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South America’s Future: Post-Chávez Shakeup and Montevideo Intrigue

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Time for a New Geopolitical Climate Bloc

A two part series focusing on the Durban climate conference. To read Part I, click here. For Part II, click here.

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WikiLeaks: The U.S. Must “Neutralize, Co-opt or Marginalize” Radical Latin American Bloc in Climate Negotiations

As activists launch protests at the Cancún climate summit in Mexico, could negotiators be engaged in cynical backroom deals? In light of recent WikiLeaks disclosures, such an eventuality seems more than likely. Indeed, U.S. diplomatic cables show that the Americans have been trying to strong arm other countries in order to get their way at international summits. The cables, which go back to last year's Copenhagen summit, show the U.S. as a manipulative and opportunistic power seeking to water down important environmental agreements.


Judging from documents, the WikiLeaks scandal could well turn into the Climate Gate scandal. When reporting to his colleagues, U.S. Chargé d'Affaires in La Paz John Creamer described Bolivian President Evo Morales' climate justice activism in the most unflattering light. An impoverished Andean nation, Bolivia is poorly equipped to deal with the ravages of climate change and has been a leading critic of the United States and the Global North at international summits like Copenhagen.

In a report, Creamer remarked that Morales "seemed to revel" in his opposition to the Copenhagen summit, which was dominated by the United States and other large powers. The Bolivian, the diplomat continued, made "extraordinary demands" like reparations and aid, thus alienating conference organizers and most delegations. The Danes became "fed up" with Morales and the pesky left-leaning ALBA bloc of countries from Latin America, which kept on mounting "propaganda arguments" against the Copenhagen accord [following the environmental debacle in Denmark, Morales invited international activists to Bolivia for a counter climate summit in Cochabamba].
 
Blackening Morales' Image

One would expect U.S. diplomats to be critical of Morales in their reporting, but in going over the WikiLeaks cables I've been struck by the remarkably supercilious tone and vindictive accusations hurled at the Bolivian leader. At this point, it's difficult to establish the exact veracity of all the many claims, and diplomatic historians will no doubt look into the charges in more depth in future. Perhaps American diplomats genuinely had high placed intelligence on Morales upon which to base their reports, or maybe they simply wanted to satisfy their superiors in Washington with wishful propaganda.


Not surprisingly, Creamer's own political bias doesn't differ much from that of his colleagues. In a report dating to early 2010, he acknowledges that Bolivia "is already suffering real damage from the effects of global warming." Yet, the diplomat continues sarcastically, Morales is immature as he "seems to prefer to score rhetorical points rather than contribute to a solution." Morales, the diplomat implies, is like a four-year old child for opposing the Copenhagen accord. "Our assessment," Creamer states, "is that Bolivia remains beyond reach on Copenhagen, at least until Morales sees the limits of his approach."


Creamer writes that Morales' activism made him a hero in the eyes of anti-globalization activists, while at the same time alienating neighboring South American nations [Creamer doesn't name the countries, but presumably he is referring to Brazil]. Ascribing cynical motives to Morales, Creamer remarks that the Bolivian leader "views climate change as a vehicle for raising his and Bolivia's international political stature." Creamer cites one senator from Morales' political party who believed that the Bolivian president saw
"environmental issues as one area where he can carve out an international identity independent from that of his close ally, President Hugo Chávez. She recounted to us that an animated Morales told her he was surrounded by well-wishers in Copenhagen urging him 'not to abandon them,' while Chávez was alone in the corner."


Creamer then calls out Morales for environmental hypocrisy, remarking that "many Bolivians" are eager to point out that "Morales's climate change campaign is about enhancing his global stature, not about the environment." Creamer goes on to quote a former Morales cabinet official who says "there is a huge gap between Morales' strident, pro-environmental rhetoric in international fora and his domestic emphasis on industrialization as they key to development. The foundation of this effort is large-scale natural gas, iron, and lithium production projects, enterprises that have historically proven extremely damaging to the environment."  Creamer then points out that the Inter-American Development Bank had recently presented the Bolivians with a report detailing serious potential environmental hazards associated with extracting lithium.
 
Brazil's Environmental Duplicity

To be sure, Creamer makes a number of valid environmental points but needless to say it was the United States, and not Bolivia, which exacerbated climate change over the years. Not only does Creamer's report illuminate U.S. hypocrisy, however, but also that of the other big powers. In La Paz, Chinese diplomats prodded Bolivia, urging Morales to support the Copenhagen accord. However, such efforts were rapidly demonstrated to be "pointless" and the Chinese concluded that Brazil would have to convince Bolivia and the other ALBA nations to come round.


