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In the third and last presidential debate Senator John McCain defended a free trade agreement between Colombia and the US as a “no brainer” and once again derided Senator Obama for never having traveled south of the border. Obama, to McCain’s amazement, actually showed he knew one or two things about the situation on the ground. But journalist and author Forrest Hylton, an expert on Colombia and Bolivia, argues neither candidate is really aware of crucial political, economic and social processes developing in South America for a few years now, and he is pessimistic on the US under a new presidency making up for lost time.

Story Transcript

Pepe Escobar talks to Forrest Hylton

PEPE ESCOBAR, SENIOR ANALYST, TRNN: Forrest Hylton, Colombia was a superstar at the last debate between McCain and Obama. McCain was defending, of course, the free trade agreement between the US and Colombia. He said it was a no-brainer. And, obviously, he excoriated Obama because, once again, he’s never been to the south of the border and he didn’t know what was happening over there. I’ll play you the tape where Obama contradicts McCain on the free trade agreement and he talks about something that apparently McCain had no idea about.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R-AZ), US PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: So Senator Obama, who has never traveled south of our border, opposes the Colombia Free Trade Agreement—the same country that’s helping us try to stop the flow of drugs into our country.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D-IL), US PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Actually, I understand it pretty well. The history in Colombia right now is that labor leaders had been targeted for assassination on a fairly consistent basis, and there had not been prosecutions. And what I have said, because the free trade agreement itself does have labor and environmental protections, but we have to stand for human rights, and we have to make sure that violence isn’t being perpetrated against workers who are just trying to organize for their rights.

ESCOBAR: So, Forrest, that’s my question: Did McCain know about what was happening on the ground in Colombia? Or he had no idea—it would be just a bunch of leftist leaders or trade unionists killed or peasants killed by paramilitary forces, and the only thing that really matters to him is this free trade agreement? So what’s the real story?

FORREST HYLTON, JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR: Well, judging by McCain’s visits to Afghanistan and Iraq and so forth, you know, where he’s surrounded by a virtual battalion of bodyguards and goes to a popular market with a bulletproof vest on and says that, you know, people are happy and shopping and so forth, it’s fair to say that when McCain visits a country, he doesn’t actually visit the country in any significant way. So it was interesting to see the fact that McCain’s so-called experience came across as anything but, because Obama clearly was much better informed than McCain about the actual situation on the ground in Colombia. And I guess that’s what, you know, organized labor’s campaign money is able to buy in this election season.

ESCOBAR: So you just returned from Colombia. You spent a few weeks there. Tell us what’s really happening on the ground, not in the big centers Bogotá, Cali, Medellín, but in the countryside, and with the FARC [Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia] as well.

HYLTON: Something like 13 or 14 indigenous leaders throughout Colombia have been assassinated in the last two weeks in accordance with the paramilitary threats that they received previous to their assassination. Right now there is en estado de sitio (state of siege) or cómo se un [“eem-PAY-ree-YOR”] has been declared, which allows Uribe, of course, to militarize the country in response to indigenous protests. Actually, it was first in response to a strike by employees of the judicial branch; now it’s in response to this massive indigenous mobilization that’s going on as we speak. Uribe, of course, has accused indigenous leaders of having ties to the FARC, just as he accuses every trade unionist on strike of having ties to the FARC. So it was really ironic that as they spoke about this situation of assassination of trade union leaders, the assassination of indigenous leaders is taking place literally as we speak now. So Obama was clearly much better informed, but the fact is this: US money and aid to Colombia is what has allowed the paramilitaries to really take over the country and to continue their assaults on trade union and indigenous rights movements. So we would really need a whole new approach to the concept of hemispheric security and so forth if we were going to actually change directions in policy.

ESCOBAR: And, in fact, a group of scholars from the Latin American Studies Association, right, they are circulating a petition to be delivered to Obama, preaching exactly a new dialog between North and South America, right?

HYLTON: Right. But, you know, my fear is that it’s something akin to spinning in the wind insofar as there isn’t actually any progressive movement in the United States that could sort of put flesh on the bare bones of these types of proposals. As Mike Davis pointed out in a recent column discussing the differences between right now and the period of the 1930s and the New Deal—which of course excluded African-Americans altogether, but that’s a different discussion—the difference between now and the 1930s is that the 1930s saw the largest upsurge of mass direct action by the working class in favor of its own demands that we have ever seen in US history. And right now we don’t have anything comparable that would pressure Obama to adopt a more progressive policy stance. Now, as Greg Brandon pointed out in his book, Empire’s Workshop, in fact many of the platforms of the New Deal that Roosevelt adopted had everything to do with a shift in foreign policy towards Latin America, with the Good Neighbor policy that was basically forced upon Roosevelt by, on the one hand, movements of peasant and worker resistance in Latin America, and on the other hand industrial workers in the United States. It’s the other hand that we’re missing today. And, therefore, I think it’s very unlikely that Obama’s going to take these progressive policy proposals seriously, because essentially he doesn’t have to.

ESCOBAR: So, essentially what you’re saying is there is no realistic prospect of Obama burying the Monroe Doctrine and stop demonizing Venezuela, for instance, and understanding the power of social movements in Bolivia or in Ecuador. Is this what you’re saying?

HYLTON: Absolutely. It’s remarkable that in the last two debates, Venezuela was mentioned, but, you know, almost in passing as a sort of vaguely threatening enemy type of nation, when of course, you know, all that would be necessary to repair the damage between the US and Venezuelan relations would be a dialog, negotiations. I mean, it’d be a very straightforward and simple thing to do, and it’s exactly what Hugo Chavez would like. Hugo Chavez doesn’t actually like being a, quote-unquote, “enemy” of the United States; he would very much like to be a friend of the United States’ government as well as United States people. But that’s really not the tone or the stance that’s being adopted at all. The idea is that somehow Venezuela is vaguely menacing to US national security, and that, of course, is utterly preposterous. What it really demonstrates, Pepe, is the utter disconnect of these presidential debates in relation to actual developments in the world. Things are happening now so quickly and on a scale of magnitude that it’s very hard for us to bring it into focus. It’s as though we’re out there looking at the Grand Canyon and we can’t see clearly exactly what the outlines of our present are.

ESCOBAR: And the Grand Canyon now is between North and South America.

HYLTON: Absolutely. Already, South America is simply moving in its own directions. And we’ve seen some flareups between Brazil and Ecuador recently around trade issues, but those are likely to be resolved in the short term, and in the medium and long term we’re likely to see more ambitious programs of regional integration, the sort of thing we’ve been discussing here on The Real News.

ESCOBAR: And the political integration via the UNASUR, for instance.

HYLTON: Political integration, economic integration, diplomatic integration. And the United States is completely out of the loop. Obama as much as McCain, they don’t really seem to have any idea that all this is already happening as we speak. These are what the Israelis like to call “facts on the ground.” And these are facts on the ground that simply aren’t being taken into account. And whoever becomes president next is going to have to take them into account if they want to craft some sort of realistic policy.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Forrest Hylton teaches history at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia-Medellín. He is the author of Evil Hour in Colombia (Verso, 2006), and with Sinclair Thomson, co-author of Revolutionary Horizons: Past and Present in Bolivian Politics (Verso, 2007). He has contributed to New Left Review, NACLA Report on the Americas, and CounterPunch, and his short fiction and translations have appeared in the Brooklyn Rail. Also, he authored the novel Vanishing Acts: A Tragedy (City Works Press, 2010).