South America: why the silence?

Why does the US media care more about riots across the pond than protests happening on its doorstep?

When some 150,000 young people set fire to cars and bus stops, built barricades and clashed with police in Santiago during protests in demand
of free public education earlier this month, there was barely a ripple in the mainstream British and US press. Only the Guardian gave the story a brief mention on the homepage of its website.

It might be tempting to interpret this as an oversight; after all, the riots in England understandably dominated headlines in this country. But while this may account for the silence of the British press, it doesn't explain the lack of interest from the US and other European media.

The relative silence of the US media is especially baffling. US identity, as well as foreign and domestic policy, has been shaped by interactions with Latin America ever since Independence. From the 1846 Mexican War, to the 1954 CIA-sponsored coup in Guatemala, to the Reagan administration's backing of the Contras in Nicaragua in the 1980s, and the ever-present Cuban Question, the US has a long record of engagement with its southern neighbours. Immigration, from Latin America in general and Mexico in particular, has been a dominant theme of US domestic politics for decades, as has the Andean drug trade.

So why the absence of coverage? Many Americans consider themselves heirs to a European, and specifically British, cultural and political heritage. Though there is mixed truth in this, it is perception that matters. Although there are growing numbers of Spanish language television and radio stations, the mainstream US media and the manufacturers of culture in general are predominantly white; they look east towards their Atlantic cousins, rather than south to their Hispanic neighbours.

Another explanation could be practical. Of the ten countries with the highest rates of kidnapping in the world, five are in Latin America. The Blackberry - now almost as ubiquitous a tool for the reporter as a notebook once was - is nicknamed "the phone of death" in Venezuela due to the number of people mugged - and killed - for them. 20 journalists have been killed in Latin America so far this year. This problem is especially endemic in Mexico, where journalists reporting on the drug trade are often silenced.

But not all of Latin America is dangerous, opaque, or geographically hostile. And many other areas of the world that are - parts of Africa and the Middle East, for example - do receive substantial press attention. European nations tend to have a greater interest in former colonies, or those involved in the cold war. Spain, which did have an empire in South America, tends to be more vocal about South American affairs; El Pais even had an editorial on the Chilean student protests.

But though Britain may not have had colonies in South America, it had an informal trading empire there, and Britain almost went to war with the
newly independent United States over the latter's territorial expansion in South America on more than one occasion.

Today, Britain still has interests in Latin America. But as Dr Ramos, an expert on Latin American history at Cambridge University, says:

"Although the UK has important investments in South America (for example, the UK is one of the major investors in Peru), this is not reflected in the coverage the region gets in the British press. Since the 19th century, Britain has seen Latin America as an area of US 'natural' influence."

There are also ideological reasons for the lack of commentary on Latin American affairs in North America. US policymakers and opinion formers are perhaps reluctant to draw attention to the examples of successful social democracy that have taken root in their back yard. The democratic
re-election of Bolivian president Evo Morales, who is implementing a series of pragmatic but quasi-socialist nationalisations, reveals that his anti-imperialist approach is far more popular than the neoliberal policies of the North American-educated elites, often seen as US stooges.

Likewise, social reforms and public works programmes in Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador and Uruguay have enjoyed relative success. And though Hugo Chavez's regime may not be a functional social democracy, the Venezuelan President is popular amongst the working classes, which benefit from his redistributive policies. Chile, meanwhile, is the most economically successful of all Latin American countries, and its citizens are protesting en masse in the capital in demand of more equal education. It is not surprising that this message is not being loudly relayed in America, which is the most unequal country in the developed world.

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue