Sydney to CELAC: The Poverty Of Western Politics And The Rise Of The Third World

I’m writing from Sydney, a city that is one of the world’s richest in material terms and yet most impoverished in its political debate. The press has been filled with talk of a possible third party-room overthrow of an elected prime minister in the last five years. The governing Liberal-National Coalition has been considering removing its parliamentary leader, Prime Minister Tony Abbott, a public relations move made by the previous Labor government when it removed Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2010, then reinstated him in 2013.

The conjecture surrounding Abbott’s leadership was not sparked by the refugee concentration camps run by Australia on poverty-stricken Pacific islands. It wasn’t triggered by the repeal of the mining super-profits tax in a deal struck with a party run by a mining multibillionaire. Nor was it set off by the removal of funding for homeless women’s shelters; nor by the hypocrisy of Abbott’s self-nomination as Minister for Women after saying in 2009, “this idea that sex is a woman’s right to absolutely withhold…need[s] to be moderated.”

No, in Australia the greater scandal was the PM’s granting of an Australian title to Prince Philip, a British aristocrat who now has a collection of 19 titles.

When asked about the leadership challenge in the run-in to the ballot, Abbott told the media that he would prefer “to get on with the job of running the country.” At that very moment, Abbott was moseying around a timber factory for the benefit of TV news cameras, wearing a hard hat and high-viz vest and taking selfies with the workers.

The decay signified by such behavior in a so-called national “leader” runs so deep that the scenario was passed off as normality. Political analysts remark that for politicians, “communicating their message to voters” is “the core requirement of the job.”

Indeed. Let the banks decide where to invest the resources of society. Let foreign-owned multinational miners decide where to stash their vast windfalls. Let economic institutions like the supermarkets and Swedish furniture wholesalers register their earnings in whichever tax haven they please. These matters are not the concern of national leaders. Politics is about “communicating a message.”

Let’s not make the mistake of categorizing such vacuous politics as an Australian phenomenon. Just weeks before, European leaders linked arms for the cameras in Paris in support of free speech. They proceeded to then look the other way as France arrested 69 people in the space of a week, according to Amnesty, for the crime of “apologizing for terrorism.”

One was a 16 year-old boy arrested for posting a cartoon – yes, a cartoon – on Facebook. It showed a Charlie Hebdo cartoonist being shot through a copy of Charlie Hebdo magazine with the words, “Charlie Hebdo is shit. It doesn’t stop bullets.” The copy of the magazine being held by the cartoonist is a July 2013 issue of Charlie Hebdo that showed an Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood protestor being shot, underneath the words, “The Qur’an is shit. It doesn’t stop bullets.”

Meanwhile across the Atlantic, the first black president of the United States continues to obfuscate in the face of the rumblings of #blacklivesmatter. Since the beginning of the year, at least 287 Americans have been killed by their own police force.

The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC)

"CELAC: The way of our Liberators"

“CELAC: The way of our Liberators”

So these days a sense of hope arises when looking to political developments in Latin America. This year CELAC’s third leaders’ summit was held in San José, Costa Rica.

CELAC looks set to replace the OAS (Organization of American States) as the pre-eminent forum for Latin America. The OAS includes every country in the Western Hemisphere aside from Cuba. CELAC includes every country except for the United States and Canada. Even though Secretary of State John Kerry called Latin America “our backyard” in 2013, it’s looking more and more likely that those days are over.

CELAC is (among other things) a grand response to the decadence and corruption of the West, particularly the US and its raucously hypocritical conduct in the OAS. According to the OAS Charter, its purpose is to support “representative democracy” and the “independence” and “sovereignty” of its members. Yet throughout the OAS’s history, the US and other Western nations have armed, trained, and funded military dictatorships across the hemisphere, most notably as part of Operation Condor in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Bolivia, as well as in the Central American Dirty Wars (more on those later).

In 1976, Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told the Videla dictatorship in Argentina, “Look, our basic attitude is that we would like you to succeed. I have an old-fashioned view that friends ought to be supported…If you can finish before Congress gets back, the better.” Over the following eight years, 10,000–30,000 Argentines were killed.

