Latin American Peoples Organize to Resist Increased Militarization in the Region

[Source – War Times]

By Moira Birss

When President Barack Obama was inaugurated, people in Latin America, as in many parts of the world, expected  a shift towards a more peaceful U.S. foreign policy. Those hopes were soon dashed by a series of bellicose U.S. policy moves in the region. But now civil society throughout the Americas has responded by organizing against increased U.S. militarization.

Organizations from Colombia to Honduras to Argentina oppose the further intensification of U.S. military presence in the region, and have been spurred to action. In January in Paraguay, during the celebration of the 10th anniversary of the World Social forum, more than 75 international and national groups launched the Continental Campaign against Foreign Military Bases. Modeled after the Continental Campaign against the Free Trade Area of the Americas, which successfully derailed the US government’s plans for a region-wide free trade agreement, the campaign seeks the removal of U.S. and other foreign bases from Latin America and the Caribbean.

The Campaign has already been active. In August, for example, Colombia hosted the International Summit of Women and People of the Americas against Militarization. The Summit brought together organizations and activists from all over the Americas under the slogan, “We do not birth sons and daughters for war.”

Increasing U.S. Militarism Evokes Civil Society Response

When President Obama spoke at the Americas Summit in April 2009, he declared that he would seek a new, more inclusive and less-unilateral policy in the Americas. These pronouncements fueled expectations of a new direction for U.S. Latin America policy. Reality soon began to set in, however, with the signing of an agreement between the Obama administration and the Colombian government in October 2009, which would allow the U.S. military largely unfettered access to seven Colombian bases. Shortly thereafter, plans were announced for two new U.S. naval bases in Panama. Then the January 2010 earthquake hit Haiti, and the US military was sent to the ravaged island in large numbers to help with “recovery” efforts. In July of this year, 7,000 U.S. marines landed in Costa Rica–a country with no standing army–for a six-month tour of duty.

The writing may have already been on the wall even before Obama took office, foretold by the June 2008 reactivation of the Fourth Fleet of the U.S. Navy. The  fleet, which had been inactive since the end of WWII, operates in the Caribbean and the waters of Central and South America. In retrospect, the reactivation was an omen signaling an increased militarization of U.S. Latin America policy, one the Obama administration has not failed to fulfill. Now that Republicans have regained control of the U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. policy may very well tend towards even more militarism, if House Republicans’ previous active support of Plan Colombia is any indication.

Criticism of this increasing militarization has been fierce, especially in Latin America, from civil society and governments alike. Colombian social leader Enrique Daza, who serves as secretary of the Hemispheric Social Alliance, says that the signing of the Colombia bases agreement “generated great national indignation. The agreement constituted a concession without precedent, since [in doing so] the Colombian government formally ceded the monopoly of force, increasing the risk of violations of human rights and heightening tensions in the region.”

In fact, when the Colombia bases agreement became public, governments from Bolivia to Brazil voiced trepidation that the bases might be used  for possible attacks against their own countries. Concern intensified after the discovery of a Pentagon budget document that described the U.S. presence in one of the proposed Colombia bases as an “opportunity for conducting full spectrum operations throughout South America,” and suggested using the bases to confront the “threat” of what the document referred to as “anti-U.S. governments.”
The Consequences of Militarism

The concerns of Latin American civil society go beyond the threat of direct invasions, to encompass less obvious but equally destructive consequences of military intensification. The region is extremely rich in natural resources, and areas like the biodiverse Amazon basin and oil reserves in Southern Atlantic waters are believed to be attractive targets for militarized resource control. A precedent already exists in places like Colombia, where the military has been used to guard private oil pipelines.

Many people also worry that increased militarization in the Americas will lead to—and in fact already is leading to—increased criminalization and repression of dissent. Colombia has been host to bogus legal cases against human rights defenders launched by Colombian military investigation units—some of which receive U.S. funding—in a clear effort to silence dissent. The U.S. happily supported the regime of recent president Alvaro Uribe, despite the fact that he regularly made statements likening human rights defenders, peasant leaders, and opposition politicians to terrorists. Uribe’s rule oversaw the illegal wiretapping of many members of these groups, and under his watch Colombia remained the most dangerous country for unionists and one of the most dangerous for journalists. Honduras has seen a resurgence of the military-backed death squads famous in the 1980’s for their repression of union and peasant movements. Today they direct their fire against the broad movement seeking to restore democracy after the 2009 coup that deposed President Manuel Zelaya.

