Good Left, Bad Left

On the one side are countries like Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador, where voters have given much greater power to their populist presidents, partly by allowing them to extend their time in office and sometimes eroding the function of Congress and the Supreme Court, institutions portrayed as allies of the old oligarchy. On the other side are nations of varying ideological hues, including Brazil, Latin America's rising power, where resilient institutions have allowed for more diversity of participants in politics, ruling out the so-called participatory democracy that Mr. Chavez, the Venezuelan president, has been eager to promote in the region.


                             —Simon Romero in the New York Times, June 2009 [1]


In the past decade Latin America has witnessed the election of roughly a dozen left-leaning presidents of varying ideological inclinations and leadership styles, who have been propelled into power by some combination of grassroots citizens’ movements and deep popular disillusion with the neoliberal policies of previous pro-US leaders. Faced with this tide of protest against the US and US-allied leaders, the US government has tried to limit its loss of control over the hemisphere. One strategy for doing so has involved promoting what it considers the “good,” responsible Left and isolating the anti-democratic, “bad” Left. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton explained the difference during a visit to Brazil this past March, when she criticized Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez for undermining democracy and called on him “to restore private property” and “return to a free market economy.” Clinton contrasted Venezuela with the good Left, saying that “[w]e wish Venezuela were looking more to its south and looking at Brazil and looking at Chile” [2].


The major press organs in the US, including the more liberal ones, have echoed this characterization, often drawing the contrast even more sharply. News articles and editorials in the New York Times have distinguished between those who “aggressively push a leftist agenda” and “Brazil’s more moderate, leftist approach,” while insisting on the need for a “counterweight” to “Chavez [sic] and his protégé, the Bolivian president, Evo Morales” [3]. The Washington Post has contrasted the region’s “fervently anti-American leaders” with “democratic Brazil” [4]. The Christian Science Monitor has implicitly pitted “the region’s hard-left, Chavez-led bloc, which also includes Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Cuba,” against Brazil, Argentina, and others [5]. The New York Daily News recently expressed outrage that democratic Brazil had joined “Venezuela’s revolutionary strongman and narcoterrorist Hugo Chavez” and “Bolivian dictator-in-the-making Evo Morales” in pursuing diplomatic and commercial relations with Iran (efforts which, in their manifest common sense and efficacy in promoting peace, stand in bold contrast to most Western politicians’ saber-rattling over Iran’s nuclear program)[6].


The aggressive, authoritarian Left is embodied by Hugo Chávez, who is held responsible for the entire region’s leftward shift; the election of left-leaning leaders has nothing to do with the fact that Latin America is the most unequal region in the world, that it has long been dominated by the US and domestic oligarchies, and that most Latin Americans disagree with the neoliberal economic policies promoted by Washington and the international financial institutions. With the help of a few “poodles” like Evo Morales, Chávez has duped tens of millions of people into supporting his agenda by “buying support” among irrational populations who are “largely blind to results,” while sending anyone who disagrees with him to the Gulag [7]. The June 2009 military overthrow of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya occurred in part because “the Honduran president had lately fallen under the spell of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez,” who presumably tricked Zelaya into raising the country’s minimum wage and implementing other measures beneficial to Honduran workers and the poor [8]. News coverage following the coup rarely failed to emphasize Zelaya’s friendly relations with Chávez, but usually omitted all discussion of Zelaya’s socioeconomic policies [9].


Press discussions of Latin American economic policies likewise contrast the “profligate state spending” and “nationalization of industries” under the bad Left with the “middle-of-the-road policies” of the good Left in Uruguay, Brazil, and elsewhere. Chávez’s “pathological mismanagement has run the economy into the ground,” whereas the good Left (and the good Latins, more generally) have “embrace[d] globalization” and consequently expect strong growth in their economies this year [10].


These sharp binary distinctions between good and bad Left contain an element of truth: Venezuela’s Chávez and Bolivia’s Morales have been the most outspokenly anti-imperialist and have also made the boldest attempts to break from neoliberal economic doctrine by regulating or nationalizing big business and increasing social spending. But in many ways the US press exaggerates the contrast and distorts basic realities. First, Venezuelan and Bolivian citizens do not rate their governments more harshly than most Latin Americans rate their governments—and in fact, by most measures they deem their countries to be considerably more democratic, egalitarian, and respectful of human rights than the regional average. Any objective comparison of the human rights records of US friends and foes would certainly fault US allies Colombia and Mexico far more than Venezuela and Bolivia [11]. Second, in the realm of economic policy, the real contrast is not between “socialist” and “middle-of-the-road policies,” but between different variants of capitalism; Venezuela and Bolivia are still fundamentally capitalist, though they have found ways to mitigate some of capitalism’s most destructive consequences (and incidentally, those very policies have produced relatively strong economic growth as well) [12]. And finally, the US press exaggerates the degree of diplomatic separation between Venezuela and Bolivia, on one hand, and countries like Brazil, on the other. For example, during several recent crises, including the Honduran coup and the wave of right-wing violence in Bolivia in fall 2008, Latin American governments have united to condemn the affront to peace and democracy (while Washington has wavered) [13]. Brazil’s Lula has recently defied the US by opposing sanctions against Iran and helping to negotiate a peaceful uranium transfer deal.


