This is long overdue. I read Leo Banks’ article when I was in Tucson last spring and was beyond outraged at its racism and ignorance. This type of thinking has to be challenged and exposed for what it is and what it is really saying.

In the US/Mexico Borderlands, battles are fought over trash. For years the media and anti-immigrant activists—from the Minutemen to Sheriff Joe Arpaio to Fox News—have used the issue of trash left in the desert by unauthorized migrants as a rallying point to advocate for more vigilant border enforcement. More recently, federal authorities have begun issuing littering citations to humanitarian groups that leave water in the desert for migrants. These commentators and government representatives move easily from this representation of a fragile desert ecosystem under threat of destruction by migrants and their allies to a more general xenophobic representation of a US under threat of invasion by “illegal aliens.” Yet underlying these stories about desert littering—and, by extension, the discourse of an “alien invasion”—are extremely simplistic and problematic conceptions of nature, space, and migration in general. By working together to naturalize borders and a politics of exclusion, these misconceptions have very real material consequences, like the deaths of thousands of migrants in the desert in the last fifteen years.

Such an appeal to pop environmentalism is powerful—it is hard to argue that trash in the desert is not a problem. Leo Bank’s feature article in last spring’s Tucson Weekly is full of photos of piles of discarded backpacks and water bottles meant to inspire action on the part of a previously uninformed populace. “Have you had your holy-smokes moment yet regarding our illegal-immigration crisis?” he asks at the beginning. “If not, travel to Arizona’s border region, and go off-road to the game trails, mountain passes and grassland flats that make this area so magical. In many places, the magic is gone, lost beneath piles of garbage.” He then sets out to dramatically describe the amount of “trash has been dropped since this invasion began.”

There are a number of shortcomings to this logic. Most simply, it is based on a romanticized view of nature as something pristine and external to humans, something outside our cities to be visited, observed, catalogued, and enjoyed. Implicit in this characterization is the absurd assumption that the rest of us—the non-migrants—are not involved in the transformation and degradation of the environment, as if we exist independent of nature. Such naïve thinking is especially ironic in the southwest, where fast growing, sprawling desert cities and their thirsty golf courses are turning rivers into dry streambeds (Tucson, Phoenix, Las Vegas, etc).

Likewise there is the ecological havoc wrought by the increasing militarization of the border to consider. The 2005 Read ID Act exempted construction of the border wall from all federal environmental regulations, from the Clean Air Act to the Endangered Species Act. The wall itself cuts through sensitive, protected habitat on both sides of the boundary, and is lined on the US side by wide dirt access roads for Border Patrol vehicles. Yet Banks’s seems to think that halting migration and picking up the trash will simply return the desert to its “pre-invasion beauty.” If “pre-invasion” is going to be our benchmark standard, it might be more useful to consider other invasions of the southwest, such as the colonization of the Americas by Europe.

Another issue here is the treatment of migration as an isolated incident that begins only when someone crosses the US/Mexico boundary. On the contrary, migration is tied to a complex web of interrelated environmental, social, economic, and political forces acting unevenly over space and time. A long history of US military intervention in the region, free trade agreements like NAFTA, and the mandated imposition of neoliberal policies are just a few of the factors that bear considering. Yet nowhere does Banks ask why so many people are walking through the desert to begin with, or why there are “backpacks, clothing, food cans, toothpaste, toys, water bottles,” as well as bibles, religious statues, birth certificates, and diapers, discarded along the trails. Calling all this trash obscures the reality of what is happening out there: people are traveling great distances and taking great risks, children in tow, hoping to establish a new life for themselves in the United States. But why? Instead of investigating this basic questions, Banks mocks an out-of-town church volunteer who, after picking up trash, said it “tells stories of ‘hardship and hope.’” “She’s delusional,” Banks says. “The hardship is mostly self-imposed, and there is no hope in garbage.”

Conflating concern for the environment with more controls of migration displaces a very political issue onto the environment and works to depoliticize the border and migration. In reality, the border itself was imposed on Mexico when the US won control of what is now Arizona, California, Nevada, and Utah in the Mexican-American War in 1848. The border as we now know it has been produced by a series of conflicts, campaigns, and policies that are inextricably tied to economic, political, and social changes on both sides of the border. In the last fifteen years in particular, US border policy has methodically pushed people away from the more traditional urban crossing areas (El Paso, Tijuana, Nogales) and into remote areas where geography itself has been used as a tool of deterrence. In a very specific way, therefore, the presence of so many thousands of people walking through fragile desert has everything to do with the particular ways in which the border has been produced. As the number of Border Patrol agents and fences grow, people are left with few alternatives to walking for days—and so carrying the food and water with them that ends up as trash along the way—through ecologically sensitive areas.

