The U.S. and Venezuela are in talks to further relax sanctions in exchange for a free and fair election next year. This week on Deconstructed, Rep. Greg Casar, D-Texas, joins Ryan Grim to discuss the recent trip he, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and other progressive Democrats took to Latin America, visiting with leaders and discussing the impact of past and present U.S. policies in the region — and how to rectify them. Casar discusses the U.S. role in dirty wars throughout the region, the urgency in establishing new relations with Latin America, and impact of policies on the region today.
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Ryan Grim: Welcome to Deconstructed. I’m Ryan Grim.
Congressional delegations are nothing new in this country, with members of Congress flying off to visit foreign countries and, typically, to meet with troops overseas, foreign politicians, and business elites. But an unusual delegation recently returned from a tour of South America with a group of left-leaning Latin American lawmakers visiting Brazil, Colombia, and Chile, where they sat down with top officials of those left-leaning governments and also met with workers and activists who have long viewed U.S. interest in their countries with extreme suspicion, and for very good reason.
The delegation included representatives Greg Casar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Nydia Velazquez, Joaquin Castro, Maxwell Frost, and also Misty Rebik, who is Senator Bernie Sanders Chief of Staff. Now, AOC recently joined one of my favorite podcasts — Daniel Denvir’s The Dig — to talk about the trip, which was organized by The Center for Economic Policy and Research, and I recommend that episode if you get a chance.
Now, I also recommend this one, where we’re going to talk to Congressman Greg Casar, who’s a freshman who represents the Austin area, about what he saw on his trip.
Representative Casar, welcome to Deconstructed.
GC: Thanks for having me on, Ryan. I’m really looking forward to talking about this.
RG: Yeah. So, let’s start with Chile, because this is the one that was actually in the news recently, when the embassy down in Santiago, the U.S. Embassy down there, declassified a couple of documents from right around September 11th, 1973, as well as shortly before that. These were presidential daily briefs that the CIA had prepared for President Nixon at the time relating to the coup there.
So, first of all, what did you make of those documents that were released, and how resonant an issue was this with Chileans that you spoke to there?
GC: I think this is the perfect place for us to start out the conversation, because the issue was so important, but then, I think it was also a great example of why this trip, I think, was a meaningful start to changing the relationship between the United States and Latin American countries, and our brothers and sisters in Latin America.
So, for those listeners that may not know as many of the details: 50 years ago, almost to the day, the United States supported a coup in Chile where the democratically elected left president Salvador Allende was toppled, and Pinochet, a dictator, was installed, who then ruled for many years afterwards, disappearing and murdering political dissidents.
And this was just a huge and terrible moment in Chilean history, and many people in Chile, when I talked with them, they said, the way that people in the United States probably talk about, where were you when JFK was assassinated? Or, where were you when the twin towers were destroyed? We talk about, where were you when the coup happened in 1973? And many of the people asking that still were exiled after that time, or are still looking for the bodily remains of their family members.
And so, the U.S. involvement in Chile has been terrible, to say the least, and part of this delegation and conversation was about trying to acknowledge that for the first time, in many ways. Also trying to repair that, and then figure out if we’re going to try to replace our relationship, or that old relationship of military intervention, and coups, and then also corporate extraction, because one of the big drivers of the coup was President Allende’s successful push to nationalize copper, and stop having American and Australian and British companies extract natural resources with cheap labor from Latin America.
If we want to change our relationship from corporate extraction and coups and interventionism to something new, the conversation is, well, how do we address and acknowledge the past, and then what should be the new thing that we replace it with? Mutual respect would be a good starting point, but then, also, part of what we had a conversation about was, how do we replace corporate extraction with actually lifting up working class people and labor movements across borders? How do we replace the relationship with something more productive, like addressing the climate crisis that threatens our existence across borders?
And many folks in Chile were like, well, first, let’s get to declassifying the documents from 50 years ago. First, let’s go to rectifying the past. And then, of course, let’s then start having a conversation about lithium that exists in Chile, and how it can help power the clean energy economy in the United States and beyond.
And so, I think that that one example really shows, historically, where we have been so wrong, and then some of the possibility of where we need to go.
RG: One thing I’ve noticed, a trend I’ve noticed recently is that the kind of brutal interventions that the U.S. has engaged in over the last 50-plus years in Latin America doesn’t even seem like it’s working out on its own terms. In other words, you’re seeing a bunch of countries around there who, against pressure from the United States, are starting to reach out to China, creating relationships with China to do mutually beneficial bilateral trade agreements and investment agreements. And then you’ll see a statement from the U.S. saying, we really don’t like that this is happening. And it’s like, well, we had 50 years to persuade them to be friends with us and, instead we kind of used a heavy stick.
