Further Setbacks for the "Inevitable Consensus"

With many South American heads of state repeatedly blaming Washington’s economic policies for increased poverty, journalists at the Special Summit of the Americas had an easy time breaking from years of tepid coverage of trade. All they had to do was write down quotes, such as Brazilian President Luis Inacio (“Lula”) da Silva calling Washington’s prescriptions “perverse” and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez Frias calling them “infernal.”

The summit, which brought together the political leaders of all the hemisphere’s nations except Cuba in the Mexican city of Monterrey on January 12 and 13, produced few concrete results. But it demonstrated this new truth: International media can no longer ignore Latin American opposition to the U.S. economic agenda.

Although U.S. media did not treat the Monterrey summit as major news, many news outlets covered it and most coverage highlighted Latin American discontent with the “Washington Consensus” – the principle, aggressively pushed by the U.S. government since the late 1980s, that the best development path for poor countries is to open their economies, privatize State-owned industries, and cut government budgets.

“Bush to Encounter Latin America’s New Left,” Reuters headlined a January 13 article the day before the U.S. leader’s arrival. “U.S. Economic Policies Under Fire,” that news service reported the following day. Other papers ran similar headlines.

In the conservative Washington Times, a January 14 opinion piece by United Press International Chief Economics Correspondent Ian Campbell blasted Bush for hypocrisy. “The Washington Consensus suggests, for example, that budgets should be balanced. But Bush already has the world’s largest-ever budget deficit in nominal terms.”

Reporter Lisa Adams noted in a January 13 Associated Press piece that “even Canada” voiced objections to Bush’s claim that “trade is the most certain path to lasting prosperity.” As Colombia’s largest daily newspaper, El Tiempo, succinctly put it in a January 15 house editorial, “Bush’s attitude sounded overly simplistic and unilateral.”

The El Tiempo editorial also noted that Colombian President Alvaro Uribe Velez remained on the U.S. side. El Tiempo editors have long endorsed their country’s strong ties to the U.S., but this time they warned Uribe of his position’s “unquestionable risk, since it is out of tune with key South American countries and carries the danger of eventual isolation.” Times have changed.

Some reporters still missed the boat, of course. A January 14 Associated Press report concluded, in contrast with virtually everyone else’s read and using an adverb usually reserved for editorials, that Bush was “unquestionably” one of the summit’s “biggest winners.” But other papers showed signs of life – providing decent coverage of dissent over the Washington Consensus, after fifteen years accepting conservatives’ (and Clinton Democrats’) line that there simply are no alternatives, since the Cold War ended, to unbridled capitalism. The trend has been building since a group of countries led by Brazil walked out of World Trade Organization (WTO) negotiations in Cancun last fall.

A similar shift in news coverage could be seen on a national level in Colombia when Luis Eduardo (“Lucho”) Garzon was elected mayor of Bogota last October, becoming the first democratic-left candidate for such a high public office in the country to ever (literally) survive election. As soon as he won, voices critical of Uribe began to appear routinely in the media. Not too many of them, of course, and rarely with privileged placement compared to the standard government “authorities.” But at least they’re there.

And why are they there? Mass media can’t simply ignore the statements and actions of major elected officials – even if coverage sometimes openly attacks them or (more often) subtly, even unintentionally undermines their credibility. And there are a whole lot of major elected officials in Latin America right now malcontent with U.S. policies, many of them having won campaigns specifically because they are seen as part of a loose new progressive bloc able to stand up to Washington and press for social priorities.

In short, Monterrey showed that, with the notable exception of Colombia’s Uribe, many Latin American heads of state are turning economic policy into a controversial issue that no one can ignore.

Or rather, almost no one. Bush “sounded tired and bored” in his speeches, according to Washington Post writer Mike Allen’s January 14 “Diary” from Monterrey. “Cutaway television shots captured Bush glowering into space as other heads of state talked about ‘economic growth with equity to reduce poverty,’ ‘investing in people,’ and ‘democratic governance.'” At least the Post is now paying some attention.

PHILLIP CRYAN lives in Ames, Iowa. He is a writer and activist, recently returned from 18 months of human rights work in Colombia. A shorter version of this piece appeared in his biweekly column on media coverage of Colombia in Colombia Week, a free electronic publication. He can be reached at: phillipcryan000@yahoo.com