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Alternative Climate Summit, Machu Picchu, and El Niño: Destroyer of Civilizations

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Note: a condensed version of this article appeared first on Latin Dispatch here.

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Cochabamba Climate Conference: the Coca Contradiction

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Coca Colla: It’s the Real Thing

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Climate Change: What Would Lord Russell Do?

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El Salvador: Latin American Right Down But Not Out

In light of the Salvadoran right's fear-mongering campaign in advance of the Central American nation's Sunday presidential election, which has sought to portray leftist candidate Mauricio Funes of the Farabundo Martí Liberation Front (FMLN) as a kind of dangerous foreign agent of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, perhaps it's instructive to consider the political history of the past four years.

 

Bolivia, Presidential Election of 2005: Chávez and "Terrorists"


During the country's presidential election, Evo Morales of the Movement Towards Socialism or MAS campaigned on a progressive platform stressing resource nationalism. His opponent, conservative Jorge "Tuto" Quiroga of the PODEMOS or We Can party (no relationship to Barack Obama) claimed that Morales had ties to drug smugglers, terrorism, Hugo Chávez and Cuba's Fidel Castro. Quiroga, who pledged to pursue free trade policies, went down to ignominious defeat and got trounced by Morales, 54% to 28%.


Peru and Presidential Election of June, 2006: "Flagrant and Persistent" Meddling


After meeting with Chávez and Morales, the leftist Ollanta Humala, a former officer in the Peruvian army, declared himself part of "a Latin America with new leaders, in which the perception is that the neo-liberal economic model is exhausted." Adopting a nationalist platform, Humala pledged to nationalize Peru's hydrocarbons industry and said he strongly opposed the free trade agreement that his country had signed with Washington.


When Chávez injected himself into the presidential contest by saying that Humala was the voice of the downtrodden and conservative Lourdes Flores was "the candidate of Peru's oligarchy," the Peruvian government briefly withdrew its ambassador from Venezuela in protest. During a runoff vote Flores was eliminated, thus leaving Humala and Peru's former President Alan García of the APRA Party or American Popular Revolutionary Alliance to face off against one another.


García finished second in that vote trailing Humala. During his first presidency García had espoused some progressive positions but now he referred to Chávez and Morales as spoiled children and "historical losers" when they criticized Peru's free-trade agreement with the United States. Chávez shot back that García, whose previous presidency was marred by hyperinflation, food shortages and guerrilla violence, was a "thief" and a "crook."

 

"I hope that Ollanta Humala becomes president of Peru," Chávez declared. "To Ollanta Humala, go comrade! Long live Ollanta Humala! Long live Peru!" the Venezuelan leader added. Chávez's comments prompted Peru to recall its ambassador from Venezuela in protest. The Venezuelan leader, Peruvian authorities charged, was persistently and flagrantly intervening in their country's internal affairs.

 

García, who had languished behind Humala by more than ten points in opinion polls, exploited the diplomatic spat by accusing Chávez of political interference. When the APRA man painted Humala as a puppet of Chávez and Morales, Humala was unable to launch an articulate counteroffensive. When the votes were finally counted, García edged out Humala, 53% to 47%. The vote, García remarked, was a blow to Chávez. "Today, the majority of the country has delivered a message in favor of national independence, of national sovereignty," García said. "They have defeated the efforts by Mr Hugo Chávez to integrate us into his militaristic and backwards expansion project he intends to impose over South America. Today, Peru has said no," García added proudly. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick was also pleased with the result, proclaiming that "the best response is that of the Peruvian people (who) decided to vote for President Garcia and not for [Hugo] Chávez's candidate."


Mexico and Presidential Election of July, 2006: López Obrador Is a "Danger"

 

Even though Chávez was not a candidate in the Mexican election which followed one month after Peru's contest, he was certainly a political specter. The election pitted leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador of the PRD or Party of the Democratic Revolution against two conservative candidates, Roberto Madrazo of the PRI or Institutional Revolutionary Party and Felipe Calderón of the PAN or National Action Party. In early polling López Obrador, a populist mayor of Mexico City who had instituted socialist-style handout programs and who had spoken of his desire to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement or NAFTA, had a clear lead over both candidates.


