Opportunism in the War on Terrorism

Governments are using the war on terrorism
to quelch opposition

by Simon Helweg-Larsen

Z magazine, April 2002

Whatever the motives, the fight against terrorism since September 11 has truly been global. In Nepal, Chechnya, Egypt, India, Israel, and so many other nations, the rhetoric mimicking U.S. anti-terrorist pledges has sprung up not only in response to George W. Bush's "with us or against us" attitude, but also as a shift in official language on existing internal conflicts. Where many countries recently hid repressive or counterinsurgent activities from the international spotlight, the acquisition of the anti-terrorist lingo has seemingly lent authenticity and even moral authority to politics based on righteous bullying in the name of security.

Latin American countries have not been the exception to this trend in any sense. Interesting in the Latin American response to September 11 is the double opportunism that many governments have been practicing, both wooing the United States with anti-terrorism compliance and taking advantage of the situation to quelch national opposition and strengthen personal power. This comes in addition to a further increase in arms delivery to a region that has been seeing, long before September 11, a remilitarization unprecedented in the hemisphere since the end of the Cold War.

The attacks on the United States that instantaneously altered world politics came at an apt time for Latin America. Economic and political crises were looming in many countries and had erupted into disaster in others. Months before the overthrow of President De la Rua, Argentines had been taking to the streets on a regular basis due to the trickling availability of food and finances. In Bolivia, popular demonstrations against privatization and other economic measures were marred by state violence. Mexico was experiencing an economic slowdown that helped bring President Vincente Fox's popularity ratings down from the high 80s to the mid 40s. Coffee prices had hit rock bottom, and the large populations of poor and often migrant laborers dependent on coffee for survival were left stranded and begging for food. The violence in Colombia continued, intensifying within the country and spreading beyond its borders to Peru and Ecuador as the United States continued delivering installments in its $1.3 billion Plan Colombia military package. A Mexican professor and former U.S. State Department official said of the situation, "Any one of these countries are powder kegs that can explode at any moment. "

Indeed, the prevailing attitude within Latin American diplomatic circles prior to September 11 was one of worry over looming crises and frustration at U.S. failure to pay attention to those countries in need. Argentina seemed to be the clearest case: the country was in economic ruins with serious political instability, but the dominant attitude from financial institutions to the north was one of weathering out the storm. It should come as no surprise, then, that the immediate response from officials across Latin America to the September 11 attacks was visible support for U.S. anti-terrorist measures as countries jumped on the opportunity to win favor and attention from the North. Approximately 6 million people of Arab descent live in Latin America, and they immediately began to feel the heat from Latin American countries as well as the U.S. The "Triple Frontier" border area of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay, home to one of the largest Arab concentrations in Latin America, has "come to resemble Casablanca during World War II, with local intelligence and law-enforcement agencies being joined by a number of U.S. counterparts, as well as Israel's Mossad and the German and Spanish secret services."

Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay have also lent forces to the round-up, and dozens of Lebanese, Jordanian and Syrian citizens were quickly arrested on immigration charges during door-to-door searches and highway checkpoints. Latin American officials adopted anti-terrorist language and allowed a U. S. presence to harass its Arab communities in hopes of winning favorable attention in their economic and political hardships. This has not been the sole response of Latin American countries, however, as many have taken advantage of the anti-terrorist hysteria in the North to reverse measures that have prevented them from dealing harshly with domestic opposition. The majority of countries in Latin America have a long history of military involvement in politics and of violent repression of the poor majority.

Many of the countries were also blatantly dominated by military forces less than 15 years ago, and while international pressure upholds a facade of commitment to civilian democracy, military strongmen from the recent past often retain powerful positions and continue to wield significant influence. Countries throughout the hemisphere have thus been quick to establish military-led "anti-terrorism" commissions to guard the nation against terrorist threats. The United States certainly approves of this move, fearing that al-Qaeda and other organizations may decide to use Latin American countries "as a route to place [their] assets in the United States." Military elements in countries with newly established commissions are overjoyed with the opportunity to again step up intelligence, and possibly counterinsurgent, activities within their borders. Guatemala provides a prime example of the situation surrounding Latin American anti-terrorism commissions. The Central American nation experienced Latin America's most brutal armed conflict over a 36-year period, which left around 200,000 people dead or "disappeared" and over 1 million displaced out of a total population of around 8 million. Since the return to civilian electoral democracy in 1985 and the signing of final peace accords in 1996, human rights abuses have continued, and even increased in some areas.

