Saturday, January 22, 2011

The U.S. Empire strikes in Latin America

Latin America: The Empire Strikes Back

By Conn Hallinan

For the past decade, American policy vis-à-vis Latin
 has been relatively low-key, partly because of
the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and partly because
the region has seen an unprecedented growth in economic
 and political independence. But, with Republicans
taking over the House of Representatives, that is about
to change, and, while the Southern Cone no longer
stands to attention when Washington snaps its fingers,
an aggressive and right wing Congress is capable of
causing considerable mischief.

Rep. Lleana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fl), a long-time hawk on
Cuba and leftist regimes in Venezuela and Bolivia, is
the new chair of the powerful House Committee on
Foreign Affairs, and the rightist Rep. Connie Mack (D-
Fl) heads up the House subcommittee on Western
Hemisphere affairs
. Ros-Lethinen is already preparing
hearings aimed at Venezuela and Bolivia, and Mack will
try to put the former on the State Department's list of
countries sponsoring terrorism.

Ros-Lehtinen plans to target Venezuela's supposed ties
to Middle East terrorist groups and Iran's nuclear
weapons program, and to push for economic sanctions
against Venezuela's state-owned oil company and banks.
"It will be good for congressional subcommittees to
start talking about [President of Venezuela Hugo]
Chavez, about [President of Bolivia Evo] Morales, about
issues that have not been talked about," she told the
Miami Herald.

The new chairs of the House Intelligence Committee and
Judiciary Committee have also signaled they intend to
weigh in on establishing a more hawkish line on Latin

Unfortunately, it is the Obama administration that
created an opening for the Republicans. While the White
 came in pledging to improve relations with Latin
America, Washington has ended up supporting a coup in
Honduras, strengthening the U.S. military's presence in
the region, and ignoring growing criticism of its
failed war on drugs.

Recent disclosures by Wikileaks reveal the Obama
administration was well aware that the June 2009
Honduran coup against President Manuel Zelaya was
illegal; nonetheless, it intervened to help keep the
coup forces in power. Other cables demonstrate an on-
going American hostility to the Morales regime in
Bolivia and Washington's sympathy with secessionist
forces in that country's rich eastern provinces.

Many Latin Americans initially had high hopes the Obama
administration would bring a new approach to its
relations with the region, but some say they have seen
little difference from the Bush Administration. "The
truth is that nothing has changed and I view that with
sadness," says former Brazilian president Luiz Lula da
. But things may go from bad to worse if the White
House is passive in the face of a sharp rightward turn
by Congress.

The Latin America of 2011 is not the same place it was
a generation ago. Economic growth has outstripped the
U.S. and Europe, progressive and left governments have
lifted 38 million people out of poverty, cut extreme
 by 70 percent, and increased literacy. The
region has also increased its south-south relations
with countries like China, South Africa and India.
China is now Brazil's number one trading partner. An
economic alliance-Mercosur-has knitted the region
together economically, and the U.S.-dominated
Organization of American States (OAS) finds itself
eclipsed by the newly formed Union of South American

But many countries in Latin America are still riven by
wealth disparities, ethnic divides, and powerful ties
between local oligarchies and the region's curse:
powerful and undemocratic police and militaries. One
such military pulled off the Honduran coup, and police
came within a whisker of overthrowing Ecuador's
progressive president, Rafael Correa, in 2010.

One 2007 Wikileaks cable titled "A Southern Cone
perspective on countering Chavez and reasserting U.S.
leadership," pointed out "Southern Cone militaries
remain key institutions in their respective countries
and important allies for the U.S." The author of the
cable, then ambassador to Chile, Craig Kelly, is
currently principle Deputy Assistant Secretary of
State. Kelly strongly recommended increasing aid to
Latin American militaries to help them "modernize."

