The Domino Theory Returns.

Latin America is in the throws of a democratic revolution, that has driven right wing governments from office, and left a rising tide of Bolivarian sentiment sweeping over the continent. In its wake the Latin left has been brought to power in Argentina, Urugay, and Bolivia.

The metallic tang of panic was evident in Washington, even before polls opened there was talk about who “lost Bolivia”.  The victory of the indigenous leftist leader Evo Morales, and his subsequent trips to Caracas and Havana to celebrate his victory has created fear that Morales has fallen under the sway of Chavez and Castro and the the rise of a Latin Bloc opposed to the United States is imminent.

That this “Bloc” results from popular discontent ,democratic elections , and a record that includes economic growth and IMF debt repayment seems lost upon those who cling to the discredited policies of the Washington Consensus. The muted panic encountered in the wake of Morale’s victory has the potential to grow to a deafening roar that will have a tremendous impact on midterm elections in the US should Mexican leftist leader Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador be brought to power in the presidential election to be held in July of this year.
The most recent poll shows Lopez Obrador (PRD) with a commanding (yet shrinking) lead at 35%, with the candidate of current President Fox’s party,  Felipe Calderon (PAN), following at 24%, with Roberto Madrazo (PRI) trailing at 16%.  While there have been large differences in the results of recent polls, all have shown Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, commonly referred to by his intials, AMLO with varying margins over his opponents.  The desparation of the once hegemonic PRI is illusteaed by the recent deal to conclude an electoral alliance conducted between Madrazo  (PRI) and the local “Green” party (PVEM). It’s still 6 months until Mexico votes, but AMLO appears to be destined for victory, and the Latin Left looks to count another amongst its numbers come July.

AMLO has a reputation as a class warrior, but all indications that his politics are more akin to Brazil’s Lula than Venezuela’s Chavez:

Lopez Obrador’s popular image is that of a relentless champion of the downtrodden, a class warrior railing against the corrupt elite. He has carefully crafted that image, living in a modest apartment and driving a beat-up sedan. Upon being elected mayor in 2000, he promptly cut his own salary.

Two years later, in a typical gesture, he evicted several millionaires from sprawling properties that had illegally encroached on Chapultepec Park, the beloved green space and popular picnic spot at the heart of Mexico City.

“We don’t owe anything to any special interest group — not businessmen, not journalists, not bankers, not politicians. . . . We don’t have to lick anyone’s boots,” he told reporters at the time. “We just have to deliver to the people.”

In nearly every speech, Lopez Obrador mentions the gap between Mexico’s rich and poor. He has said the country needs an “alternative” to the current economic model pursued by President Vicente Fox, but economic analysts said he has not made it clear what policies he would follow if elected. He has started one urban welfare program after another, raising the city’s debt in the process.

The mayor’s message has alarmed many business leaders, sending chills through the country’s political and economic establishment. Some critics call him Mexico’s version of Hugo Chavez, the populist Venezuelan president whose giveaways to the poor have slowed economic progress.

“He’s a man who likes to call attention to himself, but he doesn’t have the background to be president,” said Efrain Garcia Mora, head of a business association in Tabasco state.

Aides to Lopez Obrador, however, assert that he has proved to be a solid partner with private business and has attracted sizable foreign investment to the capital. They say he does not oppose the North American Free Trade Agreement championed by Washington, and they reject any comparison with Chavez, suggesting that Lopez Obrador has more in common with moderate, center-left leaders in Brazil and Chile.

While AMLO is not the firebrand that Chavez, the common thread that unites the rise of the Latin Left, and frightens Washington and the the White House is a rejection of the economic policies that the Bush administration has tried to bring home in the last 5 years.

What these leaders share is a strong emphasis on social egalitarianism and a determination to rely less on the approach known as the Washington Consensus, which emphasizes privatization, open markets, fiscal discipline and a follow-the-dollar impulse, and is favored by the I.M.F. and United States officials.

“You cannot throw them all in the same bag, but this is understood as a left with much more sensitivity toward the social,” said Augusto Ramírez Ocampo, a former Colombian government minister who last year helped write a United Nations report on the state of Latin American democracy. “The people believe these movements can resolve problems, since Latin American countries have seen that the Washington Consensus has not been able to deal with poverty.”

Despite the best efforts of the PRI and PAN to keep AMLO off the ballot using trumped up charges, he now appears on the path to power.  Ironically,  the most vitriolic opposition to AMLO is likely to come from his left, with Subcommandante Marcos, leader of the Zapatistas denouncing AMLO as a traitor:

The pipe-smoking, balaclava-wearing, but no longer gun-toting leader of Mexico’s Zapatista rebel group, subcomandante Marcos, emerged from his jungle hideout yesterday for a six-month nationwide tour to promote a new, non-violent political movement.

Latin America’s best-known modern guerrilla left the Zapatistas’ base in the southern state of Chiapas on a black motorcycle with a Mexican flag fixed to the back and headed for the mountain city of San Cristobal de las Casas, where hundreds of sympathisers had gathered for a rally to cheer him on……

The aim of the tour is, according to a recent communique, to “build a national programme of anti-capitalist and leftwing struggle”. By dubbing his caravan “The Other Campaign”, Marcos made it clear that much of the strategy hinges on rubbishing the July presidential election.

In a series of preparatory meetings in the jungle in August and September, Marcos reserved particular venom for the front-runner, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, calling him a traitor who would “give it to all of us” if he won. This alienated former fans in the intelligentsia who see Mr Lopez Obrador’s candidacy as an unprecedented opportunity for the left.

