Short answer: No.
Slightly longer answer: Still No.
With all of the recent events coming out of the Brazilian demonstrations recently, other important stories have fallen to the wayside. One of those stories, which took place before the demonstrations, was Brazil forgiving US$900 million of debt to a number of African nations. I had some comments included in the linked story, but I’d like to add a few more thoughts.
Regarding the actual historical context, as I allude to in the piece, the forgiveness figures into a broader effort on the part of Brazilian governments to strengthen ties to the African continent. Such efforts have not been limited to regime types, and have included a variety of ideologies within government, ranging from Brazil’s right-wing military dictatorship of 1964-1985 up through the center-left administration of former union-leader Luis Inacio Lula da Silva and now into the present administration of Dilma Rousseff. The magnitude of these efforts has varied (ranging from jointly-sponsored cultural conferences to hearings before the World Trade Organization), but the forgiveness of debt totaling nearly $1 billion has to be considered one of the biggest steps yet in strengthening these ties. Certainly, the move is symbolic, making clear to African nations that they have a friend in Brazil, but the very real impact of that debt forgiveness could theoretically have a clear impact on many Africans’ daily lived experiences. Should the governments use the monies that would have gone to debt payments to instead pay for infrastructural improvements and growth, then the move will definitely be more than symbolic (though that is contingent as much upon the African countries enjoying forgiveness as it is upon Brazil itself.
Secondly, I think the explanations for the move vary, and bring together a complex matrix of economic matters, international relations, and an effort to project Brazil’s role on the global stage. Certainly, economically speaking, debt forgiveness is a bit of a gamble that will be based upon future outcomes – it is unclear whether it will lead to any real economic deals for Brazil, in the same way that it is unclear whether the debt forgiveness will improve the lived experiences of the majority of the population in countries whose debt has been forgiven. But it also seems quite possible that, in addition to perhaps actually trying to help African populations, the move is designed both with future economic relations and Brazil’s role in the international arena in mind. And I think in this regard, with African in particular, Brazil is trying to offer up an example of how it provides a counterpoint to both the exploitative history of European and North American powers in the continent, and more recently, the growing Chinese presence, based in no small part on resource-extraction, in Africa. I think this could be a case of Brazil countering both historical European/North American and more recent Chinese roles in the continent, serving as a reminder to African nations that they can have friends like Brazil in the international arena without having to replicate relations based on resource-extraction that defined neocolonialism and, more recently, Chinese relations.
Finally, to return to more recent historical precedent, while debt forgiveness is a new component of these relations and thus in some ways a rupture with Brazil’s past ties to Africa, in other ways, Dilma is building on what Lula began. Back in 2007, Brazil brought a case against the US regarding cotton subsidies before the World Trade Organization. It basically argued that the US was refusing to transform subsidies and overproducing cotton in hopes of driving down world prices and hurting other cotton-producing countries. However, though Brazil brought the case before the WTO (which ultimately found the US in violation of international trade agreements), it represented not just itself, but Mali, Burkina Faso, and other cotton-producing countries in Africa – countries that may not have had the resources to challenge the US before the WTO. That marked part of a broader shift from policies that focused on the US and Europe under Fernando Henrique Cardoso to economic policies and diplomatic relations under Lula, policies that turned increasingly to regions like Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.
Taken in light of earlier policies, Brazil’s forgiveness of a not-insignificant amount of debt seems not to be some sudden appeal to Africa, but part of what is at least a 10-year effort to appeal to African nations and to take a greater role in global politics and economics. The debt forgiveness is not the first move in this process, but it definitely is one of the biggest moves; only time will tell, however, its actual importance, symbolic or real.
This is a remarkable story of a bygone era:
The Cuban Missile Crisis was over in 1962. But the militarization of Florida and its national parks had only just begun. Nike Hercules Missile Site — also called Alpha Battery or HM-69 — was completed in 1964. “Nike,” like the Greek goddess of victory, was the name the United States’ government gave to a widely deployed, guided surface-to-air missile system installed to protect the country from any missile attack — threatened or real. From the mid-20th century, Nike Missile defense sites were built all over the United States in rings around cities and major industrial sites — around 260 all told. But no other state was as physically close to an “enemy” nation as Florida. Though the Cuban Missile Crisis ended with an uneasy détente, it was only after 1962 that the U.S. government realized how especially vulnerable south Florida was. HM-69 — and all south Florida — became the frontline defense against enemy attack.
