To read the article, click here.
The longer the Democratic nominating process goes on, the more the issue of race exposes ugly fissures within the party. With his early wins in Iowa and Wisconsin, two states with a predominantly white electorate, Barack Obama hoped that he would be able to transcend racial divisions.
Then we got Jeremiah Wright and the unflattering media coverage which followed. The Illinois Senator started to lose primaries in white states like Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Kentucky. In particular, race played a critical role in the latter state, with one in five admitting that the issue affected their decision once they got into the voting booth.
At the same time, Obama has been racking up the black primary vote in record numbers: in South Carolina he got 78%, and in Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. he received nearly 90%.
The media has made much of this white- black split. But what about other racial divisions on the campaign trail?
Latinos: Obama’s Achilles Heel
In Texas Latinos made up nearly one third of the vote. According to CNN’s exit poll, they supported Clinton over Obama by a margin of two to one in the state’s primary. In the Nevada caucus, Clinton nailed the Latino vote two to one. In California, where Latino voters make up 30% of the Democratic electorate, Clinton had an even bigger blow-out: the New York Senator won 67 percent of the Latino vote to 29 percent for Obama.
Surely, Clinton benefited from high name recognition within the Latino community whereas Obama by contrast was little known. But given the lopsided numbers, it seems logical to wonder whether Latino voters, like the whites in Kentucky, may have voted at least in part on the basis of race.
These are very sensitive questions and, not surprisingly, we haven’t heard much discussion about such issues in the U.S. corporate media. While white pundits have occasionally mentioned white racism towards blacks they have ignored racial tensions between blacks and Latinos, perhaps because they feel awkward wading into the discussion. And yet, as we near the Puerto Rico primary on June 1st, Latino-black race relations could play a vital role in the nominating process.
Puerto Rico: Determined to Make an Impact
Puerto Ricans are used to feeling disenfranchised in the electoral process. Island residents are U.S. citizens but they cannot vote in the general presidential election. They have no voting representation in Washington, D.C. though the island sends a symbolic, nonvoting delegate to Congress. Because Puerto Rico is a semi-autonomous commonwealth and not a state, only Puerto Ricans living on the U.S. mainland may cast ballots for president in November.
Determined to make an impact upon the nominating process this year, Puerto Rico, an island of about 4 million people, has made some important electoral changes. The island has scrapped its traditional caucus in favor of a primary in which 55 delegates will be at stake. In addition, Puerto Rico has moved its primary up to June 1st, which means that Montana and South Dakota will vote last on June 3rd.
Puerto Rico Democratic Chairman Roberto Prats said that caucuses were fine in previous years, when the party nominee was settled by the time Puerto Rico voted and the only task was to choose delegates to the national convention. "Now it’s different," he told the Democratic National Committee’s rules panel in a conference call. "This is the first time in decades that Puerto Rico will be participating in an event of this magnitude."
Obama and Clinton: It’s all About the Vagueness
Puerto Rican politics largely revolves around the long-standing question about what the island’s future relationship to the U.S. mainland should be. To this day, Puerto Rico is divided between one major party advocating statehood and the other favoring a continuation of the current arrangement, known as a “free associated state.”
If Puerto Rico were to become a state, then the island would receive voting rights and equality under U.S. law. However, it would also mean that Puerto Ricans would be subject to federal income tax, a fate which statehood opponents are determined to avoid. The island has voted on and rejected statehood four times.
At a recent campaign rally on the island, Clinton said, “I believe you should have a vote in picking the president,” even before the issue of the island’s status is resolved. Taking questions in the city of Bayamón, Obama heard an array of concerns from residents who said they felt like second-class citizens. “What it comes down to is respect,” he said.
For the most part however, both Clinton and Obama have tried to remain neutral on the overall issue of Puerto Rico’s future political status.
“I believe all people are entitled to a representative form of government at all levels of government, and that the people of Puerto Rico should have the right to determine by majority vote the status you choose from among all the options,” Clinton said while campaigning. “I have no preference. My only commitment is to work with those from all factions and with the congress to give you the right to make that decision. I want that done within my first term as president.”
Will Clinton continue to rout Obama amongst Latino voters once Puerto Rico votes in its primary? No opinion polling has been conducted on the island so it is difficult to predict the electoral result. As the junior Senator from New York however, Clinton probably has the advantage in Puerto Rico. About four million Puerto Ricans reside in the U.S., with the largest concentration in the three-state New York City metropolitan area. While campaigning on the island, Clinton refers to herself jokingly as "the senator from Puerto Rico."
Clinton is familiar to most Puerto Ricans as a result of her stint as first lady. Under husband Bill, she got involved in disaster relief after Hurricane Georges and met with protesters seeking an end to the U.S. Navy’s use of the island of Vieques for bombing practice. In an effort to make her mark in the last stages of the campaign, Clinton has dispatched not only Bill but also daughter Chelsea to Puerto Rico.
Obama by contrast is less well known. Until his arrival this past weekend, Obama had visited just once, for a fund-raiser last year. To level the playing field, he has sent wife Michelle as well as New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson to Puerto Rico to campaign on his behalf. In seeking to appeal to Puerto Ricans, Obama emphasizes the fact that he was also born and raised on an island far from the U.S. mainland.
Meanwhile the island’s political establishment seems pretty split between Obama and Clinton. Puerto Rico’s Governor Aníbal Acevedo-Vila has endorsed Obama. However, other members of Acevedo-Vila’s Popular Democratic Party, as well as politicians from the opposition New Progressive Party, are reportedly leaning towards Clinton.
Hardly a “Racial Democracy”
With no clear ideological differences between the two candidates, race may enter into the political equation. In an interesting article in the New York Times, the paper remarked that “Obama’s biracial identity is perceived as working to his advantage” in Puerto Rico. The article goes on to quote Juan Manuel García Passalacqua, a political commentator: “On the mainland, Obama is black, but not in Puerto Rico. Here he is a mulatto, and this is a mulatto society. People here are perfectly prepared to vote for someone who looks like them for president of the United States.”
