Category Archives: Latin America

A Very Brazilian Coup


A Very Brazilian Coup

Dispatches From the Edge

May 26, 2016


On one level, the impeachment of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff seems like vintage commedia dell’arte: the Lower House speaker who brought the charges, Eduardo Cunha, had to step down because he has $16 million stashed in secret Swiss and U.S. bank accounts. The man who replaced Cunha, Waldir Maranhao, is implicated in corruption around the huge state-owned oil company, Petroblas. The former vice-president and now president, Michel Temer, has been convicted of election fraud, and has also been caught up in the Petroblas investigation. And the president of the Senate, Renan Calheiros, has also been implicated in the oil company scandal and is dodging tax evasion charges. In fact, over half the legislature is currently under investigation for corruption of some kind.


But there is nothing comedic about what the fall of Rousseff and her Workers Party will mean for the 35 million Brazilians who have been lifted out of poverty over the past decade, and for the 40 million newly minted members of the middle class one-fifth of Brazil’s 200 million people.


While it was the current downturn in the world’s seventh largest economy that helped light the impeachment fuse, the crisis is rooted in the nature of Brazil’s elites, its deeply flawed political institutions, and the not so dead hand of its 1964-1985 military dictatorship.


Given that the charges against Rousseff do not involve personal corruption, or even constitute a crime—if juggling books before an election were illegal, virtually every politician on the planet would end up in the docket—it is hard to see the impeachment as anything other than a political coup. Even the conservative Economist, long a critic of Rousseff, writes “in the absence of proof of criminality, impeachment is unwarranted” and “looks like a pretext for ousting an unpopular president.”


That suspicion is reinforced by the actions of the new President. Temer represents the center-right Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB) that until recently was in alliance with Rousseff’s Workers Party. As soon as Rousseff was impeached by the Senate and suspended from office for 180 days, Temer made a sharp turn to the right on the economy, appointing a cabinet of ministers straight out of Brazils’ dark years of dictatorship: all white, all male, and with the key portfolios in the hands of Brazil’s historic elites. This is in a country where just short of 51 percent of Brazilians describe themselves as black or mixed.

Seven of those ministers have been implicated in the Petroblas scandal.



The President announced a program to “reform” labor laws and pensions, code words for anti-union legislation and pension cuts. His new Finance Minister, Henrique Meirelles, a former central bank head who once headed BankBoston in the U.S., announced that, while programs for the poor “which don’t cost the budget that much” would be maintained—like the highly popular and successful Bolsa Familia that raised tens of millions out of poverty through small cash grants— other Worker Party initiatives would go under the knife.


The new government is already pushing legislation that would roll back laws protecting the environment and indigenous people, and has appointed ministers with terrible track records in both areas.


One of the largest soybean farmers in Brazil, Blairo Maggi, was appointed Agriculture minister. Maggi has overseen the destruction of vast areas of the Amazon to make way for soybean crops. Temer’s initial appointment for Science minister was an evangelical Protestant minister who doesn’t believe in evolution. Temer also folded the culture ministry into the ministry of education, sparking sit-ins and demonstrations by artists, filmmakers and musicians.


Brazil has long been a country with sharp divisions between wealth and poverty, and its elites have a history of using violence and intimidation. Brazil’s northeast is dominated by oligarchs who backed the 1964 military coup and manipulated the post-dictatorship constitution.


Political power is heavily weighted toward rural areas dominated by powerful agricultural interests. The three poorest regions of the country, accounting for only two fifths of the population, control three quarters of the seats in the Senate.


As historian Perry Anderson puts it, the political system was designed “to neutralize the possibility that democracy might lead to the formation of any popular will that could threaten the enormities of Brazilian inequality.”


Brazil’s legislature is splintered into 35 different parties, many of them without a political philosophy. The legislature is elected on the basis of proportional representation, but with an added twist: an “open list” system in which voters can choose any candidate, many of them standing on the same ticket. The key to winning elections in Brazil, then, is name recognition, and the key to that is lots and lots of money. Most of that money comes from Brazil’s elites and the oligarchs in the country’s northeast.


