Commentary No. 160
"Death by a thousand cuts"
There was an old Chinese torture called Ling chi, a death by a thousand cuts. The cuts are all small, but in the end the person dies. This is what is happening to U.S. dominance of Latin America. The latest small cut, and it is a small cut, has happened in Ecuador. Ecuador is a small country with however several important features: It is an oil producer. It has a very large indigenous population which has historically been excluded from power and is of course economically and socially exploited. It borders Colombia where a civil war has been going on for a very long time now, and in which the United States is heavily implicated in support of the very conservative government. It is also a country in which in the last ten years three presidents have been forced out of office by popular uprisings, each time with at least the tacit support of the armed forces.
In 1997, Abdala Bucaram, who had been elected on a platform of fighting the oligarchy, instead began pushing a severe austerity program, as advised by the Argentine former finance minister, Domingo Cavallo, of the kind the IMF had been pushing (and which Cavallo had previously implemented in Argentina). After a two-day strike by labor unions, students, womens' groups, human rights organizations, and CONAIE, the federation of indigenous nationalities of Ecuador, the Ecuadorian congress dismissed Bucaram, on the grounds of mental instability. The next election brought in another conservative Jaime Mahuad, who proceeded to "dollarize" the economy. So in early 2000, another popular uprising evicted him. This one was led by a combination of indigenous organizations and "populist colonels," whose leader was Lucio Gutierrez, and who was thought by the United States to have links to Chavez in Venezuela (see Commentary No. 33, Feb. 1, 2000).
The forces of order took hold once again. Gutierrez went into exile and the Vice-President, Gustavo Noboa, took over. In the next elections in 2002, however, Gutierrez defeated Noboa with the strong support of the indigenous movements. The election was hailed as a victory for the left. Once in office, nonetheless, Gutierrez changed his stripes. In 2003 he visited Washington and declared himself "the best friend of the United States" in Latin America. Soon, the indigenous movements pulled out of the government and Gutierrez proceeded to offer a new military base to the United States, become an enthusiastic supporter of Plan Colombia (the U.S.-led plan to support the Colombian government against the guerillas and also, the U.S. argued, against narcotraffickers). And Ecuador was in full negotiations over a free trade treaty with the United States. While the oil price rise was aiding the government budget, none of that money reached the vast majority of the population. The drop that made the cup overflow was that Gutierrez changed the Supreme Court so that the new one would pardon Bucaram, who promptly returned to Ecuador, and had his party in parliament support Gutierrez.
So this April, there was another uprising in Ecuador. Gutierrez called the demonstrators forajidos - fugitives. The demonstrators immediately assumed the name with pride, and within days were able to make Gutierrez into the forajido instead. This time, the uprising included not only the usual suspects - the movements of the indigenous populations but also segments of the middle class who were revolted by the corruption of Gutierrez and Bucaram. Once again the army stepped back and Gutierrez has now been succeeded by his vice-president, more to the left, Alfredo Palacio. Since then, there have been confusing indications of the new policy. Palacio appointed a moderately left Catholic, Rafael Correa as finance minister, one of whose first statements was to deplore that 40% of the government's budget went to paying off the debt and only 2% to health and education. While the government has assured the U.S. it will permit its existing base to remain, it is not going to build the additional larger base to which Gutierrez had agreed.
The U.S. has warily recognized the new government after much delay. Castro and Chavez have hailed the change, but some "revolutionary" groups are decrying the fact that it is not doing a lot more. What may we expect now? Probably this time, a great slowdown on anything that smells of neoliberalism. Already the indigenous parties have recovered some parliamentary seats which they had lost because some of the representatives elected on their list had shifted parties to support Gutierrez.
The Ecuadorian uprising fits into a pattern that has been going on now for a decade in Latin America, and especially since George W. Bush came to power. Not so long ago, when a government in Latin America displeased the U.S., the U.S. was usually able to change it - by direct force if necessary, or by using the local military. This was the fate of Guatemala, of the Dominican Republic, of Chile, of Brazil, and many others. The only notable failure in this regard was Cuba, and the U.S. was able to mobilize almost all Latin American countries to cooperate in isolating/blockading/ boycotting Cuba.
In the last five years, on the other hand, many Latin American countries have moved to the left both via the ballot box and via popular demonstrations, but always less than totally left. The list is long: Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Bolivia, Chile, Venezuela. Indeed, the only government in South America which the U.S. government really likes these days is Colombia. Just recently, there was an election of the Secretary-General of the Organization of American States. And for the first time in the history of this organization, the U.S. candidate did not win. The Mexican government recently tried to eliminate from the next presidential competition the candidate of the left party. And it had to back down under popular pressure from within Mexico. Cuba is no longer isolated in Latin America. None of this is being celebrated in Washington.
Now these are all small cuts. None of these states, even Venezuela, have pushed too far. But Brazil did organize the G-20 revolt in the World Trade Organization which has brought that organization to a virtual standstill. And Argentina did defy the world financial community and reduce outstanding debts remarkably. And the Free Trade Association of the Americas (ALCA in Spanish initials) is getting nowhere, although it remains the prime economic objective of the U.S. in Latin America.
Left intellectuals and some left movements are unhappy in each of these countries with all the things the supposedly left governments have not done. But the U.S. is even unhappier with what they have done. The fact is that today the U.S. no longer can be sure that it has control - economic, political, or diplomatic - of its backyard, the Americas. It is dying the death of a thousand cuts - all small ones, but quite deadly, nonetheless.
by Immanuel Wallerstein
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These commentaries, published twice monthly, are intended to be reflections on the contemporary world scene, as seen from the perspective not of the immediate headlines but of the long term.]