On the surface at least, the New York Times would seem to be talking some sense. African slaves were imported into Puerto Rico to run the island’s sugar plantations during the colonial period and mixed with the native population. To say however that Puerto Ricans identify as blacks or mulattoes is overly simplistic and ignores the fact that racism has long characterized social life on the island.
Many scholars agree that Puerto Rico is stratified along color lines, ranging along a color continuum from white to brown to black. Puerto Ricans of darker skin color have faced racial discrimination in private schools, the University of Puerto Rico, private enterprises, voluntary associations and residential areas. Loiza, the town with the largest proportion of black people, is one of Puerto Rico’s poorest and has been plagued by complaints of police brutality.
According to Jorge Duany, a leading Puerto Rican sociologist, “Although the empirical evidence on racial politics in contemporary Puerto Rico is still scanty, several studies have documented that blacks are a stigmatized minority on the Island; that they suffer from persistent prejudice and discrimination,” and that they concentrate in the lower classes.
Puerto Rico Primary and Racial Identity
Duany writes that Puerto Ricans have developed an elaborate racist vocabulary to refer to racially stereotyped characteristics. Kinky hair, for example, is referred to as “bad” (“pelo malo”). Meanwhile racial prejudice is apparent in folk humor, beauty contests, media portrayals, and political leadership. “In all these areas,” Duany says, “whites are usually depicted as more intelligent, attractive, refined, and capable than are blacks.”
All of which is not to say that racism in Puerto Rico works in the same way as the United States. However, the island is hardly a “racial democracy” as some of the island’s boosters have claimed. Indeed, many Puerto Ricans deny their cultural heritage and physical characteristics and buy into an ideology of “whitening” through intermarriage with light skinned groups. Interestingly, a whopping 81% of Puerto Ricans called themselves “white” on the 2000 U.S. census.
What does all this racial politics portend for the territory’s upcoming primary? Obama has swept U.S. states with sizable African American populations like South Carolina. Puerto Rico however could be another story however as it is by no means clear that island residents self identify as black. On June 1st, we may see Latinos continue to vote en masse for a white candidate over a black one.
Despite his record unpopularity, it would appear that President Bush wants to go out of office with a bang. Having failed to overthrow Hugo Chávez through an attempted coup, the White House now hopes to escalate pressure on Venezuela’s President by other means.
On Saturday, a U.S. navy plane strayed into Venezuelan airspace. Venezuelan Defense Minister Gustavo Rangel said that the aircraft "practically flew over" the island of La Orchila – where Venezuela has a military base and President Hugo Chávez has a residence – and another island before turning back. U.S. officials claimed the plane had “navigational problems.”
"This is just the latest step in a series of provocations," Rangel said.
From Orchila to the Fourth Fleet
Indeed, tensions have been mounting in recent days. The Navy is now reactivating its fourth fleet in the Caribbean. The fleet, which will include a nuclear aircraft carrier, will be based in Mayport, Florida.
The fleet hasn’t seen any action in Caribbean waters since World War II. In February 1942, the Germans sank a number of oil tankers full of Venezuelan crude. The attack caused a nationalist outcry in Venezuela and Caracas began to side more openly with the allies. In response to the attacks the U.S. patrolled the area, hunting down Nazi submarines which were wreaking havoc on allied shipping. After the war, with no more German U-boats prowling Caribbean waters, the Fourth Fleet was dissolved.
So, why resuscitate the fleet now?
The navy claims the move is necessary to protect maritime security. The real reason however may have more to do with Washington’s desire to wage a kind of psychological war against the Chávez government and to foment a climate of political tension.
From Laptops to Border Incursions
In its quest to get rid of Chávez, the White House has also sought to spark tensions between Colombia and Venezuela. There’s a good chance that the U.S. Southern Command passed crucial military intelligence to the Bogotá government when the latter attacked an encampment of FARC guerrillas inside Ecuadoran territory. After the March 1 assault, which resulted in the deaths of guerrilla leader Raúl Reyes as well as 20 other insurgents, and which arguably constituted an act of international terrorism, the Colombian authorities claimed that Chávez and Rafael Correa, Ecuador’s pro-Venezuelan President, were doing their utmost to support the FARC.
As evidence they produced documents allegedly found on FARC laptop computers which remarkably survived the attack intact. The documents, Colombia says, prove that Chávez has provided weapons, munitions, and $300 million in aid to the FARC. After conducting its own investigation, Interpol declared that Colombia did not modify, delete or create any files, although the Andean nation did not always follow internationally accepted methods when handling the computers. The agency stated that the documents came from a FARC camp, but investigators could not conclusively prove that the information contained within the documents was totally accurate.
In Washington, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack pounced on Interpol’s report, remarking that the laptop files indicating Venezuelan support for the FARC were “highly disturbing.” Chávez has rejected the accusations, calling the Interpol report a "clown show" that "doesn’t deserve serious comment." The Venezuelan leader said all relations with Colombia as well as his country’s cooperation with Interpol would undergo “deep review.” Seeking to rhetorically destroy his adversaries, Chávez referred to Interpol chief Ronald Noble as a "mafioso” and “an aggressive Yankee cop." In yet another memorable outburst from the Venezuelan leader, Chávez added that Noble’s true name was "Mr. Ignoble.”
As if relations between Colombia and Venezuela could slip no further, on Saturday, the same day that the U.S. navy plane passed into Venezuelan airspace, Chávez accused Bogotá of sending its troops across the border in an illegal incursion. The two South American nations share a 1,370-mile border that winds through mountains and thick patches of jungle. In a written statement, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolás Maduro said that 60 Colombian troops had been intercepted in Venezuela’s western Apure state, about 875 yards from the nations’ shared border.
