Published in the Daily News (Sri Lanka) 19 February 2007
Analysis by Kalinga Seneviratne
While over 3000 American soldiers have died in President George W Bush’s war to “bring democracy “ to Iraq since 2003, a democratic revolution sweeping across Latin America during the same period has elected leftwing leaders who have no faith in the United States (US) prescribed neo-liberal “free market” economic model which has been imposed on them by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank in the past 30 years.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez who started the whole leftwing drift in America’s backyard more than 7 years ago, said to red flag waving supporters after being re-elected for a third time on a landslide in December: “No one should fear socialism. Socialism is human. Socialism is love. We need a new world”.
And the latest left wing elect President Rafael Correa of Ecuador said after being sworn in on January 14th that the “long neo-liberal night is coming to an end” adding that the derelict “moulding clay” democracy is over and “a sovereign, dignified, just and socialist Latin America is beginning to rise”.
Even President Ronald Reagan’s nemesis Nicaragua’s Sandanista leader Daniel Ortago, who fought US-backed Contra terrorists as President in the 1980s and was pushed out of power by a Washington backed opposition in 1990, swept back to power through the ballot box on November 8th and immediately spoke to President Chavez who has promised cheap oil and other aid to lift Nicaraua’s ailing economy after years of corruption scandals and misrule by three US-backed governments.
Latin America’s leftist parties, whom Washington ruthlessly suppressed throughout the 1970s and 1980s with the help of military dictators, are now making huge gains through the ballot box, which has put Washington in a quandary.
The leftist drift in US’s backyard started in 1999 with the election of the charismatic former paratrooper Chavez as the president of Venezuela. Seven years later it had become an avalanche with leftwing leaders in office in Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, Uruguay, Bolivia and Chile. While Peru’s left wing candidate Ollanta Humala won the fist round of balloting for the presidency, he failed to win the presidency in the run off last year in the midst of a lavish US-funded campaign by his right wing opponent. In July, Mexico’s left wing candidate for the presidency Lopez Obrador lost the election by a margin of less than 1 percent to his conservative opponent, and his supporters have so far refused to accept the results claiming the count was rigged with the support of the US administration.
Today’s domination of the continent’s political landscape by left-wing presidents is a far cry from the 1980s when almost all the countries were ruled by right wing (mainly military) dictators with strong backing from the US government. In addition to Chavez in Venezuela, Ortago in Nicaragua and Correa in Ecuador, there is former union leader Lula da Silva in Brazil, outspoken IMF-critic Nestor Kirchner in Argentina, Tabare Vasquez in Uruguay, US installed military dictator Augusto Pinochet’s former prisoner Dr Michelle Bachelet in Chile and staunchly anti-American indigenous leader Evo Morales in Bolivia.
Lately, President Bush’s neo-conservative supporters have become alarmed by these democratic victories in their own backyard, because it is throwing a serious challenge to neo-liberal economics promoted by US-controlled agencies such as the IMF and the World Bank, as well as “free trade” agreements which benefits rich business and exploits poor labour.
Grassroots people in their millions right across Latin America are saying that these free trade agreements and neo-liberal economics are not working for them. They see President Chavez’s populist “Bolivarian Revolution” which rejects corporate-led globalisation, and instead promotes grassroots political participation and economic self-sufficiency, as the role model for a global movement to alleviate poverty and injustice. As if to pus the point right up to its doorstep, President Chavez has launched an aggressive campaign to export his “Pink Revolution” to poverty-stricken communities in the US, offering free or discounted gas to America’s poorest citizens through CITGO, a subsidiary of Venezuela’s state oil company. He has saved a popular street festival Fiesta Boricua, last year by a US$100,000 donation from CITGO and has also offered to fly poor Americans without health cover to Cuba for medical treatment.
Thus, he’s winning followers especially among America’s Hispanics, as well as the impoverished Black communities. Last year, the Miami Herald, reported that fifteen “Bolivarian Circles” — the grassroots groups that form the basis of President Chavez’s social revolution in Venezuela — have sprung up in U.S. cities, including New York, Los Angeles and Boston.
In February last year in congressional testimony, Secretary of State Condelezza Rice said a “policy of inoculation” was necessary to diplomatically contain Chavez’s influence in the region.
“I don’t think social processes are exportable if discontent doesn’t exist in the first place” Venezuelan born Professor Miguel Tinker Salas, a historian at the Pomona College in California told America’s AlterNet news service recently, adding. “throughout the continent, there is a great level of social discontent that’s the product of 20 years of (failed) neo-liberal policy.”
But, American neo-conservatives are not impressed by that argument. After Ecuador’s President Correa announced in his first budget on February 1st a reduction of US$ 1 billion in foreign debt repayments, and channelled this money to double social benefits – such as education and healthcare – to more than a million of the country’s poorest, Stephen Johnson a senior policy analyst for the neo-conservative American think-tank The Heritage Foundation suggested that US should develop a policy to “counter incoming armies of Cuban doctors and Venezuelan security advisors”.
He argues that the US should “augment support for civil society groups while the opportunity exists and ramp up public diplomacy efforts to strengthen local voices proposing independent solutions to Ecuador’s poverty and governance troubles”.
But, its not only the Cuban and Venezuelans the Americans have to worry about, in recent months, the Bush administration has been showing increasing signs of getting rattled by China’s penetration into its backyard as well.
China has developed close economic relations with Latin America’s giant Brazil since President Lula da Silva came to power three years ago. So much so that Mandarin classes have become a growth industry in its most populous city Sao Paulo. Chinese and Brazilians have been building commuter jets together, exchanging military hardware and trading in a variety of other goods.
In 2005, China and Venezuela signed 17 bilateral agreements, among them deals for Chinese companies to explore for oil in Venezuela, which President Chavez described as “bilateral strategic partnership of common development”. Venezuela is the world’s fifth largest oil producer, and Chavez claimed last year that they have the world’s largest oil reserves.
Policy makers in Washington have finally woken up to the spectre of encroaching China and leftist victories in the region. Republican Congressman Dan Burton told the BBC late last year that they are concerned about the leftist governments’ dealings with China, whom he described as a “potential enemy of the US becoming a dominant force in this part of the world”. But, they are yet to admit that the root of the problem is the failure of the US-imposed neo-economics model to uplift the economic situation of the poor across the continent, and they are the one’s who have finally found a voice through the ballot box and are turning up in droves at polling booths to drive away from power corrupt, rich and failed conservative leaders. The dilemma for the US establishment is that these people are exercising the exact path the Americans have been preaching to the people in developing countries on how to get rid of repressive rulers – “put your faith in democracy and the ballot box”.