This interview by Bernie Dwyer took place on February 8, 2006 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge prior to a screening of the Irish/Cuban documentary “Mission Against Terror” about the five Cuban political prisoners incarcerated in the US for taking action in Miami, USA to protect their country, Cuba, against terrorism.
Bernie Dwyer: I am reminded of a great Irish song called “The West’s Awake” written by Thomas Davis in remembrance of the Fenian Uprising of 1798. It is about the west of Ireland asleep under British rule for hundreds of years and how it awoke from its slumbers and rose up against the oppressor. Could we now begin to hope that the South is awake?
Noam Chomsky: What’s happening is something completely new in the history of the hemisphere. Since the Spanish conquest the countries of Latin America have been pretty much separated from one another and oriented toward the imperial power. There are also very sharp splits between the tiny wealthy elite and the huge suffering population. The elites sent their capital, took their trips, had their second homes, sent their children to study in whatever European country their country was closely connected with. I mean, even their transportation systems were oriented toward the outside for export of resources and so on.
For the first time, they are beginning to integrate and in quite a few different ways. Venezuela and Cuba is one case. MERCOSUR, [the trading association now including many Latin American countries] which is still not functioning very much, is another case. Venezuela, of course, just joined MERCOSUR, which is a big step forward for it and it was greatly welcomed by the presidents of Argentina, Brazil.
For the first time the Indian population is becoming politically quite active. They just won an election in Bolivia which is pretty remarkable. There is a huge Indian population in Ecuador, even in Peru, and some of them are calling for an Indian nation. Now they want to control their own resources. In fact, many don’t even want their resources developed. Many don’t see any particular point in having their culture and lifestyle destroyed so that people can sit in traffic jams in New York.
Furthermore, they are beginning to throw out the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In the past, the US could prevent unwelcome developments such as independence in Latin America, by violence; supporting military coups, subversion, invasion and so on. That doesn’t work so well any more. The last time they tried in 2002 in Venezuela, the US had to back down because of enormous protests from Latin America, and of course the coup was overthrown from within. That’s very new.
If the United States loses the economic weapons of control, it is very much weakened. Argentina is just essentially ridding itself of the IMF, as they say. They are paying off the debts to the IMF. The IMF rules that they followed had totally disastrous effects. They are being helped in that by Venezuela, which is buying up part of the Argentine debt.
Bolivia will probably do the same. Bolivia’s had 25 years of rigorous adherence to IMF rules. Per capita income now is less than it was 25 years ago. They want to get rid of it. The other countries are doing the same. The IMF is essentially the US Treasury Department. It is the economic weapon that’s alongside the military weapon for maintaining control. That’s being dismantled.
All of this is happening against the background of very substantial popular movements, which, to the extent that they existed in the past, were crushed by violence, state terror, Operation Condor, one monstrosity after another. That weapon is no longer available.
Furthermore, there is South-South integration going on, so Brazil, and South Africa and India are establishing relations.
And again, the forces below the surface in pressing all of this are international popular organizations of a kind that never existed before; the ones that meet annually in the world social forums. By now several world social forums have spawned lots of regional ones; there’s one right here in Boston and many other places. These are very powerful mass movements of a kind without any precedent in history: the first real internationals. Everyone’s always talked about internationals on the left but there’s never been one. This is the beginning of one.
These developments are extremely significant. For US planners, they are a nightmare. I mean, the Monroe Doctrine is about 180 years old now, and the US wasn’t powerful enough to implement it until after the 2nd World War, except for the nearby region.
After the 2nd World War it was able to kick out the British and the French and implement it, but now it is collapsing. These countries are also diversifying their international relations including commercial relations. So there’s a lot of export to China, and accepting of investment from China. That’s particularly true of Venezuela, but also the other big exporters like Brazil and Chile. And China is eager to gain access to other resources of Latin America.
Unlike Europe, China can’t be intimidated. Europe backs down if the United States looks at it the wrong way. But China, they’ve been there for 3,000 years and are paying no attention to the barbarians and don’t see any need to. The United States is afraid of China; it is not a military threat to anyone; and is the least aggressive of all the major military powers. But it’s not easy to intimidate it. In fact, you can’t intimidate it at all. So China’s interactions with Latin America are frightening the United States. Latin America is also improving economic interactions with Europe. China and Europe now are each other largest trading partners, or pretty close to it.