Trailing in public opinion surveys, Madrazo sought to take down his leftist challenger by linking him to Chávez. "There are clear similarities between Chávez and López Obrador," Madrazo said. "I see authoritarianism in them both." The PRI candidate added that López Obrador and Chávez did not respect the rule of law and that foreign investors would avoid Mexico if the PRD candidate ever came to power. Madrazo declared, "I foresee the capital flight that happened in Venezuela with Chávez's government that I don't want to happen here." Going even further, Madrazo accused López Obrador of being in contact with Chávez aides and charged that the Venezuelan leader was trying to influence the election.


Pro-business candidate Calderón joined in the pummeling. In his TV ads, he linked Obrador to Hugo Chávez and claimed that the PRD candidate was "a danger to Mexico." "Hugo Chávez is not running for president of Mexico," remarked the Washington Post. "But some days it's been hard to tell. The Venezuelan president's face has been all over Mexican television at critical stages in this country's bitter mudfest of a presidential race." A little known political activist group put Chávez on TV, surrounded by machine guns and soldiers, and accompanied by an ominous voice-over which intoned: "In Mexico, you don't have to die to define your future -- you only have to vote!"

 

The Federal Electoral Commission ruled that Calderón's ads TV ads violated its rules and ordered him to withdraw them but only after the scare-mongering message had set in and Calderón had shot up in the polls. Encouraged by the successful result of Calderón's dirty campaign, the candidate's aides claimed that the Venezuelan Bolivarian circles -- small community groups supported by the Chávez government – were secretly working on behalf of López Obrador.


The leftist candidate of the PRD was known for his combative political style. Bizarrely however, López Obrador barely responded to the fear mongering campaign against him. Weeks passed until he finally disavowed a relationship with Chávez. Cowed by the right wing attacks, one presidential aide finally remarked "It's absurd. Andrés Manuel López Obrador doesn't know Chávez, nor have they ever spoken."

 

The election itself was plagued with irregularities. When Calderón claimed victory, López Obrador cried fraud and called for street protests. The Electoral Tribunal ultimately ruled that Calderon had won the election by a very narrow margin and rejected Obrador's allegations.

 

Ecuador Presidential Election of October, 2006: "Colonel Correa"


The next setback for Chávez came in Ecuador, where the Venezuelan leader's would-be protégé, Rafael Correa, came in second against Álvaro Noboa in the first round of the country's presidential election. Correa, a leftist economics professor who criticized U.S.-style free trade, denied that Chávez had funded his campaign and the Venezuelan leader, chastened by his defeats in Mexico and Peru, was uncharacteristically quiet about the Ecuador election. However, it was no secret that the two had a personal rapport. Correa in fact visited Chávez's home state of Barinas, where he met with the Venezuelan leader and spent the night with Chávez's parents.


As the presidential campaign heated up, Noboa, a banana magnate, sought to label Correa as a Chávez puppet. In an allusion to Chávez's former military background, Noboa called his adversary "Colonel Correa." Correa, the Noboa campaign charged, was being financed by Venezuela. In a bombastic tirade Noboa even declared, "the Chávez-Correa duo has played dirty in an effort to conquer Ecuador and submit it to slavery."


If he were elected, Noboa promised, he would break relations with Caracas. Correa denied that his campaign was financed by Chávez and in a biting aside declared that his friendship with the Venezuelan leader was as legitimate as President Bush's friendship with the bin Laden family. "They have pursued the most immoral and dirty campaign against me in an effort to link me with communism, terrorism, and Chavismo," Correa explained. "The only thing left is for them to say that Bin Laden was financing me."


Chávez, perhaps fearing that any statement on his part might tilt the election in favor of Noboa, initially remained silent as regards the Ecuadoran election. But at last the effusive Chávez could no longer constrain himself and broke his silence. The Venezuelan leader accused Noboa of baiting him in an effort to gain the "applause" of the United States. Chávez furthermore expressed doubts about the veracity of the voting result in the first presidential runoff, in which Correa came in second.

 

In his own inflammatory broadside, Chávez accused Noboa of being "an exploiter of child labor" on his banana plantations and a "fundamentalist of the extreme right." In Ecuador, Chávez said, "there are also strange things going on. A gentleman who is the richest man in Ecuador; the king of bananas, who exploits his workers, who exploits children and puts them to work, who doesn't pay them loans, suddenly appears in first place in the first [electoral] round." The Noboa campaign, in an escalating war of words, shot back that the Venezuelan Ambassador should be expelled from Ecuador due to Chávez's meddling.


In the end however, Noba's fulminations came to nothing: the Banana King came in second to Correa, losing 43% to 56% for Correa.

 

Nicaragua Presidential Election of November, 2006: Chávez's "Lieutenant" in Central America


In 2005, when Nicaraguan Sandinista leader traveled to Venezuela for a meeting with Chávez, the friendship between the two began to bear fruit. During the meeting at Miraflores, the presidential palace, Ortega remarked that Latin American unity was necessary to confront globalization. Ortega later alarmed Washington by remarking that if he won the election he would make sure that Nicaragua would join ALBA, Chávez's Bolivarian Alternative for The Americas. Chávez's trading plan, which is designed to sideline traditional corporate interests and Bush's Free Trade Agreement of The Americas (FTAA), is based on barter agreements between Latin American countries. Ortega later added that he opposed U.S.-backed trade deals such as the Central American Free Trade Agreement or CAFTA. "Central America's trading future lies not with the U.S. but with Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina," he said.

Such statements put Ortega at odds with the likes of U.S. trade representative Robert Zoellick. "CAFTA is the opportunity of a lifetime," Zoellick remarked in an address given at the Heritage Foundation. "If we retreat into isolationism, Daniel Ortega, Hugo Chávez and others like them, leftist autocrats will advance."


As per Peru, the Nicaraguan right sought to link its Sandinista opposition to Chávez in an effort to instill fear in voters. Presidential candidate Jose Rizo remarked that Chávez and Ortega were "a threat to regional and hemispheric stability," and claimed that the Venezuelan leader was financing Ortega's campaign [both Venezuela and Ortega denied the accusation]. "Ortega will become Chávez's lieutenant in Central America and the Caribbean in the same way that he represented the extinct and failed Soviet Bloc," Rizo added.


In the end however, Rizo's red-baiting was unsuccessful: the veteran Sandinista leader edged out his opponent by 10 points to win the election.

 

El Salvador: Chávez and His "Totalitarian" Projects


To listen to the Salvadoran right in advance of Sunday's presidential election, you'd think Mauricio Funes was leading El Salvador on the march towards Stalinist dictatorship. While campaigning near the Honduran border recently, his opponent Rodrigo 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."

 

Latin American Right: Running On Empty


From Bolivia to Peru to Mexico to Ecuador to Nicaragua and now El Salvador, a clear pattern has emerged. The Latin American right knows that while it was in power, inequality and poverty increased and people hardly benefited economically from the extraction of natural resources. This put rightist politicians in a bind, since campaigning on U.S. - style economic policies and free trade was never going to be popular amongst electorates throughout the wider region.

 

In this sense, the Latin American right is in a similar dilemma to the Republicans in 2008. Like discredited John McCain, who represented the past and did not have any progressive economic ideas, today's conservatives in Latin America are running on empty and hence their desperate moves to insert Chávez into the political equation. Sometimes, as in Peru and Mexico, the right's strategy has succeeded whereas in other countries the tactic has failed. Arguably, Chávez's inflammatory rhetoric may have backfired in certain cases and wound up hurting progressive candidates.

