Political Upheaval

By Nadia Martinez
In These Times

Latin America challenges the Washington Consensus

The presidential palaces of Latin America are famous for their imposing Spanish colonial grandeur. Not long ago these marble edifices on grand plazas were inhabited mostly by military strongmen. That these leaders were elites of European descent went virtually without question.

Today, Chile’s presidential palace, La Moneda, is the home of a single mother and torture survivor. In Buenos Aires’ famous Casa Rosada lives a man who is perhaps the biggest thorn in the side of the International Monetary Fund. In Bolivia it is an indigenous coca farmer, in Brazil a metalworker and in Uruguay a former leader of left social movements who call these palaces home.

In election after election, Latin Americans are choosing leaders who promise a shift from traditional elite-driven politics to more participatory and active democracies that focus on fulfilling the needs of the poor. With nearly a dozen national elections coming up this year, including especially significant ones in Mexico and Brazil, this is an important time to assess how far the new leaders of Latin American politics, diverse as they may be, are likely to go in achieving real change. And at a time of virtually one-party rule in the United States, the prospects for real democracy in Latin America offer an intriguing model for the rest of the world.

Under the US Radar

To the extent that U.S. officials have paid any attention to the new Latin American leadership, it has been largely fixated on Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. In February, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld played the Hitler card, describing Chávez as “a person who was elected legally-just as Adolf Hitler was elected legally-and then consolidated power and now is, of course, working closely with Fidel Castro and Mr. Morales and others.” Other U.S. officials have used Chávez’ fiery attacks on President Bush to raise the specter of a Cuban socialist model being imposed by Chávez and his new allies throughout Latin America.

In general, however, Latin America is low on the Bush administration’s radar screen. Although the U.S. government was deeply involved in Latin America during the ’80s, providing military and other assistance to governments fighting internal civil wars, successive administrations have been less concerned with the region since the fighting there stopped. The war in Iraq has pushed Latin America even lower on the priority list.

According to Adam Isacson, a senior policy associate at the D.C.-based Center for International Policy, U.S. military assistance to Latin America has not dried up. Rather it has been refocused “to fight the war on drugs and efforts to maintain close contact with the militaries of countries that are lifting trade barriers, privatizing and pursuing laissez-faire economic policies.”

By pulling back from direct political involvement in the region, the U.S. government created an opening for Latin American social movements of small farmers, trade unionists, human rights activists and urban poor to organize and elect new leadership. Their efforts have been bolstered by the failure of the policies that the U.S. government has pushed in the region-fighting drugs and expanding free market reforms. On drugs, the U.S. government’s attempt to crack down on Latin American suppliers was key to the rise of Bolivia’s newly elected president, Evo Morales. A native Aymara and leader of the country’s coca farmers union, Morales is a staunch opponent of U.S. coca crop eradication programs. Although the coca plant is used to produce cocaine, for Bolivians coca in its natural form is as much a part of their culture as coffee is to ours. His courage to stand up to the United States in defending the rights of coca farmers made him a national celebrity even before he went into politics.

In February, shortly after taking office, Morales urged the United States to change its drug war policy in Bolivia. He said, “The [U.S.] zero-coca policies haven’t worked. … We don’t want a false drug war.” Then, during Chile’s presidential inauguration in March, Morales gave Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice a traditional Bolivian musical instrument called the charango, decorated with coca leaves – a symbolic reminder that coca farming is legal in Bolivia.

The U.S. coca eradication efforts in Bolivia and elsewhere have had little to no effect on cocaine use at home or on coca cultivation. Sanho Tree, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, explains that after the United States put the squeeze on Bolivia and Peru in the early ’90s, coca cultivation exploded in Colombia. Now, after five years of hammering at Colombia, production is moving back to Peru, Bolivia and other countries. “The drug war hasn’t been able to solve this balloon effect,” he says. “In fact, constricting global supply simply creates greater financial incentives for more campesinos to plant coca, and in a region where there is so much poverty, we will never make coca disappear by making it more valuable. Morales’ victory should be occasion for Washington to re-evaluate its failed drug war rather than to propagate alarmist rhetoric.”

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