The Empire Changes Gears

The history of US empire-building in Latin America has combined a great deal of political flexibility along with extremely rigid economic principles. Washington in its political dealings has come to terms, on a grand scale and for over two decades with a great variety of regimes, which to less knowledgeable observers would seem eminently pragmatic. Over the past 15 years, Presidents from both parties have established strong ties and positive relations with “nationalists” in Argentina (Peronist President Menem), “socialists” in Chile (Socialist Party President Lagos), “populists” in Ecuador (President Gutierrez), “laborites” (President Da Silva of Brazil). The key to understanding this apparent contradiction is to recognize that the political labels reflected pre-presidential or past political commitments, and were totally irrelevant to the operational behavior of these politicians once they took office (or even when they were campaigning for office).

Washington was less concerned with the past political positions, current “radical” labels or popular social background of these Latin American presidents than with their contemporary commitments to collaboration with imperialist policymakers. The key to the ascendancy to the Presidency by these ex-progressive politicians and parties is their embrace of the economic and political postulates of US empire building: the continuation and deepening of privatization and de-nationalization of national public enterprises, the elimination of trade and investments controls, the prompt installment payment of foreign debt, long term guarantee of existing property relations (regardless of the corruption of the original transaction), the irreversibility of long-term resource extraction contracts no matter now unfavorable to the country of origin (see the World Bank Report 2004).

Washington was not in the least bothered by occasional inconsequential rhetorical exhortation to the “developed countries” about poverty and hunger, correctly perceiving it as symbolic gestures for international consumption. Nor were imperial policy makers disturbed by the occasional discrepancies on particular aspects of trade negotiations. In the end Washington understood that it would have to make some concessions to their elite counterparts in the client state.

Washington’s flexible adaptation and vigorous support of ex-Leftist parties and presidents has been a powerful force in sustaining and expanding imperial economic and military power in Latin America in the face of devastating social and economic results of two-decades of neo-liberal policies.

The combination of political flexibility and imperial economic rigidity has provided an inconsequential safety valve for popular discontent while tightening US imperial control over wealth, resources, markets, labor and military bases.

The Nature of Political Flexibility

By imperial flexibility, I mean that US policymakers are not averse to working with ex-leftists, ex-guerrillas, demagogic populists, or even “anti-neoliberals” ­ providing they govern in the interests of the US MNC, pay the foreign debt and implement IMF diktats. US policymakers are less interested in past politics and class origins, than they are with current and future policies and structural commitments. Washington supports military coup and military intervention against regimes which oppose US imperial foreign policy (Chavez in Venezuela) or refuse to implement IMF privatization program (Aristide in Haiti). At the same time it supports electoral regimes like Toledo in Peru, Lagos in Chile, Gutierrez in Ecuador, Lula in Brazil, Fox in Mexico and others. In Colombia, Washington works closely with the death squad paramilitary and military forces assassinating opponents to elected President Uribe.

These are not “contradictory” policies but rather reflect a clear and coherent class and imperial analysis, where friends and foes are defined in terms of strategic military, political and economic interests.

There have been several ‘realignments’ in US political tactics since the Second World War:

Post-Fascist 1945-48

Washington combined support for electoral regimes and center-left coalitions in Costa Rica, Guatemala and Chile with support for traditional dictatorial clients (Somoza) and opposition to popular nationalists in Argentina.

Cold War 1948-60

Washington shifts to military dictatorships, coups and repressive rightwing civilian regimes (Paraguay, Peru, Venezuela and Cuba).

Cuban Revolution 1961-63

The Alliance for Progress combines support for ‘reformist electoral politics’ and counter-insurgency (Venezuela), coups (Dominican Republic) and military invasion (Cuba).

Phase I ­ Counter-Revolution 1964-71

There are Right-wing coups in Brazil, Bolivia, Argentina, and Ecuador and repressive civilian counter-insurgency regime (Colombia, Venezuela), reformist anti-communist (Chile Christian Democrats).

