Sunday, August 26, 2007

US Problems with the Left in Latin America

The surest sign that the United States government does not get along with you is when it starts to complain that you lack “freedom” and “democratic principles.” Of course, such principles need not apply to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other allied OPEC countries (or for that matter Saddam Hussein before he invaded the wrong neighbor). One of those countries not on Uncle Sam’s Christmas card list is Venezuela.

The reasoning is obvious. Hugo Chavez is entering nearly a decade in power and he governs the most openly-elected socialist government in the world. Unlike the sheikdoms in the House of Saud, Chavez does not have any new deals with US-based oil companies, but instead decided to use the power of the state to take over the private enterprises running its oil exports, and then use the monies accrued from the export of its national resource for education, housing and, dare the thought, welfare spending for the country’s poor. For this heretical act, and many like it, he has been labeled a Communist, socialist, dictator, and even worse.

To be sure, Chavez is hardly a perfect. He is a military officer who tried to seize power in a military coup back in 1992 (which failed and earned him a couple of years in the slammer). After coming back from this abyss, he was able to get himself elected President in 1998, largely on the votes of the poor, as well as those frustrated with the corruption and cronyism of Venezuelan politics. While popularly elected and supported, he has ruled almost by decree this last year (obtaining near absolute powers to shape and implement economic policy). Debate is hard to come by these days in Venezuela, as the political situation has become so exacerbated between those who hate or love Chavez’s rule that even eliminating term limits for the Presidency is coaxed in the language of democracy vs. totalitarianism (interestingly, the people who complain the most about Chavez’s anti-democratic behavior were the ones that supported the attempted military coup against him five years ago).

Chavez’s foreign policy is even more flamboyantly conflictual with the US than his nationalization of the economy. A friend of Iran, Chavez has pledged his government’s support for President Ahmadinejad (supporting Iran’s nuclear aspirations and offering military cooperation in case of a US attack). It is a strange ideological grouping, a Latin American socialist and Middle Eastern Islamic fundamentalist, but the pairing has played into American perceptions of the Chavez Presidency as overly radical and dangerous. For his part, Chavez’s hate-hate relationship with the US was sealed following the failed 2002 military coup attempt against his government (a coup which the US recognized and almost certainly sponsored [against the wishes of the UN and the OAS]).

From 2002 onwards, US-Venezuelan relations have been on a collision course. Many people in the US feigned shock and outrage at President Chavez last year for coming to American soil, under the auspices of speaking before the UN, to announce his hatred for George Bush, comparing him to the devil, but this should not have been a surprise. After all, it was under pressure from the Bush Administration that the US was the only country in the world that recognized the coup plotters back in 2002 (and continues to give sanctuary to the deposed leader of that coup, Pedro Carmona).

Why Latin America?

On first glance, one has to wonder why the US has such problems with social movements in Latin America. After all, the US government had no qualms about cooperating with the Left in Western Europe during the Cold War. There was no coup attempt against Clement Attlee after he defeated British wartime Tory Prime Minister Winston Churchill. There was no attempt by the Nixon Administation (who helped overthrow the democratically-elected socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile) when West Germany’s Social Democratic Chancellor Willy Brandt pursued a policy of rapprochement with the Eastern bloc. President Ronald Reagan never roused up the French version of Robert D’Aubuisson when Francois Mitterand was elected President (and whose socialist coalition responded to its electoral victory by nationalizing the country’s banking sector). Indeed, Mitterand was a close Cold War ally of the US.

Then why is it that historically the US responds so violently to the same political movements in Latin America? This is a question that has not been adequately examined in my view, but much of it likely rests in the paternalistic attitude of American political elites. To paraphrase John Foster Dulles (ex-Secretary of State under President Eisenhower), “Latin America is our own back yard.” As elementary as this sounds, it is merely an extension of the Monroe Doctrine, which was not only a declaration excluding the Europeans from Latin America, but maintaining US prerogative to politically shape the Western Hemisphere. It is no coincidence that soon after the promulgation of the Monroe Doctrine precipitated the creation of Manifest Destiny, sort of the white man’s call to arms to make the US into a continental power. US military involvement in Latin America quickly followed the issuance of these doctrines.

