- Interview by
- Daniel Denvir
Generations of US leftists have looked to Latin America for inspiration and to express solidarity, from the Mexican Revolution to Salvador Allende’s socialist project to the pink tides of recent years. Continuing this tradition, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and a group of left elected officials recently traveled to Colombia, Brazil, and Chile to meet with some of their counterparts in Latin America.
On the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of the 1973 US-backed coup against Allende, Ocasio-Cortez spoke with Daniel Denvir on Jacobin Radio’s The Dig podcast. In a wide-ranging conversation, they talked about building solidarity across the Americas, the delegation’s (successful) push for declassification of documents related to the Chilean coup, the devastating toll of US intervention in the region, what’s driving migration from Venezuela, and one Brazilian movement’s “awe-inspiring” melding of committed radicalism and hard-headed pragmatism. “The absolute rejection of cynicism,” Ocasio-Cortez says, “was astounding.”
You can listen to the full conversation, which has been lightly edited for clarity and condensed, here.
What does solidarity with Latin America mean today?
I think it requires an actual relationship. When we speak about movements happening in Latin America, it can be from an academic or historical perspective, but there are so many movements that are in present-day struggle. Developing real relationships with them is one of the best ways for us to express solidarity.
Earlier this year, when [Brazilian] President Lula came to Washington, I had the benefit of sitting down with him, and I asked him what he thinks is needed right now from the progressives. He said, quite directly, that in Latin America progressives regularly gather, but US progressives are nowhere to be seen. He doesn’t know where we are. I took that as a challenge, and that’s one of the main things that precipitated our visit to Brazil, Chile, and Colombia.
Our policy stances need to spring from that relationship building, because a lot of these stances are not obvious and they can’t just be gleaned from study. They have to be gleaned from dialogue.
The ghosts of bloody US intervention are everywhere in Latin America, including in Chile. First, what stuck out to you from your visit to a country whose socialist government was overthrown, with US assistance, in 1973 — fifty years ago this September 11? And secondly, what can the United States do today in solidarity with Chileans, who are still very much fighting to confront Pinochet’s legacy?
One theme that was very prominent in Chile, and also came up in Brazil and Colombia, is how deep the polarization is, especially when it comes to media and how that is influencing the current political dynamics.
The US far right and fascist movements have been working extremely hard to export many of their tactics and goals throughout Latin America. We’ve seen it in Brazil, famously, with Bolsonaro and the January 8 attack on their capital. But in Chile, this is also very prevalent. One of the ways we are seeing this is a desire to erase history.
There’s an enormous movement to try to erase what happened with the coup overthrowing Salvador Allende’s government — to portray coup as almost sympathetic, as though this was a government that had it coming — which is why our call for the United States to declassify many of the documents regarding its involvement in the coup are so important. For the United States to be able to declassify this information, to say that there was external involvement, that this is something that happened and was incredibly unjust — it can’t be understated how important that would be for the Chilean people as well as the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people impacted by having a family member lost or missing or tortured during the Pinochet regime. [Editor’s note: The United States declassified some of these documents late last month.]
Are there similar declassification steps that could be taken in terms of the historic US ties to the Colombian and Brazilian militaries?
Yes, I have introduced legislation to declassify records regarding US involvement in Brazil, Chile, and Colombia. All three are incredibly important. But with Chile, I think that the country is still so much in a process of healing over what happened that it is potentially most urgent in Chile, especially coming up on the fiftieth anniversary.
It is very important for our relationship in Latin America, in general, for us to declassify this information and for everyday Americans to understand how the politics of Latin America today are deeply shaped by US intervention in the region.
Historically, Colombia has also been on the receiving end of an enormous amount of US-sponsored violence, and we don’t have to go back fifty years — look at the track record of [the militarized counter-narcotics program] Plan Colombia. What did you learn about the country’s peace process and the history of violence there — a peace process, by the way that is today overseen by Gustavo Petro, the first left-wing president in Colombian history — and how could the United States play a different role? Or is the best thing the United States can do just stay the hell out?
I do think that we have a role to play. The notion that we would come in, wreak so much havoc, and then just leave is, I don’t think, a proper way for us to be held accountable and to also be a good partner moving forward. It’s not something that Colombia wants either, on any end of the political spectrum.
Something I appreciated far more in visiting there is how much the history of Colombia is never told, and how that prevents people in the United States from supporting just policies. For example, when you hear “Colombia,” if anything comes to mind, it is narcos and guerillas and different paramilitaries and warfare. It’s a caricature without an understanding of the root of this conflict.
The issues in Colombia, I believe, are fundamentally about the legitimacy of governments. You have a government that historically was dominated by elite interests that then stated they were going to be a democracy in the mid-1900s and ostensibly converted to that democracy — except every time a liberal or left party member began to ascend, they were assassinated. You basically have a one-party right-wing state, and it leads many people to say, well, clearly this is not a legitimate government, and if we want the poor, if we want working-class people to have any shot at life, we’re going to engage in revolution, and in violent revolution at that.
