A few weeks ago US presidential hopeful Barack Obama travelled to Miami to speak to the Cuban American Foundation, a right wing organisation much loved by George Bush.
Obama promised to maintain the 50 year old embargo on Cuba. He also used the speech to let the world know that he was not going to go soft on Latin America.
He delighted his audience by calling Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez a “demagogue” and supporting the Merida Initative, a plan launched last year by Bush to fund Central America’s police and military in a “new war on drugs”.
It is all too familiar. When former US president Bill Clinton signed the Plan Colombia agreement in 2000, it delivered billions of dollars of financial and military assistance to help Colombia’s “war on drugs”.
That became a “war on terror” after 9/11 and today has reverted to its original title. But in reality it is the same continuous policy. Then as now, Colombia is the launching pad for US strategy in Latin America.
A highly militarised state, it borders on Venezuela, Ecuador, Central America and Brazil and overlooks the Caribbean. Its president, Alvaro Uribe, has long worked hand in glove with the drug barons and has been complicit in the systematic murder and repression of political opponents, peasant leaders and trade unionists.
Obama, like others across the spectrum of US politics, has complained that the war on Iraq has not only consumed resources, but has also distracted the US from its own backyard.
Over the last ten years, new governments have come to power across Latin America with mass support and at least a language of change and reform.
Despite the constant demonising of Chavez, the reality is that his arguments for Latin American integration and unity have found allies across the political spectrum.
Late last year, a majority of Latin American states voted against the creation of a Latin American Free Trade Area which would have locked the region into the global arrangements proposed by Bush.
The US right began to shout that the US had “lost Latin America”. Their strategy for getting it back would soon become clear.
Very broadly, Latin America is divided. On the one hand, the governments of Michelle Bachelet in Chile, Cristina Kirchner in Argentina and President Lula in Brazil work within the global system as it is, combining social reform with neoliberal economic policies.
On the other hand, Chavez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador have argued for a more radical vision – seeking alliances and trade relations with China and the Middle East and breaking the dependence on the US.
In Ecuador, Correa has already announced the closure of the US military base at Manta when its lease runs out.
US tactics are reasonably clear. Brazil, the most powerful member of the “reformist” bloc, is happy to work with the US. The presence of Brazilian troops in Haiti supporting a US-backed state against a mass protest movement is hugely symbolic.
Much more significant is Lula’s close relationship with Brazilian commercial agricultural interests, particularly in the development of bioethanol as an alternative fuel. This has brought him into direct confrontation with the MST – the landless workers’ movement that enthusiastically supported his presidential campaign six years ago.
Lula, the radical workers’ leader of yesterday, is today forging a powerful capitalist state that works closely with multinational capital to win dominance in the region.
On the other hand, Bolivia, Venezuela and Ecuador are under a permanent and increasing assault veiled as the “war on drugs”. In Bolivia, the US government has been actively supporting the so-called Half Moon, the group of wealthy provinces claiming autonomy from central government.
This is not, of course, about regional government – but about winning control over Bolivia’s gas and oil, nationalised under Morales and the key to his government’s social programme. Today, and for the last two years, Morales has been effectively paralysed.
Three months ago, Colombian troops crossed the border with Ecuador and attacked a camp of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc), murdering their second in command in his tent.
It was a serious blow for an organisation that has been fighting successive governments since the 1950s, especially when its historic leader, Tirofijo (meaning “Sureshot”), died a few weeks later.
The current campaign against the Farc – the claim that they are “narcoterrorists” for example – goes beyond Colombia.
Uribe claims that the Farc has been financed by Venezuela. Clearly this is a justification for crossing frontiers and attacking the enemies of empire.
The new “war on drugs” in Central America is obviously part of a strategy that attempts to isolate Venezuela and its radical allies.
One of the issues behind all this, as ever, is oil. Venezuela’s actual and potential oil reserves give it real power in the world economy, especially when it develops joint strategies with Bolivia and Ecuador, also important oil-producing countries.
The US-led attempt to isolate Venezuela, attack Ecuador and dismember Bolivia are objectives which Barack Obama obviously shares. Oil talks!
Mike Gonzalez will be speaking on Latin America and revolutionary strategy at Marxism 2008. For more information go to » www.marxismfestival.org.uk