America: Four Competing
Blocs Of Power
By James Petras
28 April, 2007
reality there are four competing blocs of nations in Latin America,
contrary to the highly simplistic dualism portrayed by the White House
and most of the Left.
Each of these four blocs
represents different degrees of accommodation or opposition to US policies
and interests. Moreover much depends on how the US defines or re-defines
its interests under the new realities.
The radical left includes
the FARC guerrillas in Colombia, sectors of the trade unions and peasant
and barrio movements in Venezuela; the labor confederation CONLUTAS
and sectors of the Rural Landless Movement in Brazil; sectors of the
Bolivian Labor Confederation (COB), the Andean peasant movements and
barrio organizations in El Alto; sectors of the peasant-indigenous movement
CONAIE in Ecuador; sectors of the teachers and peasant-indigenous movements
in Oaxaca, Guerrero and Chiapas in Mexico; sectors of the nationalist-peasant-left
in Peru; sectors of the trade union and unemployed workers in Argentina.
In addition, there are numerous other social movements in Central and
South America and a plethora of small Marxist groups in Argentina, Bolivia,
Chile and elsewhere. Together these organizations form a heterodox,
dispersed political bloc, which is staunchly anti-imperialist, rejects
any concessions to neo-liberal socio-economic policies, opposes debt
payments and generally supports a socialist or radical nationalist program.
The pragmatic left includes
President Chavez in Venezuela, Morales in Bolivia and Castro in Cuba
as well as a multiplicity of large electoral parties and major peasant
and trade unions in Central and South America. Included here are the
left electoral parties, the PRD in Mexico, the FMLN in El Salvador,
the left electoral bloc and the labor confederation (CUT) in Colombia,
the Chilean Communist Party, the majority in Peruvian nationalist Humala’s
parliamentary party, leadership sectors of the MST, in Brazil, the MAS,
the governing party in Bolivia, the CTA, the second largest labor confederation
in Argentina, and a minority of the Broad Front and the labor confederation
(PIT-CNT) in Uruguay. The great majority of left Latin American intellectuals
are found among this political bloc.
It is worthwhile to examine
why this bloc is referred to as the ‘pragmatic’ left. First
of all Venezuela, Bolivia and the entire spectrum of above-mentioned
social movements, trade union confederations, parties and fractions
of parties do not call for or practice the expropriation of capitalism,
the repudiation of the debt, the complete expropriation of US or EEC
banks or multinational corporation, or any rupture in relations with
For example, in Venezuela,
private national and foreign banks earned over 30% rate of return in
2005-2007. Foreign-owned oil companies reaped record profits between
2004-2007. Less than 1% of the biggest landed estates were fully expropriated
and titles turned over to landless peasants. Capital-labor relations
still operate in a framework heavily weighted on behalf of business
and labor contractors who rely on subcontractors who continue to dominate
hiring and firing in more than one half of the large enterprises. The
Venezuelan military and police continue to arrest suspected Colombian
guerrillas and activists and turn them over to the Colombian police.
Venezuela and US-client President Uribe of Colombia have signed several
high-level security and economic co-operation agreements. While promoting
Latin American integration (excluding the US) Chavez has looked toward
greater ‘integration’ with neo-liberal Brazil and Argentina,
whose oil production and distribution is controlled by European MNCs
and US investors. While Chavez attacks US attempts to subvert the democratic
process in Venezuela, it still provides 12% of total US petroleum imports,
owns 12,000 CITGO gasoline stations in the US and several refineries.
