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Senhor da Silva Comes to Washington

When you can’t stamp out progressive social change, the next step is to try to desperately derail it or otherwise water it down. That’s exactly the kind of strategy pursued by the likes of former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who concluded a South American tour a year ago designed to ostracize the bad countries, namely Venezuela, Bolivia, and increasingly Argentina, and to cultivate ties with the good countries such as Brazil and Chile. Having woken up to the fact that its free trade and neo-liberal agenda for the region lay in tatters, and that wielding a Big Stick to defang its enemies could not work politically, the Bush White House pursued stealthy diplomacy. Rice’s strategy was to divide and rule, to contain radical social change and to steer it within acceptable boundaries. Because South America was headed on a new trajectory which was more independent of Washington, Rice hoped that the "responsible" left as exemplified by Brazil’s Lula and Chile’s Bachelet would steer the region away from the likes of Venezuela’s Chávez and Bolivian President Morales.

One year later with a fresh Democratic administration in Washington, what is the U.S. attitude towards different left leaning regimes in South America? That is the question posed by a recent article in Time magazine, provocatively headlined "Brazil’s Lula: A Bridge to Latin American Left?" The article implies that Bush did not dutifully look out for U.S. interests in South America, and this created "a problem" because it allowed for the expansion of the anti-U.S. left throughout the region.

Thankfully for Time magazine, it now looks as if Brazil will act as a broker between the United States and Venezuela, paving the way for a possible diplomatic rapprochement. In his first meeting with a Latin leader, Obama sat down with Brazilian President Lula da Silva in Washington on Saturday. During the encounter, Lula told his U.S. counterpart that America should do its utmost to improve ties with Venezuela and Bolivia and to build a relationship based on trust and not interference.

Publicly, Lula and Chávez have been political allies for the past several years. Nevertheless, it needs to be said that the Brazilian leader has adopted a more conservative approach towards politics and economics than his Venezuelan counterpart. Both Venezuela and Brazil are energy giants and see themselves as natural political leaders in the wider region. Behind the façade therefore, there may be a slight geopolitical rivalry between the two South American nations. Lula surely does not want a return to the Big Stick of the Bush years, but he would probably like to supplant Venezuela as a regional power so that Brazil can assume its natural place in the South America sun.

Lula may get his wish. The economic picture has shifted dramatically recently and Brazil stands to benefit most in the new geopolitical equation. A year ago the U.S. was not in the midst of a frightening economic mess and Venezuela was getting a much better financial yield on its oil exports. Despite Chávez’s recent victory in his country’s constitutional referendum — which allowed the Venezuelan leader to run indefinitely for reelection — Venezuela is no position to assume a greater regional role right now. Formerly, Chávez was wont to throw around development aid to Bolivia and other nations with reckless abandon, but within the new economic milieu he will be severely constrained in his wider ambitions because of the lower price of oil.

A year ago, Brazil was certainly an important diplomatic player but it has now emerged as perhaps the dominant strategic force in the region. Though Brazil has suffered as a result of the world economic slowdown, the country is still in a better position than many other nations. Indeed, as noted by a recent report by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, "while most of the developed world is undergoing a financial crisis, Brazil still retains some positive strength, with the country still recording significant economic and social achievements at home. For this and other reasons arising from the Brazil’s impressive statistics, Lula is emerging as the de facto spokesman for Latin America."

Brazil, the report goes on, is "far better off than the European and American economies. Its banks are solvent, credit, though increasingly viscous, is still flowing from BNDES, Brazil’s national development bank, to favored companies such as Petrobras [the Brazilian state oil firm] and consumers remain more confident than their North American counterparts. The absence of these negative factors that are primarily propelling the crisis abroad is helping to shield Brazil from the worst of the downturn." Interestingly, the report concludes, Brazil may be the only one of 34 major economies to avoid recession in 2009.

With its newfound clout, what does Brazil seek on the international stage? Lula has long coveted a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council and may want to become a world energy powerhouse. Indeed, Brazil might seek to supplant Venezuela as the main South American oil supplier to the United States. "Such observations that Obama would welcome Lula as an alternative energy supplier," notes the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, "seem to run counter to Lula’s putative pledge to Hugo Chávez, in which he promised to act as an advocate for Venezuela during his meeting with Obama. Is Lula positioning himself as Latin America’s Otto Von Bismarck?"

