Monthly Archives: August 2010

The ‘Uniquely’ Dangerous lebanon Border

The ‘Uniquely’ Dangerous Lebanon Border

Dispatches From the Edge

August, 31, 2010

While the Middle East—indeed, the world—is riveted by the on-going crisis around Iran’s nuclear program, the most immediate danger of a war may be on Israel’s border with Lebanon: “Exceptionally quiet and uniquely dangerous” was how the Independent’s Robert Fisk described it last month.

That quiet was broken Aug. 3 when the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) got into a firefight over tree trimming that ended up killing one Israeli and three Lebanese. Both sides backed off, but events over the past several months suggest Tel Aviv may be looking for a fight.

“Israel has to be ready for any sudden provocation or outbreak of hostilities, the same way the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war was triggered over Hezbollah capturing Israeli soldiers,” Dan Dicker from the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs told the Inter Press Service.

The IDF has been smarting since Hezbollah fought it to a standstill in the 2006 war. While the Israeli air force inflicted massive damage on Lebanon’s infrastructure during the 34-day conflict, even Israel’s vaunted Golani Brigade could make little headway against Hezbollah’s tough and competent militia fighting on its home turf.

For the past two years the IDF has been training for a rematch: “Should another war break out—like the one with Hezbollah almost exactly four years ago—the Golani Brigade will not be unprepared,” reads a headline in the Israeli daily, Haaretz. At the Elyakim army base in northern Israel, soldiers are training how to take bunkers and fight in villages.

The IDF has also made it clear the next war will be vastly more destructive than the 2006 conflict that killed 1200 Lebanese and inflicted $10 to $12 billion in damage. The IDF has instituted the “Dahiya Doctrine,” named after the Shiite quarter of Beirut that the Israeli air force flattened in 2006. According to Amos Harel of Haaretz, the doctrine means the IDF will “respond to rocket fire originating from Shiite villages by unleashing a vast destructive operation.”

Over the past several months the Israelis—sometimes with Washington’s help— have unleashed a steady stream of accusations that Hezbollah is preparing for war, that Syria is smuggling arms, and that Iran is up to no good.

Israeli intelligence claims that Hezbollah has up to 40,000 rockets aimed at Israel, and in April Israeli President Shimon Peres charged Syria with supplying the Shiite organization with powerful Scud missiles. Syria vigorously denies the charge, and the United Nations says there is no evidence for the accusation.

Then the Wall Street Journal reported that a “U.S. defense official” told the newspaper that Iran had deployed” sophisticated” radar in Syria as an early warning device for a possible Israeli attack on Teheran’s nuclear sites. The U.S. State Department’s Philip Crowley chimed in that the radar was a “matter of concern” because of Syria’s relationship with Hezbollah.

Added to the growing tension on Lebanon’s southern border was the exposure of an extensive Israeli intelligence operation aimed at Hezbollah that had successfully penetrated Lebanon’s telecommunication system. More than 70 suspects have been arrested and some 20 charged with treason.

According to UPI, intelligence observers say the ring was uncovered because Israel could be gearing up for war and took some chances. “It may have been the Israelis drive to amass intelligence on Hezbollah’s military capabilities ahead of renewed conflict…that prompted the Mossad, Israel’s foreign intelligence service, to pull out all the stops in Lebanon when it did.”

The tree-trimming incident is an indication of how volatile the Lebanese-Israeli border is. While the Israelis claim they were on their side of the border, the UN only drew that border in 2000, and Beirut has never fully accepted it. While the UN found the tree was on Israel’s side of the border, Lebanon’s Information Minister Tarek Mitri said the section is “Lebanese territory.”

One reason for Lebanon’s sensitivity over the border is that its placement may have relevance to the enormous natural gas deposits off the coast of Gaza, Israel, Lebanon and Syria. Extended out to sea, a matter of a mile or so in the land border could affect whether Lebanon has a claim on some of the gas.

The U.S. Geological Service estimates the fields could yield up to 122 trillion cubic feet of gas, and the Israelis have already laid claim to it. When the Lebanese protested, Israel’s Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau said that Israel “will not hesitate to use force” to defend its claim on the gas field. Nabih Berri, speaker of the Lebanese parliament, responded, “Lebanon’s army, people and the resistance will be ready to thwart any attempts to steal its resources.”

