Monthly Archives: June 2010

Coup in the wind

SF Examiner

Dec. 28, 2001

There is the smell of a coup in the air these days. It was like this in Iran just before the 1953 U.S.-backed coup overthrew the Mossedeah government and installed the Shah. It has the feel of 1963 in South Vietnam, before the military takeover switched on the light at the end of the long and terrible Southeast Asian tunnel. It is hauntingly similar to early September 1973, before the coup in Chile ushered in 20 years of blood and darkness.

Early last month, the National Security Agency, the Pentagon and the U.S. State Department held a two-day meeting on U.S. policy toward Venezuela. Similar such meetings took place in 1953, 1963, and 1973, as well as before coups in Guatemala, Brazil and Argentina. It should send a deep chill down the backs of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and the populist coalition that took power in 1998.

The catalyst for the Nov. 5-7 interagency get together was a comment by Chavez in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist assault on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. While Chavez sharply condemned the attack, he questioned the value of bombing Afghanistan, calling it “fighting terrorism with terrorism.” In response, the Bush Administration temporarily withdrew its Ambassador and convened the meeting.

The outcome was a requirement that Venezuela “unequivocally” condemn terrorism, including repudiating anything and anyone the Bush Administration defines as “terrorist.” Since this includes both Cuba (which Venezuela has extensive trade relations with) and rebel groups in neighboring Colombia (which Chavez is sympathetic to), the demand was the equivalent of throwing down the gauntlet.

The spark for the statement might have been Sept. 11, but the dark clouds gathering over Venezuela have much more to do with enduring matters–like oil, land and power–than current issues like terrorism.

The Chavez government is presently trying to change the 60-year old agreement with foreign oil companies that charges them as little as 1 percent in royalties, plus hands out huge tax breaks. There is a lot at stake here. Venezuela has 77 billion barrels of proven reserves, and is the US’s third biggest source of oil. It is also a major cash cow for the likes of Phillips Petroleum and ExxonMobil. If the new law goes through, U.S. and French oil companies will have to pony up a bigger slice of their take.

A larger slice is desperately needed in Venezuela. In spite of the fact that oil generates some $30 billion each year, 80 percent of Venezuelans are, according to government figures, “poor,” and half of those are malnourished. Most rural Venezuelans have no access to land except to work it for someone else, because 2 percent of the population controls 60 percent of the land.

The staggering gap between a tiny slice of “haves” and the sea of “have nots” is little talked about in the American media, which tends to focus on President Chavez’s long-winded speeches and unrest among the urban wealthy and middle class. U.S. newspapers covered the Dec. 10 “strike” by business leaders and a section of the union movement protesting a series of economic laws and land reform proposals, but not the fact that the Chavez government has reduced inflation from 40 percent to 12 percent, generated economic growth of 4 percent, and increased primary school enrollment by one million students.

Rumblings from Washington, strikes by business leaders, and pot-banging demonstrations by middle-class housewives are the fare most Americans get about Venezuela these days. For any balance one has to go to the reporting of local journalists John Marshall and Christian Parenti. In a Dec. 10 article in the Chicago-based bi-weekly, In These Times, the two reporters give “the other side” that the US media always goes on about but rarely practices: The attempts by the Venezuelan government to diversify its economy, turn over idle land to landless peasants, encourage the growth of coops based on the highly successful Hungarian model, increase health spending fourfold, and provide drugs for 30 to 40 percent below cost.

But the alleviation of poverty is not on Washington’s radar screen these days. Instead, U.S. development loans have been frozen, and the State Department’s specialist on Latin America, Peter Romero has accused the Chavez government of supporting terrorism in Colombia, Bolivia and Ecuador. These days that is almost a declaration of war and certainly a green light to any anti-Chavez forces considering a military coup.

U.S. hostility to Venezuela’s efforts to overcome its lack of development has helped add that country to the South American “arc of instability” that runs from Caracas in the north to Buenos Aires in the south, and includes Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru. Failed neoliberal economic policies, coupled with corruption and authoritarism have made the region a power keg, as recent events in Argentina demonstrate. And the Bush Administration’s antidote? : Matches, incendiary statements, and dark armies moving in the night.

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Anatomy of a Coup

SF Examiner

May 3, 2002

What did the Bush Administration know, and when did it know it? How deeply involved were U.S. intelligence and military personnel in the recent Venezuelan coup? Has our Latin American policy been highjacked by the same cabal of anti-Cuban fanatics who got this country in deep trouble during the 1980s? Those are some of the questions the U.S. Congress needs answers to if this nation is to maintain even a shred of credibility in its “ war on terrorism.”

Congress should begin with the White House’s point man on the region, Otto Reich, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs. Reich, a Cuban refugee, met several times with coup leaders, and advised civilian coup leader Pedro Carmona during the abortive uprising. Reich denies having anything to do with the overthrow of President Hugo Chavez and says he knew nothing about the events of April 11 because of an “informational blackout.”

However, according to former National Security Agency (NSA) officers Wayne Madison and Richard M. Bennett, U.S. Army units in Florida, Puerto Rico and Texas “assisted in providing communications intelligence to U.S. military and national command authorities on the progress of the coup.” Is Reich lying?

His track record suggests he is. When Reich was Sec. Of State for Western Hemisphere affairs during the Reagan Administration, he engaged in “prohibited covert propaganda,” according to the General Accounting Office. Reich furnished newspapers with phony stories and opinion pieces supporting the Nicaraguan contras. He also helped spring Orlando Bosch from a Venezuelan prison in 1987. Bosch, another Cuban refugee, was jailed in 1976 for bombing a Cuban airliner and killing 73 people.