That’s the seeds of what we have in Colombia, which historically has right-wing government and left-wing militias because there’s no democratic space for an actual two-party system.
And when you have the introduction of cocaine and the drug trade, this situation grows much more complicated. You have a much more ideological frame, perhaps, in the ’80s and ’90s, but then with the introduction of illegal mining and the introduction of narco-trafficking, the financial incentives start to muddy the waters. Then you have Plan Colombia, where the United States starts to funnel billions of dollars: between the year 2000 and now, the United States has given $14 billion to the Colombian government, overwhelmingly militarized aid. And this was under Uribe, who was an autocrat. You have the scandal of falsos positivos, where the Colombian government financially incentivized killing guerilla combatants, and innocent people were killed and marked as guerrilla combatants.
All this has created an enormous divide.
The election of Gustavo Petro as the first leftist president in the history of Colombia is incredibly important. It is the first time that Colombians have had any shred of evidence that democracy can yield diverse political results. His election is less connected to him as a figure, and more that someone on the left can be elected president without being assassinated. It provides hope for some semblance of peace and nonviolence in this country.
That is why when we see Republicans attack Colombia and try to withdraw aid or block a US ambassador, it is so dangerous because it begins to reinforce this slide back into illegitimacy for Colombia. There is disagreement about how to approach very difficult topics, even in Latin America — for example, Venezuela, or how Latin America positions itself in an increasingly multipolar world. All of that discourse is valid and important, but what cannot be eroded is the legitimacy of this government.
The politics of oil and mining are contentious across Latin America. Lula’s victory over Bolsonaro was a victory against Amazon deforestation, yet Lula has also been criticized by environmentalists for indicating that he may support new oil exploration in the Amazon basin. Meanwhile, Gustavo Petro has pledged to end oil production in Colombia, and Ecuadorian voters just took a historic vote to bar oil production in the Yasuni, the country’s remotest Amazonian region. What can we learn from Latin America’s environmental movements?
There are a couple of things to examine. One is the geopolitics of fossil fuels in the region. When we talk about, for example, President Lula and oil drilling or Gabriel Boric seeking to nationalize lithium in Chile, a lot of it has less to do with the domestic demand. It has to do with international fossil fuel demand and geopolitics and how any individual country seeks to position itself.
All three — Brazil, Chile, and Colombia — do not rely on fossil fuels for the majority of their energy consumption. Brazil uses geothermal and hydro. All of them have at least 50 percent renewable energy. So when we talk about why there is this push to export more oil, it’s about global markets. And that’s because Latin America is very motivated to be independent in this multipolar world.
Also, to pursue and afford many of these important social programs, they depend on the revenue from fossil fuel exportation, as well as many other natural resources. So, when we talk about a just transition to renewables, one of the big questions is, what is going to be the revenue replacement for fossil fuels in order to sustain critical programs like Bolsa Familia in Brazil, or healthcare programs? On the other side, as you mentioned, Ecuador, Colombia, and many others are having great strides in their climate movements and protecting the Amazon.
Sometimes it requires more nuance, too, because a lot of these fights are not explicitly left. For example, guerrilla factions that ostensibly have left or revolutionary roots are often responsible for illegal mining and the killing of indigenous peoples in order to sustain a financial base for them to continue their activities. So when it comes to that piece, it’s important that we look towards the direct organizing of indigenous groups, Afro-Colombian groups, and many others, in addition to technology investment, where we can continue to explore and pursue new energy modes that aren’t as damaging in their extraction.
I’m glad you pointed to the reality that the Global North needs to make it economically possible for Latin America and Africa and so much of the world to equitably develop in an ecologically sustainable way. The United States cannot just be like, okay, everything’s green now and you’re stuck where you are economically — have fun.
Absolutely. Especially when you look at the United States, at COP 26 and 27, exhibiting extraordinary resistance to helping developing countries transition — because it is the most advanced economies in the world that are responsible for the most emissions.
And countries that face enormous climate risk have contributed an infinitesimal amount of carbon into the atmosphere.
In Brazil, you met with the Landless Workers Movement, or MST. What did you learn about the fight for land reform in Brazil, and what relevance might their movement have for our own housing justice struggles in the United States?
The lessons from MST are some of the biggest ones I had on this trip, at least in terms of grassroots organizing. What I found so remarkable about MST and their urban counterpart, MTST (Homeless Workers’ Movement) was their direct action, which is part of a larger ideological and strategic vision, and their decision to engage in electoral work. Their popular education programs are also very critical.
I found the way they balance all of these things — a kind of radicalism in direct action and a pragmatism in their electoral program — to be awe-inspiring. The absolute rejection of cynicism was astounding.