Added to the tense border, natural gas deposits, and Israel’s cold war with Syria and Iran, is a UN investigation that, according to most reports, will charge Hezbollah with involvement in the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Hezbollah claims the investigation is an Israeli plot and that Tel Aviv pulled off the hit, butit has yet to produce any evidence to support that charge.

The UN charge could have a destabilizing effect on Lebanon—Hezbollah is the country’s most important political and military force—and a destabilized Lebanon is in no one’s interest, with the exception of Israel and possibly the U.S. That is why long-time antagonists Saudi Arabia and Syria huddled in Damascus and then flew to Beirut July 30 to confer with the government of Prime Minister Saad Hariri on how to avoid a Lebanese meltdown.

In the middle of all this, Israel’s supporters in the U.S. Congress decided to stick their finger in the pie and hold up $100 million in military aid to the Lebanese army. “I am concerned that the training and equipment we have provided the LAF for the purposes of counter-terrorism may in fact be used by the LAF against the Israelis,” said House Armed Service Committee chair, Ike Skelton (D-Mo). Skelton went on to say that, since the LAF collaborated with Hezbollah, the latterorganization was an “indirect recipient of our aid.”

The U.S. started aiding the LAF after the 2005 “Cedar Revolution” put a pro-Washington coalition into power and forced Syria to withdraw following the assassination of Hariri. But the reality of Lebanon’s complex and fractious politics soon reasserted itself and what finally emerged from the last round of elections was a coalition government in which Hezbollah plays a prominent role. Regardless of what the Americans think of the Shiite group, marginalizing the largest ethnic group in the country is not an option.

That the military aid the U.S. is sending could pose a threat to Israel is simply silly. Most the aid consists of body armor, uniforms and unarmored Humvees. It includes neither warplanes nor anti-aircraft, and the tanks are M41 Walker “Bulldogs” designed for the Korean War. The Walker is an under-armored, gas guzzling light tank that wouldn’t last five minutes against the Israel’s modern armor or anti-tank weapons. Indeed, one military expert remarked that he was surprised there were any M41s—a weapon more “quaint” than threatening—that still ran.

If a war does break out between Hezbollah and Israel it might spread to Syria, and even Iran. In his recent report to the Council On Foreign Relations entitled “A Third Lebanon War,” former U.S. ambassador Daniel Kurtzer argues that Israel is likely to initiate the war, and that it might “also use the conflict with Hezbollah as a catalyst and cover for an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.” The former ambassador said Syria might also be a target. Kurtzer predicts a crisis sometime in the next 12 to 18 months, “but the situation could change or deteriorate rapidly.”

One explanation for Israel’s unwillingness to escalate the tree-trimming incident was because its antagonists were the LAF, not Hezbollah. Kurtzer—who was a Middle East advisor to President Obama during the last election—says Israel would rather “lure [Hezbollah] into a war.” In the tree trimming crisis the Shiite group stayed on the sidelines.

“Hezbollah is keen to avoid an escalation,” says Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group, “knowing how tough an all-out confrontation could be to the movement in Lebanon, and more broadly to the region.”

As analyst Jim Lobe points out, the Obama administration has little ability to prevent a war because it is hamstrung by its refusal to engage with either Iran or Hezbollah, and because it has allowed the Republicans to derail its efforts to improve relations with Syria.

A uniquely dangerous time, indeed.


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The Roma: Europe’s Favorite Scapegoats

The Roma: Europe’s favorite Scapegoat

Dispatches From The Edge

August 23, 2010

Peggy Hollinger and Chris Bryant of the Financial Times put their fingers on what’s behind the current uproar over Europe’s Roma population: the group is “an easy target for politicians seeking to distract attention from problems at home by playing on fears over security.” That strategy was stage center in early August when France’s conservative government shipped several hundred Roma back to Romania and French President Nicolas Sarkozy pledged he would bulldoze 300 Roma camps over the next several weeks.

Europe is certainly in need of distraction these days. Sarkozy’s poll numbers are dismal and his administration is plagued by scandals. The economic crisis has seen France’s debt soar, and European governments have instituted savage austerity programs that are filling the jobless rolls from Dublin to Athens. Since most politicians would rather not examine the cause of the economic crisis roiling the continent—many were complicit in dismantling the checks and balances that eventually led to the current recession—“criminal gypsies” come in very handy.

France’s crackdown was sparked by an angry demonstration in Saint-Aignan following the death of a young “traveler” at the hands of police.  Sarkozy never saw a riot he couldn’t turn to his advantage. On July 29 his office declared it would dismantle Roma camps because they are “sources of illegal trafficking, profoundly shocking living standards, exploitation of children for begging, prostitution and crime.”

Living conditions in Roma camps are, indeed, sub-standard, but in large part because local French authorities refuse to follow a law requiring that towns with a population of over 5,000 establish electrical and water hookups for such camps. And because countries like Germany, France, Italy and Britain refuse to use any of the $22 billion that the European Commission has made available for alleviating the conditions that the Roma and other minorities exist under.

As for the “crime” and “drug trafficking” charge, research by the European Union (EU) suggests there is no difference between crime rates among the Roma than in “the population at large.”

“Indeed there are Roma who are in charge of trafficking networks, but they represent less than one percent of this population, the rest are victims,” David Mark, head of the Civic Alliance of Roma in Romania, a coalition of over 20 Roma non-governmental organizations, told IPS News.

Mark went on to point out that “Because that one percent commits crimes and the authorities are not able to stop them, all Roma are being criminalized.” The expulsions and demolitions, he charged, are “based on criminalization of an entire ethnic group, when criminality should be judged on a case by case basis in courts of law.”

In some cases the level of hysteria would be almost laughable were it not resulting in the most wide spread roundup of an ethnic minority since World War II.  Italy declared a “Gypsy emergency,” in spite of the fact that Italy, which has a population of 57.6 million people, has only 60,000 non-Italian Roma.

Estimates are that there are between 10 and 12 million Roma in Europe, making the group the continent’s largest minority.

For several weeks, the EU’s executive body, the European Commission, played hot potato with the issue. The EC insisted that it was doing everything it could to help the Roma and pointed to the $22 billion pot that remains pretty much untapped. But it also kept silent on charges by human rights organizations that countries like Germany, Italy and France were violating EU law guaranteeing freedom of movement.

These nations—primarily France—argue that since the Roma are from Romania and Bulgaria, and both countries are newly minted EU members, the freedom of movement clause doesn’t kick in until 2014. And, in any case, French officials charge that the Roma can’t show they are gainfully employed and self-supporting.

On this latter point, rights organizations point out that Roma are discriminated against in employment. “It’s somewhat hypocritical to complain about people not having money to subsist in France when you don’t offer access to the labor market at the same time,” says Bob Kushen, managing director of the European Roma Rights Center in Budapest.

With the exception of Spain and Finland, most EU members have the same restrictions on staying in a country more than three months without a regular job.

France is certainly not alone in singling out the Roma. Germany is preparing to deport 12,000 to Kosovo, a destination that may well put the deportees in danger, because Kosovo Albanians accuse the Roma of siding with the Serbs during the 1999 Yugoslav War. From the Roma’s point of view Serbia had long guaranteed their communities a certain level of employment and educational opportunities, while the Albanians had always repressed them.

Other countries singling out the Roma include Britain, Sweden, Denmark and Belgium. The Swedes deported some 50 Roma for “begging,” even though begging is not a crime in Sweden.

But France has instituted the most aggressive anti-Roma campaign, which also includes its own “gens du voyage,” all of whom are French citizens and theoretically guaranteed encampment facilities. France is estimated to have between 300,000 and 500,000 of these “travelers.”

The French campaign, however, has sparked a backlash.

Romania’s Foreign Minister, Teodor Basconschi, blasted France for “criminalizing ethnic groups” and warned of “the risks of populist provocation and creating xenophobic reactions at a time of economic crisis.” Basconschi called for a joint Romanian-French approach “devoid of artificial election fever.”

The Vatican’s secretary of the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerant People Commission said, “The mass expulsion of Roma are against European norms.”

The growing chorus of protest by human rights groups, the United Nations, the Vatican, and Romania finally moved the EU to inject itself into the controversy.

“Recent developments in several European countries, most recently eviction of Roma camps in France and expulsions of Roma from France and Germany, are certainly not the right measures to improve the situation of this vulnerable minority. On the contrary, they are likely to lead to an increase in racist and xenophobic feelings in Europe,” said Meviut Cavusogiu, president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.

Cavusogiu cited Protocol No. 4 of the European Convention of Human Rights that prohibits “the collective expulsions of aliens,” as well as the right to freedom of movement for all EU citizens.

However, France was sticking by its guns, claiming that it was not “deporting” anyone: the Roma were leaving voluntarily for a nominal payment of $386 for adults, and $129 for children. But some members of Sarkozy’s party, the Union for a Popular Movement, were using the word “deport,” and even the more explosive term “rafles.” That was the term used to describe the rounding up of French Jews during WW II, most of whom died in the death camps.

