Category Archives: Latin America

Day of the Vulture in Argentina

Day of the Vulture in Argentina

Truthdig

July 24, 2014

By Conn Hallinan

It is no surprise that right-wing Republican and hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer should be trying to wring hundreds of millions of dollars out of Argentina for a debt that Buenos Aires doesn’t really owe him. He screwed tens of millions of dollars out of poverty-stricken Peru and the Republic of Congo using the same financial sleight of hand. What may surprise people, however, is that key leaders in the administration of former President Bill Clinton are helping him do it.

 

To read the full article go to: http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/day_of_the_vulture_over_argentina_20140724

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Hugo Chavez: Lest We Forget

Hugo Chavez: Lest We Forget

Dispatches From The Edge

Mar. 8, 2013

In early December 2001, I was searching through my files looking for a column topic. At the time I was writing on foreign policy for the San Francisco Examiner, one of the town’s two dailies. A back page clip I had filed and forgotten caught my attention: on Nov. 7 the National Security Agency, the Pentagon, and the U.S. State Department had convened a two-day meeting on U.S. policy vis-à-vis Venezuela. My first thought was, “Uh, oh.”

I knew something about those kinds of meetings. There was one in 1953 just before the CIA and British intelligence engineered the coup in Iran that put the despicable Shah into power. Same thing for the 1963 coup in South Vietnam and the 1973 coup against Salvador Allende in Chile.

Chavez had reaped the ire of the Bush administration when, during a speech condemning the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, he asked if bombing Afghanistan in retaliation was a good idea? Chavez called it “fighting terrorism with terrorism,” not a very good choice of words, but, in retrospect, spot on. The invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent Iraqi War have been utterly disastrous for the U.S. and visited widespread terror on the populations of both countries.  Upwards of a million Iraqis died as a direct and indirect effect of the war, five million were turned into refugees, and the bloodshed is far from over. Much the same—albeit on a smaller scale—is happening to the Afghans.

Would that we had paid the man some attention.

But for the Bush administration, Chavez’s statement presented an opportunity to rid itself of a troublesome voice. In came the White House’s Latin America “A Team.”

The top gun in that odious outfit was Otto Reich, assistant secretary of state for western hemispheric affairs and former Reagan Administration point man for the 1981-87 Contra War against Nicaragua. The General Accounting Office had nailed Reich during the 1986 Iran-Contra scandal for “prohibited convert propaganda,” planting false stories and opinion pieces in newspapers. A Cuban exile, Reich had helped spring Orlando Bosch in 1987 from a Venezuelan prison where Bosch was in jail for bombing a civilian Cuban airliner and killing 73 people.

Rogelio Pardo-Maurer, deputy assistant secretary of defense for western hemisphere affairs, also a Cuban exile and former chief of staff for the Contras, was the Pentagon side of the team.

While Reich met with civilian opponents of Chavez and conservative businessman Pedro Carmona, Pardo-Maurer huddled with military leaders, including Gen. Lucas Romero Rincon. Carmona and Rincon would play a key role in the April 11, 2002 coup against Chavez. The National Endowment for Democracy and United States Agency for International Development were also supporting Chavez’s opponents with money and advice, and both organizations have long histories of subversion and covert operations.

I had no special information about the possibility of a coup but it didn’t take a crystal ball to see that the armies of the night were on the move. So I wrote a column titled “Coup in the Wind” that laid out the meetings, identified the actors, and reminded readers that the U.S. has a long and sordid history of organizing and supporting coups in Latin America.

A little more than three and a half months later, the plotters struck, arrested Chavez, suspended the constitution, dissolved the legislature, dismissed the Supreme Court, the Attorney General and the National Election Commission, and fired provincial governors. We had seen this all before, and I flinched at what I thought would inevitably follow: executions, death squads, “disappeared” opponents, smashed unions, and a cowed population. But April 11, 2002 was not 1954 in Guatemala, 1964 in Brazil, 1973 in Chile, or 1976 in Argentina. Chavez had lifted millions of people out of poverty, opened schools, increased literacy, and tackled malnutrition. In vast numbers those people rose up, and, for the first time in Latin American history, a coup was overturned.

Three days after Chavez was returned to office, Martha Honey at Foreign Policy In Focus sent me an email saying she liked the coup column and would I consider writing a follow-up for the think tank? I knew all about Martha Honey and her husband, Tony Avirgan. As reporters for the Costa Rican Tico Times, they had uncovered much of the Iran-Contra plot and were legends among those of us in the alternative press. I also knew about FPIF. It is hard to write sensible things about U.S. foreign policy without it. So I did a piece called “Anatomy of a Coup,” detailing U.S. support for the plotters. Since then I have written over 200 columns, so in a way it was Hugo Chavez that landed me at FPIF.

Chavez became the president of a country where 70 percent of the population was considered “poor,” in spite of $30 billion in yearly oil revenues. It was a country where two percent of the population owned 60 percent of the land, and where the gap between rich and poor was among the widest on the continent.

Today, according to the Gini Coefficient, Venezuela has the lowest rate of inequality in Latin America. Poverty has been reduced to 21 percent, and extreme poverty from 40 percent to 7.3 percent. Illiteracy has been eliminated and, proportionally, Venezuela is number two in Latin America for the number of university students. Infant mortality has dropped from 25 per 1,000 to 13 per 1,000, the same as it is for Black Americans. Chavez’s government increased the number of health clinics by 169.6 percent, and hands out free food to five million Venezuelans. Take a moment to read “The Achievements of Hugo Chavez” by public health experts Carles Muntaner, Joan Benach, and sociologist Maria Paez Victor in CounterPunch.

