Militarising Latin America*
by Noam Chomsky
The United States was founded as an “infant empire,” in George Washington’s words. The conquest of the national territory was a grand imperial venture, much like the vast expansion of the Grand Duchy of Moscow. From the earliest days, control over the hemisphere was a critical goal. Ambitions expanded during World War II, as the US displaced Britain and lesser imperial powers. High-level planners concluded that the US should “hold unquestioned power” in a world system including not only the Western hemisphere, but also the former British Empire and the Far East, and later, as much of Eurasia as possible. A primary goal of NATO was to block moves towards European independence, along Gaullist lines. That became still more clear when the USSR collapsed, and with it the Russian threat that was the formal justification of NATO. NATO was not disbanded, but rather expanded, in violation of promises to Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO would not even fully extend to East Germany, let alone beyond, and that “NATO would be transforming itself into a more political organization.” By now it is virtually an international intervention force under US command, its self-defined jurisdiction reaching to control over energy sources, pipelines, and sea lanes. And Europe is a well-disciplined junior partner.
Throughout, Latin America retained its primacy in global planning. As Washington was considering the overthrow of the Allende government in Chile in 1971, Nixon’s National Security Council observed that if the US cannot control Latin America, it cannot expect “to achieve a successful order elsewhere in the world.” That policy problem has become more severe with recent South American moves towards integration, a prerequisite for independence, and establishment of more varied international ties, while also beginning to address severe internal disorders, most importantly, the traditional rule of a rich Europeanized minority over a sea of misery and suffering.
The problem came to a head a year ago in the poorest country of South America, Bolivia, where for the first time the indigenous majority had entered the political arena and elected a president from its own ranks, Evo Morales. After his victory in a recall referendum in August 2008, with a sharp increase in support beyond his 2005 electoral success, the opposition of the US-backed traditional elites turned violent, leading to assassination of many peasant supporters of the government. In response to the massacre there was a summit meeting of UNASUR, the newly-formed Union of South American Republics. The participants Ð all the countries of South America — declared “their full and firm support for the constitutional government of President Evo Morales, whose mandate was ratified by a big majority.” Morales thanked UNASUR for its support, observing that “For the first time in South America’s history, the countries of our region are deciding how to resolve our problems, without the presence of the United States.”
An event of historic significance
Other developments have intensified the problem for US planners, including the decision of Ecuador’s president Rafael Correa to terminate Washington’s use of the Manta military base, the last one open to the US in South America.
In July 2009, the US and Colombia concluded a secret deal to permit the US to use seven military bases in Colombia. The official purpose is to counter narcotrafficking and terrorism, “but senior Colombian military and civilian officials familiar with negotiations told The Associated Press that the idea is to make Colombia a regional hub for Pentagon operations,” AP reported. There are reports that the agreement provides Colombia with privileged access to US military supplies. Colombia had already become the leading recipient of US military aid (apart from Israel-Egypt, a separate category). Colombia has had by far the worst human rights record in the hemisphere since the Central American wars of the 1980s wound down. The correlation between US aid and human rights violations has long been noted by scholarship.
AP also cited an April 1999 document of the U.S. Air Mobility Command, which proposes that the Palanquero base in Colombia could become a “cooperative security location” (CSL) from which “mobility operations could be executed.” The report noted that from Palanquero, “Nearly half the continent can be covered by a C-17 (military transport) without refueling.” This could form part of “a global en route strategy,” which “helps achieve the regional engagement strategy and assists with the mobility routing to Africa.” For the present, “the strategy to place a CSL at Palanquero should be sufficient for air mobility reach on the South American continent,” the document concludes, but it goes on to explore options for extending the routing to Africa with additional bases.
On August 28, UNASUR met in Bariloche (Argentina) to consider the military bases. After intense internal debate, the final declaration stressed that South America must be kept as “a land of peace,” and that foreign military forces must not threaten the sovereignty or integrity of any nation of the region. It instructed the South American Defense Council to investigate the document of the Air Mobility Command. Problems of implementation were left to subsequent meetings.