 

Ironically, despite the right's claims, Chávez is hardly promoting revolution. Like other Latin American populists, Chávez has pushed economic redistribution but only up to a certain point. What's more, Venezuela is probably not in the position right now to advance an ambitious geopolitical agenda due to the fall in world oil prices. That hasn't stopped the right however from going negative and to claim that left candidates are intimately associated with Venezuela. For Latin American conservatives, it's probably the only card they have left.

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Opposition Leader Calls Morales a Macaca: Racist Rhetoric in Bolivia

In a careless slip of the tongue in August, 2006 Virginia Senator George Allen shot himself in the foot and ended his political career. During a campaign rally Allen pointed to a man of Indian descent and remarked “This fellow here, over here with the yellow shirt, macaca, or whatever his name is. He’s with my opponent. He’s following us around everywhere. And it’s just great.”

Allen’s supporters began to laugh.

“Let’s give a welcome to macaca, here,” the Senator added. “Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia.”

The word macaca is an ethnic slur meaning either a monkey that inhabits the Eastern Hemisphere or a town in South Africa. In some European cultures, macaca is also considered a racial slur against African immigrants.

Allen’s infamous outburst was captured on video and circulated widely on the internet after the footage was posted on YouTube. The Senator’s campaign manager dismissed the issue with an expletive and insisted the Senator had “nothing to apologize for.” But once the story started to circulate, Allen sought to salvage his career by claiming that the word had no derogatory meaning for him. He then said he was sorry.

The issue however did not go away. S.R. Sidarth, the man who Allen had slurred, remarked that he suspected the Virginia politician singled him out because he was the only nonwhite face amongst about 100 Republican supporters. “I think he was doing it because he could, and I was the only person of color there, and it was useful for him in inciting his audience,” Sidarth remarked. “I was annoyed he would use my race in a political context.”

Allen’s stunning gaffe contributed to his defeat in the 2006 election when the veteran politician lost against long-shot Democrat Jim Webb. Some Republican strategists believe that Allen might have been a contender for the 2008 Republican presidential ticket if he had not made his macaca gaffe.

Racist Rhetoric in Bolivia

Such ethnic slurs have no place in modern politics and yet the United States continues to openly support backward and racist figures in South America who hurl such insults with wanton abandon.

Take for example the case of Rubén Costas, an opposition figure in Bolivia. Speaking to his followers last month, Costas called indigenous socialist President Evo Morales a “macaca.” Costas has also insulted Morales as an “animal” and a “monkey.”

Fair skinned and European looking, Costas hardly resembles Bolivia’s indigenous president Morales. Elected Prefect of the energy-rich, western department of Santa Cruz in 2005, Costas has become a key advocate for greater regional autonomy and a thorn in the side of the La Paz government.

Costas, like many of his white and mestizo racist followers, regard the Indians in the highlands with contempt. The Santa Cruz politician would like to retain control over the lucrative gas industry and deprive the cash-strapped government in La Paz of much needed revenue.

Following Costas’ election, the right opposition escalated its pressure on the Morales government, organizing protests in the city of Sucre against the President’s proposed Constitution which would have given the country’s indigenous majority a greater say in political decision making. An advocate for powerful business interests, Costas was also one of the right wing politicians who called for a referendum on autonomy for Santa Cruz. When 85% of the residents of Santa Cruz voted for autonomy, Morales called the vote illegal and nonbinding.

A demagogic populist who likes to stir ethnic hatreds, Costas continued to up the ante last month. As a result of Morales’ victory in an August 10 recall referendum, the Santa Cruz politician called the President “murderous” and demanded that Morales cease his “bullying.”

Speaking in a plaza full of his supporters, Costas said Bolivia should say “no to the big foreign monkeys.” It was an obvious racial barb aimed at Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, a key Morales ally [physically, Chávez has indigenous-African features].

When asked by the Brazilian magazine Terra whether he would retract his statements about Chávez, Costas remarked “I don’t regret it at all.” The Santa Cruz politician said that “monkey” was based on the concept of gorilismo, “a term which is very common in Latin America to refer to soldiers. We can’t forget that Hugo Chávez is a military coup plotter who has turned himself into a neo-populist.”

