US Demands a Secure, Complaint Hemisphere Janette Habel

“The key question about the defence of the American hemisphere is: what is the threat? In the past, the Americas faced a relatively well-defined threat that the average American could understand (1). Today that threat has become infinitely more complex and more difficult to define.”

That was Professor Lewis Arthur Tambs, diplomat, historian, professor at Arizona State University and the author of a report on the future of the Americas, summarised in nine points the nine Ds the guiding principles for the hemisphere’s security before 11 September. (They are defence, drugs, demography, debt, deindustrialisation, populist post-cold war democracy, destabilisation, deforestation and the decline of the United States (2).

There is no T in this alphabet of security, terrorism is classified under drugs, narcoterrorism being “the alliance between terrorist organisations, drug traffickers and organised crime, a deadly symbiosis destroying the vital elements of western civilisation”.

But the war against drugs occupies a central place, for the Clinton administration was accused of failing to keep its promises to eradicate drug trafficking. Populist democracy refers to the Venezuelan government of President Hugo Chávez, and demography to the risk to the US from migration (the most recent US census underlines the growth in the Hispanic population, 58% in 10 years, more than 35m people).

To understand this definition of US security, we must start with the post-cold war disappearance of the “communist threat”. After the fall of the dictatorships in the 1980s, the return to democracy was accompanied by a short-lived stability as political openness and the market economy raised hopes. But since the 1990s free-market democracy has declined, social crises have worsened and instability returned.

Economic and financial crises

Mexico in 1995, Brazil and Ecuador in 1999, Argentina now have had disastrous consequences and social and political conditions caused protests. These include big demonstrations by peasants in Bolivia, an uprising by the indigenous population in Ecuador and the toppling of President Fernando de la Rua in Argentina. Civil war in Colombia threatens to destabilise the whole region while the Chávez government irritates Washington.

Although the US is not threatened militarily by an enemy power, these troubles renewed security concerns. Defined as “non-traditional transnational threats”, terrorism, drug trafficking, mass migration and environmental degradation are the new enemy. The political and economic instability that has served historically to legitimise intervention by the US and other countries is re-emerging as a potential threat to regional security, according to US researchers Joseph Tulchin and Ralph Espach (3). This is especially the case now the war against Colombian insurgents, who control almost half the Colombian territory, looks likely to spread to Venezuela, Panama, Ecuador and Brazil, heightening tension and bringing more troops to the borders. The sources say US policy towards Colombia is to extend the conflict.

A new security architecture

It is becoming urgent for the US to respond to these non-traditional threats now that the House of Representatives has approved the Trade Promotion Authority (“fast track”) and that the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) is being established. The Centre for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) finds a close relationship between the construction of the FTAA and a new “security architecture in the Americas” (4). It reports that economic change has been more rapid than change in security, provoking a rise in violence from populations who survive illegally.

Since the countries of the Americas are considered too weak to meet that challenge alone, they must develop a coherent defence policy for the hemisphere, defining the aims and institutions necessary to strengthen inter-American security. The events of 11 September should help by speeding the reforms, already started, to continental institutions created at the start of the cold war. Ten days after the Twin Towers fell, there was an extraordinary meeting of the Organisation of American States (OAS) to discuss a response, at which the Argentine foreign minister said: “The Inter-American Mutual Assistance Treaty (TIAR) is fully in force and up to date. It allows us to discuss the rules and create political framework for any military response.” His words surprised. All the countries in the hemisphere (except Cuba) belong to the Treaty, which dates to 1947.

It has not been invoked since the Falklands war between Britain and Argentina in 1982, when Washington refused to implement it and backed London, showing contempt for the letter of the treaty, which states that an attack on one member must be considered an attack on them all. (Similar to Article 5 of the Nato treaty.) By coincidence, a few days before the 11 September attacks, Mexican president Vicente Fox had described the TIAR as out of date and useless.

The Argentine reference to the TIAR was nevertheless approved unanimously by the foreign ministers convened by Brazilian president Fernando Enrique Cardoso; the governments of the continent believed the attacks of 11 September were a threat to the family of the Americas and the hemisphere’s security. Last June the OAS general assembly failed to reach agreement on adopting the inter-American democratic charter, which “legitimises a right to interfere”. It was adopted by acclamation and without debate at the OAS assembly in Lima in September, although there are serious reservations about some of its articles. Intended to “preserve and strengthen representative democracy”, in particular against attempted coups, the charter’s rules are ambiguous enough to allow a right to interfere in any member country. If the government of a member state considers that “its democratic political institutional process or its legitimate exercise of power is at risk, it may request assistance from the secretary general or the permanent council for the strengthening and preservation of its democratic system”. The OAS permanent council may then “adopt measures for the preservation of the democratic system or its strengthening” and, if it finds that system has been “altered”, it may “adopt the decisions it deems appropriate”, “including the undertaking of diplomatic initiatives.” The word including is vague. Who says what an “alteration of the constitutional regime” really means?

