US President Barack Obama recently went to Argentina to welcome its newly elected right-wing president, Mauricio Macri. Obama appeared to be in a celebratory mood -- while he was there he danced the tango. It made for a nice photo op. Media outlets in the United States loved the image, and praised "Argentina's reemergence" as a chance for the country to "rejoin the Western world."
While in Argentina, Obama was effusive in his praise of Macri; the two stood together touting this new alliance and the prospects for new trade deals and security agreements. Macri is replacing the populist, Bolivarian-style leader, Cristina Kirchner. This change instantly turns Argentina from one of the United States' most important foes in the region into an important ally. Obama must have been well aware that Macri, despite having been in power for just 114 days, has relentlessly engaged in what the Guardian described as a "rapid succession of controversial presidential decrees."
The election of Macri is an ominous sign that the return of US hegemony in the region is looming.
Macri's unsettling record includes gutting a historic media law protecting against monopolies, drawing the ire of Pope Francis by arresting the prominent human rights activist Milagro Sala, sneaking through Supreme Court justices and giving himself broad new powers by declaring a state of emergency. All of this was done within the first 100 days of his presidency, while the opposition-led Congress was away on recess. Still, Obama showered Macri with praise for his "contributions to the defense of human rights in the region."
There is a reason why Obama organized an official state visit so early in Macri's term. The new leader took control of the country from a Kirchner administration that was allied with the continent's other left-leaning "pink-tide" governments and therefore was at odds with US interests in the region. The change for the United States is not just getting a new ally and trade partner. According to Fairfield University Prof. Jennifer Adair, Obama has assessed this transition in Argentina as evidence that "the era of anti-Americanism had ended." As a result, Macri's victory is a potential "watershed moment" for US foreign policy in Latin America, Adair told Truthout.
For about 15 years, these left-wing governments had real success in escaping the clutches of neoliberalism and offering alternatives to the Washington Consensus, the view that "all countries should adopt" major tenets of neoliberalism: deregulation, trade liberalization and privatization, among others. The economic power of the United States has rarely been so fiercely resisted in recent years. But a significant rightward shift has since emerged -- and the election of Macri is an ominous sign that the return of US hegemony in the region is looming.
"They want the whole of South America back the way they used to have it," said economist Mark Weisbrot in an interview with CounterSpin. These geopolitical ambitions help explain Obama's unfortunate decision to offer Macri his support and enable his abuses of power.
Argentina's Media Wars
Perhaps no abuse is as discouraging as Macri's relentless attack on the country's foundation for a free and diverse media. Since taking office, Macri has gutted the country's historic 2009 media law -- officially called the Audiovisual Communication Services Law -- that protected the country from media monopolies. He has also dismissed the officials who enforced the media law and stopped the left-leaning cable channel teleSUR (a content partner of Truthout) from airing on public television.
On April 8, a hearing on the impact of Macri's dismantling of the law was held in front of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). "It's important that the Inter-American Commission know about these modifications and can monitor the consequences that this type of measures will have," said Diego Morales, director of the Center for Legal and Social Studies' Litigation and Legal Defense Department, in an interview with Truthout. The IACHR is empowered to investigate the impacts of the change of the law, but its recommendations are advisory and nonbinding.
The hearing is just the latest clash over the law, which survived a judicial challenge in 2013, and was the result of massive social mobilization and struggle. The law has been hailed by Frank La Rue, the former UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression, as "an example for the entire continent." Reporters Without Borders was also supportive of the law, saying it would "reinforce freedom of information and the public debate, because it allows a broader spectrum of public opinion to express itself legally."
The law was crucial in Argentina where media consolidation was especially problematic. Argentina's largest media conglomerate, the Clarín Group, owned 158 licenses and had a 47 percent market share of cable television, according to the Financial Times. "They own newspapers, TV channels, ... cable operators, publishing houses, news channels, content production companies and internet companies, all nationwide," said Fernando Krakowiak, a journalist at the left-leaning newspaper Pagina/12, in an interview with Truthout. "Their political influence is overwhelming.
