The Return of the Repressed?
South America in the Age of US Supremacy
by Jorge Rogachevsky
Resist newsletter, July / August 2002
A t this time, South America finds itself steeped in the quagmire
of its own historical failures, a situation fraught with both
promise and danger. Economic chaos could give way to social chaos
and ultra-right political shifts. On the other hand, new alternatives
for progressive social change could emerge, at a time when few
such options appear to be taking root anywhere else in the world.
The United States will certainly play a key role in any future
developments, just as it holds significant responsibility for
the failures of the past.
Three South American societies-Argentina, Colombia, and Venezuela-show
the overall limitations of US policy towards Latin America. Each
in its own way threatens to dismantle the post-Cold War policy
framework developed by the United States.
US Historical Role as Co-Conspirator
To understand the present and what the future might bring,
it's important to recapitulate the role of the United States as
a co-conspirator in the history of atrocities that precedes the
In the 1970s, an unprecedented challenge to US hegemony in
Latin America appeared. In South America, 1970 saw the election
of Salvador Allende, a Socialist heading a left-wing coalition.
Three years later, Argentina's military rulers had to give
way and allow the installation as president of strong-man
Juan Domingo Peron, after almost 20 years in exile. Little links
Peron and Allende directly, except that historically both represent,
from opposite poles, a populist and nationalist resistance to
US control of Latin America's economic and social resources.
The United States could have taken numerous paths to confront
these challenges. In Chile, for example, the United States could
have accepted the democratic will expressed by its people, and
looked for ways to engage constructively the government of Salvador
Allende, a highly cultured, principled, and democratically-minded
This was not the path chosen. Starting with the overthrow
of Allende and his replacement with the brutal Pinochet dictatorship
in 1973, the United States decided to fight the revolutionary
fire spreading through Latin America by throwing dynamite on the
flames. The result was an unprecedented wave of repression m a
continent with a long and sad experience of dictatorial rule.
More than 3,000 people were disappeared and killed in Chile according
to official accounts.
As military rule spread from Guatemala to Tierra del Fuego,
progressive social movements were dismantled, and revolutionary
movements were stymied.
In the 1980s, though, new dangers manifested themselves, as
the remedy used to fight the "disease" of social transformation
began to have unintended side-effects. Military corporatism was
unstable. It could tilt towards left-leaning populism, as was
the case with Omar Torrijos in Panama. It could also embrace right-wing
nationalism, as the pampered Argentine military demonstrated.
To stem a wave of increasing domestic unrest, the Argentine military
decided to cash in its chips after having perfected the dirty
war in the Southern Cone and then moving on to train and advise
the Guatemalan army and the Nicaraguan contras, by invading the
Malvinas in 1982. It took a full-scale war mobilization on the
part of the British-and major US intelligence support-to put the
Argentine military in its place.
That place, however, could no longer be as guarantors of the
Pax Americana. Moreover, as the Cold War reached its whimpering
climax, it would hardly do for the United States to promote "democratization"
in Eastern Europe while tying itself to some of the most murderous
governments on earth; neither was it sound policy to continue
investing US resources in militarizing Latin America and stifling
not only dangerous social change but also profitable economic
activity. The US slowly distanced itself from its former military
allies and promoted a process of pacification and democratization.
For the US government, the 1990s became the era of self-congratulatory
posturing. The sudden and profound collapse of the former Soviet
Union left the United States as the sole military and economic
superpower. With progressive social change effectively suppressed
in Latin America, the United States supported democratic rule,
which favored the return to power of the traditional managerial
political class or the traditional economic elites, both of which
sectors would ally themselves with neo-liberal economic policies.
The elements of the neo-liberal formula were tightly interrelated:
1) Fight inflation by reducing government spending and maintaining
tight monetary controls;
2) Reduce spending by decreasing public services and reducing
government employment; 3) Increase competition by divesting the
state of the public sector and reducing or eliminating tariffs
4) Reduce the leverage of the labor movement by reducing the
size of the public workforce and creating greater competition
for jobs; 5) Promote investment confidence by reducing the cost
of labor, maintaining tight monetary controls, and granting major
6) Fill in any threatening cracks in the neoliberal economic
dike through a major program of state borrowing facilitated by
the implementation of measures 1-5.
