CLASSIC REPORTS FROM
The fracture lines grow deeper
(First published June 2005. The republication of this excellent analysis is recommended because of recent events in Latin America. Good journalism is very often timeless in its clarity and impact, and Le Monde Diplomatique, headed by veteran journalist and radical intellectual Ignacio Ramonet, is a constant fount of such gems.)
The United States is increasingly unpopular in much of Latin America and presidents that were US allies have recently been forced from office. Carlos Mesa of Bolivia is the latest to be pressured into resignation because he could no longer govern the country.
By Maurice Lemoine
THE story goes that any journalist who arrived in La Paz in Bolivia used to head for the hotel facing the government palace across Murillo Square and ask for a room with a “view of the coup d’état”. Now, early in the 21st century, there is likely to be a new legend: that any president taking office always takes the precaution of asking for a room in the palace with direct access to the helicopter pad. As with Argentina’s Fernando de la Rúa in 2001 and Bolivia’s Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada in 2003, a helicopter saved Ecuador’s president Lucio Gutiérrez when he fled the Carondelet palace on 20 April.
It was a sad end for a man who had once seemed to be in the right place at the right time. Gutiérrez, then a colonel, was one of the leaders of the brief coup that backed a popular revolution, widely supported by Ecuadorian Indians, which overthrew President Jamil Mahuad in January 2000. Gutiérrez, too hastily called an “Ecuadorian Chávez”, spent six months in prison and was thrown out of the army.
Then he won the presidential election of November 2002, in alliance with the Pachakutik movement, the political arm of the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Andes (Conaie), the powerful organisation representing impoverished indigenous peoples (1). But, in a few months, Gutiérrez betrayed all his supporters, starting with the ministers from the Pachakutik movement, then subscribed to the views of the International Monetary Fund and described himself as President George Bush’s greatest ally in the region.
Gutiérrez engaged in unpopular measures and underhand political manoeuvring, and went too far. On 8 December 2004 a subservient parliamentary majority restructured the Supreme Court, replacing 27 of its 31 judges. On 31 March the recently appointed judges threw out the cases against former presidents Gustavo Noboa, accused of corruption and removed from office in February 1997, and Abdalá Bucaram, obliged to leave office in the middle of an investigation into the embezzlement of public funds. The return to Ecuador of these two, from exile in Panama and the Dominican Republic respectively, prompted an insurrection.
Abandoned by the army, in which there was deep unease, Gutiérrez was then discarded by the Congress: 60 out of 100 members left him, to avoid falling with him. The legal justification given – that Gutiérrez abandoned his post (having “failed to respect the constitution”) – seems doubtful to many. The US had been supportive of its ally until the last minute, but decided to let Gutiérrez take the rap. Preserving the institutions and the legitimacy of the political system became everyone’s priority.
In a Latin America that has too long been dominated by liberal fundamentalism – with 225 million people in poverty, 43.9% of the population – governments are sitting on a potential explosion. Despite guard dogs determined to preserve the status quo, who bark things like “Accept your situation” (2), the days when people were resigned to their lot seem to have passed. People say things like: “Social justice? It’s getting closer with every day, just like the line of the horizon.”
For the first time since the 1960s several leftwing governments – Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Venezuela – are seeking to change these republics without citizens, societies that have as their trademarks social contempt and exclusion.
But Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, along with Fidel Castro, is the only president to advocate a development model that differs substantially from the Washington consensus. Challenged across the hemisphere, the US is trying to respond by boosting staunch allies: Mexico and central America, and the Andean countries where Colombia and Ecuador under Gutiérrez held a key position (as did Sánchez de Lozada’s Bolivia).
Since the 1990s the US offensive has taken the form of free trade agreements, starting with the North American Free Trade Agreement (Nafta) (3) and culminating in the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), meant to spread ultra-liberalism throughout the continent this January. But the plan has been dogged by opposition from the social movements in the campaign against the FTAA, rejection by the Common Market of the South (Mercosur) (4), and opposition from Venezuela.