Comparing the man’s accomplishments to his U.S. obits was like taking a trip through Alice’s looking glass. Virtually none of the information about poverty and illiteracy was included, and when it was grudgingly admitted that he did have programs for the poor, it was “balanced” with claims of soaring debts, widespread shortages, rampant crime, economic chaos, and “authoritarianism.”

Venezuela’s debt as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product is lower than that of the U.S. and Europe. Inflation has fallen to a four-year low. There is crime, but neighboring Colombia is far more dangerous, particularly if you happen to be a trade unionist. And more people in Venezuela are eating better than they have ever eaten in the history of the country. Over the past decade growth has averaged 4. 3 percent, and joblessness dropped from 11.3 percent to 7.7 percent. Americans would kill for those figures.

As for being an “authoritarian,” most the country’s media is venomously anti-Chavez and publishes regularly, and his opponents hold weekly rallies and protests. Want to try that in U.S. ally Honduras (or Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, etc.)?

The old Venezuelan elites—aided by the U.S.—will now attempt to turn the clock back to 1997, the year before Chavez took over. But that will not be easy. Quite literally millions of people have been brought into the democratic process and they will not cede power without a fight. Once people have better housing, schools, nutrition, jobs and health care, it is very difficult to take those things away. Chavez handed a better life to the vast majority of Venezuelans, and, as they demonstrated in April 2002, they are perfectly able to defend those gains.

“Charismatic and idiosyncratic, capable of building friendships. Communicating to the masses as few other leaders ever have, Mr. Chavez will be missed,” is the way former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva put it.

He will be missed, indeed.

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Four More Years: Militarizing Latin America

Four More Years: Militarizing Latin America

Dispatches From The Edge

Jan. 15, 2013

This past December marked the 190th anniversary of the Monroe Doctrine, the 1823 policy declaration by President James Monroe that essentially made Latin America the exclusive reserve of the United States. And if anyone has any doubts about what lay at the heart of that Doctrine, consider that since 1843 the U.S. has intervened in Mexico, Argentina, Chile, Haiti, Nicaragua, Panama, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Uruguay, Grenada, Bolivia, and Venezuela. In the case of Nicaragua, nine times, and Honduras, eight.

Sometimes the intrusion was unadorned with diplomatic niceties: the U.S. infantry assaulting Chapultepec Castle outside Mexico City in 1847, Marines hunting down insurgents in Central America, or Gen. “Black Jack” Pershing pursuing Pancho Villa through Chihuahua in 1916.

At other times the intervention was cloaked in shadow—a secret payoff, a nod and a wink to some generals, or strangling an economy because some government had the temerity to propose land reform or a re-distribution of wealth.

For 150 years, the history of this region, that stretches across two hemispheres and ranges from frozen tundra to blazing deserts and steaming rainforests, was in large part determined by what happened in Washington. As the wily old Mexican dictator Porfirio Diaz once put it, the great tragedy of Latin America is that it lay so far from God and so near to the United States.

But Latin America today is not the same as was 20 years ago. Left and progressive governments dominate most of South America. China has replaced the U.S. as the region’s largest trading partner, and Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Venezuela have banded together in a common market, Mercosur, that is the third largest on the planet.  Five other nations are associate members. The Union of South American Nations and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean State have sidelined that old Cold War relic, the Organization of American States. The former includes Cuba, but excludes the U.S. and Canada.

On the surface, Mr. Monroe’s Doctrine would appear to be a dead letter.

Which is why the policies of the Obama administration vis-à-vis Latin America are so disturbing. After decades of peace and economic development, why is the U.S. engaged in a major military buildup in the region? Why has Washington turned a blind eye to two successful, and one attempted, coups in the last three years? And why isn’t Washington distancing itself from the predatory practices of so-called “vulture funds,” whose greed is threatening to destabilize the Argentinean economy?

As it has in Africa and Asia, the Obama administration has militarized its foreign policy vis-à-vis Latin America. Washington has spread a network of bases from Central America to Argentina. Colombia now has seven major bases, and there are U.S. military installations in Honduras, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala, Panama, and Belize. The newly reactivated Fourth Fleet prowls the South Atlantic. Marines are in Guatemala chasing drug dealers. Special Forces are in Honduras and Colombia. What are their missions? How many are there? We don’t know because much of this deployment is obscured by the cloak of “national security.”

The military buildup is coupled with a disturbing tolerance for coups. When the Honduran military and elites overthrew President Manuel Zelaya in 2009, rather than condemning the ouster, the Obama administration lobbied—albeit largely unsuccessfully—for Latin American nations to recognize the illegally installed government. The White House was also silent about the attempted coup against leftist Rafael Correa in Ecuador the following year, and has refused to condemn the “parliamentary” coup against the progressive president of Paraguay, Fernando Lugo, the so-called “Red Bishop”.

Dark memories of American engineered and supported coups against governments in Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Guatemala are hardly forgotten on the continent, as a recent comment by Argentine economics minister Hernan Lorenzino made clear.  Calling a U.S. Appeals Court ruling that Buenos Aires should pay $1.3 billion in damages to two “vulture fund” creditors “legal colonialism,” the minister said “All we need now is for [Appeals Court Judge Thomas] Griesa to send us the Fifth Fleet.”

Much of this military buildup takes place behind the rhetoric of the war on drugs, but a glance at the placement of bases in Colombia suggests that the protection of oil pipelines has more to do with the marching orders of U.S. Special Forces than drug-dealers. Plan Colombia, which has already cost close to $4 billion, was conceived and lobbied for by the Los Angeles-based oil and gas company, Occidental Petroleum.

