Shortly before leaving to inspect what was once viewed as the US's backyard, US President George Bush told a March 5 event organised by the US Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, "I want to talk about [an] important priority for our country, and that is helping our neighbours to the south of us build a better and productive life". Explaining that he was embarking on a trip to Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico, Bush said: "These are countries that are part of a region that has made great strides toward freedom and prosperity. They've raised up new democracies, They've enhanced and undertaken fiscal policies that bring stability.
"Yet, despite the advance, tens of millions in our hemisphere remain stuck in poverty, and shut off from the promises of the new century. My message to those trabajadores y campesinos [workers and peasants] is, you have a friend in the United States of America. We care about your plight."
Those present responded with a round of applause. Yet unsurprisingly, the reaction to Bush south of the border left no-one in Washington doubting that the neighbours are revolting.
In Brazil, Bush proposed that President Luis Inacio "Lula" da Silva join forces to create a new ethanol alliance, given that the two countries produce 70% of the planet's supply between them. However Lula's request for a reduction in tariffs on ethanol and agricultural products going into the US was rebuffed.
Lula responded by declaring, "We want to maintain this historic relation without us renouncing our greater commitment, which is this whole process of the strengthening of Mercosur [the Common Market of the South], the construction of the Community of South American Nations and the process of integration that we are engaged in."
Meanwhile, tens of thousands took to the streets of Sao Paulo to say "Bush, get out!"
In Uruguay, not wanting to spoil his photo opportunities, Bush met with Uruguayan President Tabare Vasquez in a tiny tourist resort, well away from the massive demonstrations in the capital that denounced the presence of a "killer" and "war criminal".
While the Frente Amplio government is generally referred to as part of the rise of leftist governments in the region, a demobilised population, along with a rightward shift internally within the FA and conflicts with Argentina over the proposed construction of a paper mill on their shared border seem to be pushing Uruguay into the orbit of the US. Yet Bush didn't leave with much apart from some nice photos of his barbeque in Colonia.
Even in Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico, where the host governments are more firmly in the pocket of the US, Bush did not get the desired response. Focussing his intervention on defending the wall of shame being built to keep out Mexicans and others who want to cross the border to the US, and the forced deportation of more than 18,000 immigrants last year (780,000 Guatemalans are currently living and working without proper documentation in the US), Bush managed to put the locals offside — so much so that the after visiting a Mayan temple, the indigenous people carried out a cleansing ritual to warn off evil spirits.
This chain of events led Eduardo Dimas to write in Progreso Weekly, "Whenever the United States experiences a failure in its policy toward Latin America — and recently it has suffered plenty — experts, analysts and observers immediately begin to make statements to the effect that the problem is that the US government does not have a defined, 'delineated' policy toward the region."
Yet according to Dimas, this view is wrong: "There is a policy toward Latin America, but it is an absolutely absurd one, overtaken long ago by events and time. Except for a few moments in history, the region … was the 'safe backyard' where US administrations could do and undo at will.
"The scheme of domination for the past 60 years — and even before — and the links of dependency between the Latin American oligarchies and the Empire have been overtaken by the reality they themselves created and perhaps do not understand.
"The truth is that many changes have occurred in Latin America in recent times, to the degree that the economic and social situation has awakened people, made them understand what their interests are, and — in some countries more, in some, less — that awakening has led to new nationalist or progressive, or openly leftist and socialist governments."
New plan of action
This new situation was symbolised by the visit by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to Argentina — on the other side of the river to Colonia — the same day that Bush was in Uruguay. Addressing a mass rally at the Ferro Stadium, Chavez asked which direction the border was and, along with 40,000 others, turned to face it and shout "Gringo, go home!"
Luis Bilbao wrote in America XXI that the rejection of Bush's tour "was not only manifested in the generalised rejection by the people", which he said would multiply if Washington decided to attack Iran. "Now, the anti-imperialist clamor has a program and plan of action: the program of the Bolivarian revolution and the project of South American unity, which take form through the voice of the Venezuelan president."
Writing about this new situation for the Canadian Socialist Voice, John Riddell commented that "Mass movements marked by a clear class polarization have given rise to governments that preside over a capitalist state and take measures for structural reform within capitalism. Such governments vary enormously in character. Some are prone to cave in to the pressures of imperialism and local pro-imperialist sectors. To some degree, and in some countries, there has been a shift in the locus of action from the streets to government.
"But the development as a whole is not a step backward. Rather, the counterattack against neoliberalism is profoundly progressive … Above all, Latin American countries are asserting and realizing their sovereignty against foreign domination. The Empire has been forced into retreat. Improved conditions are being won for national economic development. Even if this process does not go beyond capitalism, it creates better conditions of life and struggle for working people and deserves wholehearted support by socialists everywhere."
Today in Latin America, the unfolding rebellion is taking the form of a movement towards continental unity, which Bush's tour was aimed at countering. While the struggle may not be one for socialism in the first instance, the Venezuelan revolution, which has explicitly made socialism its goal, shows how these rebellions against imperialism and its local quislings can develop into open confrontation with the capitalist system. As they do, those leading the struggles are forced to decide which side of the class divide they are on.
Projects such as the Bank of the South, Petrosur, the strengthening of Mercosur and its incorporation of new member countries, while far from socialist, shift the balance of forces in favour of the oppressed nations against imperialism. They can help create the conditions for the popular movements to strengthen their anti-imperialist consciousness and pursue more audacious objectives.
That is why, as Alberto Muller Rojas, who from retirement was reinstated by Chavez as an active general in the Venezuelan army and is now also on the committee to help set up Venezuela's new unified socialist party, wrote on March 3: "The objective of the Yankees is to hold back the process of South American integration, whose final result depends on the alliance between Argentina and Brazil. That is what presents a threat to the empire.
"The hostility of the neoconservatives to the Caracas regime is only an indirect maneuver to impede the political unification of the subcontinent, made effective by the catalysing role that [the Venezuelan] government plays, which has allowed the acceleration of this dynamic ... [This] offers the possibility of converting the region, at least as it is known today, into a grand autonomous participant in the international system."
Venezuela is showing today — as Cuba has for the past six decades — that only socialism can present a real future for this movement. Each step forward in this direction deserves our support and solidarity.