Controversy Over Guajira
Amidst ominous signs that the U.S. might be seeking to destabilize the Venezuelan government, a new controversy is swirling. William Brownfield, the U.S. ambassador to Colombia, recently remarked that the U.S. would consider relocating its military air base at Manta, Ecuador to Colombia. According to the New York Times, an area mentioned in later reports was the Guajira region near the Venezuelan border. Colombia’s foreign minister, Fernando Araújo, quickly denied that Colombia had any plans to allow the United States to establish a base in Guajira.
The controversy could not have come at a worse time.
Already, tensions have risen as a result of secessionist efforts in the westernmost state of Zulia which spans the Venezuelan Guajira region. Recently, the Chávez opposition in Zulia proposed a feasibility study for potential independence from the federal government. What’s more, Zulia Governor Manuel Rosales, who lost to Chávez in the December 2006 presidential election, announced his support for his state’s autonomy.
Speaking on his weekly TV show Aló, Presidente!, Chávez warned opposition leaders that any move towards Zulia autonomy would lead to confrontation. “I advise those individuals who want to break up Venezuela to think it through very well. We won’t tolerate a political fragmentation of our country,” he declared, adding that any such attempts would be met with force. The Venezuelan leader went on to say that Zulia autonomy constituted an “imperial plan” designed and supported by the United States to take control of strategic oil areas.
An impoverished region, the Guajira is home to Wayúu Indians who come and go across the frontier. The area is full of barren desert and straddles the Colombian-Venezuelan border. Geographically remote, the Guajira has historically been embroiled in diplomatic controversy. In 1928, Colombian authorities were so concerned about secessionist plots in the region that Bogotá’s House of Deputies met in secret session to discuss "moves of Yankee agents in the Departments of Santander and Goagira which sought to provoke a separatist movement which, united to Zulia [in the midst of the Venezuelan oil zone] would form the Republic of Zulia."
As a result of the tangled history, any talk of installing a U.S. presence in the area inevitably stirs nationalist passions. Chávez has stated that "We will not allow the Colombian government to give La Guajira to the empire,” referring to the U.S. As media reports surfaced, local authorities in the Guajira raised their voices in protest. Eber Chacón, a Chávez supporter and the Mayor of Páez, a local indigenous municipality, called on the Wayúu in Colombia and Venezuela to repudiate attempts by the Venezuelan opposition to divide them with their "autonomist and separatist positions." Chacón added that installing a U.S. base in Guajira would represent a potential threat to hemispheric security.
From Manta to Colombia
How did we get to the point where the U.S. is actually thinking about closing its military base in Manta, Ecuador and opening a new one in Colombia? That is a question I seek to answer in my book, Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan), just released in April of this year.
In Ecuador it is difficult to ignore the public climate of hostility towards the U.S. military base at Manta, which is used for drug over flights of Colombian air space. The facility, located 160 miles southwest of Quito on the coast, is a large installation which is technically not controlled by the United States but belongs to the Ecuadoran air force.
Many Ecuadorans believe that the United States is trying to draw their nation more deeply into the Colombian conflict, which has spilled over the border. The air base at Manta was leased to the U.S. military for 10 years in 1999, and President Rafael Correa made it clear even before he was elected that he did not plan to extend the lease once it expired in 2009.
During a trip to Quito, I found myself on the campus of the city’s Catholic University. At a table, a woman was registering people to go on a bus trip to the coast to protest the base at Manta. In the hallway, I met Gualdemar Jiménez, a local activist.
U.S. Air Base at Manta: A Social Disaster
“Manta used to be a purely fishing town,” he explained. “Now the fishermen don’t have access to certain parts of the ocean, which are closed off for security reasons.” On the sea, U.S marines had intercepted Ecuadoran boats, even sinking some vessels. “The marines are not the Ecuadoran coast guard,” Jiménez declared indignantly.
He went on to tick off a number of other problems associated with the U.S. airbase. For example, the base had gradually expanded over time. This expansion had displaced campesino farmers from their traditional lands. In addition, there had been environmental damage: within the local area, hillsides had been destroyed in an effort to acquire the necessary raw materials to mix asphalt and repave the runway.
The Manta air base contributes some $7 million to the local economy annually, but activists are critical of the lack of real economic development in the area. The marines don’t do any shopping in Ecuadoran markets, nor do they utilize local transportation. “The only thing they contribute to is local discos and prostitution,” Jiménez explained bitterly.
“What you´re describing is hardly unique,” I remarked. “It reminds me of the history of other U.S. military bases.”
“It´s a trend that is repeated around the world,” Jiménez said. “In Vietnam, you had houses of prostitution springing up as well.”
Now that Correa is likely to give the U.S. the boot, the Americans must figure out where they may go next. The Defense Department doesn’t have too many options: across South America, Pink Tide nations are unlikely to host a prolonged U.S. military presence on their soil. About the only country which might agree is Colombia, but for different reasons such a move would prove perilous.
If U.S. troops were deployed to Colombia, they would be stationed in the middle of a war zone and would be exposed to attacks by the FARC. Politically, opening a new base on Colombian soil would further antagonize Chávez across the border. Whether the Pentagon decides to station its base in Guajira amongst the Wayúu or elsewhere in Colombia, the installation is likely to give rise to prostitution and other negative social consequences for the local population, just like Manta.
An image flashes across the screen of pretty young women. They’re dressed in red T-shirts, wave a red flag, and run towards the camera. A voice intones, “Let us all participate in the great party of hope! Change is coming!” The image then shifts to a dapper young man with glasses who is thronged by enthusiastic crowds.
Meet Mauricio Funes, bane of the U.S. foreign policy establishment and the likely next President of El Salvador as of March, 2009. Funes’ party, the FMLN (or Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front), is running television ads such as these in an effort to appeal to the young generation and roll back the political right which has dominated the country’s politics for decades.
