January 07, 2008

Latin America breaks free of the US

Independence in the continental back yard
Janette Habel is a lecturer at the Institute of Latin American Studies in Paris

Source: http://mondediplo.com/2008/01/05latinamerica

The US has lost ground in Latin America over the past decade, since the project to develop the Free Trade Area of the Americas flopped and since leftwing governments took power and used it with imagination and vigour. The US continues to try to block such emancipation by promoting more free trade agreements, and increasing military cooperation in the name of the war on terrorism and narcotics and the defence of market democracy.
By Janette Habel

Latin America is a lost continent according to the editor of Foreign Policy, Moises Naim. The president of the Inter-American Dialogue organisation, Peter Hakim, voiced the same concern when he asked: “Is Washington losing Latin America?” (1). Over the past decade the United States has suffered many setbacks in this part of the world. Voters, rejecting neo-liberal policies, have elected radical or moderate leftwing coalitions, claiming degrees of independence. In April 2002 the attempt to overthrow Venezuela’s president Hugo Chávez failed. In 2005 the native movement brought Evo Morales to power in Bolivia despite US State Department efforts. Though it exerted pressure, the US was unable to prevent Daniel Ortega from being elected in Nicaragua or Rafael Correa in Ecuador (2).


But despite growing hostility, most of the free market groundwork is still in place. The Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), launched by President Bill Clinton at the Summit of the Americas in Miami in 1994 to open up a huge market from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, failed to materialise. But US firms nevertheless invested $353bn in Latin America and the Caribbean in 2005, with their subsidiaries employing 1.6 million people. In 2006 US exports to the region increased by 12.7% and imports by 10.5%, according to the US commerce secretary, Carlos Gutierrez.


Though the FTAA failed, progress was made through bilateral and multilateral agreements, particularly free trade accords (FTA). The US market is a powerful asset when bargaining: “Our country must find the strength it lacks on account of its size through its relations with all the countries in the world, and particularly the United States,” said the economy minister of Uruguay, which is tempted by an FTA with the US. One consequence would be a conflict with Mercosur, the South American common market, which would please the US. Latin America’s elites may see themselves as representing the centre left but they soon yield to neo-liberal pressures.


The political content of the FTAs has gradually increased. A further step towards integrating the whole continent was taken in Waco, Texas, on 23 March 2005. The Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America (SPP) is a trilateral effort by the US, Canada and Mexico. “What is new about this agreement,” said legal expert Guy Mazet, “is that it adds the notion of security to the rationale of economic and trade processes, while institutionalising the power of business and the private sector to influence public policy” (3). The legal basis for an agreement negotiated without consulting national parliaments is open to question. “The private sector is using an international agreement to exert greater influence over national policy,” Mazet added.


The US writer Craig Van Grasstek has established that all the Latin American countries that joined the Coalition of the Willing in Iraq also signed up to an FTA with the US. The same applies to those – Colombia, Ecuador before Correa’s election, Peru, Costa Rica and Guatemala – who left the Group of Twenty (G-20) (4). The publication by El País of the transcript of conversations between President George Bush and Spanish Prime Minister José Maria Aznar in February 2003 (5) revealed the brutality of the pressure exerted by Bush on countries reluctant to support military intervention in Iraq: “[Chilean President Ricardo] Lagos should know that the free trade accord with Chile is awaiting Senate confirmation and a negative attitude about this could put ratification in danger.”


Lagos’s successor, Michelle Bachelet, favours a strategic partnership with Washington. However, she would run the risk of sanctions if the Chilean Congress were to ratify the treaty establishing the International Criminal Court and refuse to guarantee the immunity of US soldiers before this jurisdiction. The US may suspend military aid, forcing Chile to pay the Pentagon a lot to train its pilots to fly the F-16 fighters it has just purchased. The US has suspended military training and aid programmes for Brazil, Peru, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Bolivia and Uruguay on the same grounds.

