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Latin America Changes: Hunger Strikes in Bolivia, Summits in the Caribbean

This weekend's summit, where Obama and Chavez will shake hands for the first time, might offer some glimpses into the region's future.

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Chavez said that if the U.S. wants to come to the Summit "with the same excluding discourse of the empire -- on the blockade -- then the result will be that nothing has changed. Everything will stay the same… Cuba is a point of honor for the peoples of Latin America. We cannot accept that the United States should continue trampling over the nations of our America."

In a recent column, Fidel Castro noted that Obama planned to lift travel and remittance restrictions to Cuba, but that that wouldn't be enough -- the blockade still needs to be lifted. "[N]ot a word was said about the harshest of measures: the blockade," Castro wrote. "This is the way a truly genocidal measure is piously called, one whose damage cannot be calculated only on the basis of its economic effects, for it constantly takes human lives and brings painful suffering to our people. Numerous diagnostic equipment and crucial medicines -- made in Europe, Japan or any other country -- are not available to our patients if they carry U.S. components or software."

The blockade against Cuba will likely be a hot topic of debate at this weekend's Summit, and will be partly fueled by tension between Obama and Chavez. Explaining the failure of the Bush administration in the region, Obama once said, it is "No wonder, then, that demagogues like Hugo Chavez have stepped into this vacuum. His predictable yet perilous mix of anti-American rhetoric, authoritarian government, and checkbook diplomacy offers the same false promise as the tried and failed ideologies of the past."

Yet a closer look at the region will show that the rise of leaders like Chavez is a result of more than just neglect on the part of the empire -- it has to do with the disastrous impact of neoliberalism in the region, and a desire among Latin Americans to seek out alternatives. Considering the current economic crisis in the U.S., Obama could learn a thing or two from the policies of leaders like Chavez, who is incredibly popular in Venezuela, works in solidarity with many of the region's leaders, and has developed sucessful economic policies in his country. At the upcoming Summit, Obama should put into action something he said when meeting with the G20: "We exercise our leadership best when we are listening."

Latin America Changes

Those expecting an end to the same old Cold War tactics toward Latin America from Washington may be surprised when Obama continues to treat the region as a backyard. Yet whether or not the perspective from Washington changes, Latin America is certainly a different place than it was 30 years ago.

I asked Greg Grandin, a professor of history at New York University, and the author, most recently, of Empire's Workshop, if another U.S.-backed coup such as the one that happened against socialist Chilean President Salvador Allende in 1973 would be possible in today's Latin America. He said, "I don't think it would be possible. There isn't a constituency for a coup. In the 1970s, U.S. policy was getting a lot more traction because people were afraid of the rise of the left, and they were interested in an economic alliance with the U.S.. Now, the [Latin American] middle class could still go with the U.S., common crime could be a wedge issue that could drive Latin America away from the left. But U.S. policy is so destructive that it has really eviscerated the middle class. Now, there is no domestic constituency that the U.S. could latch onto. The U.S. did have a broader base of support in the 1970s, but neoliberalism undermined it."

 
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