the region, have been in  support of democratic elections that have challenged US-backed ruling elites  in places like Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua; and no mention that Latin  America’s alienation  from the United States might be a good thing in a  region working toward unity and independence.

On other important issues, the report is silent or given to mumbling.

There is no discussion of the long history of US attacks on sovereign states  up to and including the endless war against Cuba.  For the Council on  Foreign Relations, history begins only after a Fidel Castro or a Hugo Chavez  reacts against US aggression.

How they can help us

The report talks a great deal about how the United States might help  Latin America, but it is essentially a report on how Latin America can help  the United States. The region is more important to the US than ever, the  forward begins. "[It] is the largest foreign supplier of oil to the United  States."

US energy security is one of the four critical issues identified in the  report.  The others are poverty, public security and human mobility  (migration). All four are interpreted to one degree or another as to how  they threaten or otherwise affect the United States.

The report complains that the rise of resource nationalism presents "a  difficult challenge for both the United States and Latin American  countries."  Resource nationalism refers to the trend toward taking control  of oil and other resources out of the hands of foreign corporations and,  through nationalization or other means, putting them to national use.

"Since 2001," the report says, "President Chavez has sought to use his  nation’s vast energy wealth for public programs and for his own ambitions by  strengthening government control over the state-owned oil company Petroleos  de Venezuela (PDVSA), limiting foreign ownership of joint ventures, and  demanding higher royalty payments from foreign oil companies."

Because of Venezuela’s use of Venezuelan oil for Venezuelan purposes,  the report suggests, the impact on future supplies could "have problematic  implications for the United States."  The sentiment here seems to be that  Venezuelans are using up our oil.

Perhaps that could be offset, though.  Brazil could increase its oil  exports, which could "substantially benefit…the United States."

Then, there is natural gas: "Latin America’s natural gas resources also  have the potential to play an important part in U.S. energy security in the  coming years."

Maybe Peru could export liquid natural gas to the United States.  But,  once again, resource nationalism gets in the way:  "Potential Bolivian  exports to Chile and the United States have been held up by anti-Chilean  sentiment and resource nationalism."

IMF to the rescue

To repair the damage done by the disaster economics of the Washington  Consensus, the report recommends, well, the Washington Consensus. The report  advises Washington to help Latin American nations work with the multilateral  organizations that implement the Washington Consensus, such as the World  Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the International  Monetary Fund (IMF).  But, these are instruments of US policy not of Latin  American integration and independence.

The report does not discuss the history of how the Washington Consensus  exacerbated poverty and dependence or the reality that the multilateral  financial institutions are no longer welcomed in most of Latin America and  have little money left to affect changes anywhere. Yet, the council wants  Latin America to embrace these discredited institutions.

Citing economic policies (structural adjustment, debt repayment,  privatization) thrust on the region through the Washington Consensus, the  report ignores the wholesale ransacking of national assets and the squeezing  of taxpayers to repay loans contracted by corrupt regimes coerced by US  agents, and concludes with masterly obliviousness, "these measures have had  less of an effect on job creation and poverty alleviation than was initially  indicated."

Besides papering over the failures of the Washington Consensus, the  report downplays the failures of Plan Colombia, of which it can only say,  "important progress has been made."  Still, the report offers Plan Colombia  as a model for Mexico, perhaps taking as fact Gen. Hill’s ludicrous claim  that Plan Colombia’s success "has been absolutely startling."[2] Nor does  the report reflect on how seriously Colombia’s US-approved incursion into  Ecuador in March has damaged relations between Colombia and its neighbors.

This "startlingly" successful program, the report argues, should now be  extended to Mexico under Plan Merida, a US-financed amplification of  President Felipe Calderon’s bloody militarization of his war on drug lords  and civil protest.

Unintended irony

The report points out the negative economic effects on the region of  unequal wealth distribution, of race-based economic and social exclusion and  of race- and class-based exclusion from health care.  All of these are  characteristic of contemporary US society, but the report does not draw the  same conclusion for the United States as it does for Latin America, namely  that these defects "have potentially problematic implications for democratic  development."

