On Easter Sunday, April 4, 2010, the people of Bolivia went to the polls to elect (2), 500 officials in local and provincial elections, including the governors of nine departments (provinces – same as states in the U.S.) in Bolivia. The election was a crucial test of the spreading strength and influence of Evo Morales and his Movement for Socialism (MAS) political party.
Morales was first elected president in 2005 as a democratic socialist, the first ever full-blooded indigenous person to become the leader of Bolivia or any other Latin American country. He was re – elected by a wide margin in December 2009. The growth of indigenous political power throughout Latin America was a major development which has since received inadequate press coverage in the U.S. This means that most Americans were inadequately prepared to properly assess a major political trend in their own hemisphere.
In its coverage of the gubernatorial and municipal elections, the daily La Prensa prophesied a setback for Morales during the elections scheduled for April 4 when predicted victories turned out to be defeats in the heavily contested Media Luna regions of the country, as well as in the capital city of La Paz. While he didn’t actually lose many races, there was a substantial cut in MAS’ winning margins with the shift in momentum away from Morales’ political objectives. Those familiar with the MAS rise in popularity and power were surprised when even initial statistics following the vote showed a decline in that party’s percentage of the vote from 60% to 50%.
An April 9 article by the World Markets Research Centre said, “Despite allegations of fraud, the official vote count confirms that the ruling Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) has won the majority of the regional departments in last week’s elections. The National Electoral Court (CNE) released the results yesterday, giving an irreversible victory to the MAS in the majority of departments, despite the fact that in some cases the counting is still incomplete, Reuters reports.
A Lexis-Nexis search of U.S. news media from April 4 – May 4, 2010 yielded only one item – a relatively short one of 358 words – an Associated Press story on April 5 which said, “Allies of leftist President Evo Morales made modest advances in state and local elections Sunday, according to independent exit polls. … Pro – government candidates for governor had comfortable leads in five out of nine state races, according to exit polls released by television broadcasters ATB and Unitel.”
In the past five years, Morales has brought sweeping changes to Bolivia, including approval of a new constitution that grants more rights to Bolivia’s indigenous majority, and nationalization or state control of the country’s natural resources. (The BBC reported on May 1 that the Morales government had taken control of four privately owned companies which generate electricity. The companies account for more than half of Bolivia’s electricity market.) Bolivia has the second – largest reserves of natural gas in South America, and also large deposits of lithium, which has many important chemical uses, including powering cell phones. Morales’ MAS political party also has a solid majority in the country’s legislature, indicating that he may have witnessed some loss in personality; Morales’ influence, however, was not at all slackening.
Morales’ power is concentrated in the five western departments of the country, which have the largest percentage of the nation’s indigenous people. However, the four predominantly “Euro – centric” provinces to the east – with the heaviest concentrations of middle and upper – income people (many of them whites of Spanish ancestry) – are controlled by Morales’ political enemies who vehemently oppose his putting the country on the path to socialism. Tensions between Morales supporters and opponents have risen dramatically over the past two years, with several eastern provinces claiming to be autonomous or quasi-independent of the control and authority of the central government. Further battles may loom in the future. At stake is the long- term control of Bolivia, the control of its natural resources, and whether the income from natural resources flows to Bolivians (including the indigenous) or to the stockholders of Western mining companies.
Except for the one AP story, American [** see item in Notes section] news media barely took notice the Bolivian elections. On the election weekend, there were no stories (not even news briefs) in the New York Times, Washington Post or other daily newspapers. The Syracuse Post – Standard generally does not carry stories on Latin America. The exceptions were the recent earthquake in Chile and the ongoing story of Mexican drug trafficking and accompanying violence of Mexican drug gangs.
Neither was there coverage of the Bolivian story by any of the three cable news channels (CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News), or the three broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC). Unfortunately, this is typical of how media in this country have reacted to the profound political changes which have swept through Latin America during the past 12 years, bringing in their wake a tidal wave of fundamental change. Evo Morales’ initial election as president of Bolivia, with the huge backing of a newly enfranchised indigenous movement, was every bit the political, social and moral equivalent of Nelson Mandela’s election as the first black president of South Africa, with the backing of millions of newly enfranchised black voters who had only recently emerged from the tyranny of white minority apartheid rule.