Colombia currently has five million displaced people, the most in the world. It is also a very dangerous place if you happen to be a trade unionist, in spite of the fact that Bogota is supposed to have instituted a Labor Action Plan (LAP) as part of the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with Washington. But since the Obama administration said the Colombian government was in compliance with LAP, the attacks have actually increased. “What happened since then [the U.S. compliance statement] is a surge in reprisals against almost all trade unions and labor activists that really believed in the Labor Action Plan,” says Gimena Sanchez-Garzoli of the Latin American watchdog organization, WOLA. Human Rights Watch reached a similar conclusion.

The drug war has been an unmitigated disaster, as an increasing number of Latin American leaders are concluding. At least 100,000 people have been killed or disappeared in Mexico alone, and the drug trade is corrupting governments, militaries and police forces from Bolivia to the U.S. border. And lest we think this is a Latin American problem, several Texas law enforcement officers were recently indicted for aiding and abetting the movement of drugs from Mexico to the U.S.

The Obama administration should join the growing chorus of regional leaders who have decided to examine the issue of legalization and to de-militarize the war against drugs. Recent studies have demonstrated that there is a sharp rise in violence once militaries become part of the conflict and that, as Portugal and Australia have demonstrated, legalization does not lead to an increase in the number of addicts.

A major U.S, initiative in the region is the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), even though it has led to increases in poverty, social dislocation, and even an increase in the drug trade. In their book “Drug War Mexico” Peter Walt and Roberto Zapeda point out that deregulation has opened doors for traffickers, a danger that both the U.S. Customs Service and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) warned about back in 1993.

By lowering or eliminating tariffs, NAFTA has flooded Latin America with cheap, U.S. government subsidized corn that has put millions of small farmers out of business, forcing them to either immigrate, flood their country’s overstressed cities, or turn to growing more lucrative crops—marijuana and coca. From 1994, the year NAFTA went into effect, to 2000, some two million Mexican farmers left their land, and hundreds of thousands of undocumented people have emigrated to the U.S. each year.

According to the aid organization, Oxfam, the FTA with Colombia will result in a 16 percent drop in income for 1.8 million farmers and a loss of income between 48 percent and 70 percent for some 400,000 people working under that country’s minimum monthly wage of $328.08.

“Free trade” prevents emerging countries from protecting their own industries and resources, and pits them against the industrial might of the U.S. That uneven playing field results in poverty for Latin Americans, but enormous profits for U.S. corporations and some of the region’s elites.

The White house has continued the Bush administration’s demonization of president Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, in spite of the fact that Chavez has been twice elected by large margins, and his government has overseen a major reduction in poverty. According to the United Nations, Venezuelan inequality is the lowest in Latin America, poverty has been cut by a half, and extreme poverty by 70 percent. These kinds of figures are something the Obama administration supposedly hails.

As for Chavez’s attacks on the U.S., given that U.S. supported the 2002 coup against him, has deployed Special Forces and the CIA in neighboring Columbia, and takes a blasé attitude toward coups, one can hardly blame the Chavistas for a certain level of paranoia.

Washington should recognize that Latin America is experimenting with new political and economic models in an attempt to reduce the region’s traditional poverty, underdevelopment, and chronic divisions between rich and poor. Rather than trying to marginalize leaders like Chavez, Correa, Evo Morales of Bolivia, and Christine Kirchner of Argentina, the Obama administration should accept the fact that the U.S. is no longer the Northern Colossus that always gets it way. In any case, it is the U.S. currently being marginalized in the region, not its opponents.

Instead of signing silly laws, like “The Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act” (honest to God), the White House should be lobbying for Brazil to become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, ending its illegal and immoral blockade of Cuba, and demanding that Britain end support for its colony in the Falkland’s or Malvinas. The fact is that Britain can’t “own” land almost 9,000 miles from London just because it has a superior navy. Colonialism is over.

And while the administration cannot directly intervene with the U.S. Court of Appeals in the current dispute between Elliot Management, Aurelius Capital Management, and Argentina, the White House should make it clear that it thinks the efforts by these “vulture funds” to cash in on the 2002 Argentine economic crisis are despicable. There is also the very practical matter that if “vulture funds” force Buenos Aires to pay full fare for debts they purchased for 15 cents on the dollar, it will threaten efforts by countries like Greece, Spain, Ireland and Portugal to deal with their creditors. Given that U.S. banks—including the “vultures”—had a hand in creating the crisis in the first place, it is especially incumbent on the American government to stand with the Kirchner government in this matter. And if the Fifth Fleet does get involved, it might consider shelling Elliot’s headquarters in the Cayman Islands.

After centuries of colonial exploitation and economic domination by the U.S. and Europe, Latin America is finally coming into its own. It largely weathered the worldwide recession in 2008, and living standards are generally improving throughout the region—dramatically so in the countries Washington describes as “left.” These days Latin America’s ties are more with the BRICS—Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa—than with the U.S., and the region is forging its own international agenda. There is unanimous opposition to the blockade of Cuba, and, in 2010, Brazil and Turkey put forth what is probably the most sensible solution to date on how to end the nuclear crisis with Iran.

Over the next four years the Obama administration has an opportunity to re-write America’s long and shameful record in Latin America and replace it with one built on mutual respect and cooperation. Or it can fall back on shadowy Special Forces, silent subversion, and intolerance of differences. The choice is ours.

