Ibero-American Summit: The servants no longer know their place

November 16, 2007

The 17th Ibero-American summit, held in Santiago, Chile, on November 8-10 brought together Latin American nations as well as Spain and Portugal. It was also the scene of a diplomatic incident that gave fresh fodder to the current campaign in the international corporate media aimed at demonising the government of Venezuela's president, Hugo Chavez.

This campaign centred on out-of-context reporting of a tantrum thrown by Spanish King Juan Carlos at the summit, when His Majesty intervened into a verbal dispute between Spanish Prime Minister Jose Zapatero and Chavez — related to Chavez labelling of Zapatero's predecessor Jose Aznar as a "fascist". The king told Chavez, "Why don't you just shut up!", and stormed out not long after.

Adding to the weight of the outburst is that Juan Carlos used the informal Spanish word for "you" — tu — rather than the formal usted. The latter is the appropriate way to address a head of state; the former is a casual mode of addressing a close friend, or, more pertinently, an inferior.

Much of the international media reported it as a "Jerry Springer" moment, with strong undercurrents implying that it was Chavez who had behaved impolitely and was rightly put in his place by the king. This was explicit in the Spanish corporate media, which used the incident of whip up a nationalist anti-Chavez campaign. According to a November 13 Hands Off Venezuela (HOV) statement, Spanish newspaper El Mundo wrote: "The King has put Chavez in his place in the name of all Spaniards", and that his comments were "something that should have been said to [Chavez] a long time ago".

What is missing is the context that explains both what lead to the verbal dispute between Zapatero and Chavez, and what made the outburst so outrageous from a Latin American perspective.

More than anything, this is a case of the servants no longer knowing their place. How dare this dark-skinned upstart of peasant origins have the gall to interrupt a lecture he was receiving from the prime minister of Latin America's former colonial overlord?

This is understandably a sensitive issue for Latin Americans, whose countries since the conquest by Spain 500 years ago were raped and pillaged before successful revolutions ended formal colonial rule. However, the formal winning of independence didn't end the basic system of economic exploitation, whereby Latin American nations are open for plunder by First World corporations. Their economies were geared towards providing raw materials for First World markets, leaving Latin America underdeveloped and poor.

While the US is today the main neocolonial power, Spain's role as former master of the continent has ensured it remains a significant player in maintaining the status quo, with Spanish corporations having significant economic interests to protect.

A key part of the context is the rising new revolutionary movement in Latin America — of which Venezuela, led by the Chavez government, is the most advanced example — that is struggling to overturn this exploitative relationship and win genuine political and economic independence, and the role of the Spanish ruling class in attempting to stop this.

A number of popular governments have won power in Latin American nations on platforms of taking control of natural resources — at the expense of First World corporations — in order to develop local economies and redistribute wealth to end poverty. The HOV statement noted that this was a running theme of the conference, during which Bolivian President Evo Morales defended his government's nationalisation policies (which have affected Spanish gas corporation Repsol among others) and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega complained that the Spanish embassy in his country had campaigned against him in the elections.

The social-democratic Zapatero, however, responded by giving a speech attacking nationalisations, saying it didn't matter if industry was in private or state hands, and that Latin America should stop blaming foreign interference for its woes.

Chavez's speech followed Zapatero's, and he pointed to evidence of how foreign interference has helped ensure that Latin America remained subordinate, pointing to the coup in Chile against the elected left-wing government of Salvadore Allende in 1973, on behalf of Western corporate interests.

It was in this speech that Chavez condemned Aznar, calling him a fascist. The comments also came in the immediate aftermath of fresh calls by Aznar for joint efforts by the US and Spain to counter Chavez's push for "socialism of the 21st Century".

The label "fascist" was motivated by more than the fact that Aznar was for many years a leader of fascist dictator General Francisco Franco's ruling party. Chavez was referring primarily to the evidence that Aznar's government played a key role in helping to organise a 2002 military coup against the elected Chavez government.

The coup was defeated by an uprising of loyal soldiers and the poor majority. Spain and the US were the only two countries to recognise the military dictatorship that lasted only two days as Venezuela's legitimate government.

The following day, Zapatero took Chavez to task for raising this, urging him to show more "respect". Chavez interrupted his speech, asking Zapatero to ensure Aznar respected Venezuela, at which point the king — himself appointed by Franco's fascist regime — intervened. Ortega rushed to Chavez's side to defend him, as did the Cuban representative Carlos Lage. HOV wrote that the king stormed out as Ortega was slamming the role of Spanish corporation Union Fenosa in Latin America.

So there we have the moral standards of imperialist Spain. It is one thing to overthrow an elected government because it serves the poor majority rather than the corporate elite, and back the new junta when it overturn all the pro-poor laws and the constitution, shuts down the state TV to prevent the truth getting out, and, when the poor rise up, sends out police to gun down dozens of them. However, it is another thing altogether for the head of state overthrown by this coup to point this out and call one of its architects by his proper name at an international forum! It simply isn't the done thing to call a coup-plotting fascist a "coup-plotting fascist" — it shows an appalling lack of manners.

Unfortunately for the Spanish ruling class, Latin America is no longer servile — it is rising up. Revolutions don't ask permission from their oppressors to carry out change, nor is it surprising that a revolutionary leader is not inclined to sit quietly and take a patronising lecture about "respect" from a representative of a country that has itself shown none.

In the aftermath of the spat, Chavez expressed hope for mutually respectful relations between Venezuela and Spain — but warned that Spanish investments in Venezuela could be at risk if Spain was unwilling to respect Venezuelan sovereignty.

Speaking to media when he first arrived in Chile for the summit, Chavez had explained: "Latin America is waking up and no one can stop it … There is an awakening of millions of people, indigenous, women, campesinos, and this is the most important thing because individually we do not make history, rather it is the people that make history."

This is what His Majesty, and the corporate media, is really upset about. Chavez stands at the head of millions Latin America's oppressed. There is little evidence they have any intention of "shutting up".

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