Because of the plethora of parties, forming a government is tricky. What normally happens is that one of the larger parties ropes in several smaller parties by giving them ministries. Not only does this encourage corruption—each party knows it needs to raise lots of money for elections—but results in political incoherence.


When the Workers Party was elected in 2002 it was unwilling to dilute its programs by bringing ideological opponents into a cabinet, yet the Workers Party needed partners. The solution was cash payouts to legislators, a scheme titled “mensalao” (“monthly payoffs”) that was uncovered in 2005. Once the payoffs were revealed, the Workers party had little choice but to fall back on the old system of handing out ministries in exchange for votes. That is how Temer and the PMBD entered the scene.


With the reputation of Silva and the Workers Party dented by the payoff scheme, the right saw an opportunity to rid themselves of the left, but Silva’s popularity and the success of programs aimed at alleviating poverty made the Workers Party pretty much unassailable at the ballot box. Silva won another landslide election in 2006, and Rousseff was elected twice in 2010 and 2014. In short, the elites could not win elections.


But they could still pull off a very Brazilian coup. First, they hammered at the fact that some Workers Party leaders had been involved in corruption and others implicated in the Petroblas bribery scheme. Rousseff headed up Petroblas before being elected President. While she has never been linked to any of the corruption, it did happen on her watch.


Petroblas is rated the fourth largest company in the world, and it is building tankers, off shore platforms and refineries. That expansion has opened opportunities for graft, and the level of bribery involved could exceed $3 billion. Nine construction companies are implicated in the scandal, as well as more than 50 politicians, legislators and state governors, including the PMDB and the Workers Party.


Rousseff’s biggest mistake was to run on an anti-austerity platform in 2014 and then reversing course after she was elected, putting the brakes on spending. The economy was already troubled and austerity made it worse. The 2005 bribery scheme lost the Workers Party some of the middle class, and the 2014 austerity alienated some of the Party’s working class support.


But it was most likely Rousseff’s decision to green light the Petroblas corruption investigation that spurred her enemies to strike before the probe pulls down scores of political leaders and wealthy construction owners. One of Temer’s ministers was recently caught on tape plotting how to use the impeachment to derail the investigation.


Certainly the campaign aimed at Rousseff was well orchestrated. Brazil’s media—dominated by a few elite families—led the charge. According to Reporters Without Borders, the role of the media was “partisan,” its anti-Rousseff agenda “barely veiled.” Judge Sergio Moro, who is a key figure in the Petroblas investigation, illegally leaked wiretap intercepts that put Silva and Rousseff in a bad light.


Given the makeup of the Brazilian Senate, it is likely Rousseff will be convicted and removed as President. It also appears that Temer will try to roll back many of the programs that successfully narrowed the gap between rich and poor.


Brazil’s economy is in trouble, shrinking 3.7 percent last year. Commodity prices are down worldwide, in large part because of the downturn of China’s economy. Iron ore dropped from $155 to $55 a ton, soya went from $18 to $8 a bushel, and oil from $140 to less than $40 a barrel.


Brazilian debt is rising, but it is still half that of Italy, and unemployment is low, at least by European standards. A return to the austerity policies that destroyed economies all across the southern cone during the 1980s and ‘90s would be a disaster. The worst thing one can do in a recession is curb spending, which stalls out economies and puts countries into a debt spiral.


The austerity policies of the European Union have kept all but a few European economies virtually dead in the water, and those that have shown some growth, like Spain, still post unacceptable unemployment rates. Spain currently has an overall national jobless rate of 21 percent, rising to almost 50 percent among youth. Brazil’s jobless rate is 10.9 percent.


For now, the Workers Party is on the ropes but hardly down and out. It has 500,000 members, and the new government will find it is very difficult to take things away from people now that they have gotten used to having them. Some 35 million people are unlikely to return to their previous poverty without a fight.


One of Temer’s first acts was putting up 100,000 billboards all over the country with the slogan: “Don’t speak of crisis; work!”, which sounds a lot like “shut up.” Brazilians are not noted for being quiet, particularly if the government instituting painful cuts is unelected.


