After Bolivia beat the Argentine soccer team led by legendary Diego Maradona by 6 to 1, Maradona told reporters, “Every Bolivia goal was a stab in my heart.” Bolivia was expected to lose the April 1 match as Argentina is ranked as the 6th best soccer team in the world, and Maradona enjoys godlike status among soccer fans. This story of David and Goliath in the Andes is just one of various events shaking up the hemisphere.
Bolivian President Evo Morales just completed a five day hunger strike to push through legislation that allows him to run again in general elections this December. And at this weekend’s Summit of the Americas US President Barack Obama will meet with Latin American presidents who may end up giving some economic advice to their troubled neighbor in the north.
Evo Morales on a Hunger Strike
When opposition party members in Bolivia left a Congress session on April 9, refusing to pass a bill that would allow for general elections in December of this year, Evo Morales began a hunger strike while thousands of government supporters rallied in the streets in support of the bill. Morales began the fast to pressure opponents into passing the legislation, which in addition to enabling elections, would give indigenous communities broader representation in parliament and give Bolivian citizens living abroad the right to vote in the December elections. The opposition blocked the bill in part because they said it would give Morales more power and did not significantly prevent the possibility of electoral fraud. On April 12, opposition members returned to Congress when Morales agreed to changes regarding a new voter registry.
During his hunger strike, Morales slept on a mattress on the floor in the presidential palace and chewed coca leaves to fight off hunger. Morales said that this was the 18th hunger strike he participated in; before becoming president, Morales was a long-time coca farmer, union organizer, and congressman. He said the longest hunger strike he had been on lasted 18 days while he was in jail, according to Bloomberg. But Morales wasn’t alone: 3,000 other MAS supporters, activists, workers, and union members also participated in the hunger strike, including Bolivians in Spain and Argentina.
Early in the morning on April 14, once it was official that the Senate passed the bill, Morales ended his strike. “Happily, we have accomplished something important,” he told reporters. “The people should not forget that you need to fight for change. We alone can’t guarantee this revolutionary process, but with people power it’s possible.”
This controversy erupted just weeks after Bolivia’s new constitution was approved in a January 25 national referendum. Among other significant changes, the constitution grants unprecedented rights to the country’s indigenous majority and establishes a broader role for the state in the management of the economy and natural resources.
Summit of the Americas: Cuba, Obama, and Chavez
On April 17-19 the Summit of the Americas will take place in Trinidad and Tobago. Most of the hemisphere’s presidents will be in attendance. It will also mark the first meeting between Presidents Barack Obama and Hugo Chavez.
Before the larger Summit begins, a Summit for the Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas (ALBA) will take place in Venezuela from April 14-15. Those planning to attend this gathering include President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, Evo Morales, Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo, and others. Chavez announced that this ALBA meeting will take place with the objective of formulating common positions to bring to Trinidad and Tobago, including plans regarding the formation of a regional currency, called the Sucre. These leaders are also likely to lead the push for an end to the blockade against Cuba.
Chavez said that if the US comes to the Summit “with the same excluding discourse of the empire — on the blockade — then the result will be that nothing has changed. Everything will stay the same. . . Cuba is a point of honor for the peoples of Latin America. We cannot accept that the United States should continue trampling over the nations of our America.”
In a recent column, Fidel Castro noted that Obama planned to lift travel and remittance restrictions to Cuba, but that that wouldn’t be enough — the blockade still needs to be lifted. “[N]ot a word was said about the harshest of measures: the blockade,” Castro wrote. “This is the way a truly genocidal measure is piously called, one whose damage cannot be calculated only on the basis of its economic effects, for it constantly takes human lives and brings painful suffering to our people. Numerous diagnostic equipment and crucial medicines — made in Europe, Japan or any other country — are not available to our patients if they carry U.S. components or software.”
The blockade against Cuba will likely be a hot topic of debate at this weekend’s Summit and will be partly fueled by tension between Obama and Chavez. Explaining the failure of the Bush administration in the region, Obama once said, it is “No wonder, then, that demagogues like Hugo Chavez have stepped into this vacuum. His predictable yet perilous mix of anti-American rhetoric, authoritarian government, and checkbook diplomacy offers the same false promise as the tried and failed ideologies of the past.”