But I’m curious what you’re meeting with the Chilean president, Gabriel Boric, was like. How open are Chileans at this point to creating that cooperative collaborative relationship with the United States? Because that’s not something, I think, that is probably very easy to sell to people in South America that, no, no, really, this time, the U.S. is going to work out for everybody.
So, what does it look like? Because, obviously, this is the competition of the 21st century for lithium deposits, nickel deposits, etc., around the world to power this clean energy economy. What does that path forward look like?
GC: I think that there’s at least two core parts of your question. I’ll take on the first piece, and then the second part of your question. The first piece being: the last few decades of our relationship hasn’t served domestic U.S. interests particularly well. We actually had the conversation with many folks in Latin America who are fascinated with and terrified by the rise of authoritarianism within the Republican Party, and asking whether those policies were serving domestic interests very well. And they don’t, in the same way that military interventionism, sanctions and blockades on countries in Latin America certainly have hurt people in those countries, but they haven’t helped U.S. economic interests, helped U.S. working class folks, and haven’t helped us build very strong alliances either.
We shouldn’t just do foreign policy purely based on what we think is right and humanitarian and charitable — those should be big things — but we all know, realistically, that we… I represent people in San Antonio and Austin, Texas, and we need to make sure that we are talking to our communities about what’s in their interest. And these policies have been sold, interventionist policies have been sold as being in the U.S. interest, that this is going to make us safer and better off. But, in fact, being a bully, a lot of times it ends up coming in and biting you later.
And so, I do think that hasn’t served us.
RG: Before you answer the second part of the question, yeah, you met with some of the bullies down there. Are diplomats in the United States Foreign Service starting to recognize this as well? That their job is to pursue the national interest of the United States, whether we like that or not. Are they recognizing that the bullying isn’t actually serving the interest of the United States? Did you sense any kind of change in tone or tenor from U.S. diplomats? Are they getting this?
GC: Yeah, U.S. diplomats, you’re going to have a broad set of diplomats, and there were certainly people in those rooms from the U.S. side that see very clearly that we’ve got to do this in a new and different way, who understand that if we want to save the Amazon — which is critical to U.S. and world interests to still have a livable planet — that we can’t just do things the old way, and think that beating up the left is going to save the planet. You just can’t say that with a straight face anymore.
Certainly, there are people that are still stuck in the Cold War frame but, increasingly, I think there are more and more people entering the Foreign Service who recognize that starting up a new Cold War and making Latin American countries again have to pick sides, that doesn’t serve our interests. That making people hungry in Latin America and forcing more displacements and migration certainly doesn’t serve U.S. interests.
So, I think it’s becoming harder and harder with a straight face to fit within that cold war frame. But a real challenge we have is, if we’re not in an old Cold War framing of foreign policy, then what should be the new frame? And that’s part of what we had great conversations with people like President Boric in Chile about.
So, to go directly into your second question: I was worried. About whether anybody would buy, quote-unquote, as you said, what we were “selling.” But in some ways we weren’t selling that everything is going to change in the United States, you know? No matter what right wing Twitter thinks. You know, me and Congressman Ocasio-Cortez and Congressman Castro don’t run the U.S. government, but we are certainly participating and struggling and fighting to reshape U.S. foreign policy.
So, I think we were honest about what we were there to do, which is to build a new relationship and a new frame. And my hopes for being able to have that conversation, I tried to sort of set some decent expectations for myself, and for what we could do, and I think we overperformed there. Not just because of who we were and what we brought, but really because of how welcoming many of the new progressive leadership in Colombia and Chile, and the longstanding leaders of the PT and PSOL in Brazil brought to the table.
I think it was actually really important — and it was surprising to me — how important it was to them to have us there. Because, in so many ways, not only has the U.S. been a cudgel against those on the left and those that are progressive in Latin America, but the right wing in Brazil, Colombia, and Chile use the threat of rightwing politicians against progressive policymaking in Latin America. And so, for us to have a set of progressive lawmakers in Latin America saying we support progressive taxation across the world, we support taking on corporate power, including American corporate power that is intervening in Latin America, we support those lawmakers and brave activists that are doing that work, was really meaningful to them.
And I’m saying that to you, not because I thought that that was going to be the case; it was a real reflection of mine, and something that I learned while on the trip, that no matter who we were meeting with, they wanted, as often as possible, for us to be able to speak to the press in those Latin American countries, because U.S. politics are so often wielded by the Latin American rightwing against progressive leaders.
