Obama VS. Romney for Latin America: Carrying or Swinging the “Big Stick”

Source: War Times

While Obama’s stance toward Latin America has been far from progressive – recognizing coup governments of Honduras and Paraguay; signing free trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and Peru; and dragging feet on immigration reform – it is the “diet” imperialism to that of the neoconservative-led GOP.

I wasn’t sure I’d have time to write this before Tuesday. But a recent scare ad put out by the Romney campaign featuring Hugo Chavez saying that if he were American he would vote Obama (and vice versa) has lit the fire under my fingertips.

Before the Romney campaign decided to use Chavez’s quote to once again mislabel Obama a socialist, I was struck by the Venezuelan president’s words. As a journalist and a radical who believes that the elite two-party political system in the United States needs a revolutionary makeover, I find voting Democrat a tough pill to swallow. But after four years living outside of the U.S. and witnessing and writing on the effects of U.S. economic and military intervention in the region, it is clear that the difference between a lesser of two evils while minimal, is vital. So vital that an actual socialist president, who has implemented bold social programs to lift many Venezuelans out of poverty and has put the country’s oil profits back into public hands, says that he himself would vote Democrat.

The truth is if Latin American had a vote in the U.S. elections, it would be for the Democrats. While Obama’s stance toward Latin America has been far from progressive – recognizing coup governments of Honduras and Paraguay; signing free trade agreements with Colombia, Panama, and Peru; and dragging feet on immigration reform – it is the “diet” imperialism to that of the neoconservative-led GOP.

What do I mean by “imperialism”? I mean the active protection and advancement of U.S. business interests over the sovereignty, security, and democracy of other nations using military or economic aggression and coercion. No matter what the human cost. Throughout history this has been bipartisan endeavor, yet some of the greatest incursions onto Latin American sovereignty have taken place with a Republican in the White House. Under Eisenhower, the CIA coup against Guatemala to benefit the United Fruit Company; under Nixon a coup against Salvador Allende in Chile; under Reagan the support of death squads in Nicaragua and El-Salvador; under George H.W. Bush the invasion of Panama; and in 2002 under Bush Jr., while the eyes of the world were on Afghanistan and Iraq, a coup in Venezuela.

Though Chavez’s politics are a far cry from those of Obama’s, the message of his “endorsement” of the Democratic candidate is that the consequences of the U.S. election is something the entire world will feel. Domestically a Romney presidency will mean continued tax breaks for the wealthy and further gutting of social programs and attacks on the working-class and poor. Internationally for the people of Latin America, it might mean direct meddling in their political process, military and police repression, and once again the U.S.’ active role in regional “regime change”.  It’s the difference between Teddy Roosevelt’s “carrying a big stick” and actually wielding it.

Venezuela 2002 and 2012

Days before Chavez was re-elected this October – winning 55% of the vote – I decided to re-watch an independent documentary by two Irish filmmakers entitled “Revolution Will Not Be Televised” (that can be screened in full here). The filmmakers had gone to Venezuela in 2001 in hopes of capturing the political and social transformation that was apart of the “Bolivarian Revolution.” Instead what they got was a military coup against Chavez, aided and abetted by the private media, all on camera.

The phrase “stage a coup” could not have been better epitomized by the events of April 11, 2002, when corporate media and top military officials attempted to erase Chavez and bulldoze Venezuelan democracy.  The jaw-droppingly sordid details of the coup are well documented in the film and the role of the media (95% of which is in private, staunchly anti-Chavez hands) are clearly laid out here. In the end, it was the 250,000 Venezuelans who took to the streets in response to the coup that helped Chavez retake the presidency within 48 hours, after the opposition had already sworn in a new president and entirely new cabinet.

By obtaining de-classified documents via the Freedom of Information Act, journalist Eva Golinger revealed in her 2006 book The Chavez Code, that not only did the Bush Administration know of the coup plot, it funded it. Through the International Republican Institute (IRI), a GOP-backed non-profit organization and vehicle for the National Endowment for Democracy created by Ronald Reagan in 1983 to “spread democracy,” the United States funneled $30 million dollars to 132 different opposition groups prior to the coup. Another group complicit in the coup was USAID, which months before the coup had set up an “Office of Transition Initiatives” (one of a few in the Latin America) to finance anti-Chavez organizations. Today the IRI, chaired by former Republican presidential candidate John McCain, continues to “promote civic participation” and “healthy political competition” in Venezuela and other countries. Gulp.

History almost repeated?

Reviewing this recent history in the lead-up to Venezuela’s October elections would have given anyone concerned with real democracy cause for worry. Chavez’s opponent, former governor Henrique Capriles, was directly involved in inciting violence during the 2002 coup. While he tried to bill himself (and was billed by Western media) as “center-left” during the presidential campaign, he was anything but. Capriles’ plans for Venezuela included a gradual end to both subsidies for food and housing for the poorest sectors of the population, and a return to the neoliberal economics that had so devastated the country.

But almost more worrisome than Capriles himself was the way media in the U.S. and Europe prior to the elections characterized them as ripe for fraud and violence. Despite Venezuela having some of the fairest and cleanest elections in the world, outlets like CBS, the New York Times, The Guardian, and The Washington Post did not hesitate to claim that Venezuelans were afraid to vote, and referred to Chavez and other left-leaning Latin American leaders as “authoritarian,” without any mention of coups either in Venezuela, Honduras (2009), or most recently in Paraguay.