The new law reduced the number of stations and licenses a company could have, dictating that a single company could have no more than 24 cable television licenses and 10 free-to-air radio or television licenses. The law required anyone with more licenses than allowed to go through a divestment procedure, although Clarín's failed judicial challenge "frustrated the full implementation of the law," Krakowiak told Truthout.
He said he "agreed with the audiovisual media law," which is true of most of the nation's journalists, according to a 2011 poll from the Argentine Journalism Forum.
"Macri wants to take the media back to what it was in the 1990s. They want to limit the debate."
The momentum from Argentina had encouraged many of its neighbors to attempt similar reforms. "Latin America has made a breakthrough [from] the neoliberal model, which proposed the exclusion of the masses and concentrated economic and political power and resources in a few hands," said Martín Sabbatella, who was in charge of enforcing Argentina's media law, in a 2013 interview with the Guardian. "The media in Latin America were for years in the hands of a few powerful people. It's time to give a voice to invisible people."
Indeed, at the April 8 hearing, IACHR commissioner Francisco José Eguiguren Praeli said Argentina's law helped bring about media reform in Uruguay, which passed its own legislation in December 2014. Reporters Without Borders praised the reform in Uruguay as having even stronger safeguards and said it could "be a source for inspiration" for future improvements in media law.
But with Macri's decree, things have changed dramatically. In an interview with Truthout, Philip Kitzberger, a leading media scholar in Latin America, said the decree "completely lifted any limits on audience caps license numbers," and "eliminated any public service responsibility obligations" for radio and television.
"They can now be treated like any commodity that can be traded on the market," said Kitzberger, a professor at Torcuato di Tella University. "All of the changes will doubtlessly promote further concentration in the already concentrated media market."
Many of these tactics from Macri seemed to be aimed directly at the region's leftist governments. This is most clearly seen in Macri's announcement that he would pull teleSUR -- the cable network that was founded and sponsored in 2005 by most of the pink-tide countries, including Argentina -- off the air. Now, Macri is simultaneously empowering private media empires, like the Clarín Group, while attempting to remove the left-leaning teleSUR from the air.
"When the Clarín Group was covering Michael Jackson's funeral, we were covering the 2009 coup in Honduras," Patricia Villegas, the president of teleSUR, told Truthout. "Macri wants to take the media back to what it was in the 1990s, covering clothes and fashion and sports. They want to limit the debate. TeleSUR wants to cover news, opinion and a debate."
Villegas said the station is still airing in much of Argentina but has lost about 30 percent of its access to the region. Since the announcement, Argentines have held demonstrations and, according to Villegas, have been going to teleSUR's website in record numbers. "They want to see what teleSUR is covering," she said.
Kitzberger has long studied the use of media in the continent's politics, authoring a 2010 paper for the Journal of Politics in Latin America, in which he analyzed the role of "media activism on the part of leftist government in Latin America." In it he reaches this prescient conclusion: "The [politicization] of media and communication realities in the midst of these [political and economic] transitions will deeply affect the future shape and role of the media in Latin American democratic politics in unpredictable ways."
US Media Portray Media Empire as Victim
As the media wars were raging in Argentina, the dominant media in the United States portrayed the massive media conglomerate, the Clarín Group, as the poor victim of an overzealous socialist regime. "US news stories covering the Supreme Court's decision to uphold the media law tended to read like press releases for [the Clarín Group], leading with the consequences it will have on the monolithic media conglomerate," said Ramiro S. Fúnez, a Honduran journalist writing for the North American Congress on Latin American Affairs.
In 2013, The Washington Post's editorial board described the Clarín Group's flagship paper, Clarín, as being a "newspaper under siege," and decried the country's Supreme Court for upholding a law "aimed at destroying one of South America's most important media firms."
