To read the article, click here.
Look out: the gloves are off and as usual the New York Times is determined to destroy Hollywood filmmaker Oliver Stone. On Friday, the paper published not one but two critical articles about the director's latest documentary, South of the Border, about the tectonic political changes occurring in South America. Stone, who is known for such popular hits as Wall Street and Platoon, made his film based on interviews with such leaders as Raul Castro of Cuba and Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. In his movie, Stone takes the New York Times and the mainstream media to task for their shoddy coverage of Latin America and demonization of Hugo Chávez, someone who Stone openly sympathizes with.
Going for a knockout, the Times hit Stone with a one-two punch. First up was film critic Steven Holden, who in a rather sarcastic review called South of the Border "shallow" and "naïvely idealistic." Unusually, the Times then continued its hatchet job on Stone by publishing another lengthy article in its movie section, this time penned by veteran Latin America correspondent Larry Rohter. In his piece, Rohter accuses Stone of numerous mistakes, misstatements and missing details. I don't think the points which Rohter raises are terribly earth-shattering, though I imagine script writers Tariq Ali and Marc Weisbrot will respond in short order.
For me, the wider point here has to do with political agendas. At one point, Rohter takes Stone to task for not disclosing the various biases of his sources. In his film, Stone relies on commentary from leftist observers of Venezuela, including Greg Wilpert, a longtime editor of Venezuelanalysis.com, a web site providing sympathetic coverage of the Chávez government. The site was set up with donations from the Venezuelan government and Wilpert's wife is Chávez's consul-general in New York [as long as we are talking disclosure: before it became, in my view, too identified with the Chávez government, I personally wrote many articles for the site].
Rohter Does Venezuela
Rohter's point is fair enough, but he is hypocritical for not disclosing his own particular bias. Far from a removed film critic, Rohter is an establishment reporter with a political axe to grind against the South American left. In 1998, when Chávez was first elected, the journalist described the political shakeup thusly: "All across Latin America, presidents and party leaders are looking over their shoulders. With his landslide victory in Venezuela's presidential election on December 6, Hugo Chávez has revived an all-too-familiar specter that the region's ruling elite thought they had safely interred: that of the populist demagogue, the authoritarian man on horseback known as the caudillo."
Four years later in April, 2002 Santiago-based Rohter expressed satisfaction over Chávez's forcible removal by the Venezuelan opposition. "Chávez was a left-wing populist doomed by habitual recklessness," Rohter wrote, adding that the Venezuelan leader's fall could not "be classified as a conventional Latin American military coup."
Later, when Chávez was returned to power and the short-lived coup government discredited, Rohter reversed himself and actually used the word "coup" in a story about recent political developments in Venezuela. If his readers had any doubts about the true intentions of the Bush administration, Rohter assured them that "there were no obvious American fingerprints on the plot that unseated Mr. Chávez."
Three years later, Rohter was at it again, this time writing that Chávez was "stridently anti-American." Chávez on the other hand said it wasn't true, arguing that reporters were confusing his distaste for the Bush administration with anti-Americanism. In its magazine Extra!, media watchdog group FAIR shrewdly wrote "If dislike for the current administration is anti-American, doesn't that make tens of millions of Americans 'anti-American'? Moreover, by the media logic that calls Chávez 'anti-American,' shouldn't the Bush administration, whose distaste for Chávez moved it to support his ouster by an anti-democratic coup, be called 'anti-Venezuelan?'"
New York Times Correspondent: From Colombia to Brazil
In his film, Stone points out that the mainstream media has, more often than not, demonized Chávez while giving a pass to horrible human rights violations committed in neighboring Colombia, a key U.S. ally in the region. In his attack on South of the Border, Rohter doesn't address that allegation squarely, but continues to hark on human rights violations in Venezuela. What Rohter fails to disclose however is that he has provided sympathetic coverage to right wing paramilitaries in Colombia.