RG: So, they’re sort of trying to say, look, look, look, we’re not going to get couped for taking some interest in our own lithium deposits. Because, look, these members of Congress are here, and they’re promising not to overthrow us. I mean, that’s a little blunt, but is that sort of … they’re trying to take that off the table?
GC: Or, at least, at a minimum: there are progressive lawmakers that don’t think that there should be a coup, that believe that we can work together and forge a new path going forward.
RG: And what did President Boric think that that looked like? Like, what does he want? What does he want from the United States?
GC: I think what we can work on together most clearly is a just transition and a climate transition that serves us all. And, of course, both Colombia and Chile are now home to millions of displaced people from Venezuela. And so, finding a path, both towards democracy, but most importantly towards economic stability in Venezuela [is] really important for everybody in South America, and increasingly important whether you’re in New York or in Texas.
And so, on the question of a just transition, we had a real conversation. Because I’m from Texas, where we have to find a good way to make sure that fossil fuel workers are able to transition into clean energy jobs, and are able to continue to pay the mortgage, but then we are all able to have a planet. In the same way, you have — from his home area of Patagonia — a lot of people that have been working in mining, have been working in fossil fuel, that we need to move over into the clean energy economy. And we need to have a conversation where we aren’t just extracting lithium from Chile, but instead making sure that we support a growing labor movement there, support Chile’s ability to refine lithium, so that it doesn’t have to get sent to another wealthier country to be refined before it’s sent to the United States, and build that kind of partnership.
So, a conversation about a just transition was important. Also, being from Texas, some of our best music, he grew up listening to, and I grew up listening to. Because we’re both … Actually, you know, Congressman Frost is even younger than us, myself and Congressman Ocasio-Cortez are in our thirties, and he’s the youngest leader of that country.
And so, there’s some real potential for camaraderie there, and relationship. Not just for these next few years, but hopefully this is the beginning of those kinds of conversations for years to come.
RG: And so, to move over to Colombia, you’ve got a, you know, former rebel there who became president, the first leftist elected president in Colombia, I think, basically, ever. Somebody who had been involved in the previous peace process. He’s embattled, he’s struggling. The right In Colombia has been ginning up what looks to be an effort to oust him before his term even ends, which we already saw in Peru.
So, what were the conditions like on the ground when you got there? How is the left feeling about Petro’s government? Obviously, no government is perfect. There’s plenty of own goals that they have made. But how is the left feeling about Petro, and who’d you meet with in Colombia?
GC: Well, right upon arriving in Colombia, we met with the vice president, the first Black woman at that level of office in all of South America, and just a real inspiration to Afro-Latinos around the world. So, it was just really amazing to meet with her.
RG: And she powered through a lot of death threats to get to where she is.
GC: Oh, yeah. And she’s still dealing with that.
RG: A really incredible woman.
GC: And, in many ways, people credit her with the critical margin of victory for Petro, because Black Colombia is primarily on the Pacific, in the way less politically engaged — and oftentimes much poorer— western parts of the country that overwhelmingly came out to vote for this joint unity ticket of the vice president and the president.
And, again, this is a place where the United States policies of trying to eradicate coca plants which, of course, can be used to produce cocaine, but also are used to produce native tea, can be used to produce fertilizer, are an indigenous crop, that our policies have not served as well, because we’ve spent billions of dollars and so many lives and so much treasure on the failed war on drugs that have ultimately pushed many of these communities that the vice president represents directly into the hands of criminal organizations without many other options. Have pushed folks to the margins — and then, ultimately, a lot of big companies, and this is happening in Brazil and Colombia — international companies, including U.S. companies, have bought up a lot of the fertile land for farming.
And so, a big part of the conversation we are having, both with the president and the vice president in Colombia, is about pivoting away from the failed U.S. war on drugs, and start to figure out how we support both a peace process that we need, because there’s continued violence in Colombia, both from criminal organizations and some remaining ideological groups. But then, also, how do we make sure that people can feed themselves? If their only option is to work with criminal organizations or to starve, then the choice for so many people is clear. But we can really be supportive of making sure that folks are able to grow their own crops, and be able to go back to the kind of life that we had before the U.S. spent billions of dollars — alongside the Colombian government — to continue to basically hurt Colombia’s own stability, and the United States own stability as well.
And so, a real conversation about, again, how we’ve done things wrong in the past, how we spent billions of dollars, and maybe if we had those same billions of dollars, we would have instead thought about how we lift working people up, instead of essentially exterminating a bunch of crops that then, in 90 percent of the cases, people are just replanting exactly what we just spent billions of dollars exterminating.
