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US Expanding Military Presence in Latin America


 I have already written about the broader implications of the ‘Complementation Agreement for Defense and Security Cooperation and Technical Assistance between the Governments of Colombia and the United States’, but the matter is worth looking at in further detail.  Starting with a document from the US Department of the Air Force detailing planned upgrades, along with the reasons for those upgrades, to the Palanquero Air Base in Colombia, a comparison can be made between official US Military objectives and those publicly stated by both US and Colombian officials.  Its objectives will become apparent once we have a clearly established idea of what this agreement is actually aimed at achieving, especially when laid against the ever-present backdrop of history.

Aims and Objectives of US Military in Latin America

As Eva Gollinger has demonstrated in her thoughtful analysis, the US military objectives in Latin America are far-reaching and aimed at a multitude of activities and capabilities other than anti-narcotic operations.  The Department of the Air Force Military Construction Program Budget Estimate for 2010 lays out for all to see its plans to expand and upgrade the airfield at the Palanquero Air Base.

Mission or Major Functions: This Cooperative Security Location (CSL) enhances the U. S. Global Defense Posture (GDP) Strategy which directs development of a comprehensive and integrated presence and basing strategy aligned with the principles of developing relations with partner nations.  Palanquero provides an opportunity for conducting full spectrum operations throughout South America including CN missions.  It also supports mobility missions by providing access to the entire continent, except the Cape Horn region, if fuel is available, and over half of the continent if unrefueled. [i]

The key in the above quote is that “Palanquero provides an opportunity for conducting full spectrum operations throughout South America”.  What exactly those operations could entail is elaborated on later in the document. “Full spectrum operations in a critical sub region of our hemisphere where security and stability is under constant threat from narcotics funded terrorist insurgencies, anti-US governments, endemic poverty and recurring natural disasters”[ii] (my italics).  Later still “Counter narcotics capability” is referred to as being included in the range of the “full spectrum operations”, but only as one of many other operational capabilities and it is certainly not referred to at anytime as being a primary capability.  The text is pretty straightforward on this point; the main goal of expanding and upgrading Palanquero is to expand the US military’s abilities to make war.  This is in line with US military strategy aimed at having a “global reach”, the ability to make its presence felt by air, naval, and ground power anywhere in the world at a rapid response notice.  Application of this strategy in action can be seen in recent and continuing US actions in west Asia.  In its invasion of Iraq in 2003 the US made very effective use of its bases in the region to launch its vaunted “shock and awe” assault.  A similar process of establishing bases on the borders of Russia in former Soviet central Asia has been under way since the end of the Cold War.

Official Explanations

There have been official statements emanating from both governments as to the reason behind the pact and the subsequent expansion of the US military presence in Colombia and Latin America.  “This agreement reaffirms the commitment of both parties in the fight against drug trafficking and terrorism,”[iii] Colombia’s foreign ministry said in the statement released on August 14 on the conclusion of negotiations between the two countries.

For its part, the US State department has offered similar explanations for the DCA (Defense Cooperation Agreement).  This is what the fact sheet released by the State Department on October 30 had to say,

The United States and Colombia enjoy a close and strategic bilateral relationship. The anticipated signing of the DCA (formally titled a Supplemental Agreement for Cooperation and Technical Assistance and Security, or SACTA) will deepen bilateral cooperation on security issues. The DCA will facilitate effective bilateral cooperation on security matters in Colombia, including narcotics production and trafficking, terrorism, illicit smuggling of all types, and humanitarian and natural disasters.  [iv]

The Department of Defense also briefly weighed in on the issue.  As noted in an Associated Press story, “The top U.S. Defense Department official for Latin America, Frank Mora, told The Associated Press in August there would be no "U.S. offensive capacity" such as fighter jets from any of the bases.”[v] While official press releases and briefings allow primarily for anti-narcotic capabilities the technical matters discussed in the Air Force document reveal very different motives.  The glaring inconsistencies between the Air Force document and the official pronouncements have not gone unnoticed.  Aside from the many articles and journalism to be found on the web the issue has been raised by the press.  A journalist in a recent State Department daily press briefing held this exchange with department spokesperson Ian Kelly,

QUESTION: A Pentagon document presented to Congress in May of 2009 reveals that one of the reasons for the military agreement between U.S. and Colombia was to provide a full spectrum operation center – and I’m quoting – where the U.S. security and stability is under threat by anti-U.S. governments. It also talks about the possibility of a full-scale military operation if needed.

This basically contradicts everything U.S. officials and Colombian officials have been saying about this agreement. So how do you respond to this? Who are these anti-U.S. governments in Latin America?

MR. KELLY: Well, I don’t know what document you’re referring to.

QUESTION: It is the military construction program fiscal year 2010 budget estimates —

MR. KELLY: That sounds like —

QUESTION: — by the Air Force.

