What Do Our Hemisphere's “Masses in Motion” Really Want?


In his recent Latin American tour, President Barack Obama made a speech in Santiago, Chile. Standing next to Chile's right-wing President, Sebastian Piñera, the U.S. president congratulated the Chilean people on having escaped from their long period under the Pinochet dictatorship, hailing former presidents Alwyn, Frei and Lagos for their role in democratizing Chile, but inexplicably omitting Piñera's immediate predecessor, Socialist Michelle Bachelet, while tactfully refraining from mentioning the fact that Piñera had been a Pinochet supporter earlier on.

Obama harked back to John F. Kennedy's “Alliance for Progress,” perhaps intending to suggest it a possible model for future cooperation between the United States and Latin American countries. He pooh-poohed the idea that the United States is responsible for “all Latin America's problems” (which nobody asserts) but at the same time praised the right-wing regimes of Chile, Colombia and Mexico for their democratic credentials, while chiding Cuba in the time-honored fashion of all U.S. presidents. More problematically he praised, and took credit for, the “return to the rule of law” in Honduras after the June 28, 2009 coup (just as Honduran police were violently repressing a demonstration by teachers), and the just finished run-off elections in Haiti (in which the most popular party in Haiti, former President Aristide's Fanmi Lavalas was, at US insistence, not allowed to run).

In all of these situations, there are millions of people in the countries involved who would not characterize U.S. intervention as being constructive and in the interests of democracy. In the case of Chile, the oppression of the Mapuche indigenous people, which was lifted under the government of Socialist President Salvador Allende and then sharply increased under the Pinochet dictatorship, continues under Piñera, in spite of Obama's statement that Chile's example proves that “Chile shows that we need not be divided by race or religion or ethnic conflict”! He also said that there are no more border conflicts, ignoring Bolivia's long claim to access to the Pacific Ocean of which it was deprived in the War of the Pacific in the 19th Century.

Latin America, like the Middle East, is an area of “masses in motion.” Since the election of leftist Hugo Chavez as president of Venezuela in 1999, left or left-center governments have come to power in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Bolivia, Paraguay, Brazil, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Antigua and Barbuda, and Honduras (later overthrown by a right-wing coup). Except for Cuba, which has had a revolutionary socialist government since 1959, these governments have been of heterogeneous political composition, including nationalists, populists, social democrats and others, in almost all cases supported by the local communist and left-socialist parties where such exist. They have their own difficulties, internal conflicts and problems.

But the list of leftists in power tells only part of the story. In almost every major nation in the hemisphere, including US controlled Puerto Rico, there are large scale movements of workers, peasants or small farmers, youth and students and others who are challenging, simultaneously, their own ruling classes, international monopoly capital, and imperialism. And while it is hyperbole to claim that all these unsatisfied people blame the United States for all their problems, it is also true that U.S. foreign and especially international trade policy generally stands in the way of their aspirations. 

What do these “masses in motion” from Mexico to Tierra del Fuego want? The following set of goals characterize the aspirations of the broad left, including left and left center governments in power, in Latin America and the Caribbean:

  • First, they want to be able to determine their own destinies free of foreign interference and domination. Since virtually the only foreign power that has been promoting such domination in recent years is the United States, this means that they want freedom from U.S. interference. However, there are also struggles against interference from other wealthy, developed countries. In Haiti, French and Canadian interference is very visible and problematic. Canadian and European mining corporations are the foci of militant campaigns by indigenous farmers, workers and environmentalists in some Central American countries.
  • They want to be “out from under” U.S. economic, political and military hegemony. They are angered and embarrassed by situations in which their economies are far more tightly linked to the U.S. economy than to each other, as for instance is the case of Mexico 80.2 percent of whose exports go to the United States under the North American Free Trade Agreement.
  • They want to be rid of the Washington Consensus, neo-liberal policies imposed by the wealthy countries and by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. They do not want to be forced to sell their drinking water systems to rapacious outside corporations as a condition of getting development loans. They do not want their peoples' labor and their natural resources to be subjected to the control of abusive foreign corporations. They do not want international lenders to tell them that to get trade and aid; they must charge tuition for their children to attend elementary school.
  • They want to become modern, industrial countries but on their own terms, combining outside investment with state enterprises and national capital to get the optimal mix for a humane form of development. They want to cooperate with each other, and with other large states such as the BRIC group (Brazil, Russia, India, China), in development and trade projects, without US interference. They want to develop regional cooperative blocs such as ALBA, UNASUR and MERCOSUR as alternatives to domination by the US under schemes like the moribund Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) and by the IMF and World Bank, and do not think that the United States has the right to interfere with this.
  • They want development without the trashing of their environment, without driving their small farmers off the land and without crushing their indigenous populations. They do not want their people abused by Canadian, U.S. and other mining, oil and other extractive corporations.
  • They want fair trade, not foreign aid. They do not want handouts; they want to be able to sell their products on international markets for a fair price, which does not mean the lowest price as dictated by the World Trade Organization. They want an end to dumping, in the name of free trade, on the part of the United States and other wealthy capitalist countries, such as happens with US grains in Mexico and U.S. rice in Haiti.
  • They do not want to be threatened by U.S. military forces such as the Southern Command, the Fourth Fleet, U.S. bases in Colombia and proposed bases in Panama, and other sources of possible military interference.
  • They want the United States to stop harassing Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia, and especially for the U.S. blockade of Cuba to end.
  • They want to be treated as equals, with respect and not as “the lesser breeds without the law” or “banana republics.” This extends to their citizens sojourning in the United States, who are often victims of racist and repressive treatment. To the extent that emigration, mostly to the United States, continues, they want it to be on the basis of mutual agreements, not Uncle Sam's “my way or the highway”: either you come as an undocumented immigrant with no rights, or as a “guest worker” with practically none. They want the United States to recognize the contribution that Latin American and Caribbean immigrants make to the U.S. economy, and for these people to be given legal status here.