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RG: And this isn’t necessarily past tense. You know, speaking of U.S. intervention, there have been reports of a DEA operation in Colombia that the Colombian Truth Commission criticized as contributing to the formation of some of the kind of groups that you just talked about.
Did Petro say anything about U.S. involvement in the challenges of the peace process, or any of the people that you spoke to on the ground? What is the U.S. role there, currently?
GC: You know, right now there is still a U.S. role, and there’s still security assistance being sent to Columbia. And the president, considering that he doesn’t control the Congress, that the right wing, and sort of center-right factions control the Congress. This is the case, frankly, in Columbia as well as what we just talked about in Chile, that it’s a challenging governing process they’re all facing. And, of course, I’m no stranger to that, being in Kevin McCarthy and Marjorie Taylor Greene’s U.S. house.
But we’re trying to work on what it is we can work on. We talked with some activist groups in particular about how U.S. security assistance is going to, what we still call, both in Columbia and the United States, quote-unquote, “less-lethal weaponry” for the police. You know, that is probably a police-created term; the right term should probably be lead pellet shotguns, rather than your traditional bullet shotguns, our traditional shell shotguns. And so, we are providing continued assistance and money that oftentimes is going to quash protesters and quash movements, just like we’ve seen that happen in the movement for Black lives in the United States.
So, there’s a lot that we should be doing currently. But one of the biggest pieces of the conversation was just having leaders in the United States speak up and say, we are for the continued peace process. Because the right wing in Colombia, a lot of folks are saying we should never sign a peace agreement, essentially continue this failed war, and they use that as a cudgel against the left and against progressives in Colombia. And if we can finally bring peace and stability to Colombia, just by supporting their own peace process that they’re running themselves, it would be a huge benefit to the United States and to the entire hemisphere.
To give your listeners a sense of who is currently in the Colombian government, and the lift that they have, the opportunity that they have: the leader, really, that’s been assigned to working on the peace process is somebody named Senator María José Pizarro, and you should really look her up. She actually was called on stage to essentially help swear in the president and the vice president, because of who she is and who her family is.
Her father led, essentially, a rebel movement alongside President Petro back in the 80s, and they decided to lay down their arms and that rebellion, and sign a peace agreement to start bringing peace to Colombia. María José was living in exile, had never really been able to barely see her dad, and they were finally able to be reunited because they signed this peace agreement.
He became one of the leading presidential candidates in the country representing the left in Colombia. And then, just a couple months into his presidential campaign, he was killed by paramilitary right wing forces, assassinated. And so, she had to go back into hiding.
So, then she came back to Colombia a while later, was encouraged to run for office by a guy named Gustavo Petro, who was essentially her father’s number two in the new peaceful democratic movement for the left, and won, and now is a U.S. Senator — or, not a U. S. Senator, excuse me, a Colombian Senator. And her job is to go to some of these existing and remaining rebel groups and say, let’s go towards peace. You may not have bought this from other people, because you might’ve been worried that they would go back on it, but who could come with greater authority than somebody who had to see the blood on the floor of her dad being shot because somebody went back on a peace agreement.
And so, she, finally, I think, has this great opportunity that’s being undermined by the right wing in Colombia. And to hear people from the… At this point, folks are basically just asking for press statements and tweets, to just say, if the United States can say that we support peace in Colombia, then we could potentially save thousands of lives, and then help bring stability to the Western Hemisphere, and help make up for the way that we have funded war instead of peace in that country.
RG: Yeah. And there’s some suspicion that the U.S. was playing a role in that reaction after the peace deal. And AOC, in her interview with Daniel Denvir, talked a little bit about declassifying the records related to that involvement.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: I have introduced legislation to declassify records regarding U.S. involvement in Brazil, Chile, and Colombia, all three. And I believe that 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 I think it is potentially most urgent in Chile, especially coming up on the 50th anniversary. But I do believe that the United States, it is very important for our relationship in Latin America in general for us to declassify information regarding this, and for Americans, everyday Americans, to understand how the politics of Latin America today are very, very deeply shaped by U.S. intervention in the region, historically.
RG: And she’s referring there, also, to her amendment to the NDAA that required declassification of a sweeping set of documents relating to the U.S. role in the Colombian war on drugs. What is the sense on the ground in Colombia about what that U.S. role is? And do they see a change in our behavior, or do they see us still as the kind of puppet master who’s, even with Petro in office, is still kind of calling the shots?