The US government’s attitude toward migration is clearly written onto the landscape of the Borderlands. Crossers are confronted with an array of high-tech security tools, armed guards, and towering walls. When they venture away from urban areas they enter a desert that is endlessly described as harsh, unforgiving, and uninviting, much like the United States in general for unauthorized migrants. As the journey north takes place in more remote areas, the increasing danger and difficulty seem to come from the environment itself rather than from US immigration policy, thus naturalizing both the border and the structural violence that comes with it. Nature and geography, then, become implicated in these social and political struggles, revealing the very blurry boundaries between them. And as a result, the story of political and economic policies that leave many people with few alternatives to risking their lives to leave home in search of more opportunity elsewhere simply becomes the story of irresponsible people behaving badly in a place they shouldn’t be to begin with. Moreover, humanitarian volunteers who leave life-saving bottles of water on heavily trafficked migrant trails become litters with no respect for fragile desert ecosystems and criminalizing aid becomes protecting the environment. In the end the idea that there is a clear difference between “us” over here and “them” en route becomes simplistically external and absolute and a virulent politics of exclusion is projected onto the desert.

It is important to consider the ways in which the border was—and still is—produced; in other words, we need to denaturalize it. At the foundations of these competing discourses about migration are differing ideas about space more generally: on the one had space, like nature, is empty, something through which migrants pass; on the other, the border, and our ideas about its naturalness, is a space that has been produced through practices and policies over the last hundred and fifty years. Control of the border, then, comes to be about the control of space, which also is about the manipulation and use of nature to a political end. When seen in this sense, focusing on the destruction of the desert by migrants becomes rather inane; there are much bigger acts of destruction going on, from livelihoods all over Mexico and Central America to the lives of the hundreds of migrants who die in the desert every year.

It is important to understand how turning to the environment as a proxy for battles over migration misidentifies a very political international issue as very local and apolitical, and how it carries with it much larger ideas about the relationship between the US and Mexico. At their best the arguments of people like Banks are shortsighted or disingenuous; at their worst they are dangerously misleading. And at their root lurks the enduring violence and xenophobia that has plagued the relationship of the US to its southern neighbors for centuries.

Advertisements

The following was written by the RampART Collective, a group that maintains a social center in East London that was raided during the G20 summit a few weeks ago. It does a good job of framing police violence as systemic rather than based on the aberrant behavior of a few bad cops. It was originally posted on London Indymedia.

On the Thursday following the G20 protests, two squatted social centres in East London were raided by riot police, apparently looking for instigators of the attacks on the Royal Bank of Scotland. RampART Social Centre, which has existed for more than four years, and a newly opened Convergence Centre in Earl Street were both being used to house and feed protesters throughout the period of the G20 summit. In both cases, the police acted illegally but, other than a brief report in the Independent which referred to unwarranted violence, the raids remained largely unreported. In both buildings, people were subjected to physical violence and verbal abuse and those that were arrested were later ‘de-arrested’ for lack of any supporting evidence. Our only ‘crime’, it seems, is that we are political activists and squatters and thus deemed to be suitable targets. If only we had kept our heads down and stayed away from these kinds of activities, the logic goes, we would not deserve what we had coming.

It is right and proper that the events leading up to the death of Ian Tomlinson should be the subject of a criminal investigation but the danger, as we see it, is that it will be seen as an isolated incident and will be dealt with simply by disciplining individual officers, only serving to further obscure the role of the police in perpetuating a climate of fear. Under the terms of the global surveillance state, citizenship has become an exercise in evading a charge of deviance. In fact, the proliferation of forms of deviance is the flip side of the supposed ‘lifestyle choices’ available under the terms of consumer citizenship. You can ‘choose’ to spend your money on home improvements, high fashion and high-tech gadgets and are applauded for making the ‘right’ choices. But if you choose to occupy an unused building for the purposes of providing space for political discussion, self-education and creative activities without the intrusion of CCTV cameras or access restrictions, and particularly if you refuse to levy a charge which situates these activities in terms of market forces, then you effectively become outlaw. And, if you choose to express your outrage at a system that produces inequalities and then condemns those that become unemployed and homeless, you become a target for repression. The differences between Tomlinson and the people who went to the Bank of England to demonstrate against the iniquitous excesses of neoliberal capitalism are marginal, despite attempts to distinguish between ‘innocent’ bystanders and ‘guilty’ protesters. Tomlinson was on his way home from work. The demonstrators were exercising their lawful right to protest. Both were exercising their right to the city as citizens of a supposed democracy.

