On 4 and 5 November, the coastal resort of Mar del Plata in Argentina played host to the fourth Summit of the Americas, a meeting of leaders from 34 countries across both American continents, including the Caribbean. The summit had been expected to discuss a broad range of issues, but, in the event, the time and attention of the delegates inside and the people and press outside was focused almost exclusively on the failure of those present to agree a date to move forward on Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) negotiations.
Proposals for the FTAA
The so-called ‘Free Trade Area of the Americas’ is a proposed zone of ‘economic cooperation’ (ie, with no barriers to investment or exploitation) encompassing the whole of the western hemisphere, from northern Alaska to the southern tip of Chile. This is US imperialism’s attempt to secure control over what it has always viewed as its ‘back yard’ (ie, central and southern America), to the exclusion of other imperialist powers; it is also an answer to the growing competition the US faces from the European Union (EU), which was itself formed in order to help the weakened European imperialists compete with the US (and, later, Japan) after the second world war.
If realised, the FTAA would be the world’s largest economic zone, home to over 13 percent of the world’s population, or some 850 million people (as compared with around 450 million in the EU). This figure is still dwarfed by the populations of both China and India, however, currently standing at 1.3 billion and 1.08 billion respectively; China alone accounts for 20 percent of the world’s 6.45 billion people. (Figures taken from the CIA’s World Factbook, available on www.cia.gov)
The FTAA project was launched with much fanfare at the first all-American summit in 1994, but, despite having most of the governments in the Caribbean and central and southern America in its pocket (a string of US-backed coups in previous decades having removed many independently-minded regimes who might have had other ideas), the US has failed to push its project through to completion. According to the original schedule, the final agreement should have been signed in January 2005; instead, talks have been stalled for the last two years. And, as rising anti-imperialist sentiment has led to a succession of left-leaning regimes taking power in the region, there is no end to the deadlock in sight.
Leading the charge against the FTAA at November’s summit was Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. While the various spokespersons and apologists of imperialism were busy spouting the usual formulaic mumbo jumbo about free trade ‘enhancing democracy’, ‘providing jobs’ and ‘ensuring prosperity’, Chavez, voicing the concerns of the Latin American masses, clearly pointed out that ‘free trade’ is simply bourgeois speak for giving imperialist multinationals the right to plunder and exploit without hindrance in all corners of the globe.
The fact that disagreements over the proposed FTAA were pushed to the forefront of the agenda at the summit has been described by bourgeois commentators as a victory for Chavez, who is routinely presented as ‘dangerous’ and a ‘maverick’. This tendency to reduce all politics to personalities serves to gloss over the reason for the Venezuelan leader’s success at the summit; which is that he spoke not for himself alone, but as the representative of impoverished workers and peasants all over Latin America. The fact that a growing number of leaders in the region are prepared to stand up to the US is indicative of just how strong anti-imperialist feelings are now running amongst the Latin American masses after decades of living with the harsh realities of ‘free trade’ (ie, rampant imperialist) policies enforced by the IMF and backed up by the US military.
This is not to underestimate the crucial role played by Chavez, however. It is clear that the Venezuelan president’s willingness to tackle the FTAA agenda head-on wrong-footed US negotiators, who totally underestimated the strength of popular feeling on the continent. As one analyst commented: “I don’t think Bush would have gone down there if he knew he’d run into this kind of opposition. The FTAA may not be completely dead, but it’s close to dead – and the body’s twitching.” (Mark Weisbrot, co-director for the Centre for Economic and Policy Research, a Washington think-tank, quoted in ‘South Americans block US over free-trade zone’, Irish Times, 7 November 2005)
A mile away from the summit, Chavez addressed a rally of at least 25,000 people (according to bourgeois underestimates) at a sports stadium in Mar del Plata. The rally was the culmination of a week-long counter-summit, dubbed the ‘People’s Summit’, where people had come from all over the region to protest against imperialist free-trade economics, crippling debt repayments and the militarisation of the continent. One protestor, a 69-year-old unemployed Argentinean man carried a sign saying ‘Get out, Bush. Another world is possible’. He told reporters: “Free trade means big US and European corporations gobbling up our companies and national interests.” (Quoted in ‘Mass protests at opening of trade summit’ by Mary Milliken and Kevin Gray, Irish Times, 5 November 2005)
Before the final rally, participants marched through the streets of Mar del Plata, dubbing Bush a “fascist” and a “terrorist” and calling on the US to “get out” – of Latin America and of Iraq. The marchers carried flags bearing the image of Cuban/Argentinean revolutionary Che Guevara and used US flags as fuel for a bonfire topped with an effigy of the US’s hated figurehead, President George W Bush.
