U.S. ‘hands tied’ in South America

As the Bush administration tries to craft a new foreign policy toward Venezuela, Pentagon and military officials say they cannot blunt that nation's regional influence unless a law meant to protect U.S. personnel from prosecution in the International Criminal Court is changed.

As the Bush administration tries to craft a new foreign policy toward an increasingly belligerent Venezuela, Pentagon and military officials say they cannot blunt that nation’s regional influence unless a law meant to protect U.S. personnel from prosecution in the International Criminal Court is changed.

That law, the American Service Members Protection Act, prohibits U.S. security assistance funds and most military cooperation unless a country rejects the U.N.-backed ICC or signs a bilateral immunity agreement with the United States.

The ICC was created in 1998 as a forum to try war criminals. Only accused people whose home country is not capable of trying them for war crimes would be subject to the court under the terms of the treaty.

Of the 22 nations in the world that are on the black list — they have ratified the ICC agreement and have refused to grant the United States bilateral immunity — 11 of them are in Latin America. It is that fact that is tying U.S. hands, military officials say.

“The United States is limited in its ability to influence events within Venezuela,” said a Pentagon source. “Our time to influence them was two or three years ago. Before 2000, that was the time.”

Relations between the United States and Venezuela have grown increasingly frosty since the 2002 coup against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. He was returned to power after three days of massive protests. In the interim, the White House swiftly recognized the new government and did not condemn the coup, leading Chavez and his supporters to suspect Washington was behind the overthrow attempt. The United States denies playing a role.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Congress in January Chavez is a “negative force in the region,” saying he is meddling in neighbors’ affairs, muzzling the media and cracking down on his opposition, all charges denied by Venezuela. Chavez was re-elected in an August referendum with almost 60 percent of the popular vote. He is challenging the traditional U.S. dominance in Latin America, and is using the proceeds from his massive oil fields to further relations with neighboring countries.

In an effort to make the nation less dependent on imported food, Chavez in January announced a new push to implement his 2001 land reform plan that could threaten foreign-owned property. If privately owned land is sitting idle, Chavez would allow the government to seize it and give it to peasants for cultivation. The landowner would be compensated at market value for the property, according to the government. However, the land must be properly registered in that owner’s name — opening the possibility of uncompensated expropriation. According to Venezuelan government statistics, 80 percent of its land is in the hands of 5 percent of landowners.

Land reform is, historically, an anathema to the United States, and was one of the reasons for the U.S.-backed coup in 1954 that led to the overthrow of Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz.

At the same time, Chavez is building up his military. He has purchased 100,000 new Russian rifles and 22 helicopters for his 82,000-man military, and in March announced he is negotiating with Spain for the purchase of $1.8 billion in aircraft and ships.

If the United States cannot affect Venezuela’s internal politics, its policy is now focused on finding ways to influence the nations around that country to limit Venezuela’s impact, U.S. government officials say.

However, except for Colombia and Argentina, all the major countries of South America are on the ASPA black list: Ecuador, Paraguay, Peru, Bolivia, Uruguay and Brazil.

Prior to the passage of the ASPA, the major South American players had nearly 700 officers in training in U.S. military schools under the International Military Education and Training program. That number is essentially down to zero, say U.S. Southern Command sources.

“We have lost access to a whole generation of military officers,” a Southern Command source told UPI.

The Joint Staff and Southern Command are pressing the Pentagon and Congress to delink IMET and security assistance funds from ASPA as a way to re-engage the region, particularly the countries that border Venezuela.

If those funds are not freed, the long-term effect of the law will be grave, Southern Command chief Gen. Bantz Craddock told the Senate Armed Services Committee in March.

“Extra-hemispheric actors are filling the void left by restricted U.S. military engagement with partner nations. We now risk losing contact and interoperatibility with a generation of military classmates in many nations of the region, including several leading countries,” he said. The void left by the United States after ASPA is increasingly being filled by China, Craddock warned.

From January 2004 to November 2004, China invested nearly $900 million in Latin America, or 49.3 percent of its overseas investment. National level defense officials from China visited Latin American and Caribbean countries 20 times last year.

“Growing economic interests, presence and influence in the region are not a threat but they are clearly components of a condition we should recognize and consider carefully as we form our own objectives, policies and engagement in the region,” Craddock said. China’s interest in Latin America and Venezuela, in particular, center on its need for natural resources, especially oil and gas.

Venezuela is the fourth-largest oil supplier to the United States, and between 60 and 80 percent of its oil imports come to the United States. Fourteen percent of the oil used in the United States comes from Venezuela.

The American Service Members Protection Act does include a waiver that would allow IMET and security assistance funds to be spent even if a country does not grant the United States immunity from the ICC. However, the likelihood of that happening is slim, a SOUTHCOM source said.

Colombia, the primary recipient of U.S. funding in Latin America, was not granted a waiver. Moreover, the Bush administration appears ill disposed to softening its stance. Two years ago, it retracted the U.S. signature on the Rome Statute that set up the ICC. The United States had approved the creation of the court but wanted more controls on it before it would ratify it. Retracting the signature makes the ratification of the ICC by the United States even more remote.