When RampART social centre was raided on the Thursday, members of the volunteer collective were sitting down to a cup of coffee and biscuits. Other members were elsewhere in the building speaking to some guests who had come to stay for the duration of the protests. We were aware of the massing of officers outside the building but were used to the presence of a Forward Intelligence Team, the police paparazzi,who had been frequent visitors to Rampart Street in the weeks leading up to the G20, photographing and scrutinising anyone entering the building. And so, for us, it was business as usual.

At the Convergence Centre, the police seemed to be employing a new tactic whereby people being searched before entering the building had their mobile phones confiscated and were threatened with arrest unless they could ‘prove ownership’. Essentially, this amounted to an attempt to illegally secure personal details.

The raid itself was surreal. Or rather, it was hyperreal, in the sense that, as some of us commented later, it was like being on the wrong side of a ‘first person shooter’ video game. Some of us thought the men and women in balaclavas, padded uniforms, helmets and carrying riot shields were pointing toy guns at us. In fact, as we discovered later, they were tasers, which are designed to stun but are occasionally known to kill.

It’s tempting to say that the violence that we experienced was out of all proportion to the level of resistance which was, in fact, zero. But to even speak of proportionality is a mistake, because it implies that there is something in our actions that warrants a violent response. One member of the collective was punched in the face, another was pushed downstairs, saw someone have his head smashed against the wall and was met with looks of disbelief when he pleaded with officers to protect his glasses. One of the residents of the building was punched and kicked, narrowly avoided taser fire and was arrested in his pyjamas.

We would stress again that this happened to people who, like Ian Tomlinson, were simply exercising their most basic civil rights: to congregate peacefully with friends and to walk the streets unmolested. Some might think that we are opportunistically linking what happened to us with Tomlinson, and would want to make a clear distinction. After all, he was a regular bloke in the wrong place at the wrong time, and we were deliberately taking part in political activism. But to continue in this vein is lose all semblance of what it means to live with even a modicum of freedom and self-respect.

The press reported that four (and, in some reports, six) arrests had been made during the raids on RampART and the Convergence Space. Two known to us personally were held in police cells for up to ten hours, had their clothes confiscated and were sent home in Guantanamo Bay style boiler suits. News of arrests functions to assuage anxiety and to justify the cost of police operations that amount to little more than exercises in public relations. The public can rest assured that the dangerous anarchists have been infiltrated and detained and that ‘scroungers’ and ‘cheats’ have been brought to book.

Comparisons have inevitably been made between Tomlinson’s death and the death of Blair Peach during an Anti-Nazi League demonstration in April, 1979, widely speculated to be as a result of assault by the police. Although Peach’s brother reached an out-of-court settlement with the Metropolitan Police in 1989, no officer was ever charged in connection with the death. Thirty years later, the same police force has been granted unprecedented powers in the name of ‘security’ and justified on the basis that London is under threat from elements in the population that threaten ‘our’ way of life. The result is the proliferation of deviant identities which function as a focus for collective anxiety and paranoia (‘terrorists’, ‘anarchists’, ‘squatters’, ‘foreign workers’ etc.).

Since the incidents on the 1st and 2nd of April, voices have been raised in condemnation of police actions, particularly the tactic of “kettling” which herds protesters like cattle and allows the police to punish those who attempt to escape. Back at RampART on the Wednesday evening we saw the resulting head injuries and beaten bodies If we are to avoid more deaths and injury, then we need to think seriously, not only about the powers granted to a police force that seems dangerously out of control but about the ideology that sanctions violence in the name of respectability. We need to think about what it means to be a citizen in 21st century global culture and about the treatment of those that effectively have their human rights revoked because they refuse, or are unable to conform to the dictates of consumer citizenship. We need, in short, to be aware that, as the global downturn deprives people of their homes and livelihoods, any one of us could end up on the wrong side of the divide that separates ‘us’ from ‘them’. Any one of us could become a scapegoat for the unfocused anger which results when people relinquish responsibility for their own lives and then find themselves deprived of their freedom and dignity. Places like RampART exist because some of us believe that we can reclaim our freedoms but only if we work together in a spirit of mutual respect and toleration.