The committees also needs to probe Pentagon official Rogelio Pardo-Maurer, another Cuban refugee, who met with military coup leader Gen. Lucas Romero Rincon in the weeks before the coup. Pardo-Mauer and the Pentagon deny there was any discussion of a coup.

But Madsen and Bennett charge that CIA and civilians contracted by the U.S. military at Marandua airfield in Eastern Columbia “stood by to provide logistics support for the leading members of the coup.” They further charge that Navy patrol aircraft and at least five surface ships were involved in intercepting communications, and that Special Operations Psychological Warfare units jammed radio frequencies and cell phones in Caracas and other major cities.

Pardo-Mauer was the former chief of staff of the Nicaraguan Contras, ground zero for the Iran-Contra scandal, which deeply scarred U.S. credibility in Latin America during the 1980s.

Congress should certainly investigate the U.S. Army School of the Americas (now renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Operations) in Fort Benning, Ga. that trained two of the key coup leaders, Army Commander in Chief Efrain Vasquez and General Ramirez Poveda. The “School” is infamous for producing 11 dictators in Panama, Ecuador, Peru, Argentina, Bolivia, Honduras and Guatemala.

According to STRATFOR, a private intelligence provider, the CIA had close ties with the most reactionary wing of the operation, including the extreme rightwing Catholic organization, Opus Dei, and General Ruben Rohas (Ret.). It was this group that put Carmona into power, who then dissolved the Legislature, dismissed the Supreme Court, the Attorney General, and the National Election Commission, fired provincial governors, and suspended the Constitution.

Following meetings between the Bush Administration and coup leaders, an anonymous email was sent to the Financial Times detailing what would eventually became the coup’s blueprint: a strike at Petroleos de Venezuela, leading to gas shortages, which would create chaos. The chaos would spark demonstrations that would force Chavez to resign under military pressure.

According to STRATFOR, the CIA, through the Special Operations Command in Fort Bragg, NC, has worked on organizing oil union leaders and military commanders since the summer of 2001. The Congressionally funded National Endowment for Democracy also funneled almost $900,000 to Chavez foes.

Did the U.S. actively try to undermine the Venezuelan economy in order to create a crisis that would trigger a coup?

The stakes here are high, and routine disavowals or in-house investigations of U.S. involvement won’t do. “Latin Americans don’t give much weight to U.S. denials, because Washington has never admitted its participation in any coup—not in Chile or anywhere else,” says former Chilean ambassador to the U.S., John Biehl.

Certainly the coup has sent a collective chill through countries from Columbia to Argentina, many of which endured U.S.-supported military dictatorships in the ‘60s and ‘70s. While Americans tend to have short memories about things like the 1973 U.S.-backed coup in Chile, no one else in Latin American can afford such amnesia. The images of the “disappeared” opponents, arbitrary arrests, and plundered economies ushered in by those coups are sharply etched in the collective memories of people from Buenos Aires to Caracas.

“There is anxiety in Brazil and the rest of Latin America,” says former Brazilian foreign minister Luis Felipe Lampreia,” because the U.S. no longer seems so committed to democratic principles.”

That sentiment alone should be enough to trigger a Congressional inquiry.

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The Story Behind Colombia’s Attack

Dispatches From The Edge

Conn Hallinan

Daily Planet

March 14, 2008

Colombia’s Mar.1 attack on an insurgent camp in Ecuador appears to have been an effort by the right-wing government of Alvaro Uribe to derail efforts by Venezuela and France to free hostages held by the group, intimidate a growing movement against Bogotá’s close ties to rightwing death squads, and put the squeeze on the U.S. Congress to pass a joint trade agreement.

According to Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, the attack—which killed 24 people, including Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) leader and diplomat Raul Reyes—spiked efforts to release French-Colombian politician Ingrid Betancourt and 11 other FARC hostages.

French diplomats say they were negotiating with Reyes with the full knowledge of the Colombian government. “In the framework of the efforts that we—Spain, Switzerland, France—were making, we had contacts with Raul Reyes,” French foreign ministry spokeswoman Pascale Andreani told Reuters, “and I can tell you the Colombians were aware of it.”

The nighttime attack on the FARC camp was also aimed at undermining ongoing efforts by Venezuelan President Huge Chavez to free these and other hostages. Uribe sabotaged a Chavez initiative last December by refusing to demilitarize the area where hostages were to be released. The hostages were finally turned over to Venezuelan officials Jan. 10, much to the embarrassment of the Colombian government.

Three days after FARC released another four members of the Colombian congress, the Uribe government struck the Ecuador camp.

“What was Colombia’s objective?” asks Ana Maria Sanjuan, director of the Center for Peace and Human Rights at the Central University of Venezuela. “Clearly the whole operation was planned and executed. I think it had a lot to do with the humanitarian exchange.”

But scotching hostage releases was only one thing on Bogotá’s agenda.

According to James Brittain and Jim Sacouman, two Canadian researchers and experts on the Colombian civil war, another target was a Mar. 6 demonstration called by the National Movement of Victims of State Sponsored Terrorism, the International Trade Union Confederation, and social justice organizations.

The groups are protesting close ties between the Uribe government and paramilitary organizations like the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (USDF) and the Black Eagles. Uribe, Colombian Vice-President Francisco Santos, Uribe’s brother, Santiago, Uribe’s cousin, Senator Mario Uribe, plus almost 100 governors, mayors and politicians have direct and indirect ties to the death squads. According to human rights organizations, some 90 percent of the people who have died in the Colombian civil war have done so at the hands of the Colombian Army and USDF.

