When you can’t stamp out progressive social change, the next step is to try to desperately derail it or otherwise water it down. That’s exactly the kind of strategy being pursued right now by the likes of Condoleezza Rice, who recently concluded a South American tour designed to ostracize the bad countries, namely Venezuela, Bolivia, and increasingly Argentina, and to cultivate ties with the good countries such as Brazil and Chile.
Rice and her colleagues are alarmed because, notwithstanding their ideological differences, South American nations appear to be moving towards extensive political and economic integration. The only question now is which economic development model will predominate within the region and what the eventual complexion of integration will look like.
The vehicle for closer integration could well be Mercosur, a trading bloc of South American countries. At present the bloc’s members include Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay. Venezuela is in the process of joining the bloc, and a number of countries including Bolivia and Chile are associate members. Mercosur nations have declared their intention of forming a South American Community of Nations modeled after the European Union.
The bloc is beginning to take on political projects rather than pursuing strictly economic objectives. For example, Mercosur now has a European Union-styled regional parliament in Montevideo, and many Uruguayans hope their capital might evolve into the “Brussels of South America.” In a repudiation of Washington’s diktat, Mercosur nations openly debated what the future of free trade should be in South America during a heady 2007 summit.
In line with his usual penchant for over the top rhetorical flourishes, Hugo Chávez of Venezuela stressed the need for Mercosur to be “decontaminated” from the ravages of neo-liberal economics. Mercosur, noted the Venezuelan leader, was an “outdated mechanism and is leaking like a sieve.” The trade bloc, Chávez added, was “founded in the context of a free- market economic model and offers integration for the élites, for business, for transnational companies, not integration for the peoples.” Such remarks have riled the Bush White House which has come to distrust Mercosur, an entity which has acted to block the corporate-friendly Free Trade Area of the Americas.
Having woken up to the fact that its free trade and neo-liberal agenda for the region lies in tatters, and that wielding a Big Stick to defang its enemies cannot work politically in the present milieu, the Bush White House is now pursuing stealthy diplomacy. Rice’s strategy is to divide and rule, to contain radical social change and to steer it within acceptable boundaries.
These are important geopolitical developments which have largely fallen beneath the media radar screen. It’s a deficiency I seek to rectify in my new book, Revolution! South America and The Rise of The New Left (just released with Palgrave-Macmillan), based on extensive interviews with activists, intellectuals, political experts, and government officials in six countries throughout the region.
Venezuela and Brazil: Their Differing Visions for the Future
Officially, Venezuela and Brazil are close allies and are not vying for regional political control. But waning U.S. prestige has led to something of a power vacuum and the two countries are now pushing very different economic agendas. On the one hand, Brazil seeks to create economic opportunities for itself which in turn might offer advantages for smaller South American countries. Within President Lula’s scheme, these smaller nations would buy Brazilian goods and supply Brazil with energy resources. With Brazil as the hub of a southern bloc of countries, the region would head towards a more equitable development model mitigating the savage effects of globalization. Lula’s model is market-friendly though not explicitly “neo-liberal;” it is predicated upon government support for domestic companies which are intent on exploiting regional and global opportunities.
Lula’s agenda stands in contrast to that of Hugo Chávez who has overseen an avowedly socialist and strong statist approach to the economy. Rhetorically, Chávez rails against the market and globalization, thus sparking fear in Brazil that the Venezuelan leader will scare off investors from flocking to the region. Chávez would like to see a more “un-savage” version of globalization spread forth from Venezuela into neighboring countries.
In order to advance Venezuelan interests, Chávez provides development assistance and oil at discount prices to sympathetic regimes in the hemisphere. He has sought to bring Venezuela into Mercosur and hopes to subvert the bloc from within, presumably by shifting the entity’s focus from free trade to more equitable, reciprocal trade. Simultaneously however he has hedged his bets by promoting the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (known by its Spanish acronym ALBA), a scheme based on solidarity and barter trade outside of the usual corporate strictures.
Driving a Wedge between Brazil and Venezuela
Rice is trying to exploit these differences and to effectively drive a wedge through South America’s incipient left bloc. “Brazil has a president from the left. He’s one of America’s closest friends and partners in the region and on the globe. I will go on to Chile, another country where the president is from the left and again, we have excellent relations with Chile,” the Secretary of State remarked in an interview with Brazil’s Globo TV.
Now that South America is headed on a new trajectory which is more independent of Washington, Rice hopes that the “responsible” left as exemplified by Brazil’s Lula and Chile’s Bachelet will steer the region away from the likes of Venezuela’s Chávez and Bolivian President Morales. “This is not about where you are on the ideological spectrum,” she said. “It’s a question of: Do you respect democratic values and democratic institutions; are you working for the good of your people; are you working for the good of your neighbors. Those are the issues that are important to the United States, but it’s certainly not a matter of whether you come from the left or from the right.”