Roma suffered a similar fate at the hands of the Nazis. It is estimated that between 200,000 and 1.5 million Roma perished in the concentration camps.

Scapegoating the Roma is an old European tradition, almost as old as the initial migration of the Romany people out of Rajasthan, India in the 11th century. Most of those Roma settled in Moldavia and Wallachia—today’s Romania—where they were quickly enslaved. Those Romany who did not escape enslavement by to taking up the nomadic life remained slaves until 1856.

According to Maria Ochoa-Lido of the Council of Europe, those centuries of slavery essentially sentenced the Roma to poverty-stricken lives on the margins, with life expectancy considerably lower than other populations in the EU.

A lack of access to education, social services, education and the legal system for Romania’s 2.5 million Roma still drives many of them to take to the road. As bad as conditions for the Roma are in countries like France and Germany, they are better than those in poverty-stricken Romania.

The attacks on the Roma could well be a prelude to similar campaigns against other European minorities: Turks in Germany, Pakistanis in England, Moroccans and Algerians in Spain and Italy, and Africans scattered throughout the continent. Xenophobia in a time of economic crisis rarely restricts itself to a single target.


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The U.S. & Yemen:A “lethal blend”

The U.S. & Yemen: A “lethal blend”

Dispatches From the Edge

Conn Hallinan

Aug. 3, 2010

How involved is the U.S. military in Yemen, and is the Obama Administration laying the groundwork for a new foreign adventure?  According to several news agencies, including Agence France Presse, UPI and the Washington Post, very involved and likely to be more so in the future,

“U.S. military teams and intelligence agencies are deeply involved in secret joint operations with Yemeni troops,” says Dana Priest, the Post’s ace intelligence and military affairs reporter, including “the U.S. military’s clandestine Joint Special Operations Command, whose main mission is tracking and killing suspected terrorists.”

The quarry of these assassination teams are supposed leaders of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), but the deepening U.S. alliance with the authoritarian government of Yemen may soon entangle it in two complex civil wars—a rising by disenfranchised Shiites in the north, and an increasingly powerful succession movement in the country’s south.

According to UPI, the White House is quietly expanding “the footprint” of “elite forces inside Yemen.” One military official told the news agency, “The numbers are definitely going to grow.” The Obama administration increased “security” funds for Yemen from $67 million to $150 million.

Navy Seals, Delta Force troops, and intelligence units are working closely with the government of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, providing weapons, training and intelligence. And sometimes more.

On Dec. 17, 2009, a U.S. BGM-109D Tomahawk cruise missile attacked the village of al-Maajala in south Yemen, killing 55 people, the bulk of them women and children. The Tomahawk—launched from a U.S. surface ship or submarine— was armed with a cluster warhead that spread a storm of razor sharp steel and incendiary material over 500 square feet.

Amnesty International’s Mike Lewis said his organization was “gravely concerned by evidence that cluster munitions appear to have been used in Yemen,” because “cluster munitions have indiscriminate effects and unexploded bomblets threaten lives and livelihoods for years afterwards.”

The target was a supposed al-Qaeda training camp, but the Saleh government draws no distinction between AQAP and the Southern Movement (SM), a group advocating an independent south Yemen. The SM has a long list of grievances reflecting problems going back to 1990 when North Yemen and the southern Democratic People’s Republic of Yemen were unified.

That merger between the conservative north and the better educated and socialist south was never a comfortable one and led to a particularly nasty civil war in 1994. The north won that war by using jihadists freshly returned from fighting the Russians in Afghanistan. Since the end of that four-month war, the SM charges that the north siphons off the south’s oil without adequate compensation, discriminates against southerners on access to jobs, and has cornered the country’s vanishing water supplies. Southern protests are met with tear gas and guns, and, according to SM leaders, some1500 “secessionists” have been imprisoned and more than a hundred killed.

According to UPI, “The [Saleh] regime’s heavy-handed response to the southerners has only fueled the demand for independence and encouraged the disparate southern groups to come together.”

Saleh claims the SM is closely tied to AQAP, which immediately gets Washington’s attention, and has allowed his government to tap into the resources of the American “war on terrorism.” Southern independence leaders, like Tariq al-Fadhli, deny any ties to AQAP and say the Southern Movement is non-violent. Whether it will remain so under the Saleh government’s continued assaults is an open question. The December cruise missile strike is not likely to encourage pacifism.

