The dictatorships of the 70s and into the 90s made it clear that "free" trade could not be promoted unless new governments were elected.

Without such a change, the "free" in the expression sounded like a bad joke, while the change seemed to be risk-free. The 90s marked the high point of the Washington Consensus and of allegiance thereto, and all economies in Latin America and the Caribbean, with one exception, were aligned with that of the US.

It was not unreasonable to assume that the new governments would comply with expectations, those being that the new presidents would negotiate, sort of, the new agreements, and the new legislatures would approve them, further changing laws and constitutions as needed. Everything would be legal.

Cuba was the only country in the hemisphere that remained outside the scheme. Certainly that was how the US saw it, for the proposal pitched by Bill Clinton in 1994 made explicit that the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) was meant for all countries but Cuba.

Finally! —went the argument— all countries of the area were free of dictatorship except Cuba; the rest would enjoy the benefits of the End of History and of Ideology, under the tutelage of the US, in a century free of coups and dictatorships.

That remained the theory until 1999, when Hugo Chavez was elected.

That result showed that the new elections had given voice to a backlash against neoliberalism and against those who had defended, if not imposed, the dictatorships. Argentina, whose economy had collapsed under the rules of neoliberalism, declined the offer of the FTAA; leftist or socialist presidents were elected in Bolivia, Ecuador, Uruguay, Chile, and Paraguay. The FSLN returned to government in Nicaragua, and the FMLN won in El Salvador.

Even in Mexico, a leftist candidate almost took the presidency in a reaction to the prior conservative and US-aligned government. These governments —in fact, all of the governments in America— demanded an end to the US blockade against Cuba. The vision of an integrated and US-led continental economic bloc, seemingly a certainty in 1994, had evolved into a much different picture.

Alarms went off, and, soon enough, coups came back into favor: first in Venezuela, and then in Bolivia. One succeeded, but only briefly; the other failed. A second round of alarms sounded, for not only did the new elections legitimate the leftist and independent governments throughout the continent, but the time-tested method of coups followed by dictatorships was not working.

Then, unexpectedly, the president of Honduras, a member of one of the two traditional parties, sought to bring change in his country and even joined ALBA.

That was too much. The president was deposed in a military coup, and the traditional order was restored, with the support of the US.

The coup took place during the first administration of Barack Obama. So did a more recent coup, in Paraguay.

Coups are back in fashion, with the difference that they have become more sophisticated than they were in the days of Stroessner, Batista, Banzer, Pinochet, and Videla.

Now, the US keeps a lower profile (Internet makes the former model inconvenient, even without Wikileaks); repression is kept to the level necessary to maintain the traditional order; and new elections are called after a time, even if they are held under conditions that make them invalid.

With that, democracy is declared, and the respective countries can return to the control of their dominant economic sectors, oriented to "free" trade and disposed to permit the installation of US military bases in their territories.

"Free" trade is much more than an agreement to lower tariffs and remove barriers to the exchange of goods.

These days, it is about services also, requiring smaller economies to put up for sale their state holdings in telephone and insurance, the management of ports, and other services. It requires the smaller and underdeveloped countries to enforce patents registered in the developed countries, and to remove limitations on genetically-modified and patented seeds that must be bought from transnational corporations every planting season. It calls for political agreement in international organizations and for cooperation in military affairs.

"Free" trade agreements are preceded by other agreements that immunize the newly-privatized enterprises from subsequent state action against them, and provide for arbitration of disputes in forums favorable to the foreign corporations.

Honduras is next to Nicaragua and El Salvador, and also to Guatemala, where the last president sought to implement change within the objective limits existing in that country. He even apologized to Cuba for Guatemala’s role in the invasion at the Bay of Pigs. After the elections of sorts held in Honduras, that country granted the US two new military bases.

Paraguay is centrally located in South America, next to Bolivia, Uruguay, and Argentina.

Its new de facto government is already calling for rebuilding the armed forces, claiming that Bolivia can "pulverize" the Paraguayan forces. It’s a fine place for granting a military base to the US, which lacks air-force coverage near the Southern Cone.

In fact, soon after the coup, Paraguayan politicians called for negotiating a US base in their country.

These are some of the reasons why, ignoring human and civil rights, and the setbacks to democracy in the region, the US has supported the coups in Honduras and Paraguay.

They are also reasons why the region still insists on maintaining relations with Cuba, and call for an end to the US blockade .

August 31, 2012