When elites see their wealth threatened, they move heaven and earth

On Nov. 11, 1979, San Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero preached on Mark 12:38-44, The Widow’s Offering: Jesus watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” 

Colombia’s president sends more troops to Cali to try to quell a month of protests. The British magazine The Economist invites a resurgence of U.S. imperialism to thwart the Mexican president’s option for the poor. The six-decade-long U.S. blockade of Cuba is so severe that the country cannot obtain sufficient syringes to protect its population with the vaccines it has developed.

And I think of the words of St. Oscar Romero on Nov. 11, 1979, when he offered a warning about money when it becomes an idol:

It’s natural that when the right feels that their economic privileges are being threatened, they will move heaven and earth in order to maintain their idol of wealth.

Next Sunday, June 6, Mexicans and Peruvians head to the polls. In Mexico, these mid-term elections—the national legislature and many state and local races—are marred by violence: at least 35 candidates of various parties have been murdered. In Peru, it’s the second round of voting to elect a new president: from the left, Pedro Castillo stands a reasonable chance of defeating Keiko Fujimori, despite her powerful, rich supporters.

The Economist’s attack on Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (known by his initials as AMLO) in startling. There are reasonable grounds to debate this policy (the pandemic response) or that development plan (the tourist train in the Yucatán peninsula that is opposed by Indigenous people in the region), but The Economist argues that he is a populist comparable to Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, and that democracy is threatened:

Mr. López Obrador divides Mexicans into two groups: “the people”, by which he means those who support him; and the elite, whom he denounces, often by name, as crooks and traitors who are to blame for all Mexico’s problems. He says he is building a more authentic democracy. 

Left: Cartoon by Israel Vargas, The Economist, May 27, 2021. Right: cartoon by El Fisgón, La Jornada, May 29, 2021. (“The Economist: The magazine of the True Oligarchy.”)

It then goes further, suggesting that the United States get involved in Mexico’s internal affairs:

The United States needs to pay attention. Donald Trump did not care about Mexican democracy. President Joe Biden should make clear that he does. He must be tactful: Mexicans are understandably allergic to being pushed around by their big neighbour. But America ought not to turn a blind eye to creeping authoritarianism in its backyard. As well as sending vaccines, unconditionally, Mr. Biden should send quiet warnings.

So, what is a populist anyway? 

A Venezuelan friend who lives in Costa Rica, José Amesty, says populism is a term used by elites when they do not understand what is going on. I would refine that slightly and suggest that it is a term used by elites and technocrats to describe political movements that reject their narrow economic priorities—maintaining their own privileges—by putting social goals first. 

Amesty cites AMLO: “supporting the poor, supporting elderly adults, supporting youth: if that is to be populist, then add me to the list.” AMLO stands in the tradition of Lázaro Cárdenas, the revolutionary Mexican president who in the 1930s led a land reform that put half of the farming land in the hands of local community councils (ejidos) and who nationalized the petroleum industry.

Populism is one of the least useful terms in our political lexicon. I think we’re clearer when we use tags that are generally understood: left (social democrat, socialist, communist), centre (liberal), or right (conservative, traditional, elitist, militarist). Better yet: actually describe the content of political platforms. What does this candidate stand for? With whom do they stand? 

The government of Iván Duque in Colombia and the candidacy of Fujimori in Peru are projections of traditional elites trying to hold on to their power and economic privileges against diverse social and political movements that would empower people who have usually been locked out of power: the rural and urban poor, Indigenous and descendants of Africans, women and LGBTI people. 

In that sense, democracy in Latin America is not so much being threatened as it is still being invented.

Neo-colonial inertia and development plans for Central America

The shopping mall model of development (Honduras, 2009)

In October 2008, in a classroom in Ciudad Juárez—one of the most violent cities on the planet but on the border with the richest country—an international ecumenical group considered the latest official development plan for Mexico and Central America.* 

After hearing from Raúl Moreno, an economist from El Salvador long active in the Hemispheric Social Alliance of groups that questioned free trade and other top-down, capital-intensive development schemes, I wrote in a report:

“When you look at the extreme violence occurring in Juárez, the de-population of rural Mexico, the official development plans in Central America (and consequent dislocation of rural populations), and the extreme violence carried out in Colombia to drive rural populations from their land, you come away with the impression of a development model that has been continuously applied since the days of the “wild, wild west” in the United States. The model is now extended all the way to Colombia and beyond: drive Indigenous peoples on to ever more marginal lands; destroy small farmers; insert mines and hydro-electric projects where convenient to the interests of large capital; and reward allies by granting them the lands of the displaced.”

I suppose it’s progress of a sort that the masters now see the need to incorporate ecological goals into their development plans.

But these plans have at their core a neoliberal notion of development: cut protection for workers, reinforce free trade agreements, and protect private-sector investment. 

The latest plan, promoted by President Joe Biden, Vice-President Kamala Harris and the leaders of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, does not correspond to the real needs and aspirations of the people: land redistribution, legal reform, ecological justice, human rights, and for Indigenous peoples: full implementation of free, prior and informed consent.

