U.S. Offensive in Latin America: Golpes, Retreat and Radicalization

by James Petras

Centre for Research on Globalisation (CRG),  globalresearch.ca , 3 April 2002

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The current worldwide U.S. politico-military offensive is manifest in Latin America in multiple contexts, using a variety of tactics (military and political) and instruments, directed toward propping up decaying clients, destabilizing independent regimes, pressuring the center-left to move to the Right and destroying or isolating the burgeoning popular mass movements challenging the U.S. empire and its client regimes. We will proceed by discussing the particular forms of the U.S. offensive in each country and then proceed to explore the specific and general reasons for the offensive in contemporary Latin America. This discussion will provide the bases for the theoretical analysis of the specific nature of the "New Imperialism" which informs the current offensive and its impact on the center-left electoral parties and the radical socio-political movements. In the concluding section we will discuss the political alternatives in the context of the U.S. offensive and the new Imperialism.

Military-Political Offensive: Diverse Approaches, Singular Goal

The most striking aspect of the U.S. military-political offensive in Latin America is the diverse tactics utilized to establish or consolidate client regimes and defeat popular socio-political movements opposed to imperial domination.

The focus of high intensity U.S. intervention is in Colombia and Venezuela. In both countries, Washington has high stakes, involving political, economic and ideological interests as well as geo-political considerations.

Both countries, face both the Caribbean and the Andean countries - as well as Brazil; the emergence of a revolutionary regime in Colombia or the stabilization of a nationalist regime in Venezuela could inspire similar transformations in the adjoining regions and undermine U.S. control via its client regimes. Moreover, significant political changes could affect U.S. control over oil production and supply, not only from Venezuela and Colombia but pressure Mexico and Ecuador to back off from the privatization process.

Washington, at all costs, wants to maintain a secure supply of oil in the current period of "undeclared war" against the Gulf Oil producers - namely Iraq and Iran - and in the face of an increasingly vulnerable Saudi Arabia.

Geopolitically, socio-political transformations in Colombia and Venezuela, could lead to an integration pact with revolutionary Cuba, thus destroying Washington's forty year old embargo and creating a viable alternative to the U.S. sponsored Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA/ALCA in Spanish).

Washington has adopted different strategies to the two countries. To defeat the popular insurgency in Colombia, it has embraced a "total war" strategy. In Venezuela it includes a combined civil political-economic de-stabilization strategy culminating in a military coup.

Washington's counter-insurgency strategy in Colombia operated under cover of an anti-narcotics campaign, to justify the accelerated military buildup. The anti-narcotics campaigns centered on regions where the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces) was strongest, while virtually ignoring the areas controlled by paramilitary clients of the Colombian Armed Forces. The politico-military advance of the FARC in the late 1990s forced the Colombian government to the negotiating table and increased its dependence on the U.S. for military aid and advisors. In the U.S. (and in Colombia) the "peace negotiations" were seen as a temporary tactic to forestall a full-scale FARC assault on the urban centers of power and a time period to build the military capability of the Colombian Armed Forces and strengthen and extend the scope and depth of U.S. military influence on the military-paramilitary forces and military strategy. The government "peace negotiators" also hoped to entice or split the FARC by offering them an "electoral option", as was done in Central America (El Salvador and Guatemala). The FARC, cognizant of the brutal assassination of leftist political activists (4,000-5,000) in the mid-to-late 1980s and of the abject failure of the Central American guerrillas turned electoral politicians to bring about any meaningful social changes refused to surrender. They insisted on basic reforms of state structures and the economy as pre-conditions for any durable peace settlement. These proposals for democratic and socio-economic reforms were totally unacceptable to the U.S. and the Pastrana regime, which were moving in the opposite direction toward greater militarization of political life and liberalization of the economy.

Throughout the period of peace negotiations, the U.S. and Pastrana combined peace rhetoric with funding and promotion of paramilitary groups (via the Colombian military) involved in the capture and destruction of villages and towns, displacing millions of peasants and trade unionists and killing thousands of peasants suspected of having Leftist sympathies. The idea was to isolate the FARC within the demilitarized zone, train, arm and mass troops on the borders, carry on high tech electronic surveys to identify strategic targets and then abruptly break off negotiations and blitz the region, with a land and air attack, capturing or killing the FARC leaders and demoralizing the fleeing insurgents. Needless to say the tactics failed. The guerrillas continue to be active out of the peace zone, they strengthened their forces within the de-militarized zone and suffered no serious losses when Pastrana broke off peace negotiations.

The U.S. has made Colombia the "test case" for its politico-military offensive in Latin America. First of all because the FARC is the most powerful anti-imperialist formation challenging for state power. Secondly, because it borders Venezuela and is perceived as an ally of President Chavez. Defeating the FARC, allows Washington to "encircle" and increase the external pressure on Venezuela and reinforce the internal de-stabilization campaign.

