By Roger D. Harris
December 30, 2021
US policy towards Latin America and the Caribbean continued in a seamless transition from Trump to Biden, but the terrain over which it operated shifted left. The balance between the US drive to dominate its “backyard” and its counterpart, the Bolivarian cause of regional independence and integration, continued to tip portside in 2021 with major popular electoral victories in Chile, Honduras, and Peru. These follow the previous year’s reversal of the coup in Bolivia.
Central has been the struggle of the ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of our America) countries – particularly Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua – against the asphyxiating US blockade and other regime-change measures. Presidential candidate Biden pledged to review Trump’s policy of US sanctions against a third of humanity. The presumptive intention of the review was to ameliorate the human suffering caused by these unilateral coercive measures, considered illegal under international law. Following the review, Biden has instead tightened the screws, more effectively weaponizing the COVID crisis.
The unrelenting US regime-change campaign against Venezuela has had a corrosive effect on Venezuela’s attempt to build socialism. With the economy de facto dollarized, among those hardest hit are government workers, the informal sector, and those without access to dollar remittances from abroad.
Nonetheless, Venezuela’s resistance to the continued US “maximum pressure” hybrid warfare is a triumph in itself. Recent economic indicators have shown an upturn with significant growth in national food and oil production and an end to hyperinflation. Further, the government has built 3.7 million housing units, distributed food to 7 million through the CLAP program, and adroitly handled the COVID pandemic.
When Trump recognized Juan Guaidó as president of Venezuela in 2019, the then 35-year-old US security asset had never run for a nationwide office and was unknown to over 80% of the Venezuelans. Back then some 50 of the US’s closest allies recognized Guaidó; now barely a dozen does so. Contrary to campaign trail inuendoes that Biden would enter into dialogue with the democratically elected president of Venezuela, Nicolás Maduro, Biden has continued the embarrassing Guaidó charade.
The November 21 municipal and regional elections were a double triumph for Venezuela’s Bolivarian Revolution: the ruling Socialist Party (PSUV) won significantly while the extreme right opposition (including Guaidó’s party) was compelled to participate, implicitly recognizing the Maduro government.
Venezuelan special envoy Alex Saab was extradited – really kidnapped – to the US on October 16 on the vague and difficult to disprove charge of “conspiracy” to money launder. Swiss authorities, after an exhaustive 3-year investigation, had found no evidence of money laundering. Saab’s real “crime” was trying to bring humanitarian aid to Venezuela via legal international trade but circumventing the illegal US blockade. This egregious example of US extra-territorial judicial overreach is being contested by Saab’s legal defense because, as a diplomat, he has absolute immunity from arrest under the Vienna Convention. His case has become a major cause in Venezuela and internationally.
Meanwhile, Colombia, chief regional US client state, the biggest recipient of US military aid in the hemisphere, and the largest world source of cocaine, is a staging point for paramilitary attacks on Venezuela. President Iván Duque continues to disregard the 2016 peace agreement with the guerrilla FARC as Colombia endures a pandemic of rightwing violence especially against human rights defenders and former guerillas.
On April 28, Duque’s proposed neoliberal tax bill precipitated a national strike mobilizing a broad coalition of unions, members of indigenous and Afro-descendent communities, social activists, and campesinos. They carried out sustained actions across the country for nearly two months, followed by a renewed national strike wave, starting on August 26. The approaching 2022 presidential election could portend a sea change for the popular movement where leftist Senator Gustavo Petro is leading in the polls.
In Ecuador, Andrés Arauz won the first-round presidential election on February 7 with a 13-point lead over Guillermo Lasso, but short of the 40% or more needed to avoid the April 13 runoff, which he lost. A victim of a massive disinformation campaign, Arauz was a successor of former President Rafael Correa’s leftist Citizen Revolution, which still holds the largest bloc in the National Assembly. The “NGO left,” funded by the US and its European allies, contributed to the electoral reversal. Elements of the indigenous Pachakutik party have allied with the new president, a wealthy banker, to implement a neo-liberal agenda.