Indeed, as FAIR's Extra! noted in its May/June 2000 edition: "...when Carlos Castaño, leader of the Colombian United Self-Defense, the most notorious paramilitary group in Colombia, appeared on Colombian television and revealed the extent to which his own group was involved in the drug business, it hardly merited a passing word in the U.S. media. The New York Times' Larry Rohter wrote a story about Castaño's "grilling" on Colombian TV (3/12/00) that skirted the drug issue altogether."
FAIR goes on to note, "Rohter's report stands in stark contrast to a Reuters story about the same appearance (3/2/00), which lead with the admission: 'The leader of Colombia's right-wing paramilitary death squads has publicly admitted the drug trade finances most of the bloodletting committed by his ruthless militia force.' Castaño also explained that 'drug trafficking and drug traffickers probably finance 70 percent' of his total operations, another fact that the New York Times apparently found less important than the opinions of a waitress and a local magazine columnist, who felt that Castaño had undergone a 'surprising metamorphosis.' If Castaño's intent was to present a 'human' face to the world, the New York Times at least seemed happy to help."
Perhaps Rohter was also irked by Stone's sympathetic portrait of Brazilian leader and Chávez ally Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. In an explosive 2004 article, Rohter suggested that Lula had a drinking problem, and that the issue had become a "national concern" in Brazil. In a furor, the authorities suspended Rohter's visa. When Rohter's lawyers wrote a letter asserting that the reporter meant no offense, the Brazilian authorities restored the visa.
Brazilian media stood up for Rohter's right to write, but was uniformly critical of the Times' article. Speaking with NPR's Bob Garfield, Brazilian journalist Antonio Brasil remarked "One thing is to say anything about a president ... and his possible drinking habits. It's another thing when he says that the Brazilians were concerned... Most people say that was not ... true. His sources and evaluation in terms of putting together the story would represent ... sloppy journalism."
Brasil added, "You cannot forget that this is a completely new government. In Brazil this is a Socialist ... government for the very first time. Lula is from the Worker's Party, and they are very sensitive of any comment, especially coming from America." In response, Garfield asked Brasil how local journalists could conflate the interests of the U.S. government with the New York Times. "You have to think [about] the whole situation of embedded journalists," Brasil said. The journalist added that he was concerned about the Jayson Blair scandal at the Times, remarking that "maybe the standards are not...high."
Perhaps, the Times is simply hitting back at Stone in a tit-for-tat. In South of the Border, the Hollywood director interviews a Times editor who admits to the paper's lackluster coverage of Venezuela. I wondered how Stone got the Times man to talk on camera, and whether there was ever an official or explicit line about how to cover the Chávez story. Whatever the case, the paper's old Latin American hand Rohter certainly got the word: then as now.
To read the article, click here.
It’s everyone’s worst nightmare: being caught in an underground subway in the midst of a power outage. Yet, that is exactly what happened recently when Brazilian commuters in the city of São Paulo were trapped inside trains and literally had to be pulled out of subway cars. In addition to sparking problems in public transport, the blackout or apagão led to hospital emergencies and the shutting down of several airports. In all the power outage darkened approximately half of the South American nation, affecting sixty million people.
In recent years Brazil has become an economic powerhouse yet the blackout exposed vulnerabilities in the country’s infrastructure. In the wake of the power outage, government officials intent on sustaining high economic growth have tried to figure out what might have gone wrong with the country’s electrical grid. Initial reports blamed the power outage on the massive Itaipu hydroelectric dam though a spokesperson for the facility said there had been no problem at the plant.
Itaipu, the official stated, was solely responsible for power generation and the failure occurred in the transmission line. Perhaps, the Energy and Mines Minister declared, a chance atmospheric event like a storm could have disconnected Itaipu. While the authorities conduct further investigations into the matter, some are concerned about the scope of the apagão and have demanded a more detailed explanation.