As the political base of Pastrana erodes - due to the prolonged recession and social cutbacks resulting from the huge military budget - the U.S. escalates its military support. The entire Colombian economy is now subordinated to the U.S. military strategy; and the military strategy is directed by a scorched earth - total war policy. This means that all Colombian civilian and economic considerations are secondary to Washington's primary interests in "winning the war" against the FARC.

Given the strength and experience of the FARC and the formidable strategic capacity of its leader, Manual Marulanda and his general staff - the U.S.-Colombian war promises to be a prolonged and bloody outcome, in which there is likely to be a continuous major escalation of U.S. intervention, increased use of paramilitary terror and greater indiscriminate bombing of civilian targets. Nonetheless a military victory by the U.S. is very doubtful: the end result may be nearer to Vietnam rather than Afghanistan.

The first signs that Washington's offensive may have a boomerang effect are visible in Colombia. Less than two weeks after the U.S. pressured President Pastrana to end the peace talks and declare the de-militarized area a war zone, the first general to lead troops into the zone resigned. He publically declared that military victory was impossible. The immediate cause for his resignation was the FARC's destruction of a bridge leading into the former demilitarized zone, under the General's direct command. The FARC successful military offensive following the end of the peace talks, led the U.S. Ambassador to Colombia to admit that Plan Colombia was a failure.

In contrast to the scorched earth military strategy in Colombia, the U.S. is implementing a civil military approach to overthrowing president Chavez in Venezuela. Chavez is a liberal nationalist: he has followed a fairly orthodox domestic economic policy while pursuing an independent nationalist foreign policy. U.S. strategy is multi-phased and combines media-civic-economic attacks with efforts to provoke fissures in the military, culminating in a military coup.

The first phase of this struggle is to destabilize the economy, via closely coordinated actions with client business and professional groups and corrupt right-wing trade union bosses. The purpose is to mobilize public opposition and focus mass media attention on the instability of the country, inhibiting investment from less politicized capitalists, who, however are fearful of declining profits in a conflictual situation. The mass media engages in a systematic propaganda campaign to overthrow the Chavez regime, advocating a violent seizure of power. Government and public protests against the subversive behavior of the mass media allows Washington to orchestrate an international campaign against "violations of free speech" particularly via U.S. influenced Inter-American Press Association. The second phase of the Bush Administration's strategy is to move from de-stabilization directly toward a military coup. This involves two steps. The first is to mobilize U.S. intelligence assets, retired officials and those labeled "dissident" among the active military officers from the more reactionary branches of the military - in the case of Venezuela, the Air Force and Navy. The idea is to force a political discussion in the military command, provoke other like-minded officials to "come out" in defense of the expelled officers and to reinforce the mass media - business message of "instability" and an imminent "fall of Chavez", thus further stimulating capital flight. The second step is to organize authoritarian navy and air force officials to put pressure on the army - the main bulwark of Chavez support - to gain adherents, neutralize apolitical officers and isolate Chavez loyalists. Washington's two step approach is to culminate in a military coup with active U.S. military support, in which a "transitional civic-military junta" rules.

Linked with its internal strategy, based on its Venezuelan clients, Washington has implemented an "external strategy." Secretary of State Powell has publically denounced Chavez as an authoritarian and both he and the IMF have publically stated their support for a "transitional government"- a clear and obvious signal of U.S. support for the internal golpistas. U.S. "Special Forces" now operate in Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Panama, Afghanistan, Yemen, Philippines, Georgia, Uzbekistan and other Central Asian client states. It is more than likely that, in the event of a coup attempt, the Pentagon will send tactical operatives and political advisers to "guide the coup" and ensure that the appropriate configuration of civilian personalities emerges for propaganda purposes.

The dangers facing the Venezuelan regime is that in Washington's "war of political attrition", where daily propaganda barrages and provocative actions abound, Chavez cannot depend on constant mass mobilizations. He must actually implement immediate radical re-distributive socio-economic policies to sustain mass commitments and active organized support. The U.S.-orchestrated offensive is geared to creating "permanent tension" as a psychological weapon to exhaust popular support and undermine Army morale.

Chavez's independent foreign policy is what antagonizes the U.S. This includes his opposition to Plan Colombia, criticism of the U.S. war in Afghanistan and worldwide imperial offensive, his cordial relations with Iraq, Libya, Iran and Cuba and his refusal to allow the U.S. to colonize Venezuelan airspace. His foreign policy has not been complemented by a series of comprehensive socio-economic reforms affecting the welfare of millions of his unemployed and poorly paid supporters living in the slums and shanty towns.

