What's up, Comrade Bush?

Cajoled for years to take on Western-style economic liberalism there's more than a wry smile on the

The irony has not been lost on the political leaders of Latin America’s insurgent left movements that the governments of Europe and the US are now taking measures that involve far deeper state intervention in the economy than actions they themselves used to harshly criticize when attempted in other regions.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez joked that George Bush “is finally beginning to understand the road to socialism” and notes that “he isn’t criticized for nationalizing the largest bank in the world.”

“What’s up, Comrade Bush,”* he said.

Jabs coming from the leaders of left-leaning governments, which now run the vast majority of the countries of Latin America, have flowed freely as they feel vindicated in their criticisms of neoliberal policy prescriptions and as some of their interventions into their economies have sheltered them to some extent from the colossal global crisis.

But they are coupled with a deepening of resentment over the vigour and force with which certain forms of free-market policies were proposed to them in the last thirty years, often imposed as the necessary conditions for crucial loans from international organizations such as the IMF.

Their anger at opposition coming from the north to their recent attempts to re-introduce elements of regulation and protection into their economies has only intensified as global market forces and unrestricted capitalism brought even the most powerful states in the world to their knees.

Soon after important election victories for the left in Ecuador and Paraguay, the influence of neoliberal economic and ideas and of the United States, already by all accounts at an all-time low, have taken another hit in the region with the economic crisis.

John Ross, who along with Ken Livingstone is providing advice to the Venezuelan government, said that “they have abandoned every policy that they've advocated that other governments should follow over the past 20 years. And they've adopted the measures that they've condemned other governments for taking.”*

These sentiments are echoed by even the most centrist of the region’s left-of-centre governments, such as Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva. "We did our homework — and they didn't, they who've been telling us for three decades what to do,” he complained.

And the normally reserved Chilean president Michele Bachelet felt secure enough in the changed political climate to make the following joke, in the US, about the country’s history of intervention in the region.

“Why has there never been a coup in the United States?” she asked a group of investors.
“Because there is no U.S. embassy in the United States.”

Bachelet, the country’s first female president and member of the Socialist Party, was imprisoned and tortured by the government of Augusto Pinochet who took power in a US-supported military coup in 1973.

She was forced into exile as the government killed thousands of supporters of the democratically elected socialist Salvador Allende. The Pinochet government ruthlessly imposed neoliberal prescriptions and counted on Milton Friedman as an economic consultant.

But in the case of Chile at least the country did experience strong economic growth during the dictatorship. However, the movement of left leaders elected in the last ten years in the region was a self-conscious movement against neoliberalism, which in most cases led to unprecedented levels of inequality and historically low rates of economic growth in Latin America.

In many cases these polices were imposed under duress when these countries had their own crises. In 1982 when many Latin American countries defaulted on their huge debts to the developed world, rescue packages from international organizations influenced by the governments of Reagan and Thatcher were conditional on the acceptance of austere structural adjustment programs.

In theaftermath of the Asian financial crisis of 1997, the response from the IMF caused many commentators, especially in Asia, to complain that the measures imposed would never be so harsh if something similar happened in the West. Now that it has, leaders of the Latin American left are seeing it this way and many are disgusted at how easily the banks and rich are getting off.

Nicaraguan Congressman Edwin Castro said that "We think the Bush administration should follow the same policies that they and the International Monetary Fund have always told us to follow when we have economic problems.

"One of our economists was telling us that Bush has just implemented communism for the rich."

The Nicaraguan party to which Castro belongs is the Sandinistas, the leftist party violently opposed by the Reagan-backed Contras in the 1980s and which returned to power in 2006.

Hugo Chavez, elected in Venezuela in 1998, was the first of these left-leaning leaders to come to the fore and receives the lion’s share of attention due to his country’s oil money and his unique and controversial approach to public speaking. But since then, left-of-centre governments have also come to power in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Uruguay, and most recently, Paraguay.

Though the region will certainly be hurt by depressed commodity prices, to the extent that these governments have been able to push reforms past local and international opposition, taking forms ranging from political opposition, military coups to threats of capital flight, they have ironically served to insulate them somewhat from the current crisis.

For example, the FT’s Benedict Mander called the Caracas stock exchange an “oasis of calm” due to the country’s currency controls, implemented in 2003.

Reuters pointed out that: “Venezuela has suffered little direct effect from the market chaos because Chavez nationalised the most important companies that once traded on the minuscule Caracas stock exchange and because its currency is fixed by exchange controls.”

These kinds of economic policies, like those of Ecuador’s recently approved new constitution which allows greater government control over banks, are the exact opposite of the unregulated free-market policies promoted quite powerfully by international organizations and institutions influenced by the U.S., Europe and Japan. And pushing them through required facing stiff international opposition.

Eric Wingerter of left-leaning Latin America blog raised a comparison between the financial sector’s treatment praise of the U.S.’s recent forced nationalization of major banks and its reaction to Hugo Chavez’s decision two months ago to purchase a single and profitable bank on the open market.

The Wall Street Journal then claimed that move could lead to “mass withdrawls” that could “snowball into a systemic bank run that puts the economy and political system at play.”

Policymakers and analysts in the US and Europe will probably be concentrating on their own countries for the next weeks, or perhaps months. But if they ever turn back to Latin America, they will find they face a very difficult task if they would like to restore their credibility.