Thus, the real reasons for the sharp distinctions between good and bad Left must lie elsewhere. Not irrelevant is the desire by US policymakers to preserve a highly unequal hemispheric structure in which the US government enjoys geopolitical control and its corporations and financial interests reap enormous profits. Media discourse makes a small but very significant contribution to this effort.



Splitting the Other: Modern Race-Thinking


Throughout the modern history of imperial contact with native peoples, only the most inveterate racists have dismissed all racial Others as equally dangerous and inferior. The clever colonizer, meanwhile, has always distinguished between “good” and “bad” members of the subordinate group in question. When Columbus landed in the Caribbean in the 1490s, he contrasted the peaceful Arawaks of Cuba to the aggressive, allegedly-cannibalistic Caribs to the southeast. European powers employed a similar discursive strategy over the following centuries, as did nineteenth-century elites in the newly-independent nations of US and Latin America as they waged wars of internal colonialism against blacks, Indians, immigrants, workers, and women [14]. Woodrow Wilson, an unrepentant racist who nonetheless retains his reputation for “idealism” among much of the US intellectual elite, contrasted the irresponsible children of Latin America and the Caribbean with the “good men” whom he was “going to teach the South American republics to elect” [15]. Modern “race-thinking” is similar to, but broader and slightly more sophisticated than, classic racism; although often based implicitly or explicitly on racial categories, it encompasses diverse forms of discursive distinction [16].


The same distinctions apparent in the US press are also apparent in the rhetoric of many present-day Latin American elites. For example, in recent decades a phenomenon that some scholars have called “neoliberal multiculturalism” has swept Latin America. Most Latin American governments have by now embraced some form of recognition of their countries’ non-white, non-European cultures and histories. But in most cases this recognition has included an implicit distinction between what Charles Hale calls el indio permitido—the acceptable Indian—and the unacceptable Indian or Other. The acceptable Indian politely asks his or her government for cultural and linguistic recognition, while the bad Indian demands socioeconomic resources and political power in addition to token state recognition of his or her culture and language [17]. In 1994, for example, the government that had just declared Mexico a “pluricultural” nation immediately denounced the Zapatista uprising, saying that “[w]e are not dealing with an indigenous uprising,” but with an “armed aggressor group,” and took rapid steps to exterminate the rebels before massive international and domestic pressure limited its ability to do so [18]. The Colombian government of Alvaro Uribe, meanwhile, has talked explicitly of trying to divide the country’s indigenous movement by bribing the good Indians so that indigenous people “end up betraying each other,” and “the delinquents” who demand land and other resources “end up broken” [19].


On a sidenote, here in the US there has been much discussion of what Obama’s election means for race relations, and specifically of whether the US is now a “post-racial” society. Anyone who follows US politics knows that race and racism still play a fundamental role in sowing fear, resentment, and division among the population, and in justifying extraordinary inequalities of class, wealth, and access to less tangible resources like the justice system. But the slew of racist attacks on Obama has come from a minority of the population, and has not come from the key power-holders in US society—in fact, the latter were very enthusiastic in their endorsement of Obama, funneling significantly more corporate funds to him than to McCain in 2008. Obama, even more so than the “good Indian,” has been deemed a responsible Other, one whom many white elites consider one of their own. He has ceased to be “black,” with all the connotations of danger that the word carries. He can be trusted to promote the interests of the people who matter. And he has certainly delivered, as his administration’s policies—as distinct from rhetoric—on Latin America as well as foreign wars, military spending, private health insurance, oil, climate change, and many other issues confirm.