The pressure for new elections is sure to grow, although the current government will do anything it can to avoid them. Sooner or later there will be a reckoning.







Filed under Latin America

Let A Thousand Poles Bloom

Shanghai Cooperation Organization

“Let A Thousand Poles Bloom”

Dispatches From The Edge

Sept. 29, 2014


At the very moment that the Americans and their allies are trying to squeeze Russia and Iran with a combination of economic sanctions and political isolation, alternative poles of power are emerging that soon may present a serious challenge to the U.S. dominated world that emerged from the end of the Cold War.


This past summer, the BRICS countries—Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa—created an alternative to the largely U.S. controlled World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) added 1.6 billion people to its rolls.


The BRICS construction of a Contingent Reserve Arrangement will give its member’s emergency access to foreign currency, which might eventually dethrone the dollar as the world’s reserve currency. The creation of a development bank will make it possible to by-pass the IMF for loans, thus avoiding the organization’s onerous austerity requirements.


Less than a month after the BRICS’ declaration of independence from the current strictures of world finance, the SCO—China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan—approved India, Pakistan, Iran and Mongolia for membership in the organization. It was the single largest expansion of the economic cooperation and security-minded group in its history, and it could end up diluting the impact of sanctions currently plaguing Moscow over the Ukraine crisis and Teheran over its nuclear program.


The Shanghai Cooperation Organization began as the Shanghai Five in 1996, and five years later became the SCO. Even before the recent additions, SCO represented three-fifths of Eurasia and 25 percent of the world’s population.


A major focus of the SCO is security, although the countries involved have different agendas about what that exactly means.


Russia and China are determined to reduce U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) presence in Central Asia to what it was before the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. The SCO has consistently rebuffed U.S. requests for observer status, and has pressured countries in the region to end U.S. basing rights. The U.S. was forced out of Karshi-Khanabad in Uzbekistan in 2006, and from Manas in Kyrgyzstan in 2014.


“At present, the SCO has started to counterbalance NATO’s role in Asia,” says Alexei Maslov, chair of the Department of Oriental Studies of the Higher School of Economics in Moscow, and the new members, he says, want in to safeguard their interests.


Given the current confrontation between NATO and Russia over the Ukraine, and tensions in the East China Sea between the U.S., Japan, and China, Moscow and Beijing may not agree on a number of issues—in 1969 they came to blows over a border dispute—but they are on the same page when it comes to limiting Washington’s influence in their respective backyards.


Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Chang Wanquan said last year “China is ready to work with Russia to…expand the scope of bilateral defense cooperation.” Last month Russia’s Chief of Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov declared that, “Russia is ready to make joint efforts with China to lift the relationship to a new high.” China has been supportive of Russia in the Ukraine crisis.


For Iran, SCO membership may serve as a way to bypass sanctions currently pounding the Iranian economy. Russia and Iran signed a memorandum in August to exchange Russian energy technology and food for Iranian oil, a move that would violate U.S. sanctions. But Moscow—already weathering sanctions that have weakened its economy—may be figuring that there is little more the U.S. can do and still keep its European allies on board. Russian counter sanctions on the European Union (EU) have shoved a number of European countries back into recession, and the EU is worried that Russia will turn east and Europe will lose much of its Russian market share.


To a certain extent, that is already happening. When the 2,500-mile “Power of Siberia” pipeline is completed in 2018, it will supply China with about 15 percent of its natural gas, Russia’s Rosneft and China’s National Petroleum Corporation are jointly exploring oil and gas reserves in the arctic, and the Russians have also offered China a stake in the huge Vankor oil field in East Siberia. Since January 2014, some 30 percent of Russian oil exports have gone to Asia.


Teheran is reaching out to Beijing as well. Iran and China have negotiated a deal to trade Iran’s oil for China’s manufactured goods. Beijing is currently Iran’s number one customer for oil. In late September, two Chinese warships paid a first ever visit to Iran, and the two countries navies carried out joint anti-piracy and rescue maneuvers.


For India and Pakistan, energy is a major concern, and membership in the oil and gas rich SCO is a major plus. Whether that will lead to a reduction of tensions between New Delhi and Islamabad over Kashmir is less certain, but at least the two traditional enemies will be sitting down to talk about economic cooperation and regional security on a regular basis.