Our Man in Bolivia

Even as he was escalating the racist rhetoric, Costas sought importantly allies. On August 25th, he met with U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg. Though the diplomat claimed that he had met Costas in public while on a routine trip to Santa Cruz, the meeting provoked suspicion amongst Bolivians that the United States was supporting the lowland opposition movement. A portion of U.S. aid to Bolivia is directed towards eastern provincial governments that are the nexus of opposition to Morales.

The La Paz government, desperately fighting to keep the country together, expelled Goldberg and accused him of conspiring with the conservative opposition. Having made a blunder and seriously imperiled U.S.-Bolivian relations, the State Department made things worse by retaliating and expelling the Bolivian ambassador to Washington. Coming to the aid of a friend, Chávez ordered the expulsion of the U.S. ambassador in Caracas. Predictably, the State Department again seriously erred, this time by expelling the Venezuelan ambassador.

The diplomatic tit-for-tat brings political tensions to new heights. Last week, anti-Morales sentiment reached a crescendo when protesters burned government offices in Santa Cruz. Anti-government activists also took over several natural gas installations in the east. Morales, who called the protests a “civil coup,” ordered additional troops to the eastern provinces to secure gas and oil installations. The protesters have been fighting Morales supporters with clubs, machetes and guns. In all, more than 30 people have died in the fighting.

Even Virginia Senator George Allen, a politician with a long history of making racist comments, ultimately realized that he had made a mistake and apologized at long last. Not so Rubén Costas, a figure who is unabashed about his views. Far from shunning racist leaders like Costas, the United States has embraced the Bolivian opposition. By doing so, the Bush White House has seriously inflamed U.S.-South American relations even more.

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U.S. is Promoting Secession in Bolivia: It’s Not the First Time

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Hugo Chávez’s Coca: It’s The Real Thing

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has never lacked a sense of theatricality -- that is for sure. He recently shocked his diplomatic counterparts in the middle of a Latin American summit held in Caracas. In the midst of the proceedings Chávez turned to his ally, Bolivian President Evo Morales, and remarked "You brought me coca, I want the coca that Evo produces there."

 

Chávez's stimulant of choice is coffee. A year and a half ago, I saw him speak at Cooper Union in New York. At one point, he paused in the middle of his speech to drink a cup of espresso. Chávez, who is totally hyperactive, is reportedly a caffeine fiend and sleeps very little. Now, however, the Venezuelan leader's favorite fix seems to be changing. Before his audience of sympathetic Latin leaders, Chávez popped a coca leaf into his mouth
while defending use of the plant.


"Capitalism and international mafias have converted (it) into cocaine, but coca is not cocaine," Chávez remarked. Bolivian President Evo Morales, himself a former labor leader of a coca growers' union, had personally brought the coca leaves to Caracas for Chávez. In recent years, Chávez has sought to further his strategic alliance with Bolivia in an effort to further his socialist agenda and to counteract U.S. economic and political influence. 

 

"I knew you wouldn't let me down, my friend, I was running out," Chávez said as he received the leaves from Morales. 

 

As Chávez chewed the coca, he drew applause from the audience.

 

Even before the Caracas summit, Caracas had revealed that he chewed coca "every day in the
morning." The Venezuelan leader said that he received ice cream and other items from Fidel Castro, but Morales sent him coca paste.

 

Coca paste is a highly addictive substance made from coca leaves that serves as a base for cocaine.  It is sometimes smoked -- not chewed -- by drug users. Apparently Chávez misspoke and meant instead to say that he chews coca leaves, which have been used for centuries by indigenous peoples in the Andean highlands to boost energy and ward off
hunger.