U.S. efforts to overthrow Chavez are based on his refusal, in early October, to back Washington's worldwide imperial offensive - the so-called "anti-terrorist campaign". Close advisers to President Chavez informed me that a delegation of high officials from Washington visited Chavez and bluntly informed him that he would "pay a high price for his opposition to President Bush". Shortly thereafter the local business federation and trade union bosses launched their campaigns - even though President Chavez had introduced a very modest tax reform (mostly affecting foreign oil companies), a compensated land purchase plan and had privatized the major publically owned electrical enterprise company in Caracas.

Clearly Chavez attempts to ride two horses - an independent foreign policy and liberal reform domestic policy-makers him very vulnerable to the U.S. designed coup strategy. U.S. imperial tactics in Venezuela differ substantially from Colombia, largely because in one case it is defending a client state against a popular insurgency and in the other trying to create a civilian movement to provoke a coup. Strategically however, the political outcome, is the same: to consolidate a client regime which will subordinate the country to the neo-mercantilist empire embodied in the FTAA, and become willing vassals in policing the Latin American empire and perhaps supplying mercenaries for new overseas wars.

Argentina is the third country in which Washington is intervening. Following the mass popular uprising of December 19/20, 2001 and the fall of five client "Presidents", Washington began to work through a multi-phased strategy which was designed to continue the transfer of billions of dollars in assets to U.S. companies, prejudice European competitors and re-secure a privileged position in the Argentine political and economic system. The collapse of the client regime of De la Rua and the weakness of the Duhalde regime in "imposing" a return to the status quo ante (the popular uprising) has led Washington to turn to unconditional civilian clients (ex-President Menem and ex-minister of economy Murphy) and the military intelligence apparatus - relatively intact since the days of the bloody dictatorship.

Washington's problem with the Duhalde regime is not his "rectification" of "populist" measures (he has agreed to partial debt payments, has sworn unconditional support of the U.S. global offensive, proposes to limit spending, etc.). The U.S. problem is that Duhalde cannot forcefully fulfill his commitments to the IMF and Wall Street. The popular movements are growing in size and activity and they are more organized and radical. In their assemblies they are raising fundamental issues as well as immediate concerns. Their demands include repudiating the foreign debt, nationalizing the banks' and strategic economic sectors and redistributing income - in a word repudiating the "neo-liberal model", at a time when the U.S. is pushing to extend and deepening its control via the neo-mercantilist FTAA.

There is little doubt that the Duhalde regime is prepared to meet most of the demands of the IMF - but he lacks the power to implement the whole austerity package and bailout of the banks in the time frame and under the conditions which Washington and the IMF demand. Each concession to the IMF like budget cuts-ignites more demonstrations among teachers and public employees; the bailout of the foreign banks requires the continued confiscation of private savings; slashing provincial budget provokes greater unemployment, hunger and revolts. The Duhalde regime has already increased the level of repression and unleashed his street thugs - but, the movements still proliferate and the thin veneer of legitimacy of his regime is dissolving. CIA director Tenet has already pointed out U.S. "preoccupation" with instability in Argentina - meaning popular mobilizations. The U.S. assets in the Argentine intelligence apparatus are floating trial balloons, evaluating the response to rumors of a military coup. These tentative, exploratory, moves are designed to secure a consensus among the military, financial and economic elites - together with the U.S. and European, especially Spanish, bankers and multi-nationals. The U.S. and European mass media have begun to resonate with Washington's evolving strategy - writing of "chaos", "breakdown" and "chronic instability" of the civilian regime".

Washington is pointing toward a civic-military regime, if and when Duhalde resigns or is overthrown. Washington's strategy is to decapitate the popular opposition. It can be summarized as the Triple M, a regime configured with ex-President Menem, ex-Minister of Economy Murphy and the military. Their lack of any social support among the middle and urban poor means that regime would be a "regime of force": designed to drive the middle class to the wall, into a massive exodus via a brutal reduction in living standard to meet foreign debt obligations.

In summary, Washington is working on two tracks: on the one hand pressuring Duhalde to conform with its demands by assuming full dictatorial powers and on the other hand preparing the conditions for a new more right-wing authoritarian "civic-military" client regime.

The reversion to client military dictatorships with a civic facade, provides the Bush Administration with the ideological fig leaf of "defending democracy and free markets". The U.S. mass media can embellish on this and any variety of related motifs.

Washington's militarization strategy is also evident in Ecuador, Bolivia and Paraguay, where client regimes, stripped of any popular legitimacy, hold onto power and impose Washington's neo-mercantilist formulas (free markets in Latin America and protectionism and subsidies in the U.S.).

