“The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was to convince the world that he didn’t exist.”
–The Unusual Suspects
Though this famous line emerged from one of the most iconic crime-heist movies of all time, it is just as fitting to the United States’ machinations in Latin America. Of course, few today see the US as benign, or are ignorant of the US’ role in the region. However, even those on the left sometimes forget just how omnipresent and involved the US is in Latin America’s domestic problems and contradictions. As the left forgets this truth, it grows confused and disillusioned with the experiments occurring in Latin America. To properly understand the crises facing progressive parties in Latin America, we must distinguish between its own internal contradictions and those created and instigated by the United States. Only then can we understand the experiments undertaken in Latin America, correctly apply their lessons to our own situation, and find our role in ensuring their success.
Latin America has often been referred as to the “backyard of the United States.” The US’ first act of foreign policy was directed at Latin America in 1823, when US President James Monroe warned Europe against the establishment of any additional colonies in Latin America. Since then, the US has deepened its hold not only on the region’s economy but also on its military, politics, and culture, allowing the US to dominate Latin America for nearly 200 years. Latin America has been important to the US not simply because both cohabit the Western Hemisphere, but also because of Latin America’s vast natural resources: 19.6% of US oil comes from Latin America and Latin America has the world’s greatest abundance of fresh water. 1
The rise of left and center-left governments in Latin America (commonly referred to as the Pink Tide) brought and empowered by mass movements against neoliberalism 2 has been trying to shake off the shackles of US Imperialism by building alliances amongst themselves regionally and searching for new relations of production domestically. Thus, while the US strategy of hemispheric domination remains the same, its tactic has had to adapt: Overt intervention is no longer viable. US intervention must be more insidious: strengthening the elites’ economic sabotage and destabilization while dividing and conquering the Pink Tide bloc, all the while brandishing its military and projecting a distorted reality to the rest of the world (through a compliant media) of failed and authoritarian governments.
Qualitative Shift in Latin America
In the 1960s and 70s, US foreign policy involved direct support of dictatorships through CIA support, guidance, and intervention. 3 Yet by the 1980s, the US had shifted to a different model of control: low-intensity pro-US democracies backed by economic and military support. These were technically “democracies” because people could vote, but the elite-dominated parties were fundamentally the same in their support of neoliberalism and adoption of IMF structural readjustment.
As a result of globalization and these polyarchies, Latin America experienced economic deterioration and suffering. The 1980s and 90s are often referred to as the “lost decades in Latin America” for the various structural adjustment programs that were carried out at the behest of the IMF and World Bank. Despite representative democracy, no party offered an alternative to IMF – and World Bank-prescribed neoliberalist policies. During this period Latin American countries low or negative growth led to extreme poverty and suffering. The backlash came in 1999 when Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez came into power. He was followed by Lula (Brazil) and Kirchner (Argentina) in 2003, Vasquez (Uruguay) in 2004, Morales (Bolivia) in 2006, and Correa (Ecuador) and Ortega (Nicaragua) in 2007. They seized political power and began to connect with Cuba and each other through regional blocs such as ALBA, UNASUR, CELAC. 4 Domestically, they transformed people’s expectations of democracy and government.
Divide and Conquer
The first line of defense against US intervention and meddling in the region is the alliance/solidarity formed between the various countries of the Pink Tide. Until the rise of the Pink Tide in 1999, the Organization of American States (the only multilateral body that includes all countries in the Western Hemisphere except Cuba) reflected only the US interests in the region. The sub-regional alliances such as ALBA, UNASUR, MERCOSUR, and CELAC that formed amongst progressive governments created greater autonomy from the US. Its influence spilled into the OAS. In 2009, despite US opposition, member countries voted to reinstate Cuba as a member. 5
Nonetheless, Latin America has recently drifted towards the right. With the rise to power of conservative Temer in Brazil (through the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff) and Macri in Argentina (through election), an opening exists for the US and elite allies throughout Latin America to divide and conquer those blocs seeking independence from the US. Recently, countries of the OAS signed a statement demanding that the Maduro government in Venezuela dialogue with the domestic opposition (despite their unreasonable preconditions) and that a recall referendum be carried out immediately (despite the necessary signatures not having been collected and the time necessary to plan such a referendum making it impossible to hold one until next year): 6 If a recall referendum takes place next year and succeeds, instead of a new election, the vice-president would ascend to the presidency.