 

"I Recommend Coca"

Coca leaf, which was domesticated over 4,000 years ago, is usually chewed with a bitter wood-ash paste to bring out the stimulant properties, which are similar to caffeine or nicotine. For Andean Indians, coca leaf is closely tied to the spiritual world.  Offerings to Pachamama, the Mother Earth, begin in August to scare away malevolent spirits of the dry season and to encourage a good harvest. Offerings consist of llama foetuses, sweets of various colors, coca leaf and other herbs. The yatiri, or indigenous priest, burns the offerings in a bonfire while
muttering prayers to the achachilas, Gods that inhabit the mountains.

 

Chávez has praised the health benefits of chewing coca and refers to the plant as the sacred leaf of Bolivia's Aymara Indians. In a speech delivered to the Venezuelan National Assembly
no less, Chávez brazenly remarked "I recommend it [coca] to you" (Chávez's admission prompted a Venezuelan opposition leader to accuse the Venezuelan leader of being a "drug consumer." Chávez, charged the politician, ought to submit to a drug test). In his search to legitimize and rehabilitate coca leaf, Chávez has been joined by Morales. The Bolivian President says that coca in its natural state does not harm human health, and that scientific research has demonstrated that the plant is "healthy."

 

When drug smugglers change coca into cocaine, Morales says, they change the plant's chemical composition. While Morales condemns such practices, he also touts the commercial uses of coca leaf. In a riff on Chávez's earlier misstatements, Morales said that one could indeed consume coca in paste form, that is, through coca toothpaste.

 

In praising the therapeutic properties of coca leaf, Morales echoes claims made by the Coca
Research Institute in La Paz. According to the organization, coca has nutritional and pharmaceutical uses. For example, coca flour is rich in iron and helps balance blood sugar. Additionally, coca tea can counter altitude sickness. David Choquehuanca, Bolivia's foreign minister, claims that coca leaf is so nutritious that it should be included on school breakfast menus.

 

"Coca has more calcium than milk," he told the Bolivian newspaper La Razón. An eight ounce glass of milk contains 300 milligrams of calcium. According to a 1975 study conducted
by a group of Harvard professors, a coca leaf weighing 3.5 ounces contains 18.9 calories of protein, 45.8 milligrams of iron, 1540 milligrams of calcium and vitamins A, B1, B2, E and C, which is more than most nuts.

 

"Before, the coca leaf was totally satanized, penalized," Morales has said. "But we respect the doctors and scientists who have begun to industrialize it." During the colonial period the Spaniards looked upon coca leaf as a symbol of native people's inferiority, but today Morales employs coca as a potent political symbol. When speaking before adoring crowds, he drapes a garland of coca leaves around his neck and wears a straw hat layered with more coca.

 

Morales has even appointed Felipe Cáceres, a coca growers' union leader, as his point man in halting drug trafficking. Those types of moves play well at home, where the cocalero movement preaches indigenous ethnic pride as well as anti-globalization.  On the floor of congress, representatives of the cocaleros frequently deliver speeches in native languages while chewing coca.

 

Life in the Coca Market

Currently under the Morales administration, coca in its natural state is sold through markets established and controlled by the government. The regulation forms part of a government plan to industrialize and export coca to other countries such as Argentina.  Under the initiative, legally established companies, cooperatives, or organizations may opt to acquire coca, according to the quantity needed for consumption, from legal markets without any interference from retailers.

 

Though Bolivian officials claim not to possess information about the relative importance of coca in the Bolivian economy, clearly the leaf plays a vital role for many. The Adepcoca market in La Paz is the largest coca market in the country. A constant stream of poor Indians arrives here, day and night, seven days a week, to weigh and sell coca.  Women dressed in traditional Aymara clothing haul 23-kilo taquis,or sacks of coca leaves, to waiting vans. All the buyers are registered and the coca they buy is supposed to be used for chewing or tea.

 

Morales recently inaugurated the first coca industrialization plant in the town of Chulumani. The plant will produce and package coca and trimate (herbal tea made out of anise, chamomile, and coca leaves). In a snub at Washington, Chávez has even donated $125,000 to the Chulumani coca industrialization plant.

