Washington Elite Still Don’t Get Latin America — Will They Ever?

In the film Guantanamera, the last by renowned Cuban director Tomás Gutierrez Alea, the Yoruba creation myth is presented as a metaphor for the difficulties of bringing about change.  In this myth, humans were at first immortal, but the result was that the old suffocated the young, and so death had to be created.

Here in Washington, it is often only death and retirement that allows for the possibility of change — and yet the institutions remain immortal and often immutable.  Nowhere is this more true than in the foreign policy establishment here.

In the last few weeks I have visited five countries and participated in numerous events surrounding a recently released documentary — like Guantanamera, South of the Border is also a road movie — which Oliver Stone directed and I wrote with Tariq Ali.  Returning to Washington, the wide gulf that separates the United States foreign policy elite from the vast majority of its neighbors to the south hits you as a form of culture shock.

For these people, the historic changes that have swept Latin America — and especially South America — over the last decade are viewed through the narrow lens of a Cold War mentality that scores every change in terms of how it affects U.S. power in the region.

Jorge Castañeda is a former foreign minister of Mexico who teaches at New York University and has become a leading spokesperson in the media for the Washington foreign policy establishment.  In a recent article, he divides the continent into “those that are either neutral in the confrontation between the United States and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez (and Cuba), or openly opposed to the so-called ‘Bolivarian’ governments of Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela” — and “Americas-2” — “the radical left.”

For Castañeda, as for U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, it is particularly annoying that “as recently as June 7, the Bolivarian countries were able to block Honduras’ re-instatement into the OAS, despite the essentially free and fair elections that were held there last November.”

But it was not just the “Bolivarian countries” that can’t accept elections held under a dictatorship as “free and fair.”  Brazil, Argentina, and governments representing most of the hemisphere are in the same camp.  In fact, when the Rio Group issued a statement in November of 2009 saying that the immediate restitution of Mel Zelaya was a necessary condition for elections to be recognized, even the Obama administration’s right-wing allies — Colombia, Peru, and Panama — felt obliged to sign on.

The Honduran coup, carried out by U.S. allies and U.S.-trained military officers against the democratically elected President Mel Zelaya, was a watershed event in relations between Washington and Latin America.  It was nearly one year ago, on June 28, that the remaining hopes that the Obama Administration would treat its neighbors to the south differently than the Bush team did, were destroyed.  While the Clintons’ close confidant and adviser Lanny Davis counseled and lobbied for the coup regime, the Obama Administration did everything that it could to help the dictatorship survive and legitimize itself.  This despite unanimous resolutions in the OAS and the United Nations calling for the “immediate and unconditional reinstatement” of President Zelaya, two words that the Obama Administration would never utter, as it ignored for more than five months the murders, closing of independent media, and other massive human rights violations that made the “free and fair” elections last November in Honduras a sick joke.  The European Union and Organization of American States did not even send observers.

But with Washington still struggling to legitimize the Honduran government — despite the murder of dozens of political activists and nine journalists since the “elected” government took power — it is typical to portray this effort as a struggle against “enemy” governments rather than a fight with most of the region.  What these people cannot recognize, or perhaps even understand, is that this is about independence and self-determination, as well as democracy.

Michelle Bachelet of Chile and Lula da Silva of Brazil were as upset as the “Americas 2” governments when the Obama Administration decided last August to expand its presence at seven military bases in Colombia.  And it was Felipe Calderón, the right-wing president of Mexico, who hosted the February conference in Cancún that decided to create a new organization for the Americas, which could eventually displace the OAS, without the United States and Canada.  The role of the US and Canada in blocking the OAS from taking stronger measures against the dictatorship in Honduras undoubtedly played a role in motivating this move.

Of course, Washington has the power to make its Cold War vision of the hemisphere at least half real, by singling out the more left governments for special treatment.  In Bolivia, the election of Evo Morales brought changes analogous to the end of apartheid in South Africa, with the country’s indigenous majority gaining a voice in their government for the first time in 500 years.  One would think the Obama administration would have enough common brains to get on the right side of that one.  But no, they have carried over the trade sanctions that the Bush team had imposed on Bolivia under the so-called Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA), “de-certified” Bolivia as not co-operating in the “War on Drugs,” and still refuse to disclose exactly whom they are funding in Bolivia — i.e, which opposition groups — with money from the U.S. State Department.

I had the privilege of watching South of the Border in a soccer stadium filled with more than 6,000 people in Cochabamba, Bolivia, a few weeks ago.  At one point in the film Evo Morales tells the story of Tupac Katari, an indigenous leader who fought against the Spanish colonialists in the 18th century.  Evo recalls Tupac Katari’s last words, before he was drawn and quartered by the Spanish: “I die as one, but I will come back as millions.”

Evo then looks into the camera and says: “Now we are millions.”

Unlike in Washington, every person in that stadium knew exactly what he meant.

Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, in Washington, D.C.  He received his Ph.D. in economics from the University of Michigan.  He has written numerous research papers on economic policy, especially on Latin America and international economic policy.  He is also co-author, with Dean Baker, of Social Security: The Phony Crisis (University of Chicago Press, 2000) and president of Just Foreign Policy.  This article was first published by the Guardian on 26 June 2010 and republished by CEPR under a Creative Commons license.

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