GC: Of those, of the three countries, Colombia is the one that we have been most consistently and directly involved with their governments, and a lot of that stems back or is connected to that longstanding failed policy of the war on drugs. I couldn’t tell you directly, here, a poll of where the vast majority of folks in Colombia are on the question of how in the driver’s seat is, still, the United States in these conversations.
But what I can tell you is that President Petro has been one of the most consistent leaders reaching out to change the relationship, right? He of course went and met with President Biden earlier this year. Then, he had conversations with members of the congressional Hispanic caucus, he did a long sit-down with members of the congressional progressive caucus. And I think he has, probably more than anybody, shown the most interest towards, how do we connect progressive lawmakers and progressive forces across the hemisphere?
And so, it’s hard for me to tell you immediately how much the U.S. posture has shifted. But what I can tell you is that I think President Petro recognizes that there is this interconnection between right wing forces all throughout the Americas, and that he thinks in part that the best way to counter that is to connect the left and include the left in the United States in that conversation. Because he’s consistently said this isn’t something that just gets fixed by a few people over the course of a few years, right? This, what has happened in Colombia, U.S. interventionism there, the way the right wing has established its hold there, and we’re behind on that. And he kind of is, in many ways I think, part of the driving energy towards saying we’ve got to change that.
Part of your question around declassification, I think that there is a lot that people in Colombia and the United States need to learn and a lot that members of Congress need to learn about what it is that we have been up to the last few decades, and what it is that we’re up to today. It’s not the easiest thing to get those answers, right? I mean, I’m brand new to this, I’ve been in Congress like eight months now, and it’s not a simple thing.
They don’t just hand you the binder and tell you, here’s what’s up. You’ve got to press and you’ve got to push, and I’m glad that, and in support of, Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez pushing those amendments to declassify information. I think there’s a defensiveness on the United States’ side to continue, because we want to seem like as moral a force in the world that we can’t, it’s hard to admit to those really obvious mistakes, but I do think that admitting to them and showing what has failed actually earns you a huge amount of trust.
RG: The big hurdle still seems to be the war on drugs. For decades we’ve been waging this war, there are still plenty of drugs in the United States, probably more drugs than at the start of the war on drugs, and all we’ve done is create these criminal syndicates that have metastasized throughout Central America increasingly into these cancers on civil society.
Are there people in Colombia who are talking about, just bring this into the light, legalizing the trade, regulating it? Or, at least, kicking the United States out, and then handling it domestically for Columbia? Because if you’re not thinking in a more radical way about how to alter the arrangement, it feels like everything is just kind of nibbling at the edges.
GC: We definitely had conversations about how, in a fully criminalized marketplace, criminal organizations are the only folks that are going to be able to participate in that. And so, clearly, moving to addressing addiction as a public health issues rather than just a criminal legal issue, we all know — and I know that you’ve done plenty of reporting — about how we need to take steps in that direction.
But, at the same time, we’re dealing with limited time, with politicians with limited terms trying to get real stuff done. And so, we talked about what are some of the intermediary steps that are feasible, that we should be taking. And, for example, if we could move some of our U.S. funds away from policies that haven’t worked… Not only have they been violent and disruptive — I’m sure people used to argue, well, they’re violent and disruptive, but it’s going to help fix the problem — they’ve been violent and disruptive and, as you pointed out, haven’t fixed the problem.
GC: And so, what can we do differently? And, actually, some programs getting people land, some level of land reform in Colombia that gets people off of rocky dirt where all they can grow is coca for cartels, but moving them, getting people, actually, their own land, getting landless people support, where they can actually grow crops that they can sell to the marketplace has shown way stronger results than just showing up and destroying people’s crops that they’re just going to replant again. And so, we had some of that conversation.
It’s currently illicit to send it to the United States, but there could be very useful legal uses of the coca plant, like we talked about with tea and fertilizer. So, we’ve just got to get a little bit more rational around the fact that the war on drugs not only has been wrong, but it has failed at its core purpose.
RG: So, moving over to Brazil: the election there, where Lula triumphed produced something that I have never even heard of in the 20th or 21st century, which is the United States weighing in against a right wing coup. Like, ahead of the election, the Biden administration made it very clear that whoever won the election — and it looked like Lula was going to win — that the United States was going to immediately recognize that government, and was watching for any shenanigans, which is 180 degrees the opposite of the United States posture, basically, any other time there’s been a leftist who looked like they were going to win an election in South or Central America.