146 U.S. Army soldiers and technicians made HM-69 their home. Their main task was to operate the site’s three aboveground launchers and, ostensibly, protect south Florida from Cuban air strikes. Flight time for a supersonic jet bomber launched from Cuba to Miami was very short. This meant that the people manning HM-69 were on perpetual high alert. They lived daily with the knowledge that they would receive little or no warning if there was an attack, and that they would not live to tell the story. “We were the first line of defense the Russians would have had to take out before they could attack the rest of the country,” Charles Carter, a veteran who served on the base for three years, told theSouth Dade News Leader last year. The highly restricted HM-69 was also a training ground for CIA-sponsored Cuban exile espionage teams, and a research lab for advanced Cold War-related military sensor technology.
Though the story seems quaint, it’s actually a rather powerful reminder of the daily lived experiences and mindsets of the Cold War. Likewise, the story illustrates how often the mechanisms of nuclear war and militarization were (and are) right next to civilians, and they remain completely unaware of it. No doubt, this applies not only to Florida, but to most of the US – those Cold War relics can often be glimpsed tucked in in landscapes throughout the country, providing a compelling example of the fact that, while the Cold War antagonisms have transformed and faded, the tools of destruction, including nuclear weapons, remain very much a part of the landscape today.
Last week ushered in a new era at the World Trade Organization, as Brazilian Roberto Azevedo won the post as the WTO’s next director-general. With the election, Azevedo became the first Latin American to serve in that post [though no matter the outcome of the election, a Latin American would have held that distinction: Azevedo won out over Mexican Hermínio Blanco, who had the support of the US and the European Union]. As Boz points out, the selection of Azevedo is generally controversy-free among member nations.
That said, that does not mean the selection of Azevedo has not raised the ire of some free-trade disciples:
Are you kidding me? A Brazilian to lead the body ostensibly responsible for fostering freer trade? In the real world, this would be a cruel joke. But in the Wonderland of the WTO, this isn’t really all that surprising. Now, I like Brazil. I have traveled there many times and the people, food, and culture are wonderful. But in terms of being a beacon of free trade it is not.
Hudson proceeds to damn the move based on Brazil’s objections to unfettered free trade in the past, its regulatory government, and its willingness to stand up to the US on cotton subsidies that the WTO itself ultimately ruled were unfair. Even beyond the patronizing “I like Brazil’s food, and they’re nice people and all” tenor there, there are several problems with the criticisms Hudson raises. First, the presumption that free trade is the only path to economic development is enormously flawed. As Latin America in the latter half of the 20th century repeatedly demonstrated, free trade and neoliberalism replicate the exploitative structures of international trade that date back to the colonial era, concentrating wealth in the hands of the few and overseas without creating actual development for the citizens more broadly. Indeed, Latin America has been a textbook laboratory case in demonstrating the negative impacts of increasingly-unfettered liberalization. Philosophically, the system Hudson is advocating here has a long track record of opening up Latin American countries to exploitation of resources and the extraction of wealth to other countries.
A second problem here is the presumption that free trade is the only commercial system worth pursuing. This mindset is not surprising; the neoliberalism of Friedman has come to dominate economics schools in the US to a dangerous degree. Though the crisis of 2008-2009 has led to a mild resurgence in considering alternatives to neoliberalism, it has not destroyed the hegemony of neoliberal discourse. Hudson seems upset that an individual from a country that has not uncritically embraced free trade at every opportunity spells doom. Yet he fails to explain why this is so horrible; he just takes it as a given. Nonetheless, it is not clear that Brazilian at WTO or a reduction in free trade is automatically mean a bad thing. If one takes the WTO as a useful institution or the spurring of international capital trade (and to be clear, that’s not really the purpose of this post), then perhaps innovating in global trade beyond highly exploitative free trade agreements and seeking alternatives that create greater opportunities for all is not a bad approach. Again, drawing on the lessons of 2008-2009, finding alternatives (like more bilateral and regional trade agreements) to the system and economic ideologies and models that created greater international stability than the deregulation that led to the events of 2008-2009 does not seem like such a terrible idea.