The government has made little comment on his tour plans. But should the authorities decide to arrest the rebel leader and outlaw, identified by the government in 1995 as former university teacher Rafael Guillén, Marcos instructed his supporters in a communique not to resist. “Run away and spread the word,” he wrote, “and bring me tobacco.”

Subcommandante Marcos has been the recipient of much adoration from the left in the US and Europe, and the allure of the man is obvious, he strives to be the essence of just struggle, in his own words:

His first words said in the new persona were: “Through me speaks the will of the Zapatista National Liberation Army.” Further subjugating himself, Marcos says that he is not a leader to those who seek him out, but that his black mask is a mirror, reflecting each of their own struggles; that a Zapatista is anyone anywhere fighting injustice, that “We are you”. He once said, “Marcos is gay in San Francisco, black in South Africa, an Asian in Europe, a Chicano in San Ysidro, an anarchist in Spain, a Palestinian in Israel, a Mayan Indian in the streets of San Cristobal, a Jew in Germany, a Gypsy in Poland, a Mohawk in Quebec, a pacifist in Bosnia, a single woman on the Metro at 10pm, a peasant without land, a gang member in the slums, an unemployed worker, an unhappy student and, of course, a Zapatista in the mountains.”

While intoxication, Marco’s brand of ideological purity is also infuriating in that it emanates from the strain of 1968 that refuses to make peace with authority and power no matter how reasonable the propostions being put forward are.  He belongs to that  sect of ideologue that gains identity not for what they believe but for what they reject. This is far from unique, I can think of movements closer to home that lurk at the cusp of negative identity, however Marcos and the Zapatistas are the heirs of Tlatelolco Massacre in which hundreds of students were killed in 1968.  While the true idenitity of Marcos is unclear, it’s almost certain that he was part of the student movement that was put down so brutally  at  Tlatelolco, and this presumably explains at least in part the fundamental rejection of political participation that underlies much of what Marcos and the Zapatistas have to say.  

While the Zapatistas have their origin in 1968,  the formative event for AMLO and the PDR is the theft of the 1988 Mexican election.  In 1988, Cuauhtemoc Cardenas, the son of the populist Mexican president Lazaro Cardenas, split from the PRI, the party that had dominated Mexican politics since the Mexican Revolution, and with the support of several smaller left wing parties nearly overturned decades of rule by PRI.  Convinced that they would lose the PRI announced the the computer system counting the votes crashed, later changing the votes of PDR to show that they voted for the PRI.  

The only eveidence of the fraud, the paper ballots, were ordered to be burned with the consent of the PRI and PAN.  The outgoing president would later confess to the fraud in an autobiography published in 2004. The PRD didn’t take to the jungle, they perservered, and in the 2000 election that President Fox and the PAN to power nationally, brought AMLO into office as the president of the Federal District, ie “mayor” of Mexico City.

AMLO now stands at the cusp of victory, Subcommandante Marcos wields no power save the ability to play the Che card,  going around the country on his black motorcycle hoping to stir a “social movement”. The PDR and AMLO stand to implement their 50 Promises (Spanish) with real hope that they can improve Mexican’s lives while Marcos and the Zapatistas cling to notions of ideological purity.  While AMLO is no Chavez, there’s plenty in his poltical program to piss off Washignton: A program to support economic autarchy for local communities,  opposition to the lifting of tarrifs on US corn and beans as required under NAFTA,  opposition to the privatization of state owned oil and electric companies, and extending NAFTA to include development aid and the free transit of labor.  While hardly a radical manifesto, elements of AMLO’s platform asre likely to cause panic in Washington, notably the sections dealing with tarrifs on US corn and beans, the proposal to include development aid in NAFTA, and allow Mexican workers to cross the border freely.

With the Republican party so thoroughly discredited by the culture of corruption that permeates the White House and Congress like stink on shit, few issues offer the potential gains that a hard line on immigrantion a la Tancredo open for the Republicans.  The irony to this is that AMLO presents a plan to halt the destruction of real wage growth that has occurred in Mexico since the implementation of policies consistent with the Washington Consenus, and offers opportunities to workers in Mexico that would make it possible for them to make a living at home in Mexico.  The lure of a latter day “southern strategy”, militarizing the border, and demonizing AMLO as a Communist will likely prove enticing to Bush and the rest of the GOP in the 2006 midterms. Militarizing the border will do nothing to deal with the nearly 11 million Mexicans now resident in the US, however it will serve to drive our southern neighbors into the embrace of Chavez, and the politicized MERCOSUR he envisions.  For the GOP faithful, this takes on shades of a real life Red Dawn.

Washington is already abuzz with talk of who “lost Bolivia”, the victory of AMLO  would open the door for talk about who “lost Mexico”.  With the allegations being made that the US has constructed a secret air base in Paraguay to invade Bolivia should
Morales act to agressively with ragards to the natural gas concessions in the country, it should be remembered that Mexico supplies more oil to the US than Saudi Arabia. It can only be hoped that the American people have more sense than to be sucked into the mythology of domino theories and monolithic threats, but the historical record on the use of armed force is not encouraging.  The US occupied Veracruz in 1914, and throughout the latter half of that decase expeditionary raids were regularly launched against Mexico.  

Seizing Mexican oil fields seems insane, and is unlikely. However, underestimating the insanity of the Bush Administration is a dangerous game, and the rise of the Latin Left is leading to a confrontation.  The Bush adminstration’s unwillingness to accept compromise creates the serious danger that minor disagreements could esclate into something much more serious.  In order to defuse this risk it is essential that the resurgent myth of the domino theory and its corollary of doctrine of the monolithic threat be confronted by progressives lest we to are crushed beneath the consequences of the domino theory.

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