The Good, the Bad, and the Benevolent Interventionist


An implicit corollary to facile distinctions between “good” and “bad” is that any intervention by an elite power, either internationally or domestically, can be justified in the name of “protecting” the good Other from the bad Other. Thus Columbus and his men protected the peaceful Arawaks from the savage Caribs, the Mexican government protects the good Indians of southern Mexico from the Zapatistas, the Colombian government protects the docile Indians from “the delinquents,” and the US government promotes democracy through its relations with the “moderate Left,” protecting those countries and others against “the hard-left, Chávez-led bloc.” By definition, all such interventions are undertaken with noble and humanitarian intent [20]. In many ways imperial discourse has remained remarkably consistently over time, albeit with new rhetorical demons and pretexts in successive epochs: corruption and European intervention in Wilson’s day; Communism during the Cold War; and terrorism, drug lords, autocrats, and the “hard-left, Chávez-led bloc” since the Soviet Union’s collapse.


Obama administration actions provide a number of examples, from the increased military aid to Mexico in the name of the “war on drugs,” to the revocation of Bolivia’s trade preferences, to the increased US military presence in countries like Colombia, Panama, and now Costa Rica [21]. The June 2009 military coup in Honduras is a particularly interesting example. During subsequent mediation efforts involving the US and Latin American governments, the Washington Post in particular advocated strong US action to thwart “the faction, led by Mr. Zelaya’s mentor, Hugo Chávez, that is attempting to overthrow democratic institutions across the region.” Chávez, the Post’s editors warned, “dreams of a putsch in Tegucigalpa that would produce another lawless autocracy like his own.” A news article just after the coup argued that Chávez and company would “use events to push their vision for the region.” But several weeks later, the paper’s editors and columnists began applauding the Obama administration’s response, saying that Obama and Clinton were “on the verge of achieving their own coup in Honduras and advancing American interests with a deftness not seen from Washington in many years” (here being surprisingly candid—usually US actions are defended in humanitarian terms). US participation in the mediation efforts had “become an opportunity to deal a defeat to the populist authoritarianism that Mr. Chávez and Mr. Zelaya represent,” thereby safeguarding the good, innocent Latins against the threat of decent health care, education, and greater political power [22].


Faced with continent-wide movements for greater political and economic sovereignty and increasing trade competition from China, the US over the past decade has sought to cut its losses by rewarding relative compliance with US objectives and punishing those who more explicitly defy those objectives. Although the strategies and tactics of government policy evolve in response to changing external circumstances, many elements of imperialist discourse never change, but rather get recycled and reused. And to a remarkable extent, the imperial power and the corporate interests that sponsor it still have a subservient press corps that is more than willing to justify government actions to the public.





[1] Romero, “Rare Hemisphere Unity In Assailing Honduran Coup,” NYT, 29 June 2009, sec. A, p. 6.


[2] Chile has since returned to openly right-wing rule with the inauguration of billionaire Sebastián Piñera. Quoted in “Clinton: US "Deeply Concerned" about Venezuela” (headline), Democracy Now! 4 March 2010.


[3] Alexei Barrionuevo, “Brazil Discovers an Oil Field Can Be a Political Tool,” NYT, 19 November 2007, sec. A, p. 3. The term “counterweight” came from an elite foe of Chávez, but Barrionuevo appeared to agree with his interviewee in the following sentence.


[4] Juan Forero, “Ahmadinejad Boosts Latin America Ties; Tours Include Not Just Anti-U.S. Nations, But Also Democratic Brazil,” Washington Post, 28 November 2009, sec. A, p. 8; cf. Edward Schumacher-Matos, “An Open Hand That Weakens Chávez” (op-ed), Post, 21 August 2009, sec. A, p. 25.


[5] Sara Shahriari and Sara Miller Llana, “Why Bolivia Reelected Evo Morales,” Christian Science Monitor, 7 December 2009, p. 6.


[6] “Nuts to Brazil” (editorial), Daily News, 28 November 2009, p. 18.


[7] The first quote—“Chávez’s poodle”—was used by Edward Schumacher-Matos to insult José Miguel Insulza of the OAS for failing to condemn Chávez, but leaders like Bolivia’s Morales and Honduras’s Zelaya are treated similarly; see “A Coup for Democracy?” (op-ed), Washington Post, 3 July 2009, sec. A, p. 27. Latter quotes come from Jackson Diehl, “Buying Support in Latin America” (op-ed), Post, 26 September 2005, sec. A, p. 23. On comparisons to Stalin, Hitler, and others, see my “Testing the Propaganda Model: US Press Coverage of Venezuela and Colombia, 1998-2008,” ZNet, 19 December 2008.


[8] “Defend Democracy: In Honduras, That Should Mean More Than Restoring the President to Office” (editorial), Washington Post, 30 June 2009, sec. A, p. 12.