That formula had led to the so-called "economic miracle"
in Chile, and the US promoted it as the cure for a century of
economic woes in Latin America. And, for a generation of technocrats
uplifted by Mary Poppins' intonation that "a spoonful of
sugar makes the medicine go down," the neo-liberal medicine
was coated with a veneer of democracy. It became a self-affirming
mantra of US officialdom in the l 990s, and into the beginning
of this new century, that Latin America was now safely ensconced
within the democratic camp (with the salient exception of Cuba,
This highly self-serving and optimistic assessment has been
severely tested in the first months of the new century.
Colombia is in the throes of the longest-lasting military
conflict in the Americas, a civil war that began almost 40 years
ago. Of the four major armed sectors in Colombia today, the largest
is the security apparatus, consisting of about a quarter million
troops distributed among the military branches and the National
Police. Confronting this apparatus are two major guerrilla organizations:
the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) numbers
15-20,000 armed combatants, the ELN (Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional)
has approximately 5,000 troops.
In addition to these more "traditional" combatants,
paramilitary organizations begun to crop up in the 1980s under
the payroll of drug traffickers. Despite being declared illegal
in 1989 due to their extreme brutality, these forces have continued
to grow, and in 1997 merged into a unified command known as the
AUC (Autodefensas Unidas de Colombia), with approximately 8,000
combatants. The AUC is the fastest growing armed group in Colombia,
and by far the most bloodthirsty. Even though all combatants in
the Colombian conflict are accused of carrying out atrocities,
the Colombian Commission of Jurists found that the paramilitaries
were responsible for 79 percent of the deaths and disappearances
of non-combatants in 2000, compared with 16 percent for the guerrillas
and almost 5 percent for the military.' (The relatively low level
of atrocities directly ascribed to the Colombian military is not
a signal of its adherence to human rights principles; even the
US State Department has acknowledged that there is often significant
cooperation between military officers and the AUC.) In 2000 alone,
over 26,000 people died as a result of the violence, or I out
of every 1,500 inhabitants; a comparable death rate from terrorist
activities for the United States would have produced 187,000 victims
in this country. Given the staggering level of violence that the
protracted armed conflict in Colombia has generated, and the very
real danger that the spiral could generate even greater levels
of atrocities, one might hope that the US government would search
for a peaceful resolution to the decades-long war. And in fact
this is what the State Department itself proposed in a May 17,2001
Support for the Colombian peace process remains a vital element
of US policy. Despite the slow progress made to date, the peace
process represents Colombia s best chance to escape the forty-year
cycle of violence. A military solution is not a viable option,
as Colombia s armed forces are not strong enough to defeat these
groups of irregular forces with increasing income from drug trafficking.
However, the last thing on the agenda, in Washington and in
Bogota, is negotiating with the rebels. The lame-duck government
of President Andres Pastrana broke off negotiations with the FARC
last February and with the ELN in May. Each side assigned the
other with responsibility for the breakdown of the peace process.
In May, Alvaro Uribe Velez won the election after campaigning
on a hard-line policy of escalating the war against the guerrillas.
Uribe, who is to become president on August 7, 2002, is reputed
to have received support from the AUC during his campaign. At
the same time, the Bush Administration is set to fuel the Colombian
fires even further. On July 2, Otto Reich, Undersecretary of State
for Latin American Affairs, asserted that Uribe will need "to
take the war to the guerrillas," according to the Los Angeles
Times. The United States has already contributed almost $2 billion
to Colombia's military in the past five years, and Bush has asked
Congress for upwards of $500 million more for 2003. Colombia is
the third largest recipient of US military aid. In addition, the
Bush administration has asked Congress to expand the anti-narcotics
focus of funding to include anti-terrorism.
These elements are familiar. In Colombia, the United States
is following its Central American policies from the 1980s, fighting
fire with dynamite. Given the regional context surrounding Colombia,
it becomes clear why the United States has set its sights so closely
on that nation.
Just to the north lies Panama, still a major trade and strategic
resource for the US. Wounds of the senior Bush Administration's
invasion of Panama in 1989 are still very much open inside that
nation. To the south lies Ecuador and the promise of major oil
reserves. Ecuador has experienced severe economic and social disruptions
that have brought about an ongoing political crisis. No president
has served out a normal four-year term since 1996. The current
president, Gustavo Noboa, came to power after a highly organized
indigenous sector helped force the resignation of the elected
head-of-state, Jamil Mahauada. And to Colombia's east lies Venezuela,
the third largest supplier of oil to the United States, and a
country facing significant social upheaval.
