Friday, April 13, 2012

Overshadowing the Cartagena Summit: the militarization of Central America

Stephen Harper and Barack Obama will be attending the Sixth Summit of the Americas this weekend in Cartagena, Colombia. Expected to attend will be 33 heads of government representing all the members of the Organization of American States (OAS) except Ecuador, whose President Rafael Correa is courageously abstaining primarily on the ground that the summit excludes revolutionary Cuba, still denied OAS membership by Washington.

Ironically, the Summit meets under the theme “Connecting the Americas: Partners for Prosperity.” However, Obama made it clear that he would not attend the summit if Cuba was represented, and the host president, Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos, bowed to this dictate.

The Cartagena summit follows on the heels of the inaugural summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), a regional alliance comprised of all OAS members except Canada and the United States. A potential rival to the OAS, CELAC includes Cuba, of course. Its summit, which was held in Caracas in December, was hosted by one of CELAC’s principal architects, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

In the following article André Maltais, the well-informed Latin American specialist of the Quebec online and print newspaper L’aut’journal, draws attention to some disturbing developments in Central America and Mexico that overshadow the Cartagena summit. My translation from the French.

Richard Fidler

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The Militarization of Central America

L’aut’journal, April 12, 2012

by André Maltais

Last December 5, the 23rd Summit of the Tuxtla Mechanism of Dialogue and Concerted Action, which includes Mexico, Colombia and the Central American countries, met in Merida, Mexico. The Summit normally discusses the progress of the Mesoamerica Project (formerly Plan Puebla Panama), a network of transportation infrastructures and a set of economic development projects designed to counterbalance the IIRSA (Initiative for the Integration of the Regional Infrastructure of South America).

But the Summit’s final document put the emphasis on a very fashionable theme: the region’s security problems and the fight against drug trafficking.

This was the ingredient that was missing, writes the Argentine political journalist Mariela Zunino, for the Mesoamerica Project clearly to become what it is — in addition to a new escalation of dispossession and appropriation of territory, a U.S. geostrategic plan that tells all of Latin America that Washington has absolutely not turned its back on the continent.

In fact, if the countries of the Pacific Alliance (Chile, Peru and Colombia) are hesitating to align themselves candidly with the United States, another, more resolute front against Latin American integration is now open to the north of the continent. And, in addition to Mexico, it now includes almost all of the states of Central America.

The free-trade agreements (CAFTA, NAFTA) and U.S. military bases like those in Honduras and Panama have already limited the leeway of the countries of Central America.

But the Central American portion of the Merida Initiative, the Mexican Plan Colombia to counter the drug cartels, has now become the CARSI (Central American Regional Security Initiative), a new security initiative sponsored by the United States, which is pressuring the weak states of Central American to assign their local armed forces to the fight against drug trafficking and organized crime.

As the CISPES (Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador) notes, these are the same armed forces which, in the 1980s, urged on by the United States, tortured, assassinated, burned villages and committed so many other horrors against the human rights of their own population, especially in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua.

The CARSI also requires that U.S. military personnel train the local security forces under a program that the Pentagon refuses to make public, and with trainers it refuses to identify. This training is given at the International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA), which since 2006 has operated at Antiguo Cuscatlan, El Salvador.

The 2009 election in El Salvador of President Mauricio Funes, the candidate of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), a former guerrilla force turned political party, has not prevented flagrant interference by the United States in the country’s affairs.

In recent months, threatened with cuts in a U.S. development assistance program (the Partnership for Growth: El Salvador), President Funes replaced two senior officials belonging to the FMLN — Carlos Ascencio, the national civil police chief, and Manuel Melgar, Minister of Justice and Public Security — with two generals who are graduates of the School of the Americas and, of course, more disposed to cooperate with the new U.S. regional security initiatives.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, the “left-wing” president announced on March 23 that his country’s armed forces were now going to fight delinquency and the drug cartels, thereby imitating the presidents of Mexico (Felipe Calderón), Honduras (Porfirio Lobo) and Guatemala (the former genocidal general Otto Pérez Molina).

So things are going very well for the United States in Central America, a region which, as Cuban journalist Oliver Zamora Oria notes, has always been geographically important for them, notwithstanding the negligible economies of the component countries.

While the guerrillas have disappeared, drug trafficking and violence, in addition to being profitable businesses for the U.S. banks and security industry, are now excellent pretexts for a permanent Pentagon military presence in the region. This need for permanence, says Oria, explains why the United States is not seriously trying to reduce their enormous domestic consumer market, which spurs drug production in Central America and the Andean countries.

The Costa Rican commentator Andres Mora Ramírez says the U.S. military never abandoned Central America after the peace agreements of the 1990s. It maintains military bases, training centres, air and sea patrol agreements, joint operations and exercises, donations of equipment, sales of weapons, etc. This ongoing threat, after the terror of the 1980s, has allowed the swing to the right in political life.

Expectations for improvements in social welfare and human development have been dashed, while new political elites and regional economic groups have aligned the countries in the region with the postulates of neoliberalism, fake free trade and U.S. geopolitics.

So much so that in a time of South American integration and the supposed global decline of the U.S. superpower, all the political regimes in the Central American countries are, in fact, right wing — with the sole exception of Nicaragua, which is attempting to swim against the regional current amidst immense obstacles and the numerous contradictions of President Daniel Ortega’s “Christian and solidaristic socialism.”[1]

Since 2006 the countries of the UNASUR, the Union of South American Nations, have observed without reacting the militarization of Central America and of a country as large as Mexico. A few days after the first meeting of the CELAC, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, Washington announced, while signing the free-trade agreement with Colombia, the creation of an operational centre for fighting narco-terrorism at Champerico, Guatemala, and the creation of a new military academy in Panama.

The CELAC was to bring together all the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean with the exception of Canada and the United States. However, two Central American countries have boycotted it: Costa Rica and El Salvador.

Last month the U.S. vice-president Joe Biden went to Mexico to remind each of the candidates in next July’s presidential election that President Calderón’s strategy of war on the drug cartels is untouchable.

Biden continued on to Honduras where he feels at home since the coup d’état of 2009. He met with the Central American presidents in order to nip in the bud an initiative by President Pérez Molina of Guatemala who was proposing to decriminalize the production, marketing and consumption of drugs.

The Guatemalan president was trying to win the support of the Central American presidents with a view to adopting a common position to present at the Summit of the Americas this month, in Cartagena de Indios, Colombia. Many voices had been raised in support of Pérez Molina, including those of Brazil’s former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and Colombia’s president Juan Manuel Santos.

But once Biden left, the governments of El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica and Panama announced that they would not support any Guatemala proposal for legalization of drugs.

As Laura Carlsen, director of the Mexico-based Americas Program, says, these presidents still prefer a system in which their peoples pay in blood and lives to fill the pockets of the U.S. defense industry contractors and spread the Pentagon’s influence in their region.

[1] For more on this, see “Washington threatens reprisals against Nicaragua’s voters,” an interview with Felipe Stuart Cournoyer. – RF

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