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2005-04-29

Latin America in Revolt: Rice on Four-Country Tour As Leftist Victories Sweep Region

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As Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice embarks on a five-day tour of Latin America, we take a look at recent developments in the region with several countries increasingly moving towards to left of the political spectrum. [includes rush transcript]

On Tuesday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice began a five-day tour of Latin America. By the end of her trip, she will have visited Brazil, Columbia, Chile and El Salvador. Rice has billed her tour as an effort to "bolster democracy and alleviate poverty."

  • Condoleezza Rice, speaking in Brazil, April 27, 2005.

But the Bush administration is worried about several countries in Latin America moving increasingly towards the left. In recent weeks, popular protests in Ecuador forced out that country’s president–Lucio Gutierrez. Gutierrez took office in January 2003 as a populist, anti-corruption reformer but soon angered many Ecuadorians by adopting economic austerity measures drawn up by the International Monetary Fund. Gutierrez is the latest on a long list of neo-liberal Latin American politicians thrown out of office- in elections, or by popular revolt.

In the last five years, uprisings have overthrown governments in Ecuador, Peru, Argentina and Bolivia. In Brazil, Chile and Venezuela governments have been elected on anti-neo-liberal platforms. In Uruguay, leftist president Tabare Vazquez was recently elected. And much to the dismay of the Bush administration, one of his first moves after being sworn into office was to restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba. Left-wing forces are considered to have a serious chance in upcoming presidential elections in Mexico, Nicaragua and Peru. And yesterday in Columbia, Rice defended the U.S’s more than 3 billion dollars in military assistance to aid that country’s efforts to counter cocaine production and stop the left-wing insurgency.

But first we begin by taking a look at a country that Condeleezza Rice is not visiting–and that is Venezuela. Relations have been bitter between the two countries since the U.S tacitly supported the 2002 coup that briefly ousted Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez. And in recent weeks there has been rising tensions. Last Sunday, Chavez ended a 35-year military cooperation agreement with the U.S and ordered out four American military instructors that he accused of fomenting unrest inside the country. And the New York Times has reported that the Bush administration is considering funneling more money to foundations, business and political groups opposed to Chavez’s government.

  • Kimberly Stanton, Deputy Director of the Washington Office on Latin America
  • Greg Wilpert, journalist and sociologist living in Venezuela. He joins us the line from Caracas.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, on Tuesday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice began a five-day tour of Latin America. By the end of her trip, she will have visited Brazil, Colombia, Chile and El Salvador. Rice has billed her tour as an effort to, (quote), "bolster democracy and alleviate poverty." This is the Secretary speaking Wednesday in Brazil.

CONDOLEEZZA RICE: Our world is moving toward greater freedom and democracy, and President Bush has outlined the charge of our times. Those of us who are on the right side of freedom’s divide have an obligation to those who are still on the wrong side of that divide.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Condoleezza Rice speaking from Brazil. The Bush administration’s worried about several countries in Latin America moving increasingly towards the left. In recent weeks, popular protests in Ecuador forced out that country’s president, Lucio Gutierrez. Gutierrez took office in January 2003, as a populist anti-corruption reformer, but soon angered many Ecuadorians by adopting economic austerity measures, drawn up by the International Monetary Fund. Gutierrez is the latest on the long list of neoliberal Latin American politicians thrown out of office in elections or by popular revolt.

JUAN GONZALEZ: During the last five years, uprisings have overthrown governments in Ecuador, Peru, Argentina and Bolivia. In Brazil, Chile and Venezuela, governments have been elected on anti-neoliberal platforms. In Uruguay, leftist president Tabaré Vázquez was recently elected, and much to the dismay of the Bush administration, one of his first moves after being sworn into office was to restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba. Left wing forces are considered to have a serious chance in upcoming presidential elections in Mexico, Nicaragua and Peru. And yesterday in Colombia, Rice defended the United States government’s more than $3 billion in military assistance to aid that country’s efforts to counter cocaine production and to stop the left wing insurgency.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to turn now to Kimberly Stanton, Deputy Director of the Washington Office on Latin America. First, though, we’re going to take a look at a country Condoleezza Rice is not visiting but seems to be the focus of much of this trip, and that’s Venezuela. Relations have been bitter between the U.S. and Venezuela since the U.S. tacitly supported the 2002 coup that briefly ousted Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. In recent weeks, there have been rising tensions. Last Sunday, Chavez ended a 35-year military cooperation agreement with the U.S. and ordered out four American military instructors he accused of fomenting unrest inside the country. And the New York Times has reported the Bush administration is considering funneling more money to foundations, business, and political groups opposed to Chavez’s government. We welcome you to Democracy now!, Kimberly Stanton.

KIMBERLY STANTON: Thank you. It’s a pleasure to be with you.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about Venezuela and how it fits into this trip, not on the itinerary of the Secretary of State?

