Governments are using the war on terrorism to quelch opposition


Whatever the motives, the
fight against terrorism since September 11 has truly been global. In Nepal,
Chechnya, Egypt, India, Israel, and so many other nations, the rhetoric
mimicking U.S. anti-terrorist pledges has sprung up not only in response to
George W. Bush’s “with us or against us” attitude, but also as a shift in
official language on existing internal conflicts. Where many countries recently
hid repressive or counterinsurgent activities from the international spotlight,
the acquisition of the anti-terrorist lingo has seemingly lent authenticity and
even moral authority to politics based on righteous bullying in the name of

Latin American
countries have not been the exception to this trend in any sense. Interesting in
the Latin American response to September 11 is the double opportunism that many
governments have been practicing, both wooing the United States with
anti-terrorism compliance and taking advantage of the situation to quelch
national opposition and strengthen personal power. This comes in addition to a
further increase in arms delivery to a region that has been seeing, long before
September 11, a remilitarization unprecedented in the hemisphere since the end
of the Cold War.     

The attacks on
the United States that instantaneously altered world politics came at an apt
time for Latin America. Economic and political crises were looming in many
countries and had erupted into disaster in others. Months before the overthrow
of President De la Rua, Argentines had been taking to the streets on a regular
basis due to the trickling availability of food and finances. In Bolivia,
popular demonstrations against privatization and other economic measures were
marred by state violence. Mexico was experiencing an economic slowdown that
helped bring President Vincente Fox’s popularity ratings down from the high 80s
to the mid 40s. Coffee prices had hit rock bottom, and the large populations of
poor and often migrant laborers dependent on coffee for survival were left
stranded and begging for food. The violence in Colombia continued, intensifying
within the country and spreading beyond its borders to Peru and Ecuador as the
United States continued delivering installments in its $1.3 billion Plan
Colombia military package. A Mexican professor and former U.S. State Department
official said of the situation, “Any one of these countries are powder kegs that
can explode at any moment.”    

Indeed, the
prevailing attitude within Latin American diplomatic circles prior to September
11 was one of worry over looming crises and frustration at U.S. failure to pay
attention to those countries in need. Argentina seemed to be the clearest case:
the country was in economic ruins with serious political instability, but the
dominant attitude from financial institutions to the north was one of weathering
out the storm. It should come as no surprise, then, that the immediate response
from officials across Latin America to the September 11 attacks was visible
support for U.S. anti-terrorist measures as countries jumped on the opportunity
to win favor and attention from the North. Approximately 6 million people of
Arab descent live in Latin America, and they immediately began to feel the heat
from Latin American countries as well as the U.S. The “Triple Frontier” border
area of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay, home to one of the largest Arab
concentrations in Latin America, has “come to resemble Casablanca during World
War II, with local intelligence and law-enforcement agencies being joined by a
number of U.S. counterparts, as well as Israel’s Mossad and the German and
Spanish secret services.”

Brazil, and Paraguay have also lent forces to the round-up, and dozens of
Lebanese, Jordanian and Syrian citizens were quickly arrested on immigration
charges during door-to-door searches and highway checkpoints. Latin American
officials adopted anti-terrorist language and allowed a U.S. presence to harass
its Arab communities in hopes of winning favorable attention in their economic
and political hardships. This has not been the sole response of Latin American
countries, however, as many have taken advantage of the anti-terrorist hysteria
in the North to reverse measures that have prevented them from dealing harshly
with domestic opposition. The majority of countries in Latin America have a long
history of military involvement in politics and of violent repression of the
poor majority.

Many of the
countries were also blatantly dominated by military forces less than 15 years
ago, and while international pressure upholds a façade of commitment to civilian
democracy, military strongmen from the recent past often retain powerful
positions and continue to wield significant influence. Countries throughout the
hemisphere have thus been quick to establish military-led “anti-terrorism”
commissions to guard the nation against terrorist threats. The United States
certainly approves of this move, fearing that al-Qaeda and other organizations
may decide to use Latin American countries “as a route to place [their] assets
in the United States.” Military elements in countries with newly established
commissions are overjoyed with the opportunity to again step up intelligence,
and possibly counterinsurgent, activities within their borders. Guatemala
provides a prime example of the situation surrounding Latin American
anti-terrorism commissions. The Central American nation experienced Latin
America’s most brutal armed conflict over a 36-year period, which left around
200,000 people dead or “disappeared” and over 1 million displaced out of a total
population of around 8 million. Since the return to civilian electoral democracy
in 1985 and the signing of final peace accords in 1996, human rights abuses have
continued, and even increased in some areas.