Funes is a former commentator for CNN International and for years had a popular daily show called The Interview with Mauricio Funes which wasbroadcast on national television. Well known amongst his compatriots, he is arguably El Salvador’s most respected journalist. A frequent critic of government abuses, Funes quickly developed a reputation as a political crusader.
As the so-called “Pink Tide” sweeps through South America 2009 is fast sizing up as a momentous political year for El Salvador, a Massachusetts sized nation of some six 6 million people. Like Barack Obama, Funes is poised, youthful and inspiring. He even has a similar campaign slogan: “Cambio” or “Change.” Like the presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party, Funes is already drawing large crowds. He is currently leading in public opinion surveys against his main political rivals.
The U.S. left doesn’t know much about Funes, but that’s hardly surprising given the political trends of the past fifteen years. During the 1980s, in the midst of the country’s civil war, the FMLN was a cause célèbre for the U.S. left. But once the U.S.-backed counter-insurgency war ended and FMLN guerrillas demobilized and formed their own political party, radicals focused their attention elsewhere. El Salvador dropped off the media horizon.
The small Central American nation is about to leap back into the headlines, however.
A victory for the FMLN would further embolden Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and continue Central America’s drift towards the center left, already underway with the return of Daniel Ortega of the Sandinista Party in Nicaragua and the election of Álvaro Colom Caballeros in Guatemala. If a solid pro-Chávez column of smaller nations emerges in the region this could prove to be a difficult pill for Washington to swallow.
ARENA: “The Reds Will Die”
When you consider just how entrenched the right wing has become in El Salvador, Funes’ political rise is even more remarkable.
Ever since 1992, the year El Salvador’s horrific civil war ended, ARENA (or Nationalist Republican Alliance) has reigned supreme in election after election. The party was founded by right wing death squad leader Roberto D’Aubuisson, held to be one of the intellectual authors behind the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980. Many see ARENA, whose party colors are red, white and blue, as modeled on the U.S. Republican party but with even stronger nationalist overtones.
The hymn of the party touts El Salvador as the tomb where “the Reds will die.”
By the early 1990s, with the international left now ignoring the political story in El Salvador, ARENA consolidated its control through the ballot box.
Remaking the Party
Fearing relatiation from Washington, Funes has bent over backwards to placate the U.S. He has, for example, met with State Department officials as well as members of Congress and reassured them that he is no radical.
Meanwhile, Funes has declared that El Salvador should not scrap use of the dollar by returning to its previous currency, the colón. Funes says that "dollarization" and the adoption of the Central American Free Trade Agreement in 2006 have had negative effects, such as inflation and unfavorable competition for small-scale farmers, but that it is too late to scrap these policies.
The former media commentator seeks to remake the FMLN into a pragmatic political party. At rallies, he doesn't sing the party's anthem or wear the traditional red colours, preferring to campaign in a crisp white guayabera shirt. It’s a symbolic move designed to contrast himself with many in the party who still wear fatigues and brandish pictures of Che Guevara and Soviet flags at campaign rallies.
ARENA President Antonio Saca, whose term ends next year, has questioned the FMLN's supposed moderation. "If it flies like a duck, swims like a duck and eats like a duck, it's a duck. The FMLN is a communist party. Its ideas haven't changed," he has remarked.
Demonizing Funes by Linking Him to Chávez
Despite such dismissive rhetoric, ARENA is fearful that Funes may not go down to electoral defeat like his FMLN predecessors. Facing a possible debacle in March, the Salvadoran right and Washington have gone into overdrive, trying to tarnish Funes by linking him to Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. ARENA in fact has accused Funes of being a “little Chávez.”
Earlier this year, U.S. Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell warned Congress that he expected Chávez to provide "generous campaign funding" to Funes. Similar U.S. national security reports, later exposed as false and comprised of politically-manipulated intelligence, were used by the Bush White House to justify its preemptive war against Iraq in 2003.
Nevertheless, ARENA President Antonio Saca pounced on the report, remarking that this act of “interference” would be “unacceptable.” He even ordered an investigation into the matter and, in another high profile move, recalled El Salvador's diplomatic envoy from Caracas.
On the other hand, Saca apparently views electoral intervention by the United States government as not only acceptable, but welcomed. In a November 2007 press conference with President Bush, Saca stated that the U.S. "can help out a lot in preventing citizen support for certain proposals in the upcoming elections."
Funes has denied any links to the Venezuelan government, and Chávez has scoffed at McConnell’s accusations. The Venezuelan leader said the FMLN needed no extra financial support as it was a "solid" and "well-organized" party with popular backing. Chávez described the “gringo” allegations as just another U.S. attempt to discredit him and cause divisions in the region. "It's a lie,” Chávez said. “We don’t need to do that, and they don’t need it.”
History Repeating Itself
It’s not the first time that Bush and the Salvadoran right have played the Chávez card.
During the 2004 presidential election in El Salvador, the Bush administration was nervous the left might win as Schafik Handal, the FMLN candidate, opposed the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and was threatening to withdraw El Salvador's troops from Iraq. As payback for U.S. support for the counter-insurgency war of the 1980s, ARENA sent 381 soldiers to Iraq in the early stages of the war. Salvadoran troops generally refrained from front-line fighting and were instead delegated to humanitarian and reconstruction efforts.
In March, 2003 Special White House Assistant Otto Reich, an implacable Chávez foe who met with Dictator-For-a-Day Pedro Carmona in the run-up to the 2002 coup in Venezuela, declared that the United States would reevaluate its relationship with "an El Salvador led by a person who is an admirer of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez." The red-baiting tactics instilled fear in the Salvadoran electorate, which no doubt worried about a return to combative relations with the United States. Handal went down to crushing defeat, winning just 38% of the vote to ARENA candidate Saca’s 58%.