Phase II Counter-Revolutionary Politics 1972-1982

These are the politics of savage repression, with terrorist regimes in Chile, Argentina, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Uruguay, Brazil and Bolivia

Consolidation of Empire: Political Realignment Part I 1983-1994

There is a shift form decaying military regimes to conservative neo-liberal electoral regimes in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, Bolivia, etc.; deepening military intervention in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala, Grenada, and Panama; and continued alignment with repressive civilian regimes in Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador.

From Neo-Colonies to Colonies: Political Realignment Part II 1995-2005

This features the conversion of the center-left to pro-colonial politics in Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina,Uruguay and Chile and military coups and intervention in Venezuela (2002, 2003 and 2004) and Haiti (2004).

First, there are no uniform, tactical political positions, they vary with the particular international political period and more important with levels of class and national struggles in each country.

Second, within each period there are important variations in US imperial politics depending on the political situation in each country.

Third, political realignments of US policy are determined by the opportunities within Latin America (depending on the level of national and class struggle and the correlation of forces) and the availability of viable pro-US alternatives.

Fourth, the shift from civilian-electoralists to dictatorship in the 1940’s-50’s was shaped by the Cold War needs of absolute submission to US foreign policy, high demand for cheap resources and excess capacity of US corporations going ‘international’.

Fifth, the partial and brief realignment with reformist-electoral politics in the early 1960’s leading to the withdrawal of support to vulnerable tyrants like Trujillo and support for Christian Democrats in Chile, Belaunde in Peru, while retaining the close ties with the military and future coup makers was a response to the revolutionary challenge of the Cuban Revolution and allied forces in Latin America.

Sixth, “Political Flexibility” ended in the mid 1960’s with the build-up toward total war in Indo-China and the strengthening of the military option: coups in Argentina and Brazil, the invasion of the Dominican Republic and the offensive against the populist-nationalist movements throughout the continent.

Seventh, the partial breakdown of the electoral strategy in the early 1970’s under pressure of mass struggles led by Washington’s embrace of mass terror regimes especially in Chile, Argentina, Bolivia, Salvador, Guatemala and Uruguay. There was a total restructuring of economy, state and society to conform to the neo-liberal model.

Eighth, in historical perspective the mission of the military regimes was to murder leaders of mass movements, domesticate electoral oppositionists and change the parameters of politics, economy and society. In that sense the military regimes, despite their brutality and tenacity in retaining power, were seen by imperial policymakers as instruments toward the strategic goal of transforming their economies into US satellites and negotiating the return of civilian electoral politics within the new rigid economic boundaries dictated by Washington, Wall Street, the IMF and the local business and banking elite.

Ninth, Washington successfully engineered the transition from dictatorial military regimes to neo-liberal electoral regimes which would complete the colonial restoration. Washington’s realignment took place in specific sets of circumstances where the electoral processes were managed and the competing parties and politicians were completely under US hegemony. Where hegemony did not exist, Washington maintained the military strategy until favorable accords and circumstances occurred ­ as in Nicaragua and El Salvador.

Tenth, Washington succeeded in deepening and extending its imperial economic policies throughout Latin America in the 1980’s and into the mid 1990’s and the results were extremely favorable: record profits, interest payments, privatizations of strategic economic sectors and market penetration.

The deterioration of the “first waves” of neo-liberal regimes and the resurgence of mass movements, popular insurrections and the overthrow of some of Washington’s most loyal client regimes led to “secondary realignments” ­ Washington’s shift from rightist civilian regimes to ostensible “center-left” regimes which however, even prior to taking office, had given iron-clad guarantees to further and deepen their support for US strategic interests. The Empire’s “flexible political tactics” especially in pivotal conjunctures has dealt harsh blows to emerging leftist movements. First in the period of the “transition” from military regimes, Washington seized the initiative, cultivating center-left politicians, academics, ideologues and journalists to serve as the new instruments for deepening colonial control.