Venezuela presents a different challenge to the United States.
If Colombia replays the scenario made familiar in Central America,
Venezuela, in the figure of the current president, Hugo Chavez,
harks back to the tradition of nationalist, charismatic, ex-military
leadership. Chavez is treading the path of the aforementioned
Trujillo and Peron, looking to forge a policy independent of Washington's
dictates and working on a foundation of grassroots support as
leverage to internal elite opposition.
Hugo Chavez came to prominence in 1992 when, as an officer
in a paratroop regiment, he led an attempted coup against the
highly unpopular government of Carlos Andres Perez. Perez's second
presidential term had begun inauspiciously in February 1989, when
he attempted to implement austerity measures imposed by the International
Monetary Fund (IMF). Ensuing riots left 277 civilians dead. Subsequently,
the Perez administration was accused of corruption. In 1993, the
Attorney General indicted the president for misappropriation of
funds. The Supreme Court removed Perez from office so that he
could be tried, and he was eventually found guilty.
Hugo Chavez spent two years in jail for his participation
in the failed coup attempt.
However, the popularity of the attack against a broadly reviled
old-camp politician was demonstrated in 1998. Chavez won the presidency
of Venezuela with 56 percent of the vote. He then moved quickly
to capitalize on his momentum and charisma to push forward his
"Bolivarian Revolution." Chavez called for a Constituent
Assembly to draft a new constitution, and his supporters gained
121 out of 128 seats in the assembly. In 2000 Chavez was reelected
under the new constitution, this time receiving almost 60 percent
of the vote to begin a six-year term.
Like Peron, Chavez seems to be attempting to implement a policy
of independence from Washington, looking for allies where he can
find them. When released from prison in 1994 he visited and was
warmly received by Fidel Castro in Cuba; the two maintain a warm
relationship. After winning his second bid for the presidency,
Chavez was the first head-of-state since the Gulf War to visit
with Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Domestically, Chavez has consolidated
his government by implementing the constitutional revisions, maintaining
grassroots Bolivarian committees, reshuffling key executive appointments,
as well as promoting tepid economic reforms in contrast to a more
combative rhetoric. James Petras, well-known Latin American scholar,
has summed up Chavez's reforms as follows:
The key point to remember is Chavez s record on domestic policy.
He's increased spending for housing, schools, and health. He s
increased income by a small margin-3 or 4 percent. He s increased
taxes to some limited degree so that the upper classes pay something,
rather than nothing.
But for all this, he has also deregulated the financial system.
Spanish banks have become very involved in the deregulated system.
He privatized Caracas s [sic/ electrical system. US oil companies
haven't been hindered- they pay slightly more on the petroleum
tax. In other words, there s been no radical or even moderate
redistribution of income. There has been no expropriation of any
property-except unutilized farmland that s paid for in cash. That
s about the most conservative land reform you'll see anywhere
in Latin America-market prices for the land, paid in cash.
Despite this moderate program of economic reform, Chavez has
generated unyielding opposition from Venezuela's economic elite.
Quoting Petras again:
Chavez is a nationalist in foreign policy and a social liberal
in domestic policy. From year one, he has been in favor of class
collaboration. The opposition isn't interested in any kind of
class collaboration-they want it all. The Venezuelan opposition
is in a position to reject any kind of collaboration with the
Chavez government precisely because the latter's nationalist foreign
policy has put him on a collision course with Washington. Despite
the lip-service given to the support of democratic leadership
in Latin America, and Chavez's unquestioned credentials as a democratically
elected leader, the US government has put out very clear signals
that his ouster by undemocratic means would find favor.
Such a scenario played itself out on April 11. After months
of conspiring, much of it done through meetings at the US embassy
in Caracas, an anti-Chavez rally turned violent and culminated
with the death of 14 protesters. The Chavez opposition saw an
opportunity to act and, with expectations of support from the
Venezuelan military and the US government, quickly moved to arrest
Chavez and declare an end to his government and the Bolivarian
Revolution. Washington, in fact, did play its assigned role, with
statements blaming Chavez and indicating support for his ouster.