Liberal/Left Trend in Latin Politics
Many Latin American countries have elected liberal or progressive (at times, even some profoundly socialist) political leaders in response to failed free – market or neoliberal economic policies followed by Latin American leaders in the 1980’s and 1990’s. In recent years, Hugo Chávez was elected as president of Venezuela in 1998. Chávez immediately announced his intention to pursue a socialist “Bolivarian Revolution” to lift Venezuela’s poorest (including some indigenous) out of centuries of grinding poverty and powerlessness. Chávez purposely named his revolution for Simón Bolívar, the 19th Century hero who led the fight to win independence for Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia from Spanish control (4).
Four years after Chávez’s inauguration came the election of Luis Inácio Lula da Silva as president of Brazil. “Lula’s election to the presidency in 2002 sent shudders through Brazil’s economic elite, which was worried that the former rabble-rouser would lead the country down a populist path, as Hugo Chávez did in Venezuela. Lula emphasized poverty reduction as a national priority of his administration; he also turned to different economic approaches to put the nation on a sound footing and to develop in an orderly manner (5).
Two years later, Chile elected its first woman president, Michelle Bachelet, a confirmed socialist whose father had been murdered during the reign of terror by Chile’s notorious dictator, Army General Augusto Pinochet, who seized power in a bloody coup on Sept. 11, 1973. Bachelet was tortured and imprisoned under the military regime.
Nicaragua’s president, Daniel Ortega, was the onetime leader of the revolutionary Sandinista guerrilla movement that overthrew the regime of right-wing dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979. In June 2009, another former revolutionary guerrilla leader, Mauricio Funes, became president of El Salvador. Funes was the candidate of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), which had waged more than two decades of guerrilla war in El Salvador from the 1970’s to the 90’s. The warring factions have since made peace and the FMLN is now a political party that was able to defeat the reigning rightist ARENA party in the 2009 elections.
Earlier this year, Uruguay elected as its president 74-year-old José “Pepe” Mujica, once a dedicated member of Uruguay’s revolutionary underground guerrilla Tupamaros movement. A Miami Herald columnist commented,
At a private birthday party for former President Julio María Sanguinetti attended by about three dozen family members, business people and politicians mostly opposed to Mujica, I found few who feared that the president – elect will lead a Venezuelan – style radical leftist regime. … Others worried that some of Mujica’s hardline aides – including his wife and former fellow guerrilla, Lucia Topolansky, who will become a leading senator, and interior minister – designate Eduardo Bonomi, who will be in charge of the police – may support anti – capitalist ‘Bolivarian’ political groups to pave the way for a Venezuelan – inspired radicalization. (6)
When one adds to this list the election of socialist Rafael Correa as president of Ecuador, it leaves little doubt that a leftward drift can be discerned in Latin American politics. However, the trend is not entirely to the left. Michelle Bachelet, who by law could not seek a second term this year, was succeeded in January by right – wing businessman Sebastián Piñera, one of the richest people in Chile. He became the first right – of – center president of Chile since the country emerged from the Pinochet dictatorship in 1988. Another wealthy right-wing businessman/politician, Ricardo Martinelli, was elected president of Panama in 2009. There was also Felipe Calderon, a moderate conservative considered friendly to the U.S., who was elected president of Mexico in 2008, but only after winning a razor – thin majority over a left/progressive opponent in a runoff. Before Calderon’s election, the highest – profile right-wing politician in Latin America was Alvaro Uribe, the outgoing president of Colombia and arguably Washington’s staunchest ally in the hemisphere.
Little News Coverage, Less Understanding of Latin America
American news media have provided saturation coverage to Chile’s March earthquakes and its aftermath. And there are regular reports of drug – related violence in Mexico in the ongoing conflict between that country’s powerful and well – armed drug gangs and its police and military. This is true because of the potential that exists that the violence will spill over into American border cities like El Paso and San Diego. And while there were some stories about Sebastián Piñera’s election in Chile, the U.S press has been woefully inadequate in covering and explaining the complex political and social trends which caused the election of so many liberal/left politicians in Latin America at a given moment.
Hugo Chávez and the Rise of the Bogeyman
There has been a rising crescendo of coverage of the problems and conflicts between Hugo Chávez and his mounting opposition in Venezuela and now the U.S. Of course, the coverage is overwhelmingly negative, focusing almost entirely on what Chávez has done wrong, rarely focusing on his success in bringing needed reforms to benefit the country’s poor and dispossessed. American media have told the story over and over of how Chávez has closed down radio stations and placed restrictions on other media. But there’s been little, if any, mention of how print and broadcast media throughout Latin America have always been controlled by and identified with the dominant middle and upper classes, never with poor people, in the highly stratified societies with huge gaps between rich and poor. American journalists and news executives are quick to leap to the defense of any news organization that is pressured when it criticizes government officials (as media often do in Venezuela), but not always as quick to seek contextual reasons for the cause of the conflict in the first place.
