September 11, 1973: Chile’s Presidential palace is
bombed as a U.S.-backed coup overthrows the
democratically elected government
1. Latin America’s 9/11
To understand why President Bush was rebuffed — politely in some cases, less so in others — by the leaders of Latin America at the weekend, it may be worth remembering what September 11 has meant down south along the Andes. It was marked as a dark day by democratically minded people in South America long before 2001 — from 1973, onward, to be precise, because it was on September 11 that year that the democratically elected leftist president of Chile, Salvador Allende, was overthrown in a U.S. backed coup. It was 16 years before democracy was restored, and thousands of Chileans were tortured and murdered simply for their affiliation with parties of the type the Chilean electorate (and the electorates of Argentina, Brazil and others in the neighborhood) have voted into power once again, now that they’re free to choose. We’ll return to the implications in a moment.
2. Bush vs. Chavez and Maradona is “Celebrity Death Match,” Not Real Politics
Much of the U.S. media may have bought into the feeble White House spin portraying Bush’s rebuff by Latin America at the weekend as a points victory over Hugo Chavez (supposedly because despite the tens of thousands of protestors on the streets, the governments agreed to keep talking about trade despite declining to sign on to Washington’s initiative). But Chavez vs. Bush was never the contest, except perhaps in the fantasies of the two men. And spare us march leader Diego Maradona, football genius and legendary cheat, latterday more or less permanent resident of rehab and late night talkshow host. I guess the event did take place a couple of days after Halloween. (Another featured speaker was Evo Morales, the Bolivian coca — as in cocaine — farmer and Chavez acolyte who looks set to be elected president in Bolivia next month).
Chavez, Mardona and Morales are not the face of the Latin American Left, however. That title may be more appropriately used for many of the self-same leaders with whom Bush was conferring behind closed doors at the summit and after. The continent’s electorate has reacted to the failure of free market policies to generate jobs and close the world’s worst income disparities by electing left-wing governments in Latin America’s most economically powerful nations — Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Venezuela. Mexico, of course, has a center-right government, but the left is expected to win the next election there, too.
For the governing left in Latin America, Chavez’s antics are a guilty pleasure — the sort of provocative posturing to irritate the Yanquis that only one of their major oil suppliers could get away with . (Frankly, my suspicion is that even Fidel Castro is a little embarrassed by Chavez’s demagoguery — because the Venezuelan leader claims to be mimicking his Cuban hero — but he’s not about to go rebuking the man who controls his own lifeline to cheap oil, now is he?)
Autarchy is not an option for those without massive oil incomes, and nobody’s about to try and reprise the Cuban model, which was a creature of time and place (enabled, to a large extent, by an $8 billion annual Soviet subsidy that translated into an annual stipend of close to $1,000 per citizen). And besides, Latin America’s new leftist governments are quite different from Castro in their approach to questions of democracy — it was in civil society that they regrouped in the wake of the repression of Pinochet and others, so they’re products of a reality quite at odds with the authoritarian party culture of Cuba. And the governing Left is all too aware of the need to not only remain plugged in to the global economy, but to expand that integration by attracting billions of dollars of investments.
So while they may be as implacably opposed to the Bush agenda as Chavez is, they have to remain at the table and negotiate for better terms. Of course, they’re aware that their economic prospects are not only tied to their ability to deal with the U.S. They’re hedging mightily by dramatically expanding their trade and investment links with the European Union, and particularly with China. (Nowhere is the extent to which U.S. influence has declined during the Bush years as evident as it is right now in its old “back yard.”) But they can’t simply walk away; they need to engage with corporate America.
3. For the Latin Ameican Left, Chavez’s Antics are a Guilty Pleasure
They don’t identify with his personality cult demagoguery or his authoritarian streak. but Latin America’s mainstream leftists have to take a certain guilty pleasure in Chavez’s ability to get up the nose of the Yanquis. If he’s a Mandela figure, it’s Winnie rather than Nelson. But he sure is annoying Bush, and they’ll look warmly on his defiance of U.S. influence in the region. (Because in their very bitter experience, U.S. influence in the region has not been a good thing.) Indeed, the Chavez effect right now may actually echo the Castro effect of the past four decades, where even center-right governments in Latin America respected and admired the Cuban leader for refusing to buckle to U.S. pressure. It went beyond ideology to a kind of nationalist sentiment.
While Chavez played bad cop along with Maradona out in the streets, the likes of Kirschner, Lula and Lagos could play good cop inside the summit.
4. Does Bush Think Latin Americans are Stupid, or Just Amnesiac?
“Only a generation ago, this was a continent plagued by military dictatorship and civil war,” Bush intoned in Brazil on Sunday. “Yet the people of this continent defied the dictators, and they claimed their liberty… Freedom is the gift of the Almighty to every man and woman in this world — and today this vision is the free consensus of a free Americas.”
Right, and where was Washington? Many of the same leaders with whom Bush met at the summit were in prison, or buried their friends and colleagues murdered for their activism, and faced the constant threat of murder and torture for standing up to dictatorship. And in most instances, they were fighting dictators backed by the United States.
Chile’s President Ricardo Lagos is a case in point: He was imprisoned by Washington’s man, Pinochet. Yes, he wants a trade deal with the U.S. But you can hold the democracy lecture, thank you.
Whereas President Clinton had the good grace and sense to recognize the harm done by his predecessors in Latin America and apologize for U.S. failures to apply its own values in dealing with the continent, Bush has simply reverted to type. His national intelligence czar, for example, is John Negroponte, better known in Latin America for his years running some pretty nasty covert operations out of the U.S. embassy in Tegucigalpa and covering up human rights abuses by the U.S. backed Honduran security forces. His Middle East adviser is Elliott Abrams, veteran of the Iran-Contra scandal. He nominated hardline Cuban exile veterans such as Otto Reich to top positions in the State Department concerning Latin America, and nobody in the region was surprised that, despite the democratic consensus praised by Bush, the administration appeared to initially support or at least accept a coup attempt against Chavez a couple of years ago.
Either Bush just doesn’t get it, or he doesn’t care: For many of the leaders of the new democracies whose emergence he praised last weekend, the United States does not symbolize freedom and democracy. Indeed, in the tradition of September 11, 1973 — which Bush doesn’t appear to be inclined to publicly repudiate, even if he’s moved on from them — Presidents Kirschner, Lula, Lagos and Andrés Manuel López Obrador (likely next president of Mexico) would once have had more reason to expect to be overthrown in U.S.-backed coups than to be negotiating trade deals with Washington. So, yes, much has changed — but on both sides of the equation.