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February 04, 2006

Still more on Latin America
Posted by Adam Isacson

I’m just back from a three-day visit to Miami, where I had a chance to take part in two very thorough discussions of security in the Americas. This trip unfortunately kept me from attending the Security and Peace Institute’s conference on Latin America today in New York, which Michael Signer did such a good job of live-blogging.

On Tuesday, I was part of a group of ten NGO representatives who paid a ten-hour-long visit to Southern Command headquarters, where we talked to people in charge of intelligence, operations, exercises, human rights, and Guantánamo, and had a 2 ½ hour discussion with the commander, Gen. Bantz Craddock. On Thursday I sat in on the first day of a two-day conference on “The Challenge of Governance and Security” in the Americas, hosted by Florida International University, the U.S. Army War College and the U.S Southern Command.

It may seem unusual for a group like CIP to have – or to seek – such access to the command responsible for U.S. military activities in Latin America and the Caribbean. After all, you get 335 hits if you Google “Center for International Policy” and “left-leaning” (sounds like we spend the day walking around in counter-clockwise circles), and we have actively opposed most military initiatives in the Americas since the Reagan administration’s sponsorship of Central America’s wars twenty-five years ago.

Over the years, though, our research into U.S. military activities in the region has put us, and several of our colleagues, into more frequent contact with defense officials. While disagreements are frequent and we aren’t always able to get the information we’d like, an understanding has developed: we appreciate that they have an open door and take our concerns into account, and they appreciate that we endeavor to get our facts right. While it is their job to carry out many policies with which we disagree, Lorelei Kelly is right when she observes on this blog that the military is today – relatively – one of the more progressive agencies in the U.S. executive branch.

Here’s a quick report on the Southcom visit and at the conference. I outline three things I learned that were new, three things on which we agreed with Southcom, three things on which we disagree, and three things on which I’m still not sure whether we agree or disagree. (The information I received, incidentally, was “on background,” so this discussion will not include quotes or attributions.)

Three new things I learned:

1.      Aid to Colombia will begin to decline in a few years. Since Plan Colombia’s inception in 2000, Colombia has been the largest U.S. aid recipient outside the Middle East. Since 2003, aid to Colombia has been pretty steady at $700-750 million per year, about 80 percent of it military and police aid. This level is likely to remain consistent through 2007 and 2008 – perhaps 2009 – then begin to decline as more responsibilities are handed over to the Colombians. In September, according to a recent Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff report [PDF format], the Colombian government submitted a request to the State Department for a new five-year aid package to succeed Plan Colombia. If the U.S. government is determined to begin reducing aid three years from now, though, this “Plan Colombia II” request is unlikely to prosper.

2.      Fundraising for “Islamic Radical Groups” (“IRGs”) is still a concern in the region. This quote from Gen. Craddock’s March 2005 “Posture Statement” to Congress remains substantially true, according to our briefers.

“At this time, we have not detected Islamic terrorist cells in the SOUTHCOM AOR that are preparing to conduct attacks against the US, although Islamic Radicals in the region have proven their operational capability in the past. We have, however detected a number of Islamic Radical Group facilitators that continue to participate in fundraising and logistical support activities such as money laundering, document forgery, and illicit trafficking. Proceeds from these activities are supporting worldwide terrorist activities.”

The IRGs benefiting from the fundraising appear to be Hezbollah, Hamas, and smaller groups – not al Qaeda. Most of their activity is concentrated in ports or other areas where smuggling and contraband take place, such as the tri-border region where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay meet; the Caribbean coasts of Colombia and Venezuela (especially the Guajira Peninsula and Isla Margarita); Panama; and southern Brazil. Some mention was also made of Iranian ties to Venezuela; examples include news reports that Teheran is building residential units and manufacturing plants in Venezuela, and Caracas’ casting of the only “no” vote on a September 2005 IAEA condemnation of Iran’s nuclear program.

3.      Southern Command’s budget is not growing, as resources go to the Middle East and elsewhere. As a result, for instance, Southcom’s schedule of joint military exercises in the region is slightly less ambitious than it was a few years ago.

Three things we agreed on:

1.      The region is at a key “inflection point” requiring the United States to pay more attention and change its approach. The term “inflection point” appears to come from the Spanish “punto de inflexion” which, as far as I can tell, is how Spanish-speakers translate Malcolm Gladwell’s overused phrase “tipping point.” This is an off-putting piece of jargon, but what it refers to cannot be ignored.