The military,
while remaining prominent in national politics, has been limited in its role of
internal security due to measures outlined in the peace agreements. In recent
years, however, the military has managed to increase its national role and
presence, and the establishment of an anti-terrorism commission is another large
step towards remilitarization. The commission, set up “to protect the national
territory in the eventuality of a terrorist attack,” is headed by former general
Miguel Angel Calderón, a prominent general who specialized in “the tactics of
counterinsurgency” during the worst era of Guatemalan genocide. In addition to
being frightening for the country’s future human rights record, the appointment
of Calderón to head the commission directly violates Guatemala’s peace accords,
which explicitly call for civilian control of public security. Calderón’s
pro-military ideology and belief in strong-handed tactics are well known, and
there is little doubt that he will carry his lifelong interest of forceful
eradication of opposition to his new post. So we see the double opportunism that
Latin American leaders have practiced in recent months, using anti-terrorist
hysteria to attract U.S. attention to the ailing region as well as jumping on a
chance to strengthen military power that has been restrained by international
pressure in recent years. But it has not just been the Latin American countries
that have been using the situation to their benefit.

The United States
has also taken advantage of the times to further increase military aid to the
region, a policy that has been incrementally and successfully followed since
former president Bill Clinton’s second term in office. The scope of this article
does not allow for a full explanation of U.S. motives for militarization in
Latin America, but suffice it to say that a history of aggressive domination of
resources as well as a political and economic system that rests heavily on a
powerful military-industrial complex has led to a resurgence of promotion of
military activity under the guise of a war on drugs. Terrorism, as we shall see,
has allowed for the continued arming of various countries and a shift in policy
towards secrecy in favor of “security.” Colombia and its neighbors demonstrate
an excellent example of this increased military aid. Colombia—rich in oil,
bordering the Amazon fresh water supply, key in-route to South America, and
under constant threat from (formerly) Marxist guerrillas—has been the focus of
U.S. attention in Latin America since the 1999 announcement of Plan Colombia.
The Plan produced $1.3 billion in military aid for Colombia and an increased
surveillance and training role for U.S. officials on the ground. Since military
activities have been stepped up in Colombia, the conflict has begun to spread
beyond Colombia’s borders, and Plan Colombia is now known as the Andean

Some analysts
believe that the focus on the war on terrorism will allow less attention to be
lent to this initiative. Still, this year’s aid package to countries surrounding
Colombia will provide a 220 percent increase over 2000-2001 averages in military
aid to Panama, a 144 percent increase for Venezuela, 345 percent for Brazil, and
between 20 percent and 82 percent increases for Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru.
Security and intelligence-gathering will continue to increase this coming year,
whether in the name of the war on drugs, the war on terrorism, or just
old-fashioned military spending. In addition to military spending, the war on
terrorism has allowed the United States to increase secrecy surrounding its role
in Latin American security and to reverse human rights conditions on military
aid. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has made clear the Bush
administration’s new level of intolerance for information leaks, which for Latin
America would probably translate to a refusal to release details surrounding CIA
and military activities in the mounting conflicts of the Andean region. After
decades of U.S. support for human rights violators in defense of larger policy
goals, guidelines established in 1996 prohibited the funding of individuals or
organizations believed to be involved in human rights violations. This “cuts
back on your ability to recruit spies inside terrorist organizations if you
can’t recruit people with some kind of violent past,” complains former CIA
director James Woolsey. A probable scenario is that these recent guidelines will
be struck for what the Administration sees as extraordinary circumstances
requiring all possible avenues to be left open for intelligence-gathering. While
this may (or may not) be a valid argument for intelligence within al-Qaeda, the
blanket lifting of such restrictions will only mean further funding of
repressive government and paramilitary forces in Colombia and other Latin
American countries.

While military
elements in many societies jump at the chance to increase their activities in
the name of the prevention of terrorism, leaders and officials are embracing any
anti-terrorism moves deemed necessary by the United States in hopes of winning
attention for national economic crises. These crises remain and worsen, however,
as the only significant assistance that Latin America has seen in the past few
months has been in the form of arms deliveries and pledges to further increase
and cloak U.S. military activities in the region. We are quickly heading into
yet another dark period in Latin American history with the full blessing of the
United States government and the overjoyed endorsement of the region’s powerful
factions.                                Z