Originally published in In These Times, September 9, 2009
The United States was founded as an “infant empire,” in the words of George Washington. The conquest of the national territory was a grand imperial venture. From the earliest days, control over the hemisphere was a critical goal.
Latin America has retained its primacy in U.S. global planning. If the United States cannot control Latin America, it cannot expect “to achieve a successful order elsewhere in the world,” observed President Richard M. Nixon’s National Security Council in 1971, when Washington was considering the overthrow of Salvador Allende’s government in Chile.
Recently the hemisphere problem has intensified. South America has moved toward integration, a prerequisite for independence; has broadened international ties; and has addressed internal disorders—foremost, the traditional rule of a rich Europeanized minority over a sea of misery and suffering.
The problem came to a head a year ago in Bolivia, South America’s poorest country, where, in 2005, the indigenous majority elected a president from its own ranks, Evo Morales.
In August 2008, after Morales’ victory in a recall referendum, the opposition of U.S.-backed elites turned violent, leading to the massacre of as many as 30 government supporters.
In response, the newly-formed Union of South American Republics (UNASUR) called a summit meeting. Participants—all the countries of South America—declared “their full and firm support for the constitutional government of President Evo Morales, whose mandate was ratified by a big majority.”
“For the first time in South America’s history, the countries of our region are deciding how to resolve our problems, without the presence of the United States,” Morales observed.
Another manifestation: Ecuador’s president Rafael Correa has vowed to terminate Washington’s use of the Manta military base, the last such base open to the United States in South America.
In July, the U.S. and Colombia concluded a secret deal to permit the United States to use seven military bases in Colombia.
The official purpose is to counter narcotics trafficking and terrorism, “but senior Colombian military and civilian officials familiar with negotiations” told the Associated Press “that the idea is to make Colombia a regional hub for Pentagon operations.”
The agreement provides Colombia with privileged access to U.S. military supplies, according to reports. Colombia had already become the leading recipient of U.S. military aid (apart from Israel-Egypt, a separate category).
Colombia has had by far the worst human rights record in the hemisphere since the Central American wars of the 1980s. The correlation between U.S. aid and human rights violations has long been noted by scholarship.
The AP also cited an April 2009 document of the U.S. Air Mobility Command, which proposes that the Palanquero base in Colombia could become a “cooperative security location.”
From Palanquero, “nearly half the continent can be covered by a C-17 (military transport) without refueling,” the document states. This could form part of “a global en route strategy,” which “helps achieve the regional engagement strategy and assists with the mobility routing to Africa.”
On Aug. 28, UNASUR met in Bariloche, Argentina, to consider the U.S. military bases in Colombia.
After intense debate, the final declaration stressed that South America must be kept as “a land of peace,” and that foreign military forces must not threaten the sovereignty or integrity of any nation of the region. And it instructed the South American Defense Council to investigate the Air Mobility Command document.
The bases’ official purpose did not escape criticism. Morales said he witnessed U.S. soldiers accompanying Bolivian troops who fired at members of his coca growers union.
“So now we’re narco-terrorists,” he continued. “When they couldn’t call us communists anymore, they called us subversives, and then traffickers, and since the September 11 attacks, terrorists.” He warned that “the history of Latin America repeats itself.”
The ultimate responsibility for Latin America’s violence lies with U.S. consumers of illegal drugs, Morales said: “If UNASUR sent troops to the United States to control consumption, would they accept it? Impossible.”
That the U.S. justification for its drug programs abroad is even regarded as worthy of discussion is yet another illustration of the depth of the imperial mentality.
Last February, the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy issued its analysis of the U.S. “war on drugs” in past decades.
The commission, led by former Latin American presidents Fernando Cardoso (Brazil), Ernesto Zedillo (Mexico), and Cesar Gaviria (Colombia), concluded that the drug war had been a complete failure and urged a drastic change of policy, away from forceful measures at home and abroad and toward much less costly and more effective measures — prevention and treatment.
The commission report, like earlier studies and the historical record, had no detectable impact. The non-response reinforces the natural conclusion that the “drug war”—like the “war on crime” and “the war on terror”—is pursued for reasons other than the announced goals, which are revealed by the consequences.
During the past decade, the United States has increased military aid and training of Latin American officers in light infantry tactics to combat “radical populism”—a concept that, in the Latin American context, sends shivers up the spine.
Military training is being shifted from the State Department to the Pentagon, eliminating human rights and democracy provisions formerly under congressional supervision, always weak but at least a deterrent to some of the worst abuses.
The U.S. Fourth Fleet, disbanded in 1950, was reactivated in 2008, shortly after Colombia’s invasion of Ecuador, with responsibility for the Caribbean, Central and South America, and the surrounding waters.
Its “various operations include counter-illicit trafficking, Theater Security Cooperation, military-to-military interaction and bilateral and multinational training,” the official announcement says.
Militarization of South America aligns with much broader designs. In Iraq, information is virtually nil about the fate of the huge U.S. military bases there, so they presumably remain for force projection. The cost of the immense city-with-in-a-city embassy in Baghdad is to rise to $1.8 billion a year, from an estimated $1.5 billion.
The Obama administration is also building mega-embassies in Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The United States and United Kingdom are demanding that the U.S. military base in Diego Garcia be exempted from the planned African nuclear-weapons-free-zone—as U.S. bases are off-limits in similar zoning efforts in the Pacific.
In short, moves toward “a world of peace” do not fall within the “change you can believe in,” to borrow Obama’s campaign slogan.