There are similar tensions between SCO members Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan over borders, and both countries, plus Tajikistan, have squabbled over water rights.


Most SCO members are concerned about security, particularly given the imminent departure of the U.S. and NATO from Afghanistan. That country might well descend into civil war, one that could have a destabilizing effect on its neighbors. Added to that is the U.S.-NATO-Gulf monarchy jihad against the Assad regime in Syria, a conflict that is raising yet another generation of mujahedeen that will some day reappear in their home countries—some of them SCO members—trained and primed for war.


From Aug. 24 -29, SCO members China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan took part in “Peace Mission 2014,” an anti-terrorist exercise to “subdue” a hypothetical Central Asia city that had become a center for terrorist activity. The drill involved aircraft, 7.000 troops, armored vehicles, and drones, and according to China’s Chief of Staff, Fang Fenghui, was aimed at the “three evil forces of terrorism, separatism, and extremism.”


The problem with General Fang’s definition of “terrorism” is that it can easily be applied to minorities or local groups with legitimate complaints about their treatment by SCO member governments.


China has come down hard on Turkic speaking Uyghurs in Xinjiang Province, who have been resisting marginalization by China’s dominant ethnic group, the Han. Uyghur scholar IIham Tohti was recently sentenced to life imprisonment for “separatist activity.”


Beijing has also suppressed demands for independence or more autonomy by Tibetans—who it also labels “separatists” –even though China has no more a claim over Tibet than Britain did to India or Ireland. All of them were swept up by empires at the point of a sword.


The BRICS and the SCO are the two largest independent international organizations to develop over the past decade, but there are others as well. In Latin America, Mercusur—Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Venezuela—is the third largest trade grouping in the world. Associate members include Chile, Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru. Mexico and New Zealand have observer status. The newly minted Union of South American Nations (USAN) includes every country in South America, including Cuba, and has largely replaced the Cold War relic, the Organization of American States (OAS) that excluded Havana. While the U.S. and Canada are part of the OAS, they were not invited to join USAN.


What role these new organizations will play internationally is not clear. Certainly sanction regimens will be harder to maintain because the SCO and the BRICS create alternatives. South Africa, for instance, announced that it would begin buying Iran oil in the next few months, an important breach in the sanctions against Iran. But being in the same organization does not automatically translate into having the same politics on international questions.


The BRICS and the recent Israeli invasion of Gaza are a case in point. China called for negotiations. Russia was generally neutral (but friendly toward the Netanyahu government, in part because there are lots of Russians in Israel). India was silent—Israel is New Delhi’s number one source of arms. South Africa was critical of Israel, and Brazil withdrew its ambassador


In comparison, NATO was generally supportive of the Israeli actions, Turkey being the odd man out. There is more political uniformity among NATO countries than there is among SCO and BRICS nations, although there is growing opposition in the ranks of the European Union (EU) over Washington’s hard line approach on the Ukraine. The U.S. does $26 billion in trade with Russia, the EU $370 billion. Russia also supplies Europe with 30 percent of its natural gas, although that reaches 100 percent for countries like Finland. Most EU countries—the Baltic nations and Poland being the exceptions—see little percentage in a long, drawn out confrontation with Russia.


These independent poles are only starting to develop and it is hardly clear what their ultimate impact on international politics will be. But the days when the IMF, World Bank, and U.S. Treasury could essentially dictate international finances and intimidate or crush opponents with an avalanche of sanctions are drawing to a close.


The BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization are two nails in that coffin.








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Filed under Asia, Central Asia, China, Europe, India, Iran, Latin America, Pakistan

Day of the Vulture in Argentina

Day of the Vulture in Argentina


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:


Filed under Latin America

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.



Filed under Latin America

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.



Filed under FPIF Blogs, Latin America, Military

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.



Filed under Europe, FPIF Blogs, Latin America

Shadow Warriors: Movin’ On Up

Shadow Warriors: Movin’ On Up


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



Filed under Afghanistan, Asia, FPIF Blogs, Latin America, Military, Pakistan