It was back in the 1970’s when the cold war was raging that the late Pierre Trudeau, then Prime Minister of Canada, began advocating what he called North/South thinking instead of East/West as a means of defining our foreign policy. In some ways this was his version of the Marshall Plan of the 1940’s. Help the developing world become economically self-sufficient and you don’t have to worry about them so much in the future.
By focusing on their problems and offering assistance instead of turning them into battlefields we increased the chances of them not having to depend on foreign aid or becoming our enemies in the future. Not surprisingly he wasn’t able to garner much interest from any of the major players in the world at the time. Nobody was willing to think too far into the future.
As we draw to the end of the halfway point of the first decade of this millennium we see that the major economic powers of the world are still reluctant to commit themselves to this type of policy. The predominant attitude is still we will take what we need and to hell with your needs as a country.
This colonial mindset had been in play since the 19th century and as the twentieth century pulled into it’s last twenty years looked to be still predominant. Sure the wealthier countries of the world were there to assuage their guilt when famines hit Ethiopia, shelling out millions of dollars in emergency aid. But once the photo opportunities were over and done with it was back to the same practices.
In the past we have guaranteed our needs being met in countries by either propping up governments that have been supportive of our ends or conspiring to overthrow those that we deem as unsympathetic. Although there is no longer the overt involvement as there was twenty years ago in Nicaragua and El Salvador, or Chile in the seventies, South and Central America seem to be still considered the personal fiefdoms of any American administration.
From the days when Remember The Maine rang out across America as an excuse to take Cuba from Spain up to the current embargo of Castro’s Cuba and the demonizing of Venezuela President Hugo Chavez, governments in Washington have tried to keep a tight leash on any nationalistic aspirations by their neighbours to the south. From the sugar and fruit companies of the fifties and sixties to the Oil wells and natural gas lines of 2005 the difference is only in the commodity,
Instead of cutting their losses and negotiating deals with Castro and working out a peaceful co-existence with his Cuba, they pushed him into the arms of the Russians by putting more import on the interests of a few American companies than that of the people of Cuba. Instead of quashing nationalist feelings in Latin America they have created a figurehead/martyr that all independence and reform movements can now rally around.
Whether or not Castro deserves that standing is another question, but the fact of the matter is he remains a symbol of successfully standing up to the big bully. Rightly or wrongly the poor and downtrodden of the Southwest hemisphere see America as the enemy of freedom and the friend of the oppressor.
Unfortunately administration after administration has done nothing to alleviate that impression. From the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973, the support of the military government in El Salvador, and the backing of the Contras in Nicaragua, they have fashioned an image of being the enemy of the little guy. When American backed forces machine gun your village from helicopters it becomes harder and harder to equate that with the actions of someone who has your best interests at heart.
The lowest of the low in South America have always been the native tribes who are the remnants of the peoples who once ruled the continent. Pushed into abject poverty first by the their Spanish conquerors, and then seeing what little farm land they had be eaten up by the plantations of the corporate farms.
It’s only been recently that have begun to have a voice again in the political arenas. A precarious voice; as many of their leadership become targets for assassination by thugs from mining and lumber industries intent on denying them their land and rights. The past fifteen years have been marked by uprisings in various troubled regions, including Mexico’s poorer provinces where the poverty and living conditions are truly horrible.
Demands made on debt ridden countries like Argentina to cut their spending by the American controlled International Monetary Fund (I.M.F.) have caused massive civil unrest and resulted in a worsening of conditions for the poorest of peoples. Inflation and unemployment are rampant and hope is in short supply.
Is it any wonder that leaders are being elected who are openly rejecting toeing the line for the United States? That the people turn to Castro for inspiration? How long do you think it’s possible to ignore the massive numbers of people who live in abject poverty before they snap and say “no more”?
Look at the recent election in Bolivia of Evo Moraless and the American reaction. They are already telling him he better be a good boy as witness Secretary of State Rice’s comment that relationships between the two governments will be dictated by the ‘behaviour’ of the government in Bolivia.
Since he has already vowed to halt U.S. backed Coca-eradication programs, turn over vacant and unproductive land to poor farmers, and aggressively nationalize Bolivia’s natural gas reserves, he should be the latest villain in South America. I guess we will have to wait and see if he manages to obtain the status of Chavez and have Pat Robertson call for his assassination but he seems to be heading down that path.
What do you expect from people who have spent decades watching a few people get rich off the backs of the many, and the majority of those people have been from another country. As the British found out in 1776 you can only push people so far before they snap. The people of the Southern Americas have been pushed as far as they can go.
The reversal of years of neglect and exploitation was what Pierre Trudeau was trying to sell when he proposed a shift of focus from East/West to North/South. He knew there would come a time when we’d no longer be able to push people around and take what we needed from them without giving anything substantial in return.
By putting profit in the moment ahead of investment in the future American Governments have created the situation they now find themselves in with their relations with the nations to the South of them. They are viewed either with mistrust or outright hostility by large majorities of peoples in those regions.
It may already be too late to salvage some sort of relationship with the new leadership that’s emerging in these countries, but if subsequent American administrations care to try their first task must be to recognise that people in those countries deserve the power of self-determination as much as Americans do. We have to start considering these countries as equal trading partners, not grocery stores, before anything can improve.