Imperial foundations were extremely active in recruiting, financing and promoting the writings and speeches of the “new democrats” ­ who disguised their abject colonial servility with doctrines of “pragmatism”, “democracy” and “citizenship” and the “inevitability of globalization”. The Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, the Inter-American Dialogue, the Kennedy School, the Kellogg Center and a host of other centers served as transmission belts and platforms to integrate the new colonial politicians and intellectuals into the Empire.

Inevitably, the colonial policies and pillage of public treasuries by local vassals led to a new wave of unrest. In some cases Washington was not prepared to intervene and in others Washington lacked alternatives to pre-empt mass rebellion. I am referring to the uprisings of 2000 in Ecuador, of December 2001 in Argentina and Bolivia in October 2003. In the most strategic country, Brazil, Washington, with its liberal “unofficial apparatus” and formal representatives in the major financial institutions, was able to easily cow the unexpectedly servile Da Silva Administration. rule.

Unlike many on the Left, in Latin America, Europe and North America, Washington cut through political rhetoric and got to the heart of the matter, with Lula, Toledo, Gutierrez, Kirchner, and Mesa: Do they or don’t they pay the foreign debt to US and European banks; do they or don’t they respect the privatization of strategic industries; do they or don’t they promote new privatizations; do they or don’t they keep their markets open to overseas exporters; do they support the dollar against the euro by holding their reserves in dollars; do they or don’t they pass regressive labor, pension and minimum wage legislation; do they sign and abide by IMF agreements and impose austerity programs and regressive tax laws?

The New Clients: 2004, A Year of Infamy

Washington has registered extraordinary successes in consolidating its economic control and even deepening its stranglehold over Latin America during the past 5 years (1999-2004) despite several popular rebellions and the fall of several client regimes. ‘ALCA’ trade agreements are already in place or about to be signed in most of the Andean countries (Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Chile), debt payments have exceeded past records, especially in Brazil and Mexico, US military forces have increased and extended their presence throughout the region (with the exception of Venezuela) and, most important, Washington has succeeded in securing a Latin American military and police force engaged in the occupation and repression of a formerly independent country, Haiti, subsequent to a US invasion, and kidnapping and forced exile of an elected President, Aristide.

While most of the Left has focused exclusively on US militarization of the region, the impositions of the IMF and ALCA, they have largely ignored the political process which has made the aforementioned events possible. And when we write of the big political changes we are referring to the elections of a new set of political client regimes in almost all of the strategic countries in the region. The emphasis on Washington’s “electoral successes” is not meant to understate or dismiss the continuing role of military violence and political-economic blackmail in US imperial policy. By focusing on imperialism’s successes via the electoral process, we mean to highlight the importance and success of this tactic at this particular moment in time.

Brazil under Cardoso and Lula is the biggest success story in recent imperial history. Cardoso began the process of dismantling the edifice of a national-statist economy, selling off the most lucrative public enterprises, and opening financial markets to foreign takeovers and diminishing living standards. Elected Presidents “radicalized” the process of imperial pillage and appropriation, transferring tens of billions of dollars to creditors, promoting large-scale and super profitable speculation, agro-business exports and profits while diminishing wages, salaries, employment and land distribution. Brazil took the lead in promoting ALCA, by splitting Latin America among “light” and “heavy” subordination. Lula provided the biggest military contingent and the military leadership to Haiti, to protect the US puppet regime and repress mass anti-colonial resistance. Brazil under Lula has provided legitimacy and physical presence to the long-sought US strategic goal of an “inter-American military force” capable of intervening to sustain US strategic interests. Today it is Haiti, tomorrow it can be Venezuela or any other country which challenges US imperial clients. Let us be absolutely clear about the significance of Brazil, Argentina and Chile’s military role in Haiti: it has occurred after Washington intervened against a legitimately elected President who was kidnapped at gun-point. The Latin American military entered Haiti after notorious US-trained and armed death squads and paramilitary groups invaded the country in alliance with the US marines and proceeded to assassinate popular leaders throughout the country. The Brazilian-led forces have joined with the Haitian gangsters in murdering scores of Aristide supporters in all the major slums of the capital with the political endorsement of UN appointed, former Chilean foreign minister Gabriel Valdes. Da Silva, Kirchner and Lagos, the electoral crème de la crème of Latin America have forcefully assumed the role of gendarmes of the Empire and have a political and organizational precedent for future imperial interventions.