In addition to power outages there are other, more profound problems associated with hydropower, problems that now concern us all. Indeed, hydroelectric plants lead to emissions of methane which are formed when vegetation decomposes at the bottom of reservoirs devoid of oxygen. The methane is either released slowly as it bubbles up in the reservoir or rapidly when water passes through turbines.
One Brazilian dam, Balbina, flooded about 920 square miles of rainforest when it was completed and during the first three years of its existence the actual reservoir emitted 23 million tons of carbon dioxide and 140,000 tons of methane. Dr. Philip Fearnside, a scientist who I interviewed for my upcoming book No Rain In the Amazon: How South America’s Climate Change Affects The Entire Planet (Palgrave Macmillan, April 2010), has calculated that during this time Balbina’s greenhouse gas output was four times that of a coal-fired plant producing the same amount of power.
The news is particularly troubling as methane is twenty times more powerful a greenhouse gas than carbon. Environmentalists say that methane gas produced by forests inundated by hydroelectric projects accounts for one-fifth of Brazil’s greenhouse gas contribution to global warming.
How concerned should we be about dams and their effect on Earth’s climate? According to researchers, the world’s reservoirs release 20 percent of the total methane from all known sources connected to human activity, including livestock, fossil fuels, and landfills. Experts say that same methane released by dams, meanwhile, accounts for 4 percent of total global warming while reservoirs contribute approximately 4 percent of all carbon dioxide emissions resulting from human activity.
The issue of hydro power has been climbing up the political agenda of the world’s leading scientists: in 2006 the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) included emissions from artificially flooded regions in its greenhouse gas inventory. That hasn’t stopped Brazilian policymakers however from proceeding full throttle with their plans for Amazonian dams and currently the country relies on hydropower for more than 80% of its electricity. In particular, the government has pushed a controversial dam project called Belo Monte. Scientists have raised the alarm bell about the complex, which will cause an increase in greenhouse gas emissions due to the decomposition of organic matter within the stagnant water of the reservoir.
President Lula has said that developing hydro power in the Amazon is essential if the country wants to sustain more than 5 percent growth. The mere fact, however, that Brazil is afflicted by chronic energy problems does not mean that Lula must sacrifice the rainforest to hydro power and thereby intensify climate pressures. Indeed, critics charge that Lula’s dam building is merely designed to satisfy big business which gobbles up energy so as to export tropical commodities.
With all of the social drawbacks associated with hydro power, not to mention the implications for climate change, why won’t authorities consider meeting Brazil’s future energy needs through alternative means? Environmentalists argue that the Lula government should upgrade existing energy systems and push through rapid development of wind, solar, and biomass technologies. If Lula adopted such clean technologies Brazil could meet its electricity needs through 2020 and actually save $15 billion in the process.
Sounds like a proposal worth exploring, but predictably the electrical sector has wasted no time in attacking environmentalists for being utopian and naive. To retrofit older dams and cut transmission losses is simply wishful thinking, the powerful lobbying group has charged. One expert reports that hydroelectric projects die hard in Brazil. “It’s like a Dracula movie,” he says. “Every 20 years or so, it surges up out of the coffin. You have to drive the stake back through the thing and make it go away again.”
Where is all the money coming from for these hydroelectric initiatives you ask? One chief culprit is the Brazilian National Development Bank, the financial arm of the Ministry of Development, Industry and Foreign Trade. Because of the incestuous relationship between the government and hydropower, it’s politically difficult to challenge these boondoggle projects.
But just in case you thought methane-producing dams were a strictly Brazilian affair, consider that the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) is also expected to contribute financially to hydro electric projects despite heavy lobbying from environmental and human rights groups that have been urging the bank to steer clear of such initiatives.
Moving away from hydropower and solving our climate conundrum will require political leadership in Brazil but also significant international cooperation. As we move forward in crucial climate change negotiations, the Global North needs to do much more to invest in truly green technology such as wind, solar, and waves. Instead of sponsoring hydropower, large financial institutions as well as affluent countries should provide clean energy transfers to such nations as Brazil.
