In a careless slip of the tongue in August, 2006 Virginia Senator George Allen shot himself in the foot and ended his political career. During a campaign rally Allen pointed to a man of Indian descent and remarked “This fellow here, over here with the yellow shirt, macaca, or whatever his name is. He’s with my opponent. He’s following us around everywhere. And it’s just great.”
Allen’s supporters began to laugh.
“Let’s give a welcome to macaca, here,” the Senator added. “Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia.”
The word macaca is an ethnic slur meaning either a monkey that inhabits the Eastern Hemisphere or a town in South Africa. In some European cultures, macaca is also considered a racial slur against African immigrants.
Allen’s infamous outburst was captured on video and circulated widely on the internet after the footage was posted on YouTube. The Senator’s campaign manager dismissed the issue with an expletive and insisted the Senator had “nothing to apologize for.” But once the story started to circulate, Allen sought to salvage his career by claiming that the word had no derogatory meaning for him. He then said he was sorry.
The issue however did not go away. S.R. Sidarth, the man who Allen had slurred, remarked that he suspected the Virginia politician singled him out because he was the only nonwhite face amongst about 100 Republican supporters. “I think he was doing it because he could, and I was the only person of color there, and it was useful for him in inciting his audience,” Sidarth remarked. “I was annoyed he would use my race in a political context.”
Allen’s stunning gaffe contributed to his defeat in the 2006 election when the veteran politician lost against long-shot Democrat Jim Webb. Some Republican strategists believe that Allen might have been a contender for the 2008 Republican presidential ticket if he had not made his macaca gaffe.
Racist Rhetoric in Bolivia
Such ethnic slurs have no place in modern politics and yet the United States continues to openly support backward and racist figures in South America who hurl such insults with wanton abandon.
Take for example the case of Rubén Costas, an opposition figure in Bolivia. Speaking to his followers last month, Costas called indigenous socialist President Evo Morales a “macaca.” Costas has also insulted Morales as an “animal” and a “monkey.”
Fair skinned and European looking, Costas hardly resembles Bolivia’s indigenous president Morales. Elected Prefect of the energy-rich, western department of Santa Cruz in 2005, Costas has become a key advocate for greater regional autonomy and a thorn in the side of the La Paz government.
Costas, like many of his white and mestizo racist followers, regard the Indians in the highlands with contempt. The Santa Cruz politician would like to retain control over the lucrative gas industry and deprive the cash-strapped government in La Paz of much needed revenue.
Following Costas’ election, the right opposition escalated its pressure on the Morales government, organizing protests in the city of Sucre against the President’s proposed Constitution which would have given the country’s indigenous majority a greater say in political decision making. An advocate for powerful business interests, Costas was also one of the right wing politicians who called for a referendum on autonomy for Santa Cruz. When 85% of the residents of Santa Cruz voted for autonomy, Morales called the vote illegal and nonbinding.
A demagogic populist who likes to stir ethnic hatreds, Costas continued to up the ante last month. As a result of Morales’ victory in an August 10 recall referendum, the Santa Cruz politician called the President “murderous” and demanded that Morales cease his “bullying.”
Speaking in a plaza full of his supporters, Costas said Bolivia should say “no to the big foreign monkeys.” It was an obvious racial barb aimed at Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, a key Morales ally [physically, Chávez has indigenous-African features].
When asked by the Brazilian magazine Terra whether he would retract his statements about Chávez, Costas remarked “I don’t regret it at all.” The Santa Cruz politician said that “monkey” was based on the concept of gorilismo, “a term which is very common in Latin America to refer to soldiers. We can’t forget that Hugo Chávez is a military coup plotter who has turned himself into a neo-populist.”
Our Man in Bolivia
Even as he was escalating the racist rhetoric, Costas sought importantly allies. On August 25th, he met with U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg. Though the diplomat claimed that he had met Costas in public while on a routine trip to Santa Cruz, the meeting provoked suspicion amongst Bolivians that the United States was supporting the lowland opposition movement. A portion of U.S. aid to Bolivia is directed towards eastern provincial governments that are the nexus of opposition to Morales.
The La Paz government, desperately fighting to keep the country together, expelled Goldberg and accused him of conspiring with the conservative opposition. Having made a blunder and seriously imperiled U.S.-Bolivian relations, the State Department made things worse by retaliating and expelling the Bolivian ambassador to Washington. Coming to the aid of a friend, Chávez ordered the expulsion of the U.S. ambassador in Caracas. Predictably, the State Department again seriously erred, this time by expelling the Venezuelan ambassador.
The diplomatic tit-for-tat brings political tensions to new heights. Last week, anti-Morales sentiment reached a crescendo when protesters burned government offices in Santa Cruz. Anti-government activists also took over several natural gas installations in the east. Morales, who called the protests a “civil coup,” ordered additional troops to the eastern provinces to secure gas and oil installations. The protesters have been fighting Morales supporters with clubs, machetes and guns. In all, more than 30 people have died in the fighting.
Even Virginia Senator George Allen, a politician with a long history of making racist comments, ultimately realized that he had made a mistake and apologized at long last. Not so Rubén Costas, a figure who is unabashed about his views. Far from shunning racist leaders like Costas, the United States has embraced the Bolivian opposition. By doing so, the Bush White House has seriously inflamed U.S.-South American relations even more.
NIKOLAS KOZLOFF is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008)