Iraq and Latin American Democracy

Reflecting on the victory in Venezuela, and the fact that the official U.S. response in the wake of the referendum seems limited to bitter grumbling, I can't help but wonder would this have been allowed to happen if the U.S. weren't bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan?  Does the Bush administration's obsessive focus on the Middle East serve to take some of the heat off Latin America, allowing events such as the Chavez victory in Venezuela and the toppling of Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada in Bolivia?  I'd be interested in hearing other people's thoughts on this . . . .


US losing grip due to people's organized strength

It isn't just the U.S. government's preoccupation with the occupation in Iraq that is allowing democracy to flourish in Venezuela and show some life in Bolivia.

Despite Iraq, the U.S. managed to send troops to Haiti to help install its chosen dictator.  More important, invasion and occupation isn't the normal method of U.S. control of Latin America.  My knowledge is pretty sketchy, but the last real commitment of troops there was a made-for-TV invasion of Grenada, right?

The preferred method to thwart the democratic will of Latin American people is of course ordinary corrupt politics; when that fails, coups and repression; if that fails to keep leftists from power or results in an armed rebellion, the ultimate move is usually well-funded proxy wars fought by U.S.-supported rebels or governments, respectively.  Unfortunately, widespread killing has been shown to work: U.S. domination hasn't had any more trouble from Chile, Nicaragua, or El Salvador, for instance.

In Colombia right now, with Plan Colombia, the U.S. has propped up Uribe and his predecessors by extremely militarizing the drug war and the civil conflict.

So what's protecting Venezuela and Bolivia?  It's not that the U.S. doesn't care.  A big thing the U.S. cares about in Colombia is oil, but Venezuela has more, and Bolivia has gas.

I think a big difference is the strength of the social movements.

One would think a strong guerrilla movement like Colombia's would count as a strong social movement, but the result has been the US-backed government increasing its hold on power through repression.  But the US can't make the Bolivian government try even spraying crops, I think for fear that this would cause the people of Bolivia to topple any president the U.S. can have a hold on.

It seems people prefer 'democracy' under US-subservient right-wing oligarchs to never-ending civil war, but if they can have hope of justice without violent repression or war

For some reason, the social movements in, say, Bolivia, are able to avert Colombia-style militarization.  The military, funded by the U.S., is indeed doing eradication, but these soldiers are doing it by hand.  It's been two years since the failed coup in Venezuela, and the U.S. has been unable to start a civil war in the country.

What I can't figure out is exactly why.  What makes the difference?  One possible part-answer: community media.  This seems quite strong in Bolivia – with ERBOL, for example – and from what I understand in Venezuela also.

Thoughts on Latin American democratic revivial, social movements, and authentic journalismt?

Iraq distraction

The last major overt attack by U.S. combat troops in Latin America wasn't the invasion of tiny Grenada in 1983, but the much larger invasion of Panama in December 1989.  And that probably brings us to a hard limit on what the U.S. could realistically attempt today.  If another Maurice Bishop came to power in Grenada today, U.S. forces would have little problem staffing a new invasion and occupation.  But with troop strengths being stretched so dramatically by Iraq, Afghanistan and surrounding areas, a new invasion on the scale of Panama would be far more difficult to pull off.  
But the outlook for invading Venezuela or Bolivia would be even worse.  The Venezuelan military, while no match for the full force of the U.S., is no joke.  Both countries, but especially Bolivia, have terrains that would pose major problems for yanqui invaders and occupiers.  Moreover, the highly politicized populations of Bolivia and Venezuela could be expected to offer far greater resistance than the Panamanians of 1989, who had already tried voting Noriega out of office themselves earlier that year.  
Historically, the U.S. has invaded Latin America dozens of times in the past 100 years.  To have that option removed from the table, as I believe it is for the time being, is no minor thing.
Of course, other major U.S. techniques for overthrowing democratic and/or progressive governments don't require massive numbers of U.S. troops.  Destabilization campaigns (usually involving economic sabotage, black propaganda, strikes led by corrupt unions etc.) such as used against Allende's government in Chile and Michael Manley's first government in Jamaica have already been tried against Chavez and failed.  Now with the Iraq war having taken a huge quantity of oil off the international market, any new attempt to disrupt Venezuela's oil industry goes directly against the interests of the U.S. economy.  Such a campaign against Bolivia, Argentina or Brazil wouldn't be in the economic interest of the majority of Americans either, but since it wouldn't threaten the all important oil supply, we have to assume it could be considered.  
Since Afghanistan and Iraq there's certainly been a major increase in CIA attention and resources spent on muslim countries in Africa and Asia.  But I question whether this would have much of an impact in lessening their involvement in Latin America.  How many experienced spanish speaking CIA case officers would they really transfer to Iraq or Pakistan where they speak nothing of the local language?  Perhaps Iraq is limiting the speed at which CIA presence in Latin America could expand, but I doubt it would be cutting significantly into their operational capabilities.  
Could the CIA recruit, organize, train and lead a terrorist army to wage war on Venezuela or a future Bolivian government?  Sure.  But even this wouldn't be so easy as running the murderous contra war was in the 80s.  To create the nucleus of the contras, the CIA could rely on jobless former members of the Nicaraguan National Guard, which had been rightly disbanded by the Sandanistas.  Where in Venezuela or Bolivia is there a massive pool of right wingers with that kind of military training and experience?  The officers purged by Chavez don't have the numbers.  The Colombian paramilitary model requires collusion by the army and the state.  And if the target is Venezuela, how can it even be done without threatening oil production?  
Perhaps the biggest way the Iraq distraction could help the social movements of Latin America is by its slow and steady destruction of the old cold-war era U.S. alliances.  The terrorist contra war of the 1980s had little support in Europe, but because of the prevailing alliances, very very little could be done to oppose it - even after the United States was convicted of international terrorism by the World Court.  These alliances are a crucial element to maintaining U.S. hegemony.  The more they decay, the more the United States will be forced to consider the global political fallout from its actions, while at the same time, the more free the other imperialist powers will feel to lend support to challenging U.S. policies.                                            

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About Sean Donahue

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Sean Donahue is a poet, healer, activist, and freelance journalist wandering through New England.