There was a time when it was typical to portray the governments of Latin America as being run by petty tyrants. Militant revolutionary leaders dressed in fatigues or high ranking military officers in ornate uniforms were the options as depicted in the North American media.
They were the fodder for jokes by stand up comedians (“Some countries in South America change governments as often as I change shirts”) and an easy means for feelings of superiority on the part of our population. Who hasn’t at some point in time made a caustic comment on what appears to be a revolving door policy on leadership: “You don’t like the government? Give it a week and it will change.”
Some of that instability can be put down to petty power struggles among military officers, and some to genuine popular uprisings. Unfortunately, this climate was in large part the result of policies of past American governments. Governments who attempted to reverse years of disproportionate distribution of wealth and land among their populations would, more likely than not, find themselves replaced by ones more sympathetic to the interests of the business elite.
Since the military in a country are the ones who have the means to precipitate a government’s overthrow, it was only a matter of searching out some dissatisfied officer and offering him the figurehead position of President to ensure a return to the status quo. In some instances, like Chile and General Pinochet, the officer could be given real power because he was a part of the ruling class.
It wasn’t so much that the American government was concerned with the welfare of the aristocracy in these countries, although they were their biggest allies. They would be reacting to pressure brought to bear on them by corporations who had been exploiting the people and the land for years. Any perceived threat to their profit margin either by the potential for nationalization, or even improved rights for workers, would send them running for help.
But times change and foreign policy focus switches. New and more dangerous threats are perceived in other parts of the world. America has been fairly quiet in the fields of South America since the defeat of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Of course there also hasn’t been too much to get heated up about since then.
But times have changed again and America’s attention is returning to its old fiefdoms. There has been a general wave of reform that has swept through South America, marked by the election of such people as Luiz Inacio (Lula) da Silva in Brazil, Ricardo Lagos in Chile, Néstor Kirchner in Argentina, and Tabaré Vázquez in Uruguay.
While those gentlemen may represent the new face of South American politics, and mark a turning away from International Monetary Fund (I.M.F) imposed economies of deprivation and spending cuts, they are not the real source of worry for the American government.
That dubious distinction falls to two new faces, and one old familiar one. Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and of course everyone’s favourite bogeyman: Fidel Castro of Cuba. As long as Fidel was isolated in his little Caribbean island, the American government was satisfied with simply trying to starve him out. But now, with the election of a third potential revolutionary leader in the form of Mr. Morales, things may change.
In an article in the Globe and Mail, Pablo Policzer, holder of the Canada Research Chair in Latin American Studies at the University of Calgary, talks about how attempts at massive changes in society in Latin America have always either failed or come at the expense of democracy.
His claim that land reform and nationalization can’t be achieved without the surrendering of democratic rights is a taste of the type of rhetoric we can expect to start seeing from pundits and the White House if Mr. Morales starts to carry out the land reforms needed to lift the local indigenous peoples out of poverty.
The attempts to portray Hugo Chavez as a non-democratically elected leader, in spite of his continued electoral triumphs, are an example of the manner in which Mr. Morales can expect to be attacked. As in Venezuela, it shouldn’t be hard to find someone in opposition who will be willing to make unsubstantiated claims about voting irregularities in order to cast aspersions on the legitimacy of the election results.
Mr. Policzer cites the overthrow of Salvador Allende’s elected government of Chile in 1973 as an example of how major social change can’t be implemented in South America through democratic means. By doing this he is, perhaps unwittingly, giving voice to the real reason: it won’t be allowed to happen.
In Chile, an American backed coup brought the military to power under General Augusto Pinochet in one of the bloodier revolutions seen in South America. Thousands of Allende’s supporters were rounded up and herded into a soccer stadium and executed. Allende himself was murdered, and people like teachers and union workers were forced to flee for their lives.
If, as Mr. Policzer says, Mr. Allende casts a large shadow over Mr. Morales’ attempts in Bolivia, it’s not because he represents the failure of an elected government to carry out revolutionary social change. It’s because what happened in Chile is simply indicative of the attitude taken by American governments towards Latin American countries.
The current administration has already shown its willingness to treat Latin American countries simply as satellites with no real self-determination. Hugo Chavez is no real danger to the Americans militarily or economically. Why not allow Venezuela to control its own natural resources and make back the money that’s been taken out of the country by foreign nationals over the years?
Mr. Morales received over 50% of the direct popular vote in a three-candidate election, not only ensuring his election after only one ballot, but also demonstrating the depth of support in Bolivia for his platform. Mr. Policzer claims that the question remains whether the changes he proposes will be consistent with democracy. Maybe the question should be why is he asking that question?
Why is it that in Latin America when a government is democratically elected with a clear majority, their policies, unlike those of any other elected government, can be construed as undemocratic? He was elected with the mandate of bringing about massive social change and improving the lot of some of the poorest people in the world. Whatever he does to achieve that end, especially considering his margin of victory, is being undertaken because the majority of people have approved.
How much more democratic can you get then that? If Mr. Policzer is so concerned about democracy, he should be worried about whether or not the democratic rights of the people of Bolivia are respected by foreign powers. Whether or not Mr. Morales will be allowed to carry out his reforms without being undermined or overthrown is more pertinent then worrying about how democratic it is to redistribute inactive land to the poor.
The real shadow from the past that is cast over Mr. Morales, and all attempts to create an egalitarian society in Latin America, is the threat of American intervention. Let Mr. Morales have at least one term in office without provocation, threats, and intimidation before making a judgment on his democracy.