Varieties of imperial aggression


When the UN received the recent Mehlis report on the murder of former Lebanese President Rafik Hariri, one suggested tribunal for a possible prosecution was the International Criminal Court. Rejecting such a proposal, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rica remarked “Everyone knows the United States’ view of the international criminal court….That view is not going to change.” Rice is on sure ground when she notes most people know why the United States rejects the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. She and her colleagues would soon be in the dock if a US government ever recognised the competence of such a tribunal

Recently, two foreign courts issued warrants for the arrest of US government personnel protected, in common with terrorists like Luis Posada Carriles, by the US authorities. In September this year, Italian judges in Milan ordered the arrest on kidnapping charges of three CIA agents including Betnie Medero-Navedo, lately First Secretary at the US embassy in Mexico.(2) In October, Spanish judges issued arrest warrants for three US soldiers – Sergeant Thomas Gibson, Captain Philip Wolford and Lieutenant Colonel Philip De Camp – accused of the murder of Spanish cameraman Jose Couso in Baghdad during the invasion of Iraq in 2003.(3)

The US government’s persistent refusal to recognise inconvenient international law is the fundamental basis for every aspect of United States foreign policy. In practice, the European Union and other US allies like Canada and Japan consistently support US government delinquency by regularly failing to challenge effectively US government breaches of customary international law. As often as not, as in Haiti and now Syria, European Union officials collaborate actively in US power plays. Translated to the trade arena, a good example of the US-EU consensus on justice in international trade was the sabotage of the world trade talks at Cancun in 2003. Then US and EU trade representatives Robert Zoellick and Pascal Lamy threw out less developed countries’ proposals for a fairer global commercial framework.

That outcome allowed both the United States and the European Union to continue to pursue bilateral trade deals allowing them to pick off weaker countries piecemeal instead of having to deal with a single coherent bloc of countries – like the G-20 group including giants like China, India, Indonesia, Nigeria and Brazil. While the EU has tended to focus its bilateral trade deals, euphemistically called Economic Partnership Agreements, in its former colonies in Africa, the US has put most effort into imposing Free Trade Agreements on its traditional victims in Latin America and the Caribbean. The determined campaign by the US government to wind up bilateral “free trade” agreements with Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru is pointedly juxtaposed with its diffident contributions to the crisis-ridden Doha round of world trade talks, scheduled for another summit in Hong Kong in December this year.

Supranational tribunals and sovereignty

One crucial element common to all these bilateral trade talks is the ruthless determination of rich countries to destroy poorer countries’ national sovereignty.  A World Trade Organization structure at least allows stronger countries like Brazil to fight and win on issues like sugar (against the EU) and cotton (against the US). But in bilateral agreements, wealthier countries seek to remove even disputes that rightly belong in the arena of national jurisdiction to supra-national tribunals of one kind or another. An obvious consequence of that will be even more frequent pretexts for the deployment of economic sanctions and threats of military force against weaker countries that challenge the political and economic status quo.

Costa Rica has recently suffered two examples of the kind of conflict that will arise more and more frequently as a result of bilateral trade deals like the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). Costa Rica currently faces two claims totalling US$480 million from Canadian businesses. One of the claims asserts Costa Rica’s obligations under a free trade deal between Costa Rica and Canada. The other claim is similarly argued but also refers explicitly to CAFTA even though that treaty has yet to be approved by the Costa Rican legislature. (4)

Prioritising “investment”

Another essential feature of the majority of the US trade treaties is that they are not primarily trade deals but more properly investment deals. The new treaties re-write already existing trade relationships to include extra extensive benefits for corporate investors allowing them to receive the same or similar treatment as local domestic businesses. In effect, the new deals add legally binding provisions to benefit corporate investors across the board. Supranational tribunals like the World Bank associated International Tribunal for the Settlement of Investment Disputes will assume jurisdiction in claims like those brought against Costa Rica. Underlying this move to quit national states of jurisdiction in trade matters within their borders is the deeper intent to destroy forever central government’s function of redistributing wealth, leaving equitable and sustainable development irreparably out of reach.

For ordinary people in the US these treaties represent yet more opportunities to wave goodbye to employment while big corporations outsource production overseas so as to sell themselves cheap imports further down the line. They represent decapitalization of the US economy while adding virtually nil investment to the less developed country where the outsourced activity takes place. Instead of being invested in health, education, infrastructure or environmental protection in the country concerned, the inflated profits end up in tax paradises for the benefit of a small group of shareholders and overpaid executives. Another point worth noting, although perhaps only stating the obvious, is that the benefits of the corporate welfare these treaties dispense so generously apply to any corporation with some US component. By definition multinational corporations like Spain’s Repsol, the Britain’s BP-Amoco, Dutch-British Shell and other similar huge corporations all have US ties of one kind or another.

