The Obama Style and Latin America

Clearly, the above-mentioned opinion is the predominant one, even after Obama’s wavering in relation to the coup d ‘ état in Honduras, an event that has led other analysts to emphasize the continuities in U.S. foreign policy. It would be too simplistic to conclude that there have been no changes. Obama displays a new discourse with more refined style, as evidenced in his meeting with the Presidents of Latin America, including his friendly gestures towards Hugo Chavez, and he appears intent on understanding the rest of the world, as was seen in his June 4th speech in Cairo. Very different, to be certain, from the arrogance of the cowboy George W. Bush.

Gestures and styles are not just symbolic manifestations to be discarded. The masses of humanity have fought and continue to struggle for dignity, something that cannot be limited to matters merely material in nature. Nevertheless, gestures alone are not enough. If there really is to be change, it must happen in places and moments of crisis. Honduras is a test case that the Obama administration is not handling well, but neither can he be blamed for direct support for the coup. It is still too early to know how the crisis will turn out, though each day that passes without the return of Manuel Zelaya to the Presidency of Honduras is a victory for the coup forces.

The area of Latin America that continues on fire is the Andean region and Colombia. What does Obama offer by way of change in that region? Some would say not even the gestures that he has offered in other situations. In Colombia, militarism continues to grow with the U.S. military presence escalating to virtually irreversible levels, and it is happening under the Obama administration.

The forced withdrawal of the U.S. Southern Command from Ecuador’s Manta military base has led the Pentagon to deepen and diversify its presence in Colombia. Under Plan Colombia, the U.S. uses the Tres Esquinas and Larandia military facilities in the south, as well as at least three other bases. The current proposal is to distribute what had existed at Manta among at least three air bases and two naval facilities in Colombia. The U.S. and Colombia are about to finish negotiations for the use of air bases at Apiay, Malambo and Palanquero, and the Pacific coast ports of Tumaco and Malaga Bay. With just the base at Palanquero (in the center of the country), the U.S. Southern Command more than recuperates what it lost with the withdrawal from Manta, with a runway which is 600 meters longer, room to host 2 thousand soldiers and 100 aircraft, and the capability to operate giant C-17s, a capability which did not exist at the Ecuadoran base. And Alfredo Molano has raised the possibility of Colombia authorizing the stationing of a U.S. aircraft carrier in Caribbean waters or the Pacific.

This new deployment of U.S. forces in Colombia will allow them to advance in key areas: the deepening of territorial control over decisive regions of Colombia, in particular those with mineral wealth coveted by multinationals; the projection of a shadow over its neighbors, specifically Venezuela and Ecuador not to mention Peru and Brazil; and increasing control over the Pacific, in view of growing trade between China and the South American region, in particular with Brazil and Venezuela.

This is not just a military response to the loss of the Manta base in Ecuador, as analysts argue. The new deployment aims to construct a comprehensive military response, both political and economic, to the strategic decline of the U.S. super-power and the crisis it faces. In South America, the main strategic threat to the United States is the China-Brazil (read China-South America) alliance that has as one of its pillars the joint Initiative for the Integration of Regional Infrastructure in South America (IIRSA). IIRSA is a series of infrastructure projects designed to facilitate the flow of Pacific-Atlantic trade. Hence, the importance of having military bases in the Pacific.

Although the argument continues to center on drug trafficking and terrorism, the objective is to reposition the U.S. Southern Command as the axis of U.S. control in the region. It is clear that the Manta air base was never really intended to combat drug trafficking. In fact, "Manta is now the number one port for export of drugs in Ecuador," according to Luis Angel Saavedra, director of INREDH. What it involves, he says, is the construction of a "military framework" to allow rapid control from Mexico to Patagonia, as well as the integration of Plan Puebla Panama with Plan Colombia.

To achieve this repositioning, the White House has not hesitated to strengthen its partnership with the ultra-right in Colombia, with President Alvaro Uribe, and with former Minister of Defense Manuel Santos, both closely tied to the Colombian paramilitary. Even the most extremist elements have learned the politically correct language required in these new times. General Freddy Padilla, current Minister of Defense, is an example of this new style when he gives assurances that Colombia "will not allow the creation of United States military bases" and that these bases "will not affect third countries." He goes further, stating that the new agreement being negotiated respects Colombian sovereignty and will not allow the transit of foreign troops but rather cooperation through the loaning of Colombian installations to the United States.

The new era promised by Obama will continue to be just words if the reality remains imperial control and open interference.

(Translation by David Brookbank)

Raúl Zibechi is an international analyst for Brecha, a weekly journal in Montevideo, Uruguay, professor and researcher on social movements at the Multiversidad Franciscana de America Latina, and adviser to social groups. He is a monthly contributor to the Americas Policy Program (