According to the two Canadians, “media outlets, such as El Tiempo (which has long-standing ties to the Santos family), have been parading photographs of the bullet-ridden and mutilated corpse of Paul Reyes throughout the country’s communication media.” The photos, argue Brittain and Sacouman, are being used to “intimidate those preparing to demonstrate against the atrocities perpetuated by the state over the past seven years.”

Urbie’s top political advisor, Jose Obdulio Gaviria, recently charged that the Mar. 6 demonstrations, and the groups supporting it, should be charged as “criminals.” In Colombia those are words that can get you killed.

The Bush Administration—and the timing here is suspicious—is using the crisis to press Congress to pass the free trade agreement. Democrats are holding up the legislation because of human rights violations by the Uribe government, in particular the murder of trade unionists.

If we fail to approve this agreement, we will let down our close ally, we will damage our credibility in the region and we will embolden the demagogues in our hemisphere,” said Bush.

But U.S. credibility is currently at an all-time low in Latin America, and the circumstances surrounding the raid suggest some level of U.S. participation, hardly something that will improve that image.

The U.S. leases an airbase at Manta, Ecuador, flying reconnaissance missions into Colombia. It also supplies $600 million a year in military aid to Colombia, more than for any other country in the hemisphere.

The Colombians claimed that the attack was a case of “hot pursuit.” Uribe said Colombian helicopters were fired on in Colombian territory and that the Army returned fire. But the FARC camp was 10 kilometers inside Ecuador. “President Uribe was either misinformed or he lied bare-facedly to the President of Ecuador,” said Correra.

The bombing took place in the middle of the night, and most of the dead were in their pajamas, not garb soldiers normally wear into combat. Nighttime bombing attacks are extremely complex and notoriously inaccurate unless the weapons are laser or satellite guided. The weapons appear to have been cluster bombs, and the suspicion is that the U.S. was directly involved, both in pinpointing the camp and in aiding the air strike.

It seems that they used state-of-the-art technology to track the FARC group at night,” said Correa, “undoubtedly foreign powers assisted.”

The Organization of American States (OAS) quickly denounced the attack as a violation of Ecuador’s sovereignty, and Venezuela, Ecuador and Nicaragua temporarily broke relations with Colombia. Colombia’s only support has come from the U.S.

There is also suspicion that the attack was aimed at torpedoing growing pressure in the region and in Europe for a negotiated settlement to the civil war. The U.S. and the Bogotá government classify FARC as a “terrorist” organization. “We do not have a war in Colombia,” says Uribe, “We have a terrorist problem.”

But it is not a label that a number of other countries are comfortable with.

The FARC’s tactics are irregular, but the organization controls 40 percent of the country and has been in existence since 1964. It also does not pose a danger to any country outside the borders of Colombia.

While there is little doubt regarding the global reach of terrorist organizations like al-Qadea,” argues political scientist Garry Leech, editor of the Colombia Journal, “there is no evidence that the FARC is anything but one of the armed actors in Colombia’s long and tragic domestic conflicts.”

The Uribe Administration, however, says it found a laptop at the bombed camp indicating that the FARC was trying to buy uranium. “This means that the FARC are taking big steps in the world of global aggression,” says Colombia’s National Police Director, General Oscar Naranjo. “We’re not talking of domestic guerrilla but transnational terrorism.”

Colombian Vice-President Santos accused FARC of trying to manufacture a “dirty bomb.”

But according to Associated Press, “documents didn’t support the allegation, indicating that rebels were trying to buy uranium to resell at a profit.” Santos eventually backed away from his “dirty bomb” charge.

In the end, the raid may backfire on the Uribe Administration’s strategy of pursuing a military victory over FARC.

Colombian journalist Simone Bruno and Ecuadorian journalist Edwardo Tamayo write that the attack is likely to increase the pressure for negotiations. Colombia’s neighbors are “exhausted…with the entry of a number of armed actors in their territory. They have also had to take in displaced people and refugees, which in Ecuador alone have reached a population of over 300,000.”

The attack came within weeks of a call by Venezuela and Ecuador for negotiations between FARC and the Uribe government. Mexican Deputy Ricardo Cantu Garza, Co-Coordinator of the Labor Party Parliamentary Group, has been pressing for negotiations, as have many countries in the OAS.

There is also pressure within Colombia to demilitarize the civil strife. Polo Democratico Alternativo, the main opposition party, opposed the Ecuador attack, saying it would expand “the conflict to neighboring countries” and encourage “growing U.S. intervention, facts that affect sovereignty and democracy at the region level.”

While Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador have defused the crisis, the raid, coupled with ongoing U.S. efforts to destabilize the leftist government of Bolivia, suggests that the Bush Administration is using regional proxies to ramp up a more aggressive stance in the region.

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Latin America & the Economic Crisis: So Far From God?

Foreign Policy In Focus

Conn Hallinan

Nov. 6, 2008

When the Mexican dictator Porfiero Diaz said the great tragedy of Mexico was that it was so far from God and so near to the United States, the comment summed up the long and tortured relationship between the Colossus of the North and Latin America.

Starting with the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, the U.S. has routinely dictated the hemisphere’s political and commercial life and, on a score of occasions, overthrown governments it found inimical to its interests.

But the world has suddenly turned upside down.

