Don’t Cry For Me, America
I have yet to spend too much time digging into the corporate press reaction to the latest news from Ecuador, but I’m sure it’s not pretty. The South American country recently announced that it is giving up “unilaterally and irrevocably, the…customs benefits,” that have come as part of the Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA), originally enacted under a slightly different name in 1991. Furthermore, according to Reuters, there was also a “cheeky” announcement that the roughly $23 million per year that Ecuador gained from participating in the program would be sent by the Ecuadorian government to finance human rights training in the US. With cunning, Rafael Correa and his government have exposed US double standards once again.
Recall that when Correa was running for office in 2006, he announced that, if elected, the controversial US lease of territory on an air force base in Manta, a port city in northern Ecuador, would only be granted renewal if the US would agree to an Ecuadorian base in Miami. Of course, the US never really responded to the request and the last US forces departed from Manta in September 2009. It was a simple reversal of attitude and it boldly displayed US arrogance in its purest form: We could and would set up bases and deploy troops practically anywhere in the world we choose, but there would be no chance in hell that any foreign country could do the same to us! (In fact, one of the most notorious bases in the world, Guantanamo Bay, is located in a country the US has targeted in a variety of economic, militaristic and diplomatic ways for over half a century. The 45 square mile Naval Base there hosts a range of units and reportedly costs the US around $4000 per year.)
In yet another high-profile row, the Correa administration proves that it is willing to stand up and embarrass the US for its imperial hubris. This time, a “third world” government would go out of its way to help the United States “avoid violations of privacy, torture and other actions that are denigrating to humanity.” In case you are confused, this means that the nation that the US press regularly accuses of being a backwards, authoritarian government with no respect for international law or personal freedoms, is now offering to be the conscience for the wayward empire. How could this be? Some history is in order. The following three points about the trade preferences known as the ATPDEA might help shed some light on the situation.
Point #1: Ecuador is really the only remaining country to receive trade benefits under this program.
George W. Bush was president when the indigenous coca farmer/activist Evo Morales took power, and it was unlikely the two leaders would find common cause. The relationship between Bolivia and the US has remained rocky during the Obama years, but it was actually a parting shot by the Bush Administration at the defiant left-leaning government in Bolivia in late-2008 that removed Bolivian products from the deal. Washington didn’t appreciate the fact that the cultivation of coca, a plant at the heart of Bolivian culture, was becoming somewhat destigmatized under Morales. The Washington Post reported at the time,
“The decision by the Bush administration to suspend trade preferences that benefit Bolivia has left workers here worried about the potential for widespread layoffs at a time when the nation is struggling to cope with the international financial crisis.”
The article concludes with an explanation by the Bolivian government regarding the decisions for which they were being punished:
“Bolivian officials defend their coca policy, which allows farmers in certain areas to legally grow a third of an acre of the crop for traditional uses such as chewing the leaves and brewing teas. The days when farmers engaged in bloody struggles against U.S.-backed eradication teams are over, as coca has lost its stigma. Under Morales, cocaine seizures have risen each year; nearly 20 tons has been confiscated this year, according to government statistics.”
Meanwhile, the United States signed free trade deals with Colombia in 2012 and Peru in 2006, effectively neutralizing the necessity for benefits that the Andean Trade Preferences Act offered. This means that of all four countries that were once part of the deal, only Ecuador remained. The amount reported to be gained from participation is hardly capable of making or breaking the Ecuadorian economy, reported to be one of the most dynamic in the region, if not the world. Since Correa and Morales first came to power, there were calls from Congress (mostly Republicans) for punishing the merchants and farmers in Bolivia and Ecuador for living amongst such audacious electorates willing to support independent leaders.
Point #2 The base at Manta, a key part of the larger US drug policy, represented a loss of dignity for Ecuador and caused widespread problems.
There was much ado about the closure of the base at Manta and Correa’s statement about a base in Miami, effectively mocking US realpolitik, but very little written in the international press about the problems that the base posed. On my first visit to Ecuador in early 2006, I witnessed a protest in the capital during which the participants expressed anger over the deteriorating economic and political situation in the country. Only months before, Lucio Guttierez was removed from office, and his Vice President Alfredo Palacio took over, attempting to deal with the IMF’s rigid demands. It was clear to many in the country that the policy makers deciding Ecuador’s fate were far afield and unconcerned about the average Ecuadorian. There were calls by the protestors to eject Occidental Petroleum, the US oil company that put the silver spoon in Al Gore’s mouth. Yet, the topic of the most fiery speaker there that day discussed something perhaps more sinister than irresponsible oil drilling and pollution. He was speaking about the base that the US government had been operating since 1999, from which regular flights managed by the mercenary firm Dyncorp would dump Monsanto’s Roundup on the people and farms in Colombia. What I learned, though, was that this criminal aerial fumigation was also occurring over Ecuadorian farms near Lago Agrio and the northern border with Colombia. This the same area that had been living with the ravaging effects of billions of gallons of crude oil spilled by the US oil giant Texaco from 1967-1992.
