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Greg Grandin: Muscling Latin America

Roundup: Historians' Take




[Greg Grandin is professor of history at New York University.]

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."...

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 Colombia.

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....

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."...

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....

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 us."

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.

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