Latin America: Behind the Turmoil

Revolution #033, February 5, 2006, posted at

From peasant uprisings to urban demonstrations, a storm of protests is brewing in Latin America. People are resisting the U.S. imposed neoliberal policies that have wreaked havoc in these countries and sunk them into even deeper poverty. They are seeking a way out.

The discontent and fury was evident in the November 2005 protests in Mar del Plata, Argentina, against the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA), and in several other countries at the same time. It was also evident in the mass movements that have ousted governments in Bolivia and Ecuador, and elected candidates that speak out against some of these imperialist measures.

The mass upheaval is in response to the failure of the neoliberal imperialist policies advocated by the United States, as well as Washington-dominated institutions such as the IMF (International Monetary Fund) and the World Bank which have led to the worst long-term economic failure in modern Latin American history.

"Free trade agreements" like NAFTA, and the privatization of basic necessities like water, have led to even more poverty and a lower standard of living in the region as a whole. For example, since 1980 Brazil's income per person has grown by less than one-half percent annually. The story is similar for Mexico, which doubled its income per person from 1960-1980 but has seen slow growth since then. Or take Bolivia, which has also been subject to IMF agreements and has done what Washington has ordered, including privatizing nearly everything that could be sold, even water. The country's per capita income today is actually lower than it was 25 years ago, 63 percent of Bolivians live below the poverty line, and the proportion is even higher in the countryside.

For the region as a whole, growth in GDP (or income) per person--one conventional measure of economic performance --was about 80 percent from 1960-1979, before the neoliberal plans. But growth was only 11 percent for 1980-1999 and a mere 3 percent for 2000-2004, after "free trade agreements" like NAFTA and IMF-imposed austerity measures.

A History of Subjugation

The rise of U.S. imperialism was very much tied to the subjugation of Latin America. For more than 100 years the US has ruled the economic, political, and cultural life of many of these countries, whether though democratic governments or military juntas. And whenever there have been serious challenges to its domination, the U.S. has not hesitated to resort to the most brutal methods of repression: invasions, military coups, mass killings, disappearances, and assassinations.

The upheaval now in Latin America is threatening to U.S. imperialism, which cannot tolerate any challenge to its drive for world domination, and cannot allow nations any kind of real self- determination. This is what was behind the not so subtle threat by US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who on a visit to Paraguay in August 2005, told reporters, just four months before elections in Bolivia, that "There certainly is evidence that both Cuba and Venezuela have been involved in the situation in Bolivia in unhelpful ways." Not long after, on November 8, the Christian fascist Pat Robertson, who is close to the White House, said, "You know, I don't know about the doctrine of assassination, but if he [Chavez] thinks we're trying to assassinate him, I think that we really ought to go ahead and do it. It's a whole lot cheaper than starting a war. And I don't think any oil shipments will stop." Any threats, political intervention, or military actions by the U.S. against governments in Latin America must be opposed.

U.S. military aggression in Latin America has a long history, and today, when the U.S. is waging an "endless war" for uncontested empire, it needs to tighten its economic hold on Latin America to better compete with its imperialist rivals who are making forays into what the U.S. considers its "backyard." Following his election to the presidency, Evo Morales traveled to Europe and Asia to talk trade with international energy companies in France and Spain and to work out trade agreements with China. Last year the U.S. government tried to stop the sale of Spanish military planes to Venezuela. The U.S. Ambassador to Spain, Eduardo Aguirre, told the Spanish government they could not sell the planes because they used some U.S. technology, but the sale was made anyway. The U.S. has also protested Russia's sale of thousands of AK-47s that the Venezuelan government bought to arm two million militias as part of its readiness plan in the event of a U.S. invasion. And Brazil has initiated trade agreements with South Africa, India, and China.

Faced with the desperate situation created by the imperialists, the people are seeking a way out of the poverty and exploitation that is crushing them. These are conditions that led to the uprising of the peasants in Chiapas on the eve of the signing of the NAFTA treaty in 1994. This is also why there are large movements of landless peasants in Brazil, as well as in Ecuador and Bolivia, and why in several countries workers are taking over abandoned factories.

Rising Forces in Conflict with U.S.

The rise to power of class forces that objectively are coming into conflict with the U.S. has been boosted by the rising of the mass struggle of people, the widespread sentiment against imperialist domination, and the just demand for national sovereignty and self-determination. (In the future articles, Revolution will have further analysis of the rise to power of these class forces - an analysis of their different programs and what kind of revolutionary communist program is required to really break free of imperialist domination.)

Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Lula in Brazil, and others advocate regional economic integration and forming trade blocs in order to strengthen their hand in the global market and in dealing with the IMF or the World Bank. On January 21, Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez, Argentina’s President Nestor Kirchner, and Brazil’s President Lula da Silva announced plans to build a gas pipeline, which would run nearly the entire length of the South American continent. It will be one of the largest infrastructure projects in Latin American history. According to Chavez, the cost of building the pipeline would be carried largely by outside investors, such as firms from Asia.

Latin America as a whole is increasing trade and other relations with the European Union and China. This is especially the case for raw materials exporters like Brazil and Chile. Venezuela has forged probably the closest relations with China of any Latin American country, and is planning to sell increasing amounts of oil to China as part of its effort to reduce dependence on the U.S. government. Bolivia's President Evo Morales has said he would carry out a "reasonable" nationalization of key industries, while saying he would like international corporations to stay, but on better terms.

However, none of this will or can decisively break with the structural dependency that characterizes the relationship of oppressed countries in the world imperialist economy. The subordination of oppressed nations is a structural feature of the world imperialist system. This encompasses economic mechanisms leading to and reinforcing such dependency, as well as unequal relations of power and imperial structures of political control.

The better terms on imperialist investments that Evo Morales received from France and Spain, or the investment that Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina will get from outside investors for the pipeline, will still be a chain around the neck of the oppressed--because the same lopsidedness of global capitalism, with its laws, structures, governments and ideas that regulate commerce and all other aspect of life are still in place. So even though Brazil and Argentina have paid their debt to the IMF, they are still entangled and subjected in a million other ways to international finance capital and the institutions and mechanisms of imperialism.

When Lula campaigned for President, he proclaimed he would stand up to IMF demands and put the people’s interests first. But his government’s budgetary and monetary policies have basically stayed within the bounds prescribed by the IMF. And the incredible inequality that characterizes Brazilian society, especially the obscene concentration of land ownership in the countryside, has hardly been touched. Lula has promoted the interests of large Brazilian agro-business and much of the landless peasant movement has sharply criticized him.

This is not fundamentally a question of Lula’s intentions or honesty. There are more determining forces: the larger world-economic and imperial geopolitical framework within which these regimes must operate, the ways in which imperialist domination is deeply embedded in these societies and economies, and the particular class interests represented and served by such reformist and populist politicians. Brazil is highly dependent on the imperialists for advanced technology, and its military has historically been shaped by U.S. weapons sales and training programs.

One outrageous example of U.S. imperial domination and arrogance is the account of how U.S. trade representative Robert Zellick told president-elect Lula that if Brazil strayed too far from U.S. plans for free markets in the Americas, he would find himself having "to export to Antarctica."

Recent political developments in Latin America reveal the deep faultlines of poverty and inequality. They reveal the dismal failure of U.S.-backed adjustment programs. And they reveal the tremendous discontent of the great majority of the population. The question is: will, and how can, this discontent be channeled into a struggle of the masses to really break free of imperialist domination?

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