The coup quickly unraveled, though. Externally, Latin American
leaders, then meeting in Costa Rica, sharply rebuked the undemocratic
ouster of Chavez. In a rare sign of independence, Latin American
politicians, including Bush's strong ally, Vicente Fox of Mexico,
broke with Washington in a very public manner. This swift, strong
action ensured that Washington's statements of support of the
new government in Caracas never turned into direct recognition.
Internally, the new government, headed by Pedro Carmona, head
of the business confederation Fedecamaras, overplayed its hand,
dismissing the National Assembly and the Supreme Court and declaring
void the 1999 constitution. Carmona's heavy-handedness apparently
alienated his military backers. They began to move away, allowing
Chavez supporters within the armed forces to regroup and mobilize.
At the same time, Chavez's grassroots supporters within the lower
classes came out in mass to counter the middle-class opponents
who had staged the April 11 march. All of these fast-moving developments
led to Chavez's reinstatement on April 13.
Since then, the situation has continued to be highly charged.
After Chavez reassumed office, Bush Administration officials sent
out public warnings that it was best for him to mend his ways.
Former US president Jimmy Carter traveled to Caracas in early
July, 2002, to mediate between the factions. But despite Chavez's
offer to allow the Organization of American States and the United
Nations to participate in further mediating efforts, the opposition
failed to turn out to discussions sponsored by Carter. As part
of the failed Carter-led discussions, Chavez had offered to the
opposition that he would allow his presidency, which is not set
to expire until 2006, to be placed before a referendum in 2003.
Opposition to Chavez continues to press on. A July 11 rally
to commemorate theApril 11 events brought out as many as 200,000
people; this time no violence erupted. The Venezuelan Supreme
Court has also used a loophole in the law to open the way for
Chavez's possible indictment for alleged campaign financing irregularities.
And, the main labor confederation, the CTV (Confederacion de Trabajadores
Venezolanos) is reaching out to the Church, the political opposition,
and business and academic groups to promote a call for a national
strike to press for Chavez's resignation. Meantime, Chavez is
calling on his supporters to come to his defense.
It is unclear how much longer Chavez will be able to traverse
the political minefield placed at his feet. If he can weather
the current crisis, fend off the internal opposition, consolidate
his support within the armed forces, keep Washington at bay, and
reinvigorate his popular backing, he will have emerged stronger
for having been tested in this fashion. It will then be seen whether
he can take the next step and move beyond his nationalist and
populist rhetoric to promote a program of radical social reform.
Meanwhile, at the far end of the continent, in Argentina,
unprecedented crisis and potential have emerged, as the second-largest
country in South America and in the 1990s the darling of the neo-liberal
prophets-has run aground economically.
In the 1990s, Argentina moved to stem one of the worst cases
of hyperinflation in history by pegging the peso to the dollar.
At the same time, it followed the IMF prescription of privatizing
its state sector and significantly reducing public spending. But,
after an initial influx of capital from privatization, the Argentine
economy begun to stall as it experienced the reverberations of
economic shocks in Mexico, Asia, Russia, and Brazil. As investment
capital began to dry up, and Argentine exports suffered due to
an overpriced peso, the Argentine government of the Peronist Carlos
Menem parlayed its good relationship with Washington and the IMF
into government loans intended to prop up its sagging economy-generating
a foreign debt of $132 billion, the largest in the world.
Borrowing from Peter in order to pay Pablo was a sure formula
for Argentina to secure short-term solvency by delaying an inevitable
financial collapse. The collapse hit in December 2001. Even though
IMF-imposed austerity measures had generated an official unemployment
rate of around 20 percent, IMF pressures continued. Despite Argentine
government pleas to ease up and provide short-term relief in the
form of capital it could use to service an impending debt payment,
the IMF continued to apply a political and economic tourniquet.
Neo-liberal pundits in the United States went on the attack, declaring
that the Argentine crisis was due to a profligate population that
was unwilling to tighten its belt and meet its debt obligations.