During his two-hour speech to the assembled throng, Hugo Chavez called on the peoples of Latin America to follow the route of Cuba and Venezuela in forging what he called a “Bolivarian socialist” alternative to the FTAA, with mutual aid and solidarity as founding principles. He even proposed a joint military force for defence against imperialist attack.
Insisting that imperialism would fail in its attempt to stop the revolution, just as it had failed in Cuba, Chavez went on to attack pro-imperialist governments, such as those of Peru, Panama and Mexico, calling Mexico’s President Fox a “puppy” of the US. He went on to tell protestors that he had come to “bury capitalism in order to give birth to 21st century socialism, a new historic socialist project that the people of the Americas are demanding”. (Quoted in ‘Chavez leads the charge against US’ by Richard Lapper and Adam Thomson, Financial Times, 5 November 2005)
Outside the summit venue, meanwhile, a separate protest of around 1,000 demonstrators faced the tear gas, shields and semi-automatic weapons of riot police with only sticks and stones to defend themselves. In the biggest security operation ever mounted in Argentina, some 7,500 riot police were employed in three concentric rings of security around the summit venue as protection for the spectacularly unpopular Bush. Elsewhere in the country, hospital and underground workers went on strike and marches, protests and political strikes were repeated across the continent. Images of these protests, and of the violent clashes outside the summit, dominated Latin American media during the summit, undermining the US delegation’s unconvincing efforts to put a positive spin on Bush’s reception and the progress they assured the press he was making with the US’s free trade agenda.
Inside the summit, meanwhile, Chavez emerged as the most vocal leader of a decisive anti-agreement bloc, along with Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay. Venezuela’s anti-imperialist stance will be well known to our readers and requires no explanation here. The opposition of the other four countries, meanwhile, can be attributed to two factors. First, the increasing pressure their leaders are under from the workers and peasants to break their bonds of slavery to US imperialism and follow the lead of independent-minded states like Cuba and Venezuela. The enthusiastic reception given by Argentinean workers and peasants to Chavez will only have reinforced this message.
The second factor is purely economic. Argentina and Brazil in particular have large and highly efficient agricultural industries, but many of their products are effectively excluded from the lucrative US market by high import tariffs and by the substantial subsidies paid to US farmers – subsidies that help to buy social peace at home for the imperialists, but which put a crippling burden onto farmers in the rest of the world, who are often forced to sell below cost in order to compete.
The combination of these two factors, along with some astute manoeuvring by Chavez, was enough to persuade the leaders of these four countries to stand with Venezuela in blocking present moves to further FTAA negotiations.
Of course, White House commentators were keen to play down the significance of this victory for the anti-imperialist forces, emphasising that 29 out of the 34 countries attending the summit did vote for continuing the talks next spring. But this didn’t wash with many of the more sober journalists covering the event, who were at pains to point out that the five countries that came out against furthering FTAA negotiations include the largest and most important economies of the region. As one reporter succinctly explained: “those countries carry big clout because their economies represent 77 percent of South America’s more than US$1tr in gross domestic product” . In other words, the FTAA cannot succeed without them. (‘Squabbling at summit illustrates Latin America’s struggle to arrain regional cooperation’ by Alan Clendenning, AP Worldstream, 11 November 2005)
Although Fidel Castro was not invited to participate in the official summit, the influence of socialist Cuba was everywhere evident during the proceedings. A large Cuban delegation attended the counter-summit at the stadium, and the US’s fears of Cuban influence and popularity with the Latin American masses can hardly have been assuaged by the sight of Argentina’s legendary footballer-turned-TV presenter Diego Maradona leading a train full of protestors from Buenos Aries to the rally in Mar del Plata.