From a collection of countries servicing U.S. interests, South America now boosts the third largest trade organization in the world, Mercursor, which includes Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Venezuela. Chile, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, and Ecuador have associate status, and Mexico is an “observer.” This so-called “southern common market” accounts for 50% of Latin America’s gross domestic product, 59% of its landmass, and 43% of its population.

The continent also recently formed the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), which includes 12 nations, along with observers from Mexico and Central America.

This new found independence that will be sorely tested in the coming months as most of the world goes through an economic meltdown. In the past if Washington sneezed, South America came down with pneumonia. Will the current economic conflagration derail South America’s growing autonomy, allowing the U.S. to dominate the life of region?

The economic crisis will certainly have an impact on South America. Currency values from Brasilia to Mexico City have fallen. At the same time, most the countries in Latin America are in a better position to weather the storm than the U.S., Europe, and Japan, where banks play a larger role in the economic structure.

No one can avoid the events of the past few weeks,” says Riordan Roett, director of Johns Hopkins Western Hemisphere Studies Program, “but we are seeing some countries better insulated than other countries.” (1)

Brazil’s foreign exchange reserves, for instance, amount to more than $216 billion, which should cover the country’s need for export credit until “the most acute stage” of the crisis is over, says Brazilian Finance Minister, Guido Mantega. (2)

And because the government of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has reduced poverty, thus expanding its internal market, the country is in a better position to weather the storm. “Brazil is not immune to the crisis,” says Mantega, “but this affects the countries with problems in their banks more, and countries like Brazil less.”

Argentina also has a substantial reserve in its central bank—$47 billion—and is hinting that it will delay replaying its $6.7 billion debt to western creditors until it can negotiate better terms. (3)

Venezuela has reserves of $30 billion, the largest per capita total on the continent, says Martin Saatdjian of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but the government is being careful. It is considering a “minor devaluation” of the Bolivar, Venezuela’s currency, and “austerity spending for the next fiscal year” if the crisis “deepens and the price of oil drops,” says Saatdjian. (4)

Caracas is spreading its oil wealth throughout the continent, which has cushioned the impact of the economic downturn. The fact that Venezuela purchased almost one-third of Argentina’s debt in 2005 has helped Buenos Aires build a rainy day fund.

Starting in the late 1990s, South America began diversifying its contacts with the rest of the world, in particular resource hungry China. Beijing buys Chilean copper, Cuban nickel and cobalt, Brazilian and Uruguayan soy, and Venezuelan, Ecuadorian and Bolivian oil and gas.

Trade between Latin America and China was $102.6 billion in 2007, (5) and the Chinese currently plan to invest up to $100 billion over the next five years. Brazil, Chile and Argentina have $28 billion in two-way trade with China, and China is investing heavily in Chilean copper and Venezuelan, Bolivian and Ecuadorian oil and gas. Beijing is currently negotiating a free trade agreement with Peru. Almost one-half of China’s foreign investment goes to Latin America. (6)

While China’s economy is slumping, that term is relative. It is still growing at 9%, and the Chinese government is taking steps to keep growth from falling any lower.

Russia and Iran have also becoming major players in Latin America. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, accompanied by business leaders, just finished a tour of Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, and the Russians are helping to develop oil fields in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador. (7) Iran’s President Mamoud Ahmadinejad has been welcomed in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua, and Iran’s Chamber of Commerce announced Oct. 20 that joint commercial councils with South and Central America would soon be established.(8)

The U.S., on the other hand, is saddled with the legacy of its “Washington Consensus” policy of wide-open markets. The neo-liberal strategy led to ruinous debt in Latin America, a yawning gulf between rich and poor, and financial catastrophes like the 2001 Argentine collapse that impoverished half that country’s population.

The wreckage wrought by the “Washington Consensus” and International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) enforced austerity sparked an economic and political revolt in Latin America that is still gaining steam.

Brazil and Argentina paid off their IMF debts and concentrated on building infrastructure and alleviating poverty. The result has been a steady growth rate of more than 4%, which, according to Citi Bank forecasts, will fall next year, but probably not more than a percentage point. In contrast, U.S. and European growth rates are projected to drop to 1.5%, or even to zero. (9)

Latin America is “a better built boat,” says the World Bank’s chief economist for the region, Augusto de la Torre. (10)

Political independence is on the agenda as well.

In 2003, no major country on the continent backed the U.S. war in Iraq. In 2005 South America rejected a U.S.-led Free Trade for the Americas plan. And while Washington is hostile to left-led governments in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador, the rest of the continent has rallied behind them.

Rather than looking north, countries like Brazil are increasingly developing south-south relations. In 2003, Brazil, India, and South Africa formed the IBSA alliance, which met recently in New Delhi to discuss a joint approach to the current economic crisis, as well as food security and energy prices. Between them, the three countries represent 1.3 billion people. (11)

Developing countries need to learn from the crisis,” says Lula da Silva, and “to construct a new world economic order.” (12)

The economic crisis has accelerated these moves toward breaking the strangle hold the U.S. has had on the world of finance. “There is a new reality,” says United Nations General Secretary Ban Ki Moon, “new centers of power and leadership in Asia, Latin America and across the newly developing world.” (13)

German Finance Minister Peer Steinbruck was blunter: “The U.S. will lose its status as the superpower of the world’s financial system. This world will become multi-polar…the world will never be the same.” (14)

Beset by economic crisis and bogged down in two unwinnable wars, the colossus of the north no longer wields the clout it once had. “In the past, the door for talks with the United States on any issue had to remain open. We had no choice,” a Brazilian diplomat told Southern Pulse. “Now we can close it if we want.” (15)

