Muscling Latin America
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.
Yet because Latin America presents no real threat, there is no incentive to confront entrenched interests that oppose a modernization of hemispheric relations. "Obama," said a top-level Argentine diplomat despairingly, "has decided that Latin America isn't worth it. He gave it to the right."
The White House could have worked with the Organization of American States to restore democracy in Honduras. Instead, after months of mixed signals, Obama capitulated to Senate Republicans and endorsed a murderous regime. Washington could try to advance a new hemispheric economic policy, balancing Latin American calls for equity and development with corporate profits. But the Democratic Party remains Wall Street's party, and shortly after taking office Obama abandoned his pledge to renegotiate NAFTA. With Washington's blessing the IMF continues to push Latin American countries to liberalize their economies. In December Arturo Valenzuela, Obama's assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, caused a scandal in Argentina when he urged the country to return to the investment climate of 1996--which would be something like Buenos Aires calling on the United States to reinflate the recent Greenspan bubble.
The Obama administration could reconsider Plan Colombia and the Pentagon's base agreement. But that would mean rethinking a longer, multi-decade, bipartisan, trillion-dollars-and-counting "war on drugs," and Obama has other wars to extricate himself from--or not, as the case may be.
Unable or unwilling to make concessions on these and other issues important to Latin America--normalizing relations with Cuba, for instance, or advancing immigration reform--the White House is adopting an increasingly antagonistic posture. Hillary Clinton, following a visit to Brazil by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, warned Latin Americans to "think twice" about "the consequences" of engagement with Iran. Bolivia denounced the comments as a threat, Brazil canceled a scheduled meeting between its foreign minister and Valenzuela, and even Argentina, no friend of Iran, grew irritated. As the Argentine diplomat quoted above told me, "The Obama administration would never talk to European countries like that."
Insiders report that high-level State Department officials are furious at Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who in recent months has been as steadfast as Venezuela's Hugo Chávez in opposing Washington's ongoing militarism, particularly the White House's attempt to legitimize the Honduran coup. Having successfully thwarted a similar destabilization campaign against Bolivian president Evo Morales in 2008, Brazil, according to Lula's top foreign-policy adviser, Marco Aurélio Garcia, is worried that Obama's Honduras policy is "introducing the 'theory of the preventive coup' in Latin America"--by which Garcia means an extension of Bush's preventive war doctrine.
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.