The collaboration of elected politicians with the most brutal and violent instruments of empire building raises important questions for anti-imperialists about electoral processes, and especially elected politicians. Equally important, the “leading role” of Brazil in backing US strategic goals of Latin American gendarmerie, ALCA, agro-mineral export strategy and the rest of the policies complementing US imperial interests, has led Washington to consider raising Brazil’s “international status”, by giving it a prominent role in international forums and in specific instances a ‘partnership’ in exploiting poorer and smaller countries in the region. Secretary of State Powell suggested Brazil might be worthy of a place on the UN Security Council, after it demonstrated its “responsible behavior” in promoting two-track ALCA, and defending US puppets in Haiti. Equally important, Brazil’s big energy multi-national Petrobras has joined with the US embassy in Bolivia and European and US MNCs in resisting any attempts by the vast majority of Bolivians to increase their share of their country’s energy earnings. Petrobras has the total support of the Lula regime.

In Bolivia the US was able to overcome the brief threat posed by the popular uprising of October 10-17, 2003 by supporting the assumption to power of Vice President Carlos Mesa, after the flight of his predecessor Sanchez de Losada. This delicate operation was make possible thanks to the conversion of peasant leader, Evo Morales, to electoral politics and his political backing of Mesa. The Mesa-Morales-US Embassy triangle ensured the continuity and temporary consolidation of the Mesa regime and subsequent electoral victory of a hydrocarbon referendum reaffirming MNC control of Bolivia’s strategic energy resources. Mesa proceeded to encourage Morales to split the opposition and they joined forces to defend the elitist electoral system against the new participatory forms of “assembly democracy” practices in the urban neighborhoods of El Alto, Cochabamba and La Paz, the workers’ assemblies in the mining communities and the peasant-coca farmer-landless peasant assemblies in the countryside. Once Mesa had succeeded in dividing the mass opposition he turned against Morales and launched a full-scale offensive against the cocaleros ,eradicating coca plants ­ in accordance with the publicly pronounced fiats of the US Embassy. The Embassy tactics toward Morales combined promises to “respect the electoral process” and threats of US backing for a military coup if Morales expressed solidarity with the mass movements. Enticed by his vision of a “golden future” as an elected President, Morales fit the profile of an ideal client for imperialism ­ a “charismatic” leader of popular origin with a long history of leadership in the class struggles, an ambitious upwardly mobile petit-bourgeois politician who demonstrated his willingness to jettison past class allies to embrace the new upper middle class politicians in the Presidency and Congress.

In Argentina, Washington combined support for the traditional rightwing Peronists and ‘new liberals’ and, failing that, embraced the heterodox and more eclectic ‘new Peronism’ of Kirchner. The latter has been far more successful than the Pentagon in diminishing, dividing and weakening the unemployed workers’ “piquetero” movement. Through shrewd combination of special funding and co-optation Kirchner has incorporated a substantial section of the movement to his so-called “transversal” politics ­ which however remains firmly in the hands of Kirchner’s Peronist loyalists. Kirchner has sustained prompt and full debt payments to all major lenders except private bondholders. He has set aside 3% budget surplus to meet the debt obligations, respected all the privatizations by his predecessors, allowed the foreign-owned petrol companies to reap windfall profits, promoted the agro-industrial sector at the expense of the rural poor, and has successfully resisted workers and public employees efforts to recover wage and salary levels lost during the crisis. In foreign policy, Kirchner has been eminently successful in projecting a posture of “independence” from the IMF, while signing and implementing agreements (minus the most extremist measures that would jeopardize his strategic political coalition). Kirchner has supported ALCA provided he can secure concessions for the agro-business elite. More significantly, Kirchner has joined the new US project for colonization, by sending troops to defend the US appointed puppet regime in Haiti and to repress the Haitian people protesting the US invasion and occupation.