To get around those difficulties, the US hastily signed bilateral agreements with central America and the Dominican Republic (Central American Free Trade Agreement, Cafta), Ecuador, Colombia and Peru (5). As with the former FTAA, these agreements cover both economic issues and state management, employment law, intellectual property, the environment, natural and energy resources, health and education. In the pseudo-negotiations the Latino countries are allowed to make only a few amendments, with no concession from the US on the substance and in the US interest only.
Faced with this almost blatant neo-colonisation, ordinary people grumble – “I think they will end up privatising the state” or “If things go on like this, we will wake up one morning to find the country belongs to Coca-Cola”. There is much opposition in central America. In Peru and Ecuador petitions are being organised to compel governments to consult the people on the agreements. In Bolivia pressure from social organisations has prevented the authorities from total locura capitalista (total capitalist folly).
But the recent overthrow of the Bolivian and Ecuadorian heads of state has left future prospects uncertain and ambiguous. As had happened in Argentina in December 2000, Ecuadorians took the streets shouting “¡Que se vayan todos!” (out with them all). The uprising included different social classes and was organised by the people – the free radio stations played a key role – without involving the parties and political leadership, just as had happened in La Paz and Buenos Aires. Even Conaie and the Pachakutik movement were sidelined, their leaders accused of working with the Gutiérrez government, albeit briefly.
Bolivia replaced Sánchez de Lozada with his vice-president Carlos Mesa (who does not belong to any party), and Ecuador has replaced Gutiérrez with his deputy Alfredo Palacio (a doctor with no political affiliations). Neither of them enjoys any great support.
In Argentina, in similar circumstances, the exercise of power by Nestor Kirchner, a Peronist who moved to the centre-left, proved a pleasant surprise. His government stood up to the IMF and declared a moratorium on private debt, which ended this March after creditors agreed to waive 65.6% of what they were owed. On 10 March Kirchner called for a boycott of Shell and Esso for increasing fuel prices by 3% and this was immediately relayed by hundreds of demonstrators occupying service stations. But there has been little improvement in the worrying social situation.
In Ecuador the new president, Alfredo Palacio, is taking over the reins of a country in a difficult situation. Either out of conviction or in response to popular pressure, the minister for the economy, Rafael Correa, has said that the trade agreements must be respected but that Ecuador should not be dictated to (6). The interior minister, Manuel Gándara, has announced that the negotiations on free trade agreements have been suspended and that all mining and oil prospecting contracts are to be reviewed. He said Ecuador would distance itself from Plan Colombia and consider cancellation of the agreement signed in 1999 that accords the US a military base in Manta; 500 US soldiers operate in this strategic base of the US Army’s Southern Command, targeted on Colombian guerrillas. But after lunching with the US ambassador, Kristie Kenney, Palacio was forced to retreat on that issue. Bolivia all over again?
In Bolivia an initial water war against the effect of privatisation, followed by a gas war (80 dead and 500 injured) for the same reasons forced ultra-liberal Sánchez de Lozada to flee (7). On 18 July 2004 his successor Carlos Mesa, backed by Evo Morales’s Movement to Socialism (MAS), the main opposition party, organised a gas referendum in which most people voted for the state to retake possession of the hydrocarbon sector. The social movement united around four demands. It wanted a constituent assembly convened, like the founding act of the Bolivarian revolution in Venezuela; the FTAA and/or free trade agreements rejected; the transnational water company Aquas del Illimani (Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux) expelled; and the adoption of a law on hydrocarbons introducing, among other things, a 50% tax, approved by the referendum, on their exploitation by transnational consortia.
But, trapped between social dissent and the strictures of IMF, the World Bank and the multinationals, and after 10 months of polemic, Carlos Mesa claimed that the law was impossible to bring into force, as the international community did not accept it (8). He reluctantly allowed the president of Congress to adopt the law on 17 May, although the most radical sectors of the popular movement are still calling for nationalisation. He was no longer able to govern and his resignation was accepted on June 10.
The opposition may have gained a power of veto as a result of widespread civil disobedience, but it has not necessarily been bolstered. Lacking ideology and popular support, the “traditional” political parties are playing no more than a secondary role. Even radical leaders such as Felipe Quispe (Pachakutik Indigenous Movement, MIP) and Morales, who are personally criticised for having initially entered into an agreement with Mesa, are threatened with community justice if they betray the recently concluded pact for the dignity and sovereignty of the Bolivian people.
The same could soon happen in Peru where the catastrophe of Alberto Fujimori was replaced with the disaster of Alejandro Toledo. Roadblocks, public buildings taken over, aborted armed action, on 1 January, by a group of ultra-nationalist reservists (the Etnocacerista movement) and clashes with the police and army; the corruption that is affecting all layers of society and the disastrous social situation are prompting a debate – should Toledo be left in power until 2006 or should be removed earlier? Here again there is no obvious political successor, as both the political parties and their leaders are rejected.
Nicaragua was shaken in April and May by violent demonstrations against the rise in fuel prices, and more than 80 out of 152 mayors called on President Enrique Bolanos to resolve the energy problems or resign, but there is no guarantee that the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) would be able to govern if it came to power. The FSLN is in serious crisis, the result of a lack of internal democracy, which has alienated many of its former militants or supporters.
In these situations there is uncertainty and the threat of chaos rather than the emergence of real alternatives. None the less, as it loses its allies one by one, the US is on the defensive. According to General Bantz Craddock, chief of the Southern Command, “in Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru, distrust of and lack of faith in failed institutions fuel the emergence of anti-US, anti-globalisation and anti-free-market demagogues” (9). Even worse, the Brazil-Argentina-Uruguay-Venezuela axis (in the case of Venezuela, with Cuba in the wings) is scuppering all attempts of the US State Department to regain control.
In July 2004 at Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the US put to the general assembly of the Organisation of American States (OAS) the idea of amending the inter-American democratic charter to make it possible to isolate countries gradually moving from democracy, or even intervene in them. Venezuela was the target. It was greeted with only a polite smile. At the meeting of defence ministers on 16-18 November 2004 in Quito, Venezuela, Brazil and Bolivia rejected, on the basis of the principle of non-interference, US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s claim, backed by the Colombian and central American leadership, that it was necessary to implement a new idea of preventive security and form a Latin American multinational force – under the Pentagon’s command.
Even in the Colombia of Alvaro Uribe Vélez, the US’s most loyal vassal, US policy is marking time. Despite $3.3bn in military aid to Bogota in the past six years, the supply of some 65 Blackhawk and Huey helicopters and the formation of three elite battalions, the army is dogged by internal conflict.
The most ambitious offensive launched against the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), Plan Patriot, an operation involving 17,000 soldiers in the south, could not cope with the guerrillas. They had the advantage of speed and surprise and defeated the large battalions in the mountains and jungle. When the US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, on a visit to Bogota on 27 April, announced the official end of Plan Colombia, but not US aid, government troops were taking a severe beating in the southwest and there was a crisis in the army. Four high-ranking generals were relieved of their duties (10), exposing deep rifts within an institution traumatised by the changes in doctrine imposed by the Pentagon and by its own failure on the ground.
There is another large thorn in the side of the US. Rice said in February that Venezuela was having a “destabilising influence” in Latin America. The strong diplomatic pressure on Venezuela’s neighbours to get them to persuade Chávez to moderate his policies in line with the “Lula” model (11) is not working – he is not a man to be manipulated. When Rice set out on a tour of Chile, Brazil, Colombia and El Salvador on 26 April, she was unable to elicit the slightest criticism in Brasilia of the Bolivarian revolution and met with the same polite refusal in Santiago.
Not that Chávez’s policy of breaking with the US is welcome to his neighbours. He describes the Mercosur integration model as subject to the diktats of capitalism and mercantile logic; he does not therefore share the view of Brazil, which has converted to “realism” and been congratulated by the IMF. Chávez tirelessly advocates the setting up of the Bolivarian alternative for the Americas (12), integration with a strong social element. On 4 March he went so far as to declare: “We must invent the new socialism for the 21st century. Capitalism is not a model for sustainable development.”
But these countries do share the same objectives when it comes to strengthening the South American Community of Nations (13), which came into being on 8 December 2004, and an international order that rejects unilateralism and is based on the equality of the states. The economic agreements in the energy and industrial sectors do the rest. Every year Venezuela imports $5bn in goods and services from the US for its oil industry. In future Chávez wants 25% to come from Argentina and Brazil. And whatever they think about it, these heads of state have to keep the working class happy. It is well known that the Argentine piqueteros and Brazilian landless peasants feel they are better represented by Chávez than by their own presidents.
The worst was still to come for the US. Since October 2004 the OAS has been leaderless as a result of the resignation of its short-lived (just 17 days) secretary general Miguel Angel Rodriguez, former president of Costa Rica. He was caught in a corruption scandal and prosecuted in Costa Rica, accused of taking bribes of $4.2m from the French company Alcatel. There were three candidates to replace him: Mexican Luis Ernesto Derbez, a conservative, foreign minister and former World Bank consultant; the Chilean interior minister, José Miguel Insulza, former adviser to Salvador Allende, who has held office since being appointed foreign minister in 1994; and the White House candidate, former Salvadorian president Francisco Flores. When he was in power, Flores sent a token military contingent to Iraq, where it remains.
In the 60 years of this organisation of 24 countries from the Americas and the Caribbean (except Cuba), a candidate has never been successful without White House endorsement. Even before the first ballot on 11 April, and despite enormous pressure, Flores appeared so isolated that, to avoid humiliation, the US asked him to withdraw.
Washington does not have more differences with Chile, which has not abandoned the hard-line market economy and which, in 2004, signed a free trade agreement, than it does with Mexico, a member of Nafta. But when it comes to confrontation, Chile has a much greater margin of manoeuvre than Mexico. The US can exert pressure on its close southern neighbour by choosing to prosecute or regularise the situation of 4 million (or more) Mexicans without proper papers who remit money home, $38bn in 2003. These sums exceed revenue from tourism and equal half the value of Mexico’s exports.
Chávez enthusiastically supported Chile’s Insulza. He had his reasons, apart from South American solidarity. The Mexican president, Vicente Fox, maintains friendly relations with Bush; the Mexican government has launched an operation to destabilise the leftwing mayor of Mexico City, Andrés Manuel Lopez Obrador, who is to stand for the Party of the Democratic Revolution in the 2006 presidential elections; and Mexico voted against Cuba in the United Nations Human Rights Commission (14). On the instructions of the US State Department, the countries that backed Flores campaigned for the Mexican Derbez.
After five ballots, the two candidates retained an equal share of the vote, with 17 each (18 are needed to win), Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Ecuador, Venezuela, the Dominican Republic and 10 Caribbean countries voted for the Chilean candidate. Shortly before 2 May, the date scheduled for the next vote, Insulza seemed to be ahead even though the US pulled out all the stops. On 29 April there was a meeting between Rice, the foreign ministers of El Salvador, Paraguay, Colombia, Chile and Canada, and the two candidates, Derbez and Insulza. At the end of the meeting, to everyone’s surprise, Derbez announced that he was withdrawing his candidacy.
Peter Hakim, director of the Inter-American Dialogue, a thinktank based in Washington, believes that Rice realised that to continue to support Derbez was to court failure. If he had won by just one or two votes, the continent would have been divided, and the US to blame. If, as was most likely, he lost, it would have been a major defeat for the US (15). To avoid losing face, the US agreed to leave the way free to Insulza, the consensus candidate. He was elected on 2 May with 31 votes (two abstentions and one blank ballot paper).
Despite this last-minute manoeuvre, the US appeared the main loser. But it would be wrong to view the victory of the former Chilean foreign minister as marking the arrival of a progressive to head the organisation. A diplomat who monitored the final negotiations claims there are many factors to indicate that, before it left the way free for Insulza, the US obtained undertakings from both Insulza and the Chilean government, particularly about the policy the OAS will adopt towards Venezuela and Cuba.
Yet there is nothing to suggest that in this backyard, politically more fragmented than ever, the new secretary general will have a free hand should he wish to impose the preferred course of the US.
Maurice Lemoine is a veteran Monde Diplomatique correspondent specializing—among other subjects—on Latin American affairs.