Dirty Business, Dirty Wars: U.S.-Latin American Relations in the 21st Century

Some pundits and analysts are suggesting that Latin America is becoming more independent because of the Bush Administration's perceived neglect of the region. Rather, what is happening is blowback from Washington's continued meddling in the economic and political affairs of an area arrogantly referred to as the United States' "backyard."

Much is being made across the political spectrum in the United States about
Washington's waning influence in Latin America. The region has seen an
emergence of left and center-left presidents voted into office, many as
a result of budding social movements growing democracy from the
grassroots. Some pundits and analysts are suggesting that this
phenomenon is occurring because of the Bush Administration's perceived
neglect of the region. Rather, what is happening is blowback from
Washington's continued meddling in the economic and political affairs
of an area arrogantly referred to as the United States' "backyard."
Latin America's growing unity in rejecting the Washington Consensus
remains fragile in the face of U.S. opposition. Washington has been
quietly using the war on drugs, the war on terrorism, and a neo-cold
war ideology to institutionalize a militarism in the region that risks
returning us to the not so far off days of "dirty wars."

Breaking the Chains

President Hugo Chavez's election in 1998 sparked the beginning of the
leftward electoral paradigm shift in the hemisphere. After he
orchestrated a failed coup attempt in 1992, he was elected six years
later based on a campaign that promised to lift up the impoverished
nation's poor majority through economic policies that ran counter to
the free market fundamentalism and crony capitalism pursued by the
country's oligarchs, with the aid of Washington and international
financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International
Monetary Fund (IMF). Chavez also began to challenge the idea of U.S.
hegemony in the region by advocating a united Latin America based on
the ideas of one of his intellectual mentors, Simón Bolívar, the 19th
century revolutionary instrumental in defeating Spain's control of the
region. Chavez, who also claims to be influenced by the teachings of
Karl Marx and Jesus Christ, has championed what he calls a "Socialism
of the 21st Century." A fierce and outspoken critic of neoliberalism,
Chavez has said "I am convinced that a path to a new, better and
possible world is socialism, not capitalism," words that have been
scarce in the region's capitals with the exception of Cuba.

Chavez's ascent to power, we have seen presidents elected in Argentina,
Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Paraguay, and Uruguay which
translates into a majority of countries in the region advocating
center-left and left-wing political programs (while Mexico and Peru
missed joining this new Latin American consensus by narrow, if not
fraudulent, election outcomes).

it is true that, despite these developments, socialism is a long way
off from taking hold in the region, the rejection of Washington's Free
Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) back in 2003, long before the left
had firmly taken hold in the hemisphere, marked the beginning of an
outright challenge to free market orthodoxy, U.S. hegemony, and
corporate power. Since then we have seen multinational corporations
booted out of countries and defiantly confronted by social movements,
U.S. ambassadors expelled from three nation's capitals, free trade
agreements protested, illegitimate foreign debts challenged, and U.S.
drug policies rejected. In addition, alternative political and economic
institutions and policies have been advocated and created.

Chavez developed the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), an
antithesis to the FTAA that advocates a trade regime based on economic,
social, and political integration guided by the principals of
solidarity and cooperation. Even Honduras, long seen as a U.S.
satellite state dating back to the days it assisted Washington in
overthrowing Guatemala's government in 1954, has joined ALBA, showing
that the creeping tide of Bolivarianism is extending to the still
fragile Central America. Meanwhile, Brazil's Lula de Silva, viewed by
Washington and the U.S. corporate media as part of the "acceptable" or
"responsible" left, declared in 2007 that "Developing nations must
create their own mechanisms of finance instead of suffering under those
of the IMF and the World Bank, which are institutions of rich nations .
. . it is time to wake up." And the region has woken up as the "Bank of
the South" was formed to make development loans without the draconian
economic prescriptions of Washington-controlled financial institutions,
which in the past have forced countries to cut social spending,
deregulate industries, and open markets to foreign capital – policies
that have exacerbated poverty and inequality in the past and as a
result compounded dependence on foreign capital and Washington.

terms of security cooperation, both Brazil and Venezuela have led
efforts to create a South American Defense Council, a NATO-style
regional body that would coordinate defense policies, deal with
internal conflicts and presumably diminish Washington's influence in
its "backyard." While U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said
back in March that Washington "had no problem with it" and looked
"forward to coordination with it," Bloomberg News reported
that Brazilian Defense Minister Nelson Jobim told Rice and National
Security Adviser Stephen Hadley that the United States should "watch
from the outside and keep its distance," and that "this is a South
American council and we have no obligation to ask for a license from
the United States to do it." In a similar challenge to U.S. military
presence and influence, Ecuador's President Rafael Correa decided to
force the United States. to close its military base in the port city of
Manta. And then there is China's and Russia's growing economic and
political ties to the region – something that would not only be unheard
of in the past, but not tolerated.