MR. KELLY: That sounds like something you’d have to refer to the Defense Department about. I know that we have an agreement with Colombia. It doesn’t provide us with any kind of bases in Colombia. It provides us with an opportunity to cooperate with Colombia in some issues related to counternarcotics and interoperability in that regard. But you’re asking me about a Defense Department document that not only haven’t I seen, but the State Department doesn’t have any jurisdiction over.

QUESTION: But it’s basically contradicting what the U.S. State Department has stated.

MR. KELLY: It may or it may not. But I – you really have to address that question to the Defense Department.[vi]

As usual, evasion was the answer to an honest question.  Clearly the answers will not be forthcoming from government officials anytime soon.  What else is new?

History and Recent Events

How are we to reconcile these two opposing positions?  On the one hand we have the anti-narcotic justification and on the other we have the expansion of US military ‘global reach’ and ‘full spectrum operations’ ostensibly directed at “anti-US governments”.  How do we square this circle?  It will help to take a step back and review the history of US intervention in the region.  We will begin with some recent events.  The opening of the seven Colombian bases to the US military is part of a broader campaign to increase the “capacity for military intervention” in the region as Noam Chomsky notes.  This is an important point as the US – Colombia agreement comes on the heals of two other pertinent events.  The first is the closure of the Manta base in Ecuador, formerly the largest US base in South America.  The closure of the base to the US military was a decision taken by Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa after the US declined his offer to extend the agreement, provided that Ecuador could open and operate a base in Florida.  The second is the reactivation of the US Fourth Fleet, responsible for the Caribbean, Central and South America, after being disbanded 58 years ago in 1950.  Along side this must be placed the increasing military aid the US is sending to the region and Colombia in particular.  The total military and police aid that Latin America receives from the US now exceeds that of economic and social aid, a situation that was not duplicated even in the depths of the Cold War.[vii] After years of neglect by the preceding Bush II administration ‘the backyard’ is again taking up a position of importance in the foreign policy of the Obama administration, however much it may be overshadowed by events in Asia.

When the moves to increase military and war-making capacity are contrasted with the history of US involvement in the region a grim picture begins to take shape.  The CIA inspired coups in the region over the years are so numerous they become redundant to recount at this point.  To name a few of the coups Guatemala 1954, Brazil 1964, Chile 1973, the clandestine proxy wars fought against Cuba, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, and the invasion of Panama in 1989. Taken together with support for various dictators over the years and the tendency to look the other way when  gross human rights abuses were being committed, the US has signaled time and again that its interests were to be the consideration of paramount importance in the region.  Never mind what the interests of the peoples that had to actually live under those regimes were, those were secondary considerations at best.  Any countries that dared to challenge the US position, Cuba and Allende’s Chile come to mind, were severely punished and brought into line, or baring that, were ostracized from an ‘international community’ who’s line was dictated from Washington.  Placed against this backdrop is it any wonder that there has been an uproar in Latin America over the US – Colombia agreement and the implications it has for the region?  It is well know which countries are considered ‘anti-US’ in the region: Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Cuba, i.e. the ALBA nations.  The fact that the first three countries have or are in the process of enacting limited although nonetheless impressive reforms in the socio-economic models and governance systems in their respective countries is a challenge in itself.  Any countries in Latin America, and other parts of the world, that deviate from the Washington Consensus and the neo-liberal mantra of privatization is an affront to the ‘Colossus of the North’ and military reprisal is certainly not out of the question.  After all it has happened so many times before.

The War on Drugs

To return to main reason given by government officials for the US – Colombia agreement: raising the capacity to engage in anti-narcotic operations as part of the broader ‘war on drugs’.  This explanation in itself is notable for the insight it gives into the imperial mentality of the US.  As Chomsky points out,

Suppose, for example, that Colombia, or China, or many others claimed the right to establish military bases in Mexico to implement their programs to eradicate tobacco in the U.S., by fumigation in North Carolina and Kentucky, interdiction by sea and air forces, and dispatch of inspectors to the U.S. to ensure it was eradicating this poison… he idea that outsiders should interfere with U.S. production and distribution of these murderous poisons is plainly unthinkable. Nevertheless, the U.S. justification for carrying out such policies in South America is accepted as plausible.[viii]

The ‘war on drugs’ is approaching its 4oth year.  Plan Colombia is entering its 10th.  What are the results on either side?  The drug consumption pandemic in the US, the world’s largest consumer of illicit drugs, is raging just as intensely.  Street prices and supply are more or less the same as the as demand has not dropped.  The policy of ‘just say no’ and incarceration of drug offenders has been a terrible failure that has not addressed the base problems.  Prevention and treatment have consistently been found to reduce drug use as compared to criminalization of drug use and forceful measures including supply side out of country operations, such as coca crop fumigation in Colombia.  Education, changes in cultural attitudes and perceptions, and the access to treatment and rehabilitation centers are all needed if we are to address the base problem of rampant consumption in the US.  On the Colombian end of the equation the ‘war on drugs’ has resulted in the fumigation of large areas of fertile land in what Chomsky rightly calls “chemical warfare”.[ix] The results of Plan Colombia thus far have been an increased militarization of the internal conflicts in the country and the displacement of a huge portion of the population, the second largest internally displaced population in the world behind Sudan.[x] These results spell misery for the general population of Colombia but they translate into hefty profits for the elites of the country and for the US defense contractors.  The displacement of the population also serves to clear the way for multinationals and domestic elites to ‘develop’ large tracts of previously settled and worked land for the much more profitable activities of mining, agribusiness, ranching, and other industrial ends.  Clearly Plan Colombia benefits the Colombian elite while leaving the majority of the people behind.  Many are left grasping at their recently destroyed crops and packing their meager belongings as they forced from their homes.

