Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Obama Admin. and Latin America

Muscling Latin America

By Greg Grandin
The Nation
February 8, 2010

In September Ecuador's president, Rafael Correa,
delivered on an electoral promise and refused to renew
Washington's decade-old, rent-free lease on an air base
outside the Pacific coast town of Manta, which for the
past ten years has served as the Pentagon's main South
American outpost. The eviction was a serious effort to
fulfill the call of Ecuador's new Constitution to
promote "universal disarmament" and oppose the
"imposition" of military bases of "some states in the
territory of others." It was also one of the most
important victories for the global demilitarization
movement, loosely organized around the International
Network for the Abolition of Foreign Military Bases,
since protests forced the US Navy to withdraw from
Vieques, Puerto Rico, in 2003. Correa, though, couldn't
resist an easy joke. "We'll renew the lease," he
quipped, "if the US lets us set up a base in Miami."
Funny. Then Washington answered with a show of force:
take away one, we'll grab seven. In late October the
United States and Colombia signed an agreement granting
the Pentagon use of seven military bases, along with an
unlimited number of as yet unspecified "facilities and
locations." They add to Washington's already
considerable military presence in Colombia, as well as
in Central America and the Caribbean.

Responding to criticism from South America on the
Colombian deal, the White House insists it merely
formalizes existing military cooperation between the
two countries under Plan Colombia and will not increase
the offensive capabilities of the US Southern Command
(Southcom). The Pentagon says otherwise, writing in its
2009 budget request that it needed funds to upgrade one
of the bases to conduct "full spectrum operations
throughout South America" to counter, among other
threats, "anti-U.S. governments" and to "expand
expeditionary warfare capability." That ominous
language, since scrubbed from the budget document,
might be a case of hyping the threat to justify
spending during austere times. But the Obama
administration's decision to go forward with the bases
does accelerate a dangerous trend in US hemispheric

In recent years, Washington has experienced a fast
erosion of its influence in South America, driven by
the rise of Brazil, the region's left turn, the growing
influence of China and Venezuela's use of oil revenue
to promote a multipolar diplomacy. Broad social
movements have challenged efforts by US- and Canadian-
based companies to expand extractive industries like
mining, biofuels, petroleum and logging. Last year in
Peru, massive indigenous protests forced the repeal of
laws aimed at opening large swaths of the Amazon to
foreign timber, mining and oil corporations, and
throughout the region similar activism continues to
place Latin America in the vanguard of the anti-
corporate and anti-militarist global democracy

Such challenges to US authority have led the Council on
Foreign Relations to pronounce the Monroe Doctrine
"obsolete." But that doctrine, which for nearly two
centuries has been used to justify intervention from
Patagonia to the Rio Grande, has not expired so much as
slimmed down, with Barack Obama's administration
disappointing potential regional allies by continuing
to promote a volatile mix of militarism and free-trade
orthodoxy in a corridor running from Mexico to

The anchor of this condensed Monroe Doctrine is Plan
Colombia. Heading into the eleventh year of what was
planned to phase out after five, Washington's
multibillion-dollar military aid package has failed to
stem the flow of illegal narcotics into the United
States. More Andean coca was synthesized into cocaine
in 2008 than in 1998, and the drug's retail price is
significantly lower today, adjusted for inflation, than
it was a decade ago.

But Plan Colombia is not really about drugs; it is the
Latin American edition of GCOIN, or Global
Counterinsurgency, the current term used by strategists
to downplay the religious and ideological associations
of George W. Bush's bungled "global war on terror" and
focus on a more modest program of extending state rule
over "lawless" or "ungoverned spaces," in GCOIN

Starting around 2006, with the occupation of Iraq going
badly, Plan Colombia became the counterinsurgent
marquee, celebrated by strategists as a successful
application of the "clear, hold and build" sequence
favored by theorists like Gen. David Petraeus. Its
lessons have been incorporated into the curriculums of
many US military colleges and cited by the Joint Chiefs
of Staff as a model for Afghanistan. Not only did the
Colombian military, with support from Washington,
weaken the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), Latin
America's oldest and strongest insurgency, but
according to the Council on Foreign Relations, it
secured a state presence in "many regions previously
controlled by illegal armed groups, reestablishing
elected governments, building and rebuilding public
infrastructure, and affirming the rule of law." Plan
Colombia, in other words, offered not just a road map
to success but success itself. "Colombia is what Iraq
should eventually look like," wrote Atlantic
contributor Robert Kaplan, "in our best dreams."

