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Engaging Latin America

Barack Obama's recent first encounter with Latin American leaders highlights some of the challenges

It was unlikely that Barack Obama’s first engagement with Latin America would come close to satisfying the demands of the region’s changed political leadership. But compared to their relations with the Bush administration, any small step in the direction of friendship could be cause for celebration.

Last week, Barack Obama lifted the restrictions on the amount of money Cuban-Americans could send to their relatives back home and how often they could visit the island. This weekend, at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago, he warmly met most of the region’s leaders, including Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, and Nicaragua’s Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega.

Chávez certainly saw the weekend as a success. He said, with characteristic hyperbole, that the summit represented “one of the greatest victories of our history” and announced plans to re-establish diplomatic ties with the US.

But in the US itself, all of the talk was about the photographs of the two men meeting, and the book Chávez gifted to Obama.

Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent by Uruguayan Eduardo Gallardo is an academic tome from the 1970s and a classic of the South American left. It tells a story of ongoing foreign exploitation and domination, first at the hands of the Europeans, then of the North Americans.

Despite the obvious message, Obama accepted the gift graciously. In any case, the book was given in its original Spanish, a language which Obama does not read. Some have likened this to a faux pas on the level of the famous Obama-Brown DVD format blunder, but Chávez seems nevertheless to have been successful in delivering his message to a wider audience.

The day after the book was given, it jumped on America’s from number 54,295 to number 2 on the bestseller list. This is not typical bestseller material in the United States, the number 1 title being “Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto” and five of the items in the top ten are from the Twilight series, which takes readers through the trials and travails of teen vampires in love.

Most of the substantive dialogue of the Summit in Trinidad and Tobago was centred around the US trade embargo on Cuba, whose Raul Castro remained excluded from the meeting. Opposition to the embargo is now near-universal amongst Latin America’s leaders, and they let Obama know it.

The message came not only from the leftists, but also close US ally Alvaro Uribe and Brazil’s moderate and enormously popular Lula, who also joined many others in stressing that excluding Cuba from the meeting was unacceptable.

Obama is beginning to hear the same message more and more at home. There is growing bipartisan support in the US congress for the change of a policy that for almost five decades has failed to effect any changes in Cuba, causes unnecessary privation in both countries, and may make sceptical Latin leaders less likely to collaborate on other issues important to Washington.

But the embargo issue is politically sensitive, partially because strong lobbies of right-wing Cuban voters live in Florida, a large swing state that tends to be extremely important in deciding US elections.

And while Latin America’s leaders were delighted to have a man in the White House who is willing to talk to them, Obama has only done the bare minimum dictated by his campaign promises to change US policy towards Latin America. The bans he lifted were small additional restrictions added by the Bush administration and while Obama politely took heat at the Summit on US-Cuba relations, he made no indication that change on the embargo was likely to come soon.

Obama seems to be set on spending most of his political capital on his domestic agenda, where the economic crisis has brought the economy to the forefront with his debt-financed fiscal stimulus and plans to raise taxes on the rich already earning criticism. On 15th April, the day Americans turn in their taxes, conservative groups organised “Tea Parties,” attempting to invoke the revolutionary furore of American opposition to what was seen as excessive British taxation in Boston in 1773.

And even when US attention is given to Latin America, Mexico is taking the lion’s share. There, shocking levels of drug-related violence are spilling over the country’s northern border into the US.

Not long after taking office in 2006, Mexico’s president Felipe Calderon declared all-out war on his country’s drug cartels. The problem is that this may not be a war his government is capable of winning, and the stalemate has claimed 10,000 lives and turned many of the country’s border regions into pockets of lawlessness and violence.

Some have likened Mexico to a failed state in a civil war, and the US is deeply involved, not only because of its proximity. The market for drugs which creates the gangs and the gun supply which arms them are both north of the border.

And as Latin American leaders may have no reason to soon expect radical action from Obama on Cuba or engagement with their leftist governments, nor can they afford to wait for change to come from the North, as the last two particularly eventful weeks have demonstrated.