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Latin America Delivers A Swift Kick

Latin America Delivers A Swift Kick

Dispatches From The Edge

March 30, 2012

On one level, April’s hemispheric summit meeting was an old fashioned butt kicking for Washington’s policies in the region. The White House found itself virtually alone—Dudley Do Right Canada its sole ally—on everything from Cuba to the war on drugs. But the differences go deeper than the exclusion of Havana and the growing body count in Washington’s failed anti-narcotics strategy. They reflect profound disagreements on how to build economies, confront inequity, and reflect a new balance of power in world affairs.

The backdrop for the summit is anger in Latin America over the failure of the U.S. and Europe to stimulate their economies, all the while pursuing policies that have flooded the region with money—a “ monetary tsunami” in the words of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff—driving up the value of southern hemisphere currencies and strangling local industries.

After meeting last month with President Obama, Rousseff said she told him of Brazil’s “concern with the expansionary monetary policies of the rich countries…leading to the depreciation of developed countries currencies and compromising growth among emerging economies.”

While Latin American economies are in better shape than those in Europe and the U.S., the recession dogging the latter areas—plus the cooling of the Chinese economy—has slowed growth throughout much of Latin America. Brazil’s most recent figures indicate a stalled economy, which could have an impact on efforts by the Rousseff government to raise living standards and narrow what was once the world’s biggest gap between rich and poor.

According to the Getulio Vargas Foundation Brazil has lifted 33 million out of extreme poverty since 2003 and, out of a population of 190 million, has created a relatively well-paid workforce of some 105.5 million. In contrast to the U.S. and Europe, where the wealth gap is accelerating, income for the poorest 50 percent of Brazilians has risen 68 percent, while for the top 10 percent, it has grown only 10 percent.

This growth has come about because most countries in Latin America reject the economic model pushed by Washington and the European Union: free trade, financial deregulation, and deep austerity.

Argentina is the poster child for the region’s rejection of the so-called “Washington consensus.” Throughout much of the ‘90s, a deeply indebted Argentina followed the strictures of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), slashing government spending and instituting a suffocating austerity. The result was a “debt trap”: cutbacks increased unemployment, which dampened tax revenues, which required yet more cutbacks, and more unemployment. In the end, debts went up. From 1998 to 2002, Argentina’s economy shrank 20 percent. By the time Buenos Aires finally said “enough” and defaulted on its $100 billion sovereign debt, half of its 35 million people were below the poverty line.

Argentina reversed course and primed the economy with government spending on housing, highways and education. It also subsidized 1.9 million low-income families, which cut poverty in half. Since 2002, the economy has grown at an average rate of 6 percent a year, and joblessness has fallen from 20 percent to 8 percent.

Brazil has followed a similar strategy that is now threatened by the fiscal and monetary policies of the U.S. and Europe. Those policies have caused the value of Brazil’s currency, the real, to grow, which prices Brazilian manufactured goods out of the international market.

“There is concern in South America about deindustrialization,” says Alicia Barcena of the UN Economic Commission for Latin America. “Therefore some countries are taking measures to support their productive sectors.” While the Obama Administration calls this support “protectionism,” Brazilian Finance Minister Guido Mantega says, “The measures we are using are to defend ourselves.”

There are other issues Latin Americans are unhappy about that never made it into U.S. media accounts on the summit, in particular the make-up of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council that Brazil—along with India and South Africa—would like to join.

As former Brazilian President Luiz Lula da Silva told the African Union summit last July, “It isn’t possible that the African continent, with 53 countries, has no permanent representation in the Security Council. It isn’t possible that Latin America with its 400 million inhabitants does not have permanent representation. Five countries decide what to do, and how to do it.”

The five permanent members of the Security Council are the U.S., Britain, France, Russia, and China.

While the U.S. has endorsed India’s bid—in large part because it is wooing New Delhi to join its anti-China coalition—Washington has been consciously silent on Brazil’s bid.  Indeed,  United Nations U.S. representative Susan Rice has been sharply critical of Brazil, India and South Africa for not supporting intervention in Syria. “We have learned a lot [about these three countries] and frankly, not all of it encouraging.” The message is clear: back us and we will think about it.

The summit was particularly critical of the Obama administration around the exclusion of Cuba, causing the President to turn positively peevish. “Sometimes I feel…we’re caught in a time warp, going back to the 1950s and gunboat diplomacy and Yankees and the Cold War.”

But from Latin America’s point of view, by maintaining a half-century-old blockade, it is the U.S. who seems locked into the world of the Cold War. And there are, indeed, some worries about “gun boats,” specifically those that make up the newly re-constituted U.S. Fourth Fleet, mothballed in 1950 and revived by the Bush Administration. The U.S. has also recently established military bases in Colombia and Central America.

The Brazilians are particularly nervous about the security of their newly found offshore oil deposits, and the head of the Brazilian Navy, Admiral Luiz Umberto de Mendonca, is pressing Brasilia for surface ships and submarines.

Testifying before the Brazilian House of Representatives,  Simon Rosental of the prestigious Escuela Superior de Guerra (ESG) institute warned that “The world has known oil reserves that will only last 25 years and in the United States, only for the next ten years.”

It may be a bit of a stretch to imagine the U.S. actually threatening Brazil’s offshore oil deposits, but Latin Americans can hardly be blamed if they are a tad paranoid about the Colossus of the North. For the past 100 years the U.S. has overthrown governments from Guatemala to Chile, and supported military juntas throughout the region. Brazil only recently emerged from its own U.S.-backed dictatorship.

“South America,” says Moniz Banderia of the ESG, “is really trying to define its own identity, to differentiate itself from the United States, in opposition to its domination, which is evident in the creation of UANSUR [Union of South American Nations] and the South American Defense Council.”

