Unique chance to change the conversation between U.S. and Latin America

In South America, progressive advances continue, despite the coup in Honduras and electoral defeats in Panama, Costa Rica and Chile.

The situation in Colombia, and between Colombia and its left-wing neighbors, is of critical importance, and should engage the attention and activity of all progressive people in the United States.

Early this month, the right wing president and U.S. ally, Alvaro Uribe, prohibited by the courts from serving another term, had to hand over the presidency to his party ally, Juan Manuel Santos.

Santos, although also a conservative, has suggested that he wants to improve relationships with neighboring countries, especially Venezuela. He and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez met for three hours, diplomatic relations were restored, and now there are several bi-national commissions working to resolve issues in contention.  Further, there have been very cautious suggestions that the new government may be willing to seek a peaceful resolution to its long-running wars with the two left-wing armed guerilla groups, the FARC and the ELN.

Shortly afterward, the Colombian Supreme Court ruled that a treaty whereby the United States military would be allowed to come into Colombia and use 7 military bases was null and void, because it was never ratified by the country’s Congress. The bases are supposed to be used for drug interdiction and “humanitarian” missions but Colombia’s neighbors suspect that they could be aimed at action against the left in and out of power.

Though the U.S. State Department quickly demanded that Colombia ratify the treaty, this is not guaranteed. Nor is it clear that, should this treaty be presented to the U.S. Senate for ratification, it would sail through. Right now the U.S. administration is pushing for Congress to ratify a new Free Trade Agreement with Colombia and is having a hard time of it, partly because of organized labor’s complaints about the Uribe government’s brutal repression of unionists.

The issue of the bases, along with the reconstitution of the U.S. Fourth Fleet in Latin American waters, the conduct of the U.S. government in the coup in Honduras, the sending of U.S. Marines to Costa Rica, and the continuation of the U.S. blockade against Cuba are sore points between the United States and the Latin American left in and out of power, which sees these things as proof positive that the Obama administration is continuing its predecessors’ imperialistic policies.

But can the United States change its attitude toward Latin America?

In a recent column in the Washington Post (August 14), New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, whose mother was Mexican and who knows the Latin America situation, staked out a critical position to the left of that of the Obama White House and the Clinton State Department.

Richardson calls for a “more collaborative” relationship between the United States and its neighbors to the South. Although Richardson’s proposals are hardly revolutionary (and some should be opposed, like immediate ratification of the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement), he is implying that at present, the relationship is less than ideally “collaborative”, an idea that most Latin Americans would certainly agree with. Likewise, his concluding comment “Better hemispheric relations should be a foreign policy priority, not an afterthought,” conveys a similar subtle criticism. This is a major Democratic Party figure hinting that the current Latin America policy needs to be changed and made less confrontational.

I don’t want to sound over-optimistic. As long as international monopoly capital has the power to control and direct the policies of the United States (and other capitalist countries) what we old-fashioned Marxists call the “contradiction” between the rising aspirations of the workers other mass sectors of the poorer countries, and rapacious international capital will continue, whoever is in the White House.

But if the working class and masses in the United States mobilize in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in other countries, we can pressure whoever is in power in Washington D.C. to back off on the most aggressive forms of imperialist interference and control: Wars, coups’ d’etat, economic blackmail and diplomatic bullying.

We can force our government to recognize that the dynamics in Latin America which brought people like Chavez in Venezuela, Lula in Brazil, Correa in Ecuador, Morales in Bolivia etc. into power are not going away, and that organizations like UNASUR and ALBA have to be treated as serious negotiating partners like China, and not like little brown ants at a picnic, to be swept away by a contemptuous brush of a hand. And, we might add, that a socialist Cuba is here to stay.

We can’t wait for Obama, Clinton or even people like Richardson to take a corrective first step. We, ourselves, have to be the protagonists and have to demand it.

Photo: U.S. Colombia meeting in 2007.


Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.