Latin America Challenges US Intervention
by Jackie Hayes
In early June 2005 the Organization of American States (OAS) voted against a US proposal to create a permanent committee to monitor the development and exercise of democracy in the Americas. Twenty-eight countries refused to sign the proposal, including Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela, all major political players in the region. Most felt the proposal violated the organization’s charter, which emphasizes sovereignty and non-intervention. The OAS’ rejection of the proposal is part of a growing trend in Latin America, one that opposes US intervention, including economic pressure from outside institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Trade Organization (WTO) and World Bank.
Early US Intervention
US intervention in Latin and South America dates back to the mid-1800s. One of the most notable early interventions was the Mexican-American War, in which the US took a huge portion of Mexico’s land, cutting the country in half.
In 1898, the US intervened when Cuba was engaged in its own war for independence from Spain, mainly to reap the benefits of aiding Cuba, which included unfettered US economic intervention and the classification of Cuba as a US protectorate. Concurrent with substantial and growing US corporate presence, there was also increasing anti-American sentiment in Cuba, leading to the overthrow of the US-imposed dictator, Fulgencio Batista, by Fidel Castro in 1959.
While earlier US interventions in Latin America were defined by geographical proximity, they were also fueled by the same sense of moral, political and cultural superiority, that has continued into the present.
Pan-American Union and Militarizing the South
As the US began to accelerate its imperialist agenda in the Western Hemisphere, those in power saw the need for a hemisphere-wide alliance. This emerged in 1889, with the creation of the Pan-American Union, later renamed the Organization of American States (OAS), which is still a powerful political force today. Since the US was concerned with maintaining economic influence over Western Europe, the Pan-American Union limited its initial role to economic matters and was used as a tool for the US to manipulate Latin American politics.
After World War I, as Europe’s economy and hegemony was in decline, the US took the opportunity to secure its place as a global superpower, including heightened control over Latin America. During this post-WWI period the US military occupied multiple countries, including Cuba from 1917 to 1922, the Dominican Republic from 1916 to 1924, Haiti from 1915 to 1934, and Nicaragua from 1912 to 1933. In the cases of Cuba and Nicaragua, US military occupation was deemed necessary to crush liberal movements opposing US imperialism.
During this time US foreign policy stressed the establishment of military bases, the sale of arms, easy access to raw materials and heightened military relations with all Latin American countries to ensure allies for future conflicts, especially as it became apparent that Europe was headed towards another major war.
Creation of OAS and Counter-Insurgency
The US emerged from WWII seemingly unscathed in comparison to Europe and Japan. During the Cold War era, the US pressured Latin American governments to take a hard-line stance against the Soviet Union and their own domestic communist parties. In 1946, the School of the Americas (SOA) was established in Panama to train Latin American soldiers in counter-insurgency tactics including torture, and was used as a vehicle for US military intervention. As human rights violations in Latin America have come to light over the past decades, counter-insurgency has been generally acknowledged to mean attacks on individuals and grassroots organizations; disappearances and assassinations of health care workers, teachers, indigenous and campesino leaders, labor organizers, and religious leaders. These in-country people were often killed under the guise of being members of a communist party, rather than as members of grassroots organizations seeking more dignified and just lives for the marginalized in their country. Where formal investigations have taken place, countless human rights violations have been attributed to many SOA graduates.
Since the US wanted guaranteed solidarity against the Soviet Union, the OAS was created in 1948 from the foundations of the Pan-American Union, and the Rio Pact was introduced, which was a treaty defining any attack against an “American” state as an attack against all.
In the early 1960s, following Batista’s overthrow by Castro in Cuba, the US perceived communism as a growing threat in Latin America. Realizing that part of the appeal of communist ideology could be explained by economic factors such as the widening gap between the rich and poor, the US adapted a foreign policy that acknowledged social reform issues. Entitled the “Alliance for Progress,” part of this new plan included a piece (covered minimally in the press) that authorized counter-insurgency as a tactic to fight guerrilla movements. One infamous outcome of increased counter-insurgency activity was the death in 1973 of democratically elected Chilean President, Salvador Allende during a violent US-supported coup that resulted in the installation of Pinochet, a ruthless military dictator.
The Rise of Neo-liberalism
During the 1970s OPEC quadrupled the price of oil, spurring an economic boost for crude oil exporting countries like Venezuela. Yet, when oil prices took a dive in the late 1980s many countries, including Mexico, Brazil and Argentina, borrowed heavily from international lending institutions like the World Bank to manage their growing deficits, which they reasoned would be repaid once oil prices increased. Instead those countries worked themselves into outstanding debts, which lending agencies, like the IMF, WTO and World Bank, exploited to force structural adjustment programs.