 

Chávez and Morales Speak Out Against the Drug War

Morales claims that the United States seeks to intervene in Latin American countries by playing up the drug war. Washington's policy, Morales has charged, is merely "a great imperialist instrument for geopolitical control." The Bolivian President argues that the only way to do away with drug trafficking is to cut off demand. Currently under Bolivian law, 29,600 acres of coca may be cultivated for traditional use and consumption.


Though Morales is expected to receive $30 million for coca eradication in Bolivia in 2008, his incendiary rhetoric and toleration of limited coca cultivation does not go over well in Washington.  To make matters worse, Chávez has long charged that the United States is destabilizing the Andean region by funding the drug war and arming the Colombian
military.

 

Colombian violence has in turn spilled across the Venezuelan border, creating chaos and lawlessness. The Venezuelan authorities combat drug trafficking, but Chávez has long
since severed any collaboration with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).  He has also moved to prohibit U.S. over flights of Venezuelan airspace to combat drug trafficking and has railed against aerial fumigation of coca leaf in Colombia.


Washington has hit back, claiming that Venezuela does not do enough to combat the drug trade. According to U.S. officials, Venezuela has become a key transshipment point for Colombian cocaine.

 

Chávez Promotes Cultural Independence

Surely, by attacking the drug war Chávez scores points amongst many in the region who view U.S. militarization as a menace. But by going even further and promoting coca leaf as
a cultural symbol, Chávez hopes to encourage cultural nationalism in South America in opposition to the United States.


For years, the Venezuelan leader has railed against the homogeneity of U.S.-inspired globalization. Chávez denounces shopping malls and rejects consumerism while promoting Venezuelan art and music. Under the Law of Social Responsibility, 50 percent of what DJs play must be Venezuelan music. What's more, under a cultural law approved in 2004, at least 50 percent of all that music must be "folkloric."  As a result of the new laws, llanero (rat-a-tat ballads or mournful love songs from the Plains region) and gaita (lilting music from the city
of Maracaibo) musicians have been doing a thriving business.  Chávez has even founded his own publishing house, El Perro y La Rana, which publishes books on Marxism.

 

Meanwhile the government has promoted Ávila TV, a cultural TV station.  Additionally, Chávez has inaugurated a spanking new film studio, Villa del Cine, designed to encourage the growth of Venezuelan and Latin American cinema as a counterweight to Hollywood.

 

Encouraging Latin American Cultural Nationalism

By rehabilitating the coca plant, Chávez also hopes to foster cultural unity amongst sympathetic regimes throughout the region. Chávez's ALBA (or Bolivarian Alternative
for The Americas), a counterweight to U.S.-sponsored free trade schemes such as the FTAA (or Free Trade Area of The Americas) is an initiative which promotes reciprocity, solidarity, and barter trade amongst left wing Latin American nations such as Venezuela, Cuba, and Bolivia.  In recent years, Chávez has sent oil to Cuba. In exchange, Fidel Castro sent health professionals to Venezuela who attended to millions of poor Venezuelans.

 

ALBA, however, also has an important cultural component. In early 2006, Venezuela and Cuba agreed to set up a cultural fund under the scheme. The two countries will create an ALBA publishing house designed to showcase the work of prominent intellectuals and also promote an ALBA record label. Other South American countries have expressed interest in signing cultural agreements with Venezuela. Francisco Sesto, the Venezuelan Minister of Popular Power for Culture, is particularly interested in setting up a network of "ALBA houses" in Buenos Aires, Quito, and  La Paz.  More than mere bookstores, exhibit halls, or movie theaters, the ALBA houses would spur dialog among intellectuals in the region and facilitate integration of peoples throughout the hemisphere.

 

During a recent gathering, the ministers of culture from Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador, and Bolivia met to discuss their future plans. Abel Prieto, the Cuban minister, described the countries of the region as locked in a struggle to preserve their cultural diversity against the forces of globalization.

 

"The defense of our own multiple identities and traditions is a priority," Prieto
said. "It was a necessity," he added, "to confront racism as well as all forms of colonization and exclusion."

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