Another such “friend” of the West was the Brazilian military dictatorship, which ruled from 1964–85. The Brazilian generals sent officers for training in “interrogation” in France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and US. “The Americans teach,” observed General Ivan de Souza Mendes, “but the English are the masters in teaching how to wrench confessions under pressure, by torture, in all ways. England is the model of democracy.”

One of those schooled in “democracy” during those years was Dilma Rousseff, who was re-elected President of Brazil in 2014. Rousseff was a guerrilla fighter against the military government and was tortured and then imprisoned for three years.

As incredible as it is to say, her experience is not unusual amongst leaders who attended CELAC 2015. The current president of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, spent several years in exile during the Pinochet dictatorship (1973–95). Her father was a member of the Allende government, which was overthrown in Pinochet’s coup d’etat of 11 September 1973. The coup was supported by the United States and cost Bachelet’s father and thousands of others their lives.

Then there is Daniel Ortega, President of Nicaragua. Ortega was a fighter with the Sandinista guerrilla army, which overthrew the Somoza dictatorship in 1979. The guerrillas took their name from Augusto Sandino, who led the insurgency against the US occupation of Nicaragua in the 1920s and 30s. In government, the Sandinistas spent years fighting the Contras, known as “the CIA’s army.” The Contras’ financing has been tied to cocaine trafficking and the crack explosion of the early 1980s.

Another leader present at the CELAC summit was Salvador Sánchez Cerén, recently elected president of El Salvador. President Sánchez gave a speech that would be unusually uncontroversial if it were a press release for Oxfam. However its blandness–invoking “a paradigm of inclusive, integral development that truly responds to the necessities of our people”–belied El Salvador’s epic struggle to reach the point where their powerful, North American neighbors would accept a national leader who expresses such sentiments (speech available in full in ImportantCool’s Artefacts Cave).

Salvador Sánchez once headed a teachers’ union, before becoming a guerrilla leader. He fought the country’s genocidal dictatorship until the peace talks of 1990. As journalist Mark Danner recounts (trigger warning), following the 1979 coup the Salvadoran military set about massacring the “urban infrastructure of the left”: “labor leaders, human-rights workers, teachers, and activists of all political stripes.”

But after that, the brutality did not stop. “[T]hey began killing according to very crude profiles,” according to Professor William Stanley. “I remember, for example, hearing that a big pile of corpses was discovered one morning, and almost all of them turned out to be young women wearing jeans and tennis shoes. Apparently, one of the intelligence people had decided that this ‘profile’—you know, young women who dressed in that way—made it easy to separate out ‘leftists.’”

In January 1981, a US Congress Foreign Affairs Committee noted “a systematic campaign conducted by the security forces of El Salvador” of “terrorizing and depopulating villages” in order to “deny any rural base for guerrilla operations” (see artefact, p. 26). The Americans’ proxies were saving the Salvadoran peasants from communism by killing them; except that “communism” in this case simply meant the right to organize teachers’ unions and break up the colonial-era distribution of land.

Tragically the Congressional investigation did not stop the US from continuing to arm the Salvadoran military. Its report preceded the El Mozote massacre by 10 months. “Current assistance,” Congressional investigators stated, “is being used for purposes abominable to any concept of democracy or respect for human rights or dignity” (see artefact, p. 29).

Even in 1984, the US Air Force was proudly telling Associated Press of its efforts in building up the Salvadoran air force and providing them with intelligence via US reconnaissance flights. In 1985, the New York Times happily reported on a “new gunship for El Salvador,” with – no joke – the reassuring touch that it “has been intentionally built to have a much reduced rate of fire.” This must be what is meant by the phrase “humanitarian intervention.”

In the cohort of Latin American leaders present at CELAC 2015, then, we are talking about is an entire generation whose history is no less heroic than that of Mandela (also called a terrorist by the West at the time). This is a truth routinely papered over by the English-language media, whose typically poorly-researched, belittling articles paint Latin America as a region of economic basket cases and tin-pot demagogues. Yet, far from being of marginal interest, CELAC represents a basic desire of all nations: to build free and fair societies without outside interference in their politics.