Entrenched Trade Relationship
With a more charismatic, media-savvy candidate at the helm, 2009 could be different for the FMLN. But if Funes were to actually win, what might be the future of Salvadoran-U.S. relations?
The FMLN leader would find it difficult, if not impossible, to take an antagonistic position towards the United States. The young politician would enter office with El Salvador’s trade relations with the United States already well established: in 2006 the two countries signed a free trade agreement providing El Salvador with preferential access to U.S. markets.
El Salvador exports everything from textiles to apparel to shoes and processed foods to the United States, and Funes certainly wouldn’t want to jeopardize such a vital trade relationship. Indeed, right now the U.S. is El Salvador’s most important market, purchasing 57.1% of the Central American nation’s goods. El Salvador in turn receives more than 40% of its imports from the U.S.
The Iraq-El Salvador Connection
Nevertheless, Funes may take some punitive measures against Washington. He has stated for example that one of his first decisions as President would be to withdraw Salvadoran troops from Iraq. ARENA is now paying a high political price for its loyalty to Washington: polls have shown that a majority of the Salvadoran people oppose their country’s troop presence in the Middle East.
While other Central American countries such as Nicaragua and Honduras have long since withdrawn their forces, El Salvador is holding firm and is currently the only Latin American country with forces still deployed in Iraq. ARENA’s position is that Salvadoran forces will continue their service in Iraq until they “finish what [they have] started.”
Were the Salvadoran troops to leave, such a development would prove insignificant from a military point of view. However, Funes would succeed in making a symbolic and political point: that El Salvador is no longer Washington’s lackey in Central America.
Chávez and FMLN: Furthering Ties through Oil
In another worrying development for Washington, Funes has said that he would seek friendly ties to Venezuela. For the two Latin American nations, oil might prove to be highly instrumental in solidifying ties. Recently, Chávez has undertaken an alliance with Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega by agreeing to supply the Central American nation with discounted oil. El Salvador is not an oil producer and a Funes administration would no doubt welcome any Venezuelan assistance to meet its energy needs.
Indeed, the FMLN has been steadily building up its relationship with the Chávez government over the last several years. At the local level FMLN mayors set up ENEPASA, a joint venture energy company which signed an energy deal with Venezuela in 2006. The initiative is designed to provide less expensive fuel to El Salvador’s drivers.
Clearly there was more to the deal than just providing cheap gas.
The FMLN seeks to rebuff ARENA President Saca and his neo-liberal economic approach by laying the groundwork for closer integration through ALBA, the Bolivarian Alternative to the Americas. The plan, initiated by Chávez several years ago, seeks to counteract the corporately driven U.S. Free Trade Area of the Americas and promote barter trade and solidarity amongst left wing Latin American countries.
When FMLN mayors signed the agreement in Caracas, Chávez suggested that money the Salvadoran municipalities saved on energy could be used to subsidize public transport and food prices. Under the terms of the agreement, cities pay 60% of their fuel bill within 90 days. The rest may be paid in barter for agricultural and other locally made products or in cash over a 25-year period.
Chávez used the moment to criticize U.S. trade deals like the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). "They're making deals with the devil, the devil himself," Chávez said, in one of his typical rhetorical flourishes.
Over the past two years, Venezuela has exported thousands of barrels of diesel to El Salvador under the new deal. The oil is sold by gas stations bearing a special non-corporate, “white flag” emblem.
The Legacy of Neo-Liberalism: Organized Crime and Maquiladoras
There is little doubt that under a Funes administration, much of the energy integration with Venezuela would continue. But how likely is a Pink Tide sweep in Central America in the first place and a decisive FMLN win in 2009?
Judging from recent political trends, ARENA’s political monopoly is jeopardized. The Salvadoran people are tired of the right’s relentless charge towards neo-liberal policies including privatization and shredding of labor protections for public sector workers. In particular, ARENA’s recent attempt to privatize the health care system proved deeply unpopular and was beaten back by the likes of doctors and nurses supported by the FMLN.
Poverty is soaring and organized crime has reached epidemic proportions in the country. In response, the police and military have allegedly organized vigilante groups that orchestrate “social cleansing” of criminals. In a move to further emulate the Republican Party in the U.S., ARENA instituted draconian anti-terror legislation based on the USA Patriot Act in 2006. ARENA uses the anti-terror legislation to pick up and jail political activists who protest unpopular government moves such as the privatization of water resources.
The agricultural sector meanwhile has been flooded by cheap goods from the U.S. and hasn’t been able to compete; in desperation cooperative farmers have been selling off the land and sending their children to the U.S. to look for work. Remittances from Salvadorans working in the United States are an important source of income for many families and total almost $4 billion a year. According to the United Nations Development Agency, an estimated 22.3% of families receive such remittances.
For those who don’t receive money from their loved ones abroad in the U.S., one of the few options left is to seek work in the maquiladora sweat shops. These dismal sewing factories employ hundreds of thousands of workers and pay laborers a scant 80 cents an hour. Employees have been exposed to horrible conditions such as unhealthy air and water, large amounts of forced overtime and frequent dismissals for those who get the wrong idea and support labor unions.
The Road to 2009
Because of ARENA’s pursuit of such unpopular policies, the stage seems set for a big left win in March.
What might we expect from a Funes administration? Though Funes has distanced himself somewhat from the party rank and file, there is a great ideological affinity between Venezuela and the FMLN. Funes would probably seek to put a break on the neo-liberal policies of the past, and has said that he supports the notion of government-funded social programs like those backed by Chávez and his allies.
"Up until now, I haven't been the hunter being hunted," political novice Funes has said. "But if I myself say that public figures need to be scrutinized, how can I reject that same scrutiny?"
Expect more than mere scrutiny in the following months.
Having fought for twelve long years to defeat the FMLN militarily, Washington is not about to give up now. Count on ARENA and its U.S. patrons in the White House to launch an all out red-baiting assault to prevent the FMLN from coming to power through the ballot box and thereby halting the further spread of the Pink Tide which is sweeping through Central America.
