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Monday, 19 May 2008 05:12

Nikolas Kozloff Examines the Tilt to the Left and Away From U.S. Hegemony in South America

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One thing which struck me during my trip and researching this book was the turning away from the traditional right-wing military establishment. That is a huge development. I was really struck by that when I went into the Ministry of Defense in Buenos Aires, hoping to interview high-up government officials about Argentina's military policy. The official who greeted me was, A, a woman, and B, a civilian.

--Nikolas Kozloff, author, Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left

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U.S. foreign policy has been to a large degree focused on Iraq, Iran, the Middle East, Afghanistan, terrorism. Meanwhile, South America has been rather quietly engaged in transforming itself toward an independent force, distinct from America pulling the puppet strings.. Nikolas Kozloff has been there with eyes and ears wide open, and he brings us insights into what's astir in South America as it has started to tilt distinctively left and progressive.

Bush is so obsessed with Iraq that it has given South America some breathing room from U.S. efforts to assert the Monroe Doctrine and keep the continent subjugated to American interests.

Nikolas Kozloff explains what's up with our continent to the south.

Kozloff also authored Hugo Chávez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the U.S. (Paperback) .  We interviewed him about that book, earlier. Nikolas Kozloff Looks at Oil, Democracy, Chávez, and U.S. 'Interests', A BuzzFlash Interview.

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BuzzFlash: We interviewed you previously about your excellent book on Hugo Chávez. Today, we're going to ask you about a newer, more comprehensive book, Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left.

We're talking about a whole continent, so it's obviously a very complex subject, and it's become increasingly so as some of the countries have become more independent.

Recently we saw a bit of a showdown when Colombia, perhaps with the assistance of American special forces, pursued some of the Colombian FARC members or opposition military commandos into Ecuador. Both Ecuador and Venezuela protested -- particularly Venezuela -- by increasing the presence of the military borders of Colombia. We've also seen Mr. Uribe, the president of Colombia, getting involved in a free trade dispute and denouncing one of the Democratic nominees, Obama. Uribe is what one might call a protégé of the Bush administration. So, is Colombia the one exception to a leftist trend? Or are there other countries that still fall into American hegemony?

Nikolas Kozloff: First of all, I would say that even though Colombia is still a staunch ally of the U.S. in the region, there are important political forces at work in Colombia. I think civil society has been increasingly more combative, and there is a political left in Colombia which I think may have a future. The Mayor of Bogota is a leftist, and indigenous peoples have assumed an increasingly combative and assertive political role independent of the left-wing guerillas.

I think you're right to say that Colombia is still kind of a U.S. outpost in the region. But I think that perhaps the left has a future in Columbia. Chávez, by the way, has some influence in Colombia. And when Chávez recently toured Bogota, President Uribe of Colombia was careful not to allow him to visit Simon Bolivar's old house in the old section of Bogota, for fear that he'd be swarmed by the public, which is somewhat charmed by him -- or at least a certain amount of the public. That said, I do think that the U.S., even though it's lost a considerable amount of influence in the region, still enjoys some support within Colombia, but also into such countries as Peru and Chile.

I think what you're seeing overall in South America is that the region is in flux, and there's been a rise of progressive-oriented regimes. But there are divisions within the incipient left block in South America, even though the Bush administration is totally reviled throughout the region -- Argentina, for example. Even though that's the reality, U.S. has been able to exploit some of these divisions within this incipient left block, particularly by playing Brazil off against Venezuela, which is kind of worrying.

BuzzFlash: We recommend people read your book because, again, it's hard to talk about a continent with so many countries and so many different political histories, and a complicated relationship with each other, with Spain and Portugal, and with the United States.

First, what happened in the last thirty years? Thirty years ago, we were basically seeing the colonial countries in South America involved in horrendous and hideous operations conducted with the help of the United States -- Operation Condor in the Seventies, and military governments. What's happened that there's been such a change since then?

Number two, how did many of the South American countries managed to go leftist, to engage in democracy without a coup, as happened to Allende, with the knowledge and the condoning of Henry Kissinger at the time. How come Bush hasn't come down on these countries like a ton of bricks, which has been often the case in the past?

Nikolas Kozloff: One thing which struck me during my trip and researching this book was the turning away from the traditional right-wing military establishment. That is a huge development. I was really struck by that when I went into the Ministry of Defense in Buenos Aires, hoping to interview high-up government officials about Argentina's military policy. The official who greeted me was, A, a woman, and B, a civilian.