These developments are eroding the means of domination of the US world system. And the US is pretty naturally playing its strong card which is military and in military force the US is supreme. Military expenditures in the US are about half of the total world expenditures, technologically much more advanced. In Latin America, just keeping to that, the number of the US military personnel is probably higher than it ever was during the Cold War. The US is sharply increasing training of Latin American officers.
The training of military officers has been shifted from the State Department to the Pentagon, which is not insignificant. The State department is under some weak congressional supervision. I mean, there is legislation requiring human rights conditionalities and so on. They are not very much enforced, but they are at least there. But the Pentagon is free to do anything they want. Furthermore, the training is shifting to local control. So one of the main targets is what’s called radical populism, we know what that means, and the US is establishing military bases throughout the region.
Bernie Dwyer: It appears, from what you are saying, that the US is losing the ideological war and compensating by upping their military presence in the region. Would you see Cuba as being a key player in encouraging and perhaps influencing what’s coming out of Latin America right now?
Noam Chomsky: Fidel Castro, whatever people may think of him, is a hero in Latin America, primarily because he stood up to the United States. It’s the first time in the history of the hemisphere that anybody stood up to the United States. Nobody likes to be under the jackboot but they may not be able to do anything about it. So for that reason alone, he’s a Latin American hero. Chavez: the same.
The ideological issue that you rightly bring up is the impact of neoliberalism. It’s pretty striking over the last twenty-five years, overwhelmingly it’s true, that the countries that have adhered to the neo-liberal rules have had an economic catastrophe and the countries that didn’t pay any intention to the rules grew and developed. East Asia developed rapidly pretty much by totally ignoring the rules. Chile is claimed as being a market economy but that’s highly misleading: its main export is a very efficient state owned copper company nationalized under Allende. You don’t get correlations like this in economics very often. Adherence to the neoliberal rules has been associated with economic failure and violation of them with economic success: it’s very hard to miss that. Maybe some economists can miss it but people don’t: they live it.
Yes, there is an uprising against it. Cuba is a symbol. Venezuela is another, Argentina, where they recovered from the IMF catastrophe by violating the rules and sharply violating them, and then throwing out the IMF. Well, this is the ideological issue. The IMF is just a name for the economic weapon of domination, which is eroding.
Bernie Dwyer: Why do you think that this present movement is different from the struggle that went before, in Chile for instance where they succeeded in overthrowing the military dictatorship? What gives us more hope about this particular stage of liberation for Latin America?
Noam Chomsky: First of all, there was hope in Latin America in the 1960s but it was crushed by violence. Chile was moving on a path towards some form of democratic socialism but we know what happened. That’s the first 9/11 in 1973, which was an utter catastrophe. The dictatorship in Chile, which is a horror story also led to an economic disaster in Chile bringing about its worst recession in its history. The military then turned over power to civilians. Its still there so Chile didn’t yet completely liberate itself. It has partially liberated itself from the military dictatorship; and in the other countries even more so.
So for example, I remember traveling in Argentina and Chile a couple of years ago and the standard joke in both countries was that people said that they wish the Chilean military had been stupid enough to get into a war with France or some major power so they could have been crushed and discredited and then people would be free the way they were in Argentina, where the military was discredited by its military defeat.
But there has been a slow process in every one of the countries, Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, all the way through, there’s been a process of overthrowing the dominant dictatorships – the military dictatorships which have been almost always supported, and sometimes instituted, by the United States
Now they are supporting one another and the US cannot resort to the same policies.
Take Brazil; if Lula had been running in 1963, the US would have done just what it did when Goulart was president in 1963. The Kennedy administration just planned a military dictatorship. A military coup took place and that got rid of that. And that was happening right through the hemisphere.
Now, there’s much more hope because that cannot be done and there is also cooperation.
There is also a move towards a degree of independence: political, economic and social policies, access to their own resources, instituting social changes of the kind that could overcome the tremendous internal problems of Latin America, which are awful. And a large part of the problems in Latin America are simply internal. In Latin America, the wealthy have never had any responsibilities. They do what they want.
Bernie Dwyer: Do you think that the recent growth and strength of broad based social movements in several Latin America countries have played a significant role in bringing progressive governments into power in the region?
Noam Chomsky: There can be no serious doubt of this. Latin America has, I think, the most important popular movements anywhere: the MST (Landless Workers Movement) in Brazil, the indigenous movements in Bolivia, others. That accounts for the vibrancy and vitality of democracy in much of Latin America today — denounced in the West as “populism,” a term that translates as “threat to elite rule with marginalization of the public in systems with democratic forms but with only limited substance,” those naturally preferred by concentrated private and state power.