In Brazil and Mexico, Washington relies heavily on political and diplomatic instruments. In the case of Mexico, Washington has direct entree to the Fox Administration in economic policy and a virtual agent in the Foreign Minister Jorge Castaneda. The goal of Mexican subordination to U.S. neo-mercantilism is not in question, as Fox and Castaneda are in total agreement. What is in question is the effectiveness of the regime in implementing U.S. policy. Fox's effort to convert southern Mexico and Central America into one big U.S. assembly plant, tourist and petroleum center (Puebla-Panama Plan) has run into substantial opposition. The massive shift of U.S. capital to cheaper labor in China has provoked large-scale unemployment in the Mexican border towns. The so-called "reciprocal benefits" of "integration" are glaringingly absent. U.S. dumping of corn and other agricultural commodities has devastated Mexican farmers and peasants. The U.S. takeover of all sectors of Mexican economy (finance, telecommunications, services, etc.) Has led to massive outflows of profits and royalty payments. In foreign affairs, Washington's influence has never been greater, as Castaneda crudely mouths the policies of the U.S. Defense Department and CIA - declaring unconditional support for the U.S. policy in Afghanistan and any future military interventions, and grossly intervening in Cuban internal politics and provoking the worst incident in Cuban-Mexican diplomatic relations in recent history. Castaneda's crude anti-Cuban interventions on behalf of Washington backfired, with the great majority of the Mexican political class calling for his censure or resignation. Yet, it is clear that the mere presence of such a unabashed promoter of U.S. policy like Castaneda in the Fox Administration is indicative of Washington's aggressive conquest of space in the Mexican political system. The powerful presence of US MNC, banks and numerous regional and local client politicians facilitates the re-colonization of Mexico - against an increasingly restive and impoverished labor force.

In Brazil, the U.S. has been active in both the political and economic sphere: its backing of Cardoso produced unprecedented results, the virtual sell-off of the principle public telecommunications, financial, natural resource, and commercial sectors. More significantly the linkup between U.S. and European capital and Brazilian media empires and big business sectors has had a powerful influence on the political class and on shaping electoral politics. This power bloc has succeeded in turning center-left electoral politicians to the right in order to secure the media access and financial support to win national elections. U.S. hegemony over Brazil is a political process. Influence moves through local and regional power brokers and national media monopolies. The U.S. offensive's most recent "conquest" is the leadership of the so-called Worker's Party and in particular its Presidential candidate Inacio Lula da Silva. In response to the U.S. offensive, Lula selected a millionaire textile magnate from the right-wing Liberal Party as his Vice Presidential candidate. He has tried to ingratiate himself by seeking a meeting with Kissinger, declared loyalty to the IMF and pledged to honor the foreign debt, the privatized industries, etc. The right turn of Lula and the Workers Party means that all major electoral parties remain within the U.S. orbit and guarantee uncontested U.S. hegemony over the political class.

In summary the U.S. imperial offensive has adopted a variety of tactics and approaches in different countries in a variety of politico-military contexts. While giving greater primacy to military intervention and military coups (always with some sort of civilian facade) in countries (Columbia, Venezuela) Washington continues to instrumentalize its political and diplomatic clients and "turn" its political adversaries.

The strategic goal of constructing a neo-mercantilist empire faces a great variety of political, social and military obstacles, particularly evident in Columbia, Venezuela and Argentina. In other words the imperial projection of power is far from realization, it is enmeshed in a series of conflictual relations and in a context where the past socio-economic failures of the empire, do not create a favorable terrain for easy advance, or provide any justification for assuming an inevitable victory. On the contrary, the current imperial offensive is in part the result of severe setbacks in recent years and the growth of opponents among previous supporters in the middle class in some countries.

The Decline of Empire: The Basis of the Imperial Offensive

The U.S. politico-military offensive in Latin America is part of a worldwide campaign to reverse a deterioration of political influence and economic dominance and to extend and consolidate its imperial power via a combination of military bases and client political regimes. Beginning on October 7 (2001) with the massive bombing, and subsequent occupation of Afghanistan, Washington proceeded to establish a puppet regime, completely dependent on U.S. military power. Satellite building extended to Central Asia, where Washington abruptly brushed aside the Russian links and established military bases and client-patron relations with the regimes. Similar processes of military interventions, base occupations and patron-client relations were established with rulers in the Philippines, Yemen and Georgia. In Latin America prior to October 7, 2001, U.S. already had established military bases in Ecuador, Peru, Aruba, El Salvador and Northern Brazil. More significantly the location of the new bases was accompanied by extensive and direct operational role in financing, training and directing the counter-insurgency operations of the Colombian military and paramilitary forces fighting the popular insurgency.

Two points are important to note. First, part of this expansion of U.S. power is directed to counter the advances of popular movements and anti-imperialist regimes. Secondly, the offensive seeks not only to regain lost influence, but to establish new strategic centers of power in order to impose an unchallenged worldwide empire. In the case of Latin America, both processes are underway: a concerted imperial effort to defeat popular challenges to imperial rule and to establish a more exclusive, exploitative and repressive neo-mercantile empire than existed during the so-called "neo-liberal" period.