The fighting in the north between the Saleh government based in the capital, Sanaa, and the Shiite Houthi, who inhabit the north’s forbidding terrain, is long-standing. While Saleh and his supporters in Saudi Arabia say Iran is stirring up the trouble, there is no evidence for ties between Iran and the Houthi. The tensions between the Saleh government and the Houthi are local and generally have to do with access to political power. But by bringing Iran into the picture, Saleh can claim he is fighting terrorism, thus making his regime eligible for arms, intelligence, and training.

The U.S. is ratcheting up the use of Special Operations Forces (SOF) worldwide. The administration has increased the number of countries in which SOFs are deployed from 60  to 75, and upped the SOF budget 5.7% to $6.3 billion for 2011. The White House also added an additional $3.5 billion for SOFs to its 2010 budget.

One military official told the Washington Post that the Obama administration had given the military “more access” than former President George W. Bush. “They [the Obama administration] are talking publically much less but that are acting more. They are willing to get aggressive much more quickly.”

In a recent talk that sounded very much like the Bush administration’s doctrine of pre-emptive war, the White House’s counterterrorism expert John Q. Brennan said that U.S. strategy was not to just “respond after the fact to terrorism,” but to “take the fight to al-Qaeda and its extremist affiliates, whether they plot and train in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and beyond.”

If the U.S. does increase its military footprint in Yemen, it will be expending hundreds of millions of dollars in the poorest country in the region, a country where 40 percent of its 22 million residents are jobless and where water is becoming a scare commodity. The U.S. shares much of the blame for the current economic crisis in Yemen. When Yemen refused to support the 1991 Gulf War against Saddam Hussein, Saudi Arabia expelled 850,000 Yemeni workers, and the U.S. cute $70 million in foreign aid. The effect of both actions was catastrophic, and Yemen never recovered from the one-two blow.

U.S. support for the Saleh regime will inevitably draw it into the conflicts in the north and the south, with disastrous results for all parties.

“In Yemen the U.S. will be intervening on one side in a country which is always in danger of sliding into a civil war,” says the Independent’s Middle East reporter Patrick Cockburn. “This has happened before. In Iraq the U.S. was the supporter of the Shia Arabs and Kurds against the Sunni Arabs. In Afghanistan it is the ally of the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazara against the Pushtun community. Whatever the intentions of Washington, its participation in these civil conflicts destabilizes the country because one side becomes labeled as the quisling supporter of a foreign invader. Communal and nationalist antipathies combine to create a lethal blend.”


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Behind the Columbia/Venezuela Tension

Behind The Colombia/Venezuela Tension

Dispatches From The Edge

Conn Hallinan

July 31. 2010

If you want to understand what’s behind the recent tension between Colombia and Venezuela, think “smokescreen,” and then go back several months to some sick children in the Department of Meta, just south of Bogota. The children fell ill after drinking from a local stream, a stream contaminated by the bodies of more than 2,000 people, secretly buried by the Colombian military.

According to the Colombian high command, the mass grave just outside the army base at La Macarena contains the bodies of guerilla fighters killed between 2002 and 2009 in that country’s long-running civil war. But given the army’s involvement in the so-called “false positive” scandal, human rights groups are highly skeptical that the dead are members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the National Liberation Army, the two insurgent groups fighting the central government.

“False positive” is the name given to the Colombian armed forces operation that murdered civilians and then dressed them up in insurgent uniforms in order to demonstrate the success of the army’s counterinsurgency strategy, thus winning more aid from the U.S. According to the human rights organizations Comision de Derechos Homanos del Bajo Ariari and Colectivo Orlando Fals Borda, some 2,000 civilians have been murdered under the program.

The bodies at La Macarena have not been identified yet, but suspicion is that they represent victims of the “false-positive” program, as well as rural activists and trade unionists. The incoming Colombian president, Juan Manuel Santos, was defense secretary when the murders were talking place. Santos also oversaw a brief invasion of Ecuador in 2008 that reportedly killed a number of insurgents. The invasion was widely condemned throughout Latin America.

Diverting attention is what outgoing Colombian President Alvaro Uribe is all about. While his foreign minister, Luis Alfonso Hoyos, was laying out photos and intelligence claiming that Venezuela was hosting upwards of 1500 Colombian insurgents, a group of Latin American NGOs were uncovering a vast scheme by Uribe’s Department of Administrative Security (DAS) to sabotage the activities of journalists, judges, NGOs, international organizations and political opponents. Some of these “dirty tricks” included death threats.