UNASUR was established in 2008 and includes all 12 South American nations, plus observers from Panama and Mexico.

The Defense Council’s Action Plan 2012 aims to integrate the militaries of the region, establish a “peace zone” on the continent, and create a space agency, an essential step for launching satellites.

Certainly issues like Cuba, the war on drugs, and the tensions over Britain’s claim on the Malvinas/Falkland Islands are areas of friction between the U.S., Europe and South America. But it is in the realm of economics, poverty alleviation, and independent foreign policy that the differences are sharp.

South Americans tried the austerity model and found it wanting. They have also seen the U.S. and NATO spark wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, and they are deeply suspicious of policy of “humanitarian intervention” in places like Syria because they don’t trust the motives behind it. Members of the BRIC countries, made up of Brazil, South Africa, India, Russia, and China, share those suspicions.

“There’s almost a third-world sense, a post-colonial sense,” says Mark Quarterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “that they were meddled in, in ways that didn’t rebound to their benefit, and now the same countries are claiming humanitarian reasons for meddling.”

Thus in Libya, the UN enforced an arms boycott and an oil embargo on the Qaddafi regime, while the French supplied arms to the rebels and Qatar handled rebel oil sales. Brazil and other BRIC nations see a similar pattern in Syria. In the meantime, the U.S. and Europe are conspicuously silent on oil-rich Bahrain’s suppression of its Shiite majority and the lack of democracy in the monarchy-dominated Persian Gulf states.

So far the Obama Administration has responded to South America’s growing independence by increasing the U.S. military footprint in the region and acting churlish. While the leaders of India and South Korea got formal state affairs, the U.S. President gave Rousseff a two-hour meeting. “Obama could have taken her to dinner,” one Brazilian official complained to The Guardian (UK) “or to the Kennedy Center.”

But Latin Americans no longer pay as much mind to the atmosphere in Washington as they used to. They are too busy confronting poverty and underdevelopment, forging a multi-polar world in which the U.S. is looking increasingly out of touch.

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Shadow Warriors: Movin’ On Up

Shadow Warriors: Movin’ On Up

FPIF

Conn Hallinan

Aug. 17, 2011

For decades the U.S. military has waged clandestine war on virtually every continent on the globe, but, for the first time, high-ranking Special Operations Forces (SOF) officers are moving out of the shadows and into the command mainstream. Their emergence suggests the U.S. is embarking on a military sea change that will replace massive deployments, like Iraq and Afghanistan, with stealthy night raids, secret assassinations, and death-dealing drones. Its implications for civilian control of foreign policy promises to be profound.

Early this month, Vice Adm. Robert Harward—a former commander of the SEALs—the Navy’s elite SOF that recently killed al-Qaeda leader Osma bin Laden—was appointed deputy commander of Central Command, the military region that embraces the Middle East and Central Asia.  Another SEAL commander, Vice Adm. Joseph Kernan, took over the number two spot in Southern Command, which covers Latin America and the Caribbean.

The Obama Administration has been particularly enamored of SOFs, and, according to reporters Karen DeYoung and Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post, is in the process of doubling the number of countries where such units are active from 60 to 120. U.S. Special Operations Command spokesman Col. Tim Nye told Nick Turse of Salon that SOF forces would soon be deployed in 60 percent of the world’s nations: “We do a lot of traveling.”

Indeed they do. U.S. Special Operations Command (SOC) admits to having forces in virtually every country in the Middle East, Central Asia, as well as many in Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America. But true to its penchant for secrecy, SOC is reluctant to disclose every country to which its forces are deployed. “We’re obviously going to have some places where it’s not advantageous for us to list where were at,” Nye told Turse.

SOF forces have almost doubled in the past two decades, from some 37,000 to close to 60,000, and major increases are planned in the future. Their budget has jumped from $2.3 billion to $9.8 billion over the last 10 years

These Special Forces include the Navy’s SEALs, the Marines Special Operations teams, the Army’s Delta Force, the Air Force’s Blue Light and Air Commandos, plus Rangers and Green Berets. There is also the CIA, which runs the clandestine drone war in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

It is increasingly difficult to distinguish civilian from military operatives. Leon Panetta, former director of the CIA, is now Defense Secretary, while Afghanistan commander Gen. David Petraeus—an expert on counterinsurgency and counter terror operations—is taking over the CIA. Both have worked closely with SOF units, particularly Petraeus, who vastly increased the number of “night raids” in Iraq and Afghanistan. The raids are aimed at decapitating insurgent leadership, but have caused widespread outrage in both countries.

The raids are based on intelligence that many times comes from local warlords trying to eliminate their enemies or competition. And, since the raids are carried out under a cloak of secrecy, it is almost impossible to investigate them when things go wrong.

A recent CIA analysis of civilian casualties from the organization’s drone war in Pakistan contends that attacks since May 2010 have killed more than 600 insurgents and not a single civilian. But a report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism at City University in Londonfound “credible evidence” that at least 45 non-combatants were killed during this period. Pakistani figures are far higher.

Those higher numbers, according to Dennis C. Blair, retired admiral and director of national intelligence from 2009 to 2010, “are widely believed [in Pakistan] and, Blair points out, “our reliance on high-tech strikes that pose no risk to our soldiers is bitterly resented.”

Rather than re-examining the policy of night raids and the use of armed drones, however, those tactics are being expanded to places like Yemen, Somalia, and Libya. The question is, who’s next?

Latin America is one candidate.