–30—

1) “Brazil’s Economy Standing Out,” St. Petersburg Times, 10/14/08

2) “Brazilian Minister: Curent Crisis Perhaps the Worst Since 1929”; Earth Times, 10/6/08

3) “Argentina Mulls Delay of $6.7 billion Dept Repayment”:Financial Times, 10/10/08

4) “How Venezuela Will Weather the Financial Crisis”: Znet, 10/11/08

5) “The Monroe Doctrine Revisited: China’s Increased Role in Latin America”: Eliot Brockner, Upsidedownworld.com, 10/15/08

6) “China’s New Latin America Revolution”: Financial Times, 4/5/06

7) “Russia Strikes oil Deal with Chavez and plans Modernization of Military”: New York Times, 9/27/08

8) Southern Pulse: Security in Latin America, 9/23/08

9) “The U.S. Crisis and Latin America”: Latin Business Chronicle, 10/6/08

10) St Petersburg Times Ibid

11) “India, Brazil, South Africa Summet to Discuss Global Financial Crisis”: Agence France Presse, 10/14/08

12) “Brazil Demands Strong Say in New Global Financial Rules”: Merco Press, 10/14/08

13) “America Loses its Dominant Economic Role”: Der Spiegel, 9/30/08

14) “Germany Sees an End to U.S. Hegemony”: Financial Times, 9/26/08

15) Southern Pulse: Security in Latin America, 10/23/08

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Paraguay’s Election: Opportunity & Danger

Berkeley Daily Planet

Dispatches From The Edge

Conn Hallinan

April 25, 2008

The recent victory of Fernando Lugo in Paraguay’s presidential election not only broke the right-wing Colorado Party’s 61 year monopoly on power, according to journalist and author Richard Gott, it signals “that the new mood in Latin America is not just a creation of a competent economist in Ecuador, a charismatic colonel in Venezuela, or a couple of union leaders in Brazil and Bolivia, but the result of a heartfelt and deep-rooted desire for change.”

But the “pink tide” that has swept leftists and reformers into power throughout the region is hardly going unnoticed in Washington. Journalist and researcher Raul Zibechi, a member of the Editorial Council of the weekly Brecha de Montevideo, says the U.S. has stepped up destabilization efforts in Venezuela and, according to a recent study by the Brazilian magazine, Military Power Review, is turning the Bush Administration’s last reliable ally in South America, Colombia, into a military juggernaut.

Lugo’s decisive win against Colorado Party candidate Blanca Ovelar and former general Lino Oviedo will, says Paraguayan farmer union leader Tomas Zayas, “open a door for more change for the future, but that’s all. We will take what we can get.”

Certainly Lugo is no leftist in the mold of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez or Bolivia’s Evo Morales. Indeed, he describes himself as a “centrist.” But in the context of Paraguay’s long history of military dictatorships and savage repression, Lugo—a former Catholic Bishop—represents a sea change for the landlocked country of 6.7 million people.

Heading up a 10-party coalition of unions, rural farmers, liberal reformers, socialists and leftists called the Patriotic Alliance for Change, Lugo ran on a platform of land reform, reducing poverty, investing in education, and ending corruption. The new president also plans to renegotiate energy agreements with Brazil and Argentina for a bigger piece of the hydroelectric energy pie.

More than a third of Paraguayans live on less than $2 a day, and in recent years, enormous agribusiness corporations and Brazilian soy giants have turned the country into the fourth largest exporter of soybeans in the world. Huge companies, like Monsanto, Cargill, Pioneer, Syngenta, Dupont, Archer Daniels Midland, and Bunge are producing soy, corn, wheat, sunflower and rapeseed at industrial levels.

The losers in all this have been small farmers and indigenous people forced off their land though a campaign of intimidation, violence, and chemical warfare. According to the United Nation’s Committee of Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, “The expansion of the cultivation of soy has brought with it the indiscriminate use of toxic pesticides, provoking death and sickness in children and adults, contamination of water, disappearance of ecosystems and damage to the traditional nutritional resources of the communities.”

Benjamin Dangl and April Howard of “Upside Down World” say that, in the four departments where soy cultivation is the highest, “78 percent of families in rural communities” had health problems from the frequent spraying of crops.

Much of Lugo’s base is among these small farmers and rural communities where he has championed the plight of the poor and landless. “There are too many differences between the small group of 500 families who live with a first-world standard of living while the great majority live in a poverty that borders on misery,” he says. Every Paraguayan “has the right to be settled on his own land.”

But what that means in practice is by no means clear, particularly given that his opposition will not only be Paraguay’s traditional elites, but the multinationals as well.

Lugo has pledged to increase his country’s slice of the energy pie. Brazil currently pays Paraguay $100 million for energy from Italpu Dam, which is jointly owned by both countries. But the electricity is worth 10 times that amount. Brazil says it won’t renegotiate the 1973 energy treaty, and Lugo is threatening to take the issue before the World Court.

Argentina also has a below-market agreement for electricity generated by the Yaycreta Dam, which it jointly owns with Paraguay.

At the same time, Lugo is hardly spoiling for a fight with Brazil and Argentina. Like them, he is critical of free trade agreements with the U.S. and says he would rather work through South America’s MERCOSUR, the continent’s common market.

The southern trade bloc includes Uruguay, Paraguay, Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela. Chile, Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru are associate members.

Zibechi argues that the first stage of the U.S. counter stroke against the growth of South American independence was Plan Colombia. While the Plan has long been sold as a drug interdiction strategy, much of the program’s $5 billion in aid has in fact gone toward beefing up Bogota’s military.