The official purpose of the bases did not escape criticism. President Morales was particularly bitter, with his background in a coca growers union. He said he witnessed U.S. soldiers accompanying Bolivian troops who fired at his union members. “So now we’re narcoterrorists,” he continued. “When they couldn’t call us communists anymore, they called us subversives, and then traffickers, and since the September 11 attacks, terrorists.” He warned that “the history of Latin America repeats itself.”
Morales observed that the ultimate responsibility for Latin America’s violence lies with U.S. consumers of illegal drugs: “If UNASUR sent troops to the United States to control consumption, would they accept it? Impossible!”
Morales’s rhetorical question can be extended. Suppose that UNASUR, or China, or many others claimed the right to establish military bases in Mexico to implement their programs to eradicate tobacco in the US, by aerial fumigation in North Carolina and Kentucky, interdiction by sea and air forces, and dispatch of inspectors to the US to ensure it was eradicating this poison — which is far more lethal than cocaine or heroin, incomparably more than cannabis. The toll of tobacco use, including “passive smokers” who are seriously affected though they do not use tobacco themselves, is truly fearsome, overwhelming the lethal effects of other dangerous substances.
The idea that outsiders should interfere with the production and distribution of these lethal substances is plainly unthinkable. The fact that the US justification for its drug programs abroad is accepted as plausible, even regarded as worthy of discussion, is yet another illustration of the depth of the imperial mentality.
Even if we adopt the imperial premises, it is hard to take seriously the announced goals of the “drug war,” which persists despite extensive evidence that other measures — prevention and treatment — are far more cost-effective, and despite the persistent failure of the resort to criminalization at home and violence and chemical warfare abroad.
Last February, the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy issued its analysis of the US “war on drugs” in past decades. The Commission, led by former Latin American presidents Fernando Cardoso (Brazil), Ernesto Zedillo (Mexico), and César Gavíria (Colombia), concluded that the drug war had been a complete failure and urged a drastic change of policy, away from forceful measures at home and abroad and towards much less costly and more effective measures. Their report had no detectable impact, just as earlier studies and the historical record have had none. That again reinforces the natural conclusion that the “drug war” — like the “war on crime” and “the war on terror” — is pursued for reasons other than the announced goals, which are revealed by the consequences.
US military bases in Colombia
Establishing US military bases in Colombia is only one part of a much broader effort to restore Washington’s capacity for military intervention. There has been a sharp increase in US military aid and training of Latin American officers, focusing on light infantry tactics to combat “radical populism” — a concept that sends shivers up the spine in the Latin American context. Military training is being shifted from the State Department to the Pentagon, eliminating human rights and democracy conditionalities under congressional supervision, which has always been weak, but was at least a deterrent to some of the worst abuses. The US Fourth Fleet, disbanded in 1950, was reactivated in 2008, shortly after Colombia’s invasion of Ecuador, with responsibility for the Caribbean, Central and South America, and the surrounding waters. The official announcement defines its “various operations” to “include counter-illicit trafficking, Theater Security Cooperation, military-to-military interaction and bilateral and multinational training.”
Militarization of South America is a component of much broader global programs, as the “global en route strategy” indicates. In Iraq, there is virtually no information about the fate of the huge US military bases, so they are presumably being maintained for force projection. The immense city-with-in-a-city embassy in Baghdad not only remains but its cost is to rise to $1.8 billion a year, from an estimated $1.5 billion this year. The Obama administration is also constructing megaembassies that are completely without precedent in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The US and UK are demanding that the US military base in Diego Garcia, used heavily in recent US wars after Britain expelled the inhabitants, be exempted from the planned African nuclear-free-weapons zone, just as U.S.bases are exempted from similar efforts in the Pacific to reduce the nuclear threat. Not even on the agenda, of course, is a NFWZ in the Middle East, which would mitigate, perhaps end, the alleged Iranian threat. The enormous global support for this move, including a large majority of Americans, is as usual irrelevant.
In short, moves towards “a world of peace” do not fall within the “change you can believe in,” to borrow Obama’s campaign slogan.
* First published in Correo del Orinoco, in Venezuela, English Edition, March 12