Storm signs are up over Latin America as new tensions play out against historical memories. The great liberator, Simon Bolivar, said in 1929 that the United States is "destined by Providence to plague America with misery in the name of liberty". Over nearly 200 years of U.S. military and economic intervention in Latin American affairs have taught the leaders, governments and peoples of the hemisphere to be on their guard.
Will the Obama administration change this century's long pattern of arrogant hegemonism? At the start of Obama's administration, some things pointed to a change for the better. In March, Obama broke with the precedent of the Bush administration by pointedly refraining from intervening in the presidential elections in El Salvador. To the protests of the Republicans, he assured Salvadoran voters that if Mauricio Funes, candidate of the left-wing FMLN party won, there would not be reprisals against Salvadoran immigrants living in the United States, as the Bush administration had threatened to impose during the 2005 elections.
At the Summit of the Americas in Port of Spain, Trinidad in April, Obama's comments were of a conciliatory nature that made a generally good impression on the leaders present and on the Latin American public.
But two new situations have developed which have put these originally positive impressions under a cloud.
First, the June 28 military coup d'état in Honduras: Although Obama denounced the coup and his administration has stuck to the position that Manuel Zelaya is the legitimate president of Honduras, the perception in Latin America has been that the U.S. has been slow to impose the sanctions necessary to oust the coup regime from power. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's move to put Costa Rican president Oscar Arias in charge of a mediation effort which has not gone anywhere has raised suspicions that the U.S. policy objectives may indeed be to restore Zelaya, but also to keep him from aligning with the more left-wing states in the area. And everyone in the hemisphere is aware of the historic U.S. military and C.I.A. involvement in all aspects of Honduras public life.
Once the sanctuary of Cuban exile terrorist Luis Posada Carriles, Honduras hosted bases for U.S. support of the brutal "Contras" in the wars during the 1980s to overthrow the left-wing Sandinista government in Nicaragua, and to stop the FMLN guerrillas in El Salvador. Honduran officers involved in the coup were trained at the U.S. Army "School of the Americas" in Fort Benning, Georgia. So when the coup took place, many quickly concluded that is was one of many such events "made in the U.S.A.". Major Latin American leaders such as Cuba's former president Fidel Castro and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, himself nearly the victim of a U.S. supported coup in 2002, are careful not to say that Obama personally ordered up the coup, but nevertheless it is clear that the situation has damaged U.S. prestige.
The second event has created even more worry than has the Honduras coup. On August 14, U.S. and Colombian foreign ministers signed agreements opening up 7 military bases - three air force, two army and two navy - in Colombia for a period of 10 years. From these bases, U.S. personnel will be able to range over most of the continent, and U.S. troops will be immune from prosecution for crimes committed in Colombia. The stated purpose of this arrangement is for the U.S. military to be facilitated in fighting against drug trafficking, terrorism and "illegal armed groups."
These agreements were signed without consultation with either the Colombian Congress or the U.S. Senate, and have provoked indignant responses in both bodies, including a worried letter of inquiry to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from U.S. Senators Christopher Dodd (D-CN), the Chair of Senate Foreign Relations Committee) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT), Chair of the Appropriations Committee on State and Foreign Operations.
U.S. ambassador William Brownfield, interviewed on August 19 by the Colombian newspaper "El Tiempo", provided details that raised the level of worry even higher.
"Will U.S. troops be fighting the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)?" the reporter asked? "Yes" Brownfield replied, "without any doubt". Brownfield promised neighboring states that they will be informed of U.S. troop movements close to their borders with Colombia, but added that respect for borders is conditional: "everything depends on the nature of the operations, on what intelligence or monitoring brings us".
This really rang alarm bells. There have been major efforts for years by all progressive sectors not only in Colombia, but in all of South America and beyond, to find a peaceful solution to the civil war between the Colombian government and the FARC and a smaller group, the ELN.
This war has been going on since before the 1959 Cuban Revolution. Colombian President Alvaro Uribe is seen as an extreme hard liner on the issue, and is accused of sabotaging a number of efforts by international leaders, including presidents Chavez of Venezuela and Sarkozy of France, to negotiate the release of people held by the FARC, risking the hostages' lives in the process. Furthermore, Uribe's regime is almost a pariah in the Latin American community of nations because of its horrible human rights record, which includes the murder, with impunity, of thousands of labor union and peasant leaders and ordinary workers and farmers.
The Uribe government is also involved in many scandals, in one of which Uribe's own brother plus 50 members of his government coalition in the legislature are credibly accused of involvement with drug trafficking. The Uribe government has made threats against its neighbors, especially left-ruled Venezuela and Ecuador, on the basis of apparently concocted claims that they have been helping the FARC. Threats have also been made, on the same basis, against left-of-center politicians in Colombia, especially in the Colombian Communist Party, and in neighboring countries such as Peru.
Left wing governments in Latin America, such as those of Cuba, Venezuela and Ecuador, have themselves been critical of the FARC for its practice of holding hostages for ransom and taxing profits of drug dealers as a source of income, but see the Uribe regime and its allies among drug lords and right wing landowners as being worse, even traitors to Latin America in service of imperialism. Even though President Obama gave assurances that the U.S. would not set up its own bases in Colombia, but only make use of Colombian facilities, worries were not assuaged, because Uribe's regime the focus of just as much mistrust as is the U.S. military, and because of opposition to the idea of U.S. military forces getting involved in internal conflicts in the region.
This led some in Latin America to worry that, far from backing away from the hegemonic, intrusive policies of past administrations; the U.S. may be planning an even more aggressive policy turn. The recreation of the U.S. Fourth Fleet to patrol regional waters added to that impression.
This week, the leaders of UNASUR (Union of South American Nations, encompassing Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Uruguay and Venezuela) met in Bariloche, Argentina, among other things to discuss the U.S.-Colombia military accord. Both radical governments, such as those of Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia, and more moderate left wing governments, such as those of Chile and Brazil, expressed the same worries about the U.S.-Colombia deal. Bolivian President Evo Morales called for a continent wide popular referendum on the issue, but President Uribe declared that the matter is not open to discussion. There will be a special UNASUR security meeting in September, inspired by this crisis.
In the U.S., concern should be raised about the wisdom of committing U.S. forces, albeit on a small scale, to support a hard-line, ultra-right wing government that is one of the worst violators of workers' rights on the planet, especially when such an involvement may bring our country into the middle of a civil war in the jungles of South America. The Obama administration should be urged to explore a completely new policy direction that avoids interventionism and hegemonism and that develops respectful cooperative relations with all our hemispheric neighbors.