Political Terrain Shifts in Latin America: Colonialism Dying as Nations Move from U.S. Orbit

Article excerpt

The Cold War is over, but in Latin America the Russians are coming. And the Chinese. And the Indians. While the United States is fixated on Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan halfway across the globe, closer to home the economic and political terrain of Latin America is changing quickly. Meanwhile, a new generation of Latin leaders schooled in the social teachings of the Catholic church is emerging, augmenting moves that are taking their nations further from the U.S. orbit.

Some recent events should give Americans pause:

* In September, Bolivia expelled the American ambassador. In sympathy, Venezuela did the same, while Honduras delayed the approval of the new American ambassador there.

* In retaliation, the United States expelled the Bolivian and Venezuelan ambassadors.

* This month a Russian fleet entered the Caribbean off Caracas, Venezuela, for joint maneuvers with the Venezuelan navy. And Venezuela is looking for a billion-dollar loan agreement to buy Russian arms, and to acquire nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.

* Russia and Iran have deepened diplomatic ties to send professional and technical people to help Venezuela and Bolivia develop some of the richest oil and gas fields in the Western Hemisphere.

* In 2007, the Mittal Group of India, in a joint venture with the state, bought the largest iron ore deposits in Latin America, located just inside Bolivia's eastern border with industry-hungry Brazil.

* Earlier this year China's president toured Latin America seeking agreements about trade and natural resources.

Since the year 2000 Bolivia has suffered through a period of nearly constant social protests and convulsions, with much government violence. Five presidents have been unseated in five years, all because of failed economic policies.

The indigenous vote

The first indigenous president, Evo Morales, was elected on a platform of land reform, nationalization of resources, and writing a new constitution to include indigenous civil rights and land rights. With overwhelming support from indigenous groups, he won with the unprecedented total of 54 percent of the vote in December 2005. In a recall vote in August, he received 67 percent approval.

The changing scene in Latin America is part of a decades-old decolonization process. It has been the result of the failed policies of neoliberal, free-market capitalism that have particularly excluded the indigenous poor. The criticism and popular street protests of indigenous citizens generated detailed political platforms and programs for change from progressive intellectuals and religious schooled in social justice discourse since the 1970s and the time of the Latin American fascist dictatorships.

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The recent election of an ex-bishop, Fernando Lugo, to be president of Paraguay was notable for at least two reasons. First, it essentially threw out the ruling class that had presided over more than 70 years of one-party corruption. Second, the winning platform came directly from the social justice teachings of the Catholic church, which focused on human and cultural rights of indigenous peoples and the need for a more equitable distribution of the nation's resources for the common good.

Paraguay extended the progressive social initiatives of its Latin-American colleagues.

Similarly, Ecuador's President Rafael Correa was elected in December 2006. He has the backing of large indigenous minorities who reside in the mountains of Ecuador, many schooled as catechists in base communities by progressive bishops since the 1970s. …