Traditionally in most counterinsurgencies, the "clear"
stage entails a plausibly deniable reliance on death-
squad terror--think Operation Phoenix in Vietnam or the
Mano Blanca in El Salvador. The Bush administration was
in office by the time Plan Colombia became fully
operational, and according to the Washington Post's
Scott Wilson, it condoned the activities of right-wing
paramilitaries, loosely organized as the United Self-
Defense Forces, or AUC in Spanish. "The argument at the
time, always made privately," Wilson writes, "was that
the paramilitaries"--responsible for most of Colombia's
political murders--"provided the force that the army
did not yet have." This was followed by the "hold"
phase, a massive paramilitary land grab. Fraud and
force--"sell, or your widow will," goes many an opening
bid--combined with indiscriminate fumigation, which
poisoned farmlands, to turn millions of peasants into
refugees. Paramilitaries, along with their
narcotraficante allies, now control about 10 million
acres, roughly half of the country's most fertile land.

After parts of the countryside had been pacified, it
was time to "build" the state. Technically, the United
States considers the AUC to be a terrorist
organization, part of the narcoterrorist triptych,
along with FARC and the narcos, that Southcom is
pledged to fight. But Plan Colombia did not so much
entail an assault on the paras--aside from the most
recalcitrant and expendable--as create a venue through
which, by defining public policy as perpetual war, they
could become the state itself. Under the smokescreen of
a government-brokered amnesty, condemned by national
and international human rights groups for
institutionalizing impunity, paras have taken control
of hundreds of municipal governments, establishing what
Colombian social scientist León Valencia calls "true
local dictatorships," consolidating their property
seizures and deepening their ties to narcos, landed
elites and politicians. The country's sprawling
intelligence apparatus is infiltrated by this death
squad/narco combine, as is its judiciary and Congress,
where more than forty deputies from the governing party
are under investigation for ties to the AUC.

Plan Colombia, in other words, has financed the
opposite of what is taking place in neighboring
Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela, where progressive
movements are fitfully trying to "refound" their
societies along more inclusive lines. In place of the
left's "participatory democracy," Colombian President
Álvaro Uribe offers "democratic security," a social
compact whereby those who submit to the new order are
promised safe, even yuppified cities and secure
highways, while oppositional civil society suffers
intimidation and murder. Colombia remains the hands-
down worst repressor in Latin America. More than 500
trade unionists have been executed since Uribe took
office. In recent years 195 teachers have been
assassinated, and not one arrest has been made for the
killings. And the military stands accused of murdering
more than 2,000 civilians and then dressing their
bodies in guerrilla uniforms in order to prove progress
against the FARC.

It also seems that many right-wing warriors are not cut
out for the quiet life offered by the Paz Uribista. The
Bogotá-based think tank Nuevo Arco Iris reports mini
civil wars breaking out among "heirs of the AUC" for
control of local spoils. Yet Plan Colombia continues to
be hailed. Flying home from a recent Bogotá-hosted
GCOIN conference, the former head of Southcom wrote on
his blog that Colombia is a "must see" tourist spot,
having "come a long, long way in controlling a deep-
seated insurgency just over two hours flight from
Miami--and we could learn a great deal from their

Seen in light of his escalation in Afghanistan, Obama's
support for the Colombian base deal endorses the kind
of elastic threat assessment that has turned the "long
war" against radical Islam into a wide war where
ultimate victory will be a world absent of
crime--"counterinsurgen-?cies without end," as Andrew
Bacevich recently put it.

Shortly after the fall of Baghdad, Washington tried to
conscript all of Latin America in the fight. In October
2003 it pushed the Organization of American States to
include corruption, undocumented migration, money
laundering, natural and man-made disasters, AIDS,
environmental degradation, poverty and computer hacking
alongside terrorism and drugs as security threats. In
2004 an Army War College strategist proposed "exporting
Plan Colombia" to all of Latin America, which Donald
Rumsfeld tried to do later that year at a regional
defense ministers meeting in Ecuador. He was rebuffed;
countries like Chile and Brazil refuse to subordinate
their militaries, as they did during the cold war, to
US command.