For the poor majority in the target victim countries, the experience of Mexico reveals what lies in store. Insecure maquila employment exploiting a desperate, pauperised workforce, a dramatic decline in domestic agriculture, increased environmental degradation, increased unemployment and migration, worsening social indicators. In the first semester of this year alone capital flight out of Mexico amounted to over US$10 billion.(5) Chalking up another unwelcome record to NAFTA, Mexicans ask themselves whatever happened to all those claims about the investment benefits of “free trade”.  After a decade of the North American Free Trade Agreement, Mexico is level pegging with Cuba in the United Nations Human Development index – while Cuba has suffered 40 years of illegal US economic blockade. The case of the Central American countries is even worse. Now all of them except Costa Rica have signed up for even more of the same “free market” misery that denies their peoples fundamental social and economic rights.

Seamless overlays

Like CAFTA and other similar deals elsewhere, the Andean trade-in-your-sovereignty treaties are inextricably tied in with other economic policy strands. Infrastructure investment, lending by international financial institutions, planning for regional energy projects, food sovereignty, telecommunications, intellectual property – all are interlinked and all are skewed against the interests of the poor majority. In very concrete ways these policy areas are exploited by the United States and its local allies to try and create economic and legal precedents that circumvent the legitimate aspirations of the region’s excluded majority.

In addition to the economic policy components, the complex pattern of US and European intervention in the area also weaves in the “the war on drugs” motif. It has been clear for years that the fake “war on drugs” is yet another front for military intervention, yet another pretext for promoting state terror against populations resistant to imperialist designs on the region’s resources. The US government has persistently worked covertly with narcotics-dealing paramilitaries in Colombia in the country’s civil war. Now they are using them to provoke incidents aimed at destabilizing Venezuela.

The Andean trade treaties need to be seen in that integral context – efforts by energy, agri-business and other multinationals to maximize profits, relentless intervention on their behalf by international financial institutions, US and allied determination to ensure control of Latin American raw materials, energy and environmental resources, the destruction of national sovereignty. Corporations invest the minimum necessary to maximise profits for their shareholders and bonuses for their management. Financed by international development banks, infrastructure is geared to their interests, privatizations usurp national patrimonies, costs of environmental damage from mining and energy activities get paid by local taxpayers.(6) Corporate investors and their local cronies laugh all the way to their off-shore tax havens.

They benefit while the poor pick up the tab in the form of increased prices and taxes, hence the determined regional popular resistance to all these anti-democratic, anti-humanitarian forces. Meanwhile, feeble central governments face powerful foreign corporations that regularly fail to meet even notional contractual obligations, often with blatant support from local US embassies and the State Department. The angry dispute in Ecuador over Occidental Petroleum’s breaches of contract there is a fine example. By contrast, Venezuela has been able to force multinational energy giants to agree to cough up hundreds of millions of dollars in back taxes.

The current unrest in Ecuador and Bolivia, growing opposition in Peru and the civil war and widespread popular mobilisation in Colombia all express majority rejection of an economic model imposed for the benefit of foreign corporations and their local collaborators. That is why even before the debacle at the 2003 trade summit in Cancun, US trade policy was driving hard to try and stitch up these bilateral, legally enforceable trade treaties as fast as possible. Most probably, the US government has little interest in making the WTO work if it can force through far more advantageous legally binding terms country by country, often by threatening not to renew earlier, soon-to-expire trade deals.

The regional balance of forces

In Peru, President Toledo’s popularity is at rock bottom, but he still insists on signing up his country to the proposed trade deal with the US despite widespread popular opposition. US negotiating practice with the Andean countries is a repeat of the CAFTA rigmarole. Strike a deal behind closed doors first with weak governments ready to sell out their own people. Present it then as a fait accompli to Congress in Washington and to participant countries’ national legislatures with a barrage of cynical propaganda, bribes and menaces. Threaten overt sanctions like withdrawal of aid and possible trade penalties if the national legislatures fail to ratify. Invoke possible problems with multilateral lenders like the World Bank and the IMF. The United States government and its allies call this gangsterism “diplomacy”.

Against all the ruthless imperial manoeuvres, the contrary pressure of widespread resistance against quasi-colonial governments loyal to the US rather than to their own peoples continues unabated. But in Colombia, as in Peru, parliamentary opposition to the trade-in-your-sovereignty deal is unlikely to be sufficient to prevent it going through. By contrast, in Bolivia popular opposition is such that while negotiations may tentatively go ahead, it seems inconceivable that a deal might be presented in the near future, let alone ratified. In any case, any outcome will have to wait until after national elections in December this year. The Bush regime has other ways of dealing with the Bolivian majority’s reluctance to sign away their country’s wealth.

