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Latin America: the pink tide

Introduction
I have much to say on Ecuador and Rafael Correa. In short though, I think two things stand out about Correa:

a) Correa has a PhD in economics, speaks 7 languages and has written an excellent book attacking neoliberalism called: Ecuador – From Banana Republic to No Republic. I do not know why it has not been translated into English but I suspect it soon will be. In Spanish, it has an excellent introduction by the Argentinian Marxist Atilio Boron. While I am only 40 pages into the book, I am told its strength is that it combines Correa knowledge of economics and Latin American, with his experience as Ecuador’s finance minister – a position he held until he resigned due to his opposition to the government’s continuing acceptance of the Washington Consensus.

b) Correa is leading what he calls a ‘citizen’s revolution’ and has openly embraced Chavez and his idea of ‘socialism for the 21st century.’ His government defaulted on its foreign debt thanks to Chinese capital and has come under attack due to: its social policies, attempts to create a state channel (Ecuador had ZERO state press until Correa), and stance on a U.S. military base. (Correa famously said he will accept a U.S. military base in Ecuador when the U.S. accepts an Ecuadorian military base in Miami, Florida.) While Ecuador  is a very small country, it still is an oil producing state. Correa will most likely continue on his current path while also dedicating himself to writing more books and leave a intellectual legacy.

The final point is that while his government is far from perfect, and has come under criticisms from sections of the indigenous movement, Correa is not playing a game of bluff against local elites and Washington. In 2010, Correa was held captive by rebellious section of the police force in an attempted coup. As Correa recently told Assange, these police officers were upset because his government ended U.S. financed programs from which they benefited. In the end, Correa was rescued by special forces in the military. The footage of Correa negotiating with the police and at one point yelling at them that if they wanted to kill him, he was prepared to die for his cause, was captured on TV. Likewise, there is footage of Correa in a wheal chair (he was injured by the police) as his body guards try and protect him from police attacks with gas and physical assault. As usual, if you blinked, you would have missed all this in the press due to its terrible and often non-coverage of events.

The Pink Tide
Latin America is the lost continent when it comes to the Western media. In-depth news or analysis is rare – the norm is to present the week’s top story in a sound bite. Hugo Chávez’s recent foolish embrace of Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a case in point – although the Venezuelan President and his antics certainly share some responsibility for the negative coverage of his government.

In the past couple of months, two developments in the region stand out as meriting closer attention: the election in Ecuador of a progressive economist as president, and the move by South American governments toward establishing a form of governance loosely modelled on the European Union.

Rafael Correa’s capture of the Ecuadorian presidency, with 56.67 per cent of the vote, certainly surprised many observers.

A grassroots campaign was largely responsible for encouraging the country’s large Indigenous organisations to vote against Correa’s rival candidate, the billionaire banana magnate Álvaro Noboa. Larry Birns, the Director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington, writes that “Noboa’s unparalleled expenditure of money – some of it handed out personally by him – was a hardly-concealed effort to buy an election.” Another observer reported that critics charged Noboa with buying votes by “giving away computers, wheelchairs, bags of rice, medicine and cash along his $2.3 million campaign trail”, which was more than “twice the legal limit for campaign spending”.

For many Ecuadorians who were treated to Noboa’s spectacle (including his kneeling to publicly pray before speeches), Correa certainly appeared to have more credibility.

Correa believes Ecuador’s export oil contracts must to be renegotiated on more favourable terms, while Washington’s huge military base in Manta will have to go, unless the United States “let us put a military base in Miami”. In 2005 he resigned as Finance Minister because ex-president Alfredo Palacio continued to embrace neo-liberal economics.

A self described Left-wing Christian humanist, Correa’s rhetorical eloquence, his fluency in Spanish, English, French and Quechua, along with his PhD in economics may indeed make the 43-year-old one of the most formidable politicians to come out of Latin America in recent years.

Even before his inauguration, Correa flew to Caracas to sign co-operation agreements while paving the way for his country’s possible admission into the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) – Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro’s counter-proposal to the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA).

