Rep. Greg Casar (D-TX) recently joined a historic congressional delegation to Latin America. Bill Clark/Getty
Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.A progressive congressional delegation has just returned from a historic trip to Latin America, where they met with three recently elected left-wing administrations in Brazil, Chile, and Colombia. Organized by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, and led by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), the group aimed to redefine the United States’ relationship with the region, and begin to repair (many) past wrongs.
Ocasio-Cortez was joined by Rep. Nydia Velázquez (D-N.Y.) , Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Texas), Rep. Maxwell Frost (D-Fla.), Rep. Greg Casar (D-Texas), and Misty Rebik, Senator Bernie Sanders’s chief of staff.
Casar, the son of Mexican immigrants and a former labor organizer who was elected to the house in 2022, spoke with Mother Jones about his experience joining the delegation, and how the US needs to change its engagement with Latin America to address common goals of combating climate change, lifting up working people, and protecting democracy.
This is a different congressional delegation than has been sent to Latin America in the past. Could you talk about how you got involved? And how this group was a change of pace from our past relations with left-wing Latin American movements and governments?
This was a different kind of trip. Not only because it was all Latino members of Congress that went, not only because we were able to have almost all of our meetings in Spanish or Portuguese—but because it was entirely progressive members of Congress meeting with our newly elected progressive counterparts in Latin America. And in almost every meeting, Latin American leaders expressed how different of a delegation this was. Because instead of having conversations based on Cold War militarism—instead of having meetings that ignore past US interventionism in Latin America— our conversations were based on listening and mutual respect. I think that’s what was so important.
If we are trying to replace our old relationship with Latin America—that was based on corporate profits, Cold War militarism, and interventionism—with something new, that begs the question of what are we going to replace the old relationship with? And our delegation came forward and discussed the old relationship being replaced with a shared commitment to surviving the climate crisis together, and to uplifting workers in Latin America and in the United States. I think those shared interests of uplifting working-class people, reducing conflict, reducing forced migration, and working together to survive the climate crisis—those are shared goals. Those are shared goals that we’re now committed to working together.
We have to rely on each other if we want to make it through the century.
In addition to the common issues of addressing climate change and lifting up workers, I saw that there were connections made about defeating the rising populist right? And how addressing climate change and lifting up workers is key to defeating the encroaching right-wing authoritarianism?
Right-wing authoritarian forces are linked across borders. Many of the same right-wing officials that were advising Trump during the January 6 insurrection, were also involved in the January 8 attacks on the Brazilian capitol, just one year later.
It’s important for us to connect pro-worker, pro-democracy forces across borders if you want to be able to combat authoritarian extreme right-wing forces that are also interconnected. But we crucially talked about how those of us who are pro-worker and pro-democracy need to be able to deliver results for working people to show that democracy can and does work for everyday folks.
I think delivering on economic issues for everyday people is so critical for us to be able to beat back right-wing propaganda. Because so often right wing propaganda fills a vacuum that is left when our democratic governments struggle to deliver economic improvements for everyday people.
And so in the United States, in Brazil, in Colombia, and in Chile—even with many pro-worker elected officials in office—there is often a significant right-wing control of congress. We discussed quite a bit how the right-wing—both in the United States and in Latin America—tries to stall progress in legislatures to ultimately disillusion everyday people of the promise of egalitarian democracy.
In terms of delivering for working people and beating back right-wing authoritarians, there is a great example in Brazil with President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula) and the Brazilian Worker’s Party (PT). Lula, like yourself, comes out of the labor movement. What did you talk about with officials in his administration, and what lessons did you take from his remarkable comeback in 2022?
The labor movement is the strongest institution we can build against corporate money and corporate power in our politics. I had multiple long discussions with multiple people in the administration about Lula and President Biden’s commitment to moving forward with pro-worker legislation across borders. President Biden and President da Silva have talked about at upcoming international meetings unveiling international pro-worker policies between the two of them. And I think that’s going to be so important.
We also discussed how to win a just transition to clean energy for working people—because the United States, and then also Brazil, and Colombia, are major producers of fossil fuel energy. We can’t leave those workers behind. And so that’s something that we discussed both with the top ministers in Brazil and that we discussed pretty extensively with both President Gustavo Petro of Colombia and President Gabriel Boric of Chile.
Chile has some of the largest reserves of lithium on the planet, and they’re going to be critical for the transition to a clean energy economy. We need to respect Indigenous people who live on that land. And we need to make sure that the production of lithium batteries benefits workers in the mines and workers in manufacturing, not just the big corporations. We talked quite a bit about how we have to learn from the failures of NAFTA, and create economic ties that benefit working people, and not just the corporations.
You were in Chile right before the 50th anniversary of the US-backed coup that took out the democratically elected socialist President Salvador Allende in 1973. I saw that you met with his daughter, Isabel Allende. What was the experience like learning about that history? And how does it fit in with the recent news that the State Department declassified documents related to the US involvement in that coup?
We were the first group of US congressional representatives to ever to sit in Salvador Allende’s home. And we sat there with his daughter, who still lives in that home. I knew this would be important, but I didn’t recognize just how important this would be until we were in Chile. The September 11, 1973 coup backed by the United States, for so many people in Chile to this day, is potentially the most important marker in their history. The same way that in the United States people talk about where were you when President Kennedy was assassinated, or where were you when the Twin Towers were destroyed. People in Chile talk about: Where were you the day that Pinochet took over the government? And so many families are still looking for the human remains of their families, their loved ones who were killed by the Pinochet regime—so many people are still living this coup.
Declassifying the documents is a critical first step for healing and rebuilding trust between the United States and Chile. But there are still many more documents we need to be declassified. If we want to build a new relationship going forward in Latin America, we need to acknowledge our recent history and our recent past. We were deeply wrong. The United States did something deeply wrong by supporting the coup and supporting the Pinochet dictatorship. And by clearly apologizing and stating that we were wrong—that really helps to clear a path forward for us creating a new relationship moving into the future.
What’s happened recently in Colombia may be the least familiar to a US audience. In 2022, they elected President Gustavo Petro, perhaps their first-ever leftist leader, and Francia Elena Márquez Mina, the country’s first Black vice president. Tell me about what you learned in your visit to Colombia.
Meeting President Petro and Vice President Márquez was an honor. I was also really deeply moved by meeting Senator María José Pizarro whose father was the leader of the M-19 movement that Gustavo Petro comes from. Her father was a guerrilla fighter who laid down his weapons and signed a peace deal, and moved towards peace in Colombia, but then he was assassinated when he was a presidential candidate participating in the democratic system. And that led María José to live in exile. And now she came back and ran for the senate, at the urging of Gustavo Petro. She’s somebody who is in elected office, who had to grow up living with their father having been killed by the violence in Colombia and by the paramilitaries and gangs. Now she is tasked with helping create peace treaties and peace deals with the remaining armed groups in Colombia.
I think that that is so powerful and important for a few reasons. For one, as we think about the difficulties and despair that we face in United States politics, I think we can be inspired, both by generations past that have had to face even more challenging moments, and by leaders today in places like Latin America, who have had their family members killed for trying to pursue peaceful democratic works, and who are still keeping at it. I think that should serve as an inspiration to us. And second, we can read about President Petro and Vice President Márquez, and their pursuit of total peace. María José is a reminder to us in the United States that there are all these other folks that we may not read about as much, who are so critical to getting the work done.
We don’t talk about what’s going on in Latin America very often and these are countries that we are directly tied to by land. We are more tied into these countries than almost anywhere else in the world, but we just don’t talk about it enough from the progressive perspective.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.