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U.S. Offensive in Latin America

Coups, Retreats, and Radicalization

James Petras has worked with the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement for the last eleven years in addition to his work with the unemployed workers’ movement in Argentina. He is coauthor, with Henry Veltmeyer, of Globalization Unmasked: Imperialism in the 21st Century (Zed Books, 2001), which won the 2002 Kenny Prize in Marxist & Labour/Left Studies. He is also author of a collection of short stories, Andando por el mundo (Altamira Publishing Group, 2001).


The worldwide U.S. military-political offensive is manifest in multiple contexts in Latin America. The U.S. offensive aims to prop up decaying client regimes, destabilize independent regimes, pressure the center-left to move to the right, and destroy or isolate the burgeoning popular movements challenging the U.S. empire and its clients. We will discuss the particular forms of the U.S. offensive in each country, and then explore the specific and general reasons for the offensive in contemporary Latin America. In the concluding section we will discuss the political alternatives in the context of the U.S. offensive.

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 geopolitical considerations. Each country faces 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 in Venezuela and Colombia, but also in Mexico and Ecuador, where pressure might build against 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 ultimately lead to an integration pact with revolutionary Cuba, Washington’s ultimate nightmare. At risk is Washington’s forty-year embargo of Cuba and the fate of the primary new instrument of imperial control of Latin America—the U.S.-sponsored Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA).

Washington has adopted different strategies in each of the two countries. To defeat the popular insurgency in Colombia, it has embraced a total war strategy. In Venezuela, it pursues a combined civil political-economic destabilization strategy planned to culminate in a military coup.

Washington’s counterinsurgency strategy in Colombia has operated under cover of an anti-narcotics campaign. The anti-narcotics campaign has centered on regions where the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has been strongest, while virtually ignoring the areas controlled by paramilitary clients of the Colombian Armed Forces. The political-military advance of the FARC in the late 1990s forced the Colombian government to the negotiating table and increased its dependence on the United States for military aid and advisors. In Washington (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, gain time to build up 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 El Salvador and Guatemala. The FARC, cognizant of the brutal assassination of more than four thousand leftist political activists 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 preconditions for any durable peace settlement. These proposals for democratic and socioeconomic reforms were totally unacceptable to the United States and the regime of President Andrés Pastrana, which instead aimed at greater militarization of political life and liberalization of the economy.

Throughout the period of peace negotiations, Washington and Pastrana combined peace rhetoric with funding and promotion of paramilitary groups (via the Colombian military), which were 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; to train, arm, and mass troops on the borders; to carry on high tech electronic surveys to identify strategic targets; and then to break off negotiations abruptly 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 outside of the peace zone; they strengthened their forces within the demilitarized zone; and they suffered no serious losses when Pastrana broke off peace negotiations.

Washington has made Colombia the test case for its political-military offensive in Latin America. This is because the FARC is the most powerful anti-imperialist formation contending for state power and also because the FARC controls territory bordering on Venezuela, and is perceived as an ally of President Hugo Chavez. Defeating the FARC would allow Washington to increase the external pressure on Venezuela and reinforce the internal destabilization campaign.

As the political base of the Colombian regime erodes—due to the prolonged recession and social cutbacks resulting from the huge military budget—the United States 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, Manuel Marulanda, and his general staff, the U.S.-Colombian war promises to be prolonged and bloody, marked by 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 United States is very doubtful; the end result may be nearer to Vietnam than Afghanistan.

The first signs that Washington’s offensive may have a boomerang effect are visible in Colombia. Less than two weeks after Washington pressured President Pastrana to end the peace talks and declare the demilitarized area a war zone, the first general to lead troops into the zone resigned. He publicly declared that military victory was impossible. The FARC’s 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, Washington is implementing a civil-military approach to overthrow 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 multiphased and combines media, civic, and economic attacks with efforts to provoke fissures in the military, all aimed at encouraging 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, thus inhibiting investment from less politicized capitalists, who are fearful of declining profits in a conflictual situation. The mass media are engaged 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 the U.S.-influenced Inter-American Press Association.

