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A socialist newsweekly published in the interests of working people
Vol. 67/No. 31September 15, 2003

lead article
U.S. government boosts military
strength in Latin America
Reuters/Eliana Aponte
U.S. Special Forces troops stand guard at military base in Saravena, Arauca province, Colombia, February 7. U.S. soldiers are there training Colombian army troops to combat government opponents. Visiting Bogotá August 19, U.S. defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced that Washington will strengthen its military presence in region.

In a high-profile visit to Colombia and Honduras in late August by U.S. defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Washington signaled it is now giving increased attention to strengthening its military presence in Central and South America.

The two-day visit registered the end of a period during which the U.S. rulers put their challenges in Latin America on the back burner while focusing on their war on Iraq and occupation of that country, their economic and military offensive in the Mideast and Asia, and efforts to deepen their penetration of Africa.

On August 19 Rumsfeld arrived in Bogotá, Colombia’s capital, where he held press conferences, interviews, and meetings with top government and military officials. He praised Colombian president Alvaro Uribe for an “excellent job” in aggressively using the military to fight “narcoterrorism,” referring to the regime’s war on antigovernment guerrilla organizations, particularly the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

Speaking at a news conference with Defense Minister Marta Ramírez, Rumsfeld said that Washington had lifted the ban on the interdiction of planes allegedly carrying suspected drug traffickers and weapons to “terrorists” in Colombia and other nations in the region. The flights were suspended in 2001 after a Peruvian military jet guided by a CIA spy plane shot down an aircraft carrying five U.S. missionaries, killing Veronica Bowers and her daughter Charity.

The Pentagon chief announced that Washington was considering offering the right-wing government more weapons, troop training, and funds for Plan Colombia, which provides billions of dollars in counterinsurgency support to the Colombian armed forces.

During his visit, the U.S. defense secretary backed Bogotá in its border conflict—which has included armed confrontations—with the government of President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela.

The day after Rumsfeld’s visit to Colombia, the pro-imperialist opposition in Venezuela delivered 2.7 million signatures to the National Elections Council demanding a referendum to oust Chávez from power.

Traveling August 20 to Honduras, where he met with President Ricardo Maduro, Rumsfeld stated that Central America was part of a “global struggle” against “terrorism.” He told U.S. soldiers at Soto Cano Air Base “that he and senior U.S. military officers will be discussing possible realignment of the American military presence in Latin America in coming weeks,” the Reuters news agency reported August 20 .

At Soto Cano, some 500 U.S. troops belonging to a unit called Joint Task Force Bravo conduct military training and counterdrug operations in Central and South America and the Caribbean, according to AP. A U.S. defense official accompanying Rumsfeld told reporters that Washington had recently resumed providing the Honduran regime with radar data as part of interdicting “narcoterrorist” flights.

Soto Cano became a key staging area for U.S. military operations in the region after a decades-long struggle forced the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Panama in 1999.

U.S. officials also praised the Honduran government for having met two of their demands: sending a contingent of troops to be part of the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq, and ratifying a treaty exempting U.S. troops from war-crimes trials.  
‘Focus on U.S. counterinsurgency’
For almost two years, the U.S. rulers have been focused on their war drive and other challenges in South Asia and the Middle East, including their rapid invasion and takeover of Iraq earlier this year, carried out without substantial opposition or high U.S. casualties. They have also been expanding their military intervention and economic domination in Africa, eyeing especially the continent’s oil resources, at the expense of their imperialist rivals.

Under these conditions, Washington has until now been unable to devote the same kind of attention to Latin America, despite developments in which U.S. imperialism has a stake—from Brazil to Argentina, Colombia, Venezuela, and Mexico. For example, despite U.S. hostility toward the Venezuelan government, which Washington views as too independent of its dictates, the Chávez regime has been able to govern without a seriously organized challenge from U.S. imperialism.

The Rumsfeld trip was a demonstrative sign that this period is over—a change that bourgeois commentators noted. “Mr. Rumsfeld’s visit, his first to Latin America during the Bush administration,” reported the Australian daily The Age, “put a sharper focus on U.S. counterinsurgency efforts in the region, which has been largely ignored during the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.”

The Pentagon chief’s visit was part of a string of trips to the region by high-level U.S. government officials. On August 11-12, Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, stopped in Bogotá to meet with President Uribe, Defense Minister Ramírez, and Colombia’s top army brass. He was preceded by U.S. trade representative Robert Zoeller, who dangled the offer of a bilateral “free trade” agreement. And in late July, U.S. drug czar John Walters dropped in together with U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs Marc Grossman and Gen. James Hill, head of the U.S. Southern Command.