such as these led the Council on Foreign Relations to declare in May
that the "era of the United States as the dominant influence in Latin
America is over." Frank Bajak, writing for the Associated Press on Oct.
11, echoed this observation when he wrote, "U.S. clout in what it once
considered its backyard has sunk to perhaps the lowest point in
decades" and that "it's unlikely to be able to leverage economic
influence in Latin America anytime soon." Meanwhile, The Washington Post
took a more indignant and belligerent position in an Oct. 6 editorial
when it questioned whether Washington should "continue to subsidize
governments that treat it as an enemy" while "a significant part of
Latin America continues to march away from the 'Washington consensus'
of democracy and free-market capitalism that has governed the region
for a generation."

Imagewww.JusticeforColombia.orgA Laboratory for Counterinsurgency

conventional thinking has led many to believe that Latin America's
independence from the United States may be an irreversible paradigm
shift, behind the scenes Washington has put into place policies that
could unleash a reign of terror not seen since the 1980's. Colombia has
served as laboratory for this new counterinsurgency program that can be
interpreted as a continuance of U.S. supported state terrorism and a
re-emergence of the national security state in Latin America.

U.S. government has sent more than $5 billion in mostly military and
counter-narcotics assistance to Colombia since 2000 to fund "Plan
Colombia," a counter drug program said to be designed to fight cocaine
production and narco-trafficking, as well as the Revolutionary Armed
Forces of Colombia (FARC), in turn further intensifying the country's
long-standing civil war. But as the International Consortium of
Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) reported in 2001 in a study sponsored
by the Center for Responsive Politics, "The protection of U.S. oil and
trade interests is also a key factor in the plan, and historic links to
drug-trafficking right-wing guerrillas by U.S. allies belie an
exclusive commitment to extirpating drug trafficking."

ICIJ investigation also found that "Major U.S. oil companies have
lobbied Congress intensely to promote additional military aid to
Colombia, in order to secure their investments in that country and
create a better climate for future exploration of Colombia's vast
potential reserves." In addition, corporations with interests in the
region were reported to have spent almost $100 million lobbying
Congress to affect U.S. Latin America policy.

years later, Colombia has evolved into a full-fledged paramilitary
state. President Álvaro Uribe, Washington's staunchest ally in the
region, his extended family, and many of his political supporters in
the government and military are under investigation for ties to
paramilitaries and right-wing death squads. As far as U.S. corporate
collusion goes, Chiquita Brands International Inc. was forced to pay
the U.S. Justice Department a $25 million settlement in 2007 for giving
over $1 million to the right-wing terrorist organization United
Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). Even more damaging is the fact
that Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, at the time
assistant attorney general, knew about the company's relationship with
AUC and did nothing to stop it. Alabama-based coal company Drummond
Co., Inc. and Coca-Cola have also been accused of hiring right-wing
death squads to intimidate, murder or disappear trade unionists. This
is what the ICIJ meant when they wrote about securing investments and
creating a "better climate" for business.

to the U.S. Labor Education on the Americas Project, Colombia accounts
for more than 60 percent of trade unionists killed worldwide. There
have also been at least 17 murders of trade unionists just this year,
which, according to a report released in April 2008, accounts for an 89
percent increase in murders over the same time period from 2007.
Meanwhile, The Washington Post reported in August that the
collateral damage from Colombia's civil war has resulted in more
disappearances than occurred in El Salvador and Chile, while Colombia's
attorney general believes there could be as many as 10,000 more bodies
scattered across the country – meaning totals would surpass those from
Argentina and Peru.