The second phase of the Bush Administration’s strategy is to move from destabilization directly toward a military coup. This involves two steps. The first is to mobilize U.S. intelligence assets, retired officials and those labeled “dissidents” 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 the instability and 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’s 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, Washington has implemented an external strategy. Secretary of State Colin Powell has publicly denounced Chavez as authoritarian, and both Powell and the IMF have publicly stated their support for a “transitional government”—a clear signal of U.S. support for those hoping to stage a coup. U.S. Special Forces now operate in Ecuador, Colombia, Peru, Panama, Afghanistan, Yemen, the 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 redistributive socioeconomic 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 United States: his opposition to Plan Colombia; his criticism of the U.S. war in Afghanistan and the worldwide imperial offensive; his cordial relations with Iraq, Libya, Iran, and Cuba; and his refusal to allow the United States to colonize Venezuelan airspace. Unfortunately, this foreign policy has not been adequately complemented by a series of comprehensive socioeconomic 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 war against terrorism. 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), put in place a compensated land purchase plan, and privatized the major publicly-owned electrical enterprise company in Caracas.

Clearly, Chavez’s attempt to ride two horses—an independent foreign policy and liberal reform domestic policy—makes 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 goal is the same: to consolidate a client regime which will subordinate the country to the imperial project embodied in the FTAA, and which will become a willing vassal in policing the Latin American empire, 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 multiphased strategy which was designed to continue the transfer of billions of dollars in assets to U.S. companies, prejudice European competitors, and resecure a privileged position in the Argentine political and economic system. The collapse of the client regime of Fernando De la Rua and the weakness of the regime of Eduardo Duhalde have led Washington to turn to its wholly controlled civilian clients (former President Carlos Menem and former minister of economy Ricardo Lopez 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 neoliberal model, at a time when the United States is pushing to extend and deepen its control via the 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. Budget cuts ignite more demonstrations among teachers and public employees; the bailout of the foreign banks requires the continued confiscation of private savings; and slashing the provincial budgets provokes greater unemployment, hunger, and revolts. The Duhalde regime has already increased the level of repression and unleashed its street thugs, but the movements still proliferate and the thin veneer of legitimacy is dissolving. The director of the CIA, George J. Tenet, has already pointed out the U.S. “preoccupation” with instability in Argentina. 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 multinationals. 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. The plan can be summarized as the three “m’s”: a regime configured with Menem, Murphy, and the military. Their lack of any social support among the middle and urban poor means that they would constitute a regime of force.

In summary, Washington is working on two tracks: on the one hand, pressuring Duhalde to conform to its demands by assuming full dictatorial powers; and on the other hand, preparing the conditions for a new authoritarian torture regime.

The reversion to client military dictatorships with a civic facade will not prevent the Bush Administration from claiming to be defending democracy and free markets. The U.S. mass media can and will 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, impose Washington’s formula of free markets in Latin America and protectionism and subsidies in the United States.

In Brazil and Mexico, Washington relies heavily on political and diplomatic instruments. In the case of Mexico, Washington has direct entrée to the administration of Vicente Fox in economic policy, and a virtual agent in the Foreign Minister, Jorge Castaneda. The goal of Mexican subordination to U.S. policy is not in question, as Fox and Castaneda are in total agreement. What is in question is the effectiveness of the regime in implementing that policy. Fox’s effort to convert southern Mexico and Central America into one big U.S. assembly plant, tourist, and petroleum center (the 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 Mexican border towns. The so-called reciprocal benefits of integration are glaringly absent. U.S. dumping of corn and other agricultural commodities has devastated Mexican farmers and peasants. The U.S. takeover of all sectors of the 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, provoking the worst incident in Cuban-Mexican diplomatic relations in recent history. Castaneda’s 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 an unabashed promoter of U.S. policy in the Fox Administration is indicative of Washington’s aggressive conquest of space in the Mexican political system. The powerful presence of U.S. corporations, banks, and numerous regional and local client politicians facilitates the recolonization 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 President Fernando Henrique 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, Luiz Inácio 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 Henry Kissinger, declaring loyalty to the IMF and pledging to honor the foreign debt and the privatized industries. The right turn of Lula and the Workers Party means that all major electoral parties remain within the U.S. orbit, and guarantees 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 military-political contexts. While giving greater primacy to military intervention and military coups (always with some sort of civilian facade), Washington continues to instrumentalize its political and diplomatic clients, and turn its political adversaries.