The immediate purpose of the U.S. military political offensive in Latin America is to regain dominance in a region where its client regimes are discredited and weakening and where the imperial multi-lateral economic institutions are losing their capacity to control macro-economic policy due to mass opposition.

Essentially a long-term U.S. military presence has a political purpose - to prop up discredited regimes, to replace weak client regimes with more authoritarian civil military juntas and to overthrow independent national governments which refuse to follow Washington's policies.

That U.S. client regimes are weakening is evident in the failed liberal economic model, the vertical decline in popularity registered in the public opinion polls, the escalating flight of local capital and most important, in come countries, the increasing belligerency of robust mass popular movements directed at challenging regime authority - if not state power.

The most powerful and organized challenge to the satellite building project of the empire is in Colombia. Popular opposition to the civil-military regime is found in a powerful multi-sectoral agricultural movement (including farmers, peasants and rural workers), prejudiced by cuts in Government credits, its open door toward cheap U.S. food imports and the low price of its export commodities. The opposition included militant trade union struggles particularly of the oil, public employee, and agricultural and industrial unions. Thirdly the most significant opposition is found in the most powerful and well-organized guerrilla movement in recent Latin American history. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) include over 20,000 combatants. The main thrust of the counter-insurgency experts is to direct the para-military death squads to forcibly evict hundreds of thousands of peasants, sympathetic to the guerrillas, from the countryside and to assassinate progressive urban slum dwellers, student activists, human rights workers and trade union leaders. The paramilitary forces violence is directed at isolating the guerrillas from their natural mass base - and source of food and recruits in order to allow the Armed Forces to engage the guerrillas directly.

The scope and depth of military violence - 40,000 civilians killed in the 1990s- suggests the degree to which the guerrillas were and are deeply rooted among the working and peasant population. The guerrillas control or are influential in half of the rural municipalities of the country and have not suffered any significant defeats, despite frequent military "extermination campaigns." On the contrary, the guerrillas are active less than fifty miles from the capital Bogota, control major highways and dominate a vast swathe of the countryside. While engaged in mobile, rather than positional warfare, the insurgents have, in effect established a system of dual power in several regions of the country. Moreover, the insurgents have advantages in knowledge of terrain, proximity to local people and a strategically superior leadership that more than compensates for the technological and numerical superiority of U.S. directed mostly conscript army.

The massive infusion of U.S. arms and officials is directed toward bolstering the regime and preventing its deterioration or collapse, in the face of the two year recession, the civil discontent and the guerrilla onslaught.

In Venezuela the Chavez regime has challenged U.S. foreign policy in several vital regions: (1) in the Middle East, the Gulf State and North Africa. The Chavez government strengthened OPEC, visited Iraq, Iran and Libya, thus breaking the U.S. boycott (2); South Asia, Chavez opposed the U.S. military intervention (the "response to terror is not more terror"); in Latin America he opposed Plan Colombia and the U.S.counter-insurgency military strategy, banned U.S. overflights by spy planes of Venezuela airspace, rejected immediate implementation of FTAA, developed close ties with Cuba and offered to mediate the dispute between the guerrillas and the regime in Colombia. In more general terms Chavez has strengthened OPEC and revitalized its decision-making capacity and above all Chavez refused to submit to the Bush-Rumsfeld crusade to establish world dominance. The latter position led the U.S. to temporarily withdraw its Ambassador and to send a high delegation of State Department officials to threaten Chavez in a style more reminiscent of the mafia than career diplomats. Chavez's independent foreign policy is a sharp reversal from the previous corrupt client regimes which echoed U.S. international policy.

The third country which has witnessed a sharp decline in U.S. influence is Argentina. The collapse of the De La Rua regime and its entourage of ministers, in the tow of foreign bankers and Euro-U.S. controlled multi-lateral banks started bells ringing in Washington. The installation of the Duhalde clique and his concessions to Washington and the IMF has not pacified Washington because his regime is perceived to be unstable and unable to effectively put an end to mass mobilizations. The most significant political fact is the vast majority of the middle class has turned against neo-liberalism and its overseas promoters, and reject all local politicians associated with them. Unlike the 1976 coup, in which the U.S. and the Generals, were able to blame the Left for the "disorder" and "violence", in 2002 it is the pro-U.S. liberal right-wing regimes which confiscated middle class savings, lowering living standards and violently repressed middle class assemblies and pot-banging marches. A U.S. backed civic military coup would take place in a political vacuum with virtually no social basis of support and dependent exclusively on violent repression against the entirety of civil society organizations. The absolute political discredit of U.S. client politicians like ex-President Menem, and ex-Minister (Minister for 15 days) Murphy and the genocidal military commanders, means that Washington faces a most unfavorable correlation of socio-political forces, now or in the immediate future. In this context Washington's most probably strategies will be to call on Duhalde to take even more severe repressive measures as a means of demobilizing opposition>in order to comply with the conditions of foreign bankers, with the promise of new IMF loans. Another possible scenario would be new elections in which a new version of a center-Left coalition comes to power, and Washington resorts to a strategy of political attrition - undermining investments, loans, etc. in order to provoke discontent in order to launch the military coup in a context of chaos and failed policies.