[9] In just the first two months following the coup, the Washington Post mentioned Zelaya’s close relationship to Chávez at least thirteen times, and published several pieces that focused primarily on that relationship.


[10] Juan Forero, “Oil-Rich Venezuela Gripped by Economic Crisis,” Washington Post, 29 April 2010, sec. A, p. 7; Marifeli Pérez-Stable, “Chávez Snubs Colombia” (op-ed), Miami Herald, 23 May 2010.


[11] See my “US Policy and Democracy in Latin America: The Latinobarómetro Poll,” ZNet, 26 May 2009, and my summary of “The 2009 Latinobarómetro Poll” (blog), ZNet, 15 December 2009.


[12] Mark Weisbrot, “Venezuela’s Recovery Depends on Economic Policy,” Le Monde Diplomatique, reposted on ZNet, 17 April 2010; Weisbrot, “Venezuela Is Not Greece,” The Guardian, 6 May 2010; Federico Fuentes, “Venezuela’s Economic Woes?” ZNet, 23 May 2010.


[13] Historian Greg Grandin makes this same point in a July 2009 interview: Zelaya Vows to Return to Honduras Despite Threats of Arrest by Coup Leaders,” Democracy Now! 2 July 2009.


[14] On the Arawaks and Caribs see Peter Hulme, “Tales of Distinction: European Ethnography and the Caribbean,” in Implicit Understandings: Observing, Reporting and Reflecting on the Encounters between Europeans and Other Peoples in the Early Modern Era, ed. Stuart B. Schwartz (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994), 169-71, 190. Cf. Ranajit Guha, “The Prose of Counter-Insurgency,” in Selected Subaltern Studies, eds. Ranajit Guha and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (New York: Oxford UP, 1988), 58-59, 63, 66.


[15] Wilson’s famous “elect good men” quote is cited various times in G. John Ikenberry, et al., The Crisis of American Foreign Policy: Wilsonianism in the Twenty-first Century (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2008), 14, 35, 59. On Wilson’s still largely-unknown record—including enthusiastic support for the KKK and numerous invasions of Latin American countries—see James W. Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, second edition (New York: Touchstone, 2007), 12-24; Michael Dennis, “Race and the Southern Imagination: Woodrow Wilson Reconsidered,” Canadian Review of American Studies 29, no. 3 (1999). For a direct sampling of Wilson’s own views on race see his 1901 A History of the American People (New York: Harper and Bros.), vol. 5.


[16] Irene Silverblatt uses the same term, but with a slightly different meaning, in Modern Inquisitions: Peru and the Colonial Origins of the Civilized World (Durham: Duke UP, 2004).


[17] See especially Charles R. Hale, “Rethinking Indigenous Politics in the Era of the ‘Indio Permitido,’” NACLA Report on the Americas 38, no. 2 (September-October 2004): 16-21; and Hale, Más Que Un Indio = More Than an Indian: Racial Ambivalence and Neoliberal Multiculturalism in Guatemala (Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 2006).


[18] Carlos Salinas de Gortari, Extractos de la intervención del Presidente Carlos Salinas de Gortari durante el desayuno con integrantes de los gabinetes legal y ampliado, legisladores, asambleístas y gobernadores de la república: Los Pinos, 27 de enero de 1994 (Mexico City: Dirección General de Comunicación Social, 1994), 4, 7.


[19] See Uribe’s comments in the Diálogo Decisorio en el Consejo de Latifundistas de Popayán” (transcript), Indymedia Colombia, Centro de Medios Independientes de Colombia, 22 March 2008.


[20] On the inevitable “good intentions” of the US government see Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (New York: Pantheon, 2002 [1988]), lxi; and Noam Chomsky, Necessary Illusions: Thought Control in Democratic Societies (Boston: South End Press, 1989), 49-50, 162.


[21] See, in addition to more recent articles on www.nacla.org, my “Obama and Latin America: The First Six Months,” NACLA news (online), 23 July 2009.


[22] Edward Schumacher-Matos, “A Dose of Realism in Honduras” (op-ed), Post, 12 July 2009, sec. A, p. 11; “A Chance for Honduras: The Best Way to Defeat Deposed President Manuel Zelaya Lies in Allowing His Return” (editorial), Post, 9 July 2009, sec. A, p. 18; William Booth and Juan Forero, “New Honduran Leadership Flouts Worldwide Censure,” Post, 30 June 2009, sec. A, p. 5. Cf. William Booth, “Two Hondurans Headed for Clash; Rival Vows to Arrest Zelaya on His Return,” Post, 1 July 2009, sec. A, p. 8.

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