The Post seemed to portray the mere concept of media ownership restrictions as some kind of statist crackdown on the press. Yet, the restrictions made by Kirchner's law are nearly identical to the ownership restrictions introduced in 1996 in the United States under the Telecommunications Act, which prohibited any single network from controlling stations with a national audience of more than 35 percent of television households. The 35 percent rule was changed to 45 percent in 2003, but these restrictions do continue to exist in the United States. Using The Post's logic, Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. could be portrayed as a victim of draconian media laws, a laughable assertion to be sure.
But this sentiment was echoed many times over by other outlets, including The Wall Street Journal, Associated Press and the Miami Herald, whose columnist Roger Noriega chided the law as "an attack on independent media" that is "lifted from the playbook of leftist caudillos in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and elsewhere." Again, there was no mention of US media policy, which demonstrates the paper's doctrinal assumption that if something is done by someone outside of Washington's favor, it is an egregious assault on democracy, no matter what it actually is or who else does it.
Macri as a Media Darling
Of course, as fallacious as this coverage is, it is entirely predictable. The major US media outlets have been proven to have a deeply ingrained institutional bias against geopolitical foes of the United States, especially in countries like Venezuela, Honduras and Bolivia, whose leaders have challenged US hegemony. This is in stark contrast to the way they often cover -- or fail to cover -- the human rights abuses of US allies, including in Latin America.
The media trend certainly applies in the case of President Macri who has been warmly embraced by Western media. The aforementioned Washington Post editorial claimed that Macri gave "the country a chance to rejoin the Western world -- and dealt a blow to Latin America's already flagging socialist camp."
The "60 Minutes" feature on Macri was filled with unabashed adulation. "In a flash, Argentina has become pro-American," the show said as it introduced the United States to the man who would purportedly save Argentina from "a morass of debt, inflation and economic isolation." Showing Macri with his wife and daughter, Lesley Stahl gushed: "Watching them ... you can't help but think of the Kennedys and Camelot."
Stahl did not bother to mention the controversial arrest of Milagro Sala, which was carried out at the urging of Macri's ally, Gov. Gerardo Morales. Since then Macri's administration has dismissed efforts for her release and has ignored widespread concern and outrage expressed by Pope Francis, Amnesty International, the United Nations and the Center for Legal and Social Studies (though not a word from the White House). For that matter, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal also failed to cover the story at all. Sala did get one mention in The New York Times, but it was in an op-ed written by human rights advocates from Argentina, meaning the news department did not think her arrest warranted a single mention.
Why Macri Matters
It is no accident that the US press and government share such enthusiasm for Macri and such a shameful indifference to the victims of his undemocratic rule. In fact, in light of Macri's policies in favor of the corporate media in his country, it makes perfect sense. Just like the Clarín Group, the US media are owned and operated by the wealthiest people in the country -- the very same 1% that spends hundreds of millions of dollars funding campaigns for most of Congress and almost every presidential candidate, to say nothing of the money lost in the darkness of Citizens United that we may never see.
It is no wonder then why the interests of these wealthy elites are shared by US politicians and officials. This billionaire class has done very well in the last few decades as neoliberalism has ruled the global economy. After losing most of its grip on Latin America -- a region that has been dominated by US interests for many decades -- the prospects for opening the region back up to Western economic subjugation, harsh austerity measures and more "free trade" policies would be a major victory for Washington. It would neutralize the organized resistance to neoliberalism that provided, for a fleeting moment anyway, the hope for economic alternatives. Under this scenario, organizations that aim to challenge US power, however modestly, will weaken. The Union of South American Nations and the Bank of the South, for instance, have both included Argentina. Macri's election already hurts the organizations considerably.
The Bolivarian project is more than just a socialist nuisance. It is an open rebellion against US power.