In many cases, rightists in Latin America share an
agenda with right-wing forces in the U.S. For instance,
Republicans played a key role in supporting the
Honduran coup and continue to strengthen those ties. In
a recent trip to Honduras, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Ca)
-a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs
Committee-brought together U.S. business leaders and
Honduran officials to discuss American investment.
Honduras was suspended from the OAS, and only a handful
of Latin American governments recognize the new
president, Porfirio Lobo.

It was the Obama Administration, however, who
recognized the government established by the coup, and
remains silent in the face of what Amnesty
 and Human Rights Watch calls widespread
human rights violations by the Lobos regime, including
the unsolved murder of at least 18 opponents. U.S.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is lobbying hard to
have Honduras re-admitted to the OAS.

A quick survey of Republican targets suggests troubled

Chavez has won two elections and is enormously popular.
He has cut poverty, tripled social spending, doubled
university enrollment, and extended health care to most
of the poor. A U.S. engineered coup seems unlikely. But
a "supporter of terrorism" designation would cause
considerable difficulties with international financing
and foreign investment. Sanctions on oil and banking
would also disrupt the Venezuelan economy,  in the long
run creating conditions favorable to a possible coup.

While it is hard to imagine what else the U.S. could do
to Cuba, Congress may try to choke off investment in
Cuba's growing oil and gas industries. Companies are
already jumping through hoops to avoid getting around
the current embargo.  The Spanish oil company Repsol
and Italy's Eni SpA recently built an offshore oil rig
in China to dodge the blockade.

"It is ridiculous that Repsol, a Spanish oil company,
is paying an Italian firm to build an oil rig in China
that will be used next year to explore for oil 50 miles
from Florida," Sarah Stephens, director of the Center
for Democracy in the Americas told the Financial Times.
If the Republicans have their way, sanctions will be
applied to those oil companies.

Ecuador's Correa beat back a recent right-wing coup,
largely because of his 67 percent approval rating. He
has doubled spending on health care, increased social
spending, and stiffed an illegitimate $3.2 billion
foreign debt. But he has a tense relationship with
indigenous movements, which accuse him of trying to
marginalize them. While those groups did not support
the coup, neither did they rally to the government's
support. Those divisions could be easily exploited to
destabilize the government.

In the case of Bolivia, the Wikileak released cables,
according to Latin American journalist and author
Benjamin Dangl, "lays bare an embassy that is biased
against Evo Morales' government, underestimates the
sophistication of the governing party's grassroots
base, and is out of touch with the political reality of
the country."

The cables indicate the U.S. is relying on information
from extreme right wing and violent secessionist groups
in Eastern Bolivia, groups that receive financing and
training from the National Endowment for Democracy and
USAID. Both groups have close ties to American
intelligence organizations. Given Brazil's strong
opposition to any attempt to break up Bolivia, it is
not clear a succession movement would succeed. But
would Brazil-or Argentina, Uruguay or Paraguay-actually

Paraguay is also a country deeply divided between left
and right, with a progressive president who warned last
year that a coup by the country's powerful military was
a possibility.

The Obama administration's acceptance of the Honduran
coup sent a chill throughout Latin America, and
certainly emboldened those who see tanks and caudillos
as an answer to the region's surge of progressive
politics and independent foreign policy. The recent
effort by Turkey and Brazil to broker a compromise with
Iran over its nuclear program did not go down well in
Washington. Neither have efforts to chart an
independent course on the Middle East by nations in the
region. Several countries have formally recognized a
Palestinian state, and Peru will host an Arab-Latin
America summit Feb. 16.

Latin America is no longer an appendage to the colossus
of the north, but its growing independence is fragile,
as the coups in Honduras and Ecuador suggest. The chasm
between rich and poor is being closed, but it is still
substantial. The economies in the region are growing at
a respectable 6 percent, but, because they are
relatively small, they can be more easily derailed by
internal and external crises. Even as its power wanes,
the U.S. is still the world's largest economy with the
world's largest military. This, plus anti-democratic
forces in Latin America, is fertile ground for
mischief, particularly if there is not strong
resistance on the U.S. home front.

Read Conn Hallinan's writings at

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