Because the U.S.—which has pumped more than $7 billion in military aid to Colombia—supplies the DAS with sophisticated surveillance technology, Washington may end up implicated in the scandal.

The U.S. may also be tarred with the murder of Colombian trade unionists. According to Kelly Nichollas of the U.S. Office on Colombia, testimony at the trial of former DAS director Jorge Noguera indicated that the U.S. trained a special Colombian intelligence unit that tracked trade unionists.

Colombia is currently the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists. According to the International Trade Unionist Confederation’s (ITUC) Annual Survey of Trade Union Rights, out of the 101 unionists murdered in 2009, 48 were in Colombia. So far, 20 more Colombian trade unionists have been murdered in 2010. In the case of Hernan Abdiel Ordonez, treasurer of the prison worker’s union, who had complained about corruption, the government refused to provide him security in spite of receiving numerous death threats. He was gunned down by assassins on a motorcycle.

“Colombia was once again the country where standing up for fundamental rights of workers is more likely than anywhere else to mean a death sentence, despite the Colombian government’s public relations campaign,” said ITCU General Secretary Guy Ryder. “The Colombian authorities must take urgent and effective measures to guarantee the physical integrality of Colombian trade unionists.”

Uribe certainly has reason to shift the attention away from Colombia and toward Venezuela. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is pressing its investigation of the “false-positives” murders, and Uribe’s brother has been accused of working with death squads. Santiago Canton, an Argentinean and former head of the rights commission, said “If you put all this together, the extrajudicial executions, the espionage of human rights defenders, it’s all really consistent over the years.”

And where was the Obama Administration in all this?  Firmly supporting Uribe, railing against Venezuela’s suspension of diplomacy with Bogota, and, according to an investigation by the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA), secretly funneling money to the media operations of Chavez’s right-wing opponents. Right-wingers in Bolivia and Nicaragua are also receiving money.

“Between 2007 and 2009, the State Department’s little known Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor channeled at least $4 million to journalists in Bolivia, Nicaragua and Venezuela through the Pan American Development Foundation (PADF),” says NACLA’s Jeremy Bigwood. In doing this, the State Department violated its own rules requiring that “all publications” receiving money “acknowledge that support.” According to Bigwood, the U.S. waived that requirement for PADF.

Colombia is Washington’s closest ally in the region, so it hardly surprising that Uribe’s right-wing government and Washington’s visceral hatred of Chavez should find common ground. But the attack on Chavez is also a proxy assault on the newly formed, 32-member Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), the first regional organization not to include the U.S., Canada, or European countries.

Meeting in Caracas this past July, CELAC selected Chavez and the newly elected conservative president of Chile, Sabastian Pinera, as co-chairs of the forum that will draft statutes for the organization.  While it seems like an odd pairing, the U.S. media’s cartoonish characterization of Chavez is not shared widely in Latin America. “Chavez…has shown himself adaptable to making major compromises in order to further Latin American and regional integration,” says Alexander Main of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C.

And while Pinera is very conservative, according to Main, “his toned down approach to international relations indicates that he too is prepared to act pragmatically.”

The Caracas meeting called for “political, economic, social and cultural integration” and affirmed the right of “each state to constitute its own political system free of threats, aggressions and unilateral coercive measures.” Tellingly, there was no mention of “free trade” or “open markets,” the so-called “Washington consensus” that characterized U.S. economic doctrine in the region over the past several decades.

As Latin America grows in economic strength and political independence, U.S. policy seems locked into a previous century when it was the major power in the region. Rather than retooling its diplomatic approach to fit the new reality in Latin America, Washington is expanding its military footprint.

It is will soon be operating out of seven military bases in Colombia and has reactivated its 4th Fleet, both highly unpopular moves in Latin America.  Rather than taking the advice of countries in the region to demilitarize its war on drugs, the U.S. recently announced it is deploying 46 warships and 7,000 soldiers to Costa Rica to “interdict” drug traffic and money laundering. From 2000 to 2009, less than 40 percent of U.S. aid to the region went to Latin America’s militaries and police. The Obama Administration has raised that figure to 47 percent.

Washington and Bogota may try to demonize Venezuela, but they are playing to a very small audience, and one that grows smaller—and more irrelevant—by the day.


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