U.S. Policy in Latin America: Low-Intensity Conflict

The intense U.S. involvement in trying to destabilize Venezuela is aimed at controlling the country’s oil resources. From El Salvador to Colombia, how has U.S. foreign policy changed, what should we do about it, and how do we stay hopeful? A Q&A with Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer.

A Q&A with Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer conducted and edited by Mary Turck of Americas.org

Nelson-Pallmeyer is an author, professor and longtime member of the Resource Center of the Americas, of which AMERICAS.ORG is a program. His books include War Against the Poor (1989), and School of Assassins (2001). Questions in italics.

During the 1980s, you described U.S. involvement in Central America as “low-intensity conflict,” and as a war against the poor. You wrote then that low-intensity conflict “is an evolving strategy of counter-revolutionary warfare. It is the nuts-and-bolts means by which the United States is projecting power into the Third World.” Has your analysis changed since the end of the 1980s wars in Central America?

I think it’s evolved. What I’ve tried to talk about in more recent writings is that we need to look at U.S. foreign policy not as static but as constantly evolving in its methods while retaining an essential goal of domination and control.

From 1945–1980, the United States mainly carried out its policy in Latin America by supporting repressive military dictatorships. Beginning in 1980, we saw a second phase where the continuation of repression was necessary, but so was the use of debt as leverage. We have IMF austerity measures that essentially accomplish similarly repressive goals. A war against the poor can be fought with bullets or it can be fought with bankers.

By around 1991, we entered a period of about seven years during which U.S. foreign policy focused on economics—the World Bank and the IMF were strengthened, the World Trade Organization and NAFTA were created.

Beginning about 1998, we saw a remilitarization of U.S. foreign policy, driven mainly by two factors. One factor was the power of the U.S. military-industrial complex. It regarded the end of the cold war as a disaster because it wanted to maintain its power and privilege and huge military budget. And the other is that corporate-led economic globalization destabilized various countries’ economies, leading to remilitarization.

The focus in the 1980s was Central America. Where do you see the focus in the coming decade?

Venezuela, Colombia, Brazil, and other nations in Latin America are economically very important to the United States. Our present foreign policy is guided by a number of factors, one of which is taking control of the world’s oil supplies, wherever they are found. We are seeing very, very intense U.S. involvement in trying to destabilize Venezuela and get control of that country’s oil resources. Oil is also the major reason that we are involved as aggressively as we are in Colombia.

What do you see as challenges to the Resource Center of the Americas in the coming decade? What are the challenges to people interested in progressive politics and non-hegemonic policy toward Latin America?

I think the Resource Center has played an extremely important role over the past 20 years, along with other groups, of course. One of the things that we can take a great deal of credit for—the people in international solidarity movements and the Resource Center itself—is that despite consistent U.S. government opposition, Latin America has made a transition away from militarized societies to societies in which democratic voices cannot be ignored. The spirit of the people, the voices of the popular sector, are not going to go away. One of our challenges as U.S. people wanting to be in solidarity with Latin America will be to continue to build relationships with those sectors, with the NGOs, with unions, with other workers’ struggles, as they try to make democracy more real.

I think the other challenge—and the Resource Center has already been playing an important role in this—is to make connections between economic issues in this country and economic issues in people’s lives in Latin America.

The global vision that guides the United States is one of wealth consolidation at the top. When you globalize, you open up spaces for elites in those societies to participate in the global system, while creating horrible conditions for huge numbers of their people. Consolidation of wealth also has a profound impact on wages and workers in the U.S. The Resource Center has to be very flexible, has to continue making connections on the economic front, and to resist U.S. militarization in all its forms.

In your 1986 book Low Intensity Conflict: War Against the Poor, you refer to U.S. militarization as having significant impacts on freedom of dissent in the United States. What do you see happening in that area now?

Unfortunately, I think recent events confirm my 1986 analysis. I think we are seeing a pretty drastic erosion of civil liberties in the U.S. Our current incredibly destructive, incredibly costly foreign policy creates all kinds of social contradictions within our country and outside our country, and results in major dissent.

