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Stalemate On The South American Chessboard?

By Federico Fuentes

08 October, 2007
Green Left Weekly

Caracas: It has been a year of political tours and counter-tours for Latin America, principally by the two figures who dominate the regional political landscape: Venezuela's socialist President Hugo Chavez and US President George W. Bush. While Bush embarked on a tour in March of Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, El Salvador and Mexico, Chavez made his move by visiting Argentina, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Haiti. At each stop, the warmonger who presides over the US empire was met with mass protests; the firebrand revolutionary proclaiming the need for a new socialism of the 21st century was met with mass outpourings of support.

Bush has not dared to venture back down south since, instead sending high-ranking representatives on low-profile visits and shuffling the pieces he controls on the South American chessboard. Meanwhile, Chavez has continued to travel the continent, signing trade agreements and pushing his project of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), an alternative to US-pushed policies of "free trade" inspired by the dream of Venezuela's liberator Simon Bolivar for a united Latin American homeland.

Speaking to Green Left Weekly about the significance of these events, Argentine author and journalist Luis Bilbao commented that these two tours showed "South America repudiated Bush and South America and part of the Caribbean recognised in Chavez an international leader".

However, Bilbao noted that "US strategists in no way pretended to be able to compete with Chavez at this level, so it is evident that there was another plan". Latin America is "living the results of those tours today", because the "accelerated dynamic of convergence [of Latin American countries] based on a clear anti-imperialist, and above all, anti-US dynamic, has halted".

Bilbao is no stranger to Latin American politics, having authored numerous books on the topic, including two based on extensive interviews with Chavez — Chavez and the Bolivarian Revolution and Chavez After the Coup and Oil Sabotage — as well Petroamerica versus FTAA. His most recent is Argentina: The Key to the Region. Previously working for the "southern cone" edition of Le Monde Diplomatique, today Bilbao is the director of America XXI, a Latin America-wide magazine backed by Venezuela's government that promotes Latin American integration.

Washington's game plan

Chavez's tour was "a response to Bush's tour and an attempt to revitalise a unifying dynamic" in Latin America that US policy had begun to have a negative impact on, according to Bilbao. While continuing to use the stick of direct political pressure, blackmail and other threats, Bush's trip had as its central objective to leave behind political "time bombs" — in the form of the "carrot" for Latin America's oligarchies and large landowners of ethanol. "The perverse, but effective, idea was to conquer the oligarchies with an economic bribe and through these oligarchies exert pressure over the more fragile governments."

Bush's plan of replacing food crops with crops intended to be used in the production of ethanol-based biofuels for the US has been widely criticised by a number Latin American governments, including those of Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua and Bolivia, as well as social movements across the continent.

As a result of this plan, the until then fast-tracked process of Venezuela entering Mercosur (the Common Market of the South) has been slowed down by right-wing parties in the Paraguayan and Brazilian senates (the parliaments of Mercosur's member countries — Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina — have to vote to accept new full members into the trading bloc).

At the same time, an important step taken at an April meeting in Venezuela where the countries of South America agreed to form Unasur (the Union of South American Republics) — "a project … and to a certain extent, a realisation of a qualitative leap" in Latin American convergence — has since ground to a halt.

GLW asked Bilbao whether a "pro-ethanol" tour by Brazilian President Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva that coincided with another of Chavez's regional expeditions was a reflection of the success of Washington's plan. He argued, "Lula's tour was a concession by the Brazilian government to those oligarchies and a sector of its own bourgeoisie. But this project [by the US] was not only aimed at Brazil … perhaps not even principally, because the objectives are Uruguay, Argentina and Bolivia".


That explains why there is a "change in the discourse and actions of these governments", except for Boliva — "the only one that escapes this logic". For this nation, the US has a different plan. "In Bolivia there is an acceleration of the fracturing of the country because the oligarchies and large landowners, who produce soya, are aiming to divide the country in order to take power, given that they cannot do this through the government [which is led by left-wing indigenous President Evo Morales. Bolivia's right-wing has been pushing for extensive 'autonomy' for its states to escape progressive measures by the Morales government, which came to power in the wake of years of massive social rebellion that challenged the power of the country's ruling elite]."