American press coverage of Latin America is still done through the prism of the Cold War, when Americans were bombarded with the idea that the whole world was divided between two camps – pro – Communist and anti – Communist. This simplistic view was reduced to the most basic of formulae of countries being either friends or enemies, good guys or bad guys. American allies, of course, were always the good guys and generally received benevolent news coverage. The countries or leaders presumed to be allies of the Soviet Union or China were the bad guys and received mostly critical or negative coverage. This compound for a quick understanding of international relations facilitated comprehension, but its biggest flaw was that the formula was often wrong and gave Americans a deceptively distorted and chronically inaccurate picture of other countries and leaders.
Today’s coverage is disturbingly similar to the Cold War formula of good and bad guys. News stories tend to lump Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Cuba together as the socialist malefactors and Colombia’s Uribe, Chile’s Bachelet (now Piñera), and Brazil’s Lula as the good guys because of their cordial relations with the U.S. (Though American journalists take pride in their independence from government, there has always been and remains a close correlation between policies of the U.S. State Department and how the U.S news media report foreign affairs.) Brazil and Chile have made no secret of their desire to close the huge gaps between the very rich and very poor in their countries. Neither Brazil nor Chile has resorted to nationalizing vital industries or pressuring media outlets as Chávez has done,and Brazil, Chile and Colombia are also less critical in public of the role of the U.S. in world affairs or of global capitalism. Most observers don’t expect Sebastián Piñera to attempt any major reversal of the economic or social policies established under Bachelet, but in reality, Latin American politics are less uniform and somewhat more problematic than would be the case of their U.S counterparts.
Chávez the Enemy
Hugo Chávez was briefly deposed by a coup attempt in April 2002 that ultimately failed. Since being returned to power, his policies without question have polarized various sectors of Venezuelan society. Chávez also has allied himself with Iran’s controversial president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, as well as maneuvered changes in the constitution to allow him to run for president indefinitely. Chávez has clamped down on political opponents, closed some radio and TV stations, and acted like an insipid dictator who aspires to assume total control of Venezuela. This makes it easier for critics in the U.S. and elsewhere to demonize Chávez as the hemisphere’s looming Hitler or Stalin. And Chávez’s reckless behavior and confrontational personality makes the job easier.
Chávez also has become Latin America’s most vocal critic of the U.S. With all of this, it may seem natural that most Americans would regard him as their enemy. Chávez undoubtedly wants to check the power and influence of the U.S. in regional affairs. So does Iran. And so does Evo Morales, China, some liberal or socialist politicians in Britain, Spain and the rest of Europe. But this does not automatically make them enemies of the U.S. Adversaries, yes. Enemies, no. An enemy country would actively try to thwart various American policy initiatives in the region. There’s no evidence that Chávez is doing this or leaning in that direction. Also, an enemy would want to strike the U.S. militarily, to harm American citizens, or to launch terrorist strikes against American properties or interests. Despite his anti – American bluster, Chávez has given no signs of moving in any of these directions. Also, Chávez has sold oil at cheap prices to those Americans living in poverty in various parts of this country, including Boston, which his critics have dismissed as a propaganda stunt. But a true enemy of the U.S. would not have provided any benefits to Americans, not even for the sake of propaganda. Also, Chávez has made overtures to improve relations with the U.S., but there has been little inclination on Washington’s part to explore whether the overtures are serious and worth pursuing.
Bolivia and the U.S.
There are also strained relations between the U.S. and Bolivia. During the past two years, some Morales supporters in several of Bolivia’s eastern provinces have been killed or wounded during violent encounters with anti – Morales forces. Morales subsequently accused the U.S. of abetting the violence against his supporters. He leveled accusations against the U.S. ambassador to Bolivia, Philip Goldberg, and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) of intervening in the domestic affairs of the country. These prompted Bolivia to expel Goldberg, and the U.S. promptly retaliated by sending home Bolivia’s envoy to Washington.
Morales makes no secret of his vehement opposition to global capitalism and he perceives America as its driving force. But being anti – capitalist is not the same as being anti – American. However, observers like Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly of Fox News, schooled in the old Cold War formula of mindless attacks against presumed ideological enemies, would argue that any anti – capitalist is automatically an enemy of the U.S.
