But we cannot, and should not, ignore the very real differences that we have -- about how we organize our governments, our economies, and our societies. Cuba has a one-party system; the United States is a multi-party democracy. Cuba has a socialist economic model; the United States is an open market. Cuba has emphasized the role and rights of the state; the United States is founded upon the rights of the individual….It's time to lift the embargo. But even if we lifted the embargo tomorrow, Cubans would not realize their potential without continued change here in Cuba….It should be easier to open a business here in Cuba. A worker should be able to get a job directly with companies who invest here in Cuba. Two currencies shouldn’t separate the type of salaries (from President Barack Obama, “Remarks by President Obama to the People of Cuba,” The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, March 22, 2016.).
Mr. Obama’s decision to come to Argentina now — straight after his visit to Cuba, where the Communist government is slowly opening to market forces — signals Washington’s backing for a shift to the center, foreign policy analysts say. He may also be seeking to firm up the United States’ position in the region, where China has been establishing a foothold (Jonathan Gilbert, “Obama Visit Affirms Argentina’s Shift Toward Center.” New York Times, March 23, 2016).
The Bolivarian Revolution, the formation of intergovernmental organizations in the Global South, buoyant economic growth among some of the poorer countries, and the spread of anti-austerity grassroots social movements everywhere have sent shock waves across the international system. The world is experiencing a global transformation potentially as great as when the nation-state system was constructed out of feudalism in the seventeenth century or the multipolar world was transformed into a bipolar one after World War II. Similar dramatic changes resulted from the collapse of the bipolar Cold War world to a unipolar one after the collapse of the Socialist Bloc. This time countries of the Global South and mass movements of workers, youth, indigenous people, and people of color are taking center stage.
However, these twenty-first century tectonic shifts occurring in world affairs have not been occurring automatically. Keepers of the old order, the rich and powerful states of the Global North, continue to promote their hegemonic project particularly when resistance shows its internal weaknesses. The effort to maintain control amid faltering resistance is displayed in recent United States foreign policy toward Latin America.
The Bolivarian Revolution Spreads Across Latin America
The Bolivarian Revolution was the name given by former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to the populist revolution he initiated in his country. Elected in 1998, he embarked on policies to empower the poor, spread literacy, expand access to health care, build worker cooperatives, and modestly redistribute wealth and power from the rich to the poor. His vision was to constitute an economic and political program designed to reverse the neoliberal policy agenda embraced by his predecessors. The oil-rich country, collaborating with revolutionary Cuba, initiated a campaign to make real the nineteenth century dream of Simon Bolivar to create a united and sovereign South America, free from imperial rule. Inspired by grassroots movements, populists governments came to power in Bolivia, Ecuador, Uruguay, Paraguay, Honduras, and Nicaragua. More cautious but left-of-center governments emerged in Argentina, Brazil, and Chile.
Venezuela and Cuba established the eleven nation Bolivarian Alternatives for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) in 2004; Venezuela, Cuba and several other Caribbean countries created, in 2005, Petrocaribe, a trade organization, primarily dealing with oil. In the Hemisphere, twelve South American countries constructed the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) in 2008 and the 33 nation Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) was established in 2011. All of these organizations were inspired by the vision of expanding regional economic and political sovereignty as opposed to the traditional United States hegemony in the region. Primarily they challenged the neoliberal model of economic development.
The successes of the spreading popular movements of the first decade of the twenty-first century were paralleled by buoyant economic growth throughout Latin America. Moises Naim, (“The Coming Turmoil in Latin America,” The Atlantic, October 9, 2015) pointed out that all of Latin America experienced economic growth from 2004 to 2013 due to expanding commodity trade with Asia and increased foreign investments in the region. The major economic player in the region was China. However, comparing 2003-2010 growth rates with 2010-2015, the author reported that rates of growth during the second period were only forty percent of what they were in the first.
With slower growth, declining currency values, higher unemployment and declining social benefits, the narrowing of economic inequality in the region and rising benefits for the poor have been reversed. As The Economist put it in June 27, 2015, “Latin America’s economy is screeching to a halt; it managed growth of just 1.3% last year. This year’s figure will be only 0.9%, reckons the IMF, which would mark the fifth successive year of deceleration….Many reckon it now faces a ‘new normal’ of growth of just-2-3% a year. That would jeopardize recent social gains; already the fall in poverty has halted.”
In 2007, Naomi Klein published a fascinating book called The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. In it she develops the idea of the shock doctrine, paying homage to the source of the concept, Milton Friedman, the renowned free market economist. From one of his essays she quotes the following: “…only a crisis--actual or perceived--produces real change. When the crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.” The shock doctrine is illustrated by the fact that the declining growth rates in Latin America have been coupled with reactionary political forces in Latin America (and their US friends) becoming re-energized to stifle and dismantle the gains of the Bolivarian revolution and to reverse the gains made by the popular classes.