Consensual forms of domination
The collapse of the Soviet Union boosted the credibility of US democratic rhetoric. Times have changed since Jeanne Kirkpatrick, then working for a conservative think-tank in Washington, criticised President Jimmy Carter for raising the issue of civil rights. In so doing, she argued, he was undermining non-Marxist authoritarian regimes although they were closer to US interests. With the boom in free market reform, it has become received wisdom that the discipline of the global market limits the risk of regimes becoming too populist. As the researcher William I Robinson has noted, it is possible to penetrate civil society waving the flag of democracy, although the aim may be to control it through consensual forms of domination (6). Drawing on the teachings of Antonio Gramsci, US strategists have realised that the real seat of power is civil society, providing it can be split into groups and communities with divergent interests.


A consensus gradually emerged within the Organisation of American States (OAS) after 9/11 that defending democratic order went hand in hand with the right to intervene against threats to that order. The adoption (by acclamation) of the OAS’s democratic charter in 2001, under the wary eye of the US defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, confirmed this trend. There is nothing new about forcibly upholding democracy, but some on the left are now citing the right of humanitarian interference as a reason for endorsing the use of force.


However, the shift in the balance of power in South America has complicated the task of the OAS – and the fact that all threats to democracy are not treated in the same way has created tension. At the OAS’s 37th General Assembly in Panama in June the US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, called for a committee of inquiry to be sent to Venezuela to find out why President Chávez’s government had not renewed the concession of Radio Caracas Television (RCTV). The assembly rejected the proposal, isolating Rice and obliging her to leave.


The US administration is counting on other allies to weather the storm, in particular NGOs and foundations. The United States Agency for International Development (USAid) plays a pivotal role in this process, primarily through financial aid. It is “the most appropriate tool, when diplomacy is not enough or military force imprudent”, its administrator, Andrew Natsios, explained to a Senate Committee in May 2001. Venezuela is a good example of this approach, with USAid funding a wide range of initiatives alongside other “democracy builders”. The International Republican Institute, directed by John McCain, currently a presidential candidate, is one of five NGOs allocating USAid funds to opposition organisations and programmes.

Destabilise, then overthrow
After the bid to oust Chávez in 2002, which Bush endorsed, the State Department set up an Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) in Caracas. One of its stated objectives is to “encourage citizen participation in the democratic process”. It presents non-violent resistance as the most effective method for destabilising governments prior to their overthrow.


The campaign to defend freedom of speech in Venezuela is part of political exploitation of separatist demands by Bolivia’s rightwing opposition. “The racist, separatist, violent and anti-democratic right,” according to Bolivia’s vice-president, Alvaro García Linera, controls four provinces (Santa Cruz, Beni, Pando, Tarija) and is holding up the work of the Constituent Assembly. The fact that the governments of Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador have taken control of their strategic resources – oil and gas – helps explain the US attitude.


Bush has strengthened the US embargo on Cuba and the Commission on Assistance to a Free Cuba is drafting proposals for a peaceful transition, some of which are secret for reasons of national security.


In 1998 the US Southern Command (Southcom), the main military organisation in Latin America, moved from Panama to Miami. Contacts between Southcom and governments in the region involve the military but exclude civilians. Southcom sets the agenda for the region unilaterally, without informing the State Department directly. The Bush administration has sidelined development and agricultural aid agencies, with bilateral aid down by one third from its cold war level, and the Defence Department now handles most development programmes in the sub-continent. This move is far from neutral, as Congress has much less control over the defence budget than over foreign aid. Between 1997 and 2007 the US spent $7.3bn on military and police aid for Latin America (7).


The Centre for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS) defines the war on terror as “a global enterprise of uncertain duration” and “global reach”. In this asymmetric conflict the enemies are manifold: Islamists; smugglers and narco-traffickers hiding between Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay; radical populists, primarily in Venezuela and Bolivia; terrorist organisations such as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) or the National Liberation Army (ELN) in Colombia; social movements, but also gangs of youths, refugees and illegal immigrants, all of whom may be potential terrorists.