Often militarism’s victims’ only crime is being poor and vulnerable. One of several human rights scandals that erupted in Colombia in late 2008 concerned thousands of extrajudicial executions, euphemistically referred to as “false positives.” Several thousand cases have been reported—and surely many more have gone unreported—of this macabre practice in which young men were lured from poor neighborhoods by paramilitaries, taken to rural areas, killed by the army, dressed up as guerrilla fighters and claimed as combat kills – or “false positives.” The practice has also been used to silence human rights defenders and community organizers. As a recent report by the Fellowship of Reconciliation demonstrates, many of the units that committed the largest number of these killings received substantial U.S. military aid and therefore should have been evaluated for human rights abuses under the Leahy Amendment, a law requiring vetting of military aid for human rights abuses in the recipient country.

Rachel Dickson of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, who attended the August International Summit of Women and People of the Americas against Militarization in Colombia, recounted a speech by Colombian Senator Piedad Córdoba, a longtime peace activist. Córdoba, says Dickson, “described the effects that the largest business in the world, war, has brought to Colombia—bodies floating down the Magdalena River, women’s corpses missing a head or arms, and more than 5,000 ‘false positives,’—civilians killed and dressed up as guerrillas by the army. Women’s bodies are used as commodities in war.”

Yeah, we raped her, so what?  We are in Colombia. The law doesn’t affect us.”

This concern about the special effects of war on women seems more than justified, especially when it comes to the impunity of foreign soldiers operating in Latin America. In 2007, for example, two U.S. soldiers carrying out a Plan Colombia mission in the small town of Melgar raped a 12-year-old girl. The soldiers have yet to be punished.  When confronted by the girl’s mother, the soldiers were quoted as saying, “Yeah, we raped her, so what?  We are in Colombia, the law doesn’t affect us.”

Civil Society Fights Back

The Continental Campaign against Foreign Military Bases , particularly the Colombian branch, has already had successes. In response to a lawsuit brought to the country’s Constitutional Court, the Court ordered the suspension of the base licensing agreement unless it is fully reviewed by Congress. President Juan Manuel Santos has since tabled the issue indefinitely, saying that he will not submit the present agreement to Congress.

That victory does not signal the end of the Campaign’s fight, however. Enrique Daza, who is also a founding member of the Colombia No Bases Coalition, which participates in the Continental Campaign, says that “for the Coalition, the fall of the agreement doesn’t imply the end of the economic and military dominance that the U.S. exercises over our country. The previous military agreements like Plan Colombia have meant for the country submission of all of our institutional and economic apparatus to the rule of Washington. We will continue to monitor the military relations between Colombia and Washington that continue to be active, since Frank Mora (Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Western Hemisphere Affairs) has indicated that a military agreement with Colombia continues to be important for the U.S.”

In fact, he says, the Colombia No Bases Coalition, like the entire Continental Campaign, “does not exist solely to demand the removal of U.S. military bases in Colombia. Our objective is much more expansive and covers the fight against all types of military intervention in the continent, the criminalization of social protest and solidarity with the struggles of all of the peoples of the world for their autonomy. Our call is to consolidate an alliance with the greatest number of organizations that understand the process of repression that accompanies the intensification of neoliberal policies throughout the world.”

Indeed, one of the principal objectives of the Continental Campaign is for each country in Latin America to hold plebiscites so that the people themselves can decide if they want foreign military bases on their sovereign soil. The Campaign also makes it clear that it intends to collaborate in the fight against the criminalization of social protest and the domination and exploitation of the peoples of the region.

Participation in this campaign represents a clear and tangible way in which Latin American solidarity organizations in the U.S. can support the work of their counterparts in Latin America to attain peace, justice and sovereignty for the region. Here are some specific opportunities for solidarity:

  • Participate in theAnti-Militarization Conferencein Columbus, Georgia, held in conjunction with the annual School of the Americas Watch late November vigil. Information in English can be found by contacting SOA Watch,
  • Join the December 10th Day of Action against military bases in the Americas.
  • Attend a vigil for Haiti on the first anniversary of the earthquake.

Moira Birss recently returned to the U.S. after two years in Colombia as a Human Rights Accompanier with the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Since graduating from the University of Michigan, she has worked on researching community-based models of alternative economies, advocating for affordable housing, and promoting environmental protection. Moira’s articles have appeared on Alternet, In These Times, The WIP, and CommonDreams. She blogs at You can follow Moira on Twitter @moira_kb.