The 34-nation Summit of the Americas, held in the Argentinian resort town of Mar del Plata on November 4 – 5, turned into a showdown between two economic models: U.S. neoliberalism, and endogenous development with regional integration; and their two respective champions: presidents George W. Bush and Hugo Chávez Frías.
Never one for respecting the diplomatic protocols of the ruling classes, the Venezuelan leader appeared at both the presidential summit and the people’s counter-summit, where he brandished a shovel he had brought to “bury the FTAA,” the Free Trade Area of the Americas, which is kept alive only through Washington’s refusal to unplug its life support. Chávez urged the rain-soaked but enthusiastic crowd at the city’s soccer stadium to “send the ALCA al carajo,” which could be roughly translated as “F*** the FTAA.”
The decision to hold the summit in Argentina could not have been accidental. It was neoliberal structural adjustments imposed by the IMF (which managed Argentina’s $132 billion foreign debt) that broke the country’s economy. By December of 2001 the country was in its fourth year of recession, with 15 million people living in poverty and 18.3 percent unemployment.
Economics Minister Domingo Cavallo, a Harvard Ph.D., froze personal accounts to prevent a run on the banks. By the time access was restored, the accounts had plummeted in value, pushing two million Argentines into poverty and destroying industries. Rioting by the former middle class forced the resignation of four presidents in two weeks, with the surviving president, Eduardo Duhalde, stating the obvious: “The current economic model destroyed our middle class, destroyed our industries and pulverized our workforce.”
The popular organizing sparked by the economic crisis holds the government’s feet to the fire to this day. President Néstor Kirchner, host of this year’s summit, is certainly not the leftist many–hopefully or fearfully–make him out to be. He is constrained by the country’s outdated institutions from carrying out any of the bold reforms that Chávez is mandated to carry out by his country’s new constitution–a constitution which was his own initiative.
An example of the difference between Chávez and Kirchner is the way the two leaders have approached attempts by workers to take over idle factories. In mid-September this year, Venezuelan union leader Marcela Máspero announced in the local paper, El Universal, that the National Workers’ Union would occupy 800 closed factories. In the same article she said that the takeovers would have the protection of the military, and that they would carry out the takeovers first and ”resolve the question of ownership later, since there is always a reason for the occupation.”
In any other country this would be taken as a declaration of class war, but Chávez wasn’t about to let the ultraleft federation seize the vanguard. On October 27 in Venezuela he announced two new factory expropriations to hundreds of activists at the first meeting of Latin American Occupied Factories, telling them that Latin America is freeing itself from U.S. dominance and that, “we are not just recovering these factories, we are recovering our true sovereignty.”
Presidents are expected to defend the owners of factories. Kirchner has done the expected by leaving workers to fight for the factories themselves. Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein’s documentary, “The Take,” shows us their painful and difficult struggle to take over a handful of closed factories, in which they have to face off against riot police and reactionary judges.
But Kirchner is no fool, either, and he didn’t need the large street protests in Mar del Plata to tell him to hold firm against Washington’s pressure to adopt the FTAA
No event so full of drama and symbolism would be complete without a celebrity, and that role was played by the headline-grabbing soccer legend, Diego Maradona. The “Pibe de Oro,” or “Golden Boy” has enjoyed a resurgence in popularity lately. He hit a low point in 2000 when years of cocaine abuse had taken their toll on his heart, and he decided to accept an offer from Cuba to go for medical and drug treatment. He has gone back and forth between Argentina and Cuba ever since, emerging not only physically stronger but determined to fight imperialism in the tradition of that other Argentinian legend, Ernesto “Ché” Guevara.
The outcome of the showdown was predictable, which didn’t make it any less satisfying for opponents of neoliberalism. The five countries of Mercosur–Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Venezuela and Brasil–refused to set a new date to discuss the FTAA. The meeting was so fractured that leaders continued to exchange cross-continental insults for days after they went home.
Mexico’s Vicente Fox, frustrated by his inability to revive the FTAA, started the verbal sparring while still in Mar del Plata. He told a Mexican journalist that Kirchner was more concerned about public opinion in Argentina than seeking a good outcome for the summit. He also made disparaging comments about Maradona, who has a hugely popular weekly television show.
Kirchner responded on November 7 recommending that Fox occupy himself with the problems of his own country: “I am not going to a summit to sell out the interests of the Argentinian people, to look good for those who are coming, no matter how big they are,” he said, referring to the U.S. delegation.
Fox also had words for Chávez; he told CNN after the summit that “there we have presidents, fortunately a minority, who keep blaming other countries for all of their problems.” For his part the Venezuelan president responded that he regretted that “the heroic Mexican people have a president who gets on his knees before the U.S. empire and plays the sad role that he went to play at the summit, and after that comes out attacking those of us who defend the freedom of our people.”
DIANA BARAHONA is a freelance journalist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org