Failure to act now could exact a heavy environmental toll and condemn Brazil to a vicious energy-climate trap. Consider the case of an earlier, 2001 apagão: in that year, a blackout crippled the country and authorities were forced to decree emergency measures, including a ban on power-hungry floodlights. A special government task force (nicknamed the “Blackout Ministry”) called for the switching off of lighting on streets, beaches, and squares. In the midst of the energy crisis some Rio business leaders feared a crime wave and called for the army to be deployed in the event of power cuts.
Meanwhile, panic-stricken citizens stocked up on candles, generators, and flashlights. When the rationing went into effect, cutbacks obliged schools and businesses to close and disrupted transportation, trade, and leisure. As street lighting in most major cities was cut 35 percent, police night shifts were increased and even Brazilians’ prized night games of soccer were prohibited.
The connection between hydro power and climate change is becoming all too painfully clear. Consider: the immediate cause of the 2001 energy crisis and blackout was a severe drought–the worst in more than sixty years. When the dry spell hit, water levels at hydroelectric plants fell to less than one-third of capacity.
In the long run hydro power may be caught in a vicious cycle of its own making: as large boondoggle projects such as Belo Monte proliferate, they may emit harmful greenhouse gases and thus contribute to climate change and increasing drought. But if global warming dries up parts of the Amazon, Belo Monte and other dams like it could wind up being white elephants as there won’t be much water left to harness.
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.
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 being pursued right now by the likes of Condoleezza Rice, who recently concluded a South American tour 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.
Rice and her colleagues are alarmed because, notwithstanding their ideological differences, South American nations appear to be moving towards extensive political and economic integration. The only question now is which economic development model will predominate within the region and what the eventual complexion of integration will look like.
The vehicle for closer integration could well be Mercosur, a trading bloc of South American countries. At present the bloc’s members include Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay. Venezuela is in the process of joining the bloc, and a number of countries including Bolivia and Chile are associate members. Mercosur nations have declared their intention of forming a South American Community of Nations modeled after the European Union.
The bloc is beginning to take on political projects rather than pursuing strictly economic objectives. For example, Mercosur now has a European Union-styled regional parliament in Montevideo, and many Uruguayans hope their capital might evolve into the "Brussels of South America." In a repudiation of Washington’s diktat, Mercosur nations openly debated what the future of free trade should be in South America during a heady 2007 summit.
In line with his usual penchant for over the top rhetorical flourishes, Hugo Chávez of Venezuela stressed the need for Mercosur to be "decontaminated" from the ravages of neo-liberal economics. Mercosur, noted the Venezuelan leader, was an "outdated mechanism and is leaking like a sieve." The trade bloc, Chávez added, was "founded in the context of a free- market economic model and offers integration for the élites, for business, for transnational companies, not integration for the peoples." Such remarks have riled the Bush White House which has come to distrust Mercosur, an entity which has acted to block the corporate-friendly Free Trade Area of the Americas.
Having woken up to the fact that its free trade and neo-liberal agenda for the region lies in tatters, and that wielding a Big Stick to defang its enemies cannot work politically in the present milieu, the Bush White House is now pursuing stealthy diplomacy. Rice’s strategy is to divide and rule, to contain radical social change and to steer it within acceptable boundaries.
These are important geopolitical developments which have largely fallen beneath the media radar screen. It’s a deficiency I seek to rectify in my new book, Revolution! South America and The Rise of The New Left (just released with Palgrave-Macmillan), based on extensive interviews with activists, intellectuals, political experts, and government officials in six countries throughout the region.