Tyranny

In 1971 Jo Freeman, aka Joreen, wrote an essay directed towards the Women’s Liberation Movement called “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.” The essay was meant to challenge the unquestioning adoption of “structurelessness” by groups who did not want to replicate the structures of society they were trying to escape and change. “Any group of people of whatever nature that comes together for any length of time for any purpose will inevitably structure itself in some fashion,” she wrote. “The structure may be flexible; it may vary over time; it may evenly or unevenly distribute tasks, power and resources over the members of the group. But it will be formed regardless of the abilities, personalities, or intentions of the people involved. The very fact that we are individuals, with different talents, predispositions, and backgrounds makes this inevitable.”

“The Tyranny of Structurelessness” accurately describes pretty much every collective I have been a part of. The language has changed since the 70s – now we say we’re “non-hierarchical” and that we operate by consensus. Yet consensus, as a tool for making decisions, is an ideal as much as a process. Rarely, if ever, have I seen a group in which all people honestly have an equal say and comparable degrees of empowerment. And rarely, if ever, do we acknowledge it. “The idea of ‘structurelessness’ does not prevent the formation of informal structures, only formal ones,” Freeman says. “Thus structurelessness becomes a way of masking power.”

Because her essay was directed towards the Women’s Liberation Movement, it doesn’t go into gender relations, nor does it talk about how race, class, and sexuality affect the formation of these informal structures. In my experience, all these social dynamics fuel the sort of power imbalances Freeman describes. Saying we make decisions by consensus does not make them disappear. Rather than just decide that we’ve moved beyond them it’s very necessary that we be careful, thoughtful, and intentional about how we handle them.

While it is not perfect, “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” describes and makes suggestions for how to correct some of the problematic, hidden dynamics that are still around 35 years after it was written. It is a useful starting point for anyone who believes in the possibility of a truly anti-authoritarian approach to living, working, and doing.

Read the full text or download a pdf of a zine to print here (a much more pleasant read).

More articles can be found on Jo Freeman’s website.

My friend Elliott Liu in NYC just finished a zine, Everybody Wants A New Old Left, that critiques two new socialist pamphlets currenlty circulating in the US  from a horizontalist, anti-authoritarian perspective. He makes clear that some of the fatal flaws that come from focusing on party politics and state power continue to plague socialist groups, though he also points out some of the positive changes they have undergone in response to critiques over the last century. While some of the long-standing conflicts with anti-authoritarians are still very present in these pamphlets, Elliott sees their inclusion of a more flexible and exploratory approach to movement building as at least a little promising. Download a printable version from the original post on his website here.

Everybody Wants A New Old Left

With the election of Obama and a widening economic crisis, it seems immense changes are sweeping national and global politics every week or so. Radicals, along with everybody else, are struggling to comprehend the nature of the changes around us, and the directions we can head in the future. The good news: pretty much everybody thinks the next few years are going to offer the greatest opportunity to remake our world in decades. The bad news: there are as many opinions about how to do it as there are letters in this paragraph.

Amid the flurry of forums, panel discussions, listserv back-and-forths and spirited bar talk animating lefty circles right now, socialist groups are putting forth proposals for new directions in the capital-L Left. Two notable proposals appeared recently in pamphlets distributed online and in bookstores. The first, Which Way Is Left, was produced by the Freedom Road Socialist Organization, a nationwide post-Maoist group formed in 1985. The second, Manifesto For A Left Turn, was put together by a collection of professors from the east coast including Stanley Aronowitz and Rick Wolff. Both pamphlets call for cohesion and organization-building in the U.S. left, and both fill me with mixed emotions. Read the rest of this entry »

Refining Power

January 11, 2009

Originally published in Earth Island Journal, Spring 2006

Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez builds new alliances with oil

In this fossil fuel-driven global economy, oil means power. Every country relies on oil to some extent these days, leaving them all at the mercy of their suppliers. It’s geopolitical heroin – it might be destroying us, but no one can get enough. Oil is a leveraging point, a fulcrum on which economic stability balances, and as the world’s supplies dwindle this will more frequently be the case.