As the debate over the U.S.-Colombian free trade deal heats up in Washington, Colombian President Álvaro Uribe has grown concerned. On the Hill, the deal faces an uncertain future. Many Democrats have opposed the initiative because Colombia’s labor and human rights record continues to remain atrocious. Currently, the agreement is in a state of legislative limbo as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has moved to postpone consideration of the deal.
In order to ram through his free trade agreement, Uribe must win over key African American legislators in Washington. In the unfolding debate over free trade, the Congressional Black Caucus could play a key role. Founded more than 30 years ago, the group of legislators seeks to achieve greater equity for people of African descent through domestic and international programs and services. What’s at stake with the Colombia trade deal, and why have African American legislators showed an interest in the issue?
Afro-Colombian Communities Displaced by War
Colombia is a country with the hemisphere’s third largest population of Afro-descendants, one million more than Haiti’s approximately 8 million predominantly African descendants. While Afro-Colombians make up more than 25 per cent of Colombia’s population, they are disproportionately affected by the ongoing violence in the Andean nation.
Indeed, approximately 40 per cent of Colombia’s 3.8 million internally displaced persons are of African descent. Whether they are caught in the crossfire or specifically targeted, Afro-Colombians are frequently forced to abandon their communities and ancestral lands.
Alba María Cuestas Arias, a displaced Afro-Colombian and board member of AFRODES (or the Association of Displaced Afro-Colombians), has said that displacement is used as a weapon of war. “Towns are destroyed, lives are destroyed,” she remarked. “The social fabric is also destroyed. People are forced to leave that which they have been constructing for years and years.”
Aerial spraying of coca leaf, backed by the Bogotá government and Washington, has posed another thorny problem for Afro-Colombians. “Plan Colombia,” started in 1999 under Bill Clinton, was launched to stop cocaine production by supplying the Colombian government with helicopters and other aircraft to spray fields. Unfortunately, the U.S., which gave $2.5 billion of aid through the program, only hastened the displacement of Afro-Colombian peoples.
The reason is clear to see: coca fumigation has destroyed many of the food crops traditionally grown by Afro-Colombians.
Fighting for Their Ancestral Lands
Nevertheless, Afro-Colombians have achieved some notable victories in recent years, including passage of the so-called Law 70. Enacted in 1993, the measure validates Afro-Colombians’ right to their historical territories. Under the law, communities must be consulted and must first give their approval prior to any new projects planned on their land.
Having a law on the books however is one thing and enforcing it is another.
According to Nicole Lee, Executive Director of TransAfrica Forum, the Colombian government “has used every ploy to cheat Afro-Colombians out of their traditional titled territories” since the passage of Law 70. Fundamentally, Afro-Colombians’ lands are valuable, and powerful people want to get their hands on the prime real estate.
Marino Córdoba is the founder of AFRODES. He played a critical role in the struggle to secure Colombia’s progressive Law 70 granting land rights to Afro-Colombian communities. After surviving many attempts on his life, Córdoba was forced into exile in the United States. He says that the Colombian government and its right wing paramilitary allies have targeted Afro-Colombian leaders in the Chocó region who have been pressing for land rights. By allowing the attacks to continue, President Uribe and his wealthy backers pave the way for the entry of oil palm plantations, logging operations and mining projects on Afro-Colombian lands.
Afro-Colombians and the Palm Oil Curse
Palm oil, which has been a social and environmental disaster world-wide, is now affecting Afro-Colombian communities for the worse. Producing palm oil takes a high toll on the environment as it involves clearing and draining the rainforest which in turn sends huge amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Moreover, oil palm plantations also require large amount of toxic fertilizer which pollutes local streams and wildlife.
Formerly used just for cooking, palm oil is now a major source of bio-fuel. Today, Colombia is the largest palm oil producer in the Americas, and 35 per cent of its product is exported as fuel. Fedepalma, the palm oil owners’ association, plans to expand production to a million hectares (about 3,861 square miles). Palm oil production stands to benefit only a handful of planters in Cali and Medellín while Afro-Colombians are displaced from their land.
One of the major forces helping to spur the palm oil boom in Colombia is none other than the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which has allocated money to resettle right wing paramilitaries. According to journalist David Bacon, the paramilitaries are frequently resettled on Afro-Colombian lands. Writing in the magazine Dollars and Sense, Bacon adds that paramilitaries often wind up being employed by the oil palm companies which seek to displace Afro-Colombians.
Another important player in the unfolding oil palm imbroglio has been the Uribe government. Indeed, the authorities have passed new Forestry and Rural Development Laws and amended the Mining Law so as to extinguish the rights of Afro-Colombians and further empower palm oil, logging and other companies which have relied upon the paramilitaries to enforce their will.
The new laws dealing with forests, water and other natural resources, passed at the behest of conservative parties in the Colombian Congress and USAID, declare that such resources must be commercially exploited. Unfortunately, if a community doesn’t exploit the resources it can lose title to the land.
The Colombian President, who has nothing but contempt for Afro-Colombians and their culture, envisions a bleak future for blacks in which the latter become junior partners to the oil palm companies, maintaining and harvesting the trees and turning over the product to the companies for refining.
What’s more, Uribe wants to turn over more land for monoculture. During Fedepalma’s 2006 congress, Uribe went so far as to remark to the growers’ organization that he would “lock up the businessmen…with our Afro-Colombian compatriots, and not let them out of the office until they’ve reached an agreement on the use of these lands."
Incensed by the Colombian leader’s attitude, Afro-Colombian representatives wrote Uribe that, “it [the President’s plan] would bring with it great environmental, social and cultural harm." Afro-Colombians argue that encouraging monoculture on the Pacific coast, which is full of rich mangrove forest, could lead to the depletion of one of the most bio-diverse regions on the planet.