KIMBERLY STANTON: No, it’s not on the itinerary but it seems to have been a topic of conversation pretty much everywhere, both in questions she has received, but clearly with governments and, I think, in particular with Brazil. I expect with Chile, as well. She’s looking for allies in a somewhat quiet, not that quiet effort, I think, to try to isolate Chavez from other Latin American countries, to try to set him apart as not being consistent with the kind of democracy or the kind of economic policy the United States would like to see. She’s not getting much positive response. President Lula has been very clear that Brazil sees Chavez and sees Venezuela as a sovereign country. Even on the issue — the new controversial issue of arms purchases by Venezuela, Brazil is saying that countries have certainly a right to defend themselves, a right to maintain the armament for their armed forces. Even Colombia, which has had some tense moments with Venezuela lately, Foreign Minister Carolina Barco explicitly said that they recognize the right of Venezuela to defend themselves. So, this is a situation where Chavez’s rhetoric has been unfortunate and more inflammatory than constructive, but the U.S. government’s response has been also of a kind. And rather than working multilaterally to provide the sort of regional and sub-regional security assurances needed to calm down the situation, we seem to be — she seems to be looking for support for further isolation. Not going to — it’s not a policy that’s going to work.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, in terms of the Venezuela situation, hasn’t actually the Venezuelan government been able to develop closer ties with many Latin American countries by utilizing its oil, signing preferential treaties or arrangements with several other countries in terms of supplying them oil and thus cementing closer ties within the region vis-à-vis the United States?

KIMBERLY STANTON: Absolutely. Venezuela has strong ties. It sells — it has a policy of being willing to sell oil below market prices to its sister countries in the region, and from an — And there’s tremendous commerce between Venezuela and Colombia, for example, and with Brazil. So from an interest-based perspective, Latin American countries also don’t have any reason or any desire to be drawn in between a debate or a fight between the U.S. and Venezuela.

AMY GOODMAN: We are joined right now by Greg Wilpert in Caracas, Venezuela. We’d like to get the latest there, Greg — we welcome you to Democracy now! — about, well, the trip that Condoleezza Rice is not taking to Venezuela, but the impact in Caracas right now.

GREG WILPERT: Well, hi. The impact has been generally that every time that Condoleezza Rice criticizes Chavez, his popularity goes up within Venezuela, and probably also to some extent within the rest of Latin America. I mean, it’s pretty much a transparent move, what Condoleezza Rice is trying to do is to isolate Venezuela with respect to the rest of Latin America. But just as a recent New York Times article pointed out, it’s almost the opposite that is happening, that in that process, the U.S. is isolating itself with respect to the rest of Latin America. I mean, Chavez has been signing all kinds of trade agreements and cooperation agreements with every country in Latin America, and he has been really pushing hard for the integration of Latin America. So, the isolation of Venezuela is very, very far from happening.

JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to ask Kimberly Stanton, the situation in Mexico, this whole development of virtually all of the major Latin American countries electing populist governments, there’s basically two major exceptions at this point, Colombia and Mexico, but yet the situation in Mexico seems to be reaching a crisis point in terms — and a possibility that if you do have a progressive or leftist president elected in Mexico, the entire region will essentially begin to spiral out of U.S. control?

KIMBERLY STANTON: Well, there’s a couple of points there. I actually — I think it is likely that Mexico may well end up electing the current Mayor of Mexico City in its next round of elections, and in some ways — well, many ways, the current government has actually made that more likely by a not very sophisticated effort to prevent him from running, through a series of judicial challenges that have now caused a crisis in the country. But I think the larger question is why should the U.S. fear the election of left-leaning leaders. This is a reaction of people making use of democratic institutions and looking for a different response, a different policy response, a different policy orientation after 20 years of experience with what one would normally get called more right of center especially neoliberal economic policies and without seeing many results. Democracy is a system in which political parties alternate in power. Leaders alternate in power. Orientations, political orientations alternate. It’s part of the normal give and take. It has happened in the United States. It’s happened in Europe. It’s happened any place where democracy works. So I think the shift to the left in Latin America is a reflection of the failure on the economic and social policy side to respond to deeply felt needs that unfortunately current economic policies are not helping to redress. But I don’t see any reason why, given that leaders are being elevated through elections and through popular participatory processes, why the United States should treat this as a threat or a concern. It seems to me it’s a reflection, a very healthy reflection, of the consolidation of democracy, to have popular unrest channeled through democratic institutions and not through insurgencies.

AMY GOODMAN: Greg Wilpert in Caracas, journalist and sociologist, what about the accusations that Venezuela is arming the F.A.R.C. In Colombia?

GREG WILPERT: Well, there’s been absolutely no evidence that any arms have gone from Venezuela, at least from the government, to the F.A.R.C. This is an accusation that has been around since the beginning, since Chavez has been first elected, but nobody has ever presented any concrete proof of it. Actually, that specific accusation hasn’t been made as often as, for lack of proof, as the accusation that Chavez is providing them other forms of support, whether it’s money or a safe haven within Venezuela. But even those accusations are pretty hollow. I mean, certainly, there are a lot of border crossings where F.A.R.C., but also A.U.C., the paramilitaries and also even Colombian official military come across the Venezuelan border. But that’s exactly the point that Venezuela is trying to prevent actually with the arms purchases that it is making. It’s buying patrol boats, it’s buying patrol airplanes. And It’s buying small weapons. It hasn’t made any major purchases in almost 20 years. So all of their weapons are basically antiquated, and actually 20 years ago, they made much larger purchases, long before Chavez ever got elected, and the U.S. government didn’t say a thing, mainly because it bought almost all of its weapons from the U.S. This time it’s going to Russia and to China and to Brazil to buy these other weapons and so, of course, the U.S. government is up in arms, literally, to — because it’s not getting the benefits, plus it’s trying to use it as a wedge between — to isolate Venezuela. But as I said before, that’s not — probably not going to happen.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Greg, speaking of arms, the arm of oil. Apparently the increase in the price of oil on the world market has only strengthened President Chavez’s ability to implement many of his social programs and to assist other Latin American neighbors. Could you talk about that a little bit?