Correa’s victory and the establishment of ALBA, among other developments, present a serious challenge to the traditional role of the US in Latin America, which, in part, explains the poor coverage of these events in the Western media

Most reports portray Venezuela, Bolivia and now Ecuador, as the “radicals” (Cuba is a special case), while Brazil, Argentina and Chile are viewed as the “sensible” administrations who will not upset the markets, place restraints on capital speculation and extreme forms of privatisation, or redirect state revenue towards the general population.

Contradictions, rivalry and disappointments certainly exist in the “pink tide” washing through Latin America at the moment, but there is a point of commonality: regional integration and a shift away from US power.

As the news of Pinochet’s death spread throughout the world last December, the leaders of 12 countries – including Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Uruguay – met in a two-day summit in Cochabamba, Bolivia. The agreement produced from this gathering, the “Cochabamba Declaration”, noted that the Cold War “brought with it a weakening of multilateralism,” however

Recently it has been possible to start constructing alternatives that point towards resuming growth, preservation of macroeconomic balances, emphasis on income distribution as an instrument to eliminate social exclusion and reduce poverty, as well as reduction of external vulnerability.

John Hilley, a Glasgow-based political scientist, recently told Inside Costa Rica that:

In contrast to the business-minded pragmatism of ASEAN [Association of South East Asian Nations], the Latin American union is the product of a specific historical impetus now challenging the failing neo-liberal orthodoxies of Wall Street, NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement] and the FTAA.

Hilley adds, “While any institution or political alignment can ‘declare’ lofty statements of social intent, the Bolivarian reforms now evident across the (South American) region indicate a more revolutionary construct in the making”.

The strengthening of the Southern Common Market (Mercosur); the establishment of the New Television Station of the South (Telesur) in 2005, which is jointly owned by Venezuela (51 per cent), Argentina (20 per cent), Cuba (19 per cent) and Uruguay (10 per cent); and calls for a common currency along with a Bank of the South seem to support Hilley’s view.

Despite these successes, many questions remain about the future integration of the region. Venezuelan oil is funding many of these plans. However, as one Venezuelan official explained to me in Caracas over a year ago, his country does not expect Washington to just sit back and twiddle its thumbs. In April 2002, one of the Bush Administration’s first moves was to support an abortive military coup against Chávez.

Recently, a special CIA Mission Manager on Venezuela and Cuba was created which John Negroponte – sub-Secretary of State under Condoleezza Rice – has described as functioning actively and in a “good position in terms of intelligence”. In the future, one possible scenario is for Washington to use Colombian paramilitaries to wreak havoc on Venezuela and wear down the regime, in a similar manner to how the Contras were used against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua during the 1980s.

If Chávez and his project fail, one can hardly see Brazil’s Lula (Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva) or Argentina’s Néstor Kirchner taking up the baton for regional integration, despite their countries’ huge resources. On the other hand, the developments in the region go beyond charismatic leaders.

Chávez may be a charmer, Bolivia’s Evo Morales astute and Correa highly eloquent, but these leaders have been elected by millions of people who demand that their representatives in government do more than engage in endless deceit, cheap rhetoric and policies which benefit small, yet powerful interests.

For First World countries like Australia, priding themselves on their functioning democracy and free-market economics, developments in Latin America still have much to offer – showing what is possible when people decide to engage directly with politics and question conventional wisdom.

This is perhaps the biggest story coming out of Latin America in recent years. But don’t expect to read about it anytime soon in the mainstream Australian media.

Rodrigo Acuna

***

Rodrigo Acuña is a PhD candidate in International Studies at Macquarie University, Sydney. He writes regularly on Latin American affairs in the Australian press and has been interviewed on ABC Radio, SBS Radio (Spanish) and Radio Adelaide among others.

A recipient of the Benchmark Prize in Hispanic Studies by the University of New South Wales, he has presented seminars at various Australian universities on political developments in Venezuela, as well as other Latin American countries.
First published in New Matilda on January 31, 2007 but added to for this article.

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