If that were not bad enough, Afro-Colombians suffer from some of the worst socio-economic conditions in the country: an estimated 86 per cent of people of African descent lack access to basic public services such as sewers and running water. Most white and mestizo communities have such services.
The Colombian health care system isn’t all that great, having suffered from budget cuts to fund Uribe’s counterinsurgency war. Still, it manages to cover 40 per cent of white Colombians. Meanwhile, only 10 per cent of Afro Colombians receive health services, while a pathetically low 3 per cent of black workers receive social security benefits.
Consider the statistics on illiteracy: whites 14 per cent, blacks 45 per cent.
About 120 of every 1000 Afro-Colombian infants die in their first year, compared to 20 white babies. At the other end of life, Afro-Colombians live to only 54 years of age on average while whites live to 70 years.
Only 38 per cent of Afro-Colombians attend high school, compared to 66 per cent of non-Black Colombians. Just 2 per cent of Afro-Colombians go to university.
Non-black Colombians earn $1,500 a year on average. Afro-Colombian families take in only $500. Meanwhile, 76 per cent of Afro-Colombians live in conditions of extreme poverty.
Brutal Past to a Brutal Present
That level of poverty is particularly jarring in light of the fact that Afro-Colombians often live in areas of rich natural wealth. A case in point is Chocó, the department with the largest Afro-Colombian population in the country. The area is one of the most neglected in the country and, disgracefully, receives the lowest per capita government investment in health, education and infrastructure of any department in Colombia.
"They [government authorities] see Black people as objects that have no value," declared Juan de Dios García, an Afro-Colombian community organizer. "Therefore sacrificing us, even to the extent of a holocaust, doesn’t matter. That’s the kind of racism to which we’re subjected. We believe all acts against a people’s culture should be considered crimes against human rights, because there is no human life without culture."
Sadly, such conditions are nothing new for Afro-Colombians who have long faced institutionalized racism and discrimination. Confronted with a declining native population and labor shortages in the 16th century, the Spaniards imported African slaves to Colombia and forced them to work in sugar plantations, cattle ranches and gold mines.
Fleeing the harsh conditions, many slaves managed to escape. Later, they settled along the Pacific coast in Chocó and formed their own towns or palenques. There, the slaves were able to live out the rest of their lives as cimarrones or freemen. Slavery was not abolished into well into the Republican period in 1851.
Today it is the Chocó, rich in natural resources and home to many of these ex-slaves, which is at the heart of the debate over the free trade agreement with the United States. Chocó, a cocaine-producing area sandwiched between Panama to the north (a common destination for smugglers) and Valle del Cauca province to the south (home to Colombia’s toughest drug cartel) is prime real estate for palm oil planters.
Encircled by an increasingly nefarious web of palm oil interests and Uribe government officials, Afro-Colombian leaders have traveled to Washington, D.C. in an effort to sway lawmakers to vote against the proposed U.S.-Colombian free trade deal which, they say, will expand palm oil production on their lands.
Speaking recently at New York University, Córdoba decried the underlying economic and political agenda of the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement. One part of the initiative, he said, calls for more mega-agricultural projects along Colombia’s Pacific coast. Under the deal, Colombia would supply the world with bio-fuels produced from large scale cultivation of palm oil, sugar cane, and corn.
Riding the Colombia Gravy Train
In line with his feverish desire to promote foreign investment, Uribe has been pushing hard for a free trade deal in Washington. Though the Colombian government has already received billions of dollars in military assistance and economic development from the United States, it’s clearly not enough: the Uribe regime wants more and is hiring Washington lobbyists and power brokers to push for its free trade agreement.
Collectively, the Colombian government has paid more than $1 million to firms that have negotiated or lobbied on behalf of the deal. Recently, it was disclosed that Mark Penn, an advisor to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, was employed by the Colombian government to help win passage of the trade agreement in Congress.
Husband Bill was paid $800,000 by the Colombia-based Gold Service International to give four speeches throughout Latin America. The organization is ostensibly a development group tasked with bringing investment to Colombia and educating world leaders about the country’s business opportunities.
Even as Uribe’s sleazy PR handlers in Washington join forces with U.S. corporations like Caterpillar, WalMart and Citigroup in an effort to secure a trade agreement, the Colombian government has been doing its utmost to railroad Afro-Colombians at home.
According to AFRODES, the Colombian government did not consult with Afro-Colombian communities when it was negotiating the free trade deal with the U.S. As a result, the Uribe regime fundamentally undermined Law 70.
In a slick PR move, Uribe has created the so-called Commission for the Advancement of Afro-Colombian people which, according to Córdoba, undermines communities’ ability to advance their own development strategies. “President George Bush…and the vast array of lobbying firms hired by the Uribe government are now trying to tout this outrageous Commission as evidence that Afro- Colombian concerns are being addressed as they push to pass the FTA [free trade agreement],” declares Córdoba.
The commission, he adds, is stacked with Uribe supporters and is designed to feign “consultation” with Afro-Colombian communities so as to give the illusion of participatory democracy.
Pushing Afro-Colombians towards “Economic and Cultural Extinction”
Unfortunately, Afro-Colombians don’t have an army of public relations firms at their disposal to make their case, and the U.S. media has all but ignored the free trade agreement as a story, save to briefly mention the Mark Penn scandal in the run-up to the Pennsylvania primary.
If the U.S. press investigated, however, it would find a whole host of problems associated with the deal.
Take, for example, the issue of agriculture.
Afro-Colombians are particularly concerned because, they say, the agreement stands to protect the rights of corporations while adversely affecting local agriculture. Initially, they claim, the deal could force 80,000 families off the land but this could be only the tip of the iceberg: in Mexico, 1.3 million farmers have been displaced as a result of the North American Free Trade Agreement.