We saw worldwide dissent against the United States as it unilaterally decided to invade Iraq. An unprecedented global people’s movement said “No,” with significant domestic opposition being part of that. That simply cannot be tolerated from the perspective of our policymakers. So I think of Patriot Act I and the pending Patriot Act II, the erosion of civil liberties, the brutal police tactics used in Seattle against protest against the WTO—I think we are going to see a dramatic escalation of that as long as present foreign policy continues. Changing foreign policy is part of the goal of the social justice movement, and in order to do that we have to fight on a lot of other fronts, including the civil liberties front.You mentioned Colombia and the current U.S. military involvement in Colombia. Could you elaborate on that and give us your analysis, in a nutshell, of what we are doing there?

I’ve heard a number of people say they worry about Colombia because it may be another Vietnam, and maybe that’s a legitimate fear. But I think more likely the way we need to view Colombia is as another El Salvador…. another El Salvador, but with resources at stake. In El Salvador, the U.S. really didn’t have resources at stake. The U.S. had other battles there—we wanted to make sure that no revolutionary government came to power.

Colombia is a place where the United States has fairly significant economic interests, including oil, and business has been very involved in shaping U.S. policy there. The Colombian government wants to defeat any kind of guerrilla movement and in the guise of doing so—as in El Salvador—they are targeting all progressive groups for repression. My big fear is that the U.S. government is conducting a similar kind of war in Colombia as it did in El Salvador, only on a much grander scale. Because Colombia is much bigger, we are committing more resources and we have more at stake economically.

What do you see as the most significant signs of hope you can share…. to give people energy for the future?

This is a time when a lot of us are struggling with the issue of hope. So my first message would be—if that’s how you’re feeling, that’s okay. I’m 52 years old and I’ve been active a long time, and this is the most difficult political moment that I have lived through, in terms of where our country is, the leadership, the foreign policy, the arrogance of U.S. policy. And in some ways the flag waving, the uncritical patriotism that is being cultivated—all those things make it a very difficult moment. But within that I do see some signs of hope.

For me the biggest sign of hope is that there are now two superpowers in the world—the United States and world public opinion. I think the New York Times said this during the Iraq fiasco. Survey after survey after survey in country after country after country reveal that if you ask people the question, “In the next year which country is the most dangerous in the world—North Korea, Iraq (before the invasion) or the United States,”eighty to ninety percent say the United States.

I’d just like to remind progressive people that we are part of a global majority. Look at the polls—The vast majority of people in the world see the United States as a bellicose power or a dangerous country. When at times we feel like a very small minority, that’s a really important thing to hold onto.

A second sign of hope for me, as I mentioned earlier, is that in the midst of the horrible reality Latin Americans have faced during the last 40 or 50 years, they have continued to organize. They’ve developed many, many non-governmental organizations, women’s movements, community movements. People understand their own experience in relation to things like free trade agreements and policy. They are beginning to articulate alternatives and they’re certainly committed to working for changes.

A third sign of hope for me is that, though the transition in Latin America from militarized societies to more democratic societies is only partially fulfilled, it would be very hard to put the genie back in the bottle. It’s important that we aspire to authentic democracy because our voices are important. People’s voices are important. People also recognize that even when you replace a military leadership, it doesn’t necessarily mean democracy—not if you have an economic elite operating under free trade agreements and a World Trade Organization dominated by corporate needs. Those are now the huge constraints on democracy. A lot of our struggles in the next 20 years will be over those issues, as is reflected in the increasing globalization protests already.

Another sign of hope for me would be—it’s probably too early to predict this—but I think there’s a reasonable possibility that this administration will go down. Current U.S. foreign policy has resulted in domestic cutbacks, U.S. soldiers being placed in untenable positions—There’s going to be a lot of backlash on that. I think we are on the cusp of a pendulum swing in a direction that will be much more progressive. We have to put all the force of our conviction towards continuing to organize, even when it doesn’t feel like we’re winning.

Americas.org note:
Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer is an author, teacher and longtime anti-war activist. His books grow out of his experiences living in Central America and the United States and his political and theological reflection on United States foreign policy. He teaches at the University of St. Thomas and lives in Minneapolis.