Evo Morales, Bolivia’s socialist and indigenous president finally ended a self-imposed five-day hunger strike after the opposition stopped blocking a vote on an indigenous council in the legislature, which will allow expatriates to vote.

And on Thursday, a gunfight broke out there in a hotel in Santa Cruz as police attempted to arrest five foreign men Bolivian authorities now claim were plotting to assassinate Morales and other officials of his government.

The police killed three men in that hotel, including an Irish citizen, who had reportedly been in one of the two well-armed hotel rooms with right-wing veterans of the wars in Yugoslavia.

When Morales brought the issue up at the Summit, Obama said he knew nothing about it, and affirmed his administration would never have anything to do with violently overthrowing democratically elected governments.

Such a modest commitment may be enough for now. Since the Bush administration turned away from Latin America with its tail between its legs twice, first after giving its tacit approval for a failed coup attempt against Chávez in Venezuela in 2002, and then in 2005 at the last Summit of the Americas, where Bush was forced to give up on his plans for a Free Trade Area and left early and embarrassed, democratically elected left-wing governments have established themselves in the majority of Latin American countries.

These countries are extremely united and have set about articulating a development path which differs from the neoliberal prescriptions of the Washington Consensus, even before these policies were called into question by the financial crisis.

Though they might wish for much more action from Obama to bring Washington into line with the realities of the hemisphere, especially on Cuba, they may be content for now to simply keep from returning to the kinds of relations described in the book that Mr Chávez gave to the new US President.

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In Russia, Stalin is back

New statues and memorabilia are appearing, as Russians overlook the terror to hark back to a perceived era of order and national safety.

It was during the Victory Day march to commemorate those who fought in the World War Two, the Great Patriotic War (as it is known in Russia) that I saw the face of Stalin. A young woman carried a crimson flag with the image of the Leader which appeared amidst the black and white photographs of grandparents remembered on the seventieth anniversary of the victory over the Nazi Germany. Just a few months later I was back in Moscow to face the fact that the fleeting image of Stalin, like a seed dropped into rich soil, has sprouted everywhere. At the busy Moscow Domodedovo airport you can now buy souvenir mugs and badges featuring a man with a moustache, coiffed hair and unsmiling eyes; men wearing Stalin T-shirts walk the streets of Moscow and just in time for the festive season 2016 calendars with the twelve photos of the ”Red Tsar” are spread across the counters of the book shops. Most shockingly, new statues of Stalin have appeared in Lipetsk, Penza and Shelanger, a village in a Russian republic Mari El. The monuments were commissioned and erected by the Russia’s Communist Party. Its leader, Gennadiy Zyuganov, promised new statues to be built in Irkutsk in Siberia and in Donetsk in Eastern Ukraine. Charles de Gaulle, the former French president was right: “Stalin didn't walk away into the past, he dissolved into the future.”

According to a January 2015 survey by an independent, non-profit organisation, founded by a Russian sociologist Yuri Levada, 52 per cent of Russians think that Stalin played a “definitely positive” or ”mostly positive” role in Russia’s history. Stalin’s positive image today is cultivated mostly through his association with the Great Patriotic War. Throughout 2015 the Russian media have been obsessively commemorating the 70th anniversary of the victory over the Nazis, with Stalin, the generalissimo, at its helm. Political psychologist Elena Shestopal, quoted by the Levada Centre, explains that the positive opinion of Stalin is a reflection of the society’s demand for order and national safety. In her view, Russians associate Stalin with the role of the father: strict, demanding and powerful.