An important tool in dividing and conquering the Pink Tide has been the Pacific Alliance, an open integration project that involves Chile, Peru, Mexico, and Colombia. Their coastlines place them in a strategic location for trade with Asia, the emerging center of the world’s economy’. Their close economic (free trade agreements) and military (US bases) alliance with the US and status as TPPA members for three of the countries 7 makes the US-led TPPA a natural route to achieving their goal of increasing trade with Asia. Their large share of the region’s GDP (35%), trade (50%), and their access to Asia make them a powerful contender against UNASUR and MERCOSUR. This potential source of economic growth as the gateway to Asia may offer the economic alternative that conservative governments need to wrest power from the more closed regional integration and cooperation of progressive governments. Until now conservative governments have not been able to offer an alternative to progressive governments that is acceptable to a politically-conscious and charged electorate. The Pacific Alliance provides a source of economic growth that could potentially allow the introduction and adoption of neoliberal policies that while corrosive to direct democracy and people power could offer economic growth during a time of economic difficulty. Furthermore, the Pacific Alliance provides a conservative regional bloc for those conservatives to join immediately after they come into power. After conservative Argentinian president Mauricio Macri came into power, he reversed the position of the previous progressive administration and joined Argentina as an observer nation for the Pacific Alliance. One particularly grave example of the potential of the Pacific Alliance to disrupt UNASUR occurred in 2013 when Latin American presidents of the Pacific Alliance 8 were absent from the meeting held by UNASUR condemning the US-instigated forced landing of the plane transporting Bolivian President Evo Morales. 9 The absence was even more pronounced given that Peru was UNASUR’s pro-tempore president at the time. 10
Not only does the Pacific Alliance disrupt efforts at political independence from the United States, it also fractures efforts to strengthen a feeble regional economy. 11 By preventing state cooperation and intervention in the economy, free trade based on the Washington Consensus (which all four of the countries are a part of) prevents Latin America from developing past an extractivist economy. 12 Only regional integration that looks inward (and is thus protectionist) such as ALBA or even MERCOSUR can create the space for national economies to develop protected from competition with developed countries. At best, the Pacific Alliance competes against MERCOSUR’s more regionally-based development; at worst, it threatens to co-opt it.
The first line of defense against US intervention in the region is regional solidarity. However, if the US is to bring down progressive Latin American governments, then it must ultimately break the will and spirit of the masses that empower and drive it. This is especially true because the social transformation begun when Chavez took power in 1999 wrested political power from the elite but not economic and bureaucratic power. On the one hand, the threat of US economic and military intervention limits nationalization and transformation of the economy. On the other, US support and funding embolden and strengthen the opposition’s efforts to regain political power by discrediting progressive governments as ineffective, inefficient, and corrupt. For Venezuela, this involves a multi-pronged economic and public relations campaign by the opposition to diminish Chavez’s successor Maduro as incompetent and the cause of Venezuela’s economic problems on the one hand while on the other, actively sabotaging domestic production and the economy. Economic suffering and pain is then translated into political power with the media and political expertise of the (US State Department-supported) US Agency for International Development (USAID) and National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which are then consolidated to create the conditions for a counter-revolution. One fruit of the economic and cultural war waged on the Latin American left was the Venezuelan opposition’s victory in the 2015 elections when they won a majority of the Parliament.
The magnitude of the US’ meddling in Latin America’s civil society can also be seen in its allocation of $2.2 billion towards Latin America through the US State Department and USAID, with $447 million dedicated to “promoting democracy” (code for “promoting pro-US polyarchies”). 13 Instances of US intervention through NED and USAID in Latin America, particularly ALBA countries, is well documented 14 and has included every single major event in Venezuela starting with the 2002 coup attempt and including Bolivia’s 2005-2006 separatist movement. Yet, USAID and NED intervention goes beyond funding provided to the opposition to also include the vast knowledge and global human network of US agencies and connections put at the disposal of its client organizations. Events are organized by NED and its subsidiary organizations that encourage networking and the sharing of experiences between conservative opposition movements across Latin America. In other instances, it provides spaces of capacity-building for these organizations. In 2009, the US State Department sponsored the “Alliance of Youth Movements” inviting youth groups from the Venezuelan opposition to participate in a conference that involved social network site companies (e.g. Google, Facebook, Twitter) on how to best use their technologies to wage their campaigns. One panel included social network site experts from President Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. These tactics were later used during the Guarimbas to exaggerate the magnitude of the protests as well as manipulate and fabricate images of police repression. In response to these interventions, the ALBA governments have outlawed political funding by USAID and NED. In a testament to the power of US imperialism, however, both USAID and NED continue to violate the law and national sovereignty by publicly funding the political opposition.
