Biofuel power games

Observations on Latin America

While Washington's attention has been absorbed elsewhere, what the US likes to think of as its backyard has been showing dangerous signs of independence. (This is not the first time - one has only to think of the strides Latin America took during the Second World War.)

The US administration, suddenly waking up to what is going on, is preparing an ambitious offensive. The strategy, which will be announced formally during George Bush's hastily organised trip to Latin America early next month, will be built on "bio-energy". It sounds environmentally friendly and innocuous but, in reality, biofuel is to be used as a weapon to weaken the ringleader of the left, Venezuela's charismatic president, Hugo Chávez.

Latin America's move to the left has been gaining momentum. On 9 February President Evo Morales of Bolivia signed a decree to nationalise a Swiss-owned tin smelter, sending 200 soldiers to occupy the plant. Part of the finance for the takeover is coming from Venezuela.

The move has great symbolic importance, for the smelter once belonged to Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, the former president and close ally of the US (who actually speaks English better than Spanish). In the 1990s Goni, as he is known, sold key sectors of the Bolivian economy to foreign companies at knock-down prices.

This is no isolated case. When Morales took over in January 2006, the state's share of the economy was a meagre 7-8 per cent. He plans for it to have risen to a quarter by the end of this year. That kind of change - and the message it sends to the rest of the developing world, that there really is an alternative to neoliberalism - marks the beginning of a new epoch.

In Ecuador, another left-winger, Rafael Correa, declared at his inauguration in January that "we are leaving behind the long dark night of neoliberalism". Presenting him with a replica of Simón Bolívar's sword, Chávez said that the great 19th-century South American liberator was "once again striding across the continent". Shortly afterwards, Chávez announced a second, more radical, phase in his own government. He says that by 2021, which will mark the 200th anniversary of South America's independence, Venezuela will have constructed something completely new - "Bolivarian socialism".

Washington is keenly aware that this swing to the left is sustained partly by Chávez's petrodollars. Apart from funding social welfare programmes throughout the region (including, in a deliberately provocative gesture, the donation of oil to poor families in the US), Chávez has ambitious plans for South American integration, in a rival vision to Bush's stalled Free Trade Area of the Americas. He has got Presidents Lula in Brazil and Kirchner in Argentina to sign up to a $20bn, 5,000-mile gas pipeline to run the length of the South American continent.

Caught on the hop, Washington is fast coming up with a counter-strategy. Noting that Brazil is already the world's largest manufacturer of ethanol and has ambitions to export biofuel technology, the US is offering Brazil "a new partnership through ethanol". It wants the two nations, which together produce 70 per cent of the world's ethanol, to promote biofuels in the rest of South America. It could be a tempting offer for Brazil, particularly if the US offers financial support.

Biofuels are often touted as a technical fix for the global environmental crisis, but this is clearly not the case in the US. David Pimentel, an ecology expert from Cornell University, has shown that it takes 70 per cent more energy to produce maize-based ethanol than the final product contains.

Although Brazil's ethanol, made from sugar cane, has many other problems (such as reducing the land available for food cultivation by small farmers), it does make environmental sense, in that it has a 1:6 energy ratio. Thus, if the US were really interested in combating global warming, it would abolish the substantial tariff barriers that keep Brazil's ethanol out of the US market. This it has repeatedly refused to do.

It is clear that the US biofuel project is a wheeze to create a highly profitable activity for multinationals, particularly those in the energy sector, and to reduce US dependence on imported oil from countries in the Middle East and Latin America that have broken free from Washington's domination.

The new partnership with Brazil is a further refinement of this strategy. It has only one aim: to reduce South America's dependence on oil, and thus to weaken Chávez's influence.

Earlier this month, R Nicholas Burns, the US under-secretary of state for political affairs, let the cat out of the bag. "Energy has tended to distort the power of some of the states we find to be negative in the world, like Venezuela and Iran," he said in São Paulo. "So the more we can diversify our energy sources and depend less on oil, the better off we will be."

This article first appeared in the 19 February 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Iran - Ready to attack

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.