Yet a closer look at the region will show that the rise of leaders like Chavez is a result of more than just neglect on the part of the empire — it has to do with the disastrous impact of neoliberalism in the region and a desire among Latin Americans to seek out alternatives. Considering the current economic crisis in the US, Obama could learn a thing or two from the policies of leaders like Chavez, who is incredibly popular in Venezuela, works in solidarity with many of the region’s leaders, and has developed successful economic policies in his country. At the upcoming Summit, Obama should put into action something he said when meeting with the G20: “We exercise our leadership best when we are listening.”
Latin America Changes
Those expecting an end to the same old Cold War tactics toward Latin America from Washington may be surprised when Obama continues to treat the region as a backyard. Yet whether or not the perspective from Washington changes, Latin America is certainly a different place than it was 30 years ago.
I asked Greg Grandin, a professor of history at New York University, and the author, most recently, of Empire’s Workshop, if another US-backed coup such as the one that happened against socialist Chilean President Salvador Allende in 1973 would be possible in today’s Latin America. He said, “I don’t think it would be possible. There isn’t a constituency for a coup. In the 1970s, US policy was getting a lot more traction because people were afraid of the rise of the left, and they were interested in an economic alliance with the US. Now, the [Latin American] middle class could still go with the US, common crime could be a wedge issue that could drive Latin America away from the left. But US policy is so destructive that it has really eviscerated the middle class. Now, there is no domestic constituency that the US could latch onto. The US did have a broader base of support in the 1970s, but neoliberalism undermined it.”
Grandin explained that in the 1960s and 1970s, security agencies in Latin America built up their relationship with Washington to “subordinate their interests to the US’s cold war crusade.” There was a willingness among the Latin American middle class to do this, Grandin explained, and the US was also interested in building the infrastructure and networks to ensure that the region’s new dictators’ fanaticism could be led by anti-communism. “Now in South America, there has been a wide rejection to subordinate their military to the US,” Grandin explained. “In a 2005 defense meeting in Quito, Ecuador [former US Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld attempted to elevate the war on terror in the region [as a military priority], and it was roundly rejected. . . . As of now, I don’t think there has been a willingness for Latin America to serve as an outpost of this unified war [on terror].”
Grandin wrote in a 2006 article that the Pentagon has tried to “ratchet up a sense of ideological urgency” in the war on terror in Latin America, but these pleas have fallen on deaf ears. “The cause of terrorism,” said Brazil’s Vice President José Alencar, “is not just fundamentalism, but misery and hunger.”
However, the Latin America Obama will visit this weekend is already significantly different than the one Rumsfeld tried to convince in 2005. Obama’s counterparts in the south are generally more independent and leftist than they were even four years ago. But all that can change, and at least some of it depends on how Obama works with — or ignores — the region.
Outside of Obama’s influence, one question remains: will changes made by leftist leaders in Latin America be irrevocable, even if the right regains power in the region in the next five years? According to political analyst Laura Carlsen of the Americas Program in Mexico City, “In order for that to happen it would take more than just a change in the government, and I find it unlikely for anything like that to happen in the short term. It took years for the left in power to build up these social movements and the development of alternatives. It was the result of that process that brought these governments into power, and to reverse it you would have to silence or repress these movements.”
I asked Grandin the same question. “It depends,” he said, “the changes seemed pretty irrevocable in the 1970s and with Reaganism and militarism. . . The failure of neoliberalism is certain, but it’s hard to say what the response will be in the long term.”
This weekend’s summit, where Obama and Chavez will shake hands for the first time, might offer some glimpses into the region’s future.
Benjamin Dangl is currently based in Paraguay, and is the author of The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia (AK Press), and the editor of UpsideDownWorld.org, a website on activism and politics in Latin America, and TowardFreedom.com, a progressive perspective on world events. Email: Bendangl(at)gmail(dot)com.