For George Bush, the March 1 anti-terror strike by the Colombian air force under U.S. guidance on a FARC guerrilla camp deep in the Ecuadorian jungle had everything to do with legacy.
During eight years in the White House, Bush’s war on Iraq so absorbed his attention that for once in three centuries of Yanqui hegemony, Latin America has breathing room to shore up common defenses against the Colossus of the North, build alliances, as the pendulum swings left from neoliberalism, and even elect some social democratic presidents.
“We’re back!” U.S. Undersecretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Tom Shannon greeted the crowd at the Council of the Americas in New York on April 2, signaling renewed Bush government interest in the Western Hemisphere. Not that the U.S. had ever really been away: “Our influence is not diminishing–it’s just changing,” the undersecretary argued before his well-heeled audience, most with serious fiduciary interests south of the border. Shannon conceded that the administration’s temporary inattention had created a vacuum that “offered an enormous opportunity to articulate one vision”–a long-winded euphemism for the hated Hugo Chavez. But now Chavez’s space was “shrinking,” and with Colombia (the key U.S. proxy on the continent), Brazil (neutered by Lula’s ambition), Peru, Chile and Mexico back on board, “together we can overcome our recent history.”
What seemed most significant on Shannon’s shopping list of new and old accomplices were the absences: Argentina, for example, the third largest economy in Latin America and an important player in the southern continent’s tilt to the left, where Peronist Social Democrat Cristina Fernández de Kirchner succeeds her Social Democrat husband Nestor. The Kirchners have been in the Bush doghouse since they helped torpedo his neoliberal pipedream ALCA (Free Trade Treaty of the Americas) at a 2005 Summit of the Americas in Mar de Plata.
To complicate Cristina Kirchner’s investiture, U.S. authorities in Miami and Washington charged that the dreaded Chavez had financed her campaign. The scenario was a twisted one. On the eve of Cristina’s inauguration last November, Argentinean customs agents in Buenos Aires confiscated $800,000 from a Venezuelan “businessman” living in Florida, Guido Antonini Wilson. The ultimate destination of the money was obscure.
Although the investigation into the origins of the boodle was strictly within Argentinean jurisdiction, FBI agents in Miami promptly arrested four Venezuelans suspected to have been involved in the affair for failure to register as Chavez’s agents. Wilson himself was not indicted, having worn an FBI wire in order to implicate the others. Despite the lack of credible evidence, the story that Washington is broadcasting to the continent is that Hugo Chavez, the Saddam of South America, bought the Argentine presidency for Cristina Kirchner.
“We’re back!” Tom Shannon declared, and Cristina Kirchner’s first 100 days were troubled by mischief that had a distinctly made-in-U.S.A. whiff. As the 32nd anniversary of the installation of the military junta–that set off years of dirty war in which as many as 30,000 Argentinean leftists disappeared–approached, agribusiness tycoons, miffed at a 9 per cent tax Kirchner had slapped on soaring soy exports, hired armies of goons to block the nation’s highways and shut down commercial traffic in and out of Argentina. The shelves of Buenos Aires supermarkets quickly went bare.
Thirty two years ago, according to an account by the Argentinean journalist Stella Callone, one of the organizers of the lockout, Sociedad Rural (Rural Society), financed the military junta that seized power on March 23, 1976. The road blockades brought back bad dreams. The 1976 coup had been preceded by a similar lockout.
“Pintas” (wall slogans) were slapped on the walls of Buenos Aires: “Volvere Videla!”. General Videla headed the junta. On March 23-24, 2008 the anniversary of the junta’s coup, thousands of upscale housewives gathered in the Plaza de Mayo in front of the Casa Rosada, the Argentine White House, and staged a “cacerolazo”–beating on pots and pans in support of the striking tycoons.
The cacerolazos brought back memories of middle class housewives’ marches in Santiago that led up to the 1973 assassination of Chilean socialist President Salvador Allende, a U.S.-overseen enterprise. More recently, in Bolivia and Venezuela, the CIA’s apptoach has been to encourage such mobilizations of the “gente decente” (the “decent people”) against the socialist regimes of Evo Morales and Hugo Chavez.
Curiously, as the cacerolazos clattered in the plazas of Buenos Aires, leaders of the Latin American right were gathered in Rosario Argentina at an “Encounter of Young Leaders,” hosted by former right-wing Spanish Premier Jose Mara Aznar. Among his guests were Bolivian ex-president Jorge “Tuto” Quiroga; the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, now a Spanish citizen; and Roger Noriega who once occupied Shannon’s post and was the late Jesse Helm’s hatchet man in Latin America.
Tuto’s stay in Rosario struck a familiar chord. Well-to-do agroindustrialists in Bolivia’s four breakaway eastern provinces, known collectively as the Media Luna (half moon), had been blocking roads and borders for days to protest President Evo Morales’ edict banning exports of cooking oil until domestic demand was met. The secessionist provinces–Santa Cruz, Tariya, Beni, and Pando–hold much of Bolivia’s natural gas wealth, the second largest such deposits in Latin America, and wield clout in Washington. Demanding autonomy from the central government, provincial leaders who represent the oligarchy and are universally white in a majority Indian nation, reject Morales’ new constitution and have put Bolivia on a civil war footing. One item gaining traction in the Latin press has the bloodthirsty Colombian paramilitary AUC (Autonomous Units of Colombia) training secessionist troops for eventual hostilities. Both the Catholic Church and Bolivia’s immediate neighbors seek a negotiated settlement, but the secessionists have refused talks.
