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LISBON, Dec 21 2009 (IPS) - Latin America is undergoing a process of accelerated transformation. Considered the “backyard of the United States” for much of the last century, it suffered a string of coups d’etat and dictatorships, many piloted by neoliberal economists from the so-called “Chicago School”. It is natural that the region would want to forget this past and move in another direction.

Beginning in the 1980s, inspired by Portugal’s Carnation Revolution in April 1974 and by Spain’s transition to democracy after the death of dictator Francisco Franco in 1975, Latin Americans set in motion their own transition from military dictatorships to democracy.

In those days the United States was ruled by a democratic plutocracy, namely the administrations of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush, which understood that democratic regimes could serve US interests as well dictatorships, with the added benefit that with them it might be possible to broaden trade flows that certain nationalist military regimes had sought to limit.

This new approach would be codified at the end of the 1980s in the so-called Washington Consensus, a set of neoliberal prescriptions inspired by policies of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank and imposed on numerous developing countries, especially in Latin America.

But the world order changed after the collapse of the communist universe. The US was convinced that as the world hyperpower, with dominance in every sector -economic-financial, technological, and of course military- its role was to assume control of the destiny of the planet.

However, soon after -on September 11, 2001- the US learned that it too was vulnerable. Islamic terrorism asserted itself with extraordinary force. And the response of George W. Bush was the worst possible one: waging war against Iraq and Afghanistan and involving both Pakistan, Iran, and even more serious, the religion of Islam as such. This was a fatal error.

Curiously, another development followed soon after in mid-2008: the massive crisis of financial-speculative capitalism which some believe is already ending, expecting that all will return to the way it was before. In my opinion, this is sheer self-delusion and, unfortunately, grim times are still ahead.

In recent years, until Barack Obama became president, the US ruling class did not have time for consideration of their neighbours to the south, with the occasional exception of Mexico.

For Latin America, which accounts for over ten percent of the global population, this has been a period of sustained economic growth -an average of about 5 percent per year- while the strengthening of democratisation and the elections of 2006 and 2007 have given it greater economic independence from the US and EU, for example, in the context of the World Trade Organisation.

In effect, in the countries to the south of the Rio Grande, there was movement in the direction of democracy, some radical, as in Nicaragua, Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia, Paraguay, and more recently, Uruguay.

In this same period Brazil won recognition as a world player, which strengthened its position as a regional leader. Its firm opposition to the coup in Honduras raised its international profile. During the 19th Ibero-American Summit held in Estoril in early December, President Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva categorically refused to do as Washington wished and recognise the elections organised by coup-leader Roberto Micheletti. Lula left the meeting with a parting shot: “A democracy can never tolerate a military coup.”

In his first year in office, Obama has pursued a policy towards Latin America that is original and different from that of his predecessor, George W. Bush. He has also extended his hand to Cuba, although this gesture has produced no results yet, and as long as the blockade remains in place, it is premature to talk of a truly new US policy towards the island.

Meanwhile, the military bases that the US plans on installing in Colombia are certainly not a good sign, nor are the naval manoeuvres in the South Atlantic. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

(*) Mario Soares, ex-president and ex-prime minister of Portugal.

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