Pepe Mujica and the Spirit of Forgiveness

The outgoing president of Uruguay, José ‘Pepe’ Mujica, is the one member of this revolutionary generation who has become a darling of international progressive circles. Pepe Mujica is widely loved in Latin America for the tenderness of his philosophy. In the West, Pepe is easy to love: he has legalized marijuana, drives a Volkswagen Beetle, and raises orphans on his organic farm.

“I feel with sorrow the fact that 0.5 percent of my country is in indigence, and 10 percent in poverty,” Mujica told the CELAC summit. “Because there shouldn’t be anyone, because nature has given us so many resources…I am not going to put the responsibility at the feet of the Yankee Empire or European power, because those things are of them, while at the core of the matter are our own shortcomings” (read Pepe Mujica’s speech in full in ImportantCool’s Artefacts Cave).

Yet Mujica is not some apologist for the West. Far from it. Like Mandela, Mujica was also a “terrorist” and political prisoner. He was a member of Uruguay’s Tupamaro urban guerrillas, a group named after the rebel Inca Túpac Amaru.

The Tupamaros were famed for the theater and symbolism of their actions. They interrupted the radio broadcast of a soccer match in the Uruguayan capital, Montevideo, to deliver an incitation to revolution, then escaped through the underground sewer-system. They burned down the General Motors building during Nelson Rockefeller’s visit to Uruguay.

Most famously, in 1970 they kidnapped and assassinated US “counterinsurgency” expert Dan Mitrione, who was advising the Uruguayan military, having finished up his mission to train the Brazilians in the aftermath of the 1964 military coup. The phrase, “The precise pain, in the precise place, in the precise amount, for the desired affect” is attributed to Mitrione.[1] The Tupamaros also kidnapped the UK’s ambassador in Montevideo; he was freed following a deal brokered by Salvador Allende.

In his time with the Tupamaros, Mujica was shot six times, escaped from prison twice, and spent a total of 13 years in prison. During the 1973–85 dictatorship, Pepe spent 11 consecutive years in prison as one of the hostages who would be killed if the Tupamaros returned to armed insurgency. It is this experience that makes his words all the more powerful.

“The gravest problem of our times,” as Mujica put forward in Costa Rica, “is that we have the complete confusion of business and commercial ethics installed within political procedures. And so, the masses of people mistrust, they hand us back the ballot paper, they see us as without credibility. They start with the idea that it’s all the same, when it isn’t all the same. It’s a lie. I don’t believe that it’s all the same, because I have seen men and women give up their lives for a dream, and this can’t be bought because it isn’t up for sale.”

Pepe also spoke at length about tolerance amid difference and the concerning growth of intolerant, right-wing politics in Europe. He criticized “imposing liberal democracy on peoples…[who] have not evolved to that point on their own steam. What you will have instead is not democracy but fanaticism, and fanaticism is the worst scourge, because fanaticism on one side will generate a fanatical response.” In this way, Mujica subtly alluded to the escalating war on terror, the intervention against ISIS, and the attacks by religious fanatics in Paris and Sydney, but with compassion rather than inflammatory rhetoric.

“This war constitutes one of the greatest dangers that we have ahead of us,” he argued. “A right-wing is flowering that is not even right-wing, but fascist, in the heart of a developed continent like Europe…The question is the art of conviviality. It is about respect for those with whom one has discrepancies, because otherwise this world will be uninhabitable, and it will be impossible for us to live together.

“We have taken a step forward in this territory of peace, América. In practical terms, this summit serves to tire us out and have lots of photos taken. I recognize this, but it also has its merits. It has created a friendship, a relationship, and we hardly realize that we are being filled with trust and intimacy, and we can live together while thinking differently, creating and taking decisions, and this is an asset of América.”

“But this doesn’t happen in other parts of the world. What I want to say is that we must be active in cultivating this tolerance that the world is in great need of. Curiously the rich world is in need of it. There are frightening symptoms, and we need to acknowledge it without delay.”

Rafael Correa and the Rise of the Third World

The President of Ecuador closed the summit with a speech accepting the pro tempore presidency of CELAC for 2015. Correa is an intellectual leader in Latin America, given his background as a political economist, a term he prefers out of frustration with the attempts of economics to present itself as apolitical. “Economics is still a political science,” he told an interviewer in 2013.