Bolivia is "the frontline of the US offensive in the political-military sphere". The idea "is to initiate an internal confrontation [in Bolivia that] destabilises the centralised power in that country and triggers off a sequence of violent events in that region".

Comparing Washington's aggressive policies in the south of South America with what is occurring in the north of the region, Bilbao added: "The process of negotiations between the Colombian government and the FARC [the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, a left-wing guerrilla group], with Chavez as mediator, is essentially the inverse of the policy being pursued by the US …"

The US is "pushing a perspective of war, it needs war, it can no longer impede this process of South American anti-imperialist convergence — even though it is occurring at different speeds, depending on [different governments] — solely via economic measures. It needs war as a key plank of its strategy. The other aspects, particularly capturing some sectors of the oligarchies, is simply part of a strategy whose axis is war.

"If they achieve the neutralisation of some of the governments of the south of South America and initiate bellicose situations in some country, for instance an armed conflict in Bolivia, it would immediately have an impact in the region.

"Bolivia and Paraguay [where a US military base is located just 400 kilometres from Bolivia's border] could become involved in a military conflict, which could in turn draw in Argentina and Brazil. All this would have an immediate effect, no matter what the medium and long-term dynamic was, because it would put a halt to the process of unification. This is what is at stake in Bolivia."

A weak link

In Uruguay, the Frente Amplio government continues to oscillate between joining the process of integration and flirting with signing a "free trade" agreement with Washington. But that country's political and economic weight is overshadowed by Argentina's, which for Bilbao will be crucial for Latin America's future. "Argentina is central to the grand battle between disintegration and convergence … The US project for winning back its control over some countries has as its strategic targets Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina. Where this group goes is where the rest of Latin America will go."

Yet, today, the strength of Venezuela's Bolivarian revolution rules out the reversal of this process by the US, "unless it wants to involve itself in a war that could end up with a result totally contrary to what it is looking for. Any peaceful road to reversing this process is excluded because of the revolutionary leadership incarnated in Chavez."

In Brazil, "the US can aspire to certain lines of conciliation, but never a reversal of Brazil's South Americanist policy. Not because of the revolutionary will of the Brazilian government, but because of the economic necessities of the Brazilian industrial bourgeoisie."

In Argentina, however, neither of these two factors exist. There is not a "potent industrial bourgeoisie" nor "the ideological conviction of the government to continue the path of Brazil and Venezuela". "This means", according to Bilbao, that when the US looks at its chessboard, "it has Argentina as its principal objective".

Bilbao stated that the current Argentine government led by Nestor Kirchner could "in no sense be classified as left", but was rather the result of an "extraordinary crisis in the country where the political system exploded, with no-one to assume the power in the name of the bourgeoisie".

In this scenario, the bourgeoisie chose to support Kirchner, a relatively unknown figure with no social base and who came from a politically insignificant province. In the 2003 presidential election he came second in the first round with 21% of the vote. He won the election when the candidate who led in the first round resigned in order to avoid certain defeat and to weaken Kirchner's mandate.

Bilbao explained that the Kirchner government represented the continuation of two key measures introduced by interim president Eduardo Duhalde following Argentina's 2001 economic meltdown that explain his government's current trajectory: support for Latin American convergence and state intervention to help the economy recovery.

The candidate supported by Kirchner, his wife Cristina Fernandez, who is likely to win the upcoming October 28 presidential election, represents a continuation of these policies. A different government is unlikely to stray too far from these economic measures, although its political discourse most certainly will.

For Bilbao, "no matter who wins, they will not have the social base to govern" — unlike Kirchner, who has been able to create a connection between the government and people.

Faced with a drop in economic growth, Argentina's presidential hopefuls "have no political or union instrument, no political arguments, no strategy to confront that reality. This will mean that in the medium- to long-term Argentina will return to a situation of ungovernability and crisis, where the dispute will intensify as to whether control over Argentina is once again regained by the US in order to spearhead impeding South American unity, or if in Argentina the revolutionary forces recompose themselves and the country assumes a clear position in favour of Latin American integration."


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