what should be considered as a total failure from a policy and, more
importantly, human rights standpoint, this same Colombian model has
been promoted by Washington to other nations in the region, and –
remarkably – has been embraced by these countries. In 2005, Guatemalan
officials called for their own "Plan Guatemala," while Oscar Berger,
president at the time, asked for a permanent DEA station in the country
and for U.S. military personnel to conduct anti-narcotics operations.
In addition, he was a proponent of a regional rapid deployment force,
initially conceived to fight gangs, but later adjusted to include
counter-narcotics and counter-terrorism in order to attract U.S.
support. It should be noted that the AFL-CIO, along with six Guatemalan
unions, filed a complaint, allowed through labor provisions of the
Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), on April 23, 2008,
charging the Guatemalan government with not upholding its labor laws
and for failing to investigate and prosecute crimes against union
members – which include rape and murder. This speaks to the idea of
securing a "business-friendly" climate like in Colombia, which many in
Washington want to reward with a free trade agreement. Guatemala's
government is currently led by President Alvaro Colom, a politician who
represents the country's ruling oligarchs. Pre-election violence during
his campaign claimed the lives of over 50 candidates (or their family
members) and political activists, in a country Amnesty International
reports is infested with "clandestine groups" comprised of members of
"the business sector, private security companies, common criminals,
gang members and possibly ex and current members of the armed forces"
responsible for targeting human rights activists.

regional militaristic strategy finally materialized into policy on June
30 when President Bush signed into law the Meridia Initiative, or "Plan
Mexico," which according to Laura Carlsen of the Americas Program
"could allocate up to $1.6 billion to Mexico, Central American, and
Caribbean countries for security aid to design and carry out
counter-narcotics, counter-terrorism, and border security measures."

one day later, investigative journalist Kristen Bricker reported that a
video had surfaced showing a U.S.-based private security company
teaching torture techniques to Mexican police. This led Amnesty
International to call for an investigation on July 3 to determine why
techniques such as "holding a detainee down in a pit full of excrement
and rats and forcing water up the nostrils of the detainee in order to
secure information" were being taught. Later in July the Inter Press
Service published a story about a 53-page report on Human Rights and
Conflicts in Central America 2007-2008 that suggested "Central America
is backsliding badly on human rights issues, and social unrest could
flare up into civil wars like those experienced in the last decades of
the 20th century."

Washington continues to push for the re-militarization of the region,
as evidenced by a $2.6 million aid package given to El Salvador in
October to "fight gangs." Coincidentally, this was announced just
months after the Inter Press Service reported in a June 16 article that
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte "expressed concern over
supposed ties between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)
guerrillas and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN),"
while also announcing that "the Bush administration is on the alert to
Iran's presence in Central America."

Playing the Terror Card

order to up the ante as a means of promoting this militaristic vision
for the Americas and to vilify strategic "enemies" such as Venezuela's
Hugo Chavez and Bolivia's Evo Morales, Washington has added the "War on
Terror" into the equation by spreading unfounded allegations about
Islamic terrorist infiltration into the region.

Journalists Ben Dangl and April Howard of Upside Down World, reporting for EXTRA!
in Oct. 2007, wrote "In the Cold War, Washington and the media used the
word 'communism' to rally public opinion against political opponents.
Now, in the post- September 11 world, there is a new verbal weapon –
'terrorism.'" This puts into context Washington's evidence-lacking
assertions that the Tri-Border Area, where Brazil, Paraguay and
Argentina meet, is a hub for Islamic Terrorist groups such as Hezbollah
and Hamas, claims the mainstream media have obsequiously parroted, yet
Dangl and Howard helped disprove. Dangl and Howard, reporting from
Ciudad del Este, a city located in the center of this alleged "hotbed"
of terrorsim, talked with Paraguayan officials, as well as local
residents, all of whom denied there was any presence of foreign
terrorist groups. They pointed out that the governments of Brazil and
Argentina have also denied the claims. But the terrorist assertions
haven't stopped there.

A. Bailey, a former U.S. spy chief for Cuba and Venezuela, testified
before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on July 17 that
"financial support has been provided [by drug traffickers] to insurgent
groups in certain countries, most notoriously to the FARC in Colombia,
as well as to ETA, the Basque separatist organization, and most
importantly to Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, through their
extensive network in Venezuela and elsewhere in Latin America."

State Department's David M. Luna, Director for Anticrime Programs,
Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, gave a
statement on Oct. 8 claiming that international terrorist organizations
will collaborate with regional criminal networks to smuggle WMD's
across the U.S.'s border with Mexico.

transnational crime must go hand in hand with fighting terrorists, if
we want to ensure that we 'surface them,'" stated Luna. He also went on
to regurgitate the empty claims of the Tri-Border Islamic threat.

same day the Associated Press reported that U.S. officials were
concerned with alliances being formed by terrorist groups such as
Al-Qaida and Hezbollah and Latin American drug cartels.

presence of these people in the region leaves open the possibility that
they will attempt to attack the United States," said Charles Allen, a
veteran CIA analyst. "The threats in this hemisphere are real. We
cannot ignore them."