In Peru, Pedro Castillo, a rural school teacher and a Marxist, won the presidency in a June 6 runoff against hard-right Keiko Fujimori, daughter of now imprisoned and former president Alberto Fujimori. Castillo won by the slimmest of margins and now faces rightwing lawfare and the possibility of a coup. Just a few weeks into his presidency, he was forced to replace his leftist foreign Minister, Hector Béjar, with someone more favorable to the rightwing opposition and the military.
In Bolivia, a US-backed coup deposed leftist President Evo Morales in 2019 and temporarily installed a rightist. Evo’s Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) party successor, Luis Arce, took back the presidency last year in a landslide election. With the rightwing still threatening, a massive weeklong March for the Homeland of Bolivian workers, campesinos, and indigenous rallied in support of the government in late November.
Brazil has the world’s eighth largest economy world and the largest in Latin America. Rightwing President Jair Bolsonaro has been dismantling social welfare measures, rewarding multinational corporations, and presiding over wholesale illegal mining and deforestation, while the popular sectors protest. Former left leaning President Lula da Silva is strongly favored to win in the October 2, 2022 elections. He was also favored to win in the 2018 presidential election against Bolsonaro but was imprisoned on trumped up charges, preventing him from running.
In Chile, Gabriel Boric won the second round of the Chilean presidential election by a landslide on December 19 against far-right José Antonio Kast, the son of a German Nazi Party member. The 35-year-old Boric was a leader in the huge protests in 2019 and 2020 against corrupt President Sebastian Piñera, who is the richest person in the country. The slogan of the protests was: “If Chile was the birthplace of neoliberalism, then it will also be its graveyard!”
Although the victory is a repudiation of the Pinochet legacy, Boric has also been somewhat critical of Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba. Boric’s libertarian socialist Frente Amplio party rode to victory with major support from the Chilean Communist Party along with center-left forces. Earlier in the year, in a plebiscite to forge a united popular campaign, Communist Daniel Jadue lost to Boric. A Constituent Assembly, where the left won the majority of the delegates in a May election, is currently rewriting the Pinochet-era constitution.
In Argentina, the center-right Together for Change coalition decisively swept the November 13 midterm elections, rebuking the Peronists who have been unable to effectively address high unemployment and inflation. In 2019, the center-left Peronist Alberto Fernández succeeded rightwing President Mauricio Macri, whose record breaking $50.1 billion IMF loan saddled the people with austerity measures. Prospects are now dim for restructuring of the debt or suspending payments with an opposition majority more intent on discrediting Fernández than addressing the issues.
Candidate Biden had signaled a return to the Obama-Biden easing of restrictions on Cuba. But once in office, Biden intensified the US hybrid war against Cuba. Discontent with critically deteriorating economic conditions erupted in popular demonstrations on July 11, fanned by the US-funded opposition. A repeat effort at a regime-change demonstrations, largely orchestrated by Washington, fizzled on November 15. Biden continues the same illegal policy of regime change against Cuba as that of the previous twelve US presidents: covert and overt destabilization, blockade, and occupation of Guantánamo.
Despite an economy severely impacted by the pandemic and the tightening of US blockade, Cuba has produced three COVID vaccines with two more in development. More than 90% percent of Cubans are vaccinated, surpassing the US.
In Haiti, a 7.2 magnitude earthquake hit on August 14. Another upheaval has been the nearly continuous popular revolt against US-installed presidents. President Jovenal Moïse, who had ruled by decree after cancelling elections, was assassinated on July 7 in an apparent intra-ruling class squabble. Claude Joseph was installed as interim president for a few days and then replaced by Ariel Henry, with elections still postponed.
Biden deported thousands of emigres back to Haiti. This represented “a disappointing step backward from the Biden administration’s earlier commitments to fully break from the harmful deportation policies of both the Trump and Obama presidencies,” according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Central America and Mexico
In El Salvador, President Nayib Bukele, formerly associated with the left FMLN party, continued his regression to the right. In response, the Popular Resistance Bloc and other civil society groups staged large protests on September 15 and October 17.
In Honduras, Xiomara Castro, wife of the former President Zelaya, was swept into the presidency by a landslide popular vote on November 28. The slogan of the now triumphant resistance front was: “They fear us because we have no fear.”