So the United States retrenched, setting about to fight
the wide war in a narrower place, creating a security
corridor running from Colombia through Central America
to Mexico. With a hodgepodge of treaties and projects,
such as the International Law Enforcement Academy and
the Merida Initiative, Obama is continuing the policies
of his predecessors, spending millions to integrate the
region's military, policy, intelligence and even,
through Patriot Act-like legislation, judicial systems.
This is best thought of as an effort to enlarge the
radius of Plan Colombia to create a unified, supra-
national counterinsurgent infrastructure. Since there
is "fusion" among Latin American terrorists and
criminals, goes a typical argument in a recent issue of
the Pentagon's Joint Force Quarterly, "countering the
threat will require fusion on our part."

At the same time, schemes like the Mesoamerican
Integration and Development Project are using World
Bank and Inter-American Development Bank financing to
synchronize the highway, communication and energy
networks of Mexico, Central America and Colombia,
blending the North American and Central American free-
trade treaties and, eventually, the pending Colombian
Free Trade Agreement into a seamless whole. Thomas
Shannon, Bush's top envoy to Latin America and Obama's
ambassador to Brazil, called these initiatives
"armoring NAFTA."

"Fusion" is a good word for this integration, since the
melding of neoliberal economics and counterinsurgent
diplomacy is explosive. One effect of Plan Colombia has
been to diversify the violence and corruption endemic
to the cocaine trade, with Central American and Mexican
cartels and military factions taking over export of the
drug to the United States. This cycle of violence is
reinforced by the rapid spread of mining,
hydroelectric, biofuel and petroleum operations, which
wreak havoc on local ecosystems, poisoning land and
water, and by the opening of national markets to US
agroindustry, which destroys local economies. The
ensuing displacement either creates the assorted
criminal threats the wide war is waged to counter or
provokes protest, which is dealt with by the avengers
the wide war empowers.

Throughout Latin America, a new generation of community
activists continues to advance the global democracy
movement that was largely derailed in the United States
by 9/11. They provide important leadership to US
environmental, indigenous, religious and human rights
organizations, working to develop a comprehensive and
sustainable social-justice agenda. But in the Mexico-
Colombia corridor, activists are confronting what might
be called bio-paramilitarism, a revival of the old
anticommunist death-squad/planter alliance, energized
by the current intensification of extractive and
agricultural industries. In Colombia, Afro-Colombian
and indigenous communities fighting paras who have
seized land to cultivate African palm for ethanol
production have been evicted by mercenaries and the
military [see Teo Ballvé, "The Dark Side of Plan
Colombia," June 15, 2009]. From Panama to Mexico, rural
protesters are likewise targeted. In the Salvadoran
department of Cabañas, for instance, death squads have
executed four leaders--three in December--who opposed
the Vancouver-based Pacific Rim Mining Company's
efforts to dig a gold mine in their community.

And in Honduras, human rights organizations say palm
planters have recruited forty members of Colombia's AUC
as private security following the June overthrow of
President Manuel Zelaya. That coup was at least partly
driven by Zelaya's alliance with liberation-theologian
priests and other environmental activists protesting
mining and biofuel-induced deforestation. Just a month
before his overthrow, Zelaya--in response to an
investigation that charged Goldcorp, another Vancouver-
based company, with contaminating Honduras's Siria
Valley--introduced a law that would have required
community approval before new mining concessions were
granted; it also banned open-pit mines and the use of
cyanide and mercury. That legislation died with his
ouster. Zelaya also tried to break the dependent
relationship whereby the region exports oil to US
refineries only to buy back gasoline and diesel at
monopolistic prices; he joined Petrocaribe--the
alliance that provides cheap Venezuelan oil to member
countries--and signed a competitive contract with
Conoco Phillips. This move earned him the ire of Exxon
and Chevron, which dominate Central America's fuel
market. Since the controversial November 29
presidential elections, Honduras has largely fallen off
the media's radar, even as the pace of repression has
accelerated. Since the State Department's recognition
of that vote, about ten opposition leaders have been
executed--roughly half of the number killed in the
previous five months.

It didn't have to be this way. Latin America does not
present a serious military danger. No country is trying
to acquire a nuclear weapon or cut off access to vital
resources. Venezuela continues to sell oil to the
United States. Obama is popular in Latin America, and
most governments, including those on the left, would
have welcomed a demilitarized diplomacy that downplays
terrorism and prioritizes reducing poverty and
inequality--exactly the kind of "new multilateralism"
Obama called for in his presidential campaign.

