08.05.2014 Author: Eric Draitser

The Face of Empire in Latin America (Part 1)

63242In his landmark post-colonial work Culture and Imperialism, the world renowned public intellectual and critical theorist Edward Said wrote, “Just as none of us is outside or beyond geography, none of us is completely free from the struggle over geography. That struggle is complex and interesting because it is not only about soldiers and cannons but also about ideas, about forms, about images and imaginings.” Here, Said is highlighting a fundamental aspect of the hegemony of the Western imperial system in the late 20th and early 21st Centuries: the need for dominance over the physical, political, and discursive space. Specifically, Said argued correctly that contemporary imperialism seeks far more than simply control over land and resources – it seeks a monopoly on information, ideology, and language.

Nowhere is this fact more apparent than in what used to be considered the United States’ imperial backyard: Latin America. The untimely death of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, the great unifier of Latin America in the 21st Century, did little to stem the tide of independence from US political and economic institutions. In fact, it seems that the independent-minded leaders of Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and other countries in the region, have followed Chavez’s lead in retaking control over their nations’ futures. From the expulsion of US military and intelligence forces, to Latin American governments’ taking on powerful multinational corporations, indications that the region is more independent than ever before are now unmistakable.

And so, it is against this backdrop that Washington attempts to reassert its control either directly through its military, or indirectly through destabilizations using a vast array of weapons of “soft power.” It is precisely this “soft power” – the ability to influence events using non-military, non-coercive means – that is at the forefront of the US strategy to maintain hegemony in Latin America. Taken in tandem, Washington’s cocktail of hard and soft power is at the root of the US’s Latin American policy today.

A Less Visible Footprint

As US military and geopolitical priorities shifted heavily to the Middle East and Asia in the wake of September 11th, many in Latin America wondered how this would alter, if at all, Washington’s posture in the region. Because the Bush administration launched it’s so called “War on Terror” and the illegal wars on Afghanistan and Iraq, the US had to alter its strategy in Latin America, moving manpower, logistics, and infrastructure to the Middle East. And so, as a result of this transition, the US military footprint began to change from a painfully overt one to a much more covert presence.

One critical area in which the US military and intelligence apparatus continues to operate extensively is in Colombia fighting the so called “War on Drugs,” which is, in effect, a war on poor farmers in Colombia and, by extension, a war to maintain a compliant client state in that country. The centerpiece of this strategy has been “Plan Colombia” which, though initially envisioned as a “temporary, emergency aid package” by the Clinton administration, was expanded by the Bush administration and has been cemented as essentially America’s “policy” in Colombia.

Although Plan Colombia initially entailed a significant amount of economic development assistance, the vast majority has been used for military equipment and crop eradication. As Julia Sweig wrote in Foreign Affairs in 2002, “The Clinton administration shifted its emphasis from a comprehensive counterdrug program involving social, economic, and democratic development, to a policy that focused on the provision of military assistance and helicopters.”

Essentially then, it becomes clear that Plan Colombia was always about militarization. Rather than fighting a fictitious war, the US policy, intelligence, and military establishment merely used the “War on Drugs” as a convenient pretext by which they could continue to militarize Colombia and expand the US military footprint without actually deploying many US forces. In fact, just totaling the military, police, and economic aid to Colombia for 2010-2015 (with 2015 being projected to grow), the US has given nearly $3 billion to Colombia in the form of “aid” to fight the ongoing war, as the US and Colombia have defined it.

Part of this continued war has been the seemingly endless conflict with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), a more than fifty year old insurgency against the government of Colombia. As the Washington Post reported in late 2013:

A CIA covert action program has helped Colombian forces kill at least two dozen [FARC] rebel leaders…The secret assistance, which also includes substantial eavesdropping help from the National Security Agency, is funded through a multibillion-dollar black budget. It is not a part of the public $9 billion package of mostly U.S. military aid called Plan Colombia, which began in 2000…The previously undisclosed CIA program was authorized by President George W. Bush in the early 2000s and has continued under President Obama…The covert program in Colombia provides two essential services…Real-time intelligence that allows Colombian forces to hunt down individual FARC leaders and, beginning in 2006… a $30,000 GPS guidance kit that transforms a less-than-accurate 500-pound gravity bomb into a highly accurate smart bomb.