Backed into a corner, and facing severe capital shortage and
a run on the banks that had generated over $1 billion in withdrawals
at the end of November, in December the Radical Party government
of Fernando de la Rua imposed a limit on bank withdrawals of 250
pesos a week. The government also announced that privatized pension
funds would be replaced by government bonds in order to free up
capital to continue servicing the debt. These measures provoked
the middle class to join the working class, whose leadership had
called for a general strike in mid-December.
Massive unrest broke out in Argentina's major cities on December
19, leading to de la Rua's resignation on December 20 when the
army refused to come out in support of his government. After ten
tempestuous days that saw the exit of three provisional presidents,
Congress selected Peronist Senator Eduardo Duhalde, de la Rua's
main opponent in the 1999 elections, to complete de la Rua's term.
Duhalde, however, has been equally unable to stem the economic
collapse and the popular unrest. He did win concessions from provincial
governors to reduce transfers from the national budget, but the
IMF has continued to maintain pressure, announcing in early July
that a team of advisors would travel to Argentina at the end of
the month to suggest ways of reforming the banking sector, but
refusing to extend hope that a new influx of capital would be
The Bush administration appears intent on maintaining a hard-line
policy, intoning the neo-liberal mantra that Argentina's problems
are its own fault. Not so, according to Columbia University professor
Joseph Stiglitz, former vice-president and chief economist at
the World Bank, and winner of the 2001 Noble prize in economics:
The disaster comes not from not listening to the IMF, but
rather from listening.... Given the exchange rate, given the economic
depression which the IMF policies had already brought about, given
the huge debt, given that the IMF did not provide any convincing
economic strategy to get out of the mess, given that there were
open capital markets so that anyone who wanted to could move their
investments to safer havens elsewhere in the world, it was highly
unlikely that anyone-especially when the government signed an
agreement to reduce its deficit further, predictably causing more
unemployment and lower output-would start investing more.
Given the absence of new capital resources, Argentine bank
deposits have remained frozen. Many in the middle class have lost
most of their life-savings, and the devalued peso has lost more
than 70 percent of its value since the beginning of 2002. With
greater austerity measures signaled, the working class, and in
particular the unemployed, have also been severely hit. The one
bright light in the cavernous pit into which Argentine society
has fallen is that the mobilization which brought down the de
la Rua government in December has remained unabated. Currently,
the government is experiencing a wave of recurrent actions as
a result of the death of two unemployed youth in a confrontation
with police during a protest action on June 26. On July 9, Argentina's
Independence Day, 35,000 people marched on the Plaza de Mayo,
where the president's palace is located. This was the second mass
demonstration in as many weeks, with a third one called for the
third week in July. These demonstrations have brought together
sectors of the labor movement, the unemployed, human rights groups,
left-wing political parties, students, and neighborhood committees
which emerged from the December mobilizations.
There are also ongoing expressions of a developing alliance
between "piqueteros y cacerolas" (strikers and potters-the
latter referring to the practice of middle-class housewives of
banging pots as a sign of protest which originated in Chile against
the Pinochet regime), calls for "una segunda independencia"
(a second independence movement), and the removal of president
Duahlde and the IMF. Given this ongoing pressure, Duahlde, with
the clear backing of the Bush Administration, has called for early
elections in March 2003 to release some pressure from the cooker.
What Lies Ahead?
It is unclear where Argentina's deepening political and economic
crisis, combined with mounting popular mobilization, will lead.
So far, the military has remained at the margin, but, as is clear
in Colombia and Venezuela, the Bush Administration's commitment
to peace and democracy in Latin America is an easily discarded
rhetorical posture. Will the growing unrest in Argentina lead
to the development of a broadbased grassroots political movement
that will challenge the political and economic status quo? What
response would be generated from the Argentine oligarchy, political
class, military, and the US government? And what will be the impact
from other regional developments, in particular the October elections
in Brazil, where Worker's Party candidate, Luiz Inacio Lula de
Silva (Lula) is the front-runner? The unpredictability of current
circumstances suggests that there is much to watch for in Argentine
Colombia, Venezuela, and Argentina- each in itself, and all
three together- clearly point to the imminent potential for deepening
conflict in South America. They also raise the possibility that
a new century may indeed bring about a new beginning for people
in Latin America.
Jorge Rogachevsky is a member of RESIST's Board of Directors
and teaches Spanish and Latin American Studies at St. Mary s College