Finally the Venezuela’s
political system is wide open to influence by the private mass media,
which are overwhelmingly hostile to the democratically elected President
and Congress. US-funded NGO’s continue to act on behalf of US
policymakers, as do a dozen pro-US political parties and a trade union
confederation. The majority of pro-Chavez congressional members and
officials are of very dubious nationalist credentials, having jumped
on his political bandwagon more for personal advancement than from any
populist loyalties. Many emigrated from defunct pro-US right wing political
parties. In a word, Venezuela’s pragmatism spells out a very lucrative
field for US investors, a reliable supplier of energy and alliances
with the US’s major client (Colombia) in Latin America. The essence
of the matter is that Chavez’s radical rhetoric and discourse
on 21st century socialism does not now or in the proximate future correspond
to the political realities. If it were not for Washington’s intransigent
hostility and continued confrontation and destabilization tactics, even
Chavez’s discourse would likely be moderated. That sectors of
big business complain about increased royalty payments, profit sharing
and taxes is to be expected, but hardly the basis for Washington to
engage in arms boycotts, cheap rhetorical shots and undercover subversion.
US-Venezuela relations embody
what is wrong and has failed in Latin America. By comparing Chavez’
policy with that of the previous Venezuelan client regimes during the
1990’s, Washington is painting Chavez as a ‘dangerous radical’.
Taking into account the changed international environment of the 2000-2007
period and the limited social welfare, and tax and other reforms, and
taking Chavez’ foreign policy pronouncements with a grain of salt,
the US is in fact dealing with a pragmatic radical who can be accommodated.
But that presumes that Washington rejects the 1990’s as a standard
for measuring friends and enemies. It presumes that Washington realizes
that the favorable international conjuncture of the 1990’s is
gone and it must accommodate moderate reforms and foreign policy differences
to avoid a social revolution.
The same is true regarding
US policy toward Cuba and Bolivia. Cuba has established diplomatic ties
with almost all US clients and allies in Latin America. It has explicitly
extended a friendly diplomatic hand to US-backed Colombian President
Uribe, rejects the revolutionary left (FARC) in Colombia, gives public
support to neo-liberals like Lula of Brazil, Kirchner of Argentina and
Vazquez in Uruguay and has signed a wide range of purchasing agreements
with big US food exporters amounting to over $500 million dollars a
year despite onerous terms. Cuba has provided free health services to
a large number of US client regimes ranging from Honduras and Haiti
to Pakistan. It is training thousands of doctors and educators from
the poorest of US client states and has opened the door to foreign investors
from four continents in all its major growth sectors.
Paradoxically as Cuba has
deepened its integration into the world capitalist market leading to
the emergence of a new class of market-oriented elites, Washington has
increased its ideological hostility. By issuing military threats and
exercising diplomatic pressure and provocations, the White House has
strengthened radical tendencies in Cuban society. Washington has adopted
a similar extremist posture toward the pragmatic-leftist Morales regime
in Bolivia, whose ‘nationalization’ has not and will not
expropriate any foreign-owned enterprise. One of Morales main purposes
is to stimulate trade agreements between Bolivia’s agro-business
elite and the US.
The third and most numerous
political bloc in Latin America are the pragmatic neo-liberals which
includes Brazil under Lula, Kirchner’s Argentina and the major
trade union confederations in Brazil and Argentina, sectors of the big
business and financial elites and the principal provincial political
bosses handing out subsistence unemployment doles and food baskets.
There are numerous imitators of these regimes among left-liberal opposition
groups in Ecuador, Nicaragua (the Sandinistas and their split-offs),
Paraguay and elsewhere. Both Kirchner and Lula have defended the entire
gamut of legal, semi-legal and illegal privatizations, which took place
in the 1990’s. Both have prepaid on their official debt obligations
(though Argentina imposed a 60% discount on private debt holders).
Both have pursued agro-mineral
export growth strategies. Both have vastly increased financial and business
profits while restraining wages and salaries. There are also differences
between the two. Kirchner’s pro-industry strategy has led to a
growth rate over twice that of Lula and he has reduced unemployment
by 50% (from a high base figure) compared to Lula’s failed employment
policies. In other words, the investment environment for US business-people
and bankers in Argentina and Brazil is as favorable to profit making
(or even more so for US bankers in Brazil) as it was during the ‘Golden
Years’ of the 1990’s.