A recent WikiLeak release demonstrates that there was close coordination between right wing, separatist groups in eastern Bolivia—where much of that country’s natural gas reserves are located—and the U.S. Embassy. The cables indicate that the U.S. Embassy met with dissident generals, who agreed to stand aside in case of a right-wing coup against the left-leaning government of Evo Morales. The coup was thwarted, but Bolivia expelled American Ambassador Philip Goldberg over U.S. meddling in its domestic politics.

The U.S. has a long and sordid history of supporting Latin American coups—at times engineering them— and many in the region are tense over the recent re-establishment of the U.S. Fourth Fleet. The latter, a Cold War artifact, will patrol 30 countries in the region. Given the Obama administration’s support for the post-2009 coup government in Honduras, its ongoing hostility to the Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, and now the WikiLeak revelations about Bolivia, the idea of appointing a “shadow warrior” the number two leader in South Command is likely to concern governments in the region.

SOFs have become almost a parallel military. In 2002, Special Operations were given the right to create their own task forces, separate from military formations like Central and Southern Command. In 2011 they got the okay to control their budgets, training and equipment, independent of the departments of the Army, Navy, and Air Force. If one reaches for an historical analogy, the Praetorian Guard of Rome’s emperors comes to mind.

There is a cult-like quality about SOFs that the media and Hollywood has done much to nurture: Special Forces are tough, independent, competent and virtually indestructible. The gushy New Yorker magazine story about SEAL Team Six, “Getting Bin Laden,” is a case in point. According to New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, the story will be made into a movie-for-TV and released just before the 2012 elections.

There is a telling moment in that story that captures the combination of bravado and arrogance that permeates SOF units. An unidentified “senior Defense Department official” told author Nicholas Schmidle that the bin Laden mission was just “one of almost two thousand missions that have been conducted over the last couple of years, night after night.” And then adds that these raids were routine, no big thing, “like mowing the lawn.”

But war is never like “mowing the lawn,” as 38 American and Afghan SOFs found out the night of Aug. 6 when their U.S. CH-47 “Chinook” helicopter flew into a carefully laid ambush just south of the Afghan capital of Kabul.

“It was a trap that was set by a Taliban commander,” a “senior Afghan government official” told Agence France Presse. According to the official, the Taliban commander, Qari Tahir, put out a phony story that a Taliban meeting was taking place. When Army Rangers went in to attack the “meeting,” they found the Taliban dug in and waiting. Within minutes the Rangers were pinned down and forced to send for help.

The Taliban had spent several years practicing for just such an event in the Korengal Valley that borders Pakistan. According to a 2009 Washington Post story—“Taliban Surprising U.S. Forces With Improved Tactics”—the Valley is a training ground to learn how to gauge the response time for U.S. artillery, air strikes and helicopter assaults. “They know exactly how long it takes before…they have to break contact and pull back,” a Pentagon officer told the Post.

“The Taliban knew which route the helicopter would take,” said the Afghan official, because “that is the only route, so they took position on either side of the valley on mountains and as the helicopter approached, they attacked it with rockets.” According to Wired, the insurgents apparently used an “improvised rocket-assisted rocket,” essentially a rocket-propelled grenade with a bigger warhead.

As soon as the chopper was down, the Taliban broke off the attack and vanished. According to the U.S., many of those Taliban were later killed in a bombing raid, but believing what the military says these days about Afghanistan is a profound leap of faith.

SOFs are not invulnerable, nor are they a solution to the dangerous world we live in. And the qualities that make them effective— stealth and secrecy—are in fundamental conflict with a civilian controlled armed forces, one of the cornerstones of our democracy.

As Adm. Eric Olson, former head of Special Operations, recently said at the Aspen Institute’s Security Forum, having Special Forces in 120 countries “depends on our ability to not talk about it,” and what the military most wanted was “to get back into the shadows.”

Which is precisely the problem.

Conn Hallinan can be read at dispatchesfromtheedgeblog.wordpress.com

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Latin America: The Empire Strikes Back

Latin America: The Empire Strikes Back

Dispatches From The Edge

Jan. 20, 2011

 

For the past decade, American policy vis-à-vis Latin America has been relatively low-key, partly because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and partly because the region has seen an unprecedented growth in economic power and political independence. But, with Republicans taking over the House of Representatives, that is about to change, and, while the Southern Cone no longer stands to attention when Washington snaps its fingers, an aggressive and right wing Congress is capable of causing considerable mischief.

 

Rep. Lleana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fl), a long-time hawk on Cuba and leftist regimes in Venezuela and Bolivia, is the new chair of the powerful House Committee on Foreign Affairs, and the rightist Rep. Connie Mack (D-Fl) heads up the House subcommittee on Western Hemisphere affairs. Ros-Lethinen is already preparing hearings aimed at Venezuela and Bolivia, and Mack will try to put the former on the State Department’s list of countries sponsoring terrorism.

 

Ros-Lehtinen plans to target Venezuela’s supposed ties to Middle East terrorist groups and Iran’s nuclear weapons program, and to push for economic sanctions against Venezuela’s state-owned oil company and banks. “It will be good for congressional subcommittees to start talking about [President of Venezuela Hugo] Chavez, about [President of Bolivia Evo] Morales, about issues that have not been talked about,” she told the Miami Herald.

 

The new chairs of the House Intelligence Committee and Judiciary Committee have also signaled they intend to weigh in on establishing a more hawkish line on Latin America.

 

Unfortunately, it is the Obama administration that created an opening for the Republicans. While the White House came in pledging to improve relations with Latin America, Washington has ended up supporting a coup in Honduras, strengthening the U.S. military’s presence in the region, and ignoring growing criticism of its failed war on drugs.

