For all his erudition, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez still knows how to communicate with the common man and woman. And not just in his native oil-rich Caribbean. Latin Americans aren't quite so sanguine, it seems, as American media would have us believe. Argentinean soccer legend Diego Maradona derisively described United States President George W Bush as "human rubbish" at a gathering of anti-imperialist activists in Mar del Plata, Argentina, on the eve of the two-day, 34-nation Summit of the Americas. Chavez and Maradona were addressing a crowd of 10,000 who yelled "Get Bush out".
The activists vowed to torpedo Bush's free trade agenda. "Invader, tyrant, exploiter of the poor" read some of the banners of angry protesters who turned out in their hundreds of thousands at the Summit of the Americas that took place last week in Mar del Plata. Like any good breed of politicians, South Americas new breed of democratically elected leaders -- including Chavez himself -- are eager to tap into simmering social discontent and anti-Americanism to burnish a populist image. United States President George W Bush embarked on a five-day South and Central American trip in a bid to salvage something of the US's reputation in the region.
Although the current level of anti-Americanism in South America presents no immanent threat to the Pax-Americana, the trend poses two challenges to the region's stability. It has emboldened South American countries into taking an independent stand vis-à-vis the US, and nowhere is this more obviously the case than in the relatively well-developed and economically buoyant countries of the MERCOSUR; an economic grouping that brings together the largest South American economies -- Argentina and Brazil, and Uruguay and Paraguay. Indeed, centre-left governments dominate the region politically.
There are some in Washington who warn that the current wave of anti-Americanism in South America will eventually undermine the political stability critical to future prosperity of the region. Naturally, many South Americans refute such notions, predicting instead that the new anti-American outlook in South America heralds a new phase in the region's traditional volatile relations with the US. South Americans see the problem as being Washington's: rising discontent with American foreign policy is eroding Washington's legitimacy.
What Bush's hostile reception in South America demonstrates is that the people of the continent, long living in the shadows of US hegemony, know all too well that their greatest enemy is to the north, not the governments of the south. Indeed, it is expected that upcoming elections in several South American countries will be influenced by the ripple effect of the Mar del Plata summit. US President Bush warned of the clash of wills "between competing visions". Bush was quoted as saying in the Chicago Sun-Times that South Americans should "defend strong democratic institutions and reject any drift back to the days of authoritarian rule," in what the paper said was a "clear jab at Chavez".
Other US papers picked up on the theme. "Exporting a trick- and-treat culture was just one of the many charges the leftist leader pins on Uncle Sam, his bogeyman Numero Uno," warned The Los Angeles Times.
While some smart US pundits are piling in, others, however, are in denial. They are dreaming of maintaining the status quo -- an unjust international economic order where America rules supreme in the Western hemisphere. Chavez was branded a "radical socialist bully" by some US media. "More taxes on oil companies, expropriation of land and attacks on critics," warned the Latin Business Chronicle. The paper's verdict: "Venezuela is going down the tubes."
The Western media has been portraying Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez as wielding increasing power and influence in South America and the Caribbean because of high international crude oil prices.
"The most striking exponent of energy-based populism is Hugo Chavez, who used the weekend Summit of the Americas to try to rally his fellow Latin Americans against the US. In this he deliberately echoes Fidel Castro's attempts in the early 1960s to spread revolution in Latin America. But, with only sugar cane to offer, Cuba was easy to cordon off with regional sanctions," surmised Britain's Financial Times.
One, however, should be careful not to read too much into historical comparisons. "Chavez's neighbours, should realise however they do not have the same luxury of dispensing with free trade concessions, because they cannot count on his largesse forever," the Financial Times concluded.
By a coincidence of timing, oil prices have soared -- and yes, so has Chavez's popularity. But it would be preposterous to pretend that there is an organic link between high international oil prices and Chavez's popularity. Venezuela, after all, is a developing country with myriad economic and social problems. Moreover, there are far wealthier oil producers whose leaders have failed to capitalise on the oil boom.
American overtures in South America have not reached widely enough. While certain countries like Chile, Columbia, and to some degree Mexico, and a host of other smaller Central American nations remain politically very close to Washington, the overwhelming sentiment towards the US in the region is decidedly hostile.
The trade question dominated debate at the Mar del Plata summit. South American nations want to benefit from international trade regulations and to make the best deals in the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Some 96 million people in the region survive on less than one dollar a day. Some 220 million of Latin America's 512 million people live in absolute poverty -- i.e., below the poverty line. So far, brewing social unrest has not precipitated a region-wide crisis. Public frustration now seems to be directed at the US.
Ironically, it was only when Brazil brought cases against the US and Europe at the WTO that Western nations were forced to comply with WTO regulations. Politically influential and economically weighty countries like Brazil count. And in Brazil the public is as critical of America as ever. "When the Republicans win, it is the 'big stick' policy... When the Democrats win, it is the 'little stick'," explained Brazilian historian Robson Arrias.
But mixing carrots and sticks is an old American game. "Our respective governments have very different visions for the Hemisphere," conceded US Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Tom Shannon in Mar del Plata.
Amid all this, many observers believe the Mar del Plata meeting will mark a watershed. The trend is towards South American economic integration. No one should be surprised by the inconclusive outcome of last week's Summit of the Americas. More is surely to come.
Al-Ahram Weekly Original link