In the early 1990s, as the US began to feel economic pressures from Europe, Japan and China, and as Latin American debt intensified, the US began to advocate neo-liberal policies as a way to solve Latin America’s economic woes. NAFTA was passed in January 1994, eradicating trade barriers between the US, Canada and Mexico. The IMF, WTO and World Bank continued to provide aid under the condition that a country open its markets to foreign investment by selling off state owned companies and limiting tariffs. Those institutions particularly advocated for the privatization of oil, gas and other equally lucrative resources.
Repeated US intervention has been damaging to Latin America, since the US has historically pressured Latin American governments to fall in line with the US’ agenda through organizations like the OAS. The creation of the OAS came out of a Cold War mentality and facilitated US intervention, including covert CIA operations. The structural adjustment programs, often forced on countries by the IMF or World Bank, have not helped alleviate debt or increase capital flow into Latin America. In fact, neo-liberalism has hindered social reform and perpetuated grave disparities in wealth. Many Latin American governments and people have been speaking out against the neo-liberal economic policies imposed on their governments. Currently, historically suppressed leftist movements have been growing in several Latin American countries including Venezuela and Bolivia, movements which advocate opposition to US intervention, neo-liberalism and multi-national corporate imperialism.
Venezuela and Bolivia
An article published by Reuters on June 20 reported that Venezuela would not be willing to cooperate with the CIA. Venezuelan Interior Minister, Jesse Chacon stated, “It would be difficult for us to work with the CIA ... which has toppled governments in Chile, Guatemala, Grenada and Nicaragua and is trying to topple this one as well.” The Venezuelan government has been able to advocate and maintain leftist policies, including friendly relations with Cuba, but still fears US military intervention. Refusing to work with the CIA could limit US access into Venezuela.
Aside from opposing CIA involvement, Venezuela is also challenging foreign oil companies. Venezuela is the fifth largest exporter of oil in the world and supplies over 15% of US oil imports. In early April, the Venezuelan Energy Ministry made statements that it plans to begin a full-scale tax investigation into all foreign firms operating in the oil industry.
Venezuela expects to recoup about $2 billion following the conclusion of the investigations. Chavez also plans to alter thirty two oil contracts with companies including Chevron Texaco Corp. and Conoco Phillips, forcing them into joint contracts with the state. Venezuela would then hold 51% stake in all oil ventures, substantially increasing the government’s oil revenue.
Traditionally, external governments and corporations have exploited Latin American countries for their valuable resources. By increasing control over their oil, Venezuela could alter the terms of oil contracts to reflect the wishes of Venezuelans. Increased revenue and control could substantially alter the relationship between Venezuela, the US and foreign corporations, potentially allowing for increased sovereignty.
In early June 2005, Bolivia was nearly crippled by overwhelming rebellion. Protesters surrounded La Paz for weeks, blocking all traffic in and out of the city. The protesters, mainly indigenous, were demanding the resignation of President Carlos Mesa, in part due to his conservative stance on gas and oil nationalization.
After persistent protests, which included the take-over of three British Petroleum oilfields and four Repsol oilfields, as well as a pipeline station along the Chilean border, President Carlos Mesa resigned. Mesa’s temporary successor, Head of Senate Hormando Vaca Diez, also declined the Presidency after massive protests blocked Parliament’s attempt to hinder his appointment. Protesters demanded the nationalization of oil and gas, as well as increased avenues to democratic participation, mainly through a constituent assembly.
During the weeks of protest, US officials made numerous statements in support of President Mesa and warned that continued protests could lead to civil war. Yet, protestors persisted in having their immediate demands met with limited physical confrontation. The resignation of Mesa is proof that Bolivians can affect the fate of their resources.
US-Latin American Future Relations
If Latin America is going to break away from the colonial bondage continuously imposed by the US since the early 1800s, it will be through consistent collective actions. In addition to Venezuela and Bolivia, there have been large protests in Guayaquil, Ecuador in opposition to the Central American Free Trade Agreement. As in Venezuela, Ecuadorian Energy Minister claimed Ecuador would also be reviewing their contracts with foreign oil companies.
The OAS has already won the diplomatic battle, denying the US authorization to intervene under the auspices of improving democracy, and countries like Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador are beginning to demand control of their natural resources. The relationship between the US and Latin America is changing, mainly because the economic policies that the US so intensely advocated have failed to pay off. Also at play here is the determination of grassroots organizations to fight back.
Jackie volunteers for SPC and graduated from SUNY Stony Brook last August with a Political Science degree. She spent a semester in Ecuador and a month traveling through Peru and Bolivia.