On both counts, that's rather surprising in light of Argentina's past, which was, at least from 1976 to 1982 during the Argentine military junta, a male-dominated institution, and incredibly right wing. I think that stor Kirchner, and now the new president, his wife, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, have taken advantage of public sentiment which has turned quite a bit against the military and by and large supports the process of bringing ex-military officials to justice -- those who committed human rights abuses during the Dirty War of 1976 to 1982. That's been a huge development in Argentina.

BuzzFlash: How did this happen? You had military governments that conducted the Dirty War, they threw drugged dissenters from airplanes into the river below. There are still thousands who have disappeared and have not been accounted for, children who were taken from their mothers in prison and placed with Army officers to be raised. This was a horrifying nightmare that many people in America are still not fully aware of. What happened that the military governments ultimately fell?

Nikolas Kozloff: The short story about that is the end of the Falklands War. I think that, militarily, Argentina was entirely disgraced, a nd in the short term that ensured the fall of the military regime. Maybe what you're asking is how do we account for this popular sentiment against the military, which has continued up to the present day.

I think the mood has shifted, which I attribute to the rise of both Kirchners. I think that came more as a result of political and economic crisis, and maybe a more progressive wing of the Peronist party in Argentina coming to power and feeling that it had to placate many members of society that were upset about traditional U.S. influence and adherence to economic policies that have battered the middle class in 2001 and 2002. I think it was a snowball effect, and, in effect, the Kirchners felt that we have to placate society in any number of ways, but also in terms of appearing as if we're doing something to address impunity, which had not really been addressed under previous regimes after 1982.

BuzzFlash: We've been talking mostly about Argentina, but how did Chile go from a military government to democracy, now with a woman as its president?

Nikolas Kozloff: Basically Pinochet, the brutal dictator who took power in 1973, had been disgraced and was arrested in Britain. Then, increasingly, civilian administrations tried to hold him to account. I think that now there is a certain mood within the Chilean armed forces that Pinochet had been responsible for human rights abuses, and a certain number of Chilean military officials basically want to turn the page on Chile's brutal military past. I think that now, civil society, which had been battered under Pinochet, has now come to the fore. As in Argentina, there's more pressure on the Bachelet regime to move forward on trying ex-military officials for their human rights abuses.

I think civil society has less power in Chile than in Argentina. However, I think it's gaining some strength. You have Mapuche Indians, for example, and some high school students that are known as the Penguinos, or the penguins, because of their school uniforms that are blue blazers and white shirts. They've been articulating a lot of popular demands -- for example, a more viable transportation policy and improved educational opportunities in Chile. Perhaps if these sort of special movements can come together, they might be able to articulate a more coherent set of demands. I think the Bachelet regime is aware of that, and to a certain extent the Bachelet regime wants to be seen as not bullying the military, but adhering to certain standards. And some officials -- for example, Vivianne Blanlot, the Minister of Defense and also a woman -- have openly confronted military officers that are more supportive of the ex-Pinochet element in the military.

So there's been a shift in both countries, with the rise of these two woman presidents, to observe certain standards. And that's a reflection of the changing political mood in both countries. Both presidents, if they fail to recognize that new reality, do so at their peril.

BuzzFlash: How come there haven't been coups? Why doesn't the U.S. try more aggressively to subvert the leftist regimes? I see this as a positive thing, that we aren't. But I'm kind of surprised that the Bush administration is allowing democracy to flourish and allowing those who are less wealthy to challenge what have been in many of those countries plutocracies. The U.S. is allowing democracies that have moved towards a more equitable distribution of income.

Nikolas Kozloff: To a certain extent, the United States has been distracted by Iraq and the Middle East. Had the United States not been involved in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, perhaps we might have seen more interventionism in South America. Perhaps the Bush administration would have been much more antagonistic towards Mercosur, which is a trading block in South America which has opposed something called the Free Trade Area of the Americas, which is a free trade plan backed by Washington. There's a recognition that the United States can't really intervene in the way that perhaps it used to.

For example, when I spoke to the Minister of Energy in Ecuador, a guy by the name of Alberto Acosta, he told me that the U.S. ambassador had gone into his office a week earlier and not really used the big stick when dealing with Ecuadorian authorities. At the time, there was a really acrimonious dispute between the U.S. and Ecuador over this U.S. energy company called Occidental, which is called Oxy in Ecuador. The Ecuadorians had basically suspended this energy company's contract. Oxy was going to appeal for international arbitration. According to Acosta, the U.S. ambassador had gone into his office and had an amicable discussion.

I think that's indicative of a wider pattern that we're seeing. The United States is using more diplomacy now, as opposed to its more overt intervention in Venezuela in 2002, when the United States attempted to overthrow the Chávez regime.

What we're seeing is, for example, Condoleezza Rice going to South America in March and attempting to kind of subvert this incipient left block of regimes by driving a wedge between Brazil and Venezuela. The United States realizes: look, we don't have a lot of military leverage anymore. The United States has one base in South America. The Correa regime in Ecuador has basically said that it's not going to renew the lease after 2009. So after 2009, the United States could either put a base in Colombia, which is not particularly favorable proposition given that there are left-wing guerillas in Colombia, and any military presence in Colombia would be very vulnerable to attack. Or the United States basically leaves South America -- has no military base there. I think that's the most likely prospect, given that no regime, no country, is very keenly interested in hosting a long-term U.S. military installation.

So what does the U.S. do? Well, Condoleezza Rice went to Brazil, where the regime adheres to left-wing principles in name, but not necessarily in practice all the time. She attempts to carry out energy initiatives and deals having to do with ethanol, which is a fuel that is produced from sugar cane in Brazil. And Rice went to Chile, which is another country that signed a free trade agreement with the U.S. So that's really interesting to me. In other words, Rice goes to Brazil but completely snubs Argentina. That's a huge oversight.

So what can you read into that? Maybe that the U.S. is trying to divide different camps within this incipient left block, perhaps by extending ties to Chile and Brazil, while hoping to isolate Argentina, Venezuela, and Bolivia.

BuzzFlash: Let me ask you specifically about Bolivia. Evo Morales ran twice, and he lost the first time to a U.S.-trained leader. James Carville went down there with his consulting firm and backed this kind of U.S.-sponsored candidate, who now lives back in the Washington, D.C. area. They tried to do sort of a World Bank rescue of the economy, but it collapsed, which eventually led to new elections. Evo Morales won in the second election by a wide majority.

You know, there the U.S. clearly backed a candidate originally. The candidate won, but the candidate couldn't handle the economic situation, and the country sort of collapsed economically. Morales came in and ran as a populist. He's a very simple man who lives in a simple home. This is a union guy, true and true. And yet he became the head of Bolivia. Watching this happen was, to me, really, a celebration of democracy. I mean, Morales came to power obviously winning the massive votes of the indigenous population. The U.S. has always supported more European oriented leaders and those who have been educated in the United States.

I recall there was an interview with the former President of Mexico, Vincente Fox. Fox, of course, was formerly with the Coca Cola Company -- definitely a United States sort of guy. He just dismissed Morales. But isn't there something to celebrate, in the way in which Morales came to power, and that the democracy held?

Nikolas Kozloff: Well, indeed. I think, among all the South American countries' leaders right now, Morales is probably the closest ally to Chávez, and, also, Bolivia is the closest ally to Fidel Castro. When I interviewed the Cuban ambassador in La Paz, he told me how relations between Cuba and Bolivia have never been better.

I think it will be interesting to see whether the Bolivarian Alternatives for the Americas, which Morales subscribes to, might serve as a new paradigm or model for maybe more skittish countries in the region. It's undeniable that under this ALBA scheme, Cuban doctors have flooded into Bolivia. Chávez funds a number of enterprises in Bolivia, including the commercialization of coca leaf products, which is, I think, not very pleasing to the State Department, but which is a huge phenomenon culturally now in Bolivia. And it's been spread by Morales himself, who is a former coca union leader himself.

So there's been a kind of cultural renaissance in Bolivia, and cultural nationalism, indigenous nationalism, and growing ties to such countries as Venezuela and Cuba. Whether or not the bloc of Venezuela, Cuba and Bolivia can really inspire other countries in the region to undertake innovative and more progressive economic policies, I have my doubts about that. But it's certainly one option on the table.

BuzzFlash: In your book you talk about how South America is becoming more unified. In what ways is it becoming more economically unified without the intervention of the United States?

Nikolas Kozloff: Well, to a certain extent, the United States has diminished its economic assistance to the region, and, as a result, it has a lot less political influence. Condoleezza Rice can go to the region, but she doesn't have that much leverage. She doesn't have a huge carrot to offer. So in light of that, I think the countries within the region have undertaken a number of measures which are very fluid and dynamic at this point. I do think that within twenty or thirty years, there will be significant political and economic integration. However, it's unclear which scheme or which initiative will predominate.

Right now, you have a number of different options on the table. For example, I just mentioned the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, which I suspect is more significant in an ideological sense, as opposed to an economic sense. In other words, there have been these exchanges involving Cuban doctors and Venezuelan economic assistance to impoverished nations such as Bolivia. On the other hand, the overall volume of trade between the ALBA countries is very insignificant. So I hesitate in saying that ALBA can be this model for sustainable trade within the regions. But I think it's important in an ideological sense because it fosters a sense of solidarity amongst nations. And it's not really bound by the usual corporate structures.