On Monday, April 26, the same day that Harris held a video conference with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, the progressive Mexican daily newspaper La Jornada questioned the U.S. approach. During the U.S.-led Earth Day summit that was held a few days earlier, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador proposed extending a Mexican government agricultural support program to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador—with U.S. financial support. 

The program, Sembrando Vida (Sowing Life), has been running in Mexico for two years and is intended to generate jobs in the small-farming sector, reactivate the economy in areas affected by out-migration, and overcome deforestation. “The plan seeks to overcome social exclusion and the poverty that afflicts 61 per cent of the rural population.” It includes focus on ejidos and other community-controlled farms overlooked or attacked by successive neoliberal governments in power between 1988 and 2018 in Mexico.

In her meeting with Giammattei, the Vice-president Harris announced $310 million in U.S. government support for humanitarian relief and to address food insecurity in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. This is in addition to $4 billion announced by President Biden on the day of his inauguration that is intended to “address the root causes of migration” from Central America.

Graffiti in Honduras, 2009: “Long live the people in resistance.”

“Without strong collective action, this will mean MORE money for militarization and neoliberal economic policies that will continue to displace people from their lands and communities,” said a statement from the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES). CISPES, joined by other solidarity and religious groups, demanded an end to U.S. police and military assistance in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, and an end to development policies that “promote climate change, privatize natural resources and public services, violate workers’ rights and destroy Indigenous and communal lands.”

One of the last people I met before the pandemic lockdown began in mid-March 2020 was Giovanni Batz (G’io B’atz), a U.S.-Guatemalan researcher. He was in Toronto for a two-day conference about Central American migrants and refugees at York University. In this essay, he denounces the latest U.S. plan and explains why it will fail. By supporting further militarization and neoliberal development in Central America, the United States contributes to displacement. “When discussing climate change, hunger, and poverty as causes of migration,” he writes, “land redistribution, reform, and rights must be discussed as solutions.” 

La Jornada’s editorial noted that Biden-Harris roll-out is through a series of bilateral meetings. “The White House has not accepted multilateral treatment of human displacement and the environmental crisis, the newspaper said. 

It reflects the historic preference of the White House to negotiate individually with each country, a terrain in which the superpower can more easily impose its terms and conditions. As it confronts the migration issue, we hope that the Democratic administration will go beyond the colonial inertia that shapes every foreign policy action from a position of advantage over and against the other, and that it will recognize that behind the migration flows there are economic and social components apart from climate change which must, nevertheless, be confronted with the same urgency as global warming.

* Plan Puebla Panamá had just given way that year to the Proyecto Mesoamérica (the Project for the Integration and Development of Mesoamerica), which would later become the Comprehensive Development Plan and then the Comprehensive Regional Protection and Solutions Framework (MIRPS).

Migration and the development prescription: Let’s do better

A new president is in office in Washington. For the sake of immigrants, LGBTIQ people, women, and racialized and religious minorities, one cannot help but be glad of this change, and of the opportunities that are re-opened for people who were excluded or attacked during his predecessor’s term. 

But once again, the notion of development is again prescribed as a remedy for whatever it is that drives migrants—notably and urgently, those from Central America—towards the southern border of the United States. 

On his first day in office, President Joseph Biden’s administration promised to invest $4 billion in the region to address issues of security and employment. A new immigration reform bill, the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, was introduced. Aid and investment from the United States, it is hoped, will encourage people to stay home.

President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (Jim Hodgson photo)

Two days later, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, spoke with Mr. Biden and concurred. “We believe that the causes of the migration phenomenon must receive attention. People do not abandon their families, their towns, their cultures, out of pleasure. They do it because of need. We want migration to be optional, not forced, that all the people of the Central American nations and our own have options, that they be able to get ahead where they were born, where their families are, where their cultures are. And for that, development cooperation is very important.”

With history as a guide, however, we can see some problems with the prescription. Two decades ago, another new president of Mexico, Vicente Fox, launched the Plan Puebla Panamá for regional economic development. The name has changed several times since then, depending on which countries were in and which were excluded because their citizens had made electoral choices that were unacceptable to donors. Airports were expanded, highways widened, mines dug and hydro-electric dams built, but still, people left by the thousands, tens of thousands, especially from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. 

Those large-scale projects enable the rich, expanding the divide between rich and poor within the region and indeed, everywhere. And no one is acknowledging that among the root causes are wounds left from US-sponsored coups and civil wars, along with deportations of alleged criminals into unstable systems—or rather, into systems whose only sector capable of their social integration is the criminal one.

We know what to do differently. Development assistance should always be focused on building “economies of solidarity”—innovative agriculture that respects ecology, local markets, cooperatives and credit unions, leadership by women, full consultation with communities and civil society organizations. Indigenous people and farmers should never be driven from their land by transnational corporations—a key consequence of a generation of free trade agreements in Mexico, Central America and Colombia and driver of migration—but rather trade and investment should benefit all people.

With this post (during International Development Week), I am reviving a blog I that I used while I worked with The United Church of Canada as its Latin America/Caribbean program coordinator. Please look here for more information about me.