Mr. Danger in his labyrinth

Published : Dec 02, 2005 00:00 IST

In Mar Del Plata, a rally against the FTAA and U.S. President George Bush's visit to Argentina. -

In Mar Del Plata, a rally against the FTAA and U.S. President George Bush's visit to Argentina. -

The failure of the Summit of Americas to arrive at a consensus on a regional free trade area is one more sign of the decline of the Bush administration.

THE White House is under siege. A senior administration official had to resign as a result of a two-year-long investigation of the illegal disclosure of the name of a covert Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agent. The war in Iraq continues to be unpopular, as students across the United States walked out of their classes on November 2 to say "The World Can't Wait" (for the removal of the current administration). The sludge of Hurricane Katrina festers, as stories of cronyism within the government multiply. An opinion poll done by The Washington Post on November 4 showed that 58 per cent of those asked had doubts about the honesty of their President. As a result, only a third of the population believes that the President is doing a good job.

The President took the first plane out of town, and fled to Argentina. The throngs followed him, even as they yelled in Spanish more than English. George W. Bush could not escape the animus. A Pew Report on world opinion in 2002 found that almost three quarters of Argentineans polled had a negative opinion of the U.S. government. In July 2005, the Latin American Faculty of Social Science conducted an extensive poll in Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Uruguay. Seventy per cent of those asked believed that U.S. policy was contrary to the promotion of world peace. Claudio Fuentes of the Faculty told the Associated Press: "The main opinion that came out is the U.S. is very aggressive in terms of foreign policy and the Bush reputation is very low in the four countries."

As Bush met the heads of state at the local Sheraton, the protesters gathered at a soccer stadium. Here they heard from Bolivian leader Evo Morales, soccer legend Diego Maradona and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Chavez rushed from the plush suites to the streets to proclaim his solidarity with this popular demonstration and to declare unequivocally: "Everyone of us has brought a shovel because Mar del Plata is going to be the tomb of the FTAA. The FTAA is dead, and we, the people of the Americas, are the ones who buried it."

The FTAA (Free Trade Areas of the Americas) has been on the table since the first Summit of the Americas, held in Miami in 1994. In 1990, George Bush Sr., U.S. President at the time, crafted the Enterprise for the Americas Initiative to allow governments in the Americas access to the U.S. market if they conducted both market reforms and debt adjustment schemes. The 1990 Initiative carried the germ of the FTAA, and of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) formulated in 1991 and brought into effect in 1994. Various governments across the Americas followed the Bush design. An economic adviser, John Williamson, coined the phrase "Washington Consensus" in 1990 to reflect the lowest common denominator set of policies demanded by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the U.S. Treasury Department, and acquiesced by the various regional elites. These reforms included privatisation of state enterprises and the diversion of social expenditure by the state towards a balanced budget, as well as a tax policy to benefit the rich. Detached from their own populations and in thrall to U.S. power, many South American leaders lobbied hard for access to the U.S. market at any cost. The timetable set up at the Summit of the Americas indicates that the FTAA must pass by December 2005 or else the process will fail. By all accounts, Chavez is right. Mar Del Plata is its cremation ground.

Since Miami things have changed in southern America. For one, the regimes that wanted to continue the cozy relationship between southern and northern elites fell out of favour. In Argentina, from December 2001 to 2003, ceaseless protests by the piqueteros (pot bangers) removed five Prime Ministers in quick succession. "From a political perspective," says Rosendo Fraga of the Centre for Studies of the New Majority in Buenos Aires, "the piqueteros evolved as an insurgent social protest movement similar to the Zapatistas of Mexico and the Landless Movement [MST] of Brazil." In fact, Argentina only followed what had begun in Venezuela (with La Caracazo, the 1989 mass demonstration against IMF policies), in Brazil (with the growth of the landless movement and the emergence of the Worker's Party as an electoral alternative), and in Mexico (with the Zapatistas' consolidation of the anti-NAFTA anger).

Since George Bush Jr. came to office, South Americans from Venezuela to Argentina have gone to the ballot box to elect leaders of the Centre-Left. In an earlier epoch, the U.S. government would have called on the military or on the oligarchy to exercise dictatorial power against these social forces. The Monroe Doctrine of 1823 carved out the Americas as the zone of influence of the U.S., and it was upon this assumption that the U.S. government encouraged military coups and rigged elections. The Monroe Doctrine is now invalidated by the rise of powerful social movements. In a real sense, the U.S. has had to withdraw its influence north of the Amazon river. All that remains is a very close connection with the oligarchy that rules Colombia and with the aristocratic elites of Venezuela who have tried ceaselessly to overthrow Chavez.