The train was nicknamed the Alba Express as a tribute to the ‘Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas’ (Alba) put forward by Cuba and Venezuela, and carried other high profile passengers including Evo Morales, Bolivia’s popular anti-imperialist presidential candidate, and the renowned Cuban singer and composer Silvio Rodriguez. Maradona carried a Cuban flag, named Castro as his hero and wore an anti-Bush t-shirt with the words ‘War Criminal’ written across it. Just a few days earlier, Maradona’s interview with Fidel Castro had been aired on Argentinean TV. The star told Cuban television reporters at the time the interview took place: “For me, he is a god.” (Quoted in ‘Maradona interviews Cuba’s Castro’, BBC News Online, 28 October 2005)
The example of Cuban socialism and Venezuelan anti-imperialism, and the fraternal solidarity shown by both nations towards their neighbours, is sending shivers down the spines of the imperialists and adding fuel to the fire of anti-imperialist and revolutionary movements all over Latin America. The contrast between the socialist government of Cuba’s evacuation of people and property from the path of this year’s hurricanes and the US government’s abandonment of the poor to their fate in New Orleans is just the latest in a long line of valuable lessons about the nature and priorities of imperialism and of socialism. Despite its relative poverty, Cuba is able to provide a decent life to the ordinary people who live there; one where food, employment and housing are all secure, and where health, education and cultural life are given priority.
Chavez’s Venezuela, although not socialist itself, has found that, in attempting to break the stranglehold of imperialism over its people, its strongest support has come from socialist Cuba, which has, for example, sent thousands of doctors to staff the new national health service and assist in the training of Venezuelan doctors and nurses. In his turn, Chavez is doing everything in his power to form bonds of friendship and mutual assistance with other poor and oppressed countries, especially with those regimes that are the target of imperialist aggression. Such has been the success of these tactics, that the Financial Times of 5 November 2005 was forced to admit: “There are fears that this [Venezuela’s fraternal assistance policy] could allow like-minded political movements to come to power in a number of neighbouring countries in a series of elections due over the next 14 months.”
US hopes dashed
In the face of this growing danger to its hegemony over the region, the US has been attempting to foster friendships with those left-leaning leaders in Latin America who are seen as ‘moderate’ and ‘compromisers’; both to prevent them from travelling further down the path of independence from US domination and in order to isolate Cuba and Venezuela as far as possible from the rest of the continent, and most especially from populous and powerful countries such as Brazil and Argentina.
Unfortunately for the US, Venezuela’s generosity towards its neighbours (supplying cheap oil to help neighbouring countries develop their industry, for example) and its successes in using oil revenues to pay for social programmes at home have led to an enormous rise in Chavez’s popularity and prestige among the Latin American and Caribbean masses. For the time being, at least, the combined pressure of popular anti-imperialism and the domestic agri-business lobby have seen to it that Argentina and Brazil have landed firmly in the anti-agreement camp, and are developing closer ties with other independently-minded governments in the region.
“We don’t want integration in favour of the big players, but in favour of all. I don’t go to a summit to betray the interests of the Argentine community in order to look good with those who are here, no matter how important they are,” said Argentina’s President Kirchner. (Quoted in ‘Squabbling at summit illustrates Latin America’s struggle to arraign regional cooperation’ by Alan Clendenning, AP Worldstream, 11 November 2005)
A senior advisor to Brazilian President Lula, meanwhile, commented on the “unbeatable moment of relations” that had opened up “following the political cooperation that took place in Mar del Plata” between Argentina and Brazil, adding that he hoped that “Venezuela’s induction into the bloc will be formalised” at the Mercosur summit in December (Mercosur is a South American trading agreement between Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay). (Quoted in ‘Americas Summit reflected strength of Brazilian-Argentine relations – Lula aide’, Argentine news agency Telam, translated by the BBC Monitoring Service, 8 November 2005)
This willingness to work together reflects a growing popular desire for unity in Latin America, where the people are thirsting not for an extension of free trade, but for unity against imperialism and for freedom from plunder and exploitation.