The military, while remaining prominent in national politics, has been limited in its role of internal security due to measures outlined in the peace agreements. In recent years, however, the military has managed to increase its national role and presence, and the establishment of an anti-terrorism commission is another large step towards remilitarization. The commission, set up "to protect the national territory in the eventuality of a terrorist attack," is headed by former general Miguel Angel Calderon, a prominent general who specialized in "the tactics of counterinsurgency" during the worst era of Guatemalan genocide. In addition to being frightening for the country's future human rights record, the appointment of Calder6n to head the commission directly violates Guatemala's peace accords, which explicitly call for civilian control of public security. Caldron's pro-military ideology and belief in strong-handed tactics are well known, and there is little doubt that he will carry his lifelong interest of forceful eradication of opposition to his new post. So we see the double opportunism that Latin American leaders have practiced in recent months, using anti-terrorist hysteria to attract U.S. attention to the ailing region as well as jumping on a chance to strengthen military power that has been restrained by international pressure in recent years. But it has not just been the Latin American countries that have been using the situation to their benefit.

The United States has also taken advantage of the times to further increase military aid to the region, a policy that has been incrementally and successfully followed since former president Bill Clinton's second term in office. The scope of this article does not allow for a full explanation of U.S. motives for militarization in Latin America, but suffice it to say that a history of aggressive domination of resources as well as a political and economic system that rests heavily on a powerful military-industrial complex has led to a resurgence of promotion of military activity under the guise of a war on drugs. Terrorism, as we shall see, has allowed for the continued arming of various countries and a shift in policy towards secrecy in favor of "security." Colombia and its neighbors demonstrate an excellent example of this increased military aid. Colombia-rich in oil, bordering the Amazon fresh water supply, key in-route to South America, and under constant threat from (formerly) Marxist guerrillas-has been the focus of U.S. attention in Latin America since the 1999 announcement of Plan Colombia. The Plan produced $1.3 billion in military aid for Colombia and an increased surveillance and training role for U.S. officials on the ground. Since military activities have been stepped up in Colombia, the conflict has begun to spread beyond Colombia's borders, and Plan Colombia is now known as the Andean Initiative.

Some analysts believe that the focus on the war on terrorism will allow less attention to be lent to this initiative. Still, this year's aid package to countries surrounding Colombia will provide a 220 percent increase over 2000-2001 averages in military aid to Panama, a 144 percent increase for Venezuela, 345 percent for Brazil, and between 20 percent and 82 percent increases for Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru. Security and intelligence-gathering will continue to increase this coming year, whether in the name of the war on drugs, the war on terrorism, or just old-fashioned military spending. In addition to military spending, the war on terrorism has allowed the United States to increase secrecy surrounding its role in Latin American security and to reverse human rights conditions on military aid. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has made clear the Bush administration's new level of intolerance for information leaks, which for Latin America would probably translate to a refusal to release details surrounding CIA and military activities in the mounting conflicts of the Andean region. After decades of U.S. support for human rights violators in defense of larger policy goals, guidelines established in 1996 prohibited the funding of individuals or organizations believed to be involved in human rights violations. This "cuts back on your ability to recruit spies inside terrorist organizations if you can't recruit people with some kind of violent past," complains former CIA director James Woolsey. A probable scenario is that these recent guidelines will be struck for what the Administration sees as extraordinary circumstances requiring all possible avenues to be left open for intelligence-gathering. While this may (or may not) be a valid argument for intelligence within al-Qaeda, the blanket lifting of such restrictions will only mean further funding of repressive government and paramilitary forces in Colombia and other Latin American countries.

While military elements in many societies jump at the chance to increase their activities in the name of the prevention of terrorism, leaders and officials are embracing any anti-terrorism moves deemed necessary by the United States in hopes of winning attention for national economic crises. These crises remain and worsen, however, as the only significant assistance that Latin America has seen in the past few months has been in the form of arms deliveries and pledges to further increase and cloak U.S. military activities in the region. We are quickly heading into yet another dark period in Latin American history with the full blessing of the United States government and the overjoyed endorsement of the region's powerful factions.

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