Oil is qualitatively different from other key natural resources that have been the engines of wars and empires. It is both a tool and a commodity – the spice trade was lucrative, but you can’t run a factory off pepper. Record high prices have given oil-rich countries a new-found power and autonomy previously unachievable outside of the North – you can’t embargo a country that has something you desperately need. This power is beginning to make the traditional elites nervous.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is keenly aware of the power his country’s oil supply gives him. Though high oil prices are a blessing for Venezuela, they are a curse for other countries in Latin America that must pay whatever necessary to import the oil they need. To fill the gap left by this disparity in fortune, Chavez is using both his oil and profits to build strategic alliances with nations ranging from his neighbors to China. Often viewed as something a country can wield destructively, could oil also be something a country could use in a constructive fashion?

Last March, Chavez spoke before a packed stadium in Calcutta, India. “The 19th and the 20th centuries belonged to Europe and [North] America, but this century belongs to Asia, Africa, and Latin America,” he told a boisterous crowd. “If we can unite we can be the strongest power in the world.” Oil has enabled Chavez to pursue this vision of the future and make it a possibility.

A lot has changed in Venezuela in the last few years. Since 2002, more than one and a half million adults have learned to read, making Venezuela the first country in South America to rid itself of illiteracy. Millions more people – many of them residents of Caracas’s destitute slums – have received free health care in the thousands of new state-funded neighborhood clinics. Forty percent of the population now gets government-subsidized food.

At the same time, Venezuela has undergone dramatic economic expansion. In 2004, the economy grew by over 17 percent, one of the highest rates in the world. Further growth was demonstrated in the first half of this year. According to the Venezuelan Embassy in Washington, DC, the GDP is poised to continue rising for at least the next three years.

The driving force behind this social and economic development in Venezuela is the surging global price of oil, which has allowed the government to allocate billions of dollars to fund Chavez’s “Missions” – the name he has given his domestic campaigns – while still maintaining huge trade and budget surpluses. As the planet’s fifth-largest oil producer, Venezuela has benefited immensely from the world-wide energy crisis that has so negatively affected buyers – from the level of individual car drivers all the way up to struggling national economies – and is now awash in profits it has never seen before.

This new money has enabled Venezuela to look beyond its borders and share the wealth with other countries in the region. In June, Chavez announced the creation of PetroCaribe, an agreement that allows participating countries to pay a portion of the price for Venezuelan oil up front and finance the rest at very low interest rates. Additionally, countries can “pay” for the oil with goods and services. Cuba, for example, provides Venezuela with doctors and teachers in return for fuel; many of them have been instrumental in Venezuela’s health and literacy campaigns. All but two countries in the region have signed on to the deal.

In the last year, Venezuela has made plans with other countries in Latin America as well. Paraguay now receives discounted oil while Uruguay exchanges goods for much of its Venezuelan oil imports. Argentina exchanges shipbuilding expertise and farm machinery for oil, and joined forces with PDVSA, Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, to buy a refinery and open two gas stations in Buenos Aires. Hundreds more are planned around the country. Brazil partnered with PDVSA to build a $2.5 billion refinery within its borders. Additionally, the two countries announced plans for a joint venture that will allow Brazil to drill for oil in Venezuela.

Even more unconventionally, Chavez had publicized plans to supply certain low-income communities in the United States with discounted fuel as winter sets in. CITGO, a subsidiary of PDVSA, announced November 22 it will distribute twelve million gallons of heating oil through nonprofit groups to poor households in Boston for 60 to 80 cents below market value. Two and a half weeks later a similar program began in the Bronx, and more are being considered for Chicago and some Native American communities.

Venezuela has taken its oil offerings outside of the western hemisphere. In the last year, Chavez has met and negotiated deals with political leaders from China, India, and Russia, homes to three of the fastest growing economies in the world. Each country now has limited rights to explore and drill for oil inside Venezuela’s Orinoco belt. Venezuela also announced plans to increase oil exports to China five-fold.

Conspicuously absent from these deals are North America and Europe, and it’s no accident. Chavez has made it quite clear that he intends to use the money and power high oil prices have given him to build alliances, both in Latin America and in the rest of the world, that are counter to the traditional geopolitical power blocs.