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The spread of Wahhabism, and the West’s responsibility to the world

In 2013, the European Union declared Wahhabism the main source of global terrorism. But it's not just a “Middle East problem”; it is our problem, too.

François Hollande’s declaration of war against Isis (also known as Islamic State) was, perhaps, a natural reaction to the carnage in Paris but the situation is now so grave that we cannot merely react; we also need sustained, informed and objective reflection. The French president has unwittingly played into the hands of Isis leaders, who have long claimed to be at war with the West and can now present themselves as noble ­resistance fighters. Instead of bombing Isis targets and, in the process, killing hapless civilians, western forces could more profitably strengthen the Turkish borders with Syria, since Turkey has become by far the most important strategic base of Isis jihadis.

We cannot afford to allow our grief and outrage to segue into self-righteousness. This is not just the “Middle East problem”; it is our problem, too. Our colonial arrangements, the inherent instability of the states we created and our support of authoritarian leaders have all contributed to the terrifying disintegration of social order in the region today. Many of the western leaders (including our own Prime Minister) who marched for liberté in Paris after the Charlie Hebdo massacre were heads of countries that, for decades, have backed regimes in Muslim-majority countries that denied their subjects any freedom of expression – often with disastrous results.

One of these regimes is Saudi Arabia. Despite its dismal human rights record, the kingdom has been central to western foreign policy in the Middle East since the 1970s and western governments have therefore tacitly condoned its “Wahhabisation” of the Muslim world. Wahhabism originated in the Arabian peninsula during the 18th century as an attempt to return to the pristine Islam of the Prophet Muhammad. Hence, Wahhabis came to denounce all later developments – such as Sufism and Shia Islam – as heretical innovations.

Yet this represented a radical departure from the Quran, which insists emphatically that there must be “no coercion in matters of faith” (2:256) and that religious pluralism is God’s will (5:48). After the Iranian Revolution, the Saudis used their immense wealth to counter the power of Shia Islam by funding the building of mosques with Wahhabi preachers and establishing madrasas that provided free education to the poor. Thus, to the intense dismay of many in the Muslim world, an entire generation has grown up with this maverick form of Islam – in Europe and the US, as well as in Pakistan, Jordan and Malaysia.

In 2013, the European Union declared that Wahhabism was the main source of global terrorism. It is probably more accurate, however, to say that the narrowness of the Wahhabi vision is a fertile soil in which extremism can flourish. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Wahhabi chieftains did indeed conduct violent military expeditions against the Shia but, during the 1930s, the Saudi kingdom abandoned military jihad and Wahhabism became a religiously conservative movement. Today, some members of the Saudi ruling class support Isis but the Grand Mufti has condemned it in the strongest terms. Like Osama Bin Laden, Isis leaders aim to overthrow the Saudi regime and see their movement as a rebellion against modern Wahhabism.

Military action in Syria will not extirpate Islamist extremism elsewhere. In order to be fully successful, President Hollande’s campaign must also include a review of domestic policy. France has signally failed to integrate its Muslim population. Most of the terrorists responsible for the atrocities of 13 November appear to have been disaffected French nationals. So, too, were the Kouachi brothers, who committed the Charlie Hebdo massacre, and Amedy Coulibaly, who hijacked the Jewish supermarket in January. All three lived in notoriously deprived suburbs of Paris and – evoking France’s colonial past – were of Algerian and Malian descent. Psychiatrists who have investigated people involved in the 9/11 plot and in subsequent attacks have found that these terrorists were not chiefly motivated by religion. Far more pressing has been the desire to escape a ­stifling sense of insignificance. Powerless at home, many of them alienated by the host culture, young Muslim men in the West are attracted by the strong masculine figure of the jihadi and the prospect of living in a like-minded community, convinced that a heroic death will give their lives meaning. 

As they debate the feasibility of British air strikes in Syria, some MPs have insisted that they must be accompanied by negotiation and diplomacy. Again, these cannot be conducted in a spirit of superior righteousness. There must be a recognition that the West is not the only victim of Muslim extremism. We seem curiously blind to this. Far more Muslims than non-Muslims have been killed by Isis, yet this is rarely mentioned. Two weeks before the Charlie Hebdo atrocities in January, the Taliban murdered 145 Pakistanis, most of them children; two days after it, Boko Haram slaughtered as many as 2,000 villagers in Nigeria. Yet, compared with the Paris attack, the media coverage in the West was perfunctory. There has been little acknowledgment that the refugees whom many would seek to exclude from Europe have experienced the horrors we saw in Paris on a regular basis in Syria or Iraq. Already we seem to have forgotten that more than 40 people in Beirut were killed by two Isis suicide bombers on 12 November.

This heedlessness – a form, perhaps, of denial – does not go unnoticed in the Muslim world. The Iraq War showed that a military campaign cannot succeed if it fails to respect the sensibilities of the local people. Western governments must understand that their ­nations bear considerable responsibility for the present crisis – Isis is, after all, the product of the ill-considered Iraq War. And, as long as we mourn only our own dead, we cannot escape the accusation – frequently heard in the developing world – that the West has created a global hierarchy in which some lives are more valuable than others.

Karen Armstrong is the author of “Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence” (Vintage)

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State