It is clear the Kirchner is a heterodox client, with a degree of relative independence from the US based on Argentina’s need to promote its agro-export elite and provide some degree of protection to its national industrialists. Moreover, Kirchner’s effort to build a new political apparatus led by neo-liberals and supported by populist social leaders forces him to combine macro-economic liberalism with micro-economic ‘welfare’ projects.

Whatever the occasional difference between the US and Kirchner, it is clear that he has accomplished one of the primary conditions for US domination ­ he has demobilized the movements and taken the country out of the ‘danger zone’ of a popular upheaval against the neo-liberal system constructed during the 1990’s. The revival of strong growth, largely the result of a commodities boom resulting from the Chinese double digit industrial growth, has provided Kirchner with sufficient resources to incrementally increase social spending and provide some increases in pensions and minimum wages. Substantial growth and social palliatives, co-opted social leaders and effective ‘nationalist’-populist rhetoric have papered over the fundamental continuities of Argentine policy, particularly its subordinate role in the US Empire.

Among the ‘new clients’, the Peruvian and Ecuadorian cases illustrate the facile “selling” of superficially “populists” to a weak, opportunist and disoriented left ­ which in turn projected the image of “President of the People” to their mass followings. In Peru, the anti-Fujimori movement was quickly and smoothly converted into the channels of electoral politics. Within that arena, Toledo long in tow to US interests from his professors at Stanford to his bosses at the IMF was presented in peasant costume and billed as the “successful” shoeshine boy. Once elected Toledo pressed forward with Washington’s agenda of privatization, de-regulation, debt payments and primary sector exports. Toledo supported every colonial initiative from Plan Colombia to ALCA, against the vast majority of the population. Washington’s new client, however was immersed in continuing corruption scandals which weakened his effectiveness in implementing Washington’s agenda. Nevertheless, at the crucial moment of the “transition” from a deteriorating dictatorship and rising mass movement, Toledo gave a magnificent performance in manipulating populist images to channel popular discontent into the safe territory of elite electoral-parliamentary-Presidential politics.

Finally Washington found in Ecuador a very “available” and easily won client in Lucio Gutierrez, a former military official who by quirk of history found himself in the leadership of a peasant-indian uprising in the year 2000. Christened the “people’s candidate” by the Left, he was backed by the major left political parties (Pachakutic, MPD), social movements (CONNAIE and others) and the leading trade unions (petroleum, electrical workers etc). After indulging in the usual vacuous populist rhetoric and electoral promises, Gutierrez traveled to Washington to guarantee Washington’s agenda on ALCA, Plan Colombia, the Manta military base, the privatization of petroleum and other issues of import to Washington. In return he received Washington’s certificate of good conduct. In less than 2 months, President Gutierrez began implementing his “Washington” agenda. The leftist petit bourgeois ministers, secretaries and other lesser functionaries stayed on until they were eventually forced to retire from the Administration, but nor before they had totally mislead their mass followers, lost credibility among the many and facilitated Gutierrez role as a colonial client of Washington.


Washington’s “new clients” are of great tactical importance in a time of imperial crisis, system breakdown and mass conflict. The “new clients” of Washington have several significant differences from the previous clients. In the first place, they do not have the same political trajectory; in many cases they are “outsiders”, who have not been part of the governing or ruling class. One thinks of the contrast between Gutierrez, a petit bourgeois ex-military official and political ‘rebel’ versus ex-President Noboa, a millionaire businessman; Carlos Mesa, an affluent middle-class professional versus his predecessor ex-President Sanchez de Losado a capitalist millionaire; Lula Da Silva, petit bourgeois long-term Workers Party functionary (ex-metal worker) versus affluent upper middle class Fernando Cardoso. Washington has recognized that prospective clients include upwardly mobile petit bourgeois as well as those already in the elite. It is the case that these “new clients” have gone beyond the “old clients” neo-liberal agenda and have driven their countries into the colonial framework. Da Silva had far surpassed Cardoso in setting the budget surplus to meet the demands of overseas creditors, extended privatization to all the major infrastructure and even handed over oil exploration rights to foreign corporations (Shell, Exxon etc) of areas which the national enterprise, Petrobras, has identified as possessing billions of barrels of oil.

The “new clients” extremist pro-imperial behavior results from their desire to demonstrate to their imperial overlords that they have truly broken from their populist/leftist past and former mass allies, that they are completely in line with imperial policies and institutions. The ostentatious display of identification with the ruling class is found in the numerous entourages of big business people who accompany the new clients in their overseas trips. Lula, for example, invited 400 bankers, traders, agro-business people, mine owners and industrialists on his trips to Asia and Europe. They complement their pro-imperial policies, by engaging in sweeping rhetorical exercises in international forums, voicing concern about poverty but forgetting to link poverty with the wealth, power and pro-imperial policies which they pursue.

Washington’s re-alignment with ‘outsiders’ is a well-calculated move, based on serious analysis of the direction in which their new disciples are moving, not on where they were in the past. They are more impressed by their new alliances with the elites than their past alliances with the social movements. Above all they are impressed by concrete actions taken with regard to their strategic interests ­ on the economy, geopolitical alignments and state institutions.

Washington’s realignment policy is much closer to a Marxist class analysis (Marxism for the ruling class) than the diagnosis of left academics, journalists and social movement leaders who embrace these ‘outsiders’ on the basis of past memories, electoral rhetoric and inspirational illusions. The Left has to study imperialist politics to re-learn Marxist class politics ­ only this time in the interests of the urban workers, unemployed, Indians, peasants and working women.

Imperialism has no permanent alliances with these ‘new clients’ as it did not retain its ties to the ‘old clients’. Imperialism has permanent interests in extending the empire, enriching its ruling class, extending its military power, dominating its competitors. When and if, sooner or later, the new clients use up their credibility, the capacity to implant imperial policies, Washington will once again exercise its flexibility ­ whether it involves returning to the established governing/ruling classes or recruiting a ‘new’ outsider. Re-alignments from the ‘outsiders’ to the ‘insiders’ usually take place once a crisis in imperial domination has been overcome and the imperial system is stabilized. The ‘new clients’ thus make every effort to assimilate into the political establishment on the basis of their ties to the imperial institutions. However once they lose their “political capital” the ability to control substantial sectors of the populace, they are no longer of strategic value to the policymakers of the empire ­ they become expendable.

The ‘new clients’ perception of their new imperial partners is quite different. They believe they have forged a strategic alliance, a long-term durable working relation. They assume a high level of reciprocity ­ of mutual support on the basis of ‘common interests’. They are almost always rudely shocked when their political support among the masses deteriorates and their imperial ‘partners’ look toward a shift of alignments toward the old clients in the elite classes or the recruitment of a new outsider.

Despised and distrusted by their old allies in the mass movements, abandoned by their “strategic” allies in the empire, the ‘outsiders’ converted into new clients, lose their political prominence and either sink into oblivion, accepting a fellowship to the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government, or a minor post in the OAS or taking up residence in Miami.

JAMES PETRAS, a former Professor of Sociology at Binghamton University, New York, owns a 50 year membership in the class struggle, is an adviser to the landless and jobless in brazil and argentina and is co-author of Globalization Unmasked (Zed). He can be reached at: