Thursday, March 08, 2007

Love, Latin American Style

The language used to discuss US policy towards Latin America conceals the problem of US policy towards Latin America. This is not the issue:
  • Latin America as a whole receives less aid from the US in one year than Egypt does on its own.

  • A large proportion of US aid to the western hemisphere goes to Haiti.

  • Much of Latin America feels ignored.

  • This will be the first time Bush has visited Uruguay and Guatemala.

The White House recognises the perception and so has called this a "year of engagement" in the region to counter the negative view.

The language suggests that Latin America is waiting for a United States that pays it more respect, attention, and gives it more money. Sure, this is all important. But you simply cannot develop an intelligent policy towards Latin America without realizing that past and current American policy does more than simply "ignore" these countries. Many of the problems in these countries are related to American policies towards Latin America. Many Latin Americans understand and believe this. The leftward shift is partially a product of it.

Meanwhile, the US administration seems to believe that the goal is simply stopping Chávez from gaining any more influence (if not taking him from power). While Chávez is certainly guilty of spurious and probably unhelpful rhetoric towards the Bush administration, as well as the occasional buffoonery, and perhaps even authoritarian tendencies, the Bush administration has created the figure of Chávez as Public Enemy #1.

Look at the recently published State Department report on human rights. While there are, of course, reasons to be concerned about Venezuela, they don't match up to the Bush administration's rhetoric of Chávez as a dictator and human rights abuser. Look for the comments in the report on the suppression of free speech in Venezuela, a favorite talking point of the administration. What do you find? Not much. Compare the list of HR concerns for Venezuela with those of Colombia, a staunch ally of the US in South America. What do you find? Consider the role of the US in funding Colombian projects such as the drug war. Compare Amnesty International's or Human Rights Watch's reports on the US. What do you find?

Now consider again the sustained criticism of Chávez on human rights grounds.

It is not the case that most Latin Americans feel ignored or can be bought off by more development support. It's that the very paradigm of how the US thinks of Latin American development has been rejected by many, perhaps most, of the people in the region. Chávez provides an alternative (though not a terribly articulate one). That is his attraction. It is not Chávez the person; it is the possibility of an alternative - and not necessarily an old-timey socialist one - through which people other than the political and economic elites actually do see some benefits.

Basing American policy on some notion that Latin America is like a child that needs more attention and perhaps a bigger allowance, and the occasional spanking, is precisely why Latin America has been turning away from the US. Many Latin Americans see the growth of poverty under the American model, and the decrease in poverty under the Chávez model. They've seen US-backed anti-democratic governments, and locally empowering democratic models from Venezuela and elsewhere. Yet, Bush sees only this:

Asked by a reporter about Mr. Chávez’s “so-called alternative development model” calling for nationalization of industry, Mr. Bush said: “I strongly believe that government-run industry is inefficient and will lead to more poverty. I believe if the state tries to run the economy, it will enhance poverty and reduce opportunity.”

He added, “So the United States brings a message of open markets and open government to the region.”

At some point, you have to examine your own ideological blinkers.


memememe said...

What If, there´s latin americans who doesnt believe neither on Bush or Chávez alternative? Bush visiting Latin America is definitly a move that concerns not only to the lefties, Latin Americans have strong reasons for distrust any policy coming from the US (and this is more than just the lack of attention). There most be a way of offering to the latin americans a way of recovering their dignity without reading Galeano or more lately, hearing Chávez speech. There´s most be a way of making the people abroad understand that Chavez is not the positive alternative to the Bush project; is just another speech, make it out of the same non democratic Bush administration material. Of course, I havent found the way of making any of this two things real. Thats the drama of being a latin american and even more, of being venezuelan
PS: Excuses about the grammar mistakes, I dont speak english

Anonymous said...


Don't worry, you speak English better than the president of the United States.

And I think you're right in saying that there has to be an alternative to both the bluster and authoritarianism of Bush, and the bluster and authoritarianism of Chavez.

But I think that elsewhere in the region, that alternative has been found. I'm a big admirer of both Nestor Kirchner of Argentina and Michelle Bachelet of Chile. It seems that the further you get from the US, the better political situation becomes.

Anonymous said...

The issue is not even that "there are, of course, reasons, to be concerned about Venezuela". If you know anything about Venezuelan history (which I assume you do), you probably would agree that as of now, there is no more reason to be concerned about human rights in Venezuela than there has been in any other point of its recent democratic history (since 1958), neither in the number of human rights violations nor in the perceived "authoritarian tendencies" of Chávez himself (which, so far, haven’t produced political prisoners or secret prisons holding suspects with virtually no legal rights). So the right question is: why this sudden pointing of fingers at Venezuela now, as opposed to, let’s say the Venezuela from the 1970s or 1980s? What makes Chávez’s Venezuela worse than Rómulo Betancourt’s or Carlos Andrés Pérez’s?

This apart from the fact that irony seems to be totally lost in a government that seems so eager to list (and exaggerate) in painstaking detail the human rights violations of other countries while giving us Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo and those pesky 14,000 detainees being shifted between secret prisons around the world.

José del Solar

Anonymous said...

If I were Latin America I would count myself lucky if I failed to gain the attention of the American government.

helmut said...

I think you're all right. This is the general point I've been trying to make. I find Chavez interesting because - whether him or others in the future - he opens the possibility for really thinking about alternatives and VZ has the money to enact them. If one views democracy as an experiment, as the original US democrats did, then VZ looks more democratic than the US.

troutsky said...

In a classic good cop-bad cop con, Chavez is also forcing concessions out of US it would never have considered before Bolivarian rise.Yesterday Bush said he would discuss US agricultural subsidies, a verboten topic.The repubs just lost Iowa,S Dakota and Kansas!

As for a US State Dept report on human rights, it wouldn't even make good toilet paper.

I think Julia perhaps puts to much weight on Chavez and fails to understand the authentic grassroots movement which propels and legitimizes him.