A nuclear-free zone
Southcom considers that no single foreign power threatens US interests, the sub-continent being a nuclear-free zone with no weapons of mass destruction. The key emerging threat, according to Southcom’s former commander, James Hill, is “radical populism, in which the democratic process is undermined to decrease rather than protect individual rights.” Such populism, embodied by Chávez, gathers strength by tapping into “deep-seated frustrations of the failure of democratic reforms” and by “inflaming anti-US sentiment” (8).


General Bantz J Craddock blames political instability on “anti-US, anti-globalisation, and anti-free trade demagogues”. The US must strengthen security forces in the region and increase Southcom’s budget because it “cannot afford to let Latin America and the Caribbean become a backwater of violent, inward-looking states that are cut off from the world around them by populist, authoritarian governments” (9).


Alongside the Pentagon’s involvement it is worth noting the presence of US military advisors and the growing importance in Colombia of private military companies and non-state actors, also based in the US. These subcontractors fulfil missions that the armed forces cannot undertake due to the limits on engagement fixed by Congress. No such authorisation applies to private military companies.


In September, after a plea by the families of 173 people murdered in banana-producing areas, a Washington court found the multinational banana company, Chiquita Brands, guilty of paying $1.7m to a paramilitary organisation, the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), to protect its plantations between 1997 and 2004. The court ordered the firm to pay a $25m fine, but an agreement was negotiated with the US government exempting the management from prosecution. “I am surprised that a few million dollars can buy impunity in the US,” noted the Colombian justice minister.

Soldiers as policemen
At the instigation of the US, Latin American armies are once again involved in domestic policing activities. In December 2006 Mexico’s President Felipe Calderon sent 7,000 soldiers to the state of Michoacan to combat drug trafficking. The military also intervenes in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, in Brazil, against mara youth gangs all over central America, and to check immigration on the Mexican border. There is nothing new about military involvement in enforcing law and order. Here it comes in response to demands for greater security in the face of organised crime, but it goes against the trend, observed since the end of the dictatorships, of confining the military to their barracks. Civil rights organisations are concerned, for the troublemakers are often native Americans, unemployed youths and other underprivileged outcasts. Intervention by the army may further stigmatise them, stirring fears of the “enemy within”. It may also give the military greater political clout, recalling sinister memories (10).


It was in this context that Bush asked Congress in October to approve Plan Mexico to combat narco-trafficking. Its draft budget of $1,400m will be allocated to procuring military equipment (helicopters, intelligence gathering) and joint training of the armies of both countries. The risks involved in militarising the war on narcotics are apparent, particularly with several Mexican states in serious social conflict. A $50m budget extension is now scheduled to broaden the campaign’s scope to include Central America. It remains to be seen how the Democratic majority in Congress will respond.


The US has been advocating reform of the conventional role of Latin America’s armed forces and argues that priority should be given to regional cooperation and interoperability, whereas during the cold war military aid was almost exclusively directed to bilateral collaboration. Southcom aims to set up a rapid-response force to cope with new threats. In 2006, at the 37th OAS General Assembly in Panama, Rice proposed a mutual defence alliance to counter threats to the continent’s security, monitoring domestic policies of member states and ensuring they meet democratic standards. The assembly rejected the proposal, seen as a stratagem to penalise Venezuela (11).


The US needs forces in the field and allies to endorse its intervention, but the launch of a rapid response force seems uncertain given the current balance of power in Latin America. Lessons may yet be learnt from Haiti. William Leogrande has analysed the Bush administration’s part in the downfall of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide (12). He noted that although Aristide’s mistakes contributed to his forced departure, it was a paramilitary force, the US-backed Front for the Advancement and Progress of Haiti (FRAPH), which ousted the president in a successful example of outside interference. It is surprising that forces from South American countries should be taking part in the UN Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (Minustah) (13) despite the continuing dispute over the coup against Aristide. The former representative of the UN Secretary General in Haiti, Dante Caputo, has accused the CIA of involvement (14), but in view of the situation the US may conclude that a stabilisation force such as Minustah could be useful for future initiatives.