And, sure enough, they count the votes much more efficiently than we do here in the United States, and that night it was clear he’d won. And, that night, the Biden administration recognized him, and that pretty much put an end to Bolsonaro’s efforts to undermine the election. He still kind of looked, poked at it for a couple of days, but eventually gave up.
Has that affected the way that people see the United States down in Brazil?
GC: It was brought up in every meeting with elected officials in Brazil. It was. And that’s meaningful, right? Like, if you have the left in Brazil giving President Biden credit for supporting democracy and helping stop a right wing coup, then I think it’s appropriate for the left in the United States to also give the Biden administration credit for doing that, because that is what I think folks in Latin America would expect amongst democratic nations.
On the one hand, it’s extraordinary, and I haven’t heard of many cases of something like this, just like you pointed out, Ryan. But, on the other hand, it should be the baseline expectation of how we work together, right? It took off the table the fact that we would be tacitly or explicitly supporting any kind of right wing coup there, and so, that was really important.
So, basically, that was one of the first things said by leaders in the Senate in Brazil — by leaders in the House, by foreign ministers, by people in the Lula administration — just how important that move was from the Biden administration. And there was more than any of those other countries that we visited, a real worry about continued Trumpism in the United States, and how directly connected the authoritarian right in the United States is to the right wing in Brazil.
For folks listening that maybe hadn’t seen the news on January 8th after the election of President Lula from the left: right wing rioters who were claiming election fraud and, essentially, the big lie in Brazil, also went in and caused real property damage to the Supreme Court and to the presidential palace in Brazil, in a direct echo of the 2020 riots not so long before. And so, these things are directly interrelated. Or, I guess 2021, sorry — 2020 election [and] the 2021 January 6th riots.
And so, there was real conversation around how is it that when you have left-of-center or left presidents, how can you deliver real results for working people to start beating back against how right wing propaganda fills the void when democratic governments aren’t able to fully deliver what people are expecting, especially economically.
And so, we had that conversation, because they so closely linked the rise of Trump in the United States to the rise of Bolsonaro in Brazil.
RG: I wonder — and I’m curious for your take on this — my theory is that partisan and tribal politics have become so deeply shot through our system that that partly accounted for why the United States was not willing to stand back and allow a right-wing coup in Brazil. Because the right wing in Brazil had become so thoroughly linked up with Trumpism in the United States; not just ideologically, but personally. Like, they were traveling back and forth, and hanging out with Donald Trump, Jr. And like, it was clear that it was becoming a circle of people.
And so, it used to be that American foreign policy, they would say in Washington that partisanship ends at the waters, or whatever it was. That overseas, everybody supported the same foreign policy. But it seems like the parties are so split now that it was almost as if the state department saw Lula and his party being more of an ally than Trumpism and Bolsonaro, and so that kind of overrode the 50-year impulse to weigh in on the side of the right in Latin America,
GC: And we can’t allow having democracy around the world and coups just be sort of based on who it is that wins in each place, right? If a country in Latin America decides through its own sovereign democratic process to elect somebody to the right of me, we shouldn’t be supporting a coup for that reason, right? And so, I think — well, I would hope that —that kind of posture that we took in Brazil can start becoming part of the posture that we take across the globe.
But also, on top of that, I think and hope that we could start to recognize that the left in places like Latin America can have real, you know, the policies pushed by the left in Latin America can have a real benefit to our own people here in the United States, right?
I think part of, of course, the old cold war thinking was that, no matter who was in power in the United States, that they needed to take down the left in the Western Hemisphere. But by people actually having stability through more fair distribution of wealth in Latin America, that can help address migration. By somebody like Lula stopping illegal deforestation of the Amazon, that is a really important thing. Not just for the world, not just for Brazil, but that’s a really good thing for your average American.
And so, I hope that we can wrangle and hold onto both. It shouldn’t be a partisan issue, that we should not have coups, right? Hopefully, that is something that we could eventually say; it doesn’t matter who wins, we shouldn’t have a coup. But then, also, I do think that it is an important evolution that we need to have within, at minimum, the Democratic Party, to recognize that left governments in Latin America are people that we can and should work alongside the best we can, and we should be able to call out abuses, both here at home and abroad, but that we shouldn’t have this immediate reaction against left governments. Because, frankly, not only could it be good for their people, it could be good for us.
RG: And what did you learn about the Amazon under the Lula government?
GC: Again, it’s fascinating. There’s so much to be said about the Amazon, but it is generally illegal to deforest the Amazon. But what the Bolsonaro regime was able to do was essentially stop enforcing a lot of the rules against deforestation. And so, that helped the illegal mining companies that were going and deforesting the Amazon, went and helped those folks that were doing clear cutting for things like beef production.
