Friday, December 28, 2007

The Semantics of Politics and how to Popocatépetl

I'm not a political animal but with ClareBear's impending departure and adventure tour througth half a dozen South American countries, the conservative in me is increasingly worried about the stability and safety of countries she will be visiting. Mainly through what I have 'heard' or 'read' not due to any real knowledge of what's going on over there. Some are captained by dictators, others are known for their drug running and corruption, others for their sheer poverty and appalling human rights issues and some for their willingness to take western hostages to make their point known. But is this concern warranted or are we being fed a lot of paranoid press and semantics to paint these resource laden countries as dangerous, emerging leftist nations with unpopular governments? Sure, it's not safe, majority white, Christian Australia and the drinking water is a little dodgy . . . but is it what it was in the 70's and 80's? Now most of the bad guys are gone and the many countries in South America are trying to develop economically and politically without the interference of rightist governments who even have a list of 'friendly dictators' with whom they deal on a daily basis.

Brian Damage has written a short article on the assistance being provided by Hugo Chavez in Venezuela to release international hostages who have been held in Colombia by the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). Under the plan, Venezuelan aeroplanes and helicopters will fly into Colombia with representatives of France, Argentina, Brazil, Cuba and Ecuador, as well as the International Committee of the Red Cross. Assistance from the US is strangely absent but then they had trouble rescuing their own after Hurricane Katrina!

It struck me that there is a universal fear and loathing of many emerging South American Regimes based largely on their leftist politics and the semantics used in discussions about these nations. In the past, this fear has to some degree been justified with dreadful human rights injustices committed largely by US supported regimes such as Pinochet in Chile! Sure, they're emerging, they're learning and many have suffered heavily under the dictatorships of people such as Pinochet but others are bulding viable economies. As of early 2007, South America is experiencing great economic development, with Venezuela, Argentina, Uruguay and Peru growing their economies by over 8% per annum. Chile is also experiencing continued growth of 6% for the last few years on the back of copper prices. Indeed, Brasil's economy is ranked 12th in the world! The US economic growth forecasts are for a paltry 1.2% and our own expected to reach just 5.5%.

However, the language used by some to discuss south American politics is emotionally charged and misleading in many cases and has an effect on the way we perceive South America and it's often 'different' political stance.

The use of the term "populist", rather than "popular" is often used to demonise would-be dictators or politicians. Those personalities considered 'friendly' to the US are called "leftist firebrands" . . . intimating that whilst their politics may not be aligned with the US, they are exciting, enthusiastic and instruments of change. Whereas someone like Hugo Chavez "has made a sport of taunting the US" and is considered a threat. A progressive Mexican presidential candidate is "famous for dispensing government funds", thus raising a faint whiff of corruption; why not "investing government funds"?

Some leaders are considered to "pander to supporters", rather than to US-based investors, as has historically been the norm in the region. Imagine a government doing what it was elected to do and meet the expectation of their citizens.

A new trade agreement between Bolivia, Cuba and Venezuela is "specifically meant to undermine the efforts by Bush to extend free trade through the Americas" where "free trade" is used in the Orwellian sense of trade that protects the rights of US corporations and wealthy investors at the expense of the poor. Don't get me started on US and European trade subsidies so that their inefficient farming practices can compete on the world stage.

Brasil's president Lula da Silva was 'credited' with winning back the confidence of foreign (read American) investors rather than adopting the policies which favoured foreign investors at the expense of the domestic population.

George Bush, distracted by terrorism and Iraq, has failed to pay sufficient attention to his neighbours to the south and since anything left of right is fascism in the eyes of the US this poses a problem. Washington now finds itself largely powerless to halt the shift to the left in these countries but why does it want to? Why is a leftist regime more terrifying than the extreme right.The word 'leftist' is flung around as if this is a bad thing . . it need not be.

The concept of left-wing, refers to a segment of the political spectrum that considers achieving social equality through collective rights (social), as opposed to purely individual interests (private) and a traditional view of society. Surely this is the main aim of a socially unequal South America. This move should be considered reformist. In general, the left-wing tends to uphold a secular, egalitarian and multicultural society. Although in South America, secularism is not widespread as it is one of the most non secular continents in the world with 64.34% of it's population being Roman Catholic. Still, I wonder why is it superpower's business become involved in the politics of sovereign nations.

