democraciaAbierta: Opinion

Latin America 20 years after 9/11: a missed opportunity

With the US distracted, leaders had a chance to build a just society. They failed, but the task has never been more urgent

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Francesc Badia i Dalmases
10 September 2021, 12.00am
Security forces fire a tear gas canon during anti-government protests in Bogota, Colombia, July 28, 2021.
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Reuters/Nathalia Angarita

The world had been changing before 11 September 2001, but the moment that planes brought down the towers in lower Manhattan, history began to accelerate in the wrong direction. An image of the fall of the American empire was fixed, sharply, in the retina of humanity.

Morning newscasts throughout Latin America could not believe what the gringo networks were broadcasting live, while the region’s population, half way between stupor and schadenfreude, realised that their northern neighbour was vulnerable.

Geopolitics were now, definitively, being moved by other forces. Latin America had gone from being the backyard of the Cold War to China’s bottomless pit – the pasture for the limitless extractivism brought about by globalisation.

While Washington and the Pentagon were engaged in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, Brazil emerged as a global power, and the robust diplomacy of President Lula da Silva came to promote alternative alliances, such as the BRICS. Together, Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa presented an alternative to the G7. Although the alliance was not solid, given the deep differences between the participants, the BRICS did manage to show that there was life beyond North American and European hegemony, and that other geopolitical spaces, including that of the Global South, were real.

The war on drugs

The US-led War on Terror sidelined an earlier bloody, useless war that it had unleashed, albeit one that is still being waged in Latin America: the war on drugs. Following the same logic of militarising a struggle that should have been a matter of targeted policing, US governments heavily armed Latin American security forces and trained them in the use of excessive violence. This is now often used against civilian populations, but is not at all effective against criminal gangs and drug trafficking. In Colombia, for example – the country that, along with Mexico, is the epicentre of this war – the police are run by the Ministry of Defence rather than the Ministry of the Interior.

By flooding Latin America with weapons and dollars, the war on drugs became a business that led to the perpetuation of anachronistic guerrilla struggles. Born during the Cold War, these groups lost their revolutionary ideals, but the war on drugs allowed them to transform themselves into bloodthirsty mafias, involved to the core in extortion and drug trafficking.

The militarisation of civilian security forces brought with it the violent repression of social protests, recurrent in a continent where inequality is enormous and each economic crisis ends up pushing an incipient middle class back into poverty.

While the US devoted all its strength to perpetuating its order in the Middle East, China took advantage of the power vacuum in Latin America to consolidate its economic penetration of the continent, which is discreet but deep. The rise in demand for the raw materials in which the continent is so rich pushed up the price of minerals, hydrocarbons, timber and soya, and boosted exports of meat and fish.

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Pink tide

Latin America then broke economically with the prevailing Washington Consensus, experiencing the so-called pink tide of left-wing politicians winning elections. But the ‘neo-developmentalist’ governments of Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Brazil, Peru, and Ecuador did not take advantage of the bonanza. Instead of redistributing wealth through taxation and consolidating democratic institutions and universal social services, it was easier for them to distribute income from extractivism in the form of aid and subsidies. It was a matter of not making the banks and big businessmen uncomfortable, so that their interests would not be endangered by the implementation of a truly progressive and redistributive agenda, which never reached the region.

Nor did the Latin American left-wing governments bother a Washington administration that went from the War on Terror to a ‘pivot to Asia’ under Obama, followed by Trump’s erratic isolationism. The US practically abandoned Latin America to its fate. The latter, however, wasted its moment with timid social policies financed almost exclusively by commodity rents and not by taxes.

These policies proved to be unsustainable over time, causing governments to fall as soon as a new economic crisis arrived. The pink tide receded, the Right returned, and nothing substantial had changed.

Venezuela

A separate case was Venezuela, which, confident in its enormous oil revenues, embarked with Hugo Chávez on a revolution of Cuban inspiration and romantic emotion that dazzled more than one armchair leftist. The US reaction was as counterproductive as ever. By giving in to the provocations of the anti-imperialist rhetoric of the chavistas, applying an obsolete sanctions policy and trying to encircle the country to suffocate it, it only managed to entrench the problem and contribute to the economic and humanitarian catastrophe that Nicolás Maduro is now managing.

China has incorporated Venezuela as a supplier to meet its growing demand for oil and has injected oxygen in the form of huge loans that it patiently hopes to collect one day. Russia, for its part, has seen in Chavismo, the ideology based on Chávez’s ideas and policies, another opportunity for its strategy of destabilising the West, no matter what or where.

Perhaps a new round of talks between Venezuela’s government and the opposition, hosted in Mexico and facilitated once again by Norwegian diplomats – but this time with the Biden administration’s approval – can alleviate the humanitarian and political disaster that has befallen what was once the richest country on the continent. To do so, Venezuela, a failed petro-state turned narco-state, will have to overcome its Cubanisation, its ‘resist and conquer’ narrative. That will be difficult.

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Mexico and Central America

During the last 20 years, Central America has made some progress, especially in consolidating the rule of law after decades of civil wars and massive and egregious human rights violations. Yet it has also failed to tackle systemic corruption, build inclusive societies, or reduce the structural poverty and criminal violence that pushes persistent waves of migrants northwards. In recent years, there has been a clear democratic regression, with authoritarian temptations everywhere, from Daniel Ortega’s Nicaragua to Nayib Bukele’s El Salvador.

Mexico, meanwhile, has consolidated its role as a hyper-dependent appendage of the US and has failed to exercise its sovereignty to contain the same old problems: corruption, impunity, inequality, migration pressures and extreme violence.

The great distraction

The great distraction that 9/11 caused the US was an opportunity for Latin America to free itself from the tutelage of its big brother to the north.

The US found a new, post-Cold War enemy in Islamist terrorism, but ended up chasing a ghost. If, 20 years on, it wakes up from its imperial dream, it will find that it is a weaker country on all fronts, having abandoned the banner of democracy, freedom, and progress that it raised after its victory in the Second World War. This may have given it a certain moral superiority over China or Russia in the post-war era, but it left a free hand for warmongering and savage capitalism with authoritarian tendencies, which had its nadir in the grotesque Donald Trump.

Latin America has an arduous road ahead. Today it is divided and confused, dominated by internal battles between old oligarchies and power groups that are reluctant to modernise (to renounce corruption and pay taxes) despite growing social pressure. This will not be solved by the violent repression of protests, but by constructive proposals.

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The battle against the climate emergency

Perhaps now the great existential battle of the 21st century will be launched. Today we are facing the last opportunity to confront a real global crisis: the climate emergency.

The American continent, a gigantic reserve of natural resources, fresh water and biodiversity, must urgently abandon the destructive new extractivism on which it has embarked, and which Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s president, catastrophically embodies with his unscrupulous aggression against the Amazon. But it is not only Bolsonaro. It is all the other countries, from Argentina to Colombia, that turn a blind eye while fattening the pockets of the usual suspects: the heirs of colonisation.

It is time to recognise that the absurd American overreaction to 9/11 – cruel, spectacular and humiliating though it was – meant a decades-long setback in the history of humanity.

Twenty years later, a great continental pact is needed so that Latin America ceases to be the bottomless pit for China that it is today, and becomes the natural, free, and democratic society that guarantees the future of younger generations, who have the right to happiness on this beautiful land.

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