The Steel Behind the Soft Power
Soft power is effective and commanding because of US military presence in the region. Not only does the US conduct military exercises along the waters of Latin America and have the ability to launch fighter jets throughout Latin America at an instant, it also financed and trained 15 much of the military and police in Latin America and continues to do so under the pretext of the war on drugs and terrorism.
The US Southern Command was established in 1964, after the Cuban Revolution. 16 While many of its bases were closed down in ALBA countries, US Air Force bases in Honduras and Colombia still make possible the instant deployment of US fighters all across the continent. In 2008, the US Navy’s Fourth Fleet was reestablished. While this military presence is justified as central to the wars on drugs and terrorism, its ultimate goal is “to conduct military operations and promote security cooperation to achieve US strategic objectives” which involves ensuring “favorable security conditions by enabling effective sovereignty.” It’s clear that by “effective sovereignty” the US did not mean “national sovereignty” when the USS George Washington was found by Venezuelan waters on the day of its 2015 December Parliamentary elections. 17 Such brandishing of military might is a constant reminder that US military might is a clear and present danger. This brandishing of power becomes more alarming as it comes after President Obama’s March 2015 executive order declaring a national emergency “with respect to the usual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States posed by the situation in Venezuela.” For Obama, US National Security and Foreign Policy extends not only past its borders but also across into Venezuela’s and into its domestic politics: 18 A baldfaced violation of national sovereignty.
A more insidious exercise of US influence and power in the region is its financing, training, and arming of the military and police across Latin America, also under the pretext of the wars on drugs and terrorism. Plan Colombia, which covers South America, trained some 72,000 Colombian soldiers and police during 1999 to 2008, and from 2000 to 2012, it spent nearly $8 billion. From 2008 and 2013, Plan Merida, which covers Mexico and Central America, received over $2 billion. Under President Obama, Plan Merida was expanded to also include the Central American Regional Security Initiative, which received $574 million during that same period to train and equip police with surveillance equipment. 19 While the funds were ostensibly to more effectively wage the war on drugs, this same military and police carried out coups, repressed, and murdered left and progressive social movements and activists, such as the assassination of Berta Caceres and many others in Honduras. This intimate connection between the United States military and that of its allies (and non-allies) throughout Latin America gives the US great discretionary power in implementing its orchestrated interventions. Shortly after announcing Honduras’ entry to ALBA and the planned conversion of a US air force base into a civilian airport, the democratically-elected Honduran president Manuel Zelaya fell to a coup carried out by Romeo Vasquez, a graduate from the US School of the Americas. The US feared that Honduras would swell the Pink Tide into Central America. Immediately after the coup, NED supported civil society intervention legitimized the coup by denying it was a coup and instead calling it a rescue of democracy from Zelaya. 20 Despite the illegitimate coup and opposition from other Latin American countries, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met with Zelaya and pressured him to reach a compromise with those behind the coup. After the elections (carried out by those involved in the coup), only the United States gave its stamp of approval through two NED-affiliated institutes: The International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute, whose presence legitimized the election as international observers.
Media Blackout, Distortion, and Isolation
Even as the US greatly handicaps an independent regionalism and progressive governments in Latin America through soft and hard power, it is able to do so more or less under impunity because of the distortion and isolation carried out by the media. At its worst, media coverage of Latin America has not simply confused and pushed away the general population in the US and around the world, it has also done the same to Latin American progressive governments’ traditional allies: the left around the world. For example, the NED and USAID-assisted Facebook and Twitter offensive against the Maduro government manipulated and at times completely fabricated photographs to portray the “student movement” protests as being peaceful or being anti-establishment. Not only were photos cropped and misrepresented, but dramatic photos stolen from protests that had occurred elsewhere in the world were used to grab people’s attention and win their sympathies. 21 The corporate-dominated media has played along and parroted this line. As a result, disillusionment, despair, and confusion have crept in, with many previous supporters on the left withdrawing their solidarity and interest in Latin America’s experiments and social transformation. As Jeanette Charles of Witness for Peace told me, “Even people in the left that I’ve worked with for a long time won’t come to Venezuela. There’s this huge abandonment of the Bolivarian process. If Venezuela falls, I don’t know what will happen given its importance in the world.” The greater the media blackout and isolation, the greater the shadow under which the US can intervene and meddle in the affairs of Latin America.