This coverage came on top of the chilling policy paper written by former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela Patrick Duddy that laid out ‘contingency plans’ for any violence in the aftermath of the elections. In it he stated that the U.S. should “communicate to the Venezuelan military leadership that they are obliged to uphold their constitution.”

Despite all this, elections were held and thankfully neither the fraud, nor violence, nor any U.S. ‘contingency plan’ has come to pass. Media accountability? That remains a distant dream.

The crime of the leaders that the Western media calls “dictators” is nothing more and nothing less than refusing to follow a neoliberal World Bank/World Trade Organization economic model, which has brought destitution not “development” to the region. There has also not only been increased regional trade, but more trade with China, particularly when it comes to Venezuelan and Brazilian oil.

Needless to say all this has particularly rattled the fossil fueled Republicans. (Last week Chevron, one of the foreign companies that used to operate in Venezuela before nationalization, dumped $2.5 million into a GOP Super Pac). Two such Republicans with a Chavez obsession are Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Connie Mack, both Florida congresspeople and chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs and head of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs for the Western Hemisphere respectively. Last year the two convinced the White House to add sanctions against Venezuela’s state oil company, PDVSA, to the Iran Sanctions Act. Looking ahead, their hope is to get Venezuela labeled a “terrorist state.” If a couple of Republicans can push a Democratic White House to take such actions against Venezuela, one can only imagine how little arm twisting a Republican president would need.

Obama or another ‘Mr. Danger’

Though the people of Latin America and increasingly their governments have given up on the neoliberal project, U.S. neoconservatives have not. In the final presidential debate focused on foreign policy, Romney both criticized Obama for his willingness to “sit down” with Chavez (which has not happened) and also claimed there are trade “opportunities for us in Latin America we have just not taken advantage of fully.”

When assessing his propensity for reckless war in Afghanistan and Iraq, Chavez once named George W. Bush ‘Mr. Danger’. From the looks of things, a Romney as president would be Mr. Danger II.

By no stretch of the imagination is Obama’s track record in Latin America one of demilitarization. Not only has his administration let two coups (Honduras & Paraguay) take place during his presidency with dormant support, the Pentagon is expanding its reach by using Plan Colombia’s funds to have the Colombian

military train Paraguayan soldiers, and has tightened military ties with Chile. With Brazil, an economic force to be reckoned with, the Pentagon hopes to the country will continue a military build-up that will be favorable to U.S. presence. As Uruguayan analyst Raul Zibechi documents, Washington’s military strategy in the region under Obama has been one of “partnership.” Zibechi quotes Chilean minister Allamand who says that ‘in Latin America the days of military interventions – internal as well as external – have come to an end; today the proper word is cooperation.’

This new language of “cooperation,” though not appeasing for peace activists throughout the Americas, is a definite downgrade from the aggression of 2002. This small yet significant difference in the Democrat’s military strategy is the same that says “drones not boots on the ground” for the Middle East and West Asia. It’s a fraction of a difference that still means lives lost, just fewer.

Long road to demilitarization

No matter what happens on the 6th, School of the Americas Watch (SOA watch) and thousands of activists will gather on the 16th outside of Fort Benning inColumbus, Georgia to demand the closure of the renamed Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. Infamous for training 64,000 Latin American soldiers, the school’s graduates include former dictators, paramilitaries, and torturers that have terrorized their own populations for decades—from Guatemala to Argentina. In recent years, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Argentina, Bolivia, Uruguay, and Venezuela have all stopped sending troops to the school, thanks to the pressure from SOA watch and the new anti-imperial regional leadership.

This August SOA watch and congressmen James McGovern and John Lewis sent a letter with 69 House member signatures urging the President to close the school. They have been assured a meeting with Obama’s Deputy Foreign Affairs Advisor Denis McDonough. Of course, whether that meeting happens will depend.

Only with this kind of strategic grassroots pressure, not an election, will U.S. imperialism and militarization of Latin America finally wane. But a Republican victory next week could mean a turning back the clock on a brand of U.S. aggression that’s better off buried for good.

Big bad Latin America?

In his article “Why the U.S. Demonizes Venezuela’s Elections,” Mark Weisbrot puts his finger on the crux of Washington’s obsession with regime change in the country. He writes:

Venezuela is part of a “Latin American spring” that has produced the most democratic, progressive, and independent group of governments that the region has ever had. They work together, and Venezuela has solid support among its neighbors. This is the former president of Brazil, Lula da Silva, last month: “A victory for Chávez is not just a victory for the people of Venezuela but also a victory for all the people of Latin America … this victory will strike another blow against imperialism.”

The ‘Pink tide’or ‘Latin America spring’s steps toward economic and political independence and cooperation (via nationalization of industry, land redistribution, social welfare programs, and regional blocs like Mercosur and Unasur) is an affront to U.S. and European capital interests. It was Lula da Silva along with Hugo Chavez and former Argentine President Nestor Kirchner, who at the Summit of the Americas in 2003 politically annihilated the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, the necon’s last neoliberal fantasy for the region.