In November 2008, Obama’s election to the US presidency was enthusiastically welcomed in many Latin American capitals by the capitalist strongmen of the moment. Even Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, who has made a name for himself based on his anti-American, “anti-Imperialist” rhetoric, welcomed the change and expressed his hope, “to build a constructive bilateral agenda.” Two years after Obama’s “historical election,” the excitement in the region about the new US administration had quieted down. Obama’s promises of “change” to the discredited foreign policy of the Bush administration, that helped him get elected as the representative of American capitalism, have come up short of satisfying the illusions that his demagogic propaganda generated around the world. In essence, the imperialist foreign policy of the US has not changed in Latin America. Rather than a “hands off” approach on what America considers its exclusive sphere of influence (which some of his supporters wanted), what is driving Obama’s policy toward Latin America is an urgency to win back terrain lost in the region during the previous decades.
Latin America is still America’s Backyard
In the context of the bicentennial commemoration of “political independence” of several Latin American countries this year and during the next decade, there has been a lot of talk on the internet and in the specialized press about the history, current political and economic situation, and future of the region. For instance, the prestigious weekly magazine ‘The Economist’ ran in its September issue a special report advertised on its front page with the ludicrous headline, “Nobody’s Backyard: The Rise of Latin America.” Despite evidence to the contrary we are told that Latin American countries (or at least some of them) have made great economic progress since they won independence from their European colonizers and have a great future ahead of them. The truth is that instead of something to celebrate, the population, always under attack by whatever bourgeois clique in power, is fed a barrage of nationalist propaganda aimed at strengthening the capitalist ideological domination over society; and thus maintaining their dictatorship over this region of the world.
Marxists recognize the formation of nation-states as the historical framework for the bourgeoisie to establish its political supremacy and to further develop the capitalist mode of production.But history has not been kind to the Latin American states that emerged from the ruins of the Spanish and Portuguese empires. For reasons still being debated by historians which make little difference to their populations today, none of these nations became a first rate capitalist country; remaining since their creation in a state of relative backwardness, afflicted with political instability and dependence on more powerful countries.
Where the Latin American countries lay dormant, their neighbor to the North developed fully around the same time to become the global capitalist leader. This dynamic has influenced the relations between the US and the Latin American countries and their dominant classes for almost two centuries; where the US bourgeoisie considers the region as its personal hunting ground with the local bourgeoisie either an ally or enemy according to how well or willing they are to align behind American interests.
Already in 1823 US president James Monroe, in the context of the threat of the ‘Holy Alliance’ (Russia, Prussia and Austria) to roll back history and restore Spanish power to Latin America, would boldly announce that the US would consider any effort by any European countries to re-colonize or interfere in the affairs of Latin America as an act of aggression requiring American intervention (a move bordering on impertinence since the US was no match for the ‘Holy Alliance’ militarily). Although the US did not have the military means at the time to make good on its audacious declaration (though the real teeth of the declaration was provided by the military power of Great Britain, which had become the world superpower of the day and had suggested this strategy to its American counterpart), what was to become the ‘Monroe Doctrine’ has served the American bourgeoisie well as a guiding principle for Latin American policy ever since.
This kind of ‘birth right’ exclusivity of the Western Hemisphere for American capitalism has been a constant theme of US foreign policy for almost two hundred years; encompassing both its progressive period of expansion as it created its national borders and helped develop the world market and the historical period of capitalist decadence which marked the end of capitalism as a progressive mode of production.
At the time of progressive American development, Engels would write in ‘The Movements of 1847’:
“In America we have witnessed the conquest of Mexico and have rejoiced at it. It is also an advance when a country which has hitherto been exclusively wrapped up in its own affairs, perpetually rent with civil wars, and completely hindered in its development, a country whose best prospect had been to become industrially subject to Britain -- when such a country is forcibly drawn into the historical process. It is to the interest of its own development that Mexico will in the future be placed under the tutelage of the United States. The evolution of the whole of America will profit by the fact that the United States, by the possession of California, obtains command of the Pacific. But again we ask: “Who is going to profit immediately by the war?” The bourgeoisie alone. The North Americans acquire new regions in California and New Mexico for the creation of fresh capital, that is, for calling new bourgeois into being, and enriching those already in existence; for all capital created today flows into the hands of the bourgeoisie.”
One could debate from a revolutionary perspective if Engels (and Marx who was also of the same opinion) was right in his assessment of Mexico’s situation and by extension that of the rest of Latin America, but what remains valid is the fact that in this period the expansionist policies of the US (in this case through war) contained the possibility of a move forward in world historical progress and thus in the creation of the conditions needed for a new mode of production, communism, which will be brought about by the working class. However with the benefit of hindsight we can say that the founders of Marxism were proved wrong in their projection that, “The evolution of the whole of America,” would take place on the back of successful American expansionist policies. This success would benefit primarily US capitalism, not just in the short term (which Engels noted) but also historically. Thus the conquest of half the territory of Mexico would be central both for the rising of the US to a first rate economic power and later on to the dominant imperialist power in the region. Meanwhile the Latin American countries would remain in a state of relative capitalist backwardness and social and political instability. Instability caused largely by the bloody settling of accounts between various bourgeois factions allied either to US imperialism or the enemies of US imperialism.