I have always suspected that, behind the scenes, Brazil has played a negative environmental role in the region. In midtown Manhattan, Brazil employs a fancy PR firm to extol the country's green credentials and send out e-mails about Brasilia's progressive programs. At one point, I even got the opportunity to interview Izabella Teixeira, Brazil's Environment Minister. I asked her to clarify Brazil's precise negotiating role at international summits, to which she would respond, time and again, that Brazil was an equal opportunity and good faith player, consulting with Third World nations within the G-77 group, for example.


Perhaps what she really meant to say was that Brazil sought to strong arm Bolivia into coming into line and playing a zero sum game. According to Creamer and WikiLeaks, "Bolivia refused to adopt Brazil's position on Copenhagen," but Brasilia's Foreign Affairs Ministry or Itamaraty would "continue to press Bolivia... hoping that Bolivia's isolation on this issue will eventually bring it around."


U.S. and Europe vs. BASIC and ALBA


For anyone interested in learning how strong arming occurs in advance of climate change confabs, U.S. diplomatic cables make for obligatory reading. In February, 2010, Deputy National Security Adviser for International Economic Affairs Michael Froman met with EU officials in Brussels. The aim of the discussions was to "push back against coordinated opposition of BASIC countries (China, India, Brazil, South Africa) to our international positions." Though the BASIC group had widely differing interests, U.S. diplomats observed, the bloc was "surprisingly united" and would "take turns" playing the U.S. and EU off against each other.


"The U.S. and EU need to learn from this coordination," Froman believed, "and work
much more closely and effectively together ourselves, to better handle third country obstructionism and avoid future trainwrecks on climate." In advance of Cancún, the Europeans and Americans hoped to get BASIC and the G-77 on their side and to "be in close touch with Mexico" which would be chairing the meeting. In one damning passage of the report, it is mentioned that "Froman agreed that we will need to neutralize, co-opt or marginalize" the more radical Latin American bloc including Nicaragua, Cuba, Ecuador and others.


What is ironic about these cables is that the U.S. wants to undermine not just ALBA but also BASIC. Yet, BASIC and Brazil are hardly what we might call a progressive bloc of countries. Indeed, it was BASIC itself which helped to draft the inadequate Copenhagen Accord with the U.S. at the eleventh hour. Clearly, however, the U.S. doesn't even want to put up with BASIC, most likely because the bloc wants the Americans and Europeans to assume most of the responsibility for solving our climate crisis.


Cancún Strategy: No Friendly Overture toward Brazil

If these cables are any indication, Cancún could wind up being a zero sum game with the EU and U.S. seeking to oppose BASIC and all three groups hoping to circumvent the more radical proposals advocated by Bolivia, ALBA, and the small island nations. It all makes for a rather pessimistic scenario, yet perhaps the WikiLeaks documents will shame and embarrass the big powers into making some concessions.


In an earlier online column, I suggested that activists might consider making a friendly overture toward Brazil in the hope that the South American juggernaut might cease its counter-productive negotiations within the BASIC group which is fast becoming a chief obstacle to enacting progressive climate change legislation. I reasoned that Brazil, more than other countries in the bloc, would be more likely to take the side of ALBA and small island nations in international climate negotiations. In the first round of Brazil's presidential election, Green Party candidate Marina Silva garnered 19% of the vote, suggesting that environmental consciousness is on the rise in the South American nation.


WikiLeaks documents, however, reveal Brazil's true colors behind closed doors. In light of the disclosures, it doesn't seem to make much sense for activists to conduct any "friendly overtures." At this point, there's got to be a concerted campaign on Brazil designed to humiliate and embarrass the Lula government so that we can see some movement at Cancún. ALBA and the small island nation group do not constitute a formidable geopolitical bloc, and so activists will have to up the ante and exert more pressure on Brazil in the hope of creating a countervailing force to the U.S. and EU.

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Cancun Climate Summit: Will Brazil Step Up To The Plate?

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Cancún Climate Summit: Time for a New Geopolitical Architecture

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Elections: Geopolitical Nadir for Hugo Chávez and His Movement?

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Ten Years On, Bolivarian Revolution at Crossroads

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We Will Respond Jointly: Hugo Chávez’s Anti-Imperialist Army

It is testament to how much Latin America has changed politically over the past several years that Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez not only criticizes U.S. military policy in the region but now actively seeks to form a new defense force designed to counteract the colossus of the north.