Within this new "Bismarckian" game of chess Lula may wish to appear as Venezuela’s paternalistic protector while simultaneously looking out for wider Brazilian interests. If Lula could ever bring off a meeting or summit with Chávez and Obama, it would constitute a huge political coup and Brazil’s diplomatic prestige would be enormously enhanced.
There is some indication that Obama might be somewhat amenable to Lula’s entreaties.
Back during the U.S. presidential campaign, Obama was vague about what U.S. foreign policy towards Venezuela ought to be. Reluctant to tackle this hot potato, Obama issued rather contradictory statements about his attitude towards the Andean nation. Now that he has been swept into office, what is Obama’s policy? Judging from the contradictory statements put out by the State Department, the administration is conflicted.

At first, the State Department praised Venezuela’s recent constitutional referendum as free and fair. But then, diplomats reversed course. According to the Wall Street Journal, the positive remarks "set off a furor among Venezuelan opposition activists and some commentators because the description of Venezuela’s referendum seemed markedly different from the tone set by the Bush administration, which repeatedly voiced worry that Mr. Chávez was undermining Venezuela’s democracy."

As the right laid into Obama, the State Department quickly backpedaled. As noted in the Wall Street Journal, "U.S. officials are scrambling to assert that the Obama administration hasn’t softened U.S. policy toward Venezuela, where President Hugo Chávez recently won a controversial referendum allowing him to run for office as many times as he wants." The reports suggest that there may be disagreement within the State Department about how to handle Chavez; different factions may not see eye to eye. Like the Carter administration, which had somewhat contradictory policies at different times towards left wing movements in Latin America, Obama has not quite figured out what course he wants to chart.

This lack of coherence in official U.S. policy towards Venezuela suggests that Lula might be able to at least nudge the U.S. in another direction. Given Brazil’s new economic and political clout, and the U.S.’s reduced position world-wide, Lula is in an ideal position to reform regional politics in a dramatic way. Within the new diplomatic triangle between Venezuela, Brazil and the United States, Lula wants his country to be paramount. In the new arrangement, the United States will cease its political interference in South American affairs while Venezuela will become a junior partner to Brazil. If Lula can achieve these ends, he will indeed emerge as a very important figure on the world stage.

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El Salvador: Latin American Right Down But Not Out

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Salvadoran Right Lashes Out at Chavez

Facing a serious electoral debacle in advance of Sunday’s presidential election, and recognizing that it cannot win the election based on practical ideas, the right-wing ARENA (or Nationalist Republican Alliance) party has launched an ugly campaign to link leftist FMLN (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front) candidate Mauricio Funes with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

There are many similarities between ARENA’s position and the Republican Party prior to the November, 2008 election. Like the GOP, ARENA has now been entrenched in power for a long time. To many Salvadorans, ARENA seems like a colossal dinosaur mired in the past. Founded by right wing death squad leader Roberto D’Aubuisson, held to be one of the instigators of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980, ARENA is still fervently anti-Communist. ARENA, whose colors are red, white and blue, models itself on the U.S. Republican party but is even more explicitly nationalist. The hymn of the party touts El Salvador as the tomb where “the Reds will die.”

While such heated rhetoric may have appealed to some in the midst of the country’s bloody civil war between the right and left in the 1980s, ARENA now looks increasingly bereft. Salvadorans want practical solutions to the country’s intractable social problems and are hardly in the mood for more of the same anachronistic Cold War rhetoric.

Even if ARENA were to run a novel and innovative campaign however, the party would still face a huge uphill battle. ARENA has been in power now for twenty years. During this time the small Central American nation has descended into violent lawlessness with robbery and homicide rates flying off the charts. ARENA candidate Rodrigo Ávila, the country’s former head of national police, has pledged to combat violent crime. Only Funes however has said he would purge elements of the police force linked to organized crime.

Adding to Ávila’s worries, ARENA has mismanaged the economy. In recent years, the party has eagerly followed Washington’s dictates by privatizing social services and public utilities. The outgoing administration of Antonio Saca signed the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) with the United States, but the deal has not led to social harmony. The country is still plagued by extreme inequality while 37 per cent of Salvadorans live in poverty and can’t pay high food prices. This fuels the crime wave which has proven so worrying to poor Salvadorans.

Funes is hardly what one might call a fire breathing leftist. A former media commentator, he seeks to remake the FMLN into a pragmatic political party. At rallies, he doesn’t sing the party’s anthem or wear its traditional red colors, 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.