And so, it is really interesting, again, how somebody may not have to pass laws, may not have to have the Congress, but is able to essentially break things. And so, the Lula government just going and enforcing the existing rules is a big step forward. And then President Biden has made a commitment to fight for several hundred million dollars for the U.S. to contribute to the Amazon fund, which will be critical for enforcing those laws, restoring lost forest.
And there is a tipping point that we need to avoid in the loss of the Amazon. You know, the Amazon is huge, but if a certain percentage of the Amazon is lost, it works as basically one large ecosystem, almost one large organism in and of itself. If you hit a certain tipping point, you could rapidly start degrading the entire Amazon, and we just can’t let that happen. We could work on as much clean energy as we want in the United States, [but] if we lose those forests, we’re really, really in for really big trouble. And so, we were able to have that kind of conversation, and that’s something we’re committed to working on, both in our current budgets and appropriations processes, but if we are able to, again, have a little bit more reasonable control over both chambers, then [it will be] something really important for us to deliver on.
RG: And I know you’ve got to run in about a minute or two, but on the subject of foreign policy, I wanted to ask you about Pakistan real quickly. You know, listeners of this podcast know that a couple of weeks ago The Intercept broke a pretty big story that showed that the State Department had privately told the Pakistani ambassador “that all would be forgiven,” was the quote. If Imran Khan was ousted in a vote of no confidence, the U.S. was upset about his, what they called “aggressive neutrality” in the war between Ukraine and Russia.
Since then, you’ve seen a widespread crackdown on his party, he’s currently in prison. You introduced an amendment to the NDAA pushing the State Department just to study backsliding, Democratic backsliding in Pakistan. That didn’t get a vote on the House floor, but I’m curious… Two things, I guess: did you hear anything from the State Department about that? Did that lead to any meetings? What’s your sense of where State is at this point?
And two, there’s another amendment being pushed to be added to the defense appropriations bill by a Republican — Andy Ogles, I believe his name is — that would block U.S. aid to Pakistan over all of this. Are you supportive of that kind of push?
And then, on the first question, did you hear anything from State on that? What’s your sense of where the U.S. is?
GC: We are scheduling meetings with State to talk about both what’s happening in Pakistan. And then, also, the state of the funds at the central bank in Afghanistan that we have frozen. And so, those are some of the conversations we are teeing up to have in the coming weeks when we get back to Washington, D.C.
And so, full agenda there, especially after this trip to Latin America, pivoting back to foreign policy, both in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Latin America is something that’s a priority for my team in my office.
And, again, we have to avoid recreating Cold War conditions. It didn’t help. Nobody goes back and says, hey, that was a really good thing that we did, having the Cold War. But so much of what we’re doing just is sleepwalking ourselves back into the situation where… I’m not saying that we have to be best friends with countries whose leaders may not like us. Of course, the Russian invasion of Ukraine is horrific and unacceptable, but we can’t keep recreating these conditions where we’re doing everything where we’re doing everything we can to start a cold war, for example, with China. Or to be pushing sovereign countries to be on our side, or else we’re going to take out your government.
I mean, we’re going to continue to create more and more problems for ourselves, and more and more violence across the world that, of course, affects us here at home. So, that’s something that we need to take on, and it isn’t acceptable for us to be saying, hey, if you take out this leader, if you jail this leader, you’re not going to, we’re going to be OK with that. That just isn’t an OK thing for us to do.
I’ll be looking at Mr. Ogles’ amendment. And I’ve long been on the record saying that if there are human rights violations, democratic violations to countries that we’re providing security assistance for, then we need to condition that assistance, and we shouldn’t be having our assistance going to jailing people for peacefully speaking out, or for expressing their opinion, or of being of a different political party than the ruling coalition.
And there have certainly been plenty of times where progressive members of the House have voted with those folks that we can hardly agree on many domestic issues with, but if they are on the right side of a foreign policy issue, I don’t look at whose name is on the amendment. We should be looking at the content of that. So, certainly would be looking at being supportive of cutting back on or conditioning aid to Pakistan, given the democratic backsliding there.
On Latin America, I think the last thing that we didn’t fully get to touch on that’s kind of in this vein, of course, is Venezuela, and there were a lot of conversations that we had in the country after… In Colombia, there’s about 3 million displaced Venezuelans that they’ve given temporary protective status to for at least a decade moving forward.
