Two features of contemporary imperialism are key to explaining the importance — or actually the relative unimportance — of the VII Summit of the Americas (organized by the OAS) recently held in Panama. One is that, in the post-World War II period, imperialism has operated in a context defined by the prevalence of relatively sovereign nation states. This is what permits the existence of an institution such as the Organization of American States, born in 1948, in which today most of the hemisphere’s nations, excepting the colonies of the Caribbean such as Puerto Rico and Martinique, can sit down in at least a semblance of regional government.
The other feature is that contemporary imperialism operates principally through economic pressures, though it also maintains a vast and disproportionate military arsenal (not surprisingly the subject of much comment during the recent Summit). This exorbitant arsenal is used mostly for small wars, threats, and blitzkrieg interventions of the kind that Panama itself suffered in 1989. Perhaps it would be correct to say that the US’s military apparatus is used to discipline, sometimes through its mere presence and other times by direct action, what occasionally escapes from the less visible economic channeling.
These two features of the global situation affect OAS meetings and the Summits in ways that are somewhat contradictory. On the one hand, the first feature — the overwhelming force of invisible economic pressures which are not represented in the OAS — tends to empty the meetings of most of their significance. On the other hand, the second feature — the sovereign status of the states present — makes the OAS and the Summits possible spaces for these independent nations to assert themselves, and moreover to do so in a way that goes beyond mere rhetoric to the extent that they maintain internal political processes that express and fortify their sovereignty.
The VII Summit of the Americas saw much of this latter dynamic. Venezuela’s President Nicolás Maduro asserted that he would stick to Bolivarian socialism, in spite of imperial threats. Cuba’s Raúl Castro stood by the right of states to determine their economic and political systems and insisted in maintaining “our differences” in a context of dialog. Likewise, Argentina’s Cristina Fernández criticized both US and British interference. However, as far as attempts to point beyond the OAS’s limited context are concerned — that is, to point to the not-present forces that either threaten or could possibly aid processes of emancipation — the Summit was notably impoverished.
Former Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez famously said that while governments go “from summit to summit, people go from abyss to abyss,” and at least early in his career he tried to break with this trend. The 2005 Summit in Mar del Plata saw Chávez arranging a massive meeting — with the presence of Diego Maradona! — in a football stadium brimming with 50,000 supporters, and in the summit itself he proposed a continent-wide referendum on the question of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA/ALCA). Though Maduro’s parallel meeting on Friday in El Chorrillo (a site destroyed by the US invasion) is commendable, the Venezuelan President, like many heads of state in this latest conference, seemed to be fighting a rearguard battle to maintain government, rather than to advance on a popular front.
A key problem for Latin American leaders is that their most powerful anti-imperialist project — international Bolivarianism — fits like a square peg in the round hole of the OAS. Because of its all-inclusive structure the OAS is essentially Panamerican, whereas the Bolivarian ideal was to unite Latin America or “Nuestra América” as one bloc to confront the Northern hegemonic group. Not only does the presence of the US and Canada in the OAS work against Bolivarianism, but the whole institution is marked by the dispersion of the Latin American states in a panoptic space dominated by the US.
The most telling blunder in the Summit, which pointed to implicitly accepting the OAS’s importance and also its panamericanism, was Cristina Fernández’s statement that “the real triumph of the [Cuban] revolution is what we are living here” (i.e. Cuba’s presence in the Summit). Is that what revolutionary Cuba was fighting for during the last 50 years? If so, it could have been achieved through much simpler means, by merely abandoning the revolution. The truth is that the OAS is now a relatively harmless institution to the extent that Latin American leaders recognize it for what it is, but errors such as Fernández’s indicate that a clear vision of the organization’s limits cannot be taken for granted.
Of course, imperialism also makes blunders – a key one being President Obama’s executive order declaring Venezuela to be an “unusual and extraordinary threat.” Though this gaff can make one believe that Obama has definitely decided to abandon his earlier “Don’t Do Stupid Stuff” rule, its importance pales by comparison to the silent imperialist operation that is now unfolding across the continent. This is the US’s pincer movement that is attempting to neutralize Cuba on one front and the Colombian insurgency on the other, and could soon leave Venezuela, the promoter of continental Bolivarianism, completely exposed.
It is this operation that should give Latin American leaders pause. At the same time, it urges them to confront imperialism’s plans by strengthening continental integration and fortifying their own social bases. This is a task that, like the imperialist operation they must confront, will have to take place outside of the Summits and outside the OAS.
Chris Gilbert is professor of Political Science at the Universidad Bolivariana de Venezuela.