Correa repeated this stance at CELAC 2015, speaking to many leaders of the so-called developing world: “Development is not a technical problem, as they would have us believe. At its heart it is a political problem. The fundamental problem is who rules in a society: the elites or the majority, capital or human beings, the market or the society” (read Rafael Correa’s speech in full in ImportantCool’s Artefacts Cave).

This is a recurrent theme in Correa’s thought. Speaking of Western government’s pro-corporate agenda, encapsulated in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Correa said, “They aim to create great markets instead of great societies, and to create consumers instead of citizens.”

“At the Second Summit of CELAC we decided to declare our region a zone of peace,” Correa continued. “Often, we believe that peace is the absence of war, when peace should be about what is present: the presence of justice, the presence of dignity, the presence of freedom, of buen vivir [‘good living,’ ‘right living’], sumak kawsay as it is known to our Andean peoples.

“However, we still have 78 million Latin American and Caribbean people living in extreme poverty. What freedom do we speak of, then? Of what peace are we speaking?”

These are no hollow words, as since Correa took office, poverty in Ecuador has been reduced from 37 percent of the population to 23.7 percent, and around 16 percent in the cities.

Too often we pretend that poverty is only a matter for the Third World. Yet Ecuador’s rate of urban poverty is roughly equivalent to the poverty rate in the United States. In Australia, one of the world’s wealthiest countries per capita, poverty is estimated at 13.9 percent.

In that sense, Correa’s description of Latin America resonates for the world as a whole: “The insulting opulence of a select few in our region side by side with the most intolerable poverty are bullets fired every day against human dignity. The eradication of poverty is a moral imperative for our region and the entire planet, because as I said yesterday, for the first time in the history of humanity this poverty is no longer due to a lack of resources, but rather is the fruit of inequality, and this, in turn, the product of perverse relations of power, where few have it all and many have nothing at all.”

Correa’s central proposal for reversing the worldwide epidemic of inequality was to move away from the US-dollar system of international trade. “[W]e must put in place mechanisms of compensated exchange,” he argued, “in order to minimize the use of non-regional currencies that increase our vulnerability and also transfer more of our wealth to the emitters of that currency. CELAC can ensure that this mechanism of international payment be consolidated not only in our region but also as South-South financial architecture: for example, through the Bank of the BRICS [Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa].”

The BRICS Bank was proposed at the 2014 BRICS Summit in Brasilia, an event followed by a meeting of BRICS leaders with South American leaders. The Bank is primarily capitalized by China, a country with direct investment in Latin America and is anticipated to raise up to $250 billion in the next decade.

Correa denounced Argentina’s ongoing debt dispute, being played out in New York tribunals, as evidence of this global power imbalance. “How can the decision of a judge in a foreign country put an entire people and an entire country in jeopardy? Because they run the system of international payments. We have the capacity, above all through South-South alliance via the BRICS to create alternative systems of payment and free ourselves from submission to foreign decisions.”

This position mirrors that of analysts such as Michael Hudson and Mark Weisbrot, who have criticized the highly-politicized international allocation of capital by the IMF, which is dominated by Western governments. As Weisbrot points out, the IMF’s “flexible credit line” is available for currency stabilization in Mexico and Colombia, countries that are US empire proxies with horrendous human rights records, but not for Venezuela, Bolivia, or Argentina, independent countries with no record of political violence.

Similarly, the IMF has prioritized salvage of Ukrainian debt to Europe over debt owed to Russia. “This position,” according to Michael Hudson, “threatens to fracture global finance into a US currency sphere and a BRICS sphere. The US has opposed creation of any international venue to adjudicate the debt-paying capacity of debtor nations. Other countries are pressing for such a venue in order to save their economies from the present anarchy.

“US diplomats see anarchy as offering an opportunity to bring U.S. diplomacy to bear to reward friends and punish non-friends and ‘independents.’ The resulting financial anarchy is becoming untenable in the wake of Argentina, Greece, Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Italy, and other sovereign debtors whose obligations are unpayably high.”