GREG WILPERT: Yeah. I mean, the oil income has gone up tremendously in the last couple of years, in the last two years, and it has, of course, had a tremendous impact on the Venezuelan economy, which grew 17%, I think it was, last year, which was one of the highest rates of any country in the world, actually. Of course, that was after the oil — the coup and the oil strike and so on. But so now Chavez has been using that, essentially to fund the social programs, and there’s been really quite effective in the sense that a tremendous number of Venezuelans are benefiting from them. They have put small community clinics in almost every single neighborhood throughout Venezuela, and they’ve opened subsidized food markets also that benefit about — almost half of the Venezuelan population now. So, the impact is definitely being felt of this oil wealth coming to the people, which is something that hasn’t happened in Venezuela also since the last oil boom, at least, over 20 years ago. So, that’s one of the reasons, of course, that Chavez has become very popular. In addition to the fact, of course, that people feel like he’s — I mean, the poor of Venezuela feel like he’s the first president to support them. Which hasn’t happened in the — in actually almost ever. The previous presidents were always presidents of the middle class, essentially. And of course, that’s also being used now to buy these weapons, like I said.

AMY GOODMAN: Kimberly Stanton of the Washington Office on Latin America, a quick question, do you think that Iraq saved Chavez? That with the U.S. distracted by the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that this is — helps to explain what has happened in Latin America, and then if you could quickly comment on what’s happened in Ecuador?

KIMBERLY STANTON: I don’t think that the U.S. was so distracted by Iraq that it wasn’t paying attention to Venezuela, although it wasn’t paying attention perhaps to many other parts of Latin America. The U.S. has been very clear in its opposition to Chavez from the beginning. It’s important to remember that the way the Venezuelan opposition first tried to remove him from power was through a coup attempt. That was followed by the strike that was just mentioned, which was devastating to the Venezuelan economy. Only then did the efforts shift to trying to vote him out of office, and the U.S. agencies have certainly provided plenty of funding to opposition groups, specifically in an effort to mobilize people to vote against him in the referendum last fall, and to continue to build up capacity to eventually push him out of office. Just before Ms. Rice left for Latin America, unnamed State Department officials talked about the possibility of an even more confrontational strategy, and increasing even more the funding going to these kinds of opposition groups. So I don’t think Venezuela has been off the agenda of the State Department, although it’s been handled in a way that has actually, as your other guest commented, both strengthens popular support for Mr. Chavez within Venezuela and has also pushed those national security concerns onto the agenda for Venezuela. If you look over the last five or six years, Mr. Chavez hasn’t been focused on defending Venezuela’s security or defending his own security, per se. It’s as a result of the last year, year-and-a-half of concerted pressure on him and the clear escalation of opposition, that the security concerns have started to come back onto the scene. And the event that happened a few months ago where Colombia went into Venezuela and picked off a F.A.R.C. leader who had been living pretty openly there and had actually crossed the Colombian border a number of times and had Colombian immigration stamps in his passport under his normal name. He clearly could have been picked up in some other way. When Colombian forces —- when Colombia paid security forces in Venezuela to pick up this guy and trans—- who was then transported over the border, and whatnot, they raised all sorts of concerns both —- or reinforced concerns of some kind of conspiracy to move into Venezuela and some kind of fear on Chavez’s part that in fact he’s far more vulnerable than he realized. So, I think in short, Venezuela has been on the agenda, but not in a constructive way, or not as constructive as it should have been for quite a while. The situation in Ecuador is another case of -—

AMY GOODMAN: Just 30 seconds —

KIMBERLY STANTON: Okay. It’s a case of people demanding the political accountability from their leaders, not getting it through democratic institutions, and so taking to the streets. So, another president has, in fact, been voted out of office, Lucio Gutierrez. But it’s important to note that Mr. Gutierrez’s removal was preceded by several months of clearly unconstitutional actions on his part which didn’t awaken very much active or concerted response, either by the U.S. or even by the O.A.S. There were some statements by the O.A.S. in the U.N., but not much concern until he was removed. There’s an opportunity in Ecuador now to reconstitute the institutions, to restructure them and we hope that the new president will move in that way to try to bring institutions and popular sentiment more into line and to make the institutions more functional.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us, Kimberly Stanton, Deputy Director of the Washington Office on Latin America, WOLA, joining us from Washington, D.C., and Greg Wilpert, a journalist and sociologist living in Caracas, Venezuela.

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