When distinguished Uruguayan journalist Raúl Zibechi recently stated that President George W. Bush’s visit to Latin America this month is “the most ambitious attempt to reposition the United States in the region since the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA) died in Mar del Plata in November of 2005”, he could not have been more accurate.
Dubious Bush rhetoric about increasing aid to Latin America aside, the US President’s selective tour of the region has two key objectives: to counter Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s influence throughout Latin America; and, as Zibechi argues, to form a “strategic alliance with Brazil for the production of ethanol”.
The US still has considerable clout in the region, but, unlike previous eras, an alternative vision to the “Washington consensus” not only exists, it has the backing of a state (Venezuela) with one of the largest oil reserves in the Western hemisphere - estimated at 77.8 billion barrels in 2004.
And the Venezuelan President’s latest project is certainly a major concern for Washington - Chávez proposes to create El Banco del Sur (or “Bank of the South”) without the traditional, free market conditions imposed by such organisations as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank (WB) or the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).
According to Christopher Swann, in an article for Bloomberg.com, Venezuela has already purchased $US2.5 billion in government bonds to help pay off Argentina’s creditors; while $US1.5 billion has been offered to Bolivia; and $US500 million to Ecuador. Swann adds that:
The [IMF’s] worldwide portfolio has shrivelled to $11.8 billion from a peak of $81 billion in 2004, and a single nation, Turkey, now accounts for about 75 per cent ... Prosperity in Latin America means hard times for the IMF, which depends on income from loans.
As if inhabiting some parallel universe, the White House continues to push free market policies which have failed miserably throughout the region - increasing poverty, unemployment and migration to the developed world.
In Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay, Bush declared, “We [the United States] care about the human condition”. Such comments often induce a certain ridicule from Latin Americans, considering, for example, Washington’s huge military support for Colombia’s President Álvaro Uribe Vélez - who has long had links with his country’s notorious drug cartels and who presides over a war rife with human rights violations committed by the Colombian armed forces and their paramilitary allies.
Visits by Bush to Guatemala - a country where a huge number of women each year are brutally murdered by ex-paramilitaries turned petty criminals - and Mexico - where an electoral fraud last year robbed Centre-Left candidate López Obrador of the presidency - do nothing but confirm the view that Washington has always preferred to befriend governments who put US interests first, and those of the general population last.
In contrast, Chávez’s huge popularity in Latin America is based on more than just denunciations of Bush’s policies. For example, Venezuela has promoted programs for the poor such as Misión Milagro (Miracle Mission) which fly Latin Americans free of charge to Havana for eye surgery. In Bolivia, Venezuelan aid and hundreds of Cuban doctors and teachers are providing basic services which millions of Bolivians have never known before.
Although many in Washington hope to restrict the Caracas-Havana alliance, the recent election of Centre-Left governments in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua has meant that all these countries have signed, or are in various stages of signing, what is called the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) - the Cuban-Venezuelan counter-proposal to the FTAA.
In the past few weeks, Argentina’s President Néstor Kirchner has also consolidated his country’s commercial and political commitments with Venezuela - signing accords which cover “finance, agriculture, food supply, farm equipment manufacturing, new housing and energy,” with the result that trade between the two countries will rise from the $US100 million a year (of 2003) to an expected $US1 billion this year.