Venezuela and Brazil: Their Differing Visions for the Future
Officially, Venezuela and Brazil are close allies and are not vying for regional political control. But waning U.S. prestige has led to something of a power vacuum and the two countries are now pushing very different economic agendas. On the one hand, Brazil seeks to create economic opportunities for itself which in turn might offer advantages for smaller South American countries. Within President Lula’s scheme, these smaller nations would buy Brazilian goods and supply Brazil with energy resources. With Brazil as the hub of a southern bloc of countries, the region would head towards a more equitable development model mitigating the savage effects of globalization. Lula’s model is market-friendly though not explicitly "neo-liberal;" it is predicated upon government support for domestic companies which are intent on exploiting regional and global opportunities.
Lula’s agenda stands in contrast to that of Hugo Chávez who has overseen an avowedly socialist and strong statist approach to the economy. Rhetorically, Chávez rails against the market and globalization, thus sparking fear in Brazil that the Venezuelan leader will scare off investors from flocking to the region. Chávez would like to see a more "un-savage" version of globalization spread forth from Venezuela into neighboring countries.
In order to advance Venezuelan interests, Chávez provides development assistance and oil at discount prices to sympathetic regimes in the hemisphere. He has sought to bring Venezuela into Mercosur and hopes to subvert the bloc from within, presumably by shifting the entity’s focus from free trade to more equitable, reciprocal trade. Simultaneously however he has hedged his bets by promoting the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (known by its Spanish acronym ALBA), a scheme based on solidarity and barter trade outside of the usual corporate strictures.
Driving a Wedge between Brazil and Venezuela
Rice is trying to exploit these differences and to effectively drive a wedge through South America’s incipient left bloc. "Brazil has a president from the left. He’s one of America’s closest friends and partners in the region and on the globe. I will go on to Chile, another country where the president is from the left and again, we have excellent relations with Chile," the Secretary of State remarked in an interview with Brazil’s Globo TV.
Now that South America is headed on a new trajectory which is more independent of Washington, Rice hopes that the "responsible" left as exemplified by Brazil’s Lula and Chile’s Bachelet will steer the region away from the likes of Venezuela’s Chávez and Bolivian President Morales. "This is not about where you are on the ideological spectrum," she said. "It’s a question of: Do you respect democratic values and democratic institutions; are you working for the good of your people; are you working for the good of your neighbors. Those are the issues that are important to the United States, but it’s certainly not a matter of whether you come from the left or from the right."
Rice then urged nations such as Venezuela to meet their United Nations obligations by keeping terrorists out of their territories. In sounding the alarm, Rice was merely parroting her boss who had earlier remarked that Venezuela’s response to the recent border crisis in Colombia and Ecuador was "the latest step in a disturbing pattern of provocative behavior by the regime in Caracas." (In March, Chávez and Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, ordered troops to their Colombian borders and withdrew their ambassadors from Bogotá after Colombia killed a top rebel leader, Raúl Reyes, on Ecuadorean soil. During the raid, Colombia obtained computer hard drives that U.S. officials claim show the Venezuelan government may have had dealings with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, which the U.S. labels a terrorist group). When she was asked whether the U.S. was considering designating Venezuela a state sponsor of terror, Rice declared: "We will watch the situation and act accordingly."
From Bio Fuels to Free Trade
In the fight for geopolitical influence, energy politics looms large: that’s why the issue of bio fuels was at the top of Rice’s agenda during her Brazilian trip. In recent years, Brazil has become an energy giant by producing ethanol, a fuel made from sugar cane, which is even more environmentally destructive than oil in certain respects. It’s all part of Lula’s bid to rival Chávez, who has used oil for diplomatic and political advantage in the region.
In Brasilia, Rice discussed progress on an initiative launched by Bush last year to develop ethanol industries. At a press conference, she surprised the audience by seemingly becoming a born again environmentalist. Putting bio fuels on the map, she remarked, was "a way to deal with the terrible problems that we face in energy supply and climate change."
Brazil would like to become a more important political player on the world stage, and Rice was careful to bring up the issue of United Nations Security Council reform. The South American giant has long hoped to obtain a permanent seat, and the Secretary of State offered the carrot of possible U.S. backing for the move.