The ‘war on drugs’ has been a complete and utter failure, both in the US and abroad.  A recent report released by a commission headed by former Latin American heads of state called for a global “paradigm shift” on drug policy and called efforts to date a “failure”.  While this fact has been recognized for some time by a wide range of observers from both policy makers to ardent critics, the ‘war on drugs’ serves a useful function and thus will continue as a tool of social control domestically and as an instrument of imperial control abroad.  Chomsky sums it up nicely,

In short, while abroad the war on drugs is a thin cover for counterinsurgency, at home it functions as a civilized counterpart to Latin America limpieza social cleansing, removing a population that has become superfluous with the dismantling of the domestic productive system in the course of the neo-liberal financialization of the economy. A secondary gain is that like the "war on crime," the "war on drugs" serves to frighten the population into obedience as domestic policies are implemented to benefit extreme wealth at the expense of the large majority, leading to staggering inequality that is breaking historical records, and stagnation of real wages for the majority while benefits decline and working hours increase.[xi]

The exposure of the ‘war on drugs’ as ineffectual in combating drug use and trafficking i significant in revealing the true intentions of the renewed US military involvement in the region.  True, the presence of the US military had never left, but the current trend towards the building of forces and capabilities in the region signals that Washington is no longer ignoring its neighbors to the south.  The official line of providing anti-narcotic assistance to the Colombian military in a partner relationship is but a cover for a wider range of counter-insurgency operations that may or may not manifest in the near future.  The tensions that have been raised by such a military presence of the imperium have threatened the stability of the region and certainly has not made it more secure.  As the Obama administration and others in the US government continue their hostility towards Venezuela and Bolivia they are simultaneously situating their forces around the former country.  The opening up of Colombia as a virtual US military colony in Latin America is just another portentous move in a series of entanglements between the Colossus of the north and its southern neighbors.

After a failed coup, an oligarchic oil industry led strike, and a NED funded opposition defeat in elections, the US and the oligarchy in Venezuela are not yet out of ideas.  Just look at Cuba for a historical example of the resources and time that can be committed to destabilizing a regime that goes against the imperial orders (and incidentally for an example of how long a tiny nation can successfully resist the imperium).  A campaign to systematically destabilize Venezuela through paramilitary infiltration and black ops both based out of Colombia may not be as far-fetched as some seem to think. Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez has spoken of the ‘winds of war’ blowing through the region and has been a vocal critic of the agreement.  He seems to have a point.  History has certainly been known to repeat itself.

 

[i] The Department of the Air Force Military Construction Program Budget Estimate for 2010 http://www.centrodealerta.org/documentos_desclasificados/original_in_english_air_for.pdf

[ii] ibid

[iii] Colombia Ministry of Foreign Affairs http://www.cancilleria.gov.co/wps/portal/espanol/!ut/p/c1/04_SB8K8xLLM9MSSzPy8xBz9CP0os_jQsKAwo2AXYwMLS39zA0-TICNPSy9_I-dgA6B8JJK8v2-QqYFRmI9ZoJersZGBpxkB3X4e-bmp-gW5EeUA8FD4tA!!/dl2/d1/L0lDU0lKSWdrbUEhIS9JRFJBQUlpQ2dBek15cXchL1lCSkoxTkExTkk1MC01RncvN19VVlJWMlNEMzA4OU83MEk0UjJJOUpPMkUxMi9SZWxUTDcxMzMwMDEx/?WCM_PORTLET=PC_7_UVRV2SD3089O70I4R2I9JO2E12_WCM&WCM_GLOBAL_CONTEXT=/wps/wcm/connect/WCM_PRENSA/prensa/boletines/2009/agosto+bo+2009/acuerdo+con+eeuu+contribuira+a+la+derrota+del+terrorismo+para+bien+de+colombia+y+de+los+vecinos

[iv] US State Department Fact Sheet, October 30, 2009 http://www.america.gov/st/texttrans-english/2009/November/20091102160346eaifas0.3026806.html

[v] Frank Bajak, Associated Press http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5h9Nql4Q1FSmfOMpuv7w537eibm8gD9BLMP680

[vi] US State Department http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/dpb/2009/nov/131346.htm

[vii] Chomsky, Coups, UNASUR, and the U.S., Znet http://www.zcomm.org/zmag/viewArticle/22733

[viii] ibid

[ix] ibid

[x] ibid

[xi] ibid 

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