Roger Noriega, the US permanent representative to the OAS, has stressed that “resolutions approved by the OAS are not rhetoric; they provide the framework for action. They represent legislation that sets policy for the OAS member governments” (5). But who has the power to take decisions in an organisation that has just demonstrated its alignment with the US hyperpower?

Preventive diplomacy

President Clinton’s assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs, Peter Romero, called in 2000 for the creation of a special OAS anti-crisis fund, a “preventive diplomacy” mechanism that could be used in Argentina to prevent social explosions leading to an institutional crisis. That was not the first time the idea of formalising a regional intervention mechanism, a support group of friendly countries to deal with crises, had appeared on the agenda. But previous attempts to set up such a fund had failed.The OAS’s military arm, the inter-American defence board, regrets that “the lack of a well-defined and consistent legal framework to regulate the actions carried out by the multinational contingency forces in the Hemisphere hampers the participation by the member states when a situation requires it and encourages reluctance to join these missions” (6). A multilateral force has now been proposed to fight against terrorism with the agreement of the Argentine government, the US’s non-Nato ally, which, before its fall, declared itself willing to take part in military action.

Washington’s main concern, the establishment of collective defence mechanisms for multinational operations, as part of its strategy for the region, involves a permanent expansion of multilateral security organisations. Apart from the inter-American defence board, there is the committee for hemispheric security, set up in 1995. Since 1995, the defence ministerial of the Americas (DMA) has met twice a year; according to former US Secretary of State for Defence William Cohen, it is designed to strengthen personal relations and create a consensus for crisis management. The chiefs of staff of the armed forces also meet regularly. In 1999, the OAS assembly set up the inter-American committee against terrorism (CICTE) to devise a structure to assist all OAS member states.But America’s strategists think these bodies are not constraining enough to make up for the supposed weakness of the OAS security framework: fearing the power of the US, the countries of Latin America are unwilling to sacrifice their national priorities for regional gains (7). There is resistance to the transnationalisation of armies and military operations and the construction of collective defences. But the idea is gaining ground.

US officers are clever at gaining the support of their colleagues in the rest of the continent, and some of the military see this as a way of modernising equipment and making their units more professional. In June 2000 Brazil signed Protocol 505 to receive arms and equipment. In exchange, the US may enter Brazilian bases and take possession of the Alcantara satellite launching base, having “absolute control of it”. No Brazilian will be allowed to enter without the prior agreement of the Pentagon (8). There was outrage at this, because neither the Brazilian parliament’s foreign affairs committee nor its defence committee were informed. The sale of F-16 fighter aircraft to Chile is part of the same plan. It allowed Ricardo Lagos’s government to placate a vociferous army and satisfy the US arms industry, a powerful lobby with the Bush administration.

In a region where feelings run high because of its geopolitical importance and its oil reserves, the Puebla-Panama Plan (PPP) will bring together all the countries of Central America and the southeast of Mexico. This explains the creation of Mexican anti-terrorist units (given the proximity of Chiapas). It also explains why the Mexican government has refused to grant the Zapatistas any autonomy, since financial capital expects to control strategic resources unhindered. The southern border of this trade corridor, between Mexico and Guatemala, will be militarised to control migration. Mexico’s purchases of military equipment have grown by 300% (9) and, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Latin American countries’ arms expenditure has grown by 59% since the 1980s. Once unpopular, more multilateral military exercises are now being held, and the US army’s southern command (Southcom) operates, often secretly, on principles decided in regional meetings.

Presented as a change in doctrine, this US multilateralism has two purposes. The first is to cut costs: as Patrice M Franko says, the US needs to conserve its defence resources, and conducting training exercises with 32 countries would be too expensive (10). The second is to spread risks and share losses while extending the US presence and retaining unilateral control of decisions. “For Washington, multilateralism means asking allies for a blank cheque, letting them do the dirty work and putting in machinery to interfere in their affairs,” says a Brazilian.