Rice then urged nations such as Venezuela to meet their United Nations obligations by keeping terrorists out of their territories. In sounding the alarm, Rice was merely parroting her boss who had earlier remarked that Venezuela’s response to the recent border crisis in Colombia and Ecuador was “the latest step in a disturbing pattern of provocative behavior by the regime in Caracas.” (In March, Chávez and Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, ordered troops to their Colombian borders and withdrew their ambassadors from Bogotá after Colombia killed a top rebel leader, Raúl Reyes, on Ecuadorean soil. During the raid, Colombia obtained computer hard drives that U.S. officials claim show the Venezuelan government may have had dealings with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which the U.S. labels a terrorist group). When she was asked whether the U.S. was considering designating Venezuela a state sponsor of terror, Rice declared: “We will watch the situation and act accordingly.”
From Bio Fuels to Free Trade
In the fight for geopolitical influence, energy politics looms large: that’s why the issue of bio fuels was at the top of Rice’s agenda during her Brazilian trip. In recent years, Brazil has become an energy giant by producing ethanol, a fuel made from sugar cane, which is even more environmentally destructive than oil in certain respects. It’s all part of Lula’s bid to rival Chávez, who has used oil for diplomatic and political advantage in the region.
In Brasilia, Rice discussed progress on an initiative launched by Bush last year to develop ethanol industries. At a press conference, she surprised the audience by seemingly becoming a born again environmentalist. Putting bio fuels on the map, she remarked, was “a way to deal with the terrible problems that we face in energy supply and climate change.”
Brazil would like to become a more important political player on the world stage, and Rice was careful to bring up the issue of United Nations Security Council reform. The South American giant has long hoped to obtain a permanent seat, and the Secretary of State offered the carrot of possible U.S. backing for the move.
In Chile, Rice sought to revive a long-standing, but largely dormant, strategic partnership between Chile and the U.S. state of California. State Department officials argue that both have complimentary economies; spokesman Sean McCormack said that a centerpiece of Rice’s visit was a proposed educational exchange program. For Rice it was important to visit Chile, a country with which the United States has a free trade agreement: the Bush White House hopes the accord will serve as a model for other free trade initiatives in the region, including a pending deal with Colombia.
Snubbing Argentina by Refusing To Set Foot in the Country
What is truly startling to consider is that Rice altogether skipped Argentina during her tour. That’s a monumental diplomatic snub of a major country within the region. What’s it all about?
Relations between the United States and Argentina have been plummeting ever since Bush’s first term. Argentina still blames the American-controlled International Monetary Fund for its financial collapse in late 2001 (Argentina was forced to default on billions of dollars in debt to the IMF).
In 2003 incoming President Néstor Kirchner played on anti-American sentiment as a means of consolidating leftist constituencies, while simultaneously becoming a key Chávez ally. When I was in Buenos Aires researching my book, I was truly amazed at the extent of the growing Venezuelan-Argentine alliance. The two nations now barter and trade everything from cattle, to oil, to agricultural products and ships.
In 2005, things got worse when, right in front of Bush, Kirchner criticized the neo-liberal policies of the 1990s that the United States sponsored. Kirchner delivered his riposte at a meeting of Latin American leaders in Mar del Plata. The Argentine president did little to stop anti-American protests, leading Bush to leave the summit feeling totally humiliated. In an effort to avoid further embarrassment, Bush avoided Argentina altogether during his South America tour last year, preferring instead to pay his respects to Brazil and Uruguay.
The White House hoped that things might turn around with last year’s election of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the former president’s wife. But then relations took a further nose dive when American prosecutors in Miami named four Venezuelans and one Uruguayan in connection with a plot to cover up $800,000 found in a suitcase at a Buenos Aires airport allegedly meant as a secret campaign contribution from Venezuela’s government to Kirchner. The new Argentine president lashed out at the U.S., calling the investigation “garbage operations.” Kirchner argued that the investigation was politically motivated and designed to drive a wedge between Argentina and Venezuela.
In retaliation, Kirchner restricted the diplomatic access of the American ambassador in Argentina, Anthony Wayne. Rubbing Bush’s face in the mud yet further, Kirchner has cultivated even greater ties to Chávez: the Argentine leader has continued to sell more consumer products to Venezuela as well as some $4 billion in Argentine bonds to help refinance the country’s debt. What’s more, energy-strapped Argentina will be the proud recipient of more than 10 million barrels of Venezuelan fuel oil and diesel per year.
What’s behind Argentina’s geopolitical maneuvers and what do the Kirchners want from Venezuela? Argentina seems to be playing a rather Byzantine game in an effort to offset Brazil’s big footprint in the Southern Cone. The Brazilians have always seen Mercosur and the Southern Cone as their backyard which offends Argentina’s sense of national pride. When Néstor Kirchner and now Cristina further ties to Venezuela, it’s a way of poking the eye of their northern neighbor.