I'm not pointing a finger purely at the US mind, Australia has been a staunch ally of US policy for many, many years - others also have their fingers well and truly in the SouthAmerican pie - and even with a new Government now in charge in Australia, it still looks like it will tow the US policy line. The US has a long history of supporting repressive leftist or downright dictatorial regimes through it's 'friendly dictatorship' policies. Remember Humberto Branca (Brasil) , Jean Claude Duvalier (Haiti), General Martinez (El Salvador) General Noriaga (Panama), Augustu Pinochet (Chile), General Montt (Equador), Anastazio Somosa (Nicaragua), Rafael Trujillo (Dominican Republic) and General Videla (Argentina) and I haven't even moved off the American continent . . lets not forget Pol Pot and Saddam Hussein were once friends and even though Castro is still in the bad books and Americans can no longer enjoy Cuban cigars, this communist nation was good enough for the establishment of the highly illegal and controversial POW camp in Guantanamo Bay . . funny how we can make friends of enemies when it suits our purpose.

I just can't help thinking that sticking our oar in the politics of these countries without having a plan for democratisation or developing a strong code for human rights is really any of our business unless our expertise is requested by that sovereign nation. It seems to me that South America's woes are entirely due to political unrest. Maybe if we left them alone to stabilise without the influence and interventions of the rest of the world, they might get the formula right whether it's an American style Right Wing Republic, a British Style Westminster based Democracy or a Socialist Democratic Republic. I can't help but think that intervention has not been successful there any more than it will be in Iraq or it was in Zimbabwe where we simply cut and ran!

I don't know enough about the region to take a strong political stance (not that you'd know it from this little tyrade) but it seems unreasonable that a basically right wing democratic west which prides itself on independence and political freedom, should wish to exercise such influence over other nations with a different ideology. And it concerns me greatly that my little treasure is stepping into this mele. Hopefully, all she will have to worry about is altitude sickness and running out of money! These are two things I can quickly fix with a minimum of intervention.


Unknown said...

A few things come to mind: One, South America doesn't sound that much different from Africa. Two, South America in many senses strikes me as a lot more developed than Africa. Three, international politics should, instead of supporting its own interests in various regions, support the needs of the people (not necessarily the leaders) in those regions. And finally, few places are ever as unsafe as the media make out. Africa is supposed to be a complete hellhole yet I have a friend who has travelled to all sorts of farflung parts of the continent and has survived to tell the most amazing tales. I think there is danger in travelling everywhere these days - face it, who'd have expected those tube bomb blasts or 9/11? There are pick pockets and criminals everywhere. You could get hit by a bus in downtown Sydney. One simply needs to assess the dangers, know the facts and travel safely. I say this as one living in one of the most crime ridden cities in the world with a man who is about president who is up on charges of fraud and corruption. If I sat elsewhere I wouldn't want to come here and yet, with common sense, I live here comfortably. It's always all relative, I guess.

Brian Damage said...

Great post Baino :)

Anonymous said...

Hi Baino, I'm sure Clarebear will be fine. LadyMc has travelled a bit in South America and so has another girl I know. There are some dodgy spots but no more so than in any other city or country in the world.
It suits the US to have its neighbours in turmoil, stops them from gettng things together and being a threat to the US economy.
(Check your email)

Baino said...

AV: This was more a postulation of what might happen if the US kept itself to itself and the constant 'fear' of leftism as if the extreme right is the only 'right'. I'm a little left of centre but pretty moderate but I'd just like some of these countries to be given the right and the time for self-determination without the paranoia. Sure, we can be available to help when needed but it would be polite to be asked rather than have it imposed.

You're right. She's not alone and the 9 weeks in South America is actually escorted if a little wild and woolly.

A tourist is just as likely to be mugged in George Street Sydney as the back alleys of any other big city. Stay with the lights and don't be too ostentatious. Worst comes to worse . . .she has a Swiss Army Knife (which I always thought a little strange for a Neutral country! then again, they race in the Americas Cup!)

BD: Thanks. It took a bit of research frankly and it's all your fault!

Baino said...

Jack: That's my point. They back who suits them at the time then drop them in it when it doesn't. Noriaga was a prime example! Thanks for the reassurance. I'm sure she'll be fine. Just a nervous mumsy with fragile apron strings! Email answered. Cheers :)

Anonymous said...

The Yanks should keep their oar out of Central and South America.
From William Walker electing himself President of Nicaragua to the Contra affair in the 80's, the US seems to love messing up its neighbours and installing right-wing, conservative, pro-US governments.

Stick to the Middle East there boys; soon you won't have enough troops to open a third front.

Anonymous said...


I'm sure your little treasure will be just fine.

Adventure = character building.

And you take some beating, Baino!

Oh, to be young and carefree again :-(