Again, this is a place where we have to ask ourselves whether the United States sanctioning nearly a quarter of the world is serving our interest. And, you know, as a member of the Democratic Party, I think we have too often run away from the question of immigration, or tried to be Republican-light on the question of immigration, and I think people in Texas want to hear an alternative to just a crackdown, a needless and inhumane crackdown on the border. But they want to know that the Democratic Party presents an actual alternative with real solutions, and I think to have a real solution, we have to show people that we’re serious about talking to Latin America about establishing and helping set up their own capacity to take in refugees and asylees when there is disaster. That we are taking seriously our role in creating economic instability in Latin America, because we know — if you’re a Texan, you’re talking with immigrant folks all the time, it’s unavoidable. We are fully integrated together. You know that there are people in Texas that really want to be here. We also all know that there are a lot of people getting displaced that would like to stay at home if they could, and we should have a plan that shows that we want to make sure that fewer people are getting displaced, people that don’t even want to come to the United States get the opportunity to stay home, and that we have a legal, orderly, and safe system for people to come here that are searching for opportunity and going to make our lives better.
And I don’t think that we can present that alternative to right wing fearmongering on immigration without the key component showing we’re sitting down at the table with folks in Latin America, and questioning our own policies that are starving people instead of feeding them across the hemisphere.
RG: Yeah. And that would mean, at minimum, lifting the U.S. sanctions on Venezuela, right?
GC: Our sanctions in Venezuela have often been characterized as just targeting political elites in that country, but study after study have shown that our policies are contributing to starvation and death and economic instability for large numbers of ordinary people that have nothing to do with Maduro. And so, we need to, if not remove, drastically shift the way we have our sanctions in Venezuela.
And right now we’ve been dealing with some of the largest waves of Cuban migration in decades. I was recently sitting in the Agriculture Committee asking our U.S. trade representative, why is it that rice farmers in Texas can’t sell their rice to people in Cuba who are hungry, and who are seeing price spikes, who are having to buy their rice from Europe? And somebody maybe could have tried to make up some kind of argument about this 30 or 40 or 50 years ago, but after that many decades of the policy not working, how is it… It’s just a real reminder that the decisions we make today, we have to be willing to question them five and ten years from now. Because, as it relates to places like Cuba, we’re continuing to shoot ourselves in the foot, rather than address the core issues. It’s so much more expensive for us to complain about migration once folks are on our own shores or at our own border, rather than just at least fixing our policies so that folks have the ability to stay home if they want to.
RG: Yeah. And meanwhile, we’ve got gas prices going to $4 a gallon while we’ve driven the Venezuelan oil industry into the ground and refuse to deal with Iran. It’s quite something.
GC: Yeah. At minimum here, what I hope is that we’re able to have a nuanced and real conversation about the issues. Of course I want — and we should all want — free and fair elections around the world. This isn’t about giving somebody a pass who doesn’t have free and fair elections. Of course we should be supporting freedom of the press, of course you’re not going to find bigger advocates for peace and justice and nonviolence than folks that went on this trip in Latin America, but we also have to be realistic about what it is that we can do as the United States, and the repercussions and the unintended consequences of our actions.
And what’s happened is that we can’t even have that kind of a conversation, we can’t, so we have to be able to question those, and to have the conversation, and to try and recognize that maybe there is an in-between place that’s better than where we’re at right now.
RG: Well, Congressman Casar, thank you so much for joining me on Deconstructed.
GC: Thanks a lot.
RG: That was Representative Greg Casar, and that’s our show.
Two quick plugs: this coming Wednesday, September 13th, I’ll be in conversation with Naomi Klein about her new book “Doppelganger” at an event sponsored by Politics and Prose, which is hosted at the George Washington University Amphitheater. It starts at 7 p.m. That’s September 13th, and we’ll put ticket info in the show notes.
Congressman Casar, did you read that excerpt she had in Vanity Fair? It’s quite something.
GC: I’ve got to check it out, and everybody listening should check it out too.
RG: And my own book is set to be released on December 5th, and it’s available for preorder now. It’s called “The Squad: AOC and the Hope of a Political Revolution.” And, actually, Representative Casar, you make a couple of appearances there yourself. We’ll put a link to that as well in the notes.
GC: I’m looking forward to checking out the book.
[Deconstructed end-show theme music.]
RG: Deconstructed is a production of The Intercept. Our producer is José Olivares. Our supervising producer is Laura Flynn. The show is mixed by William Stanton. This episode was transcribed by Leonardo Faierman. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Roger Hodge is The Intercept’s Editor in Chief, and I’m Ryan Grim, D.C. Bureau Chief of The Intercept.
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Thanks so much and I’ll see you soon.