Across the Chaco to the east, U.S. Special Forces are garrisoned at Mariscal Estagarribia, [Paraguay, strategically positioned to keep an eye on the purportedly terrorist-ridden Triple Frontier (Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay) at Iguazu Falls, the largest fresh water reserve on the continent, and the breakaway Bolivian provinces.
Much to Shannon and President Bush’s consternation, Paraguay, with the deepest income divide in the southern hemisphere, may well become Latin America’s latest left domino in upcoming April 20 presidential elections, as former Catholic bishop Fernando Lugo is favored to upset the Colorado Party, the longest ruling dynasty (61 years) in the Americas.
On a Mexican swing last fall, Lugo insisted that if elected, he would shut down the U.S. military operation in Paraguay much as Ecuador’s Rafael Correa has vowed to do with the U.S. drug war installation at Manta. The of losing bases on the Latin mainland naturally causes alarm in Washington, D.C. In a desperate maneuver to keep Lugo from the presidency, the U.S. Embassy generated alarm by charging that the Colombian FARC is operating in San Pedro, the ex-Bishop’s ex-diocese.
Although Lugo has advertised his support for Hillary Clinton and Venezuela’s Chavez hopes that relations with the White House will improve once the present occupant has departed, a change in mindset at the Casa Blanca seems unlikely. Bush’s potential successors have had little to say about the future of bilateral relations with the countries of the south. All three denounce Chavez. Republican John McCain calls him a “thug” and has promised to topple the Venezuelan strongman if elected.
The White House’s aggressiveness in pushing for a free-trade agreement with Colombia is payback for years of loyal service as Washington’s most assiduous proxy in the region. As did Bill Clinton (still lobbying hard for it), the present commander-in-chief regards the trade agreement as a crucial matter of national security and tries to frame the debate for passage in Cold War terms: the Free Market vs. Chavez’s 21st Century Socialism. Democrats who won’t support the FTA are redbaited as Chavistas and supporters of narco-terrorists. But, despite the risks, many Dems [spell out] are reluctant to give in on Free Trade. Big Labor has conditioned its support for the candidates on a continuing “No” vote.
Just how deeply the FTA issue has contaminated Clinton’s campaign was embarrassingly spotlighted by the resignation of Mark Penn as Hillary’s chief advisor. The departure of Penn, chief of the powerful PR lobbyshop Burson-Marsteller, who had signed on with Colombia to lobby the Free Trade Agreement through congress despite his boss’s outspoken opposition (at least in rust bowl states like Ohio and Pennsylvania) has Clinton’s campaign in a tizzy.
Failure to move the FTA through the U.S. Congress will put one more tear in George Bush’s tattered Latin legacy. Bush desperately needs passage to validate not only his doctrine in Latin America but James Monroe’s as well.
But George Bush’s real legacy continues to exhort the Latin masses from the balconies of Miraflores Palace in downtown Caracas. Despite eight years of foiled plots to remove Chavez from office, to fund the opposition and foment coups, and even kidnap the comandante, he remains at the helm of state, and Shannon’s “shrinking space” seems delusionary. Painted by the Bushites as a totalitarian, when ambushed by a “No” vote on a cherished referendum that would have extended his stay in power, Chavez chose to accept the “No” to underscore his democratic credentials.
Chavez’s people are wary. “This is Bush’s most dangerous moment,” worries Venezuelan Communications Minister Andres Izarra. Prospects for a Bay of Pigs or Panama Deception-like invasion are still on the White House drawing board, although all sides know that such a desperate aggression would spell suicide–Venezuela provides Bush with 1.5 million barrels of black gold daily and is Washington’s fourth largest supplier. Indeed, without Chavez’s oil, Bush’s war in Iraq would be grounded.
In times of stress, President Chavez has often threatened a cutoff of U.S. shipments, his ultimate weapon. Meanwhile, threats of a new aggression by Washington may well be met by Venezuela with a demand for payment in euros and not worthless US dollars. Meanwhile, Hugo Chavez remains politically incorrect–at least in Washington’s vision–financing elections of left candidates up and down the continent, underwriting Mercosur, and re-nationalizing industries that were once privatized, with zeal. Two Mexican billionaires have been recently buffeted–Lorenzo Zembrano, whose CEMEX cement conglomerate the comandante nationalized in preparation for a major housing program, and Carlos Slim, Forbes magazine’s richest [although, he is not magazine’s richest man, but he is riches man according to this magazine] man on earth, who last year lost the recently purchased CANTV phone company to Chavez.
Arriving for a state visit in Mexico on April 11, the sixth anniversary of the failed U.S. coup against his ally Chavez, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa cautioned Washington: “I hope they understand that Latin America has changed and that change is irreversible.”
JOHN ROSS is in Mexico City and can be reached at email@example.com.