The major changes in relations
between the pragmatic neo-liberals and Washington are in the negotiations
over a free trade agreement. The vast increase in global trade opportunities
and the stronger market position of elite export producers and manufacturers
within Latin America gives them a stronger negotiating position. Both
Lula and Kirchner will have nothing to do with extremist-militarist
US efforts to overthrow or boycott Chavez because they have growing
and lucrative market investments and joint oil/gas projects in the works.
They recognize the basically capitalist nature of the Chavez regime
even as they reject most of his radical anti-imperialist discourse.
Likewise both Presidents are diversifying trading partners and pursuing
markets with US competitors in China and Asia because it is lucrative,
revenue generating and part of their neo-liberal practice.
There is a clear difference
between the market-oriented and free trade-driven policy of Argentina
and Brazil and the militarist, ideologically driven US policy toward
Venezuela, Cuba, the Middle East and elsewhere.
While Washington is not hostile
to Argentina and has a friendly working relation with Brazil, it has
failed to fully exploit the possibilities of extending influence because
of its refusal to recognize the emergence of a kind of ‘nationalist’
free trade regime. Measuring Argentina against the 1990’s ‘Golden
Age of Pillage’ under President Carlos Menem, Kirchner’s
pursuit of negotiated agreements, regulated investments, tax collection
and debt re-negotiations is seen as ‘nationalist’, ‘leftist’
and barely tolerable. Likewise Washington, accustomed to Cardoso’s
role as a Washington client, is disturbed by the fact that Lula’s
free market policies include a demand that the US end agricultural subsidies
and quotas as well as Brazil. Once again Washington’s extremism
sacrifices large-scale, long-term US entry into Brazil’s industrial
and service sector in order to defend uncompetitive US farm enterprises.
Washington’s attitude is more akin to a 19th century colonial
(or mercantile) power than a 21st century market-based empire-builder,
especially faced with pragmatic rulers looking to build their own regional
The fourth political bloc
is the doctrinaire neo-liberal regimes, parties and elite associations,
which closely follow Washington’s dictates. This includes the
Calderon regime in Mexico, preparing to privatize the lucrative public
petroleum and electrical firms, the Bachelet regime in Chile - the perennial
agro-mineral-exporter, Central America – the tropical fruit and
assembly plant exporters (El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica
and Guatemala). The latter were brought into the US orbit subsequent
to the killing of over 300,000 people between the late 1970’s
and early 1990’s.
Colombia, another member
of the hard-line neo-liberal bloc, is recipient of $5 billion dollars
in US military aid since the late 1990’s. Peru, which over the
past 20 years has privatized almost all of its mineral wealth is governed
by US client President Alan Garcia who continues the same policies.
Paraguay has become the biggest military base for Washington. In Uruguay,
a regime of ex-leftists has signed onto a new free trade agreement with
the US and agreed to a military training base. In the Caribbean, the
US occupies Haiti via the UN after overthrowing and abducting the elected
President Bertram Aristide and has a loyal ally in the Dominican Republic
(President Leonel Fernandez). In other words, Washington dominates a
‘Pacific Arc’ of loyal clients extending from Mexico, through
Central America down the Southern Pacific coast, including Colombia,
Peru and Chile. While the political labels, rhetoric and degree of stability
vary, these regimes all embrace US-backed doctrines of free market,
mostly follow the US lead in regional and international forums and in
one degree or another openly or surreptitiously oppose Venezuela and
Cuba. Powerful pragmatic leftist movements challenge these client regimes,
especially in Mexico, El Salvador, Peru and Colombia (including the
radical left in the latter). Nevertheless for the immediate future,
Washington has a loyal bloc of follower regimes, even as, over the middle
course this could change abruptly.
Claims by Washington and
right-wing ideologues that ‘radical populism’ is sweeping
the region are self-serving and gross simplifications of a complex reality.