And on Oct. 21 The Los Angeles Times reported that U.S. and Colombian officials allegedly dismantled a drug and money laundering ring used to finance Hezbollah.

post-Sept. 11 fear-mongering, being carried out for years now, has
served as a pretext for Washington to deploy Special Operations troops
in embassies across the globe, including Latin America, "to gather
intelligence on terrorists…for potential missions to disrupt, capture
or kill them."

The New York Times,
which broke the story on March 8, 2006, reported that this initiative,
led by then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, was an attempt to
broaden the U.S. military's role in intelligence gathering. The
soldiers, referred to as "Military Liaison Elements," were initially
deployed without the knowledge of local ambassadors. This changed after
an armed robber in Paraguay was killed after attempting to rob a group
of soldiers covertly deployed to the country. Senior embassy officials
were "embarrassed" by the episode as the soldiers were operating out of
a hotel, rather than the embassy.

But in a follow-up by The Washington Post
on April 22, "the Pentagon gained the leeway to inform – rather than
gain the approval of – the U.S. ambassador before conducting military
operations in a foreign country" when deploying these "elite Special
Operations Troops." This development has remained largely under the
radar, with the exception of analysis by Just the Facts, a joint
project of the Center for International Policy, the Latin American
Working Group Education Fund, and the Washington Office on Latin

A New Cold War?

Oct. 2006 President Bush signed a waiver that authorized the U.S.
military to resume certain types of training to a number of militaries
in the region which had been suspended as a result of a bill intended
to punish countries not signing bilateral agreements that would grant
immunity to U.S. citizens from prosecution before the International
Criminal Court.

was forced to act as a result of Venezuela's growing influence in the
region, as well as the "red" threat that China's growing business in
the region presented.

Chinese are standing by and I can't think of anything that is worse
than having those people go over there and get indoctrinated by them.
And I think maybe we should address that because that's a very serious
thing," said Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK), at a March 14, 2008, hearing of
the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY), at the same hearing, said this was "a
serious threat" and called for ending the restrictions on U.S. military
training programs imposed on Latin American nations for refusing to
sign the bilateral immunity agreements. Of course, Latin American
nations should not be subject to sanctions for quite properly rejecting
the immunity agreements; but neither should there be training programs
for their repressive militaries, to teach these militaries repressive

Associated Press reported in Oct. that "China's trade with Latin
America jumped from $10 billion in 2000 to $102.6 billion last year.
[And] In May, a state-owned Chinese company agreed to buy a Peruvian
copper mine for $2.1 billion."

developments should further perpetuate the "Red Scare" making its way
through the Senate. Then there is Russia's military sales and
cooperation with Venezuela. U.S. News and World Report's Alastair Gee
wrote a fear-mongering article on Oct. 14, 2008, in which he stated,
"This is not the first time Russians have sought close links with Latin
America. In 1962, the stationing of Soviet missiles in Cuba nearly
precipitated nuclear war with the United States. The Soviets also
funded regional communist parties and invited students from the region
to study in Soviet universities."

more importantly, it is the region's "march away from the 'Washington
consensus' of democracy and free-market capitalism" that has drummed up
a cold war mentality in Washington. With democratically elected
presidents in the region openly embracing socialism and socialist-style
policies, economic programs in various countries that include
nationalizing industries and "redistributing the wealth", and social
movements ideologically and physically confronting free market
capitalism, it should come as no surprise that anti-globalization
movements have found themselves classified as a national security
threat to the United States. A declassified April 2006 National
Intelligence Estimate entitled "Trends in Global Terrorism:
Implications for the United States," states, "Anti-U.S. and
anti-globalization sentiment is on the rise and fueling other radical
ideologies. This could prompt some leftist, nationalist, or separatist
groups to adopt terrorist methods to attack US interests."

ImageMoving Forward

in Latin America are reason for hope and optimism that "a new, better
and possible world" could be on the horizon. But these very same
reasons are cause for concern.

Washington's imperial stretch on the decline, both militarily and
economically, both history and current conditions suggest it will try
to reassert itself in Latin America – just as it did after Vietnam.

because of the deeply embedded and institutionalized nature of
Washington's imperial machine, it doesn't matter much which party
controls the White House and Congress. To fight these developments, we
need to continue to grow grassroots media projects and support
independent journalists, build long-term solidarity with Latin American
social movements and build social movements in the United States, fight
free trade and do our part to shed light upon the structural violence
threatening Latin America's promising future – which is directly tied
to ours.

Cyril Mychalejko is an editor at www.UpsideDownWorld.org.