 

Recently, Chávez invited Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega to join him on his weekly TV show, Aló, Presidente! Turning to his friend and ally, Chávez remarked that Latin American countries which formed part of ALBA (or Bolivarian Alternative for The Americas) "should set up a joint defense strategy, and integrate our armed forces and intelligence services because the enemy is the same: the United States empire."

 

Chávez, who is known for his bravado and rhetorical flair, then added, "Whoever takes on one of us will have to take on everyone,because we will respond jointly."

 

ALBA is an initiative set up by Chávez to encourage greater solidarity and reciprocity amongst left leaning regimes throughout the region; its members include Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Dominica. In recent years, ALBA has served as a mechanism to enhance barter

exchange between nations. For example, Venezuela has shipped oil to Cuba and in return receives thousands of Cuban health professionals who attened to the Venezuelan poor.

 

Originally set up to upstage the Free Trade Area of The Americas sponsored by the Bush White House, ALBA also seeks greater cultural integration amongst Latin American countries. Now, Chávez seems intent on expanding ALBA's scope to the military realm as well.

 

Chávez's comments come at a particularly sensitive time in U.S.-Venezuelan relations. American officials such as Admiral Michael Glen Mullen, Chief of the U.S. Southern Command, as well as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, say Venezuela is a threat to the region. They claim that Venezuela is encouraging an arms race in South America and has become a drug transshipment point. Meanwhile the U.S. continues to arm the Colombian military and the civil conflict there has spilled over the Venezuelan border. Chávez has accused the Colombian "oligarchy" of collaborating with Washington in an effort to foment an armed conflict with Venezuela.

 

Ratcheting up the rhetoric, Chávez remarked that "The time will come when the Colombian people get red of that oligarchy. We won't provoke them unless they provoke us." Chávez claims that Colombia, acting on U.S. instructions, wants to create obstacles for the proposed

South American Union of Nations or Unasur.

 

In the midst of the Colombian imbroglio and escalating tensions, Chávez would like ALBA

nations to demonstrate greater solidarity in an effort to oppose Washington's military influence. The Venezuelan leader has called on the defense ministers of each ALBA member-nation to begin preparation for a joint Defense Council. While it's unlikely that such plans will come to fruition, the Bush administration's policy of seeking to isolate Chávez has produced the exact opposite effect.

 

During his meeting with Chávez, Ortega declared "If they touch Venezuela, it will light up the

region. No one is going to stand idly by, because to touch Venezuela is to touch all of Latin America." The Nicaraguan President added that the United States sought to threaten Venezuela via Colombia. In return for Ortega's diplomatic support, the grateful Chávez offered to provide technical assistance to maintain Nicaragua's Russian helicopters.

 

Ortega has commented that ALBA nations have just as much a right to form a joint military force as European countries and NATO. His pronouncements represent a shift from earlier, more pro-U.S. administrations in Nicaragua. In 2003, in the wake of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Nicaraguan President Enrique Bolaños sent a team of doctors, nurses, and mine sweepers to the Middle Eastern nation to assist a Spanish brigade.

 

The Chávez-Morales Axis

 

Bolivia is the South American nation which shares the most ideological affinity with Chávez

at the current time and it's no surprise that Morales has sought greater military cooperation with Venezuela. Despite U.S. complaints about Chávez's allegedly expansionist aims in the region, Bolivia's chief of staff, General Freddy Bersatti, reportedly backs the idea of "merging" the Venezuelan and Bolivian armed forces. Chávez has provided helicopters to Bolivia and says he will send weapons to replace equipment. The Venezuelan President has reportedly pledged to provide up to $22 million to build 20 military bases in Bolivia.

 

In late 2006, Venezuela's ambassador to Bolivia, Julio Montes, remarked that "if for some reason this pretty Bolivian revolution were threatened, and they asked us for our blood and our lives, we would be here." Morales faces a particularly active and vigorous political opposition from the right, and Chávez has remarked that he will not sit idly by if the "Bolivian oligarchy" tries to forcibly remove his ally.

 

It's not the first time that Chávez has proposed forming wider military alliances in the region to put a break on the United States. In 2006, Chávez invited Argentine President Néstor Kirchner and Evo Morales to a military parade in Caracas where he proudly announced "We

must form a defensive military pact between the armies of the region with a common doctrine and organization." In another speech, Chávez added: "We must form the armed forces of Mercosur [a South American trade bloc] merging warfare capabilities of the continent."