A number of critical pieces of information emerge from the Washington Post’s investigation. First is the fact that the National Security Agency (NSA) is an integral part of the overall strategy and execution of US military “assistance.” This illustrates quite clearly that the US is doing far more than providing “aid,” but rather is in the lead in terms of intelligence gathering, financing, technical assistance, and nearly every other aspect of the relationship.

However, perhaps even more striking is the fact that, as the article clearly states, the operations are “funded through a multi-billion dollar black budget.” The black budget – funds that do not come from the formal budget but from other, less transparent (and often illegal) sources – accounts for untold billions of dollars of funding in this and other military and intelligence initiatives. As Dr. Michael Salla of the Center for Global Peace/School of International Service at American University wrote in his critical essay The Black Budget Report: An Investigation into the CIA’s ‘Black Budget’ and the Second Manhattan Project, the black budget is:

A top secret slush fund set up by the DoD [Department of Defense], with the approval of the US Congress, to apparently fund intelligence organizations such as the CIA as well as covert operations and classified weapons programs by the DoD. The ‘black budget’ allows intelligence activities, covert operations and classified weapons research to be conducted without Congressional oversight on the grounds that oversight would compromise the secrecy essential for the success of such ‘black programs’…The ‘black budget’ funds a covert world of unaccountable intelligence activities, covert military/intelligence operations and classified weapons programs…There is however compelling evidence that the covert world of black programs is primarily funded by a black budget created by the CIA rather than the DoD…the CIA has its own ‘unofficial’ black budget that acts as a conduit for funds to be secretly siphoned into the various military intelligence agencies associated with both the CIA and the DoD for intelligence activities, covert operations and weapons research. 

It would seem particularly interesting that precisely those agencies, like the CIA, who are making billions off the illegal drug trade, would be the same ones using their black budget profits to fund their own war, which in turn justifies their continued existence and funding. In what should be described as a military-industrial feedback loop, the CIA and other agencies operating on black budgets become both the financiers and profiteers, with the people, as usual, being victimized.

In addition, the US military has stepped up in recent years its deployment of various Special Forces to Colombia. The US Commander in the region Adm. William McRaven has been Washington’s manager on the ground, pushing for more Special Forces troop deployments (having doubled to more than 65,000), more missions, and more military hardware. Aside from increases, McRaven has been steadily asserting autonomy from much of the military and civilian leadership. As Jim Lobe of IPS News reported, “McRaven has sought the authority to deploy SOF [Special Operations Forces] teams to countries without consulting either U.S. ambassadors there or even the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM)…McRaven’s command even tried to work out an agreement with Colombia to set up a regional special operations coordination centre there without consulting SOUTHCOM or the embassy.”

Aside from Washington’s “War on Drugs,” Colombia serves another critical function within the US imperial system. In a move that may be startling to even keen political observers, NATO is moving to establish a presence in South America. In an agreement signed in 2013, Colombia has taken the first steps towards NATO integration and possibly hosting a permanent NATO military force. Naturally, the region is incredibly wary of NATO as the long and sordid history of US imperialism in Latin America has made the people of the region distrustful of NATO’s intentions to say the least. Nicaraguan President Ortega referred to the deal as a “knife in the back of the people of Latin America.” With NATO “cooperation” in its future, Colombia has moved even further in the direction of being an outpost for the US-NATO military machine.

Naturally, Colombia is not the only country in Latin America hosting a US military presence. In fact, the US has spent more than $20 billion in the region building up its military infrastructure. They are currently in the planning or building stages for new military facilities in Guatemala, Panama, Belize, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, and elsewhere. Moreover, the United States added military facilities in Argentina and Chile in addition to their already robust presence on the continent. Such provocative moves understandably make South American leaders, and the people themselves, very uneasy.

Part 2 of this article will examine the ways in which the US is using “soft power” throughout Latin America, while also presenting an analysis of the resistance to US imperialism being mounted in the region, as well as the emergence of other world powers seeking to provide an alternative to US domination.

Eric Draitser is an independent geopolitical analyst based in New York City, he is the founder of StopImperialism.org and OP-ed columnist for RT, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook