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Alex Main says the U.S. prefers a capitalist democracy to dictatorships, as long as it can control the outcome of elections

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. President Obama heads to the Summit of the Americas in Panama, and he has an agenda to try to regain some initiative at the foreign policy level, political level, in Latin America, as the United States has become a little bit marginalized. Now, of course they’re still the dominant economic force, external economic force in Latin America, but in many countries they have been supplanted by China as the major trading partner, and China’s also very active in the field of offering loans and various forms of finance. And what was America’s backyard — and don’t forget the Monroe doctrine — certainly isn’t in anybody’s backyard anymore. So now joining us to talk a little bit about the roots of U.S. foreign policy and what they’re trying to achieve today is Alex Main. Alex is a senior associate for international policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in DC. He focuses on U.S. foreign policy in Latin America and the Caribbean. Thanks for joining us, Alex. ALEX MAIN, SENIOR ASSOCIATE, CENTER FOR ECONOMIC AND POLICY RESEARCH: Thanks for having me back on, Paul. JAY: So we’re not going to go way back to banana republic, although the banana republic idea certainly shaped U.S. foreign policy for a long time. That you know, we, being America, is going to get to decide who governs Latin America and you know, we’ll get your natural resources. We’ll dominate the markets of various kinds, and nobody else should even come near it. Well, we’re far from that now. The, in the more recent period, especially go late ’80s, ’90s, the whole string of military dictatorships that were very pro-American, and helped enforce this backyard of America, started to come apart. And it seems to me that the United States and the economic forces, the capitalist forces of America, actually wanted to get rid of these dictatorships. Do you think that’s right? And if so, why? MAIN: Well, yeah. I think there are good arguments for that, certainly in sort of the mainstream academic literature that had an influence on policymakers at the time. You start reading a lot about how dictatorships were really unsustainable. They generated too much instability, and that ultimately you had to have at least some facade of representative democracy in order to channel some of the frustrations and the needs, demands, of the population and give them a sense that there was a political outlet. And so you know, that certainly was part of the influence behind the U.S. government’s decision to allow some of these dictatorships to fall, and then to encourage very sort of narrow-spectrum democracies to develop. With political parties — and of course we have to remember that to a large extent, particularly in South America, left wing movements had been wiped out, many had gone into exile, et cetera — so there wasn’t much of a left there to contend in politics at the time. And the U.S., then, did their bit as well through their whole system of what they called democracy promotion to support the elites. The economic elites and their candidates, and particularly the elites that were favorable to, you know, U.S. investment strategies throughout the region. And so through this system, you did in fact have, for a number of years, a democratization throughout the region where you had very moderate governments that took power, that really supported the U.S. agenda on the foreign policy front. And internally the neoliberal agenda, which is referred to as the Washington Consensus, as well, that the U.S. was supporting. JAY: And who went along with IMF loans and restructuring, and privatization, and all the things that made more freedom for capital. American capital, though not only, but primarily, but operate. And it was an incredibly enriching market for the United States. MAIN: Absolutely. But not particularly enriching for the countries themselves. Enriching for one sector, the financial sector. And then enriching for U.S. multinationals that got very good deals, particularly when a lot of public services were privatized, and then snatched up by these companies for really cents on the dollar. So it was very beneficial to them. But the countries themselves, if you look at just the economic growth rates, economic growth stagnated during this period. Began to stagnate in the ’80s, when you saw these neoliberal policies applied more widely in Latin America, and then in the ’90s in particular it was an era of very, very slow economic growth. And of course, with that, poverty was not alleviated, and things became much more difficult for people in general. Specifically, the poor, given the fact that under these same policies basic social services and health and education, et cetera, were being cut. JAY: Now, I think the lesson here is that … the American capitalism, European, they don’t like dictatorships unless they’re pro-American dictatorships. Unless the alternative, which in their eyes is worse, which is anything that looks like socialism, or a kind of nationalism that might not be on the American orbit. But when they don’t defend the dictatorships in Latin America, it’s because they think they’re going to control the political process that follows. Then we enter the more recent period, where they’re not, they’re not controlling the political process that they would like to. And I wonder if it gets to a point, and have we gotten to the point, where in fact what they’d like to see