The centerpiece of expanding U.S. military intervention in Colombia has been Plan Colombia, launched in 2000 by the Clinton administration. Washington has so far spent $2.5 billion in Plan Colombia, making Bogotá the third largest recipient of U.S. military funding after Israel and Egypt.

Plan Colombia was initially presented as “fighting drug trafficking,” despite ample evidence that it was above all about increasing U.S. military intervention in a region where the U.S. ruling families have vast economic interests and that has been shaken by social turmoil. Last year, however, the U.S. government officially expanded the brief of its military mission in Colombia to include support to the Colombian regime’s “war on terrorism,” that is, its decades-long battle against the 18,000-member FARC and a smaller guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army (ELN). Media reports estimate that the two guerrilla organizations have effective control over 40 percent of Colombian territory, overwhelmingly in rural areas.

Since coming into office a year ago, the Uribe regime has launched an even more aggressive counterinsurgency drive, with Washington’s active support.

Earlier this year, the Bush administration dispatched 150 U.S. troops to Colombia. The pretext used was the capture of three U.S. “civilian contractors” by FARC combatants when their Pentagon-owned Cessna crashed in rebel-held territory. The added troops increased the official U.S. military strength in Colombia to 400—the limit set by the U.S. Congress. They are supplemented by another 300 “contract workers.”

U.S. Special Forces have trained 15 regular Colombian army battalions. U.S. troops are also training a special unit whose job is to protect Occidental Petroleum’s oil operations in the country’s northeast. Colombia is the seventh-largest supplier of oil to the United States. In fact, U.S. companies import more oil from Venezuela, Ecuador, and Colombia combined than from the entire Arab-Persian Gulf region.

A host of U.S. military contractors such as Lockheed Martin and DynCorp are involved in logistical, training, and maintenance work for the Colombian military and police, which are equipped with U.S. helicopters, planes, and arms. Under the banner of fighting “terrorism,” the Uribe regime has stepped up repression against working-class and farm struggles. Much of this repression is carried out by the army-backed death squads organized by drug-running landlords and capitalists.

Struggles by the miners union at coal mines in northern Colombia owned by Alabama-based Drummond Co., and by the food workers union at a Coca-Cola bottling plant, have been targeted by paramilitary groups, which have assassinated union militants.

Plan Colombia was expanded last year into the Andean Regional Initiative, which includes funding for Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Venezuela, Brazil, and Bolivia. Half of the funds are for these seven governments’ military and police, according to the U.S. State Department.

The expanding U.S. military presence in the region includes the U.S. air base at Manta, Ecuador; dozens of “drug interdiction” bases in Bolivia and Peru; and semisecret military bases in eastern Paraguay.  
New pressure on Chávez government
One focus of the conflict is Venezuela, where Washington is worried about heightened expectations by working people for land, jobs, and better living conditions since the election of Chávez. The oil-rich country remains polarized between the continuing popular support for Chávez and the pro-imperialist opposition that is pushing for a referendum to recall the president.

As part of the U.S.-backed campaign against the current regime in Venezuela, Colombian military officials have charged that the government in Caracas is allowing its territory to be used as a refuge and supply route by FARC and ELN guerrillas. During his visit to Bogotá, General Myers “compared Venezuela to Iraq’s neighbors that allow ‘weapons or fighters’ to cross the border,” according to Dow Jones reporter Charles Roth. “It’s not helpful when countries don’t fully support the antiterrorism fight,” Myers was quoted as saying in reference to the Venezuelan government. And while in Colombia Rumsfeld suggested, without naming the country, that Venezuela should open its airspace to U.S.-backed Colombian surveillance flights.

In January, Gen. Hill, chief of the U.S. Southern Command, told a conference in New York that “narcoterrorists” and Islamic groups were using Venezuela’s Margarita Island to launder money, Dow Jones reported.

Other areas of heightened social conflict in Latin America include:

  • Brazil, where Washington is concerned that the new government of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva will not be able to push back union struggles and land takeovers by peasants.
  • Argentina, which has not recovered from the economic collapse that hit the country 20 months ago, and where working-class resistance against plant shutdowns and unemployment persists.
  • Chile and Uruguay, where the unions recently carried out general strikes in response to the impact of the economic depression on working people.
  • The Dominican Republic, which in late August flared anew with popular protests against a belt-tightening agreement dictated by the International Monetary Fund.

These are the kinds of developments that concern Wall Street and that drive Washington’s increasing military presence in Latin America.

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