 

Recent disclosures by Wikileaks reveal the Obama administration was well aware that the June 2009 Honduran coup against President Manuel Zelaya was illegal; nonetheless, it intervened to help keep the coup forces in power. Other cables demonstrate an on-going American hostility to the Morales regime in Bolivia and Washington’s sympathy with secessionist forces in that country’s rich eastern provinces.

 

Many Latin Americans initially had high hopes the Obama administration would bring a new approach to its relations with the region, but some say they have seen little difference from the Bush Administration. “The truth is that nothing has changed and I view that with sadness,” says former Brazilian president Luiz Lula da Silva. But things may go from bad to worse if the White House is passive in the face of a sharp rightward turn by Congress.

 

The Latin America of 2011 is not the same place it was a generation ago. Economic growth has outstripped the U.S. and Europe, progressive and left governments have lifted 38 million people out of poverty, cut extreme poverty by 70 percent, and increased literacy. The region has also increased its south-south relations with countries like China, South Africa and India. China is now Brazil’s number one trading partner. An economic alliance—Mercosur—has knitted the region together economically, and the U.S.-dominated Organization of American States (OAS) finds itself eclipsed by the newly formed Union of South American Nations.

 

But many countries in Latin America are still riven by wealth disparities, ethnic divides, and powerful ties between local oligarchies and the region’s curse: powerful and undemocratic police and militaries. One such military pulled off the Honduran coup, and police came within a whisker of overthrowing Ecuador’s progressive president, Rafael Correa, in 2010.

 

One 2007 Wikileaks cable titled “A Southern Cone perspective on countering Chavez and reasserting U.S. leadership,” pointed out “Southern Cone militaries remain key institutions in their respective countries and important allies for the U.S.” The author of the cable, then ambassador to Chile, Craig Kelly, is currently principle Deputy Assistant Secretary of State. Kelly strongly recommended increasing aid to Latin American militaries to help them “modernize.”

 

In many cases, rightists in Latin America share an agenda with right-wing forces in the U.S. For instance, Republicans played a key role in supporting the Honduran coup and continue to strengthen those ties. In a recent trip to Honduras, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Ca)—a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee—brought together U.S. business leaders and Honduran officials to discuss American investment. Honduras was suspended from the OAS, and only a handful of Latin American governments recognize the new president, Porfirio Lobo.

 

It was the Obama Administration, however, who recognized the government established by the coup, and remains silent in the face of what Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch calls widespread human rights violations by the Lobos regime, including the unsolved murder of at least 18 opponents. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is lobbying hard to have Honduras re-admitted to the OAS.

 

A quick survey of Republican targets suggests troubled waters ahead.

 

Chavez has won two elections and is enormously popular. He has cut poverty, tripled social spending, doubled university enrollment, and extended health care to most of the poor. A U.S. engineered coup seems unlikely. But a “supporter of terrorism” designation would cause considerable difficulties with international financing and foreign investment. Sanctions on oil and banking would also disrupt the Venezuelan economy,  in the long run creating conditions favorable to a possible coup.

 

While it is hard to imagine what else the U.S. could do to Cuba, Congress may try to choke off investment in Cuba’s growing oil and gas industries. Companies are already jumping through hoops to avoid getting around the current embargo.  The Spanish oil company Repsol and Italy’s Eni SpA recently built an offshore oil rig in China to dodge the blockade.

 

“It is ridiculous that Repsol, a Spanish oil company, is paying an Italian firm to build an oil rig in China that will be used next year to explore for oil 50 miles from Florida,” Sarah Stephens, director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas told the Financial Times. If the Republicans have their way, sanctions will be applied to those oil companies.

 

Ecuador’s Correa beat back a recent right-wing coup, largely because of his 67 percent approval rating. He has doubled spending on health care, increased social spending, and stiffed an illegitimate $3.2 billion foreign debt. But he has a tense relationship with indigenous movements, which accuse him of trying to marginalize them. While those groups did not support the coup, neither did they rally to the government’s support. Those divisions could be easily exploited to destabilize the government.

 

In the case of Bolivia, the Wikileak released cables, according to Latin American journalist and author Benjamin Dangl, “lays bare an embassy that is biased against Evo Morales’ government, underestimates the sophistication of the governing party’s grassroots base, and is out of touch with the political reality of the country.”

 

The cables indicate the U.S. is relying on information from extreme right wing and violent secessionist groups in Eastern Bolivia, groups that receive financing and training from the National Endowment for Democracy and USAID. Both groups have close ties to American intelligence organizations. Given Brazil’s strong opposition to any attempt to break up Bolivia, it is not clear a succession movement would succeed. But would Brazil—or Argentina, Uruguay or Paraguay—actually intervene?

 

Paraguay is also a country deeply divided between left and right, with a progressive president who warned last year that a coup by the country’s powerful military was a possibility.

 

The Obama administration’s acceptance of the Honduran coup sent a chill throughout Latin America, and certainly emboldened those who see tanks and caudillos as an answer to the region’s surge of progressive politics and independent foreign policy. The recent effort by Turkey and Brazil to broker a compromise with Iran over its nuclear program did not go down well in Washington. Neither have efforts to chart an independent course on the Middle East by nations in the region. Several countries have formally recognized a Palestinian state, and Peru will host an Arab-Latin America summit Feb. 16.

 

Latin America is no longer an appendage to the colossus of the north, but its growing independence is fragile, as the coups in Honduras and Ecuador suggest. The chasm between rich and poor is being closed, but it is still substantial. The economies in the region are growing at a respectable 6 percent, but, because they are relatively small, they can be more easily derailed by internal and external crises. Even as its power wanes, the U.S. is still the world’s largest economy with the world’s largest military. This, plus anti-democratic forces in Latin America, is fertile ground for mischief, particularly if there is not strong resistance on the U.S. home front.

