September 12, 2008

Commentary:

35 years ago, Latin America experienced its own Sept. 11

By Teo Ballve

Latin America, which experienced its own Sept. 11 35 years ago, is no longer under Washington’s thumb.

On Sept. 11, 1973, the Chilean military, supported by Washington, overthrew the democratically elected president of Chile, Salvador Allende. It was a day that was burned in the memories of millions of people across the continent.

Allende had come to power in 1970 as a democratic socialist, and his victory raised hopes among Latin Americans that peaceful social change was possible.

But three years later, when military tanks and fighter jets blasted the presidential palace where Allende had taken refuge, those hopes were dashed. Allende took his own life during the attack, and in his place a U.S.-financed 17-year regime of terror took over. The junta, led by Augusto Pinochet, murdered more than 3,000 people and tortured and detained thousands more.

Now, 35 years after Allende’s overthrow, a lot has changed in Latin America. For starters, Chile’s current president (Michelle Bachelet) is not only a woman, but also a member of Allende’s Socialist Party.

And Washington, once the unofficial arbiter of the politics and economies of Latin America, has been sidelined, as progressive reformers have claimed victory in an ever-growing number of countries.

The political waters began turning in 1999 in Venezuela. The country’s leftist president, Hugo Chavez, came from the most unlikely of sources: the military.

Today, left-leaning leaders control almost every country of South America. These leaders are by no means a uniform bunch. But they all share the popular mandate of addressing the needs of the most disadvantaged citizens of Latin America, where nearly half the population of 550 million lives in grinding poverty.

Fulfilling campaign promises, many of these leaders have defied Washington’s economic and political strictures — first introduced in post-Sept. 11 Chile — in trying to lift millions out of poverty.

Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa have moved to take a larger share of profits from their nations’ vast oil and gas reserves to reinvest the money in anti-poverty programs.

Morales also plans to use windfall gas profits in Bolivia — the poorest country in South America — to strengthen its faltering social security system.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a former union organizer, has similar plans for the profits expected from newly discovered massive oil reserves.

When Allende made similar reforms in Chile, President Nixon’s National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger famously sneered, “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people.” The Nixon administration’s next move was to cut off all multilateral and bilateral foreign aid to Chile, fulfilling Nixon’s order to “make the economy scream.”

Despite persistent U.S. meddling, it’s hard to see how Washington could once again so recklessly block the desperately needed reforms now sweeping Latin America. When it has recently tried to impose its will, Latin American governments have fended off Washington by banding together.

The region’s new leaders finally are implementing policies that make real improvements in people’s lives. Allende tried to do so, but he was not allowed to see them through to fruition.

From his tragedy, new hope has arisen.

Teo Ballve is a freelance journalist and editor based in Colombia. He can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

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