In this context a race is taking place, between the mass movements and Washington, to see who can fill the space of the disintegrating civilian right. The U.S. has the arms of the state but not the social base. The mass movements have popular support but no organized national leadership in a position to bid for state power.

Colombia, Venezuela and Argentina clearly express the centers of declining U.S. influence and power. However alternative forces are advancing in several other Latin American countries. There are clear signs that client regimes in Paraguay (Macchi), Bolivia (Quiroga), Ecuador (Noboa), Peru (Toledo) are discredited and have little public support in implementing Washington's agenda. Moreover, there are powerful multi-sectoral mass movements in the first three of the above countries which have demonstrated their capacity for direct-action in blocking some of the most retrograde legislation. While these movements are powerful, their strength resides in particular regions and social classes (peasants) and they are prone to negotiate limited agreements (never implemented by the regime - thus precipitating a new round of mobilizations and confrontations).

Analyzing Washington's political influence in Brazil is very complex. On the one hand the center-right pro-U.S., Cardoso regime has lost much of its public support - except among the overseas bankers and local elites - thus weakening U.S. hegemony. On the other hand the Left has been severely weakened by the right-turn of the leadership of the Workers Party and its Presidential candidate Inacio Lula Da Silva. Their alliance with the right-wing Liberal Party and then embrace of most of the neo-liberal agenda, provides the U.S. with a win-win situation. The right turn will alienate many rank and file WP voters and perhaps split the Party, causing>it to lose the election. Or if the improbable result is a WP Liberal victory, the policy consequences will not affect basic U.S. interests. The incognito is the extent to which the WP right turn will result in a re-groupment of the Left - in which the powerful social movements (Landless Workers, small farmers, urban and housing movements) the radical leftist parties (PSTU, PcdoB, etc.) and the left dissidents of the Workers Party can join forces. Independently of the electoral parties, there is a powerful and growing current of nationalist and anti-imperialist opinion, which is strongly opposed to the FTAA and the economic policies promoted by the U.S. and Europe which have led to a decade of to economic stagnation. Moreover, the Brazilian military is not a reliable ally of the Pentagon, as there is a strong, historically rooted, nationalist current which may resist further U.S. intervention.

In summary, it would be a mistake to attribute the current U.S. military-political offensive exclusively to global factors. The U.S. counter-offensive predates 9/11 and 10/7 - Plan Columbia began almost 2 years earlier. The imperial offensive in Latin America certainly received a greater ideological and military impetus from the events in the last half of 2001, but equally important was the advance of the popular movements, and the extension of anti-imperialist, anti-liberal sentiment to substantial sectors of the middle class in some of the major countries. The complex inter-action of declining influence in Latin America and in the Gulf states, combined with the competition from Europe has dramatically changed Washington's conception of empire.

The New Imperialism: From Neo-Liberalism to Neo-Mercantilism

The "failed regimes" within the U.S. neo-liberal empire in Latin America was dramatically illustrated in Argentina, but is pervasive everywhere. Neo-liberalism, as an imperial strategy for capturing control over markets, national enterprises and natural resource, seems to be reaching its end point. This does not mean the end of imperialism. What is taking place is a greater degree of imperial state control over the economies and circuits of capital and commodities. Washington's FTAA is precisely a blueprint of a neo-mercantilist empire, in which the U.S. establishes the legal framework for consolidating a privileged position in Latin American markets and economy over and against its European/Japanese competitors.

Neo-mercantilist empires are essentially based on unilateral state decisions (rejecting consultation) and military supremacy, both designed to impose policies on international, regional and national competitors. Given the weakness of the neo-liberal client-states in containing popular insurgency, the neo-mercantilist imperial state opts for greater use of force and the militarization of politics. Against the economic gains in Latin America of its European allies the new mercantilism seeks to limit future losses by tying Latin America closer to the U.S.

The transition from neo-liberal to a neo-mercantilist empire is not an abrupt shift, the new imperialism still carries many of the characteristics of the past: the U.S. still imports far more commodities then it did 30 years ago, and it will continue to be import dependent into the foreseeable future. But increasingly Washington is moving toward import controls, quotas and tariffs to protect non-competitive local industries, from steel, to shrimps.

