Notes From The Southern Cone

Dispatches From The Edge

Conn Hallinan

March 1, 2008

Getting it right is what the government of Brazilian Lula de Silva seems to be doing these days. The country’s National Survey of Sample Households has just pulled together the results of his government’s economic policies, which indicate that women and the poor are doing considerably better than they did under previous governments.

Some 8.7 million jobs were created in his first term, with wages rising 7.2 percent. More importantly, workers at the low end of the scale did the best. The median minimum wage jumped 13.3 percent over its 2005 level, a rise that affected 26 million workers and raised pensions for 16 million others.

De Silva’s government has also increased income through the Family Assistance Program, resulting in a 7.6 percent rise in family income in 2006, a rise that was steeper in the economically depressed Northeast than in the wealthier Southeast: 11.7 percent and 7 percent respectively.

Despite those gains, however, regional inequality continues to haunt Brazil. While household income in the Northeast did rise, it is still only 57.8 percent of that in the Southeast. And while the disparity in wages between men and women saw improvement—with women’s pay increasing from 58.7 percent of the men’s rate in 1996 to 65.6 percent in 2006—discrimination on the basis of gender continues to be a problem. Given that almost one third of Brazil’s families are headed by single women, it is one the de Silva government clearly must tackle. The survey also found that while women make up 43 million of the 90 million national work force, they spend twice as much time on weekly house chores as men.

Brazil has seen huge increases in education, particularly for women, who have now passed men in high school completion. If one counts teachers and administrative support systems, almost one third of the country’s population is involved in education. However, almost 10 percent of the population is still illiterate, and 23.6 percent are functionally illiterate. In the Northeast that figure rises to 35.5 percent.

The approach the da Silva government has taken to stimulating the economy is almost exactly the opposite of that taken by countries like the U.S., India and, to a certain extent, China, where resources have generally flowed to the wealthier sectors of the society. “From the point of view of the economy, to maximize the usefulness of the country’s resources involves raising the income of the poorest of the poor,” says Ladislau Dowbor of the Pontifical Catholic University of Sao Paulo. “The poor do not engage in financial speculation; they buy goods and services. To lift people from poverty is not charity; it is good sense, socially and economically.”

“Lula” has come under fire from some sections of the Left for not doing enough for the poor, but the recent survey suggests that Brazil is moving toward narrowing the country’s enormous class and regional disparities. “There is the immense organized labor of millions of people that are changing programs, literally ‘milking the rock’ of a governmental machine that historically was set up to administer privileges, not to render services,” says Dowbor.

A recent poll gives “Lula” a 66.8 percent approval rating and 52.7 percent for his government, its highest rating since January 2003 when da Silva was first elected.

No good is what the Bush Administration has been up to in Bolivia, according to Benjamin Dangl, author of “The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia.”

Recently declassified documents show that the White House is using the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to undermine the leftist government of Evo Morales by encouraging and underwriting rightwing separatist movements in Bolivia’s eastern provinces.

USAID has funneled over $4.4 million into the oil and gas rich eastern provinces, which are currently pushing for more autonomy from the Morales government. The eastern provinces are largely populated by light skinned descendents of the Spanish, while Morales’s base in the highlands is dominated by indigenous people.

While the U.S. denies it is interfering in Bolivia’s internal affairs, USAID is financing advisors to the rightwing, openly secessionist Civic Committee. The U.S. not only has hydrocarbon interests in the region, it has a significant military presence in neighboring Paraguay, where the huge Mariscasl Estigarriba airbase hosts U.S. Special Forces.

Besides USAID, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED)—both organizations were involved in the 1973 overthrow of the Socialist Allende government in Chile—has also been active. The NED, through the Center for International Private Enterprise, a front for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, has financed forums and panels critical of the Morales government’s nationalization of resources.

Another NED program brought young rightwing leaders to Washington for training. Morales’s party—The Movement Toward Socialism (MAS)— and other left parties were not invited.

Dangl interviewed a Fulbright Scholar who told him that U.S. Embassy officials asked him to give it reports on any Cubans or Venezuelans he encountered. Venezuela and Cuba give aid and provide expertise for the Morales government. According to the student, such reports would violate Fulbright guidelines, which prohibit interfering in the politics of a host country.

But MAS appears to be increasing its support, particularly among the poor, who make up the overwhelming bulk of Bolivia, the poorest country in South America. In late November, the Constituent Assembly approved a pension plan called the Dignity Salary, which will give $26 a month to all Bolivians over 60 years of age. The money will come from gas tax funds, which currently go to provincial governors. The widely popular move has drawn the anger of the eastern provinces, where the oil and gas reserves lie.

The economy also grew at a healthy 4.2 percent clip, and MAS managed to get a new constitution passed in the Congress. The latter gives the state more control over resources and the economy, guarantees indigenous rights, and an elected Supreme Court.

Regionally, Brazilian President “Lula” da Silva and Chilean President Michelle Bachelet declared their support for the new constitution and the Morales government, and announced plans to build a $600 million highway from Brazil, through Bolivia, to Chile.

Bolivia is also cutting deals to develop the country’s gas and oil resources with Russia and Brazil, and South Korea is investing in the Bolivian-state owned COMIBOL to jointly develop a copper mine.

Bush Administration subversion in eastern Bolivia, however, could pose a serious danger to the Morales government.

Dragon vs the Monroe Doctrine? According to April Howard of Upside Down World, it appears that when the 10-year agreement between Ecuador and the U.S. that allows Southern Command to use the Manta port and air base in Colombia runs out in 2009, the Chinese are going to move in.

The Manta base, which hosts 475 U.S. military personnel and hundreds of private mercenaries, has come under fire for violating its original agreement to interdict drugs. Critics charge that the base is also used to monitor—and on occasion attack—anti-government insurgents in Colombia.

During his election campaign, Ecuador’s leftist President Rafael Correa said he would only agree to allow the U.S. to use the base if the U.S. reciprocated by giving Ecuador a base in Florida. When his request was turned down, Correa offered the base to Terminals del Ecuador, which is owned by Hong Kong-based Hutchison Port Holdings.

The South America Regional Infrastructure Initiative plans to build either a highway or a rail line from Manta to the city of Manaus in Brazil. The link would create a direct line for China with Ecuador and Brazil.

Manta is the closest port to Asia on South America’s west coast.

As Sanho Tree of the Institute for Policy Study points out, there is considerable historical irony in the Chinese move. Back in 1900, the U.S. pushed an “Open Door Policy” in order to get access to China’s markets. It appears turnabout is fair play, Monroe Doctrine be damned.

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