Latin America at the Crossroads

Quito, Ecuador.

Hugo Chávez arrived in Quito, Ecuador on his tour through South America on August 9th, making this the penultimate stop before he heads out to a conference with President Evo Morales in Boliva this coming week. His calls for unity and regional integration were part and parcel with his critique of the U.S. empire which he qualified as a “bloodless Count Dracula before the breaking dawn (alba).”

With his usual impeccable sense of timing, Chavez arrived just as celebrations were underway for Ecuador´s Independence Day on August 10th, and at a propitious moment for Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, giving him a much needed boost, especially among the increasingly disenchanted middle class. But President Rafael Correa’s popularity, as serious as it may be, is the least of the problems facing Latin American unity. The Bolivarian project of Latin American unity has taken an even greater hit from President Lula of Brazil who has been making his own tour through Latin America with proposals that might ultimately divide or water down any alternatives to the neoliberal proposals of the U.S. empire.

Last year the people of Ecuador made a clear choice for a left alternative to the neoliberalism under which they have suffered for years. Dollarization of the economy, meant to attack runaway inflation under the regime of the sucre, brought new problems. Poverty increased and the governments continued to fall like dominoes until the elections of November, 2006 when the 44 year old Rafael Correa won, in a run-off with Ecuador´s richest businessman, banana tycoon Alvaro Noboa. The parallels with Venezuelan President Chavez´s first term are noteworthy: like Chávez, he won with over 56% on a platform that was moderately left and he began his term wildly popular with an agenda aimed at bringing aid to the poor and writing a new constitution.

However, like Chavez, Correa has yet to polish his diplomatic skills and he tends to speak his mind without reservation and this quality, along with his recent decision to allow the “harvesting” of “incidental” catches of sharks in protected areas, has alienated the environmentally conscious and traditionally polite middle class of Ecuador. His popularity in the past month has plummeted from 80% to somewhere in the lower 60% range. Worse still, his harsh comments have been directed at the press and, a sector that a president with none of his own media (Ecuador doesn’t even have a public television station) simply can’t afford to alienate. Calling reporters “wild animals” may evoke an affirmative nod or two from sympathizers, but referring to a particularly persistent reporter as “horrible fatty” (“gordita horrorosa”) is sure to alienate nearly everyone.

Unfortunately, in just a little over a month before the referendum on Ecuador´s new Constitution in which voters will choose between a president advocating a “socialism of the twenty first century” suited for Ecuador, and an, at best incompetent, and clearly corrupt, parliament. With middle class voters concerned over their president’s ability to control his tongue and keep his promises to protect the environment, there could be trouble ahead for those wanting a new constitution.

Chavez’s arrival comes as a mixed blessing for Correa. Wildly popular among the poor throughout Latin America, Chavez will consolidate and inspire Correa’s most devoted followers: the poor. Even though Chavez is unlikely to affect Correa’s support where he needs it most, that is, among the middle class, he arrives with real projects that promise to help Ecuador in the near to long term. The joint PDVSA-Petroecuador refinery that Venezuela will construct in Manabí will enable Ecuador to refine its own gas and gain a great degree of economic independence. Other agreements on economics that Correa and Chavez have signed and will sign in the coming days, will insure the same thing and consolidate regional unity.

But there are more significant problems facing the region as a whole, and these involve increasing divisions between Venezuela and Brazil. While Bolivarian Venezuela seeks to build an anti-imperialist, sustainable regional economic, social, political and military power, Brazil has increasingly flirted with the empire, most notably during George Bush’s recent visit to Brazil. Tensions increased when the Brazilian Parliament criticized President Chavez for not renewing RCTV’s license and, of course, Chavez shot back with his own criticism of Brazil’s Parliament, calling it “a parrot that repeats what Washington says.”

But the problem is not merely between Chavez and the Brazilian parliament. Worker Party President Lula of Brazil, one in whom many progressives vested great hopes when he was elected in 2002, has been touring the region with a rival agenda. While Chavez promotes a solidaristic sharing of fossil fuels with his neighbors for the development of national and regional economies, Lula is proposing, along with Bush, the use of biofuels in the countries he visits. While both are problematic in terms of the effects on the environment, biofuels have the additional problem of burning up food calories in an area where hunger is still a catastrophic problem. In addition, according to Ecuador´s newspaper, El Comercio (August 10, 2007), Lula “promoted closer commercial [relations] of Mercosur with Mexico, a country that is recognized as an intermediary of the United States.”

The problems confronting the anti-imperialist project of regional unity as envisioned nearly two centuries ago by Simon Bolívar and a hope for the masses of Latin America are still nascent and potentially surmountable. President Correa can still change his policy of effectively allowing the hunting of sharks in waters he swore to protect and Lula´s project of the cultivation of biofuels could go belly up as a result of a drought that could spell disaster not only for the Amazon forest, but also for Brazil’s agriculture ­ at best, a mixed blessing.

Nevertheless, at present the division between Latin America’s “neoliberal left,” which includes Uruguay, Peru, Chile and Brazil, allied with right wing regimes in Mexico and Colombia, and the anti-imperialist left, the “Axis of Good” as Chavez calls it, Bolivia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Cuba, is increasingly distinct and the gulf between what might now be emerging as two regional powers, could potentially grow. Nations like Argentina and others which, until now, have taken a middle course may find themselves increasingly having to choose one side or another. Perhaps this is precisely the designs the empire has for the future of Latin America.

CLIFTON ROSS is the co-editor of Voice of Fire: Communiques and Interviews of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (1994, New Earth Publications). His book, Fables for an Open Field (1994, Trombone Press, New Earth Publications), has just been released in Spanish by La Casa Tomada of Venezuela. His forthcoming book of poems in translation, Traducir el Silencio, will be published later this year by Venezuela´s Ministry of Culture editorial, Perro y Rana. Ross teaches English at Berkeley City College, Berkeley, California. He can be reached at .