While Washington’s attention is elsewhere, several things are happening at once in Latin America. People are losing faith in democratic systems that, in most countries, are still incipient and fragile. Perceptions of the United States are at an all-time low, and anti-U.S. rhetoric can help a candidate get elected. For too many citizens, elected governments appear to lack the ability to punish corruption, fix crumbling infrastructure, create employment and provide basic security. Non-political violence – common crime, organized crime, gang activity – is creating citizen security emergencies in several countries. Southcom and others are right when they hint that, in a few years, we will regret having done nothing now about Latin America’s worsening crises. What to do remains a subject of debate, though Southcom appears to agree with us that neither the U.S. military nor the region’s militaries should play a leading role. But neglect is no longer an option.

2.      Economic growth has been healthy, but poverty has hardly budged while inequality has gotten worse – which spells trouble on the horizon. Though the region’s growth rates are higher than at any time since the “lost decade” of the 1980s, a severe lack of “trickle down” is breeding anger and resentment. This is working to the advantage of populists on the left and authoritarians on the right, and is increasing the medium-term likelihood of violence or instability.

3.      The American Servicemembers’ Protection Act is a disaster. This 2002 law cuts off non-drug military aid, and as of 2004 some economic aid, to countries that fail to exempt U.S. personnel on their soil from the International Criminal Court’s jurisdiction. To date, eleven Latin American countries have seen much of their aid frozen by the ASPA, and Mexico and Chile – which both are in the process of ratifying the ICC’s Rome Statute – may soon follow. The Southern Command dislikes the ASPA because they are losing contact with several years’ worth of military officers whose training funds have been cut off. We dislike the ASPA because it cruelly cuts economic aid, and because of the message it sends to the rest of the world: that the United States is willing to resort to bullying because it so strongly opposes an international institution designed to protect human rights.

Three things we disagreed on:

1.      All is going great in Colombia, according to our Southcom briefers. Colombia came up surprisingly infrequently in our discussions. However, one PowerPoint slide was emblematic of how Southcom views the situation there: its title was “Colombia: Progress on All Fronts.” Their citation of statistics was selective, however. There was no mention, for instance, of increased military casualties, guerrilla sabotage, or paramilitary attacks on civilians in 2005, and no mention at all of paltry results against drugs. The picture in Colombia is much more ambiguous than “progress on all fronts.”

2.      Non-violent, elected populist movements are something we should be very alarmed about, Southcom appears to contend. This week, Donald Rumsfeld said, “we’ve seen some populist leadership appealing to masses of people in those countries. And elections like Evo Morales in Bolivia take place that clearly are worrisome. I mean, we’ve got Chavez in Venezuela with a lot of oil money. He’s a person who was elected legally – just as Adolf Hitler was elected legally – and then consolidated power and now is, of course, working closely with Fidel Castro and Mr. Morales and others.”

Nobody at Southcom went that far, and in fact nothing so critical was said about Evo Morales, who is not a Chávez clone and will not become one unless he is forced into that role by self-fulfilling rhetoric from irresponsible U.S. officials who don’t know what they’re talking about. However, it became clear that many at Southern Command are concerned by Chávez’s ambitions the region and the spread of movements that are opposed to U.S. foreign policy and are suspicious of free-market capitalism. They don’t know what to call these movements – “radical populism?” “democratic authoritarianism?” – but they are worried about them.

I too am worried about disappearing checks on executive power, and increased internal military roles, in Venezuela. But I don’t see any Southcom role in responding to them, nor do I see any reason why social movements and elected officials in Latin America should be viewed as a potential threat. Their rise represents the first time in the region’s history that democracy and free speech – not violence – have been used to break small elites’ grip on political power. That should be viewed as a healthy step – as long as the movement in question neither fosters nor participates in violence, and as long as, once elected, it does nothing to abridge civil liberties or checks on power.

3.      China is a “strategic challenge” in the region. The subject of China’s rise in Latin America – measured usually in increased trade, investment, and visits from Chinese officials – came up frequently, particularly at the FIU conference. We heard about increasing regional military ties with the PRC, and an increase in no-strings military aid from about $250,000 in 2002-2003 to nearly $1 million today (which is about 1/900th of the military aid the United States provides). We heard about the Chinese company (Hutchison Whampoa) that has the contract for operating ports near the Panama Canal.

I can’t figure out what the big deal is (and many at Southcom would probably insist that there is no big deal, that they’re just watching it). Isn’t this the interdependence that globalization is supposed to be fostering? Nobody said it in these words, but the increased concern about China’s presence in the region probably owes to (1) a dusty old concept of great-power competition with a dash of the Monroe Doctrine thrown in; (2) a bit of “clash of civilizations” bellyaching – after all, nobody is similarly worried about the much greater degree of investment and aid from white, Judeo-Christian Western Europeans; and (3) the hard fact that China wants to buy the same natural resources in Latin America that we do.

