This one’s a little ambitious. I hope it will make up for the serious lack of produced videos so far this month. Despite only reading like half a dozen books, and following the news from the region only half-heartedly, with today’s video I’m rolling out my grand theory of Latin America. The parallels between what happened two centuries ago and what is happening today seem too obvious. I really believe that Latin America is going through it’s second wave of independence as we speak, except this time, it’s the United States it’s gaining its freedom from. As an over-arching theory I think it has some explanatory power. I can’t wait to see people poke holes in it in the comments!
I have been thinking about this video for years now. The thing I’m most proud of in this one is the way it attempts to tell the whole story of a region through two world systems, the British and the American one. Hey, if YouTube demands longer videos, no reason not to be ambitious with them.
Video Transcript after the jump…
Hola. Yo no entiendo nada de America Latina. Pero esto es YouTube, y yo tengo una teoria. So, my Spanish stinks and I am no expert, but I have a couple ideas about Latin American history that have been bugging me for months, and this is YouTube, so I figured I might as well just put them out there and see what people think. My idea is this. I believe that Latin America is, right now, is going through it’s second wave of independence, from the United States. To document this, I think I am going try to cover two centuries of history, for two continents… in under 15 minutes. Wish me luck.
The first wave of independence for most countries in Latin America was from Spain.It was not a quick process, And despite the efforts of visionary liberators like Simon Bolivar it was not a unified one. Efforts to make a United States of South America never really got off the ground, and for a long time, most people weren’t even sure that independence was what they wanted. The guy who really got the ball rolling was Napoleon, the French Dictator who invaded Spain in 1808.
Between 1808 and 1814, the years of French occupation, Spanish America had to figure out government for itself. This led to a lot of different solutions, in different places, and with opposing factions within each city or region. Some saw themselves as liberators, some saw themselves as just caretakers until the old Spanish government could be restored. The guy who resolved these disputes was Ferdinand the VII, a Spanish king so bad he had to be restored to his throne by foreigners not once but twice. When the British brought Ferdinand back in 1814, he quickly announced a return to absolutism, and the end of any kind of self government for Spanish America. This had the effect of turning even more people against him, not just the people who wanted independence but the folks who were eager to welcome him back as a constitutional monarch. Because Spain was a lot more wealthy than these newly independent territories, they had some initial success, but Ferdinand’s loathing for any kind of freedom at all meant that Spain lost most of Spanish America within about 10 years.
This is the key trajectory I want you to remember for later on. The country that controled everything backed off because it had other concerns. This led to a period where folks figured stuff out for themselves which they liked. When Spain came back and forcefully tried to wind the clock all the way back, it failed miserably and ended up bringing about exactly the result that they were trying to avoid.
Independence truly became a done deal in 1825 when Britain, the country that ran the world system of the time, recognized Latin America’s independence. During the 19th century, Latin Americans, like everyone else, lived under a sort of informal empire controlled by the British, with financial and trade markets controled by London, with British gun boats that would intervene if anybody rebelled against that system.
Now if you were educated in US public schools, you may be asking yourself, what about the Monroe Doctrine? In the US we like to tell ourselves that we have controlled Latin America since 1823, when our fifth president, James Monroe, declared that the Americas were off limits to European Empire. This… was more of an aspiration than a fact. In the 19th century The security guarantee for Latin America was from Britain,not from the United States. In fact, the United States was Latin America’s biggest threat. In the 1850s we almost got into a war with the British over our attempt to turn Nicaragua into a US slave state, but we had to back down. We in the US had fanatical militias and the British had technological superiority. Both Britain and France worked to set up formal and informal Empire in Central America in the 1860s and the United States couldn’t do much about it.