Who are the terrorists?

The vagueness of definitions is another cause for concern when the OAS wants to draw up an inter-American convention to prevent and combat terrorism. Steven Monblatt, the US diplomat who chairs the CICTE, notes that there are two terrorisms: “indigenous terrorism, where a group’s aspirations or political agenda are restricted to one country, and groups with international links.” When a journalist remarked that it was hard to define terrorism universally, Monblatt refused to distinguish between national and other terrorist groups.

“We don’t look at the cause. We look at the action that’s committed in the name of the cause,” he said. But who are the terrorists? In Brazil, the military has often described the Landless Peasants’ Movement (MST) a terrorist. In Mexico, the Zapatistas have been accused. The CIA national intelligence council and the Chilean military research centre have identified “a new challenge to internal security”: the indigenous threat, from Mexico to Tierra del Fuego (11). On 20 September last year the inter-American defence board considered a scenario where the extension of a conflict “could lead to a supra-regional war with ethnic and religious dimensions”. “I’ve told Hugo Chávez and the Colombian guerrillas to watch out,” said Darc Costa coordinator of the centre for strategic studies of the Brazilian war academy (12).

Things are moving fast. Pragmatic leaders are skilful at combining multilateral diplomatic negotiations with bilateral trade agreements, while relying on local allies to start practical work. Last year, the Argentines were surprised to find that joint manoeuvres involving 1,300 men from nine countries (13), including the US, were taking place on their territory in the presence of Colombian observers. The exercise (Ejercicio Cabanas 2001) was in the Salta region, epicentre of demonstrations led by piqueteros (unemployed people who set up roadblocks). Sponsored and financed by the US, they were the largest-scale manoeuvres in the region. More surprising was the scenario, an imaginary ethnic conflict between the Independent Republic of Sudistan and the Free Federation of Sudistan. A multinational UN force was deployed to restore peace, led jointly by Southcom special forces chief, US General Reno Butler, and Argentine general Jorge Alberto Olivera, commander of a brigade once led by former dictator Jorge Videla.

For Olivera, “training battalions with a shared doctrine and common language could serve the future formation of coalition for a UN mission.” But Argentine deputy Torres Molina sees it in reality as “a rehearsal for participation in a multinational force in Colombia”. The Argentine parliament, which alone can authorise foreign troops to enter the country, was not consulted. Nobel peace laureate Adolfo Perez Esquivel, president of the Justice and Peace Service (Serpaj), believes the US is pushing for “a remilitarisation of Latin America in anticipation of a growing number of social conflicts connected with the extension of free trade agreements”.

In September the inter-American defence board report admitted as much when it referred to extreme poverty, the rise of indigenous nationalist movements and increasing unemployment as potential causes of instability and violence in the region. The special conference on security in Mexico in 2004 is expected to confirm the board as the hemisphere’s only military organisation, responsible for monitoring the employment of multinational forces and ensuring effective linkage between political and military authorities. That is what some call recolonisation.


Reference :

Lecturer at the university of Marne-la-Vallée and the Institut des hautes études d’Amérique latine (IHEAL)

(1) This means the fight against “communist subversion”,which was used to justify support for dictatorships.

(2) James P Lucier, “Santa Fe IV Latinoamérica hoy” United States Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, Washington, 2000.

(3) Joseph Tulchin and Ralph Espach, “A call for strategic thinking”, in Latin America in the new international system, Lynne Rienner Publishers, Boulder (US) and London, 2001.

(4) Toward a new security architecture in the Americas. The strategic implications of the FTAA, Patrice M Franko, The CSIS Press, Vol. XXII, No 3, Washington, 2000.

(5) Roger Noriega, “The Western hemisphere alliance: the OAS and US interests”, Heritage Foundation Lecture, Washington, 20 November 2001.

(6) Inter-American Defence Board, Towards a new hemispheric security system, Washington, 6 September 2001.

(7) See Patrice M Franko, op cit.

(8) “Menaces américaines sur la base d’Alcantara au Brésil”, Espaces Latinos, No 188, Lyon, November 2001.

(9) Chiapas al dia, Ciepac, Mexico City, 21 November 2001.

(10) Patrice M Franko, op cit.

(11) Edouard Bailby, Espaces latinos, No 187, Lyon, October 2001.

(12); 21 September 2001.

(13) Brazil, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Paraguay, Uruguay, Bolivia, Argentina and the United States.
[Source: Le Monde diplomatique]