is a return of quite right-wing governments to try to put a damper on losing these countries in their direct orbit? MAIN: Well, absolutely. And you did begin to see even early in the 1990s more and more political candidates that had an ostensibly anti-neoliberal agenda. That would sell themselves as being against the sort of IMF-inspired reforms of the public sector and wanting to return to more of a welfare state. And then, in actual fact, when they were elected, people like Fujimori in Peru, Carlos Andrés Pérez in Venezuela, they ended up applying the same old neoliberal policies. But all this began to unravel, really, towards the end of the ’90s. You had the election of Hugo Chavez, who was the first to come to power with the same discourse of, you know, being against the neoliberal agenda. The U.S. clearly thought he could be co-opted like the other candidates, and this didn’t turn out to be the case. Then Hugo Chavez, of course, remained in power despite a coup against him in 2002 for a number of years, and there was a domino effect that followed. Other left-wing movements realized that they could take power, and get away with it, and survive politically. And were emboldened to do so, and then to have more radical agendas. And this phenomenon spread, particularly in South America, but then afterwards as well to Central America. And so today you have a very different political map in the region, one that is adverse to a lot of U.S. interests. But the U.S. has been pushing back. It has been doing so, for instance, by supporting right-wing coups like the one that occurred in Honduras in June of 2009, where it came out officially against the coup but ultimately ended up supporting the coup regime, and helped the coup regime remain in place. Then it supported a technical coup in Paraguay after that against Fernando Lugo, another left-wing president. And the U.S. did so each time with really the condemnation of the rest of the region. And so the U.S., in doing these things, made itself more isolated in the region. But you have — JAY: There’s also the recent, according to the Venezuelan government, coup attempt just a couple of months ago, which — what do you make of that, this ongoing attempt to destabilize Venezuela? It seems to me such a critical issue for the Americans to prove the point that you can’t stand up to us the way Venezuela has. MAIN: No, that’s right. I think in Venezuela, the U.S. is smelling blood at the moment. And with some good reason, because Venezuela isn’t doing well economically, at all. Maduro, who is succeeded in the presidency following the death of Chavez, doesn’t have anywhere near the sort of charisma and internal leadership that Chavez had. So there has been a real economic and political crisis in the country, which has been stoked by the opposition, with clear attempts of destabilization that really have been supported by the U.S. Again, very much unilaterally. You don’t see other countries doing this. But you know, in terms of the long-term strategy, I think the U.S. is investing a lot in trying to separate a block of countries, and go with them, and particularly with this project of the Pacific Alliance. So the Pacific Alliance is something that nominally is an autonomous group that was created by the governments of Mexico, Chile, Peru, and Colombia, with a very neoliberal sort of agenda. Trying to be, you know, very open to international financial capital, and so on. Very open to good relations with the U.S., and functioning more and more as a bloc. But clearly from the very beginning, the U.S. has been supporting this group and trying to promote it, and trying to detach these countries from the other countries, and from the other regional groups such as UNASUR, the union of South American nations. JAY: And they seem a little bit surprised when it came to this issue of trying to isolate Venezuela, and before that Cuba, that these countries that they’re trying to get into their trade fold — with some success — are not jumping to their support at this level. MAIN: Well, not at all. Not at all. And in fact, Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos — and Colombia is one of the closest allies to the U.S. — he came out yesterday again saying that they strongly rejected U.S. sanctions against Venezuela. And you know, there was an executive order signed by President Obama at the beginning of March which has been decried throughout the region. An order that imposes sanctions on Venezuela, and that refers to Venezuela as an extraordinary national security threat. And this has lead to a lot of outrage in the region, and this outrage is likely to express itself in the upcoming summit in Panama, that Obama will be attending April 10th. JAY: All right, thanks very much for joining us, Alex. MAIN: Thank you, Paul. JAY: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.


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In his work at CEPR, as Director of International Policy, Alexander Main focuses on U.S. foreign policy in Latin America and the Caribbean and regularly engages with U.S. policy makers and civil society groups to inform the public debate. He is frequently interviewed by media in the U.S. and Latin American and his analyses on U.S. policy in the Americas have been published in a variety of domestic and international media outlets including Foreign Policy, NACLA and the Monde diplomatique. Prior to CEPR, Alexander spent more than six years in Latin America working as an international relations analyst. He has a degree in history and political science from the Sorbonne University in Paris, France.