Perhaps more importantly, stemming the left in Latin America would also serve to help the United States compete against its major geopolitical rivals, like China and Russia. In recent years Venezuela has engaged in numerous arms deals with Russia. Likewise, Venezuelan-Chinese relations increased radically during Hugo Chávez's presidency. According to the Venezuelan Trade Ministry, trade went from less than $500 million annually before 1999 to more than $7.5 billion when it peaked in 2009, making Venezuela China's second-largest trade partner, behind the United States. According to Venezuela Analysis, this relationship is a "crucial part of Venezuela's project for a 'multi-polar world order.'" That phrase refers to the belief that the "uncontested supremacy of the United States," as Dilip Hiro describes it, will not persist in the 21st century.
This is not an idea that advocates of US exceptionalism welcome. As Charles Krauthammer wrote in a 1991 essay in Foreign Affairs, "the center of world power is the unchallenged superpower, the United States, attended by its Western allies." In a 2002 follow-up, he doubled down, "unashamedly, for maintaining unipolarity, for sustaining America's unrivaled dominance for the foreseeable future." Now, more than 25 years after the Cold War's end, the debate rages on. Observers such as Russian President Vladimir Putin see a United States already on the decline: Putin has argued that the "myth about the uni-polar world fell apart once and for all in Iraq."
But many advocates of US exceptionalism, in the highest levels of government and academia, remain as steadfast as ever. These include President Obama, who in his 2012 State of the Union said, "Anyone who tells you that America is in decline, or that our influence has waned, doesn't know what they're talking about." The magazine Foreign Policy reported that Obama's words were influenced greatly by an essay in the New Republic by arch unilateralist Robert Kagan about the "myth of American decline." Kagan has since expanded this defense of unipolarity into a book called The World America Made.
In decline or not, since nation-states don't willingly cede their place as the center of world power, the Bolivarian project is more than just a socialist nuisance. It is an open rebellion against US power. This helps explain US policy in the region, from coups in Venezuela and Honduras (the latter with the complicity of Hillary Clinton, who may well attend the next state dinner in Latin America), to its current embrace of Macri, who just helped bring the second-largest country on the continent back under the US umbrella.
Under these circumstances it becomes entirely predictable, if unsettling, that the United States would favor its own geopolitical and economic power more than the rights and dignity of the nation's people. "Argentina was at the forefront. This election might be a landmark moment," Jennifer Adair said. "We could be seeing the ebbing of the pink tide [and] an alarming return to the right-wing austerity policies of the past ... It sort of feels like déjà vu.
"The Bad Old Days"
The past is a sensitive subject in Latin America. During his visit, Obama spoke about how the United States was complicit in the country's "dirty wars" of the 1970s, which was a nearly decade-long stretch of state terrorism that killed thousands of activists, unionists and students. Obama announced the US government would release classified documents from that time.
Releasing documents would not be an entirely empty gesture. Those documents should see the light of day. But the documents largely reveal what we already know to be true -- that the United States has a long and bloody history in Latin America. What is of far greater concern is the future.
Recent events, however, leave little room for hope that the United States will change its ways. This does not appear likely to change in the next presidency, especially as the region's organized resistance is weakening. As Robert Naiman wrote in a Truthout article describing Clinton's support for the Honduran coup regime, "There is a 200-year legacy of US military intervention and subversion in Latin America that didn't stop in January 2009. It's hard to have confidence that former Secretary Clinton will end this legacy as president when she used her power as secretary of state to turn the clock backwards."
The day Obama landed in Argentina, Gastón Chillier and Ernesto Semán published a New York Times op-ed titled "What Obama Should Know About Macri's Argentina." It is one of the few reports in the mainstream media that included pointed criticisms of Macri's tenure as president. They wrote:
A presidential visit to Argentina that neglects to notice how Mr. Macri's government is undermining human rights and democratic institutions -- and instead pours empty praise on his policies -- will rightly be read as a return to the bad old days.
The next day Obama was doing the tango. Hopefully, he can forgive those in Argentina who were in no mood to join him in the celebration.