The Empire Strikes Back at Latin America

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen(Pictured: New Republican chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen.)

For the past decade, American policy vis-à-vis Latin America has been relatively low-key, partly because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and partly because the region has seen an unprecedented growth in economic power and political independence. But, with Republicans taking over the House of Representatives, that is about to change, and, while the Southern Cone no longer stands to attention when Washington snaps its fingers, an aggressive and right-wing Congress is capable of causing considerable mischief.

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fl), a long-time hawk on Cuba and leftist regimes in Venezuela and Bolivia, is the new chair of the powerful House Committee on Foreign Affairs, and the rightist Rep. Connie Mack (D-Fl) heads up the House subcommittee on Western Hemisphere affairs. Ros-Lethinen is already preparing hearings aimed at Venezuela and Bolivia, and Mack will try to put the former on the State Department’s list of countries sponsoring terrorism.

Ros-Lehtinen plans to target Venezuela’s supposed ties to Middle East terrorist groups and Iran’s nuclear weapons program, and to push for economic sanctions against Venezuela’s state-owned oil company and banks. “It will be good for congressional subcommittees to start talking about [President of Venezuela Hugo] Chavez, about [President of Bolivia Evo] Morales, about issues that have not been talked about,” she told the Miami Herald.

The new chairs of the House Intelligence Committee and Judiciary Committee have also signaled they intend to weigh in on establishing a more hawkish line on Latin America.

Unfortunately, it is the Obama administration that created an opening for the Republicans. While the White House came in pledging to improve relations with Latin America, Washington has ended up supporting a coup in Honduras, strengthening the U.S. military’s presence in the region, and ignoring growing criticism of its failed war on drugs.

Recent disclosures by Wikileaks reveal the Obama administration was well aware that the June 2009 Honduran coup against President Manuel Zelaya was illegal; nonetheless, it intervened to help keep the coup forces in power. Other cables demonstrate an on-going American hostility to the Morales regime in Bolivia and Washington’s sympathy with secessionist forces in that country’s rich eastern provinces.

Many Latin Americans initially had high hopes the Obama administration would bring a new approach to its relations with the region, but some say they have seen little difference from the Bush Administration. “The truth is that nothing has changed and I view that with sadness,” says former Brazilian president Luiz Lula da Silva. But things may go from bad to worse if the White House is passive in the face of a sharp rightward turn by Congress.

The Latin America of 2011 is not the same place it was a generation ago. Economic growth has outstripped the U.S. and Europe, progressive and left governments have lifted 38 million people out of poverty, cut extreme poverty by 70 percent, and increased literacy. The region has also increased its south-south relations with countries like China, South Africa and India. China is now Brazil’s number one trading partner. An economic alliance—Mercosur—has knitted the region together economically, and the U.S.-dominated Organization of American States (OAS) finds itself eclipsed by the newly formed Union of South American Nations.

But many countries in Latin America are still riven by wealth disparities, ethnic divides, and powerful ties between local oligarchies and the region’s curse: powerful and undemocratic police and militaries. One such military pulled off the Honduran coup, and police came within a whisker of overthrowing Ecuador’s progressive president, Rafael Correa, in 2010.

One 2007 Wikileaks cable titled “A Southern Cone perspective on countering Chavez and reasserting U.S. leadership,” pointed out “Southern Cone militaries remain key institutions in their respective countries and important allies for the U.S.” The author of the cable, then ambassador to Chile, Craig Kelly, is currently principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State. Kelly strongly recommended increasing aid to Latin American militaries to help them “modernize.”

In many cases, rightists in Latin America share an agenda with right-wing forces in the U.S. For instance, Republicans played a key role in supporting the Honduran coup and continue to strengthen those ties. In a recent trip to Honduras, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Ca)—a senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee—brought together U.S. business leaders and Honduran officials to discuss American investment. Honduras was suspended from the OAS, and only a handful of Latin American governments recognize the new president, Porfirio Lobo.

It was the Obama Administration, however, who recognized the government established by the coup, and remains silent in the face of what Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch calls widespread human rights violations by the Lobos regime, including the unsolved murder of at least 18 opponents. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is lobbying hard to have Honduras re-admitted to the OAS.

A quick survey of Republican targets suggests troubled waters ahead.

Chavez has won two elections and is enormously popular. He has cut poverty, tripled social spending, doubled university enrollment, and extended health care to most of the poor. A U.S. engineered coup seems unlikely. But a “supporter of terrorism” designation would cause considerable difficulties with international financing and foreign investment. Sanctions on oil and banking would also disrupt the Venezuelan economy, in the long run creating conditions favorable to a possible coup.

While it is hard to imagine what else the U.S. could do to Cuba, Congress may try to choke off investment in Cuba’s growing oil and gas industries. Companies are already jumping through hoops to avoid getting around the current embargo. The Spanish oil company Repsol and Italy’s Eni SpA recently built an offshore oil rig in China to dodge the blockade.

“It is ridiculous that Repsol, a Spanish oil company, is paying an Italian firm to build an oil rig in China that will be used next year to explore for oil 50 miles from Florida,” Sarah Stephens, director of the Center for Democracy in the Americas told the Financial Times. If the Republicans have their way, sanctions will be applied to those oil companies.

Ecuador’s Correa beat back a recent right-wing coup, largely because of his 67 percent approval rating. He has doubled spending on health care, increased social spending, and stiffed an illegitimate $3.2 billion foreign debt. But he has a tense relationship with indigenous movements, which accuse him of trying to marginalize them. While those groups did not support the coup, neither did they rally to the government’s support. Those divisions could be easily exploited to destabilize the government.

In the case of Bolivia, the Wikileak-released cables, according to Latin American journalist and author Benjamin Dangl, lay bare “an embassy that is biased against Evo Morales’ government, underestimates the sophistication of the governing party’s grassroots base, and is out of touch with the political reality of the country.”

The cables indicate the U.S. is relying on information from extreme right-wing and violent secessionist groups in Eastern Bolivia, groups that receive financing and training from the National Endowment for Democracy and USAID. Both groups have close ties to American intelligence organizations. Given Brazil’s strong opposition to any attempt to break up Bolivia, it is not clear a succession movement would succeed. But would Brazil—or Argentina, Uruguay or Paraguay—actually intervene?

Paraguay is also a country deeply divided between left and right, with a progressive president who warned last year that a coup by the country’s powerful military was a possibility.

The Obama administration’s acceptance of the Honduran coup sent a chill throughout Latin America, and certainly emboldened those who see tanks and caudillos as an answer to the region’s surge of progressive politics and independent foreign policy. The recent effort by Turkey and Brazil to broker a compromise with Iran over its nuclear program did not go down well in Washington. Neither have efforts to chart an independent course on the Middle East by nations in the region. Several countries have formally recognized a Palestinian state, and Peru will host an Arab-Latin America summit Feb. 16.

Latin America is no longer an appendage to the colossus of the north, but its growing independence is fragile, as the coups in Honduras and Ecuador suggest. The chasm between rich and poor is being closed, but it is still substantial. The economies in the region are growing at a respectable 6 percent, but, because they are relatively small, they can be more easily derailed by internal and external crises. Even as its power wanes, the U.S. is still the world’s largest economy with the world’s largest military. This, plus anti-democratic forces in Latin America, is fertile ground for mischief, particularly if there is not strong resistance on the U.S. home front.

More of Conn Hallinan’s work can be found at Dispatches from the Edge.