To an extent, the growing rapprochement is also based on shared ideological affinity. Indeed, Néstor Kirchner once stressed that Mercosur needed to transcend its mere emphasis on economic growth. “We are not interested only in economic integration,” he remarked. “We are not interested in a region of the world where integration is full of poverty, exclusion and unemployment.”
Chávez to Brazilian Senate: “You’re Parrots”
For Chávez, the advantages of Argentine friendship are eminently clear. By securing important support from his ally to the south, Chávez makes it easier for Venezuela to join Mercosur and hopefully overcome Brazilian skittishness. That support has become more and more critical as Venezuela’s bid to join Mercosur has been held up and stalled. Though Argentina and Uruguay have ratified Venezuela’s bid, Paraguay and Brazil have still not agreed.
In Brazil, the biggest thorn in Chávez’s side has been the Senate, which was outraged by Venezuela’s refusal to renew Radio Caracas Televisión’s broadcast license; the station was a hotbed of opposition sentiment. Characteristically, Chávez flew off the handle and accused the Brazilian Senate of being subservient to the United States. In a move which hardly ingratiated himself amongst the Brazilian elite, Chávez said that the Senators were “puppets of the (U.S.) empire” and “oligarchs” more interested “in their pockets than the people.” Memorably, the Venezuelan leader said that the Senate was a “parrot that just mimics Washington.” Meanwhile, a Venezuelan negotiator remarked that the United States did not want “the strong bloc of the present Mercosur plus Venezuela leading the way to South American unity.”
Chávez’s outburst led the leader of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party in the Senate, Arthur Virgílio, to declare that his colleagues would try to prevent Venezuela’s entry into Mercosur. Both the Social Democracy Party and the Democrat Party declared that Venezuela could not be admitted to Mercosur because it was “a country that cannot respect disagreement in a civil fashion.” President Lula himself told Venezuela to mind its own business. In anger, Chávez issued an ultimatum, saying that Venezuela would withdraw its application to join Mercosur unless its bid was approved within three months. “We won’t wait any longer than that. The Brazilian and Paraguayan Congresses have no reason not to approve our entry: no political, legal, economic or moral reasons,” Chávez said. Incensed, Brazilian government officials retorted that they would not accept deadlines from anyone.
Contours of Further Integration Unclear
Despite such incendiary tit-for-tats, some experts believe that integration will eventually occur, even though it may take 30 or 40 years to complete the process. While in São Paulo researching my book I caught up with Valter Pomar, Secretary of International Relations with Brazil’s Workers’ Party. Regional integration, he said, would have a significant geopolitical impact because it “would take place within the context of a rising left movement. That is important, because the European Union was pushed for and created under conservative governments.”
Perhaps, but what will be the precise contours of economic and political integration? For the time being, the future is still plenty murky. Even if Venezuela becomes a member of Mercosur, the trade bloc faces daunting economic and political pressures which are far too complicated and arcane to even enumerate here. With Mercosur, and implicitly the South American Community of Nations future in some doubt, Chávez has turned his attention elsewhere.
By far the most enlightened and socially progressive initiative guiding South American integration today, Venezuela’s ALBA is designed to serve as a counterweight to free trade blocs. In particular, growing integration between Venezuela, Cuba, and Bolivia has led to important developments in health care which have benefited millions. On the other hand, ALBA has had little effect on the overall volume of trade between member nations. It’s difficult to see how particular South American nations, for example Brazil or Chile, would ever accept ALBA as a viable economic model. Meanwhile, Chávez’s plans to transform ALBA into some kind of a military alliance have foundered and gone nowhere as I have previously explained (see “`We Will Respond Jointly,’ Hugo Chávez’s Anti-Imperialist Army,” February 16/17, 2008).
Such lack of political clarity has given the White House a slight opening. Though the Bush administration is reviled throughout the region and Washington cannot hope to turn back the rising pink tide of progressive regimes, Rice believes she can mitigate Venezuelan influence by cutting bilateral energy and trade deals with individual South American countries. As long as Brazil and Venezuela play out their big power rivalry, smaller countries may choose to either wait on the sidelines or secure advantages from either Lula or Chávez based on their particular needs at any given time.
Despite his constant rhetorical outbursts directed at the likes of parrots within the Brazilian Senate, Chávez has expressed regret at the lack of overall diplomatic progress. If they are ever to achieve meaningful integration, the big powers of Venezuela, Argentina, and Brazil must find a way to resolve their differences. Up to now, all three have been engaged in a precarious geopolitical dance, an irony not lost on Chávez himself. Recently the Venezuelan leader remarked, “Neither Venezuela alone, nor Brazil alone, nor Argentina alone can become a world power. We can only achieve that together.”
NIKOLAS KOZLOFF is the author of Hugo Chávez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the U.S. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), and Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave Macmillan, April 2008).