Three things I’m not sure we agreed or disagreed on:

1.      Southcom should not be encouraging Latin American militaries to fight gangs or carry out other law enforcement. There were general expressions of agreement when we raised that concern. Central America in particular has gone through a difficult process of getting their once-dominant militaries out of the internal-security business, while trying to build functioning, accountable civilian police forces. The gang problem may cause a reversal of this difficult progress – instead of responding by investing in badly needed improvements to police forces, some Central American governments are yielding to the temptation to send the troops into poor neighborhoods to sort out the problem. A Central American proposal for a regional “rapid reaction force,” which the U.S. government enthusiastically supports, may or may not include anti-gang activities among its missions.

Southern Command seemed to share our concerns, and officials repeated a previous insistence that they did not want to play a leading role in the U.S. government’s (so far nonexistent) response to the gang problem. However, they also put criminal gangs in Mexico, Brazil and Central America high on the list of “transnational threats” that they are concerned about. The U.S. Army War College’s Max Manwaring published a monograph last year portraying gangs like MS-13 as “The New Urban Insurgency.” And the Central American rapid-reaction force, which may leave the drawing board this year, could be an entry into a greater U.S.-supported anti-gang role for the region’s militaries.

2.      More transparency is needed at Guantánamo. The detention and interrogation center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, is under Southcom’s jurisdiction. Southern Command and the Pentagon have been unwilling to open the facility to most outside inspectors. Negotiations between Southcom and UN Special Rapporteur on Torture Manfred Nowak broke down recently over the UN official’s insistence on being able to interview inmates. Members of our group made the case that the UN official would not be swayed by inmates who may have been trained to make false claims about abuse. The response from Southern Command officials was not totally dismissive, but the outcome was unclear.

3.      Providing security in Colombia requires much more non-military effort. Colombia’s military – both with and without U.S. aid – has always had difficulty recovering territory from guerrillas. Offensives, sweeps and forays into guerrilla-held territory clear out the armed groups temporarily, but no investment in the rest of the government follows. The soldiers are not joined by police, judges, doctors, road-builders, land-titlers, or other civilian state entities needed to gain the trust of a long-neglected population (a population often battered by the offensive that gained the territory in the first place). Eventually, the soldiers, particularly those from elite mobile units, have to leave the zone, leaving behind nothing but a vacuum that the guerrillas – or, sometimes, paramilitaries – easily fill. Colombia has no lack of territories that have been “re-taken” several times over the years by seemingly successful military offensives. (Any resemblance to the U.S. experience in Iraq is purely coincidental.)

Southern Command appears to share this concern about the lack of non-military investment – whether from Colombia’s budget or U.S. aid – to consolidate government presence. In the zone where it has supported a large-scale military offensive called “Plan Patriota,” Southcom encouraged the Colombian government to form a “Coordinating Center for Integrated Action” (CCAI) to bring non-defense ministries into the “recovered” area. While this sounds like a worthwhile initiative, I have had difficulty getting information about how it is going – how much is really being spent on non-military priorities, what the non-military presence in “re-taken” zones really is, whether there has been Colombian government buy-in. In short, nobody has been able to give me an idea of whether the non-military governance strategy is working or just window-dressing. I didn’t get a better idea about this during my time in Miami, so this remains a priority for future research.


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Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Still more on Latin America:

» A visit to Southern Command from Plan Colombia and Beyond
I spent most of last week in Miami, where I paid a visit to Southern Command and some of a conference on security in the Americas, along with colleagues from several other NGOs. We discussed and debated topics ranging from... [Read More]

» Meeting With the Southern Command from Beautiful Horizons
Adam Isacson of the Center for International Policy runs an excellent weblog on Colombia called Plan Colombia and Beyond. If you have the slightest interest in Plan Colombia, then you owe it to yourself to read Plan Colombia and Beyond. [Read More]


Actually, an inflection point is a mathematical term, and is the point at which a curve changes direction. In the military, it is jargon for a point (in time or in a process) where a significant change occurs, as opposed to a tipping point which is where an irreversible change occurs (kind of like the literary criticsm term climax).
Re ASPA: welcome to what those of us who work in the rest of the world--particularly Africa and East Asia--have been dealing with for awhile.
Naturally SOUTHCOM is focused on working with HN militaries in fighting thrasnational threats. Because of statutory restrictions, the US military is generally precluded from working with civilian police forces. Additionally, the US military lacks a Gendarmarie/Guardia Civil capability (the MPs are nothng like it) that could work effectively with civilian police forces

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