Secondly, many U.S. exports have been subsidized and protection has to some degree always existed, even at the height of the neo-liberal empire. The real question is the degree and, more important the direction of state subsidized trade. The U.S. has vastly increased its agricultural subsidies, and because of the over-valued dollar moved to impose steel tariffs costing overseas exporters nearly 10 billion dollars in lost revenues. Europe will retaliate - the Latin American clients will not - especially those committed to FTAA.

Thirdly, as the U.S. moves to a state directed trade and investment empire in Latin America it will retain its neo-liberal rhetoric while implementing its statist strategy, thus disorienting superficial commentators. Several factors lead to a coincidence between neo-mercantilism and increased militarization. First of all, the blatant asymmetry of trade relations - the U.S. protects and subsides its industry but demands "free trade" for Latin America - leads to trade imbalances etc., which can only be enforced and sustained by force. Secondly, neo-mercantilism degrades and alienates sectors of the local middle class, farmers and urban business thus narrowing the political base of its local client regime. Thirdly, the increased role of the imperial state, directly politicizes opposition to the state. Fourthly, neo-mercantilism undermines local employment in industries and public sector social services, swelling the ranks of the un- and under-employed and enlarging the base for mass direct action. Fifthly, the imperial state's pressure on client states to meet foreign debt payments, eliminates most revenue to finance local social services or capital projects, undermining professional employment and infrastructure development. In summary, the transition to neo-mercantilist economy requires greater exploitation and domination. The global "anti-terrorist" ideology used to justify greater U.S. militarization in Latin America is a propaganda ploy: the economic basis for militarization are rooted in the transition to the new imperialism.

The U.S. Offensive: Impact on the Left

The current U.S. imperial offensive has had a differential impact on Left formations in Latin America. In general, we can say that the electoral parties have bent to the right and the socio-political movements have been radicalized. The offensive has not only affected political alignments and strategies but also economic programs.

Let us start with the negative side those sectors of the Left which, as a result of U.S. intervention, threats, pressure and propaganda have moved to the right. The two most prominent cases are the Sandinista Party (FSLN) in Nicaragua and the Workers Party in Brazil. In both cases there was a gradual shift to the center over the past decade. In the Presidential election in Nicaragua in 2001 Daniel Ortega chose a neo-liberal vice presidential candidate and after 9/11 endorsed the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan, its worldwide military offensive, the FTAA, payment of the foreign debt and orthodox neo-liberal policies. To no avail: Washington and the U.S. ambassador intervened in the election favoring the conventional liberal candidate and issued threats to the electorate if it voted for the recycled guerilla turned liberal. Ortega lost the election alienating militants and the Left, without securing the support of the business elite. In Brazil, the Workers Party leadership has evolved from a socialist to social democratic and more recently, neo-liberal program. While the Party still has a strong minority of left-social democrats and a contingent of Marxist intellectuals, its present orientation is to move to the center-right in securing alliances with the conservative Liberal Party and the PMDB (the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party). As the party leaders moves to the right, the titular leader, Lula, assumes more of the characteristics of an authoritarian caudillo - more interested in winning positions of power than in reforming or changing the socio-economic system. Lula and his cohort in the leadership have taken both symbolic and substantive measures to ensure Washington of their willingness to be obedient clients: they promise to guarantee debt payments, defend the privatized enterprises, and encourage U.S. foreign investors. On the symbolic-substantive level Lula's selection of a millionaire textile mogul, hostile to militant trade unions, homosexuals and the Landless Workers Movement (MST) and favorable to the FTAA suggests that the PT is still moving...to the right. Lula praised Kissinger, arch-proponent of imperial wars and the WTO, during his recent visit to Sao Paulo. Lula has visited Washington to assure the White House of his full support for its global "anti-terrorist" campaign. The PT's more accentuated move to the right after 9/11 suggests that, Washington's pressure accelerated a process which was already in place as a result of internal party politics. In Mexico, the PRD's vote in favor of legislation (along with the two other major rightist parties) prejudicing the Zapatista-led Indian communities - in fact, all indian communities - is indicative of the conciliatory policies of the current leadership. The refusal of the current Party leader to denounce the Mexican foreign minister's provocative pronouncements and actions against Cuba is indicative, that some sectors of the PRD may be competing with the PAN to be Washington's favorite client in the Mexican Senate.

In summary, the U.S. offensive has had a significant impact in pushing most center-left electoral parties to the right. In most cases however, this right turn was already under way - the pressure mostly accelerated the process and perhaps pushed these parties much further right than was anticipated.

In contrast the U.S. politico-military offensive and the big push to impose FTAA has increased the scope, depth and radicalization of many of the region's socio-political movements.