In the global politics of austerity (“austericide,” in Correa’s terms), banks and repressive Third World governments are given easy access to billions of dollars, while independent governments and working-class people are starved of the capital.

If CELAC moves in the direction outlined at the 2015 summit, it will become a key player in a global Left defined less by struggle between workers and bosses and more between the democratic sovereignty of ordinary people and the financial capital that seeks to usurp more and more of that power.

In the words of Rafael Correa, “Acting separately…it will be capital that imposes its conditions upon us. Together, it will be us who impose the conditions on capital, in function of the well-being of our peoples.”

A Return to the News Cycle

Why should you care about the Third World? Because their struggle is the same as that of Syriza in Greece of Podemos in Spain, and the people of the US and Australia who are marginalized from the great wealth and political power of our own countries. It is a struggle being led by intellectual leaders like Correa and Mujica as well as the likes of Syriza’s Yanis Varoufakis and Podemos’ Pablo Iglesias.

Back in Sydney, just a glance at the headlines shows a morally bankrupt public sphere. Corporate tax evasion is an open secret. Paedophilia is rampant in elite institutions. Refugees are imprisoned by governments that refuse to care for the weak and the weary, whether they are citizens of their own countries or not.

Worst of all, our leaders are intellectual nobodies. Barring peripheral countries like Greece and Spain in situations of crisis, mainstream politics across the Western world is bereft of vision, philosophy, and originality.

There are, for example, few countries seen by the mainstream as more backward and marginal than Bolivia. Yet, their political leaders write philosophical treatises explaining the political orientation behind their policies in order to get elected.

In Australia, by contrast, our current leader made it to power by saying no more than, “It is important for parties to have serious policies, not just a negative attack. We’d stop the boats, we’d stop the waste, we’d stop the big new taxes.” [2]

This situation would be impossible without the corporate media as an accomplice of the present regime of empty, pro-corporate politics. Now more than ever we need independent journalism to hold our political leaders to account. But we also need media with vision and media that is engaged with the world – and not just New York and London – so that we can look all around the planet to see what is possible. There is an alternative and we are part of it right here at, a democratically-run and patron-driven media collective with global reach. Be part of the change you want to see in the world. Become a Patron of ImportantCool. We have no time to waste.

[1] William Blum (2003), Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II, Zed Books, London, p. 203.
[2] Russell Marks (2012), Tony Speaks: The Wisdom of the Abbott, Black Inc., Collingwood, p. 29.

Pepe Mujica’s Speech to CELAC 2015
Rafael Correa’s Speech to CELAC 2015
Salvador Sánchez Cerén’s Speech to CELAC 2015 
Central America, 1981: Report to the Committee on Foreign Affairs, US House of Representatives, US Government Printing Office, Washington, March 1981
(In the interest of brevity, the Congressional report artefact includes the title page, foreword and contents, then pp. 26 – 31 relating to El Salvador. Also of interest are the observations on the left-wing Sandinista government in Nicaragua, against which the US was fighting a proxy war in El Salvador and Honduras. The Congressional report noted that Nicaragua was “virtually free of political violence” under left-wing rule (p. 6) and also described its literacy campaign as “an outstanding accomplishment” (p. 7).  The full-text is available in read-only form at the following address:;view=1up;seq=1


Christian is a social anthropologist, who, while working on his honors degree, detailed practices of biopiracy: pharmaceutical firms exploiting the medicinal knowledge of indigenous tribes to claim profitable drug “innovations.” Christian moved to Ecuador in 2013 and spent months at a time among the Shuar indigenous people, the famous “headshrinkers” of Ecuador’s remote southeast, exploring the Shuar’s use of traditional medicine including exploring the Shuar’s use of psychedelics and views on the mind-body connection

Tym is also investigating the political aspects of indigenous organizations, the Shuar being one of the first tribes of the Amazon to federate, and continues to conduct research in this regard in Quito. While in the capital, Tym has become deeply immersed in the political situation. As his access to journalism has increased, Tym has been monitoring the Spanish-speaking South American press and its vociferous treatment of many ruling parties. He has travelled throughout the continent to meet with members of various leftist-indigenous groups.

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