 

 

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Vang Pao, Drugs, the CIA and the Media

Vang Pao, Drugs & the CIA

Dispatches From The Edge

Jan. 12, 2011

Cynicism, as the late Molly Ivins once noted, is the death of good journalism, but reading through the New York Times and the Associated Press’ obituaries of Laotian-Hmong leader General Vang Pao made that sentiment a difficult one to resist.

Vang Pao, who died Jan. 6 in Clovis, a small town in California’s Central Valley, was described in the Times as “charismatic” and in AP as a “fabled military hero” who led a Hmong army against the communist Pathet Lao during the Laotian civil war. Van Pao’s so-called “secret army” was financed by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency as part of the U.S.’s war against North Vietnam and the National Liberation Front in South Vietnam.

Well, “financed” is a slippery word, and while, it was true Vang Pao got a lots of money and arms from the CIA, a major source of his financing was the opium trade run out of Southeast Asia’s “Golden Triangle.”  That little piece of history never managed to make it into the obits, which is hardly a surprise. The people the CIA hired to run dope for Vang Pao went on to run dope for the Contras in the Reagan Administration’s war against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. And talking about close ties between drugs and the CIA in Southeast Asia and Central America might lead to some very uncomfortable questions about the people we are currently supporting in Afghanistan.

Readers should search out a book by Alfred McCoy called “The Politics of Heroin in South East Asia,” and pull up a Frontline piece entitled “Drugs, Guns and the CIA” by Andrew and Leslie Cockburn. What they will find is not in the Times and the AP obits.

A major source for the Frontline piece was Ron Rickenback, who headed up the U.S. Aid and Development Program (USAID) in Laos. Rickenback says he witnessed drugs being transported from outlying areas in Laos aboard U.S. Air America aircraft, which was then put on larger aircraft for shipment to southern Laos and Thailand. Air America was on contract with the CIA.

Rickenback says the CIA knew drugs were being run on their airplanes, but that the drug trade helped finance the war against the Pathet Lao and Vietnamese. To cover their tracks, the CIA took an Air America C-47, painted it, named it Sing Quan Airlines, and gave it to Van Pao. Sing Quan quickly became know as “Opium Air.”

Frontline also tracked down several pilots that flew Sing Quan and Air America planes (some of them were in jail for running cocaine out of Central America), who confirmed that opium was a major part of their cargo. Journalist John Everingham’s investigation also linked Vang Pao to the opium trade.

Leslie Cockburn also managed to land an interview with Tony Poe, the CIA’s key man in Laos, and the model for the out-of-control CIA agent in Apocalypse Now. Poe, who was driven out of the Agency when he refused to go along with the dope dealing, confirmed Van Pao’s central role in drug running.

The trade in opium and heroin in Laos was linked in turn to the U.S. supported regime in South Vietnam led by President Nguyen Van Thieu. Much of that heroin ended up in the bodies of American GIs—during the height of the war there were between two and three fatal overdoses a day—and decimating neighborhoods back in the U.S.

The history of drugs and U.S. foreign policy is a long and dark one. At the end of World War II, the Agency made common cause with the Corsican Brotherhood and the La Cosa Nostra to drive the Left out of the Port of Marseilles. Drug running was a major source of money for the two Italian criminal organizations.

The same people who ran the CIA’s drug operation in Southeast Asia turned up running drugs and guns for the rightwing Contras in the 1980s Nicaraguan civil war. Cocaine money was used to by weapons and supplies for the Contras, with anti-Castro Cubans acting as organizers and middlemen.

And lest we think this is all ancient history, maybe Congress should take a close look at our current allies in Afghanistan: the Karzai government and the Northern Alliance.

First, a few facts.

The United Nations’ Office on Drugs and Crimes estimates that the Afghan opium trade generates about $3.4 billion a year, of which about 4 percent goes as taxes to the Taliban. There is some dispute over how much cash this represents: the UN says $125 million a year; U.S. intelligence agencies estimate $70 million a year. Some 21 percent goes to the farmers. What happens to the 75 percent left over?

According to Julian Mercille, a lecturer at University College, Dublin, the bulk “is captured by government officials, the police, local and regional power brokers and traffickers.” This includes President Hamid Karzai’s brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, and Northern Alliance general, Nazri Mahmad.

Mercille argues that the U.S. has an “historical pattern of toleration and empowerment of local drug lords in [its] pursuit of broader foreign policy goals.”

The pattern—established after the Second World War in Europe, and then later in Southeast Asia and Latin America—is that drugs are a handy way to generate lots of off-the-books money, and an easy way to buy loyalty. It is also good business. That UN report also found that between 90 to 95 percent of illegal opium sales over the past several years—some $400 to $500 billion—were laundered through western banks. Part of that money ended up being used to keep some of those banks from going under during the recent economic meltdown.

What these policies leave in their wake are ruin and destruction. Over 35,000 members of Van Pao’s army were killed fighting a losing war with the Pathet Lao, and some 200,000 Hmong were re-settled in the U.S., mainly in Minnesota, Wisconsin and California. Nicaragua is still trying to recover from the Contra War, and Afghanistan has turned into a bleeding ulcer.

Vang Pao was a pawn, first of the French, in whose colonial army he served, and later of the U.S. In the global chess game called the Cold War, he and his people were disposable. So were the Nicaraguans, and so are the Afghans.  The dead are at peace; the living should remember, and the media should help preserve, not obscure, those memories.

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