This is not to say the WTO’s agenda is appropriate or good, but it’s hard to argue against diversifying trade models and economic relations in ways that prevent the domination of a single neoliberal system that has repeatedly demonstrated how it relies on repression and creates greater inequalities both within individual countries and within the global economy more generally. Indeed, that Hudson thinks a Brazilian in charge of WTO equals no free trade agreements that open up other countries to US/European/multinational exploitation says far more about his own neoliberal agenda than it does about the actual quality of new head of WTO.
As the trial of Efraín Ríos Montt appears to be headed back to square one after the Constitutional Court’s ruling, NACLA has a fascinating piece up on Israel’s ties to Ríos Montt:
Known as “Brother Efraín,” a fundamentalist convert of the California-based “Church of the Word” (Verbo), Rios Montt thanked his God in heaven for anointing him as Guatemala’s president, but on earth he thanked Israel for establishing his March 1982 military coup. Israeli press reported that 300 Israeli advisors helped execute the coup, which succeeded so smoothly, Brother Efraín told an ABC News reporter, “because many of our soldiers were trained by Israelis.” Through the height of la violencia (“the violence”) or desencarnacíon (“loss of flesh, loss of being”), between the late 1970s to early 1980s, Israel assisted every facet of attack on the Guatemalan people. Largely taking over for the United States on the ground in Guatemala (with Washington retaining its role as paymaster, while also maintaining a crucial presence in the country), Israel had become the successive governments’ main provider of counterinsurgency training, light and heavy arsenals of weaponry, aircraft, state-of-the-art intelligence technology and infrastructure, and other vital assistance.
[…] A February 1983 CBS Evening News with Dan Rather program reported, Israel “didn’t send down congressmen, human rights activists or priests” to strengthen Israel’s special relationship with Guatemala. Israel “taught the Guatemalans how to build an airbase. They set up their intelligence network, tried and tested on the [Israeli-occupied Palestinian] West Bank and Gaza, designed simply to beat the Guerilla.” Timemagazine (03/28/83) chimed in that Guatemalan army “outposts in the jungle have become near replicas of Israeli army field camps.” At one of these Israeli outposts replicated in Huehuetenango (among the areas hardest hit by the genocide, with the second highest number of massacres registered by a UN truth commission), Time continues: “Colonel Gustavo Menendez Herrera pointed out that his troops are using Israeli communications equipment, mortars, submachine guns, battle gear and helmets.” Naturally, as Army Chief of Staff Benedicto Lucas García had stated previously: “The Israeli soldier is a model and an example to us.”
In spite of emphasis on US support for Guatemala and other brutal regimes in Central America in the 1980s (and certainly the US absolutely was the keystone in supporting these regimes), it was not the sole actor. Both Augusto Pinochet’s government and the Argentine military dictatorship of 1976-1983 sent weapons and military aides to right-wing military regimes in Central America. That Israel, more often than not an ally of the US during the 1980s, was also a willing supporter of Ríos Montt is an untold part of the story, but not necessarily a surprising one, for rarely do authoritarian regimes work in a bubble cut off from international support from a variety of countries.
And of course, that also means Israel was directly tied to a regime that committed genocidal acts itself. There is a quotation from Ríos Montt’s own press secretary in the 1980s that gets at the heart of the mindset behind the regime’s brutal tactics, which may have killed tens of thousands of Guatemalans in 1982 alone:
Look, the problem of the war is not just a question of who is shooting. For each one who is shooting there are ten working behind him.” Rios Montt’s press secretary added: “The guerrillas won over many Indian collaborators. Therefore, the Indians were subversives, right? And how do you fight subversion? Clearly, you had to kill Indians because they were collaborating with subversion. And then they say, ‘You’re massacring innocent people’. But they weren’t innocent. They had sold out to subversion.
This certainly appears to be genocide, or “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group.” And it is not as if the targeting of indigenous groups was a secret even at the time. As an evangelical pastor at the time himself put it,
The army doesn’t massacre Indians. […] It massacres demons, and Indians are demons possessed; they are communists.
That is, simply put, the targeting of an ethnic group for massacre, for destruction, and it was a fact that people at the time were willing to admit. Ríos Montt’s trial may be undone by a technicality, but the historical evidence overwhelmingly points to genocide in Guatemala under the military leader. That Israel supported such a genocidal regime is tragically ironic, if somewhat unsurprising, in the context of the final decade of the Cold War.