Will the US Ever Get Latin America?

For Washington's foreign policy elite, changes in Latin America are viewed through the narrow lens of a cold war mentality

In the film Guantanamera, the last by renowned Cuban director Tomas Gutierrez Alea, the Yoruba creation myth is presented as a metaphor for the difficulties of bringing about change. In this myth, humans were at first immortal, but the result was that the old suffocated the young, and so death had to be created.

Here in Washington, it is often only death and retirement that allows for the possibility of change - and yet the institutions remain immortal and often immutable. Nowhere is this more true than in the foreign policy establishment here.

In the last few weeks I have visited five countries and participated in numerous events surrounding a recently released documentary - like Guantanamera, South of the Border is also a road movie - which Oliver Stone directed and I wrote with Tariq Ali. Returning to Washington, the wide gulf that separates the US foreign policy elite from the vast majority of its neighbours to the south hits you as a form of culture shock.

For these people, the historic changes that have swept Latin America - and especially South America - over the last decade are viewed through the narrow lens of a cold war mentality that scores every change in terms of how it affects US power in the region.

Jorge Castaneda is a former foreign minister of Mexico who teaches at New York University and has become a leading spokesperson in the media for the Washington foreign policy establishment. In a recent article, he divides the continent into "Americas-1", meaning "those that are either neutral in the confrontation between the United States and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (and Cuba), or openly opposed to the so-called "Bolivarian" governments of Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela"; and "Americas-2" - "the radical left."

For Castaneda, as for US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, it is particularly annoying that "as recently as 7 June, the Bolivarian countries were able to block Honduras's re-instatement into the OAS, despite the essentially free and fair elections that were held there last November."

But it was not just the "Bolivarian countries" that can't accept elections held under a dictatorship as "free and fair". Brazil, Argentina, and governments representing most of the hemisphere are in the same camp. In fact, when the Rio Group issued a statement in November of 2009 saying that the immediate restitution of Mel Zelaya was a necessary condition for elections to be recognised, even the Obama administration's rightwing allies - Colombia, Peru, and Panama - felt obliged to sign on.

The Honduran coup, carried out by US allies and US-trained military officers against the democratically elected President Mel Zelaya, was a watershed event in relations between Washington and Latin America. It was nearly one year ago, on 28 June, that the remaining hopes that the Obama administration would treat its neighbours to the south differently than the Bush team did, were destroyed. While the Clintons' close confidant and adviser Lanny Davis counselled and lobbied for the coup regime, the Obama administration did everything that it could to help the dictatorship survive and legitimise itself. This despite unanimous resolutions in the OAS and the United Nations calling for the "immediate and unconditional reinstatement" of President Zelaya, two words that the Obama administration would never utter, as it ignored for more than five months the murders, closing of independent media, and other massive human rights violations that made the "free and fair" elections last November in Honduras a sick joke. The European Union and Organisation of American States did not even send observers.

But with Washington still struggling to legitimise the Honduran government - despite the murder of dozens of political activists and nine journalists since the "elected" government took power - it is typical to portray this effort as a struggle against "enemy" governments rather than a fight with most of the region. What these people cannot recognise, or perhaps even understand, is that this is about independence and self-determination, as well as democracy.

Michele Bachelet of Chile and Lula da Silva of Brazil were as upset as the "Americas-2" governments when the Obama administration decided last August to expand its presence at seven military bases in Colombia. And it was Felipe Calderon, the rightwing president of Mexico, who hosted the February conference in Cancun that decided to create a new organisation for the Americas, which could eventually displace the OAS, without the United States and Canada. The role of the US and Canada in blocking the OAS from taking stronger measures against the dictatorship in Honduras undoubtedly played a role in motivating this move.

Of course, Washington has the power to make its cold war vision of the hemisphere at least half real, by singling out the more leftwing governments for special treatment. In Bolivia, the election of Evo Morales brought changes analogous to the end of apartheid in South Africa, with the country's indigenous majority gaining a voice in their government for the first time in 500 years. One would think the Obama administration would have enough common brains to get on the right side of that one. But no, they have carried over the trade sanctions that the Bush team had imposed on Bolivia under the so-called Andean Trade Promotion and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA), "de-certified" Bolivia as not co-operating in the "War on Drugs," and still refuse to disclose exactly whom they are funding in Bolivia - ie, which opposition groups - with money from the US State Department.

I had the privilege of watching South of the Border in a soccer stadium filled with more than 6,000 people in Cochabamba, Bolivia, a few weeks ago. At one point in the film Evo Morales tells the story of Tupak Katari, an indigenous leader who fought against the Spanish colonialists in the 18th century. Evo recalls Tupak Katari's last words, before he was drawn and quartered by the Spanish: "I die as one, but I will come back as millions."

Evo then looks into the camera and says: "Now we are millions."

Unlike in Washington, every person in that stadium knew exactly what he meant.

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