I returned to the area near Lago Agrio earlier this year and heard about how the spraying had deeply affected the region. It was yet another wound to the people who inhabited what was, only half a century ago, a wonderfully unique and unspoiled portion of the Amazon rainforest.
To briefly review, a US mercenary firm (Dyncorp) and chemical producer (Monsanto), were working in league with the US military to bring pain to poor farmers, already dealing with the tragic effects of two major US oil companies (Texaco and Occidental). These targeted populations were merely suspected of living near people growing coca, a plant that has been cultivated here for millennia, without any negative effects on society. On the contrary, the plant is sacred and, considering the extreme geography many citizens in Ecuador inhabit, it’s not hard to understand why. Moreover, the US State Department considered the minimal assistance offered, based on false notions of moral superiority, to be an act of remarkable generosity. It would be hard to imagine how the conscientious observer from this part of the world must feel about the powerful empire to the north. I did get a chance to see what some local middle school children’s artistic renderings of the spraying though and have included them below, courtesy of the environmental group Accion Ecologica.
We are sure to hear how many Ecuadorians will suffer from their government’s unilateral decision to end involvement in the program. The Associated Press recently published a local’s account of the situation. Here’s what he had to say:
“Much of our foreign trade is at stake,” said flower grower Benito Jaramillo, president of the country’s largest association of flower farmers, who shipped more than $300 million in flowers, mostly roses, to the U.S. last year. “They’ve been inserting themselves in a problem that isn’t Ecuador’s, so we’re in a dilemma that we shouldn’t be in.”
Of course this is a fair point. Perhaps some businesses and individuals might suffer, though it is likely they will recover soon enough as the government is eagerly searching out trading partners around the world. Ecuadorian Foreign Minister Ricardo Patiño Aroca is wrapping up a trip to Asia, where he and his Vietnamese counterpart have promised greater cooperation and economic relations. There have also been the statements of solidarity and support from the region, including Venezuela. Yet, involvement in this program, and in the larger drug interdiction scheme, has meant that other citizens have had to endure serious damage to their environment and health.
Point #3 While these benefits were ostensibly to encourage and ensure economic alternatives to the drug trade, they were more necessary for Washington’s leverage in bilateral relations and for maintaining the myth of effective action in the war on drugs.
This fact is fairly simple but it is important to point out that the language used by Washington was cover for the old-fashioned power politics that would ensure control over policy-making. It is no secret that Washington and the corporations it works for had once maintained a solid grip on the policies emanating from Quito, Lima, Bogota, and La Paz. Things are finally starting to change and this is too much for some US leaders to accept. Several high-ranking members of Congress have consistently called for benefits and assistance to the governments of Ecuador and Bolivia to end, due to their efforts to become less dependent on Washington. The Heritage Foundation and other like-minded think tanks regularly demonstrate this desire to punish countries that stray from the Washington Consensus and search for or invent behavior they claim reveals state-sponsored drug trafficking.
Venezuela was often charged with the facilitation of drug trafficking but nothing close to solid evidence ever emerged to support this theory. In fact, Venezuela ended their involvement with the US Drug Enforcement Administration in 2005 after several years of minimal cooperation between Washington and Caracas. Leaders in Caracas had apparently read the secret histories of the US drug trade, such as Cockburn and St. Clair’s Whiteout: CIA, Drugs and the Press. They were no longer going to give the US opportunities to intervene on the pretext that they were fighting in a moral crusade. In 2007, the Venezuelan Minister of the Interior Pedro Carreño said,
¨The United States establishes cooperation agreements in the fight against drug trafficking through economic cooperation so that they can later impose the presence of military bases under the pretense of cooperation.”
It is clear that anyone who wants to criticize South American countries for encouraging drug trade or suspicious behavior ought to look more closely at the United States’ own role in such illicit maneuvering.
In a society with a free and diligent press, some of these facts might emerge in the media discussions about Ecuador’s renunciation of the ATPDEA benefits and how the United States should view this rejection. Suffice it to say that this is unlikely outside of the various alternative independent media outlets. Indeed, these issues were ignored over the years, and the editors and journalists will continue to see no need to broadcast some of these relevant topics, not because they are hard to uncover, but because they challenge the illusions of American exceptionalism.
Well, there’s more than one America to be sure. In the case of South America, the people have now tasted the power of democracy and I believe as a result that we can expect great things (Brazil 2013!). So, perhaps we should bring some of the issues and their corollaries forth here today, in the hope that there are lessons to be learned and inspiration to be gained. While we are sure not to honestly hear about the triumphs of this part of the world on CNN, or read about them in a favorable light in The New York Times, it is in the countries of the global south where some of the most exciting developments are occurring in a world where hope is becoming a rare commodity.
A special thanks to my lovely and talented sister Christine Chimienti for her invaluable input on this and other writings.
Adam Chimienti is a teacher and a doctoral student originally from New York. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.