To be sure, many of the recommendations – if read without considering  context – are laudable. Latin American governments, for example,  really  ought to reform their tax systems by adopting more distributive schemes that  rely less on regressive value-added taxes (VATs) and more on progressive-  income and corporate-profit levies.

But, to suggest that there is any US "expertise" to support such  efforts is absurd. Just look at the inverted system of progressivity in the  US tax code, the thicket of lobbyist-procured tax breaks for the richest  percentiles, the wealthy-farmer subsidies and the relentless transfer of  wealth from wage earners to rentiers for an idea of how good the United  States is at tax reform. Latin American governments should politely tell the  Council on Foreign Relations, "Please, don’t help us!"

In a council meeting releasing the report, American University scholar  Robert Pastor raised the same point. "I think those four issues that you  laid out are not issues that I would say the United States has much to teach  Latin America."[3]

Cuba: turning the clock back

This report is supposed to show how the next president can face Latin  American realities. The section on Cuba, however, wanders off into many of  the same fantasies that have driven Cuban policy for half a century. At  best, these recommendations call for a timid retreat to milder policies that  were in play prior to the passage of the Helms-Burton Act in 1996, which,  besides further tightening the blockade (embargo), gives Congress the final  power to judge Cuba’s behavior.

The council’s task force would like to end, though only partially, the  nearly total ban on US citizens traveling to Cuba. It goes only so far as to  suggest reinstating the less stringent travel rights that existed pre-Bush.  The report does not attempt to justify the original reasoning behind the  travel restrictions and does not ask questions about the trumped-up grounds  of "trading with the enemy."

The report also wants to reduce the severity of the blockade by  revoking the Helms-Burton Act, which in itself would not change Cuba policy  but simply hand it back from Congress to the executive branch.  It does not  recommend repealing the entirety of the anti-Cuba legislation, such as the  Cuban Adjustment Act or the Torricelli Act.    Since none of the current  presidential candidates favors eliminating the blockade, the report’s major  recommendation on Cuba rings hollow.

In sum, the report’s timid recommendations outline a return to the  somewhat milder Cuba policy that set in after President John F. Kennedy’s  failure at the Bay of Pigs in 1961 and his failed Operation Mongoose terror  project.  Richard Nixon, who, as vice president, recommended the invasion to  then President Dwight Eisenhower, established a softer Cuba policy as  president than the one recommended by the task force

Some of the proposals concerning Cuba actually reinforce Bush’s  hard-line approach. Both Bush and the Council on Foreign Relations want the  next president to work more effectively with partners in the Western  Hemisphere and Europe to press Cuba on its human rights record and  democratic reform, the two major propaganda points endlessly cited as  justifications for the war on Cuba.

Rather than pledging to leave Cuba’s future to Cubans, the report  suggests that the next president promise, "The United States will pursue a  respectful arm’s-length relationship with a democratic Cuba."

The catch is that, under current law and policy, it is up to the United  States to determine whether Cuba is democratic. Moreover, since US policy  after the 2001 Summit of the Americas links democracy and capitalism,  the unacknowledged agenda of the council appears to be destruction of Cuba’s  socialist revolution. [4]

ROBERT SANDELS is a writer and member of the Cuba-L Direct team. where this essay originally appeared.

Bibliography

[1] Council on Foreign Relations, U.S.-Latin America Relations: A New  Direction for a New Reality, 05/15/08.  All quotations are from the online  uncorrected version.

[2] U.S.-Latin America Relations: Report of an Independent Task, Federal  News Service, 05/14/08.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Summit of the Americas Information Network.  The final declaration says democracy is "fundamental to the advancement of  all our objectives," which include "hemispheric integration and national and  collective responsibility for improving the economic well-being and security  of our people." Further, any "interruption of the democratic order in a  state of the Hemisphere constitutes an insurmountable obstacle to the  participation of that state’s government in the Summit of the Americas  process." Accordingly, it would seem that the Bush regime, which fought to  get this language in the declaration, could be kicked out of future summits  after the 2002 stunt in Venezuela or the US-engineered expulsion of Haiti’s  President Aristide in 2004.