Southcom has other ways of convincing reluctant allies. In 2001, at a meeting in Santiago, Chile, OAS members adopted the “cooperative security” concept, which fosters “transparency in military matters” (15). Regular Defence Ministerial of the Americas (DMA) meetings help to build trust. Army manoeuvres with international components, joint naval exercises, training by the US of 17,000 Latin-American military (2005 figures) and arms sales all create ties.


The official end of the embargo on arms sales to Latin America confirmed the Pentagon’s leadership and the importance of the military-industrial complex, at a time when the US was already the region’s top supplier of such equipment. The decision risks starting an arms race. The sale of F-16 jets to Chile may prompt other countries to modernise their air forces (16). Brazil’s defence ministry has already announced that it will be increasing the military investment budget by more than 50%, even though it is on good terms with all its neighbours.


In its dealings with the US the Latin American left is in a quandary, split between advocates of a negotiated partnership with the constraint of limited social reforms, and those in favour of greater political integration for whom the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (Alba) represents the first step (17). “Imperialism today is not the same as it was 30 years ago,” wrote Atilio Boron (18). Leftwingers must make allowance for these changes, while considering that the US administration is not prepared to let them re-appropriate national resources, scrap free trade agreements or pursue the political independence advocated by the governments of Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela.



(1) Foreign Affairs, Palm Coast, Florida, January-February 2006


(2) In various forms and with very different policies the left is in power in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Uruguay and Venezuela. The governments of Costa Rica, Guatemala, Panama and Peru count as social democrats (though in Peru its policies are extremely conservative).


(3) Guy Mazet, Latin America Research Centre (Credal), CNRS, Mimeo symposium, Ivry, April 2007


(4) The G-20, which was set up in 1999, brings together the G8 countries (Germany, Canada, US, France, Italy, Japan, United Kingdom, Russia) and the main emerging economies (South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, China, South Korea, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Turkey), plus the European Union in its own right.


(5) El País, Madrid, 27 September 2007.


(6) William I Robinson, “Democracy or polyarchy?”, NACLA Report on the Americas, vol 40, n° 1, New York, Jan-Feb 2007.


(7) Washington Office on Latin America (Wola), “US military programs with Latin America 1997- 2007”, Below the Radar, Centre for International Policy, Latin America Working Group Education Fund, March 2007.


(8) General James Hill, before the House Armed Services Committee, 24 March 2004.


(9) Statement of General Bantz J Craddock before the House Armed Services Committee, 9 March 2005.


(10) Lucía Dammert and John Bailey, “Militarización de la seguridad pública en América latina?”, Foreign Affairs in Spanish, Palm Coast, April-June 2007.


(11) William LeoGrande, “A poverty of imagination: George W Bush’s policy in Latin America”, Journal of Latin American Studies, Cambridge University Press, 2007.


(12) Ibid.


(13) Minustah is under Brazilian command and the Secretary-General’s former envoy is a Chilean. The force comprises soldiers from Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, Argentina, Peru and Ecuador.


(14) Le Monde, Paris, 18 November 2004.


(15) See Richard Narich, “Tendances en matière de sécurité en Amérique latine”, and Cristina López, “La politique extérieure des Etats-Unis envers l’Amérique latine”, Défense nationale et sécurité collective, Paris, November 2007.


(16) Though the US is selling F-16s to Chile, it is refusing to sell spare parts for the same aircraft, used by the Venezuelan air force.


(17) Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela.


(18) Atilio A Boron, Empire et impérialisme, L’Harmattan, Paris, 2003.

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