Anti-Imperialism without the Imperialists in Latin America
Photo Description: Ecuador's President, Rafael Correa
Photo Credit: Wilson Dias/Agência Brasil
During the years after World War II, a phenomenon emerged in several countries of communist Eastern Europe called “anti-Semitism without Jews.” Although the Holocaust had all but annihilated Jewish populations throughout the region, postwar communist regimes exploited lingering anti-Jewish sentiment to divert attention from their failures. Communist leaders would not, of course, refer directly to Jews when they denounced the enemies of socialism. They spoke instead of “cosmopolitan elements,” or used other stock phrases that evoked the notion of Jews as outsiders with suspect loyalties. The fact that few Jews—and no Jewish capitalists—remained in these countries was of little importance. When the leadership encountered difficulties, blaming the Jews remained a tried-and-true means of deflecting public frustrations over the lack of prosperity or freedom. Today, something similar is under way in Latin America, though Jews are not the chosen scapegoat. The pattern in this case could be described as “anti-imperialism without imperialists.”
Like anti-Semitism without Jews, anti-imperialism without imperialists is a tactic employed by governments facing criticism for their economic mismanagement or their disdain for democratic standards. And just as Jews as a community hardly existed in Poland or elsewhere in the Soviet sphere, U.S. imperialism today survives largely as a figment in the minds of some Latin Americans and as an instrument of political manipulation in the hands of a few cynical leaders.
In hemispheric politics, anti-imperialism and anti-Americanism are interchangeable. And the figure who most frequently leans on anti-Americanism in his political vocabulary is Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s strongman president. Central to his message is the proposition that the United States is bent on preventing Venezuela, and indeed all of Latin America, from attaining sovereignty and economic success.
Thus this past June, after Paraguay’s expulsion from the South American trade bloc Mercosur enabled Venezuela to gain membership in the body, Chávez spoke of a “defeat for imperialism and its bourgeois lackeys.” He went on to accuse the “Empire” of “trying to impede South America’s transformation into a true superpower.”
When the United States imposed sanctions on Venezuela’s state oil company, PDVSA, for its dealings with Iran, Chávez complained of an “act of Yankee imperialist aggression.” Likewise, his government’s national plan for 2013 through 2019 is crammed full of anti-American language, though the United States itself is never referred to by name. Instead, there are references to “imperialist capitalism,” a foreign policy “free from imperialist domination,” and a system that “does not respond to the dictates of the empire.”
After Argentine president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was diagnosed with cancer, Chávez took his conspiracy theories to a new level, speculating that the United States might have found a way to infect South American leaders with deadly diseases.
Chávez is not alone in ascribing South American problems to U.S. imperialism. Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa seconded Fidel Castro in referring to the Organization of American States (OAS) as the “Colonial Ministry of the United States.” He made this statement at a time when the OAS’s Inter-American Commission on Human Rights was looking into charges that Correa’s government was violating press freedom norms.
In fact, Correa has accused critical journalists of serving as “informants of the U.S. embassy.” He has also attacked USAID as an entity that is “frequently linked with the CIA” and that seeks to undermine leftist South American governments through the funding of local nongovernmental organizations.
Another leftist-populist president, Evo Morales of Bolivia, is similarly prone to argue that the region’s problems are attributable to American imperialism. Using the same zero-sum logic, he has also asserted that the economic crisis among traditional world powers like the United States is a result of their dwindling ability to exploit Latin American societies, which increasingly resist such “looting.”
The tendency of Latin American leaders with demagogic streaks to blame their woes on the United States is not new, and is therefore likely to draw shrugs from many observers. But there is a major difference between the anti-imperialism of decades past and today’s edition. Years ago, American domination of the region was a fact of geopolitical life, and its critics had real-life events to point to: coups that were backed by the United States, heavy-handed dollar diplomacy, and, occasionally, outright military interventions.
More recently, though, evidence of Yankee imperialism has been rather hard to find. Bullying and interference have been replaced by something akin to benign neglect, under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Even as Chávez, Correa, Morales, and others step up their denunciations of American imperialism, American capitalism, and American hegemonism—often in quasi-Marxist phrases that seem a half-century out of date—the United States has grown increasingly disengaged from the politics of the region. Indeed, like Bush before him, Obama has had practically nothing to say about the authoritarian drift in countries like Nicaragua, Ecuador, or Argentina, much less Venezuela.
Communist-era anti-Semitism had both direct and indirect victims: Jews who were harassed, driven from their jobs, and forced into exile, and whole societies that suffered the consequences of this toxic propaganda and the failed policies it was meant to cover up. In much the same way, Latin American anti-imperialism smears local journalists and activists as U.S. agents, and raises up nonexistent enemies to divert the people’s attention from their leaders’ chronic mistakes. Of course, there came a time when Eastern Europeans firmly rejected anti-Semitism and demanded democratic change. A similar awakening will no doubt come, perhaps more quickly than many imagine, to those Latin American societies where a form of demagogic populism holds sway today.
Mark Heller assisted in the preparation of this post.