The strategic goal of constructing an empire based on direct economic domination faces a great variety of political, social, and military obstacles, particularly evident in Colombia, Venezuela, and Argentina. In other words, the imperial projection of power is far from realized. It is enmeshed in a series of conflictual relations, in a context where the past socioeconomic 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. military-political offensive in Latin America is part of a worldwide campaign to extend and consolidate its imperial power via a combination of military bases and client political regimes. The campaign began on October 7, 2001, with the massive bombing and subsequent occupation of Afghanistan. Satellite building extended to Central Asia, where Washington abruptly brushed aside 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, Washington 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 an extensive and direct operational role in financing, training, and directing the counterinsurgency operations of the Colombian military and paramilitary forces fighting the popular insurgency.

Part of this expansion of U.S. power is directed to counter the advances of popular movements in many parts of Latin America, as well as the anti-imperialist regimes in Cuba and Venezuela. Furthermore, 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.

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 multilateral economic institutions are losing their capacity to control macroeconomic policy in the face of mass opposition. 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 neoliberal economic model, the vertical decline in popularity registered in the public opinion polls, the escalating flight of local capital, and, most important, in some 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 multisector agricultural movement (including farmers, peasants, and rural workers) prejudiced by cuts in government credits, the open door toward cheap U.S. food imports, and the low price of export commodities. The opposition includes militant trade union struggles, particularly of the oil, public employee, agricultural, and industrial unions. But the most significant opposition is found in the most powerful and well-organized guerrilla movement in recent Latin American history; the FARC and the smaller National Liberation Army (ELN) include over twenty thousand combatants. The main thrust of the counterinsurgency experts is to direct the paramilitary death squads to forcibly evict from the countryside hundreds of thousands of peasants who are sympathetic to the guerrillas and to assassinate progressive urban slum dwellers, student activists, human rights workers, and trade union leaders. The violence of the paramilitary forces is directed at isolating the guerrillas from their natural mass base and their source of food and recruits in order to allow the Armed Forces to engage the guerrillas directly.

The scope and depth of military violence—forty thousand civilians killed since the 1960s—suggest 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 Bogota, the capital, 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 the U.S.-directed mostly conscript army.

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

The Chavez regime in Venezuela has challenged U.S. foreign policy on a global scale. The Chavez government has visited Iraq, Iran, and Libya, thus breaking the U.S. boycott. Chavez opposed the U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan (the “response to terror is not more terror”). In Latin America he opposed Plan Colombia and the U.S. counterinsurgency military strategy, banned U.S. overflights of Venezuelan airspace by spy planes, rejected immediate implementation of the 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 the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and revitalized its decision-making capacity, and above all, he has 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 send a delegation of high-level 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 that echoed U.S. international policy.

The third country which has witnessed a sharp decline in U.S. influence is Argentina. The collapse of the client De la Rua regime and its entourage of ministers started bells ringing in Washington. The installation of the Duhalde clique, and Duhalde’s concessions to Washington and the IMF have not pacified Washington. His regime is perceived to be unstable and unable to effectively put an end to mass mobilizations. The most significant political fact is that the vast majority of the middle class has turned against neoliberalism and its overseas promoters and has rejected 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. right-wing regime that confiscated middle class savings, lowered 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 would depend exclusively on violent repression against the entirety of civil society’s organizations. The absolute political discredit of U.S. client politicians and the genocidal military commanders means that Washington faces a most unfavorable correlation of socio-political forces, now and in the immediate future. In this context, Washington’s most probable strategy will be to call on Duhalde to take increasingly severe repressive measures to demobilize the opposition, and thus permit compliance with the conditions of the foreign bankers, in the hope of new IMF loans. Another possible scenario might be new elections in which a new version of a center-left coalition would come to power and Washington would resort to a strategy of political attrition—undermining investments, loans, etc., thus provoking discontent in order to launch a 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 United States has the force of the weakened 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 reflect 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, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru are discredited and have little public support for implementing Washington’s agenda. Moreover, there are powerful multisector mass movements in Paraguay, Bolivia and Ecuador 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) mobilized over discrete emergencies. These movements are then prone to negotiate limited agreements that are 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. 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, Luiz Inácio Lula Da Silva. Their alliance with the right-wing Liberal Party and their embrace of most of the neoliberal agenda provides the U.S. with a win-win situation. The right turn will alienate many rank and file Workers Party voters and perhaps split the party, causing it to lose the election. Or, if the improbable result is a Workers Party victory, the policy consequences will not affect basic U.S. interests. The unknown factor is the extent to which the Workers Party right turn will result in a regroupment of the left—in which the powerful social movements (landless workers, small farmers, the urban and housing movements), the radical leftist parties, 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 United States and Europe, which have led to a decade of economic stagnation. Moreover, the Brazilian military is not a reliable ally of the Pentagon, as it contains 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 September 11—Plan Colombia began almost two 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 failed regime syndrome within the U.S. neoliberal empire in Latin America was dramatically illustrated in Argentina, but it is pervasive everywhere. Neoliberalism, 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 direct imperial control over the economies and circuits of capital and commodities.