According to Nicole Lee, Executive Director of TransAfrica Forum, the agreement would “legalize the appropriation of constitutionally-protected collective territories by the government and corporate interests, furthering displacement, poverty and discrimination faced by these marginalized communities.”
In late 2006 a host of local Afro-Colombian groups wrote the U.S. Congress expressing their concerns. “The people in our communities are mostly subsistence…farmers,” they wrote. “They depend on access to land in order to produce the food necessary for their own survival, as well as to sell to local markets in order to procure the currency necessary to buy food, medicine, clothing, and school supplies for their children.” What Afro-Colombian farmers most needed was increased access to credit and technical assistance, improved transportation and land use policies, and fairer prices for commodities.
Unfortunately, the letter added, the free trade agreement did not offer a single one of these development alternatives for local communities. “To the contrary, the deal would increase unfair competition for our local markets. Our families will have to compete with heavily subsidized agricultural products from the United States, pushing us toward economic and cultural extinction.”
Congressional Black Caucus: Failing to Protect Afro-Colombians Through H. Res. 618
Given the appalling human rights situation facing Afro-Colombian peoples, you would think that the Congressional Black Caucus would organize a solidly anti-Uribe bloc. Bizarrely, however, African American legislators have failed to provide a united front.
Take, for example, black legislators and their record on House Resolution 618. Congressman Donald Payne, a Democratic African American legislator from New Jersey, has introduced the measure urging the United States and Colombia to take steps to respect the cultural, territorial, and human rights of Afro-Colombian communities.
H.Res. 618 calls on the Colombian government to end racial discrimination and protect Afro-Colombians’ constitutionally guaranteed lands. The resolution encourages the U.S. and Colombian governments to consult with Afro-Colombians when developing policies which stand to affect their communities.
The measure is currently in the first stage of the legislative process and is being considered by the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Co-sponsors of the bill include prominent African American lawmakers such as John Conyers, Jesse Jackson, Jr., and Barbara Lee. But, out of 38 African American members in the House, a whopping 13 refused to become co-sponsors of H.Res 618.
What does this say about the leadership abilities of veteran legislators such as John Conyers?
Even more disgracefully, Charlie Rangel, Democrat of New York and a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, refused to sign on to the legislation. In fact, African Americans from New York have been particularly derelict. Yvette Clarke, who represents one of the most liberal districts in the state comprising Park Slope, Brooklyn, also failed to support the legislation.
Rangel and Clarke were joined by Gregory Meeks of Southeast Queens. Meeks in particular has become a huge thorn in the side of anti-Uribe activists in Colombia and the United States (for more on the peculiar case of Rep. Meeks, see below).
When you add up the overall scorecard of Congressional Black Caucus members on Colombia for 2007, the results are even more dismal. Last year, legislators faced a number of important legislative decisions concerning the Andean nation.
For example, they had the option of signing on to a letter calling for more U.S. aid for rural development in Colombia and a strengthening of the nation’s judicial system.
Another important measure, introduced by Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, called on the U.S. to increase aid to the internally displaced in Colombia and to help refugees rebuild their lives successfully.
Legislators also had the option of signing on to a letter addressed to Uribe, expressing concern over a series of politically-motivated break-ins targeting human rights and peace organizations. The letter urged the president to condemn such attacks and publicly express support for the work of human rights organizations.
So, how did the Congressional Black Caucus fare on the three key measures? I have compiled the shameful result, below:
Danny Davis, 1-3
Artur Davis, 0-3
Johnson, Eddie-Bernice, 1-3
Johnson, Hank 0-3
Robert Scott, 0-3
David Scott, 1-3
Tubbs Jones, 0-3
As we may see, with the rare exception of such legislators as Clay, Fattah, and Rush most African American legislators are undistinguished when it comes to Colombia. Meanwhile, an astounding number, 21, have failed to show any backbone whatsoever when it comes to reining in Uribe.
Uribe’s Booster on Capitol Hill: Congressman Gregory Meeks
If these votes are not bad enough, it is clear that some African American legislators would vote for a free trade agreement if it ever came up for a vote. One such politician is Representative Gregory Meeks, whose boosterism of the Uribe regime is so bizarre as to be perverse.
Meeks, who has traveled to Colombia to meet with Uribe personally, is a member of the Clintons’ Democratic Leadership Council. Currently, the New York legislator is seeking to broker a compromise between House Democrats and the Bush Administration that could allow for congressional consideration of the free trade agreement.
"I would like to see a situation where we give [Colombian President Álvaro Uribe] a list of parameters of the things that we need to see, and give [Colombia] an opportunity to accomplish them," Meeks said in an interview. He suggested that there needs to be more of an effort in Colombia to prosecute individuals who have victimized labor leaders.
Meeks said he was confident Uribe would do his utmost to meet those conditions, even as evidence mounts of the government’s ties to right wing paramilitary death squads who assassinate labor leaders. Colombia’s Supreme Court has even ordered the arrest of fourteen members of congress on suspicion of collaboration with death squads; thirteen of the legislators back Uribe. The president’s former intelligence chief is also facing charges of passing information to the paramilitaries to help them target and kill opponents.
Recently, Uribe’s cousin, a Senator, was forced to resign in an effort to avoid a Supreme Court inquiry into whether he had ties to the paramilitaries. Mario Uribe was a key ally of the President. So far, Álvaro Uribe has not been directly implicated, but the President has been accused of letting paramilitary groups use his family’s farms to kill opponents during the 1990s. Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy cut off $55 million in military aid to Colombia over the allegations.
It’s bad enough when the Bush White House and its Republican allies in Congress seek to prop up the paramilitary government of Álvaro Uribe and try to secure a free trade deal. On the other hand, at least the Republican right is consistent in its philosophy. Not so with the Congressional Black Caucus, a hypocritical body which prides itself on displaying solidarity with Africans of the Diaspora but which does nothing to rein in a racist regime which is doing its utmost to eliminate Afro-Colombians and their culture.