Stalin’s resurrection is astounding not least because his role in history and his “personality cult” have been consistently condemned in Russia since 1956. Three years after Stalin’s death, the then General Secretary Khrushchev denounced it at the Communist Party conference. Stalin’s body was removed from the Red Square mausoleum; the monuments commemorating him were taken down and destroyed. During glasnost, the openness period initiated by Gorbachev, some state archives revealing the extent of Stalin’s purges and mass repressions were made public. My own grandfather, Aleksandr Bakunin, who devoted his entire life to the history of the Russia’s Communist Party and its accomplishments, set to work in his seventies to research the newly available materials and write a trilogy about the history of Soviet totalitarianism. In popular literature, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn made stunning revelations about mass repressions and his personal experiences as a prisoner in a labour camp in his novel The Gulag Archipelago, first openly published in a Russian literary magazine in 1989. In Gorbachev’s days Nikolai Svanidze, a popular Russian TV host, historian and journalist – related to Stalin through his first wife, Ekaterina (Cato) Svanidze – declared that Stalin and Hitler were cut from the same cloth on national television. I do not believe that such a statement would be made by the Russian media today. 

An example of a “Red Tsar” calendar

With knowledge about collectivisation and famine of the 1930s, mass arrests and forced labour, the culture of terror and the totalitarian governance, it is difficult to understand the current sentiment in Russia which makes it acceptable to print Stalin’s image onto T-shirts and mugs. Russians, who approve of Stalin, credit him with turning around the backward agrarian economy with its mostly rural population into an economic and scientific powerhouse, responsible for sending the first man into space. It was allegedly Churchill who said that “Stalin inherited Russia with a wooden plough and left it in possession of atomic weapons”. These sympathisers hail rapid industrialisation and economic progress, forgetting its costs. Mayakovskiy put it well in his poem about the construction of Kuznetsk: “The lips are turning blue from the cold, but the lips recite in unison: ‘In four years this will be a garden city!’”

Stalinists are especially vocal in giving their hero credit for winning the war. By the end of 1930s, the Soviet Union had become the largest economy in Europe and in the 1940s it was the defence industry that carried the Soviet campaign against Hitler. Stalin united people and inspired them to fight the enemy both on the front line and in the factories, according to those who believe in Stalin as “the Leader”. “The European nations are being ungrateful”, they say. “Stalin saved them from the Nazis.” It is inconvenient to remember that it was Stalin who had signed a non-aggression pact with Hitler in August 1939 and had been falsely assured that Germany would not invade the Soviet Union. Stalin disregarded several reports from his own intelligence agents and defected German spies about the advancing of Hitler’s army in 1941. Millions of lives were lost as a result in the first months of the war. As for the gratitude, the Baltic and the eastern European nations are quite right to dispute the post-war reorganisation of Europe, implemented after the Yalta conference, when Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill agreed to divide their spheres of influence.

After the war, the USSR became the second most powerful nation in the world and a force to be reckoned with in geopolitics, economics and technology. Previously illiterate peasants, Soviet citizens enrolled in universities, became engineers and doctors, went to the theatre and cinema, read and became part of the Soviet miracle. There is a great deal of nostalgia among the older generation in Russia, who mourn the ”golden decades” of the Soviet Union and wish for Russia’s international status to climb again. “We lived better with Stalin than with anyone else who came to power after him. He looked after us. Today only oligarchs live well,” said a Russian woman in her late seventies. One Russian blogger writes that mass repressions were necessary to align the Soviet consciousness to the new ideology, to replace individualism with collective responsibility. He believes that the terror was necessary to maintain order. There is also rising support among the younger generation who see parallels between Putin and Stalin, the two rulers who favour autocracy and ubiquitous state control.

Already in his seventies, my grandfather wrote two books about the genesis and the evolution of the totalitarianism in the Soviet Union. His third book was meant to be about the fall of Stalinism. Despite several heart attacks and a stroke, he continued working. He died from the fatal heart attack, his book unfinished. Perhaps, it was meant to be. Section 86 of the German Criminal Code makes it illegal to display Nazi images and to hail Hitler in Germany. In Russia, Stalin has never been similarly condemned. The Russian government ostensibly does not object to the new statues of Stalin being erected just 60 years after they had been taken down. The nation that has forgotten its own history is terrifying.