Chávez is backing trade that takes place outside of the usual corporate structure. He'll barter products with Argentina. Argentina will send agricultural products, and Venezuela will send oil to Argentina. It's an innovative strategy. And it's, I think, inspirational. But I don't know if it can actually serve as a model for economic development.

The other engine for economic and political integration could be something called Mercosur, which is this trade bloc which seems to be taking on political overtones because the headquarters of the new Mercosur is going to be located in Montevideo, and Mercosur countries have set up a parliament there. Mercosur countries have criticized the Free Trade Area of the Americas, which has been spearheaded by Bush. So Mercosur perhaps could be a vehicle for articulating some common political strategies.

At present, Mercos is basically just a free trade pact amongst sympathetic South American regimes. I think it has a long way to go, and there are all kinds of arcane, Byzantine problems within Mercosur that could derail it. But if Venezuela is admitted as a Mercosur country, then perhaps Venezuela might want to "subvert" Mercosur and turn it into something that's a little more progressive than we're seeing at present. I think Chávez has openly talked about Mercosur as this ossified trade pact that's not really thinking in terms of how to reverse poverty and inequality, so we need to change Mercosur.

There are significant divisions between Brazil and Venezuela, too. As a result, the Brazilian elite is very concerned that perhaps Venezuela might join Mercosur and subvert it. That's one reason why Brazil has not been able to ratify Venezuela's bid to join Mercosur. And within the Brazilian Senate, some politicians attack Venezuela and don't want to approve or ratify Venezuela's bid to join Mercosur. At this point, Argentina and Uruguay have ratified Venezuela's bid for Mercosur, while Brazil and Paraguay have not.

What we're seeing is a region of many different political and economic agendas. Brazil would like to see perhaps a little more market-oriented kind of integration that would not necessarily reflect savage globalization, but would still be somewhat market-driven. Chávez says he wants progressive integration based more on ALBA, which is what he's done successfully with Cuba and Bolivia. But Chávez himself has remarked that Brazil on its own cannot be a world power, nor can Argentina, nor can Venezuela. The only way that South America is going to be a world power is if you have that bloc -- Brazil, Venezuela and Argentina, all kind of united in a common purpose.

And right now, Argentina seems to be playing this kind of political game, where they back Venezuela to join Mercosur, perhaps in an effort to offset Brazilian influence. There is some ideological affinity between Argentina and Venezuela because in Argentina they hate the International Monetary Fund. They simply hate being associated with globalization because of their bitter experience going back to 2001, with the financial collapse in Argentina. So what seems to be happening is that Argentina is backing Venezuela. I think the worst-case scenario would be if the Brazilian model of integration, which is a little more market-oriented, ultimately wins, although Brazil is by far the largest country in the region and has probably a GDP of all the other countries combined. Brazil, at present, is a big obstacle.

There's going to be kind of a geopolitical game now to see whether Brazil can command the allegiance of the smaller countries, or whether they are more likely to look to Venezuela. Because United States influence is waning somewhat, that opens the region up. And these smaller countries are kind of looking at this point to see, well, which country, Brazil or Venezuela, can offer us the most concessions? Hopefully, the United States won't be able to divide those two blocs. But I think the longer this goes on, with Venezuela and Brazil as perhaps rivals, then it delays the process of hemispheric integration that's going on.

BuzzFlash: Do you see anything in South America on the horizon that is similar to the Common Market or European Union?

Nikolas Kozloff: No, I think the question basically at this point is: Can South America transcend that? As Chávez has said, if integration is going to happen, then it shouldn't happen on the basis of some free trade bloc among South American countries. Now, that said, I think the United States doesn't like Mercosur. Mercosur has criticized the Free Trade Area of the Americas. But Mercosur, as it's presently understood, is not much of an ideological threat to the U.S. So I think the point is, can it become a vehicle for something more?

There's been talk about how the Mercosur countries might form something called the South American Community of Nations. That's certainly another option on the table. The South American Community of Nations might have more political focus. But at this point ALBA is not significantly strong enough to command the allegiance of a lot of countries. Brazil is not really strong enough to command the political and economic allegiance of all the other countries. And so we're in a very dynamic period right now. It's a very interesting time to observe South American politics, because it's sort of a snapshot in time. I feel privileged to have gone down and interviewed people across the political spectrum at this really critical time in the region's history. I think South America is ultimately going in a new direction, where the U.S. influence will diminish yet further. But the contours of the new integration are by no means clear.

BuzzFlash: Thanks so much.

BuzzFlash Interview conducted by Mark Karlin.

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