Bush registered the tenor of the U.S. defeat as he stood beside Argentina's President Nestor Kirchner. "I want to thank you for being a good host," Bush told Kirchner. "It's not easy to host all these countries. It's particularly not easy to host, perhaps, me." Reality burst through Bush's typically arrogant posture. No longer could he ignore the protests and the disaffection. At his own media conferences in Mar del Plata, Bush was inundated with questions about the meltdown in his administration and of the immense popularity of Chavez. Bush had little opportunity to promote his vision for the FTAA. Although, at an early press conference, Bush laid down the main problem: "You know, we're down here talking about trade - it's hard to trade with somebody if they're broke." On this elementary reality, the delegates entered an important disagreement. When the U.S. officials suggested that the final communique take note of the "96 million people who live in extreme poverty", the Venezuelans wanted to add to this, "while in the United States there are 37 million poor". Chavez' government would not let the U.S. government be blind to the structural imbalance in the U.S. as revealed by Hurricane Katrina.

To bring U.S. poverty and debt on to the table is one way to puncture the sanctity of the "Washington Consensus". The U.S. has, since the late 1980s, exported a model of fiscal discipline that it has not itself fully embraced (as shown by a highly critical IMF report from 2004 called "U.S. Fiscal Policies and Priorities for Long-Run Sustainability"). The IMF-driven reforms are highly unpopular in Latin America. With Kirchner by his side, Bush admitted that Argentina is of the "belief that the IMF ought to have a different attitude toward Argentina". In fact, the bulk of the governments have a different vision of the IMF and the FTAA, for the slogan of the official conference no longer talks of growth but of "Creating Jobs to Fight Poverty and Strengthen Democratic Governance". All this is a fundamental repudiation of the "Washington Consensus", of the Bush proposals.

The Americas are not without alternative ideas. Chavez proposed the creation of a Latin American hemispheric union, a Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA). The Chavez alternative begins with the recognition of the disparity between the countries of the Americas - while some (such as Haiti) are in the throes of chaos, others are fairly stable. A singular achievement of progress would be to transfer resources to the vulnerable countries through a "Compensatory Fund for Strategic Convergence". These funds would be used to create food self-sufficiency for each country, as well as regional markets for equitable trade. Further, if the FTAA privileges intellectual property rights of technological and scientific conglomerates, the ALBA is invested in the rights of genetic biodiversity and indigenous knowledge. The new rent economy contributes deeply to the asymmetry between the North and the South, and the ALBA's notion of intellectual property would help mutual development. Finally, the ALBA opposes the policies of privatisation, deregulation and fiscal liberalisation. Its singular achievement has been to insist upon the well-being of people as its foundation.

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Ali Rodriquez explained to the media that the ALBA did not oppose the integration of the nations. He said: "Two positions are facing each other, those who want to support integration on the basis of competition and the other that wants to promote integration on the basis of economic cooperation, solidarity and respect for sovereignty." After negotiations failed to move on either proposal, Chavez told the media: "Yesterday was very interesting. Some defended free trade, while we proposed various alternatives beyond the mirages of a free trade agreement." Nothing moved, despite host Nestor Kirchner's strong words: "We must create a kind of globalisation that works for everyone and not just for a few."

For the Bush administration, the failure of the Summit is one more sign of its decline. Before he left for Argentina, The Washington Post wrote: "Unquestionably, Bush is in trouble, and if he is to recover, he needs to acknowledge the root causes of his misfortune." These are legion and the Bush regime will answer them with window-dressing. Chased out of his White House cocoon, Bush has had to come to terms with the deep distrust of his administration around the world. He had assumed that among leaders of the world, he would be welcomed, but even that did not occur. The isolation of "Mister Danger" (as he is called by Chavez) is, however, a momentary thing. The South American leaders did not invalidate the FTAA. They simply asked to continue the dialogue elsewhere, for few of these regimes can afford to avoid entirely the massive economic and military power of the U.S. The ambiguity was well expressed by Brazil's Foreign Minister Celso Amorin: "We don't want to bury the agreement, and we don't want to resuscitate it either."

In early 2006, LeftWord Books will publish a volume of essays on contemporary Latin America, edited by Vijay Prashad and the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA).

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