These are the goals that one finds among the left political parties, among the labor unions, the peasant or farmers' associations, associations representing indigenous people and people of African origin, women's associations, progressive clergy and laity, gay-lesbian associations and youth and student groups, in all of Latin America and the Caribbean – including, by the way, Puerto Rico. These goals have very broad support, in spite of differences in emphasis and other internal debates. The annual Sao Paolo Forums, this year to be held in Managua, Nicaragua, are one of the many places in which these ideas are presented and means of their achievement are thrashed out.

There are strong right-wing tendencies also. These are fomented by the military officer caste, the landowners, the upper bourgeoisie, the reactionary elements of the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy, some Evangelical Protestants, and corporate owned media. Also sometimes aligning with the right are those whose livelihood depends on foreign corporations, the tourist industry and other sectors which see a weakening of foreign influence as a threat rather than a patriotic triumph or a victory for national sovereignty. So everywhere except in Cuba the effort to “get out from under” U.S. hegemony is challenged by groups which often shade off into out and out fascism. Right wing violence is promoted as a solution to high crime rates which stem from poverty and unemployment, and also from the international narcotics trade. Many such right wing groups see the local U.S. embassy as the natural place to go when they need political support or financing. This has been amply revealed by the recent wave of Wikileaks revelations. Unfortunately, the doors of U.S. embassies are all too often open to various kinds of reactionary schemers.

If the peoples of Latin America can overcome both their own local reactionaries and U.S. and other outside pressure, they hope to be able to sharply raise their living standards. This would be good for workers in the United States because it would strike a blow at the “divide and conquer” game whereby workers' wages in the U.S. are depressed by the threat and reality of outsourcing to lower-wage countries. It would also reduce the need for large numbers of pull up stakes and head north to find work.

Can these goals be achieved? I think yes, though not without struggle, difficulties and setbacks. One of the biggest difficulties will be to reconcile the need of poor farmers for better prices for their crops with the need of the urban poor for affordable food. Another will be to square the need for overall development with the demands of indigenous people to control their own forest and mountain natural resources. Great creativity and flexibility will be needed to deal with such issues. Outside interference, based on agendas alien to the interests of the great majority of the region's peoples, is not helpful.

Although the workers and masses of the Latin American and Caribbean countries have to be the main actors in this struggle, progressives in the United States can help by opposing U.S. policies of interference with the choices our neighbors make. The worst conspiracies against the Latin American “masses in motion” come out of the nexus of the Republican Party with various right and ultra-right groups from other countries in the hemisphere. This became evident at the beginning of the Honduras crisis, starting with the June 2009 coup d'état. It became clear that the leadership of the congressional Republican Party was in daily communication with the coup plotters, and even managed to get the US Air Force to fly them down to Tegucigalpa for meetings with Roberto Micheletti and his co-conspirators. The same thing happened with last year's attempt to overthrow President Rafael Correa of Ecuador. These interactions are now supercharged by the Republican control of the House of Representatives and especially the fact that the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee is Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fl., a fanatical anti-communist with an obsessive focus on overturning all progress in Cuba and other Latin American countries. Should the Republicans capture the Senate and/or the White House in 2012, the situation is likely to get much worse. 

However, experience shows that we obviously can not assume that constructive policies will come from the present administration either, especially without pressure from progressives in this country. There is a strong anti-Cuba lobby within the Democratic Party as well, and it makes its influence felt whenever the Cuba issue arises. We have to stay mobilized and keep the pressure on.

Photo: This mural celebrates the struggles of Bolivia's indigenous people for liberation. (obbino/cc by 2.0/Flickr)

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  • Great article!

    Posted by Mike Greer, 04/21/2011 3:20am (13 years ago)

  • Why, and how is it that little democratic Cuba has avoided much of the imperialist turmoil,while at the same time being the main target of imperialism's wrath?
    According to people like Fidel, it is because it has grasped and digested the legacy of Jose' Marti'.
    We all should study why Fidel insists this.
    Also,we have to know,in order to complete orderly,peaceful revolutions,which will get resounding international support of the working class,why Fidel is saying that revolutionaries today will not accomplish their goals with violence.
    The evil,selfish,anti-human"universal selfishness"(to borrow a descriptive from W.E.B. Du Bois) of capitalism and Yankee imperialism will and is failing,ignominiously.
    Mutual respect and collateral employment,ecological sustainability and restoration of the enlightenment of Jose' Marti''s genius is so sorely needed today for the"Masses in Motion"of our Hemisphere.
    Let's start with pushing hard for James Earl Carter's initiative,lighting the fires of peace among the whole working people of the United States. Let's return to those places which mandated a repudiation of the right and far right in 2008,shown in the November election.
    The CPUSA,as great as it is, cannot begin to take much credit for that formidable victory of the working class.
    That credit would probably go to the youthful progressives,fighters,and long- time fighters of anti-racism,war,and repression in these precious United States-and especially the great African American people.
    These forces,to solidify their theoretical foundations, would do well to bone up on Jose' Marti' and Fidel Castro Ruz,which finds its thinking origins in the U.S. in the works of the Communist Gil Green and Claude Lightfoot. Also,we have to multiply the beautiful and miraculous efforts of recently fallen Reverend Lucius Walker-the Baptist Pastor for reparations for African Americans and peace in Latin America,for peace,progress and spiritual progress for our Hemisphere and Mother Earth.

    Posted by peaceapplause, 04/11/2011 10:12am (13 years ago)

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