In Chile, Rice sought to revive a long-standing, but largely dormant, strategic partnership between Chile and the U.S. state of California. State Department officials argue that both have complimentary economies; spokesman Sean McCormack said that a centerpiece of Rice’s visit was a proposed educational exchange program. For Rice it was important to visit Chile, a country with which the United States has a free trade agreement: the Bush White House hopes the accord will serve as a model for other free trade initiatives in the region, including a pending deal with Colombia.
Snubbing Argentina by Refusing To Set Foot in the Country
What is truly startling to consider is that Rice altogether skipped Argentina during her tour. That’s a monumental diplomatic snub of a major country within the region. What’s it all about?
Relations between the United States and Argentina have been plummeting ever since Bush’s first term. Argentina still blames the American-controlled International Monetary Fund for its financial collapse in late 2001 (Argentina was forced to default on billions of dollars in debt to the IMF).
In 2003 incoming President Néstor Kirchner played on anti-American sentiment as a means of consolidating leftist constituencies, while simultaneously becoming a key Chávez ally. When I was in Buenos Aires researching my book, I was truly amazed at the extent of the growing Venezuelan-Argentine alliance. The two nations now barter and trade everything from cattle, to oil, to agricultural products and ships.
In 2005, things got worse when, right in front of Bush, Kirchner criticized the neo-liberal policies of the 1990s that the United States sponsored. Kirchner delivered his riposte at a meeting of Latin American leaders in Mar del Plata. The Argentine president did little to stop anti-American protests, leading Bush to leave the summit feeling totally humiliated. In an effort to avoid further embarrassment, Bush avoided Argentina altogether during his South America tour last year, preferring instead to pay his respects to Brazil and Uruguay.
The White House hoped that things might turn around with last year’s election of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the former president’s wife. But then relations took a further nose dive when American prosecutors in Miami named four Venezuelans and one Uruguayan in connection with a plot to cover up $800,000 found in a suitcase at a Buenos Aires airport allegedly meant as a secret campaign contribution from Venezuela’s government to Kirchner. The new Argentine president lashed out at the U.S., calling the investigation "garbage operations." Kirchner argued that the investigation was politically motivated and designed to drive a wedge between Argentina and Venezuela.
In retaliation, Kirchner restricted the diplomatic access of the American ambassador in Argentina, Anthony Wayne. Rubbing Bush’s face in the mud yet further, Kirchner has cultivated even greater ties to Chávez: the Argentine leader has continued to sell more consumer products to Venezuela as well as some $4 billion in Argentine bonds to help refinance the country’s debt. What’s more, energy-strapped Argentina will be the proud recipient of more than 10 million barrels of Venezuelan fuel oil and diesel per year.
What’s behind Argentina’s geopolitical maneuvers and what do the Kirchners want from Venezuela? Argentina seems to be playing a rather Byzantine game in an effort to offset Brazil’s big footprint in the Southern Cone. The Brazilians have always seen Mercosur and the Southern Cone as their backyard which offends Argentina’s sense of national pride. When Néstor Kirchner and now Cristina further ties to Venezuela, it’s a way of poking the eye of their northern neighbor.
To an extent, the growing rapprochement is also based on shared ideological affinity. Indeed, Néstor Kirchner once stressed that Mercosur needed to transcend its mere emphasis on economic growth. "We are not interested only in economic integration," he remarked. "We are not interested in a region of the world where integration is full of poverty, exclusion and unemployment."
Chávez to Brazilian Senate: "You’re Parrots"
For Chávez, the advantages of Argentine friendship are eminently clear. By securing important support from his ally to the south, Chávez makes it easier for Venezuela to join Mercosur and hopefully overcome Brazilian skittishness. That support has become more and more critical as Venezuela’s bid to join Mercosur has been held up and stalled. Though Argentina and Uruguay have ratified Venezuela’s bid, Paraguay and Brazil have still not agreed.