Meanwhile he has bent over backwards to placate the U.S. and has met with State Department officials as well as members of Congress, reassuring them that he is no radical. In addition, 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.

To listen to the Salvadoran right you’d think Funes was leading El Salvador on the march towards Stalinist dictatorship. While campaigning near the Honduran border recently, Ávila claimed that the Funes campaign was being funded by Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. “There’s a saying that ‘Whoever pays the mariachi decides what song is going to be played,’” Ávila remarked. “And that’s going to happen with them,” he added. “No matter what they say, what they do, their campaign is being financed by Venezuela.”

Funes himself denies having any political links with the Chávez government and has said that Venezuela will not meddle in Salvadoran internal affairs if he wins the presidential election. Furthermore, the FMLN leader has distanced himself from some of the more enthusiastic pro-Chávez members of his party. Despite Funes’s disavowals however, ARENA has continued to press on with its hysterical red baiting even though the rightist party has no proof that Funes has received financial support from Chávez.

Both Funes and Chávez, said outgoing President Antonio Saca, were trying to spread “totalitarian projects” and wanted to “stick their noses” in anti-democratic practices. It was “no secret” Saca added hyperbolically, that the FMLN received “its ideological nourishment from Havana” and its economic nourishment “from some other place.” In yet another ridiculous and over the top aside, Saca declared “I am sure that there’s some kind of working group in Venezuela which seeks to take over El Salvador.”

As evidence of the supposed Chávez-FMLN conspiracy, ARENA points to Chávez’s Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (known by its Spanish acronym ALBA). The plan, initiated by Chávez several years ago, seeks to counteract corporately driven free trade schemes backed by Washington and to promote barter trade and solidarity amongst left wing Latin American countries. Chávez himself has been a rather bombastic critic of CAFTA, remarking that ARENA was “making deals with the devil, the devil himself.”

As a party, the FMLN has historically opposed CAFTA and U.S.-backed free trade while approving of Chávez’s barter schemes. El Salvador does not produce oil, and in 2006 FMLN mayors set up a joint venture energy company with Venezuela called ENEPASA. The initiative is designed to provide less expensive fuel to El Salvador’s drivers. The oil is sold by gas stations bearing a special non-corporate, “white flag” emblem.

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 per cent 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.

While it’s certainly true that Venezuela has increased its diplomatic and political visibility in El Salvador over the last few years, ARENA’s claims about Chávez’s insidious designs are uproarious. Since the inception of the ENEPASA deal, Venezuela has only sent modest amounts of diesel to El Salvador. Moreover, it’s not clear whether Venezuela can continue to sell discounted oil to the FMLN. In years past, Chávez has been able to increase his geopolitical standing throughout the region by providing cheap oil to poor and impoverished nations. But now, with world oil prices falling, Venezuela may be forced to curtail its ALBA program.

As an issue, Venezuela is a red herring in Sunday’s Salvadoran election. But that hasn’t stopped ARENA from launching a full frontal assault on Funes for having alleged political ties to another foreign power. It’s a sign of political desperation from a party bereft of any coherent ideas about how to solve El Salvador’s enduring social and economic problems.

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Benicio del Torre as Che

A couple of days ago I finally got round to seeing Steven Soderberg's new film Che, about the life of Argentine revolutionary Ernesto Che Guevara. Set almost entirely in Cuba during the revolution against dictator Fulgencio Batista, the film chronicles Che's rise to prominence during the guerrilla warfare in the Sierra Maestra Mountains.

Unlike Soderbergh's slick "Ocean" films starring such celebrities as George Clooney, this movie is rather mannered and stripped down stylistically. Soderbergh clearly wanted to give the audience a sense of what it takes to be a successful revolutionary, and the kinds of physical and emotional sacrifices this entails. We get lots of scenes of grueling jungle marches and bloody skirmishes with government troops.

It makes for a rather brutal and unrelenting two and a half hours. A lay audience which is unfamiliar with this particular chapter of history might be turned off by the pacing and docu-drama feel of this movie. It's certainly a far cry from Motorcycle Diaries, an earlier film about Che Guevara which had an easier and more commercial feel about it. Unlike Motorcycle Diaries, which had a folkloric Latin American soundtrack, this movie does not have much music.

Benicio del Toro, who plays Che, depicts the Argentine revolutionary as a rather psychologically aloof and impenetrable character. From my own readings that rendering may be somewhat accurate, but it may not make the movie any more accessible to a general audience. On another note, I found Soderbergh's editing to be jarring: the director frequently cuts from color scenes of the Sierra Maestra mountains to black and white scenes of Che Guevara giving a speech to the United Nations after the conclusion of the Cuban Revolution.

