US fears over centre-left regimes

Joe Biden

US President Joe Biden.

Photo credit: AFP

In South America, the promise of development through neoliberal policies, capitalism and globalisation has led to the return of extreme poverty, high levels of wealth disparity and massive environmental degradation, particularly of ecologically sensitive wetlands and tropical rainforests, including the Amazon.

This region once inspired developing countries into seeking political independence from imperial and colonial Europe and remains relevant to Africa. Haiti, for instance, was the first black-majority country to throw off the shackles of colonialism by expelling slave-owning Europeans and declaring independence. That was in 1804.

And in Cuba, Fidel Castro played an outsized role in funding, arming and training African forces in their struggle for independence. The tiny Caribbean island continues to shape our development through ideology, diplomacy, technical exchanges and development assistance.

This is home to Brazil and Mexico—economic powerhouses that the UN ranks 10th- and 16th, respectively, and among the most populous. There is also Argentina, Colombia, Chile and Venezuela. Unlike Africa, nearly all of them, independent for about 200 years, have adequately experimented with several forms of government and political and economic systems. They have endured dictators, military juntas, puppet regimes and populists and enjoyed nationalists and visionary leaders.

The US has prominent footprints here—preaching and selling capitalism and neoliberalism, particularly privatisation and deregulation. It has spent billions of dollars propping up regimes in attempts to curtail the spread of socialism. Neoliberal policies that grant multinationals greater powers, particularly in the extractive sector, has contributed to the erosion of personal liberties and values, stealing of land from natives and turned otherwise well-endowed countries into hopeless, violence-ridden narco-states.

Indeed, many countries in the region have been penetrated, and overrun, by the power and wealth of the illegal drug trade. Colombia, the region’s fourth largest economy and leading US ally, is a top producer and supplier of raw coca, cocaine and heroin—illegal drugs that have destroyed millions of lives, including in the US.

Institutional breakdown, collapse of law and order and narcotics-related violence have laid to waste countless communities. Millions have been killed and more displaced. Unemployment and poverty rates are rising even in countries with ample natural resources like Colombia, Chile and Venezuela. The war on drugs has only filled prisons with millions of poor people. This region demonstrates limitations and failures of capitalism, globalisation and unwarranted foreign intervention.

However, there was reprieve in the 2000s, when social democratic regimes came to power across the region, in what is known as the “pink tide”. Poor and marginalised ‘hustlers’ sought to get their voices heard by electing individuals that articulated their views and shared their struggles. They rejected elitists and capitalists, often pro-business allies of the US, and replaced them with people-centric leaders, some of whom manifested clear nationalistic tendencies.

Beginning with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez in 1999, leftist leaders that came to power included Nestor and Cristina Kirchner (Argentina), Evo Morales (Bolivia), Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff (Brazil), Ricardo Lagos and Michelle Bachelet (Chile), Rafael Correa (Ecuador), Mauricio Funes and Salvador Ceren (El Salvador), Alvaro Colom (Guatemala), Manuel Zelaya (Honduras) and Daniel Ortega (Nicaragua).

These leaders imbued the region with a renewed sense of purpose, pride and self-awareness. They rediscovered and embraced kinship and oneness. For instance, after nationalising gas and oil, Chavez used petrodollars to free Venezuela and half a dozen others from aid-dependency and poverty-reinforcing debt-traps.

Successful Brazilian pro-poor policies under Lula were often praised by the UN and other bodies. Job opportunities, productivity, innovation and trade surged even growth in real wages brought about improvements in the standards of living. South-South cooperation reached new levels. One needs to research each of these socialists to appreciate their performance.

Soon, the region came under sustained targeted attacks, smear campaigns and propaganda. Trade sanctions were imposed on Venezuela after attempts for regime change failed. Chavez’s pink tide allies in the region were forcibly removed, imprisoned or exiled. But despite this setback, the pendulum has once again swung decisively in favour of leftist regimes.

In the past two years, leftist, pro-people candidates keen on reining in corporate greed have won nearly all polls in South America. In Colombia, Gustavo Petro was recently elected the first ever leftist president with Francia Elena Márquez Mina the first female black vice-president.  In a stunning defeat to his detractors, Lula da Silva is expected to win the October elections.

This and other events have once again set off the alarm bells in Washington.

Mr Chesoli is a New York-based development economist and global policy expert. [email protected].