Muscling Latin America | The Nation


Muscling Latin America

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About the Author

Greg Grandin
Greg Grandin
Greg Grandin is the author of Empire's Workshop, Fordlandia, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in history and the...

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In September Ecuador's president, Rafael Correa, delivered on an electoral promise and refused to renew Washington's decade-old, rent-free lease on an air base outside the Pacific coast town of Manta, which for the past ten years has served as the Pentagon's main South American outpost. The eviction was a serious effort to fulfill the call of Ecuador's new Constitution to promote "universal disarmament" and oppose the "imposition" of military bases of "some states in the territory of others." It was also one of the most important victories for the global demilitarization movement, loosely organized around the International Network for the Abolition of Foreign Military Bases, since protests forced the US Navy to withdraw from Vieques, Puerto Rico, in 2003. Correa, though, couldn't resist an easy joke. "We'll renew the lease," he quipped, "if the US lets us set up a base in Miami."

Funny. Then Washington answered with a show of force: take away one, we'll grab seven. In late October the United States and Colombia signed an agreement granting the Pentagon use of seven military bases, along with an unlimited number of as yet unspecified "facilities and locations." They add to Washington's already considerable military presence in Colombia, as well as in Central America and the Caribbean.

Responding to criticism from South America on the Colombian deal, the White House insists it merely formalizes existing military cooperation between the two countries under Plan Colombia and will not increase the offensive capabilities of the US Southern Command (Southcom). The Pentagon says otherwise, writing in its 2009 budget request that it needed funds to upgrade one of the bases to conduct "full spectrum operations throughout South America" to counter, among other threats, "anti-U.S. governments" and to "expand expeditionary warfare capability." That ominous language, since scrubbed from the budget document, might be a case of hyping the threat to justify spending during austere times. But the Obama administration's decision to go forward with the bases does accelerate a dangerous trend in US hemispheric policy.

In recent years, Washington has experienced a fast erosion of its influence in South America, driven by the rise of Brazil, the region's left turn, the growing influence of China and Venezuela's use of oil revenue to promote a multipolar diplomacy. Broad social movements have challenged efforts by US- and Canadian-based companies to expand extractive industries like mining, biofuels, petroleum and logging. Last year in Peru, massive indigenous protests forced the repeal of laws aimed at opening large swaths of the Amazon to foreign timber, mining and oil corporations, and throughout the region similar activism continues to place Latin America in the vanguard of the anti-corporate and anti-militarist global democracy movement.

Such challenges to US authority have led the Council on Foreign Relations to pronounce the Monroe Doctrine "obsolete." But that doctrine, which for nearly two centuries has been used to justify intervention from Patagonia to the Rio Grande, has not expired so much as slimmed down, with Barack Obama's administration disappointing potential regional allies by continuing to promote a volatile mix of militarism and free-trade orthodoxy in a corridor running from Mexico to Colombia.

The anchor of this condensed Monroe Doctrine is Plan Colombia. Heading into the eleventh year of what was planned to phase out after five, Washington's multibillion-dollar military aid package has failed to stem the flow of illegal narcotics into the United States. More Andean coca was synthesized into cocaine in 2008 than in 1998, and the drug's retail price is significantly lower today, adjusted for inflation, than it was a decade ago.

But Plan Colombia is not really about drugs; it is the Latin American edition of GCOIN, or Global Counterinsurgency, the current term used by strategists to downplay the religious and ideological associations of George W. Bush's bungled "global war on terror" and focus on a more modest program of extending state rule over "lawless" or "ungoverned spaces," in GCOIN parlance.

Starting around 2006, with the occupation of Iraq going badly, Plan Colombia became the counterinsurgent marquee, celebrated by strategists as a successful application of the "clear, hold and build" sequence favored by theorists like Gen. David Petraeus. Its lessons have been incorporated into the curriculums of many US military colleges and cited by the Joint Chiefs of Staff as a model for Afghanistan. Not only did the Colombian military, with support from Washington, weaken the Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC), Latin America's oldest and strongest insurgency, but according to the Council on Foreign Relations, it secured a state presence in "many regions previously controlled by illegal armed groups, reestablishing elected governments, building and rebuilding public infrastructure, and affirming the rule of law." Plan Colombia, in other words, offered not just a road map to success but success itself. "Colombia is what Iraq should eventually look like," wrote Atlantic contributor Robert Kaplan, "in our best dreams."

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