Despite the problems, I still found Che riveting. To his credit, Soderbergh gives the audience a sense of Che's own political evolution in the field. Towards the beginning, Che is unsure of himself as a military commander and defers to other Cuban rebel leaders who consider him a foreign interloper in their land. Over time however Fidel gives Che more authority. The Argentine gains confidence and becomes more and more ruthless towards his subordinates. In one scene he oversees the execution of a disobedient guerrilla fighter who has raped a local campesina woman. Del Toro plays the scene cold and methodical.

The climactic final half hour of the movie chronicles Che's military descent from the Sierra Maestra mountains and into the lowland plains. There is an extraordinary scene in which Che's troops derail a train full of Batista's troops. In the city of Santa Clara, Che confronts a local police commander. In a dispassionate tone of voice, our protagonist tells his opponent that he must surrender or the rebels will launch a costly and bloody assault.

Soderbergh's Che may not be blockbuster Hollywood fare, but the director's depiction of this iconic political figure has a sense of historical accuracy about it. That is my impression at least after reading My Life With Che (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008) a memoir written by Hilda Gadea, the Argentine revolutionary's first wife. Here's what I had to say about the book when Palgrave asked me to write a blurb:

"Gadea's life story is not as well known as her husband's, but in many ways it was even more extraordinary than that of the famous revolutionary. A political refugee from Peru, she was exiled not once but twice -- first to Guatemala and later to Mexico. Frequently harassed and jailed by the police for her political beliefs, Gadea’s stoic resolve in the face of great odds was remarkable. My Life With Che is a revealing, compelling insider look at the life of Che Guevara, at the corrupt and compliant right wing authorities who did Washington's bidding in South America, and at a daring group of Latin American revolutionaries who dedicated their lives to the furtherance of a higher cause."

If Gadea's depiction of Che is to be believed, the Argentine revolutionary was stoical. My Life With Che is set in Guatemala and Mexico during the mid-1950s and discusses Che's interactions with Fidel and the other Cuban revolutionaries as they plotted the overthrow of the Batista regime. Che, who is determined not to commit the same mistakes of the Guatemalan left which failed to head off a U.S.-backed coup in 1954, emerges as a somewhat ruthless character who will sacrifice anything for his ideals.

In Soderbergh's movie, there is one scene in which Fidel and Che quietly talk on the balcony of a Mexico City apartment building. Fidel turns to Che and asks, "are you coming to Cuba?" Guevara responds, "Yes, as long as you give me permission to launch revolution throughout Latin America if we win in Cuba." Non-plussed, Fidel tells his new comrade that he is a little touched in the head.

I don't know if Soderbergh's scene is made up or embellished, but in light of later history and the depiction of Che in Hilda Gadea's memoir, the conversation doesn't seem outside the realm of possibility.

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Obama: The Audacity of Vagueness

Back during the presidential campaign, Barack Obama was pretty vague about what U.S. foreign policy towards Venezuela ought to be. Reluctant to tackle this hot potato, Obama issued rather contradictory statements about his attitude towards the Andean nation. For a subtle analysis of this issue, see my report in the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (scroll down to "The Audacity of Vagueness: Barack Obama and Latin America."

Now that he has been swept into office, what is Obama's policy now? Judging from the contradictory statements put out by the State Department, the administration is conflicted. At first, the State Department praised Venezuela's recent constitutional referendum as free and fair.

But then, diplomats reversed course. According to the Wall Street Journal, the positive remarks "set off a furor among Venezuelan opposition activists and some commentators because the description of Venezuela's referendum seemed markedly different from the tone set by the Bush administration, which repeatedly voiced worry that Mr. Chávez was undermining Venezuela's democracy."

As the right laid into Obama, the State Department quickly backpedaled: "U.S. officials are scrambling to assert that the Obama administration hasn't softened U.S. policy toward Venezuela, where President Hugo Chávez recently won a controversial referendum allowing him to run for office as many times as he wants."

The reports suggest that there may be disagreement within the State Department about how to handle Chavez; different factions may not see eye to eye. The incident is reminescent of the Carter administration, which had contradictory policies towards left wing movements in Latin America some thirty years ago.

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Enough with the Chavez Hero Worship

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Chavez and the anti-Semitism debate

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