I’ve recently been thinking about a sort of strange parallel between Latin America in the 1800s and Asia today. It’s actually better for the people in a region if the dominant country is further away. That’s why today you have so many Asian countries who seem to prefer the United States as a hegemon than the prospect of a rising China. And I kind of think that during the 1800s Latin American countries had more freedom because the dominant country in that region was the British Empire, not the sort of Angry Colossus to the North, as it has often been called, the United States. I’m not saying, of course, that the British were happy friendly folks. They absolutely weren’t. They would send in gunboats if it looked like their debt markets or their ideas of free trade were being seriously challenged. But I think that the British imposed a lighter sense of control than the Americans eventually did in the 20th Century, or even today.
Of course as the 19th century wore on and the US got richer, our influence began to steadily replace Britain’s mostly benign neglect. For Latin America, the closer you were to the United States, the more quickly things got bad. Mexico lost most of its northern territory to an aggressive US war in the 1840s. After the US civil war, the British began to defer to the US more and more in the Caribbean. The US lost a canal related dispute with the British in the 1850s,but was powerful enough to create a new country for canal purposes in 1903. In 1914, the United States celebrated the start of World War One and the end of British dominance in our back yard by…this sounds crazy but I just read it, by sending the Marines into Haiti, one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere, and using them to rob the central bank, and take the gold that they found there and deposit it in a US bank on the mainland. It was a fitting start to a very grim century of US dominance in Latin America.
Over the next 80 years all the Latin American countries retained their formal independence, but I think that independence needs to be heavily caveated. US presidents would vary in their approach. After a hellish initial two decades, during and after world war I, Franklin Delano Roosevelt announced that he wanted to be a better neighbor. This went out the window with the cold war. Any even mildly left leaning Latin American government was attacked mercilessly. There wasn’t as much invading, but CIA sponsorship of coups, insurgencies and murderous dictators became an epidemic, with disastrous effects in South America, and near apocalyptic effects in Central America, that still drive refugees to our border to this day.
This may be surprising to those of you who are familiar with the CIA’s work from the rest of the world. The CIA is generally a bit of a joke organization, It’s two most famous successes of the 20th century led more or less directly to 9-11 and the foundation of the Islamic Republic of Iran. The CIA is capable of bringing about chaos everywhere, but usually it’s doing the most damage to the US national interest. In Latin America things are a little different, because in almost all, I think all of these countries, there is a small wealthy race based oligarchy that is willing to work with the CIA. These oligarchies either still control most of the economically valuable things in the country, or just recently lost that control and are eager to work with US intelligence types to get that back. I guess this local knowledge allows the CIA to be more effective in Latin America, but I don’t think that really serves the US national interest either. It’s certainly inimical to any sense of justice, freedom or equality. I think it’s a pretty bad deal actually.
The Latin America of the 1980s looked a lot like the Middle East of today. It was a smoking ruin. But then the Cold War ended. The US became less willing to support mass murderering dictators and Death squads. And then in the early 2000s something even more important happened. US attention was drawn elsewhere. With 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and US media’s new obsession with scary Muslims, Latin America was basically forgotten. And this came just in time, because the 2000s saw a wave of left leaning leaders come to prominence. In the 1980s, any one of these leaders would have led to a nightmarish intervention of one sort or another. But for 16 invaluable years it did not happen. Bush was too distracted, and Obama, to his credit,didn’t seem all that interested in bringing back the bad old days.
And you know what, it worked out pretty well. Even for the pro-business right wing types in the US who found the pink wave so horrifying. Venezuela’s revolutionaries have been an atrocious, nauseating failure, Chavez and Maduro have been the most discrediting thing for socialism since Josef Stalin. The Kirchner dynasty that drove Argentina into the ground lost power in 2015. Rafael Correa’s successor in Ecuador turned out to be pretty pro business, and Lula’s successor in Brazil lost power under her own steam, without a bloody CIA installed dictatorship. Though we may get one before too long. The one exception ca. 2017 was Bolivia, which still held on to its socialist government, because it was extraordinarily successful at making Bolivia richer and more successful than it had ever been. This is the way politics is supposed to work folks. If you are successful, you are rewarded with more power, and if you fail, you get kicked out. Between 2001 and 2017 Latin America had more political freedom than it had had at any point since the 1800s, if not ever, and the wounds of the cold war were finally beginning to heal. This was fantastic for everyone in the Americas. The United States, Latin America, everybody. It was a good deal. And then we got Donald Trump.