The underlying political instability in the Andes is also very apparent in Ecuador where caretaker President Palacios was recently forced to confirm under insistent popular pressure that Ecuador will hold a constituent assembly this year to revise the country’s constitution. The entrenched traditional political parties are resisting a constituent assembly and have so far been supported by the country’s Supreme Electoral Council.(7) But the balance of forces is against them with the popular slogan “Que se vayan todos!” (“All of them, out!”) still echoing strongly from the ouster of former President Gutierrez in March.

The twelfth and supposedly penultimate round of the negotiations with Colombia, Ecuador and Peru took place in Cartagena in Colombia in September. Apart from the innumerable popular demonstrations throughout the region against the proposed trade deals, many parliamentarians in the region also reject it as a damaging assault on the sovereign interests of their countries and the fundamental rights of the region’s impoverished majority. In September, fifty three parliamentary representatives from all four Andean countries signed a clear and concise denunciation of the negative effects the Free Trade Agreement will have on their countries.(8) In sum, despite all the resistance, Peru and Colombia will very probably manage to railroad the deal through all it stages, while Ecuador and Bolivia may well not.

The United States government is pressing for agreement with Colombia, Ecuador and Peru to be signed by the end of November. It used this harrying “no time!…no time!” tactic very effectively during the CAFTA negotiations. Likewise, on intractable issues like intellectual property rights the US switched negotiators in Cartagena, another trick from the CAFTA “How-to-railroad-trade-deals” manual. So US negotiators force renegotiation against the clock of matters the target country negotiating teams had thought sewn up. The bad faith of the United States government could not be clearer.

The Bolivia option – same as the Venezuela option

While Bolivia tries to work out its internal political problems the US is unlikely to get its way on a free trade deal with that country. Companies like Shell, teamed with Enron, BP-Amoco, joined up with Argentina’s Panamerican Energy, France’s Total, Spain’s Repsol, Brazil’s Petrobras, British Gas are all working hard with their respective governments and the international financial institutions to stymie democracy in Bolivia. To recoup gains won by the popular uprisings of recent years that affect their profits, they are slyly promoting the dismemberment of Bolivia as a unitary state. With the near certainty that the Bolivian people will reject a trade deal with the United States on the usual servile terms, some kind of direct intervention in the short term is extremely likely.

In the next few months there will probably be more and more talk of Bolivia “the failed state”. Progressive coca-growers’ leader and presidential front-runner Evo Morales has been demonised in the same way as Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez. Expect the formation of an interventionist US-led “coalition”, probably including Chile and Peru. A futile, anaemic intervention by the Organization of American States is also one of the standard props for the modern kind of coup. Government leaders in Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay will probably cough politely and fold their arms as the intervention unfolds. They all have their eyes on Bolivia’s gas for their own energy needs. European leaders, as usual, will shake their “diplomatic” heads and possibly wring their “transparent” hands, sign language meaning “Carry on, just so long as we get our share…”

The US now has a military cooperation agreement with Paraguay giving its troops total immunity in that country right next door to Bolivia’s resource rich Santa Cruz and Tarija provinces. The reactionary Santa Cruz oligarchy, unable to dominate Bolivia’s national politics, is threatening secession. The current White House Cosa Nostra is probably unable to make their gangster diplomacy work fast enough to secure the interests of their corporate backers in the region before time runs out on their rotten, failed regime. They need to cut short attempts led by Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez to achieve a Latin American integration that prioritises the needs of the impoverished majority. With gas prices having leapt at close on double the percentage rise in oil prices, Bolivia and Venezuela may be as much in the firing line as more obvious imperial targets like Syria and Iran.

toni solo is an activist based in Central America. Contact via www.tonisolo.net

1. “Rogue Syrians must be held to account, says US” Julian Borger Brian Whitaker, Guardian October 22 2005.
2. “La justicia italiana emite una orden de arresto por secuestro contra una funcionaria de la embajada de EEUU en México” Crónica, Rebelion, 04-10-2005
3. “Ordenan la captura de estadounidenses asesinos de camarógrafo español en Irak” Argenpress 19/10/2005)
4. “Demandan a Costa Rica por más de U$S 480 millones” María Flórez-Estrada (SEMANARIO UNIVERSIDAD) Argenpress 18/09/2005)
5. “Los mexicanos sacan del país 10.000 millones de dólares de enero a junio” INFODEMEX, Argenpress 20/09/2005
6. “Un gran negocio sin beneficio para los pueblos, Gasoducto sudamerican a la medida de las transnacionales” Alejandro Acosta, Rebelión 20-10-05
7. “Presidente ecuatoriano asegura que va la Asamblea Constituyente.” Agencia Bolivariana de Noticias 22/10/05
8. ‘TLC empeorará pobreza y subdesarrollo’, advierten 53 parlamentarios andinos Argenpress, 23-09-2005

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