On June 28, 2009 there was a military coup in Honduras, ousting democratically-elected Manuel Zelaya from office. Zelaya, who sympathized with the Bolivarian Revolution, was formally replaced in a November, 2009 election that was designed to give legitimacy to the coup. The Honduran coup, in retrospect, signaled a return to destabilization by the wealthy classes of the popular currents represented by the Bolivarian Revolution everywhere.
While Brazil’s Workers Party candidate Dilma Rousseff won reelection as president in October 2014, her victory margin was the narrowest (51.6 percent to 48.4 percent) of the four races in which the center/left Workers Party was victorious. The split between the left/center and right wing forces set the stage for the 2016 campaign by the wealthy to impeach Rousseff for corruption.
Further, in what was called by the New York Times a “transformative election,” the Argentinian people elected as president right-wing advocate of the disastrous neoliberal economic agenda, Mauricio Macri, the mayor of Buenos Aires. Despite the success of prior governments in resisting destructive IMF demands for debt restructuring, Macri promises to return to the policies of the 1990s that led to economic crisis. As the Macri-sympathetic Times editorial put it: “Reforming the stagnant economy will be painful in the short run, but could make Argentina more attractive to foreign investors” (November 26, 2015).
Nicolas Maduro won a narrow presidential victory over a rightwing candidate in Venezuela’s April 14, 2013 election to replace his deceased popular predecessor, Hugo Chavez. Over the next two years, opposition forces engaged in periodic street protests, many in wealthier parts of Venezuelan cities. Coupled with growing economic problems and domestic violence, leaders of the major opposition political party have sought to mobilize support to overthrow the Maduro government and the reforms put in place by Hugo Chavez. In a March 27, 2014 account of anti-government protests, the BBC reported that; “The government’s popularity remains high amid its working-class voters, who gave it a further boost in local elections in December.” However, in December, 2015, an anti-government coalition took two-thirds of the parliamentary seats in the most recent election. Almost immediately, opposition politicians began efforts to overturn the popular reforms of the Chavez era and to launch a campaign to impeach Maduro from the presidency.
The United States Role
Throughout the period since the political arrival of Hugo Chavez on the scene in Latin America, the United States has stood in opposition to the Bolivarian Revolution. The United States gave at least tacit support to the failed military coup in Venezuela in 2002. Neighboring Colombia received funds to continue the “war on drugs” while the United States built seven military installations around that country to “protect” Colombia from an “aggressive” Venezuela. In subsequent years, the U.S. Congress has imposed partial embargoes on the visitation rights of selected Venezuelan government officials. Also, the United States has provided funding, training, and educational opportunities to Venezuelans who have played prominent roles in opposition to the Chavez government. It continues to condemn Venezuela’s policies at home, projecting the image that it represents the same kind of threat to the hemisphere that the Cuban revolutionary government represented in the 1960s.
The U.S. government mildly condemned the Honduran coup (compared with statements from the Organization of American States and other nations in the hemisphere). Subsequently it endorsed the November, 2009 election in that country, as presidential candidate Hillary Clinton suggested, to give legitimacy to the coup. Since then, the United States has ignored the grotesque human rights violations and assassinations of opponents of the Honduran government.
And very recently a politician in the impeachment bloc in Brazil visited Washington, meeting foreign policy officials who deal with Latin America and members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Given the twenty-first century challenges the Bolivarian Revolution represent to the Washington Consensus and the neoliberal agenda in the Western Hemisphere, the recent visits by President Obama to Cuba and Argentina represent metaphorically imperialism’s response. The President on the one hand is dramatically reordering the US/Cuba relationship, but is doing so in a way to pressure the Cubans to adopt a US/style political system and a market-based open capitalist economic system.
And his visit to Argentina, just after the Cuba visit, was designed to signal to Argentina and the entire Hemisphere that the United States is committed to a return to neoliberal economic policies. These policies, as always, benefit the rich at the expense of the popular classes. Concretely they include;
-reversing the Cuban revolutionary model
-reinforcing Argentina’s return to dependency on the international financial system
-encouraging impeachments of Dilma Rousseff in Brazil and Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela
-weakening emerging regional organizations such as UNASUR and CELAC
-replacing China’s rising presence in the Latin America with a revitalized US economic hegemony in trade, finance, and investment
As Eric Draitser (“Hillary Clinton and Wall Street’s Neoliberal War on Latin America,” Telesur, April 29, 2016) suggests: “Since the rise of Hugo Chavez Latin America has gone its own way, democratizing and moving away from its former status as a ‘American Backyard.’ With Hillary Clinton and Wall Street working hand in hand with their right wing proxies in Latin America, Washington looks to reassert its control. And it is the people of the region who will pay the price.”
However, it may be the case that the popular classes, tasting some of the benefits of the transition to socialism in the twenty-first century, will resist the attempts in the region to reestablish US hegemony and the neoliberal agenda. The outcome is yet to be determined.