In the twelve years since the US-backed coup overthrew the democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya, the country had devolved into a state where the former president, Juan Orlando Hernández, was an unindicted drug smuggler, the intellectual authors who ordered the assassination of indigenous environmental leader Berta Cáceres ran free, Afro-descendent people and women were murdered with impunity, gang violence was widespread, and state protection from the pandemic was grossly deficient.
In neighboring Nicaragua, the US called the November 7 presidential election an undemocratic fraud nearly a year in advance as part of a larger regime-change campaign against left-leaning governments. The US claimed that “pre-candidates” were barred from running. However, these individuals had been arrested for illegal activities and were not credible candidates.
In fact, the US has never supported democracy in Nicaragua. US Marines occupied Nicaragua from 1912 to 1934, only leaving after installing the autocratic Somoza dynasty to do their bidding. When the Sandinistas ousted the dictatorship in 1979, the US launched the Contra War. After fomenting an unsuccessful coup in 2018, the US NICA Act then imposed sanctions. This was followed in 2020 by the RAIN plan, a multi-faceted coup strategy.
Disregarding Washington’s call to boycott, a respectable 65% of the Nicaraguan electorate went to the polls and 76% of the voters re-elected Sandinista President Daniel Ortega. The Sandinista’s landslide victory was a testament to their success in serving Nicaragua’s poor and a repudiation of the 2018 coup attempt. Immediately after the election, the US RENACER Act imposed new illegal sanctions.
In Mexico, the June 6 midterm elections pitted the ruling MORENA coalition against the traditional parties (PAN, PRI, PRD), chambers of commerce, and the US embassy. NGOs funded by USAID and NED supported the opposition, whose talking points were echoed by the Economist and the Nation. While MORENA retained is majority in Congress and two-thirds of the governors in the midterms, they suffered setbacks in Mexico City, their traditional stronghold.
Mexico is a critically important state as the second largest economy in Latin America, the eleventh in the world, and the US’s top trade partner. After decades of rightwing rule, left-of-center Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) and his new MORENA party have been in office for three years. Early on, AMOL earned the enmity of the US, when he proclaimed: “The global economic crisis has revealed the failure of the neoliberal model…The State should assume responsibility to lead development without foreign interference” (meaning the US).
AMLO has predictably experienced pushback from traditional elites in Mexico and from the US, particularly in his attempts to reverse the privatization of the energy sector. The Zapatistas and some leftists oppose AMLO and his national development projects, especially the Mayan train. They accuse the government of supporting violence against indigenous communities in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas.
Prospects for the New Year
Independence from the hegemon to the north, regional integration, and international cooperative relations are on the agenda for the new year.
China is now the second largest investor in Latin America and the Caribbean, which “reduce[s] US dominance” according to the US Congressional Research Service. Economic cooperation with China and to a lesser extent with Russia and Iran have been a lifeline for countries like Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua under regime-change siege by the US. In late December, Nicaragua broke relations with Taiwan and normalized them with the People’s Republic of China. The new government in Honduras has indicated they may soon follow suit. China intends to invest over $250 billion in the region, providing an alternative to dependence on Yankee capital for national development “south of the border.” If the inter-ocean canal project with Chinese backing in Nicaragua were resuscitated, it would be a geopolitical game-changer.
The anti-Venezuela “Lima Group,” a US-Canada initiative, is now moribund with defections of key countries. Likewise, the Washington-based Organization of American States (OAS) is an increasingly discredited tool of US imperialism as evidenced by its complicity in the Bolivian coup. Cuba and Venezuela are not members of the OAS, and Nicaragua recently announced its withdrawal.
The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) includes all the hemisphere except the US and Canada. CELAC is being revived as an independent regional alternative by Mexican President López Obrador and others.
2022 promises continued left advances with favorable prospects for the Colombian and Brazilian presidential elections in May and October respectively. Overall, the pink tide is again rising with some 14 countries on the left side of the ledger and the revolt against neoliberalism intensifying from Haiti to Paraguay.
-Roger D. Harris is with the Task Force on the Americas, a human rights organization founded in 1985.