End of an Era for the Left: Bush Welcomes Lula at Camp David

March 31 was an important date for the future of Latin America, especially from a symbolic perspective. George W. Bush received President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the trade unionist in whom a great part of the continent placed its hopes for change when he put on the presidential sash of Brazil in January 2003, at his retreat outside Washington.

September 4, 2007

Camp David is a special place. Very few of the world’s presidents are received in the United States’ presidential retreat – only the most prominent figures, and only in truly special circumstances. It was there where the allied landing in Normandy was planned during World War II; presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Nikita Kruschev met there several times to tackle problems of the cold war and U.S.-Soviet relations. The 1961 invasion of Cuba was planned there. In September 1978, after twelve days of negotiations between President Anwar el-Sadat of Egypt and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, mediated by Jimmy Carter at the presidential retreat, a peace was signed between the two countries that would later become known as the Camp David Accords.

Few places in the world have such prestige as this small space just outside Washington, D.C. On March 29, Lula (our Lula) was there, conversing with Bush, surrounded by bucolic hills and forests. The date was already set when Bush kicked off his recent Latin American tour through Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico. That tour surely represented a new twist in the relations between the United States and Brazil, which for the moment are focused on ethanol. But it was also much more than that: it was a preview of what could come; of a climate now established in the region that looks to a long-term change. And that goes beyond the accords that may be signed this month. They are signals, winks and gestures that have as much importance as hard facts and events, because the former foreshadow the later; they mark the path.

The attitudes toward the Bush Administration on the part of left-wing governments such as Lula’s and Tabaré Vázquez’ are a relief to Latin America's right-wing forces, which continue to demand more and more, and are now in a position to take their revenge for the Free Trade Area of the Americas’ (FTAA) failure at Mar del Plata in November 2005. “Any bilateral agreement with the United States reproduces, at a smaller scale, the same content as the FTAA: hemispheric security and free trade,” writes Luis Fernando Novoa, Brazilian sociologist and member of the group ATTAC, in the left-wing magazine Correio da Cidadanía. The direction that Lula’s government is taking can also be inferred from the statements by Brazilian foreign minister Celso Amorim that “we need an agreement between Mercosur and the United States” based on “bilateral accords guided by the ethanol model.”

Tabaré Vázquez turned in the same direction when he told Bush that “we are committed to a process of open integration,” and that he now defends the idea that “from Tierra del Fuego to Alaska, this must be one single continent.” There can be no doubt: the spirit of Mar del Plata has been left behind, and we are now in a new period of history. Just what this period will be like, we do not yet know, but we can be sure that the momentum has passed from the hands of social movements and the most anti-imperialist governments of the region, to the hands of the elite and the governments most inclined to reach agreements with Washington based on a severe version of free trade.

What we might call the continent’s “progressive spring” had some significant moments worth remembering. From below, we have the Bolivian popular insurrections between 2000 and 2005, the “Argentinazo” revolt of December 2001, the indigenous and popular uprising in Ecuador against a Free Trade Agreement in 2006 – just to mention a few milestones in addition to the overwhelming electoral triumph of the Left in Venezuela, Ecuador, Uruguay, Brazil and Nicaragua. From above, the statements made during the “Buenos Aires Consensus” between Lula and Néstor Kirchner in October 2003 – when the two affirmed their “will to intensify bilateral and regional cooperation in order to guarantee to all citizens the full enjoyment of their fundamental rights and liberties, including the right to development, within a framework of freedom and social justice” – must be recalled. Or the resounding NO to the FTAA that the five Mercosur countries sprung on Bush at Mar del Plata.

If the agreements that Brazil and the United States are reaching – as well as those that Uruguay is eagerly seeking with the superpower – are in themselves problematic because they further isolate Venezuela and Cuba and weaken the agendas that Bolivia and Ecuador seem to be perusing, they have the “added value” of paving the way toward a new cycle of capital accumulation, in which U.S.-based multinational corporations will play a prominent role.

This should be stated clearly: those of us who fight for change are on the defensive. And we need to become conscious of the situation in order to act accordingly. One good path is the one taken by the Brazilian workers’ federations and popular movements at their March 25 gathering in São Paulo. According to an editorial in Correio da Cidadanía, the decisions from that meeting “could be an important, historic framework for a new phase of popular struggle,” as some of the weaknesses that put the movements on the defensive, “ever since President Fernando Henrique Cardoso broke the backbone of the oil workers’ union ten years ago,” could be tackled. It goes on to say that our struggle “will continue to be one of resistance for a long time, because the forces of the bourgeoisie are much stronger than ours.” Proof of this is that the second Lula administration has named a cabinet considerably farther to the right than his first administration. Signs of the times: turning to the right above, reorganization and clarity below.

Raúl Zibechi, a member of the editorial board of the weekly Brecha de Montevideo, is a professor on social movements at the Multiversidad Franciscana de America Latina and adviser to several grassroots organizations. Translated from the Spanish by Dan Feder.


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