In stage two, Colombia began spilling its civil war into neighboring countries. Finally, on Mar. 1, Colombia launched a “pre-emptive” strike against FARC insurgents in Ecuador. In the aftermath of the raid, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe accused Venezuela of supporting of supporting FARC, a charge the Chavez government denies.

Plan Colombia has certainly turned Bogota into the big dog on the block. Colombia has 210,000 soldiers compared to 190,000 in Brazil, which has four times Colombia’s population and seven times its territory. At 6.5 percent of its Gross Domestic Product, Colombia now has the highest military spending on the continent. In comparison, U.S. military spending is 4 percent of its GDP, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization 2 percent, and the rest of South America 1.5 to 2 percent.

Added to Colombia’s 210,000 army troops are 60,000 other uniformed forces, plus 142,000 police. The U.S. has supplied Black Hawk helicopters, and Bogotá just purchased fighter planes from Israel and Brazil.

According to Zibechi, U.S. strategy is aimed at “altering the military balance in the region,” with Venezuelan and Ecuadorian oil “in the crosshairs.” A subsidiary goal is to check the emergence of Brazil as a regional power.

Venezuela currently supplies 15 percent of the U.S.’s oil needs. Colombia also ships oil to the U.S. but its estimated reserves of 20 billion barrels are dwarfed by Venezuela’s 240 billion.

According to Venezuelan Senator Julio Garcia Jarpa, rightwing Colombian paramilitaries are infiltrating Tachira, Apure, Zulia, and Merida states, where most of Venezuela’s oil is located. Garcia, who represents Tachira, says the paramilitaries are not only intimidating local communities, they are active in supporting a plan for the four states—an area constituting one-third of Venezuela—to succeed.

The breakaway plot is similar to one by right wingers in Bolivia who are trying to break off the gas-rich eastern provinces of Santa Cruz and Tarija from the central government

Brazil and Venezuela have joined hands to counter some of these moves. Both have proposed a South American Defense Council, similar to NATO, to coordinate defense policies and deal with internal conflicts. Venezuela has been pushing for such a body for some time, but Colombia’s recent attack on Ecuador appears to have crystallized the idea.

Ecuador’s Defense Minister, Javier Ponce, endorsed the plan on April 17.

According to journalist Cyril Mychalejko, Brazilian Defense Minister Nelson Jobim reportedly told U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and U.S. National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley that the U.S. “should keep its distance” from the organization. Speaking in Caracas on April 21, Jobim said “This is a South American council and we have no obligation to ask for a license from the United States to do it.”

Indeed the winds of change are blowing through the Southern Cone these days, but armies of the night, and their patrons in Washington, are likewise on the move.

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Notes From The Southern Cone

Dispatches From The Edge

Conn Hallinan

March 1, 2008

Getting it right is what the government of Brazilian Lula de Silva seems to be doing these days. The country’s National Survey of Sample Households has just pulled together the results of his government’s economic policies, which indicate that women and the poor are doing considerably better than they did under previous governments.

Some 8.7 million jobs were created in his first term, with wages rising 7.2 percent. More importantly, workers at the low end of the scale did the best. The median minimum wage jumped 13.3 percent over its 2005 level, a rise that affected 26 million workers and raised pensions for 16 million others.

De Silva’s government has also increased income through the Family Assistance Program, resulting in a 7.6 percent rise in family income in 2006, a rise that was steeper in the economically depressed Northeast than in the wealthier Southeast: 11.7 percent and 7 percent respectively.

Despite those gains, however, regional inequality continues to haunt Brazil. While household income in the Northeast did rise, it is still only 57.8 percent of that in the Southeast. And while the disparity in wages between men and women saw improvement—with women’s pay increasing from 58.7 percent of the men’s rate in 1996 to 65.6 percent in 2006—discrimination on the basis of gender continues to be a problem. Given that almost one third of Brazil’s families are headed by single women, it is one the de Silva government clearly must tackle. The survey also found that while women make up 43 million of the 90 million national work force, they spend twice as much time on weekly house chores as men.

Brazil has seen huge increases in education, particularly for women, who have now passed men in high school completion. If one counts teachers and administrative support systems, almost one third of the country’s population is involved in education. However, almost 10 percent of the population is still illiterate, and 23.6 percent are functionally illiterate. In the Northeast that figure rises to 35.5 percent.

The approach the da Silva government has taken to stimulating the economy is almost exactly the opposite of that taken by countries like the U.S., India and, to a certain extent, China, where resources have generally flowed to the wealthier sectors of the society. “From the point of view of the economy, to maximize the usefulness of the country’s resources involves raising the income of the poorest of the poor,” says Ladislau Dowbor of the Pontifical Catholic University of Sao Paulo. “The poor do not engage in financial speculation; they buy goods and services. To lift people from poverty is not charity; it is good sense, socially and economically.”

“Lula” has come under fire from some sections of the Left for not doing enough for the poor, but the recent survey suggests that Brazil is moving toward narrowing the country’s enormous class and regional disparities. “There is the immense organized labor of millions of people that are changing programs, literally ‘milking the rock’ of a governmental machine that historically was set up to administer privileges, not to render services,” says Dowbor.

A recent poll gives “Lula” a 66.8 percent approval rating and 52.7 percent for his government, its highest rating since January 2003 when da Silva was first elected.

No good is what the Bush Administration has been up to in Bolivia, according to Benjamin Dangl, author of “The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social Movements in Bolivia.”

Recently declassified documents show that the White House is using the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to undermine the leftist government of Evo Morales by encouraging and underwriting rightwing separatist movements in Bolivia’s eastern provinces.

USAID has funneled over $4.4 million into the oil and gas rich eastern provinces, which are currently pushing for more autonomy from the Morales government. The eastern provinces are largely populated by light skinned descendents of the Spanish, while Morales’s base in the highlands is dominated by indigenous people.

While the U.S. denies it is interfering in Bolivia’s internal affairs, USAID is financing advisors to the rightwing, openly secessionist Civic Committee. The U.S. not only has hydrocarbon interests in the region, it has a significant military presence in neighboring Paraguay, where the huge Mariscasl Estigarriba airbase hosts U.S. Special Forces.

Besides USAID, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED)—both organizations were involved in the 1973 overthrow of the Socialist Allende government in Chile—has also been active. The NED, through the Center for International Private Enterprise, a front for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, has financed forums and panels critical of the Morales government’s nationalization of resources.

Another NED program brought young rightwing leaders to Washington for training. Morales’s party—The Movement Toward Socialism (MAS)— and other left parties were not invited.

Dangl interviewed a Fulbright Scholar who told him that U.S. Embassy officials asked him to give it reports on any Cubans or Venezuelans he encountered. Venezuela and Cuba give aid and provide expertise for the Morales government. According to the student, such reports would violate Fulbright guidelines, which prohibit interfering in the politics of a host country.

But MAS appears to be increasing its support, particularly among the poor, who make up the overwhelming bulk of Bolivia, the poorest country in South America. In late November, the Constituent Assembly approved a pension plan called the Dignity Salary, which will give $26 a month to all Bolivians over 60 years of age. The money will come from gas tax funds, which currently go to provincial governors. The widely popular move has drawn the anger of the eastern provinces, where the oil and gas reserves lie.

The economy also grew at a healthy 4.2 percent clip, and MAS managed to get a new constitution passed in the Congress. The latter gives the state more control over resources and the economy, guarantees indigenous rights, and an elected Supreme Court.

Regionally, Brazilian President “Lula” da Silva and Chilean President Michelle Bachelet declared their support for the new constitution and the Morales government, and announced plans to build a $600 million highway from Brazil, through Bolivia, to Chile.

Bolivia is also cutting deals to develop the country’s gas and oil resources with Russia and Brazil, and South Korea is investing in the Bolivian-state owned COMIBOL to jointly develop a copper mine.

Bush Administration subversion in eastern Bolivia, however, could pose a serious danger to the Morales government.

Dragon vs the Monroe Doctrine? According to April Howard of Upside Down World, it appears that when the 10-year agreement between Ecuador and the U.S. that allows Southern Command to use the Manta port and air base in Colombia runs out in 2009, the Chinese are going to move in.

The Manta base, which hosts 475 U.S. military personnel and hundreds of private mercenaries, has come under fire for violating its original agreement to interdict drugs. Critics charge that the base is also used to monitor—and on occasion attack—anti-government insurgents in Colombia.

During his election campaign, Ecuador’s leftist President Rafael Correa said he would only agree to allow the U.S. to use the base if the U.S. reciprocated by giving Ecuador a base in Florida. When his request was turned down, Correa offered the base to Terminals del Ecuador, which is owned by Hong Kong-based Hutchison Port Holdings.

The South America Regional Infrastructure Initiative plans to build either a highway or a rail line from Manta to the city of Manaus in Brazil. The link would create a direct line for China with Ecuador and Brazil.

Manta is the closest port to Asia on South America’s west coast.

As Sanho Tree of the Institute for Policy Study points out, there is considerable historical irony in the Chinese move. Back in 1900, the U.S. pushed an “Open Door Policy” in order to get access to China’s markets. It appears turnabout is fair play, Monroe Doctrine be damned.

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Mexico: Tales of Chrysler & Cocaine

Dispatches From the Edge

Conn Hallinan

April 29, 2010

So what does being stranded in the middle of the high Mexican desert have to do with Chrysler and cocaine? Well, it was a Chrysler that got Anne and me into the mess—a model aptly named Attitude (“all attitude,” as one of my kids would say). But there was no cocaine or other assorted drugs in the tiny town of Bondojito Huichapan Hidalgo, just a hardware store, a minuscule tienda, and, of course, a church.

For most Americans, however, Mexico is all about drugs and violence, and it is hard not to think about our southern neighbor without conjuring up the vocabulary of the Apocalypse: “With deadly Persistence, Mexican Drug Cartels Get Their Way” screams the New York Times; “Mexico’s drug war stirs fear in the U.S.” warns the San Francisco Chronicle; “Obama eyes troops for Mexico drug war,” headlines the Financial Times. Since 2006, according to Aljazeera, 22,743 people have been victims of the conflict, vastly more than the U.S. and its allies have lost in the Iraq and Afghan wars.

So if you are a couple of Gringos dead in the water in the middle of nowhere these things come into your mind, particularly when the tow truck has not arrived and it’s starting to get dark.

But as I said, we didn’t encounter any drugs or gangs, just helpful locals (I think somewhat bemused by our situation), a friendly tow truck driver, a solicitous guy from Hertz, a difficult taxi driver, and a very sympathetic hotel staff. In fact, the whole time we were in Mexico we didn’t see a shoot out or any bodies, although the journalist we were staying with—Martha Mendoza, one of Associated Press’s aces—told us about a recent gunfight in Monterrey.

Martha is currently writing about the status of the “war on drugs” that Richard Nixon declared back in 1971, and that governments all over Latin America are starting to abandon. As wars go, it has been an unmitigated calamity.

How much misery can a policy cause before it is acknowledged as a failure and reversed? The U.S. ‘war on drugs’ suggests there is no upper limit,” writes Financial Times columnist Clive Crook. “The country’s implacable blend of prohibition and punitive criminal justice is wrong headed in every way: immoral in principle, since it prosecutes victimless crimes, and in practice a disaster of remarkable proportions.”

A recent report by the 17-member Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, lead by three former heads of state, concluded, according to Wall Street Journal columnist Jose de Cordoba, that “US-style anti-drug strategy was putting the region’s fragile democratic institutions at risk and corrupting ‘judicial systems, governments, the political system and especially the police force.”

It has also had virtually no effect on the movement of drugs. According to a Guardian (UK) investigation, more than 750 tons of cocaine is shipped from the Andes, a traffic that “has forced peasants off land, trigged gang wars and perverted state institutions.” As Col. Rene Sanabria, the head of Bolivia’s anti-narcotic police force, told the British newspaper, “The strategy of the U.S. here, in Colombia and Peru was to attack the raw material and it has not worked.”

In the case of Colombia, the U.S. has poured $6 billion in mostly military aid into the country, plus poisoning almost 2.5 million acres of coca plants. Coco production is up by 16 percent.

Member of the commission and former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso said, “The available evidence indicates that the war on drugs is a failed war. We have to move from this approach to another,” and urged a rejection of the “U.S. prohibitionist policies.”

A study by the Brookings Institute agrees, as does a study by Harvard economist Jeffrey Miron and endorsed by 500 economists.

The Commission report has received widespread coverage in Latin America. “They’re saying enough is enough,” says John Walsh of the Andes and Drug Policy at the Washington Office on Latin America. “There’s a real drug war weariness in Latin America and its bad enough to feel like a policy had been imposed and its worse when the policy doesn’t work.”

Mexico, for instance, has deployed an estimated 35,000 soldiers in 14 states, only to see drug-related deaths increase, and more and more municipalities fall under the influence of drug cartels.

There is also growing anger that the body count in Mexico is a direct result of U.S. weapons dealers selling everything from automatic weapons and 50-caliber sniper rifles, to grenades and rocket launchers to south of the border gangs. According to a Congressional study, more than 90 percent of the guns used by Mexican drug gangs come from dealers in Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

In Arizona last year, the state appellate court dismissed a case against a gun dealer who had sold some 700 weapons to intermediaries for Mexican drug gang smugglers. Several of the guns were used to kill eight police officers in Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa state. It is estimated that this southbound flow of firepower generates about $25 billion a year for U.S. gun dealers.

The “collateral” damage from the “war on drugs” is not just to Mexico and the rest of Latin America. According to Miron’s study, more than 500,000 people are in prison for drug crimes in the U.S.—the overwhelming percentage of them for possession—more than the total number of prisoners for all crimes in Great Britain, Germany, Spain, France and Italy combined.

Changing those laws, however, will require coming up against a powerful coalition of law enforcement agencies and the prison industry that cost taxpayers about $100 billion a year.

A number of Latin American countries have begun pulling away from the U.S. approach. Last summer, Mexico eliminated jail time for small amounts of marijuana, cocaine, heroin, LSD and methamphetamine. Brazil, Colombia and Uruguay have also decriminalized possession of drugs for personal use, and Argentina’s Supreme Court ruled that criminalization of marijuana possession was unconstitutional.

Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa pardoned some 2000 small-time drug couriers last year, telling the parliament, “They are single mothers or unemployed people who are desperate to feed their families.”

The model everyone seems to be looking at these days is Portugal, which eliminated jail time for personal drug possession. A recent study on the decriminalization of drugs in that county found “While many drug addiction, usage, and associated pathologies continue to skyrocket in many European Union states, those problems—in virtually every relevant category—have been either contained or measurable improved with Portugal since 2001.”

The Netherlands and Switzerland have also decriminalized possession.

The Obama administration has taken a few tentative steps in the direction of redirecting the “war on drugs,” including lifting the ban on federal funding of needle exchange programs, and shifting some Latin American aid from the military to civilian law enforcement. But criminalization is still at the heart of the U.S. approach.

A decade ago, the U.S. pressed the United Nations to adopt a “drug-free world” strategy, rather than focusing on addiction and treatment. The results have been a disaster. A European commission on the UN strategy concluded last year that this is “no evidence that the global drug problem was reduced” in the past 10 years, and “while the situation has improved in some of the richer countries…for others it has worsened, and for some it worsened sharply and substantially.”

Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch, director of the global drug policy program at the Open Society Institute in Warsaw told the Guardian, “Thanks to the global ‘war on drugs’ over the past decade, close to two million people living in the former Soviet Union are infected with HIV, half a million U.S. citizens languish in prison for non-violent, drug related crimes, and billions of dollars are spent on destructive military actions in Colombia while the production of cocaine continues to rise.”

There is no question that the war on drugs makes parts of Mexico and Latin America dangerous. But the majority of people in those countries go through their lives having nothing to do with drug gangs or shootouts. Indeed, the thing that strikes one most about Mexicans—besides their politeness and sense of humor—is their common sense. No, you don’t have to take off your shoes to get on an airplane, and when your artificial hip sets off the alarm bells, they don’t take 20 minutes to go over every inch of your body with metal detectors.

So while being marooned in the desert with a badly designed Chrysler is not a lot of fun, it eventually sorts itself out. Our misguided “war on drugs” will be a steeper hill to climb.

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