While Venezuela’s agreements with other countries center around oil, oil is just the beginning. “The goal is in no small part to try and put together some sort of coalition that will stand by Venezuela rather than the United States,” says Vinay Jawahar of the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank in Washington, DC. “In that sense, it’s to try to create a bloc of countries that furthers Venezuela’s interests rather than US interests in the region.”

Predictably, this is a troubling prospect to the United States government, traditionally the dominant force within the region. In his opening statement at a hearing of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in November 2005, Committee Chairman Richard Lugar noted that: “Massive infusions of oil revenue distort regional politics and can embolden leaders hostile to US interests… Increasingly, oil is the currency through which countries leverage their interests against oil dependent nations such as ours. Oil is not just another commodity.” Lugar cited Venezuela as an example of one of these nations.

Chavez is an extremely outspoken critic of Washington, especially on the issue of free trade, which he often equates to a form of imperialism. “As Chavez sees it, this is really about solidarity,” says Jawahar. “Basically, what he thinks would be in Venezuela’s interest is to put together a bloc of countries that could, for instance, oppose the US on something like trade, which he thinks Latin America has traditionally gotten a raw deal out of. This way, they can come together and stand up for their own interests rather than having to accept whatever Washington foists upon them. He sees it as being a way to stand up to the power in the region.”

The Summit of the Americas in November 2005 was a clear manifestation of Chavez’s attempts to build support for his vision of Latin America. The meeting of the heads of the 34 countries in the hemisphere (Cuba was excluded) turned into a referendum on the US-proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), which would more or less extend NAFTA all the way to Tierra del Fuego. In the end, Venezuela and four other countries voted against the agreement: Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay. Interestingly, each of these countries has inked oil deals with Chavez.

“Venezuela has used its oil to bring more countries into the fold of what it sees as an alternative to a US-driven integration process,” says Teo Ballve, editor of the North American Congress on Latin America. “[Chavez has] used his oil wealth to offer these countries that are sort of teetering between the US and, for lack of a better word, the anti-US position, [an alternative], to bring them over to Venezuela’s side.”

There are practical limits on the power of Chavez’s oil diplomacy, however. Oil revenue comprises the vast majority of the Venezuelan economy, and the United States is the largest buyer of Venezuelan oil – which constitutes 12 percent of US imports. “There’s an umbilical cord that works in both directions,” says Larry Goldstein, president of PIRA Energy Group, an international energy-consulting firm. “There’s a symbiotic relationship, like it or not. We need them and they need us, for the moment.”

Proximity is a key factor that would make it expensive for Chavez to shift all his exports away from the US. Additionally, Venezuela produces a type of crude oil that only certain refineries can process, most of which are in the United States. “I don’t think they could start shipping oil elsewhere quickly in the short term,” observes Linda Giesecke, oil analyst for Energy Security Analysis, Inc. “But I think in the long term, Chavez does hope to reduce this dependency on the US as one of his main export markets.”

That Venezuela has its hands tied by geography is precisely the reason Chavez is aggressively pursuing the development of regional markets and cooperation. Many of the agreements he’s made with neighboring countries involve the construction of refineries so processing can be done in-country. “The entire Global South is part of an emerging market for Venezuelan oil,” says Eric Wingerter at the Venezuela Information Office. “The ultimate goal is not just charity or giving these things away to these other countries, but a real economic interdependence in the region.”

Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, echoes this idea: “He has this vision of Latin America being more independent, more integrated economically, less dependent and subject to the political directives of the United States.”

To further this goal, Chavez has put forward other, as yet undeveloped initiatives that would more deeply unite the region. He has plans for PetroAmerica, an agreement similar to PetroCaribe that would extend to all of Latin America. ALBA, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, was unveiled last year as a proposed substitute for the FTAA. The South American Community of Nations formed last December and aspires to emulate the European Union. Chavez also suggested the formation of a regional development bank to fund projects on the continent that could, over time, include nations from Asia and Africa as well.

While Chavez may be the loudest proponent of such regional integration, he is not alone in his dissatisfaction with the role of the United States in Latin America. “Part of the reason Chavez has struck a chord in the region is the whole region is moving in a certain direction,” Weisbrot observes.