The progressive governments of Latin America have their limitations and commit errors. As they grapple with ideas and reality to construct the alternatives to free the world from neoliberalism, they must be allowed to commit errors and be given the opportunity to learn from them, and thus overcome their limitations. It is the role of the left and progressives around the world to hold back the forces of US imperialism and intervention in the area. In order to do that, we must understand where a domestic error ends and foreign intervention begins. We must expose and stop the “devil” acting amongst us. Latin America’s success can become a great boon for our movements; but its failure will be a deep blow.
Special Thanks to Jeanette Charles of Witness for Peace, Michael Fox of Telesur, Professor William Robinson of University of California Santa Barbara, Professor Pedro dos Santos of Luther College, and Cindy Wiesner of Grassroots Global Justice for sharing your knowledge, insights, and time with me. Thank you to Manuel Criollo of the Labor/Community Strategy Center, Karla Peña of Cornell, and Professor Paul Sneed of Seoul National University for connecting us.
written by Dae-Han Song (Chief Editor, World Current Report)
- regarding oil http://www.npr.org/2012/04/11/150444802/where-does-america-get-oil-you-may-be-surprised
regarding water ↩
- In 2005, the Bush Jr. driven Free Trade Area of the Americas was defeated. Continental wide networks of social movements were created to mobilize and educate the public against it. Later, its alternative, ALBA, was empowered and informed by the proposals and support of these movements. ↩
- The most representative and damning example of US CIA intervention in Chile are its initial failed attempt to block President Salvador Allende’s election and then in its support of his assassination and coup by General Pinochet. https://nacla.org/article/declassifying-us-intervention-chile ↩
- In Spanish, ALBA stands for Alianza Bolivariana de los pueblos de nuestra America (Bolivarian Alliance of the People of our America), UNASUR stands for Unión de Naciones Suramericanas (Union of South American Nations), MERCOSUR stands for Mercado Comun del Sur (Common Market of the South), finally CELAC stands for Community of Latin American and Caribbean States. ↩
- Cuba has not yet accepted membership into the OAS. ↩
- https://venezuelanalysis.com/news/12128 ↩
- Chile, Peru, Mexico are part of the TPPA. ↩
- The three presidents that are also a part of UNASUR that did not attend were from Chile, Colombia, and Peru. While a part of the Pacific Alliance, Mexico is not a part of UNASUR. ↩
- The reason for the force landing of Evo Morales’ the plane had to do with suspicion that it carried NSA whistleblower become US fugitive Edward Snowden. ↩
- http://www.aporrea.org/tiburon/n232279.html%3E ↩
- Due to the legacy of colonialism, Latin American economies are still geared towards the export of primary goods to developed countries as opposed to regional trade. Only 20% of Latin American exports go to other countries in the region. This is in stark contrast to North America and Asia, where 50% of their exports go to neighboring countries, and Europe where 70% is inter-European trade. ↩
- Latin America’s position in the global economy – the legacy of colonialism and neoliberalism – has prevented and prevents it from industrializing and diversifying its economy. ↩
- http://www.rebelion.org/docs/122608.pdf ↩
- Just in Venezuela alone, the NED and USAID were involved in the 2002 Venezuelan failed coup and economic strike, the 2004 anti-Chavez recall referendum, and the 2014-2016 Guarimbas. They were also involved in the 2005-2006 separatist movement in Bolivia. This is all extensively documented in the book “USAID, NED, y CIA: La Agresion Permanente” (USAID, NED, and CIA: The Permanent Aggression). http://www.rebelion.org/docs/122608.pdf ↩
- The School of the Americas located in Fort Benning, Georgia has trained 64,000 Latin American soldiers in counterinsurgency techniques, sniper training, commando and psychological warfare, military intelligence and interrogation tactics. http://www.soaw.org/about-the-soawhinsec/what-is-the-soawhinsec ↩
- The Argentine intellectual Atilio Boron notes that while the Southern Command (in charge of all Latin America below Mexico (Mexico being part of the US Central Command) was created in 1964, the next command, the Africa Command, was created nearly 40 years later. In other words, domination of Latin America is of utmost importance to the United States. ↩
- http://www.laht.com/article.asp?CategoryId=10717&ArticleId=2401334 ↩
- https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2015/03/09/fact-sheet-venezuela-executive-order ↩
- https://nacla.org/article/us-re-militarization-central-america-and-mexico ↩
- http://www.rebelion.org/docs/122608.pdf ↩
- The booklet “Venezuela se Respeta” [Respect Venezuela] details the media fabrication and manipulation of images on Facebook and Twitter. https://www.scribd.com/document/215252629/Venezuela-Se-Respeta-Respect-Venezuela ↩