We struggle with that in the United States. There’s this binary: you’re either a true revolutionary and you believe in direct action and autonomy and the electoral system is a sham — and that creates this cynical vortex, and it keeps you small — or it’s this electoralism, where more radical movements and radical action are dismissed as naïve. And it’s very difficult to coalition-build on those two.
I’ve certainly been subject to that highwire act a lot, and to see people in Brazil, especially in a multiparty system — Lula is part of the Workers’ Party (PT); there’s a socialist party, PSOL, which MST is a part of; there are communist parties, and many other parties — come together in a very strong program of solidarity is astounding. I think it’s something that Chile, for example, struggles with a bit.
I also think it speaks a lot toward what makes these three leaders different. All three of them, of course, are progressive populists, but they’re also very distinct individuals. And it’s important to study those differences — not to put them on some ranking ladder of relative value, but to see what each one of them can teach us individually and distinctly.
The social, political, and ecological crises facing Latin America are pushing people from their homes, resulting in huge numbers of immigrants arriving at the US border with Mexico, many of whom have been moving on to New York. How might we connect a politics of migrant solidarity and solidarity with the people in the Latin American countries that migrants are being pushed out of?
It is important for us to lift the hood on the root causes of migration, and the climate crisis is absolutely one of them.
When we see these images on television, there really is so much implicit racism. We see these shots to make it look as though there’s hordes of people coming up on our border, and there’s never any exploration about where they’re coming from. You just hear the word “migrants,” and there’s this implicit suggestion that they are from all across Latin America, and all of these countries are poor, and they’re all just knocking on the United States’s door. That depiction and the lack of specificity, the lack of exploration and detail in our media, is such a disservice to all Americans in figuring out how we contend with this.
There are Haitians, Nicaraguans, Guatemalans, but the bulk of migrants have been coming from Venezuela. The right wing is doing its thing saying, oh, this country is socialist, this country is authoritarian, and all these people are fleeing this regime, virtually everyone here is a political refugee.
A lot of leftists, I think, also fail to examine the situation with nuance. They either don’t know what’s going on, and it’s kind of this Achilles heel, or they want to defend what is happening there at all costs. And I think that is problematic as well. Not to get too in the weeds, but when you look at what socialism even means and what’s happened in Venezuela with Maduro, this is not a clear-cut situation. How about we start there?
There are two main factors I would argue are driving migration out of Venezuela. The first is the economic situation in Venezuela. The second is US intervention and sanctions, which have contributed to destabilizing the situation.
I’ll start with the sanctions piece first. In 2017, Florida senator Marco Rubio — who is extremely politically motivated when it comes to US policy in Latin America, around supporting right-wing movements — advocated dramatically expanded sanctions towards Venezuela. Prior to that, we had much narrower sanctions that were targeted towards Venezuelan elites that were making unjust movements in the country. And so Rubio proposes sanctions that dramatically expand the scale in a way that destabilizes the Venezuelan economy and impacts poor, working-class, and middle-class Venezuelans.
Those sanctions were proposed in 2017, and exactly in 2017 we start seeing waves of migrants leave Venezuela and come to the US southern border. So I think it’s very important that we say, in order for us to stem this, we need to address our sanctions policy in Latin America and towards Venezuela specifically.
I also think it’s important to acknowledge that we don’t want massive waves of people coming to the US southern border, for reasons of justice. These are families that do not want to leave their homes. They are forced to leave their homes.
If we believe in the right to migrate, we also support people’s right to stay put.
Exactly. it’s important to just acknowledge that fact. We don’t have to do it in a close-the-borders, build-the-wall way, but we should acknowledge that it is in fact a problem. And part of that problem is because of US policy. Secondly, in addition to the sanctions, we also have to contend with the fact that Venezuela is a petrostate. Petrostates have a tendency to breed authoritarianism, and it creates this web of complications.
Even when it comes to the history of Maduro, as with all of Latin America, there’s a theme where you have an ascendant left movement, then you have US interventionism, which radicalizes the continent. So in Colombia, you have Gaitan, a liberal populist. When Gaitan was assassinated [in 1948], Fidel Castro concluded that an electoral path for the Left was impossible.
And he also looked to Guatemala and the CIA-backed coup there in 1954.
Exactly. It was US interventionism, whether against Salvador [Allende] or Gaitan, that further radicalized an ascendant left. And so you have this example with the elections in Venezuela, where the Maduro regime felt there was an enormous amount of interventionism, whether through sanctions or other means, that they then engage in shutting down. Certain candidates were not allowed to run. There are accusations of extraordinary movements towards voter suppression.
This was seen and justified as a response to interventionism. But these actions nevertheless did occur and did happen. And it’s important for a North American left to acknowledge that and to just engage with the nuances and specificities of what is going on there.