The U.S. press seems reluctant to explore the roots of anti – capitalist sentiment throughout Latin America. The main reason is that most Americans don’t seem particularly interested in what happens in Latin America, despite its geographical closeness and obvious racial, cultural and language ties between the Americas to the south, and their all-powerful neighbor to the north. “Latin America, it is safe to say, gets scant respect from Washington. Mention the region at a meeting of foreign policy cognoscenti who are not Latin American specialists, and eyes immediately glaze over,” wrote Francis Fukuyama in the November/December 2007 issue of Foreign Affairs. He continued, “There may be a quick discussion of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, but attention will swiftly return to the Middle East, Russia or China. … Coverage of Latin America in the mainstream media is little better. It merits attention primarily when it causes trouble for the United States. Thus, more ink has been spilled on Chávez for the past few years than on the entire rest of the region combined. The only associations that many in the United States have with Latin America are problems with drugs, gangs and illegal immigration” (6).
Fukuyama’s criticisms, while somewhat commonplace, are right on target. I reviewed 30 issues of the New York Times in a random selection from February 1 – April 4, 2010, where many stories concerning the Chilean earthquake came to the fore. Other Latin American countries had racked up following tallies:
• Argentina, two briefs on the Falkland Islands dispute with Britain.
• Brazil, two stories, titled “Rio de Janeiro Journal.”
• Colombia, one “Cali Journal” story.
• Cuba, one story.
• Mexico, four briefs and four complete stories.
• Venezuela, two briefs and four complete stories.
A Nexis – Lexis search of The Times from Dec. 29, 2009 – March 28, 2010 (90 days) for stories on Bolivia turned up 16 hits for that country, but only four actual stories. Similarly, a Nexis – Lexis search of The Washington Post for the same time period turned up 59 “hits” for Venezuela, but only 20 actual items, among them six briefs and six highly critical letters or editorials. The same Nexis search of The Post turned up 18 “hits” for Bolivia, but no actual stories on the country. The “hits” included mention of Bolivian sport teams, Bolivia in obituaries of diplomats who had once served there, or the names of journalists once stationed in the country.
The most glaring shortcoming in the scant of American press coverage of Latin America is the total absence of any stories or editorial comment on the striking rise of political activism among the traditionally silent indigenous people. Ever since the Spanish conquest of the 16th Century, the indigenous people have been brutally repressed economically and socially. But since the 1980’s, there has been growing political and social awareness among them. Their upsurge in political power and effectiveness can be considered a pivotal (if not the final) nail in the coffin of European colonialism throughout Central and South America, that began with the voyages of Christopher Columbus in 1492.
The indigenous have been a key part of Chávez’s support in Venezuela. They are the backbone of Morales’ political base in Bolivia, and in recent years have gained considerable strength in Peru and Ecuador. Larry Birns, the director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), a Washington-based think tank, explained in an April 6, 2010 telephone interview, that indigenous Indians were indiscriminately slaughtered in Argentina during the late 19th Century because the country’s then president considered them “to be barbarians.” In the 1960’s and 70’s during the Cold War, more than 200,000 indigenous Indians were killed in Guatemala, victims of the anti–Communist paranoia of the country’s rightwing military leaders. “During these times, you could kill the indigenous Indians with impunity, with utterly no accountability,” said Birns.
Mainstream American media hardly scratched the surface of this continuing genocide against Guatemala’s Indians or, for that matter, thousands of other Latin Americans who were gunned-down throughout Central America and South America beginning in the 1970s. Even today, most Americans have no knowledge of the decades of rampaging violence and murder that was a daily fare for the region. Guatemala’s military leaders justified the murders as necessary to root out and destroy every vestige of Communist – inspired insurgency. And we bought into that canard. Contrast this with the huge and ongoing media coverage of the crimes of Saddam Hussein against his presumed political enemies in Iraq, at a time when Saddam was supreme dictator. We saw, read and heard endless stories of how Saddam used poison gas against the Kurds and Iranians during the Iran–Iraq War from 1980-88. There also has been massive coverage of how Saddam brutalized and killed thousands of Shiites in Southern Iraq after the first Persian Gulf War ended in 1991. The violence against Shiites in the South and Kurds in the North was the reason why the victorious Allied Coalition (22 nation exercise lead by the United States) created No- Fly Zones in both sectors, which meant Saddam’s air force could not fly its planes over most of Southern and Northern Iraq for many years.