 

During a trip to Bolivia, where he was accompanied by Venezuela's army chief, Raul Baduel, Chávez declared that there was a need for a Latin American alliance akin to NATO "with our own doctrine, not one that's handed down by the gringos."

 

During a two month trip through South America in 2007, I spoke with a number of military experts. Without exception, they all scoffed at Chávez's proposals to form a joint defense force. Chávez's proposals are problematic in a couple of respects. First of all, it would prove logistically challenging, not to mention costly, for Venezuela to maintain its troops if they were sent abroad.

 

The other obstacle for Chávez is political in nature: not all governments in the region share his particular socialist views or vision, nor do they necessarily view the United States as a mortal enemy which must be confronted.

 

In a region still beset with political and national rivalries, Chávez's bid for a unified military force faces an uphill battle. It is difficult to imagine, for example, how the Chilean armed forces -- which have an enormous amount of institutional pride and which have never lost a war-- would ever be willing to enter into a joint military force with Venezuela. Indeed, Chile has rebuffed Chávez's military proposals.

 

Meanwhile, the largest and most important country in the region, Brazil, is unlikely to become a member of a military force if it is constituted under Venezuelan leadership. In fact, Brazilian army commanders have declined Chávez's initiatives.

 

Even amongst sympathetic ALBA nations, it's doubtful that Chávez can succeed in creating

a united defense force.  Despite growing military ties between Venezuela and Bolivia, there is pressure on Morales not to go too far. Conservative media in Bolivia such as the paper La

Razón have ridiculed Chávez's proposed ALBA military alliance. What's more the Venezuelan leader is reviled by the Bolivian right wing opposition. If Morales were to increase military collaboration with Venezuela it would give rise to calls that Chávez is interfering in Bolivia's internal affairs.

 

Meanwhile, in Nicaragua the political opposition has rejected Chávez's proposals as a "senseless adventure." Eduardo Montealegre of the Alianza Liberal Nicaragüense party remarked that the idea of an ALBA force was a "smokescreen" designed to obscure real problems facing ALBA nations such as misery, hunger and lack of medicines. Even within his own ruling Sandinista party, Ortega faces opposition to Chávez's plan. Edwin Castro, the leader of the Sandinista parliamentarian faction, dismissed the idea that the Nicaraguan Army might fight, together with Venezuela, in a likely U.S. attack. "The Sandinista Front wrote in the Constitution (of 1987) that we have a defensive Army. It is prohibited to have an offensive Army," Castro said.

 

Despite the dim prospects for an ALBA military force, the armed forces in South America (with the exception of Colombia) are tied to new left of center regimes which are less sympathetic to the wider U.S. agenda in the region.  Unlike the 1970s, the military establishment is beholden to civilian rule and is unlikely to intervene in the political arena by staging an armed coup.

 

Take for example the case of Argentina. The Minister of Defense, a woman named Nilda Garré, was a sympathizer with the Montonero guerrillas of the 1970s. A former political prisoner during the military dictatorship, Garré wants to bring rogue military officers to justice for past human rights abuses.  Before coming to the Ministry of Defense, Garré was the Argentine ambassador to Venezuela. In Caracas, Garré was a vocal Chávez supporter, and when she got the call from Kirchner offering her the new job the Venezuelan president

phoned her in congratulation.

 

Garré has severed ties to the notorious military School of the Americas (now renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation or WHINSEC) located in Fort Benning, Georgia. In taking the momentous step to break with the school, Garré followed on the heels of Chávez, who severed ties in January, 2004.

 

Over the years, U.S.-Argentine military relations have been quite cordial, but recently ties have become strained. According to an official who I spoke with at the Ministry of Defense in Buenos Aires, in 2006 there wasn't a sole bilateral military meeting between the U.S. and Argentina.

 

Up to that point the two nations had met every year. Initially Argentina could not fix a date but when the government proposed an alternative time to meet, the U.S. responded that "the

Pentagon was being restructured" and could not schedule a summit.

 

Garré's counterpart in Chile is another woman, Vivianne Blanlot. She has been similarly

confrontational towards the military top brass identified with past human rights abuses. Recently there's been a lot of cooperation between the Chilean and Argentine armed forces. The two countries signed an agreement to form a combined military force for peacekeeping

missions which will be ready by the end of 2008.

 

Chávez's ALBA military initiative is probably a non-starter, but in the Southern Cone the armed forces have turned a critical page in their evolution. Though the military establishment is not strictly anti-U.S., it has become less identified with American strategic goals. It's a historic reversal for Washington, which now faces a much less inviting political environment within the region.

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