Remember that framework I talked about with Latin American independence from Spain? Well we seem to have recreated it with Trump. First the country that ran things backed off because it had other concerns. This led to a period where folks went their own way and began to make reforms that resolved their concerns. This worked out for everybody the way that only peace and non intervention can… and then some clown jumps in, clamps down and tries to wind the clock back decades, making himself and everybody allied with him look like fools. And that’s exactly what Donald Trump did in Latin America.
I have been talking about the way that Trump saved Venezuelan president Maduro for years now…
“All the US has to do for Maduro to fall at this point is step back and wait,and that’s been true for a couple years now. Instead Washington DC insists on playing the perfect comic book villain role that Latin American leftists fantasize about. And there are a lot of leftists in Latin America.
Trump has turned This clown Maduro into a hero. He has repeatedly suggested invading Venezuela and has somehow convinced the country that that might be a good idea. Over the past week alone Trump has turned Venezuela policy over to one of Ronald Reagan’s nastiest cold warriors, and gone ahead and discredited the Venezuelan opposition by making it look like a pawn of the United States. And don’t get me started on Mike Pompeo’s choice to use State Department employees as Benghazi bait to start a shooting war. These clowns have managed to make the guy who laughs about starving his own country look like the victim. At this point the Trump administration is probably the main thing keeping Maduro going.”
The Trump administration’s most egregious failure has to be the coup in Bolivia in November 2019. Bolivia’s white elites were angry that Evo Morales, the guy who literally quadrupled Bolivia’s gross domestic product, wanted to run for President again. US media and US government sponsored organizations falsely claimed that his election win was fraudulent, which helped Bolivia’s old elite carry out a painfully obvious and brutal cold war style coup.
Thankfully, In October 2020 these folks Trump was working with in Bolivia lost the first election they faced, and many of them are now facing prose cution as they obviously should. This is bad for the United States though, because other than do racisms and fail at Covid, the Bolivian coup plotters spend most of their time making deals with the Trump administration and its allies. All of that is of course now being wiped away, but it leaves a really bad taste in everybody’s mouth. And this is only the most obvious stuff that the Trump administration did. Everybody seems to have forget that about a year ago the United States was basically threatening to invade Venezuela.
“On March 26th President Maduro was indicted in the United States as a drug trafficker. On March 31st the US State department issued yet another transition plan / ultimatum requiring Venezuela’s government to resign. Finally, on April 1st, against the wishes of a military leadership that is more focused on dealing with COVID-19, Trump announced a new deployment of ships to the Caribbean focusing on exactly the drug trafficking that Maduro has just been accused of.”
And don’t get me started on John Bolton’s laughable Troika of tyranny formulation for Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela. I guess he came up with it because George W. Bush’s “axis of evil” speech in 2002 worked out so well for defense contractors. This dumb idea has justly been forgotten, and most of the Trump’s abysmal Latin America policy never really came to the attention of the US public. But it certainly made an impression in Latin America.
Argentina’s brief break from the Kirchner’s is over. Chile is in the process of rewriting the business friendly constitution conservative economists from the US have been celebrating for decades. Maduro looks a lot more secure in power in Venezuela than he was four years ago. Lula looks set to return to power in Brazil at the next election, and in 2018 Mexico elected a president who at least ran as a left winger,for the first time since the 1970s.
I really do think Latin America is in the midst of a second second era of independence, just this time it’s independence from the United States. New US president Joe Biden has a choice to make. He can either get on board with freedom, and start looking for ways to convince Latin America that we can be good neighbors again, or he can continue with Donald Trump’s policies and force these countries even further away from us. I know which choice I would make. I think we should lift our sanctions on Venezuela, and Cuba and other countries and start looking for ways to help all of the Americas succeed instead of working so hard to make it so certain countries fail.
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