In addition to that, you have that fact I just mentioned, that Venezuela is a petrostate. There are booms and busts, as with any industry. And when the price of oil goes down, this is a state where 94 to 96 percent of its economy is dependent on oil and begins to suffer dramatically.
Fast forward to the present, and things have stabilized in Venezuela somewhat because of the war in Ukraine and rising cost of fossil fuels and the remittances that are being sent by Venezuelan immigrants from the United States to Venezuela. So you’re starting to see one half of that equation stabilize somewhat, but the sanctions regime is still in place.
Next year there will be elections in Venezuela. And it’s important to state that not all three of these other left leaders — Lula, Boric, or Petro — have the same line towards Venezuela, either. They have different stances and different dispositions towards the country. Boric is very critical of what he sees as human rights violations in Venezuela.
So when you look at it from a historical perspective, it’s important to acknowledge the nuance and the complexity of this issue.
Yeah, I think that’s so important. You have Castro, as you said, coming to believe that you can’t do a democratic road to socialism because of what he sees in Guatemala and Colombia. And then when Allende is coming under so much pressure in the lead-up to the coup, you have Castro, with good reason, warning Allende about what’s coming. The United States has fundamentally structured that whole dynamic.
Right. It’s this militancy that so many on the US right point to as this bogeymen. So do everyday moderate Americans — who are incredibly important for a left coalition, I think that’s something that must be said. It was even reinforced when we were in Chile. Same thing with Lula. Lula has built an incredibly complex political coalition to govern. All three of these leaders have won their presidencies, but are also contending with highly conservative congresses. And I think that’s an additional dimension that those in the North American left have to contend with, that this is not some pie-in-the sky, two-dimensional picture. They are dealing with extraordinarily complex political dynamics.
So when we see, and when the average moderate American sees, a depiction of Latin America’s “extreme left movements,” it’s important to acknowledge that US interventionism generated a lot of that militancy. That’s not where they often started, it’s where they concluded — because of our history of interventionism.
You mentioned earlier the debates in Latin America over how to position itself vis-a-vis this increasingly multipolar geopolitical order. And we’re living in a moment of renewed great power rivalry. First, what is the impact on Latin America and on the Global South more generally of everything from the war in Ukraine to what many are calling a new Cold War with China? Do these conflicts and competitions put progressive governments in a difficult bind? And if so, how can we, on the US left, push for de-escalation of these conflicts with Russia and China rather than intensifying them? How do we work to create a world order that is more peaceful and just for residents of the great powers, including us, as well as for the people of the Global South?
This is one of the great questions of our time geopolitically. In some of my engagement, both domestically and globally, I and many other progressives, including Senator Bernie Sanders, have been warning about this Cold War framing. This is something Republicans very much want. Ever since Republicans took over the majority in the House, there have been basically nonstop votes around escalation and China — condemnations, resolutions, funding changes.
We spent decades in a Cold War that just ended in the late ’80s, early ’90s, but whose ghosts have perpetuated much longer than that. We have a lot of institutional and political grooves that we can snap right back into when it comes to a cold war frame. And if we continue to pursue that kind of escalation with China, we’re really not going to end up in a good place.
Latin America is very much under the squeeze of this because they want neither party to have undue influence over their lives and their destiny. They have dealt with decades and decades of US interventionism, which has created an enormous amount of skepticism whenever the United States is involved, but they also do not seek dependency on China or any other global power. What they want, and what much of Latin America I think has wanted since colonization, is sovereignty and independence. So there is a desire to somehow balance relations between these two.
When it comes to the realpolitik of the United States — let’s say you’re coming in just wanting to advocate for US interests in the region — I think, arguably, the US interest in the region would also be to rebuild those relationships and cease an interventionist stance. I do not think that interventionist stance serves our country. It perpetuates instability, and it perpetuates a greater skepticism that would drive any of these countries away from alignment with the United States, which is still important to advocate for on human rights grounds, on ecological grounds, in building global consensus.
We are in a race against the clock when it comes to the climate crisis, and the more we can build that global consensus, the more we can achieve our goals. And that includes with China, by the way. Once you label another country, let alone a superpower, as an adversary, that brings a lot of different implications. In this multipolar world, I think it’s really important to understand everyone’s different incentives. There may be many who disagree — surely there are a lot — but I think this is a situation that should not be escalated.
Frankly, I’m sure it’s uncomfortable to acknowledge the desire for a whole continent to be sovereign. But I think we should learn from the ravages of Kissinger and Nixon, as well as Plan Colombia and many others, that engaging in that manner is not going to do us any favors. We have narco-trafficking, we have extraordinary amounts of violence. Where do we think these guns came from? Where do we think these paramilitaries came from? We need to understand that this over-militarized approach is a self-fulfilling prophecy when it comes to violence.