In Colombia U.S. pressure to break off the peace negotiations and militarize the neutral zone has led to a major successful counter-offensive by the guerrillas, closer collaboration between the FARC and the ELN and a sharp deterioration of the economy - including petroleum flows, power, energy and water supplies - due to guerrilla attacks. Moreover under conditions of warfare and class confrontation, the programmatic demands of the insurgency are likely to radicalize. At least in the first phase the U.S.-Colombian offensive has led to several tactical defeats and, outside of capturing a few isolated towns in the demilitarized zone, it has led to significant losses among the U.S.-Colombian military sponsored paramilitary death squads.

In Argentina, Duhalde's attempt to pacify the U.S. on debt payments, offering a a vote against Cuba, IMF compliance, etc. - has heightened opposition and radicalized demands. The former disparate opposition groups and classes are increasingly coalescing into an effective coalition. National unity meetings are attended by thousands and the pot-banging demonstrations by the middle class continue in tandem with major road blockages by the unemployed. The economy continues to sink toward double digit negative growth. The mass of the middle class with their funds still confiscated are aware that the U.S. and European bankers and their Argentine clients were able to send to the U.S., Europe and Uruguay close to $40 billion before their bank accounts were frozen. The result is a powerful and conscious rejection of the existing political class. The U.S. offensive has had the effect of isolating its political clients. It has had no effect in dampening or neutralizing the popular upsurge. While the Duhalde regime backs the U.S. offensive, it is socially impotent and politically isolated, unable to implement any significant policies. More significantly Washington does not posses stable interlocutors in the presidential mansion - the Duhalde regime may not last out its term.

In Venezuela the U.S. offensive has successfully mobilized the business elite (FEDECAMARAS), religious hierarchy, ad the trade union bosses in large-scale demonstrations with the hope of provoking a military coup and the replacement of Chavez by a loyal client. On the other hand Chavez has responded by encouraging mass mobilizations by his supporters among the urban poor and dissident trade unionists. He also retains the loyalty of the Army commanders. U.S. intervention has radicalized Chavez speeches and he has given signals that he may introduce more substantive socio-economic changes favoring the poor.

The confrontations are leading to a greater social polarization between the rich upper class and affluent middle class on the one hand and the impoverished middle class and urban and rural poor on the other. Washington's offensive has polarized the country and radicalized the political and social demands on both sides: the business and wealthy classes are openly supporting a military solution to reimpose a client regime reversing Chavez independent foreign policy; the poor are calling on Chavez to take the gloves off in his treatment of the foreign directed opposition and to implement a radical re-distributive program. Chavez, so far is maintaining an increasingly untenable "middle ground" - resisting the right attempting to overthrow him, calling on mass mobilizations to support the constitutional regime, maintaining his independent foreign policy but without clearly embarking on a clearly delineated social transformative process.

In Mexico, Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, Paraguay, the U.S. has secured the endorsement of its worldwide offensive from the client regimes. But in the process, the regimes themselves are increasingly isolated and ineffective instruments of U.S. policy within Latin America. Moreover, below the regime level, there is little support for any U.S. military campaign which supports the killer economic policies and relies on the oppressive military forces which have a long history of massacring popular movements.

Washington does secure favorable international alignments among most of the regimes in international forums by threats and vote buying but it has lost ideological hegemony throughout the region, except in some elite intellectual circles and among conformist NGOs.

In contrast the road blockages multiply - from the highways of Patagonia to the country roads in Bolivia, to the jungles of Colombia: "they" do not pass. The U.S. secures the pledges of the peon Presidents but increasingly the presidential palaces and Congressional buildings are encircled by protestors, while the smell of burning tires filters through the barb wire and past the grim faces of heavily armed soldiers. The U.S. offensive has intimidated or co-opted opportunist politicians precisely at the moment in which the mass electorate is abandoning them.


It is clear that we are entering a period of a U.S. political-military offensive, military coups (or attempted coups) mass direct action, political polarization and new forms of social representation. There are no uniform results - the gains and losses resulting from the U.S. offensive cannot be measured by counting the votes of presidents and the assent of loyal generals. The advancing social movements and popular insurgency have unmasked the imperial plunder and have toppled client regimes but consequential political outcomes are still to come.

The social conflicts and military engagements take place on a continent-wide basis; client presidents rise and fall, new replacements are imposed. Movements and parties grow and then face decisive challenges: to compromise or go for power. The failures and limitations of reformist programs has once again put socialism on the agenda.

A new generation has emerged which did not experience the political defeats and terror of the 1960s and 1970s, but certainly has experienced the hunger, poverty, unemployment and political corruption of the 1990s. None of the emerging militant movements or popular insurgencies has experienced a historical defeat in this decade. The movements, with temporary ups and downs, are still on an upward trajectory. However, no outcome is inevitable or predetermined: conscious organization, political clarity, and audacious human intervention is necessary to counter the current imperial offensive and to turn it into a historic defeat and beyond that into a successful socialist revolution.

Copyright  James Petras 2002. Reprinted for Fair use only.

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