Instead there is a ‘quadrangle of competing and conflicting forces’
within Latin America. There are also new and changing international
scenarios, which complicate any attempt to ‘pigeonhole’
policies with ‘either/or’ choices. Washington has emphasized
the subversive influence of Venezuela and Cuba in weakening US dominance
in Latin America. A far more important factor is the across the board
rise in commodity prices of goods which are major export earners for
Latin America. This means that the Latin American countries have less
need to rely on IMF ‘conditions’ for securing loans, thus
severely limiting US political leverage. Secondly the greater liquidity
means that commercial loans can be secured without resorting to the
World Bank, another instrument of US influence in Latin American political
and economic policy making. Thirdly the rapidly expanding markets in
Asia and particularly the growth of Asian investment in Latin America’s
extractive industries has further eroded US ‘market leverage’
in Latin America over and above what Washington possessed in the 1990’s.
Fourthly with the slowdown of the US economy in 2007, the US is expected
to lessen its investments and trade with Latin America. In other words,
Washington has less market leverage over pragmatic leftists and neo-liberals
than it possessed during the 1990’s. To continue to act in the
late-2000s as if Washington’s relative loss of influence reflects
the ebb and flow of political forces (radical populism) within the region
is to pursue failed policies. Mislabeling regimes and exaggerating the
degree and kind of opposition leads to the exacerbation of conflicts.
Furthermore for Washington to persist in believing that it can secure
continent-wide free trade agreements based on non-reciprocal concessions
(particularly in agriculture) is to lose out on opportunities for trade
and ideological labeling of changes in US-Latin American relations is
a result of the ultra-conservative configuration of policymakers and
their principal advisers in Washington.
If Washington has grossly
misrepresented Latin American political reality and misreads the current
regional and international context, the Left is hardly more prescient.
Leftist intellectuals exaggerate the radicalism or revolutionary reality
of Cuba and Venezuela. They overlook the contradictory realities and
their pragmatic accommodations with neo-liberal regimes. The Left, with
little historical perspicacity, continues to categorize pragmatic neo-liberals
like Lula, Kirchner and Vazquez as ‘progressives’, lumping
them together with pragmatic leftists like Chavez, Castro and Morales.
In many cases they characterize parties and regimes based on their past
leftist political identities rather than their current free market,
pro-agro-mineral elite policies. The Left confuses the pragmatic neo-liberal
regimes’ efforts to negotiate symmetrical free market trade agreements
with the US as some sort of ‘anti-globalization’ policy
or as a ‘counter-weight’ to US power.
The Left has to face up to
the fact that while US power has declined relative to the ‘Golden
Age of Pillage’ during the 1990’s, it has recovered and
advanced since the mass rebellions and overthrow of client regimes of
2000-2002. The hopes that the Left had that the presidential victories
of former center-left electoral parties in Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina,
would augur a reversion of the neo-liberal policies of their predecessors
have been demonstrably dashed. The attempt to redefine the conversion
of the ex-leftist-turned-pragmatic neo-liberals into something progressive
or as a ‘counter-weight’ to US power is ingenuous at best
and at worst compounds the initial error. The Left’s lack of political
clarity regarding political changes has led it into a blind alley as
damaging to its future growth as Washington’s failed efforts to
recognize the new realities.
While US power over Latin
America has declined since the 1990’s it has not been a linear
process, a sharp fall has been followed by a partial recovery. The decline
of the US has not been matched by a sustained rise in the power of the
radical left. The real ‘gainers’ have been the pragmatic
leftists and neo-liberals who rode to power with the demise of the doctrinaire
neo-liberals and the favorable expansive conjuncture in world market
conditions. There are neither inherent long-term ‘laws of imperial
decline’ as some Leftist historians claim, nor ‘an end of
the revolutionary left’ as their neo-liberal counterparts claim.
Rather a realistic analysis demonstrates that political interventions,
class conflict and international markets play a major role in shaping
US-Latin American relations and more particularly the ascent and decline
of US imperial power, social revolutionary forces and the other political
variants in between.
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