Yet because Latin America presents no real threat,
there is no incentive to confront entrenched interests
that oppose a modernization of hemispheric relations.
"Obama," said a top-level Argentine diplomat
despairingly, "has decided that Latin America isn't
worth it. He gave it to the right."

The White House could have worked with the Organization
of American States to restore democracy in Honduras.
Instead, after months of mixed signals, Obama
capitulated to Senate Republicans and endorsed a
murderous regime. Washington could try to advance a new
hemispheric economic policy, balancing Latin American
calls for equity and development with corporate
profits. But the Democratic Party remains Wall Street's
party, and shortly after taking office Obama abandoned
his pledge to renegotiate NAFTA. With Washington's
blessing the IMF continues to push Latin American
countries to liberalize their economies. In December
Arturo Valenzuela, Obama's assistant secretary of state
for the Western Hemisphere, caused a scandal in
Argentina when he urged the country to return to the
investment climate of 1996--which would be something
like Buenos Aires calling on the United States to
reinflate the recent Greenspan bubble.

The Obama administration could reconsider Plan Colombia
and the Pentagon's base agreement. But that would mean
rethinking a longer, multi-decade, bipartisan,
trillion-dollars-and-counting "war on drugs," and Obama
has other wars to extricate himself from--or not, as
the case may be.

Unable or unwilling to make concessions on these and
other issues important to Latin America--normalizing
relations with Cuba, for instance, or advancing
immigration reform--the White House is adopting an
increasingly antagonistic posture. Hillary Clinton,
following a visit to Brazil by Iranian President
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, warned Latin Americans to "think
twice" about "the consequences" of engagement with
Iran. Bolivia denounced the comments as a threat,
Brazil canceled a scheduled meeting between its foreign
minister and Valenzuela, and even Argentina, no friend
of Iran, grew irritated. As the Argentine diplomat
quoted above told me, "The Obama administration would
never talk to European countries like that."

Insiders report that high-level State Department
officials are furious at Brazilian president Luiz
Inácio Lula da Silva, who in recent months has been as
steadfast as Venezuela's Hugo Chávez in opposing
Washington's ongoing militarism, particularly the White
House's attempt to legitimize the Honduran coup. Having
successfully thwarted a similar destabilization
campaign against Bolivian president Evo Morales in
2008, Brazil, according to Lula's top foreign-policy
adviser, Marco Aurélio Garcia, is worried that Obama's
Honduras policy is "introducing the 'theory of the
preventive coup' in Latin America"--by which Garcia
means an extension of Bush's preventive war doctrine.

In a region that has not seen a major interstate war
for more than seventy years, Brazil is concerned that
the Pentagon's Colombian base deal is escalating
tensions between Colombia and Venezuela. The US media
have focused on Chávez's warning that the "winds of
war" were blowing through the region, but Brazil's
foreign minister, Celso Amorim, places blame for the
crisis squarely on Washington. Chávez, Amorim said,
"had backed away from that statement. To talk about
war--a word which should never be uttered--is one
thing. Another is the practical and objective issues of
the Colombian bases.... If Iran or Russia were to
establish a base in Venezuela, that would also worry

There are also indications that the White House is
hoping an upcoming round of presidential elections in
South America will restore pliable governments. On a
recent trip to Buenos Aires, for instance, Valenzuela
met with a number of extreme right-wing politicians but
not with moderate opposition leaders, drawing criticism
from center-left President Cristina Fernández's
government. In January a right-wing billionaire,
Sebastián Piñera, was elected president of Chile. And
if Lula's Workers Party loses Brazil's October
presidential vote, as polls indicate is a possibility,
the Andean left will be increasingly isolated, caught
between the Colombia-Mexico security corridor to the
north and administrations more willing to accommodate
Washington's interests to the south. Twenty-first-
century containment for twenty-first-century socialism.
Fidel Castro, normally an optimist, has recently
speculated that before Obama finishes his presidency,
"there will be six to eight rightist governments in
Latin America."

Until that happens, the United States is left with a
rump Monroe Doctrine and an increasingly threatening
stance toward a region it used to call its own.

Greg Grandin teaches at New York University and is the
author of Empire's Workshop and, most recently, of
Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten
Jungle City, a 2009 National Book Award finalist.

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