The consequences for finance capital if this trend continues unchecked have not gone unnoticed in the columns of the more serious bourgeois papers: “By allowing trade to emerge as a contentious issue with Brazil and Argentina, the US has potentially damaged relations with two countries that it could work with to promote regional stability and contain any aggressive intentions harboured by Mr Chavez. As US policymakers consider their options after the weekend’s summit, it would be better to start from a basis of what is practically achievable rather than pursue grand visions.” (‘Latin declension’, Financial Times, 8 November 2005)
Decoded, this is a sharp reprimand to US imperialism for its failed tactics at the summit, which have pushed the compromisers further into the arms of the anti-imperialists and thus immeasurably strengthened the latter’s position.
Imperialist troops pinned down
Given its track record in Latin America, it may seem strange that the US has not simply instigated a war against Venezuela to remove Chavez and install a puppet of its choosing. Of course, US agents in the region are always active and doing their best to foster domestic opposition movements, but so far these efforts have come to nothing. Most famously, the US-backed coup of April 2002 was defeated when the Venezuelan masses took to the streets in protest and Chavez’s kidnappers were forced to return him to Caracas.
The US’s failure to effect ‘regime change’ in Venezuela can be attributed to one major factor: the war in Iraq. On the one hand, while the war continues, insecurity of Middle Eastern oil production makes the supply of oil from Venezuela even more important to the US military-industrial complex, and any war against Venezuela would be bound to lead to a more or less prolonged cessation of oil supplies from Venezuela to the US. On the other hand, even if it was prepared to take the risk of losing Venezuelan oil for a time, while the war continues in Iraq, the US military command would find it extremely difficult to spare soldiers for further costly military adventures.
Added to these factors is the increasing preparedness of the Venezuelan people, who have organised local armed committees for defence along the Cuban model, and the immense popularity of the Venezuelan regime across the region. Thus it is clear that an invasion of Venezuela would be met with fierce resistance and could not be entered into lightly. Chavez himself has vowed that “If the imperialist government of the White House dares to invade Venezuela, the war of 100 years will be unleashed in South America.” (Interview with Hugo Chavez on DemocracyNow.org, 19 September 2005)
Further, the US is already in trouble in neighbouring Colombia, where it has been singularly unsuccessful in its military campaign to destroy the revolutionary forces in that country. The effect of a prolonged war against Venezuela, on top of the one already being waged against Colombia, would simply overwhelm the US military.
Bush government in trouble at home
Meanwhile, the fierce resistance that the US is encountering in Iraq has led to an ever-increasing chorus of condemnation against Bush and his cronies at home. While Bush was struggling to put a brave face on his humiliation at Mar del Plata, three new polls were published in the US, revealing his popularity to be at an all-time low.
Each of the three polls put the president’s approval rating below 40 percent, in one case dropping as low as 35 percent. Most damningly, a Washington Post-ABC News poll survey showed the president’s popularity had hit rock bottom on every front – from economy to the war in Iraq and the ‘war on terror’. In the wake of the simmering intelligence scandals, an unprecedented 58 percent said that they doubted Bush’s honesty and personal integrity.
We live in interesting times. Imperialism seems to be an all-powerful enemy, with the mightiest war machines at its disposal, and yet, all over the oppressed world, movements against imperialism are growing in strength and confidence.
The Iraqi resistance, over two and a half years of fierce fighting, has given the lie to the invincibility of US military might and, in so doing, provided a much-needed breathing space and valuable opportunity to the millions of others who also wish to free themselves from the shackles of imperialist slavery.
For decades, the people of Latin America have suffered rampant imperialist aggression and exploitation. Thousands upon thousands of those who tried to oppose this domination have been done to death, from local activists to national governments. Under the aegis of US-installed puppets and military dictatorships, the poor have become poorer and more numerous than ever. This simmering pot of anger has been compounded by outrage at the barbaric invasion and occupation of Iraq. Inspired by the heroism of the Iraqi resistance, the Latin American masses are showing more clearly every day that they, too, aspire to freedom from the rapacious hold of imperialism.
We welcome the growing movement for unity against imperialism and wish the Latin American people every success in their struggle. For our part, we must do everything in our power to help them achieve their goals, for, like the resistance fighters in Iraq, the anti-imperialist masses of Latin America are struggling against our common enemy, and every blow against Anglo-American or EU imperialism brings the day of our own freedom a little closer.