The point being made is that American media covered Saddam’s violence against his enemies because he was our enemy. Media didn’t cover violence against Guatemalan Indians because the country’s military rulers, at the time, were our “friends,” based on an inexorable Cold War formula. This was one of many examples of how the “good guy/bad guy”formula gave Americans a tragically wrong impression of world affairs, causing costly repercussions.
Why Americans Should Care About Latin America
Ever since the Cold War ended in 1991, journalists and news executives in this country have convinced themselves that Americans are not interested in international news. These skeptics say over and over that Americans don’t care about what happens in other countries, and they don’t follow the foreign coverage they are being presented in print or broadcast news. The result has been a drastic cutback of international coverage by the media. Scores of foreign bureaus have been closed in the past two decades. And news media generally follows four elementary guidelines in deciding whether to print or broadcast a given international story:
1. If it appears to directly affect us as Americans.
2. If U.S. troops or other official personnel are involved.
3. If the story involves official U.S. government policy.
4. If there are strong economic or commercial relations with a country.
News media have given saturation coverage to every war the U.S. has fought since the Spanish – American War of 1898. The prevailing rule continues with the war in Afghanistan and, to a lesser extent, the war now winding down in Iraq. There’s also regular coverage of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, and related events in the Middle East. News media also extensively covered natural disasters like the South Pacific tsunami of December 2004, and the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile earlier this year. While hardly anybody doubted the importance of these events, the fact of the matter is the inevitability of such coverage, with the same not being true when it comes to Latin America.
The Cold War competition, from about 1947 to 1991, between the Soviet Union and its communist allies, and the United States and its capitalist allies, seemed to have its own justification for continued news coverage. Coming on the heels of World War II when Americans were intently focused on combat-related events in Europe and Asia, American journalists and news executives unanimously believed that every angle (however small) related to this titanic ideological struggle between “good and evil” deserved full news coverage.
The Cold War gave us more press coverage of Latin America than citizens of the United States had ever experienced. The press regularly covered prolonged armed struggles in El Salvador and Nicaragua. And there was periodic coverage of right-wing dictatorships in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Guatemala, Panama, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela. The news angle was always one–dimensional: victory over communism. The Cold War obsession also led us to defend, befriend and support these right-wing dictators as necessary bulwarks against communist expansion. As a result, we climbed in bed with some of the worst murderers in the west – like Pinochet in Chile, the military rulers in Guatemala, and the bloody junta in Argentina, which was responsible for the deaths or disappearance of thousands.
Of course, the biggest Cold War story coming out of Latin America was the triumph of the Castro revolution in Cuba in 1959, and the huge changes it brought to our shores. Not the least of which were hundreds of thousands of Cuban exiles to South Florida and a major impact on U.S. foreign policy toward the region. And who could ever forget that four of the five burglars who broke into the Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate Hotel in June 1972 were Cuban exiles.
Now that the Cold War is over, the prevailing assumption is that we don’t need to know or care about Latin America. But this assumption is just as blind, wrongheaded and misguided as was our earlier support for right-wing military killers in the name of fighting communism. We need to care just as much about Latin America now as we did 50 years ago and, the truism today is that for reasons every bit as important.
First and foremost, Latin America is important to us as neighbors in the Western Hemisphere. What happens there very much can affect us (though we might not always understand why). Our neighbor to the south, Mexico, is one of America’s most important trading partners. And the U.S. is zealously pursuing trade agreements with other Latin nations like Colombia and Peru. The problems of immigration and drug trafficking are but two of the many reasons why we can’t ignore Latin America.
But the region is also important for its varied and rich history, its many contributions to U.S. culture, the growing economic and commercial ties and the struggles of Latin America’s people for freedom and democracy. The nations of the world are far more interdependent now than they have ever been. Citizens of the U.S. need to know and understand other people, their history and culture, just as others need to know and understand our history and culture.
Finally, the goal of news media coverage of international affairs should be to educate U.S. citizens about other countries and peoples. Yes, educate in the broad sense – to help Americans understand how others think, their values, cultures, systems of governance, their languages and what makes them distinctly important.
One of the most valued lessons we learned from the experiences of Sept. 11, was how little we understood about why so many people around the world hated the United States and why, finally, a handful of fanatics decided to act on that hatred. Americans can never afford to again take refuge in a collective ignorance about the rest of the world.
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