In Brazil, the biggest thorn in Chávez’s side has been the Senate, which was outraged by Venezuela’s refusal to renew Radio Caracas Televisión’s broadcast license; the station was a hotbed of opposition sentiment. Characteristically, Chávez flew off the handle and accused the Brazilian Senate of being subservient to the United States. In a move which hardly ingratiated himself amongst the Brazilian elite, Chávez said that the Senators were "puppets of the (U.S.) empire" and "oligarchs" more interested "in their pockets than the people." Memorably, the Venezuelan leader said that the Senate was a "parrot that just mimics Washington." Meanwhile, a Venezuelan negotiator remarked that the United States did not want "the strong bloc of the present Mercosur plus Venezuela leading the way to South American unity."
Chávez’s outburst led the leader of the Brazilian Social Democracy Party in the Senate, Arthur Virgílio, to declare that his colleagues would try to prevent Venezuela’s entry into Mercosur. Both the Social Democracy Party and the Democrat Party declared that Venezuela could not be admitted to Mercosur because it was "a country that cannot respect disagreement in a civil fashion." President Lula himself told Venezuela to mind its own business. In anger, Chávez issued an ultimatum, saying that Venezuela would withdraw its application to join Mercosur unless its bid was approved within three months. "We won’t wait any longer than that. The Brazilian and Paraguayan Congresses have no reason not to approve our entry: no political, legal, economic or moral reasons," Chávez said. Incensed, Brazilian government officials retorted that they would not accept deadlines from anyone.
Contours of Further Integration Unclear
Despite such incendiary tit-for-tats, some experts believe that integration will eventually occur, even though it may take 30 or 40 years to complete the process. While in São Paulo researching my book I caught up with Valter Pomar, Secretary of International Relations with Brazil’s Workers’ Party. Regional integration, he said, would have a significant geopolitical impact because it "would take place within the context of a rising left movement. That is important, because the European Union was pushed for and created under conservative governments."
Perhaps, but what will be the precise contours of economic and political integration? For the time being, the future is still plenty murky. Even if Venezuela becomes a member of Mercosur, the trade bloc faces daunting economic and political pressures which are far too complicated and arcane to even enumerate here. With Mercosur, and implicitly the South American Community of Nations future in some doubt, Chávez has turned his attention elsewhere.
By far the most enlightened and socially progressive initiative guiding South American integration today, Venezuela’s ALBA is designed to serve as a counterweight to free trade blocs. In particular, growing integration between Venezuela, Cuba, and Bolivia has led to important developments in health care which have benefited millions. On the other hand, ALBA has had little effect on the overall volume of trade between member nations. It’s difficult to see how particular South American nations, for example Brazil or Chile, would ever accept ALBA as a viable economic model. Meanwhile, Chávez’s plans to transform ALBA into some kind of a military alliance have foundered and gone nowhere as I have previously explained (see "`We Will Respond Jointly,’ Hugo Chávez’s Anti-Imperialist Army," February 16/17, 2008).
Such lack of political clarity has given the White House a slight opening. Though the Bush administration is reviled throughout the region and Washington cannot hope to turn back the rising pink tide of progressive regimes, Rice believes she can mitigate Venezuelan influence by cutting bilateral energy and trade deals with individual South American countries. As long as Brazil and Venezuela play out their big power rivalry, smaller countries may choose to either wait on the sidelines or secure advantages from either Lula or Chávez based on their particular needs at any given time.
Despite his constant rhetorical outbursts directed at the likes of parrots within the Brazilian Senate, Chávez has expressed regret at the lack of overall diplomatic progress. If they are ever to achieve meaningful integration, the big powers of Venezuela, Argentina, and Brazil must find a way to resolve their differences. Up to now, all three have been engaged in a precarious geopolitical dance, an irony not lost on Chávez himself. Recently the Venezuelan leader remarked, "Neither Venezuela alone, nor Brazil alone, nor Argentina alone can become a world power. We can only achieve that together."
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