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 center. The two most prominent cases are the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) in Nicaragua and the Workers Party in Brazil. In both cases there has been a gradual shift to the center over the past decade.

In the presidential election in Nicaragua in 2001, Daniel Ortega chose a neoliberal vice presidential candidate, and after September 11, he endorsed the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan and its worldwide military offensive, the FTAA, payment of the foreign debt, and orthodox neoliberal policies. All of this was to no avail. Washington and the U.S. ambassador intervened in the election, favoring the conventional liberal candidate and issuing 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 a social democratic, and more recently a neoliberal, 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 Brazilian Democratic Movement Party. As the party leaders move 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 socioeconomic system. Lula and his cohorts 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. 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, and favorable to the FTAA, as his running mate, suggests that the Workers Party is still moving—to the right. The Workers Party’s more accentuated move to the right after September 11 suggests that Washington’s pressure accelerated a process which was already in place as a result of internal party politics.

In Mexico, the vote by the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) 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 PRD leader to denounce the Mexican foreign minister’s provocative pronouncements and actions against Cuba indicates that some sectors of the PRD may be competing with the National Action Party (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. military-political offensive, and the big push to impose the 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 counteroffensive 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, aside from capturing a few isolated towns in the demilitarized zone, and it has led to significant losses among the U.S.-Colombian military sponsored paramilitary death squads.

In Argentina, Duhalde’s attempts to pacify the United States—promising debt payments, offering a vote against Cuba, complying with IMF guidelines—have heightened opposition and radicalized demands. The 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 its funds still confiscated, is aware that the U.S. and European bankers and their Argentine clients were able to send to the United States, Europe, and Uruguay close to forty billion dollars 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 possess 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, religious hierarchy, and the trade union bosses, organizing large-scale demonstrations with the hope of provoking a military coup that would replace Chavez with 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’s speeches, and he has given signals that he may introduce more substantive socioeconomic 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 lower 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’s 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 redistributive program. Chavez, so far, is maintaining an increasingly untenable middle ground—resisting the right’s attempt to overthrow him, calling on mass mobilizations to support the constitutional regime, and maintaining his independent foreign policy—but without embarking on a clearly delineated process for social transformation.

In Mexico, Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Paraguay, the United States 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 a U.S.-sponsored military campaign to enforce murderous neoliberal economic policies, that would necessarily rely on 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 non-governmental organizations.

In contrast, the road blockages multiply—from the highways of Patagonia and the country roads of Bolivia to the jungles of Colombia. The United States secures the pledges of the peon presidents, but increasingly the presidential palaces and congressional buildings are encircled by protesters, while the smell of burning tires filters through the barbed wire past the grim faces of heavily-armed soldiers. The U.S. offensive has intimidated or coopted opportunist politicians precisely at the moment that the mass electorate is abandoning them.


We are in a period characterized by a U.S. military-political 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 the political consequences have not been decisive.

The social conflicts and military engagements take place on a continent-wide basis. Client presidents rise and fall and 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 have once again put socialism on the agenda.

A new generation has emerged, which did not experience the political defeats and terror of the 1970s, but certainly has experienced the hunger, poverty, unemployment, and political corruption of the 1990s. None of the emerging militant movements or popular insurgencies have 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 are necessary to achieve a historic defeat of the current imperial offensive, and beyond that a successful socialist revolution.

2002, Volume 54, Issue 01 (May)
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