Since 2000, four other Latin American countries – Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and Ecuador – have voted left-leaning presidents into office. In Chile, socialist candidate Michelle Bachelet won a plurality of votes, falling just short of the majority needed to take office. A runoff was scheduled for January 15. In Newsweek, Joseph Contreras and Phil Gunson wrote that this has been “a way of registering anger and disenchantment with the alleged failures of the Washington-backed free trade economic policies that so many leaders embraced during the 1990s.”

What’s more, 11 elections are coming up in the next year in the region, and Washington is worried Chavez’s influence will skew the results. In Bolivia, Nicaragua, and possibly Mexico, leftist candidates that may ally themselves with Chavez have a chance of winning.

Yet Chavez’s oil diplomacy can’t last forever – just as fluctuating oil prices made it possible, another change would challenge many of his initiatives. Much of his support, both domestically and regionally, derives from his social spending and oil deals. While he may have the upper hand at the moment, Chavez is engaged in a race to get as much as he can out of what he has now.

“He’s taking advantage of the window he’s got,” says Wingerter. “Prices are not going to be this high forever. So a lot of the spending right now is… sort of the overhead that goes into building all of these new schools, building all of these health clinics, establishing some of these trade relationships, while the economy is stronger than it ever has been.” Once the foundations are laid, the cost of maintaining these programs should be lower, Wingerter suggests.

But this groundwork is currently incomplete. More generally, the overall sustainability of Chavez’s projects is questionable. According to Dr. Julia Buxton, a research fellow at the University of Bradford in the UK, one of Chavez’s original intentions when coming to office was to reduce Venezuela’s dependence on oil by using oil revenue to diversify the economy. Venezuela is still taking steps towards diversification by emphasizing industrialization and agriculture, but now, she contends, “This dependence has been increased as a result of the reliance on petroleum export revenues for public spending (specifically the Missions) and foreign policy.”

There is also speculation that Venezuela’s oil industry is suffering. Chavez unilaterally raised royalty rates on oil operations and changed the terms under which foreign companies may function within the country, creating a new element of instability for these companies. This uncertainty discourages much-needed foreign investment in the oil industry. “Long term, PDVSA will pay a price,” predicts PIRA Energy Group’s Goldstein. “Venezuela needs a substantial amount of new investment, not only to grow, but just to maintain their existing production…There’s no doubt the investment flow is slower than it would otherwise be and producuction is substantially lower than it would otherwise have been.”

Oil has enabled Venezuela to establish relationships that are materially very beneficial to the countries on the other end of the deal – who would turn down subsidized oil? The ultimate hope, it seems, is that the relationships will be strong enough that when the oil runs low, the countries will still be able and willing to move forward on the regional cooperation. “It’s part of a larger plan to really integrate the economic development of the Caribbean region within South America,” says Wingerter. “It’s not just a wealthy country giving away resources to countries that are needier – there’s a real exchange of goods going on.”

The ideas of regional cooperation and resource sharing in Latin America are not new ones. Trade alliances like MERCOSUR in the Southern Cone and CAN in the Andes have existed for years, though each has met with variable degrees of success. Venezuela and Mexico, the only oil exporters in the region, have been providing discounted fuel to some of their neighbors since 1980. But Chavez is now attempting to combine the two and create a solid, unified Latin America that can stand on its own.

Chavez’s goals are ambitious and the ultimate feasibility debatable. But his willingness to stand up to the United States may have a lasting effect on a region already beginning to assert itself more firmly. “One thing that I think is changing in Latin America that’s never going to go back, that I think Venezuela has really helped push forward, is this idea of sovereignty, the sort of inherent equality between nations,” Wingerter continues. “I think that’s one of the things that’s really scaring the Bush administration. The people in Bolivia, Ecuador, Argentina, for the first time are saying, ‘Wait a second, we can make these decisions for ourselves, we don’t always have to look to the North for approval.’”

Dr. Buxton agrees: “I think it impacts on the rest of the world in terms of the emphasis on sovereignty and autonomy – imagine if the Iraqis, Saudis, etc., followed this autonomy line?”

The resolve of these other countries in the face of significant US opposition is largely unknown – much of Chavez’s appeal, in fact, results from the gross lack of engagement in the region by the US. But in an era often characterized by the consolidation of power and the spread of markets, signs of independence in Latin America are encouraging. Chavez has a dream of a multi-polar world with room enough for everyone to thrive, and this may be the beginning.