From the beginning of the Monroe Doctrine and Manifest Destiny’s existence, US political elites looked upon Latin America as a semi-civilized paradise for expansion and control. This sounds like a harsh judgment, but it is not. Since 1846, there have been 79 US military interventions in Latin America (impacting most every country in the Americas at one time or another). It was the US government that opposed, even before the Monroe Doctrine, the Haitian revolution in the 1790s (the first successful African slave revolt in history) and eventual independence in 1804 (even though it was modeled in part on the American revolution). This was because, as Thomas Jefferson said, the US could not fathom the thought of a black republic, whom he considered to be a nation of “cannibals” (the US at that time went so far as to impose a complete trade embargo on the country). When the US invaded Mexico, there was some sentiment for expropriating and annexing all of Mexico, but a coalition of southern Democrats (the main forces that helped generate the war to begin with) disagreed on the grounds it would mean having to govern Latinos under “white American” law.

When President Woodrow Wilson was expressing his lovely sentiments for pluralism, liberalism, and democracy in post-war Europe, he was simultaneously invading Haiti, propping up a US-backed dictatorship that lasted until the 1930s and killed thousands of people. When American adventurer William Walker came to Nicaragua in the middle part of the 19th century, he helped lead a revolt of local property owners against the government, landing himself in power, at which point he tried to reintroduce African slavery to the Central American country (and remarkably enough, while hated by Nicaraguans during the short period he was in power, Walker was a beloved political figure back in the US, especially in the South). Nicaragua would be invaded several more times by the US military before the Sandinistas came into power in 1979 (in fact, the Sandinistas were named after a local revolutionary who was killed by the US Marines back in the 1920s).

This history of invasion, occupation, and humiliation is something that is common knowledge in Latin America. If you go to Mexico City and ask about the war, the poorest street merchant can tell you about Los Niños Héroes (heroic cadets) who defended their city from the US military in 1847. I doubt seriously that more than 10-15% of the non-Latino American population even knows that the US military once occupied Mexico City. Is it any wonder that so few say anything about the 250,000 people killed by US government-backed juntas and militias in Central America throughout the 1980s?

What About Chavez?

This does not exculpate President Chavez from criticism, however (his support of Ahmadinejad should call into question his own views on the Holocaust or an Islamic state that single-handedly wiped out people like him in the Tudeh Party three decades earlier). Quite often the Left has a love affair with anyone that claims to govern in the name of the people. I ran into this during the NATO-Yugoslavia War in 1999, when I encountered some people on the anti-war Left who thought I was an employee of the CIA for daring to criticize President Slobodan Milosevic (even going so far as to defend Milosevic’s coalition with the openly neo-fascist Seselj and Serb Radical Party). I never understood the fixation that people have with anyone that simply says they are for them, but I surmise that quite often humans want to believe that there is a higher power representing their interests. At some level, we all do this, I suppose. Admittedly, I fall into this trap sometimes myself, as I am certainly more inclined to President Chavez than the average member of the American Enterprise Institute, although I try to keep myself honest and critical in assessing anyone in a position of authority.

Overall, sadly, I do not foresee any change in American attitudes about Chavez. Much of this is also fueled by the fact the US has historically taken in the losers of revolutions (be it Venezuela’s Carmona or the anti-Castroites in Miami), and these political losers exert a disproportionate influence on US policy towards the countries whose governments expelled them. It is why to this day the US remains one of the few countries with an embargo on Cuba (as we buy our Chinese-made trinkets from Wal-Mart and Target). It is why people in this county write articles on how the toleration of Hugo Chavez’s existence is making us susceptible to Islamic terrorism.

For this to change, people in the US are going to have to start educating themselves on the region and start asking more pointed questions as to why we maintain some of the policies that we do. Until then, we will continue to be treated to descriptions of democratically-elected heads of state as "dictators" and an entire community trying to kidnap a 6 year old stowaway.

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