By the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, with the conquest of the last possessions of Spain in the region (during the Spanish-American War that landed Cuba and Puerto Rico in US hands) the last meaningful vestiges of the Old World bourgeoisie in Latin America went to the dustbin of history. The US president Theodore Roosevelt would feel the need to make clear to the world this US supremacy in the region; by in essence saying in his ‘Corollary’ to the Monroe Doctrine, that the US reserved the right to police by any means its “backyard” territories. The American bourgeoisie has done plenty of this policing, through political and military interventions in the ‘internal affairs’ of the Latin American and Caribbean countries. Over the last century it has policed the region to defend its imperialist hegemony from indigenous and foreign challengers.
After World War II and the rise of American imperialism as a world superpower, US policy in Latin America under the banner of ‘anti-Communism’, would take the form of bloody confrontations (through proxy armies) with the Soviet Union- who had become the other world superpower following World War II. This conflict would go on for four decades leaving in its wake an uncountable number of deaths and terrible atrocities against the impoverished masses caught in the fight between pro-American and pro-Russian imperialist bourgeois gangs.
The collapse of the Russian bloc in 1989 and the loss of cohesion holding together the Western imperialist bloc under American leadership upset the international imperialist order. In Latin America, as in the rest of the world, this new situation completely changed the imperialist game and has created a new situation to which US imperialist policy is trying to adapt.
US imperialist policy in the “new world order”
In contrast with what occurred at the height of the US/Russia imperialist confrontation in Latin America during the 1960’s and 1970’s, since the collapse of the bloc system, this region of the world has not been on top of American foreign policy priorities. In the last 20 years, the US has fought 2 major wars in the Middle East and is still engaged in a major one in Afghanistan/Pakistan in Asia, and was also engaged in a major military operation in the Balkans against Serbia. Compared to this one might say that nothing major has happened in Latin America in the last 20 years.
As in the rest of the world, the US is still the dominant imperialist power in Latin America, but the new situation opened up with the collapse of the bloc system has had at least 2 major interrelated consequences. First, the coming to power of bourgeois factions that don’t really follow Washington’s line (Chavez in Venezuela, Lula in Brazil, Morales in Bolivia, Correa in Ecuador, Kritchni in Argentina) who sometimes express very virulent ideological and political opposition to the US, advancing policies in open contradiction with American interests (such as support for Iran by Chavez and Lula). Second, the revival of European powers interested in regaining a direct influence in a region they lost to the US many years ago, and the attempts of the ‘new kid in town’, China, to get a piece of the action for itself.
The US is well aware of these developments, but given its involvement in the international challenges to its hegemony in other global hot-spots, it has not made it a priority to respond to the questioning of its authority in Latin America. Nonetheless the American bourgeoisie has, since the Clinton administration, been developing a more or less coherent policy to defend its prerogatives in its territorial backyard: the “Plan Colombia”. This policy has at its center the build up of an American military presence (under the guise of fighting drug traffickers and terrorists, or ‘narco-terrorists’) in a part of South America where the US bourgeoisie has been loosing too much of its political influence. However, despite the many billions of dollars spent during the years of the Clinton, Bush and now the Obama administration on “Plan Colombia”, not much seems to have been accomplished: the ‘anti-American’ bourgeois factions are still in power in many of the South American nations and countries like China continue to make inroads in the region- not to mention the drug trafficking which is the official target of the operation!
The Obama administration has insisted that one of the priorities of its administration is to recover time lost in Latin America. However, almost two years after his election Obama has not done anything different than his predecessors. Obama’s main tool continues to be “Plan Colombia”, which he tried last year to upgrade by asking Colombia for more flexibility in using its territory and military installations for the policing of South America. Even his campaign promise to resolve the ‘Cuban Question’ and thus tackle the pressing issue of a growing influence of European nations in the island, has been stuck on half-measures and has no chance of moving forward anytime soon given the present domestic political climate dominated by right-wing ideologues.
Obama was elected to the US presidency with the mandate to reverse the loss of US credibility around the world after 8 years of Bush’s war mongering. So far Obama has kept his campaign promise to end the war in Iraq, only to be able to fight at a higher level in Afghanistan and impose a more adequate use of the nations military resources. In any case, the present US administrations ideology of ‘multilateralism’ and ‘human rights’, used to cover its imperialist policies, has been very effective in boosting America’s international credentials. However, where military might has failed, ideology win at the end of the day.
In the absence of a radical working class response to the growing barbarism that decadent capitalism is imposing on humanity, American hegemony will continue to be challenged around the world sinking societies in a cycle of destruction and death as bourgeois gangs fight for capitalisms spoils. The future is communism or the destruction of humanity.
Eduardo Smith, 10/12/10.