U.S. Military Buildup in Colombia: Is the U.S. Preparing for War with Venezuela?

Mark Vorpahl
What of Clinton’s claim that this agreement is about fighting drug trafficking? Based on U.S. efforts in Colombia to date, her claim has no credibility. The agreement is extensively an enlargement of Plan Colombia in terms of pursuing a war on cocaine production. Since the start of Plan Colombia, the power of the drug cartels […]

The U.S. State Department has just wrapped up a deal with Colombia’s President Uribe that will lead to a massive buildup of U.S. military personnel across seven bases in Colombia. Currently, there are a reported 250 U.S. military operatives in this nation. With the new agreement, this number will jump up to 800 American troops and 600 civilian military contractors. This is the maximum number allowed under previous agreements. Even with this limit, however, many expect the U.S. military buildup to exceed these numbers.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said of the agreement, “This is about bilateral cooperation between the U.S. and Colombia.” She included references to “drug traffickers, terrorists, and other illegal armed groups.”

The President of Colombia’s neighbor, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, had a very different interpretation of the agreement. He characterized it has a “threat to Venezuela that could generate a war in South America.”

War on Drugs?

What of Clinton’s claim that this agreement is about fighting drug trafficking? Based on U.S. efforts in Colombia to date, her claim has no credibility. The agreement is extensively an enlargement of Plan Colombia in terms of pursuing a war on cocaine production. Since the start of Plan Colombia, the power of the drug cartels remains intact. According to a 2005 UN report, overall attempted coca cultivation increased from 2,467 square kilometers in 2003 to 2,506 square kilometers in 2004. Plan Colombia’s victims have been peasant farmers. Left untouched are the real financial and political powers behind the drug cartels that can always find peasants in Colombia and elsewhere desperate enough to grow coca. By flooding the nation with U.S. money and guns, Plan Colombia has only benefited the corrupt channels that run through the right-wing death squads, to the cartel kingpins as well as their partners in the Colombian Government and the U.S. military.

Clinton: This is about bilateral cooperation between the U.S. and Colombia.” She included references to “drug traffickers, terrorists, and other illegal armed groups.Clinton and the Obama Administration know this. They are not so foolish as to enlarge a policy that consistently produces the opposite effect of what they want. Therefore, it can only be concluded that Clinton’s claimed goal of fighting drug traffickers with the U.S. military increase is only for public consumption. Once the cameras and microphones are off, there are very different goals discussed behind closed doors.

Clinton has also stated that this agreement “…does provide U.S. access to Colombian bases, but command and control, administration and security will be Colombia’s responsibility.”

Colombia’s government is completely dependent on the economic and political might of the U.S. Given this relationship, Clinton’s statement is the equivalent of a slave master saying their slave has an equal say in the conditions he or she labors under. President Chavez pointedly responded to Clinton’s statement, “That is a lie, who is going to believe that story.”

Why U.S. Hostility?

What reasons would President Chavez and many other Latin Americans have for seeing the U.S. military buildup in Colombia has a threat? Latin America has suffered a long history of repression under U.S. domination. This has resulted in a bloody tide of invasions, wars, coups, dictators, poverty, and corruption not surpassed in world history. In 1971, when considering the importance of destroying Chilean democracy, Nixon’s National Security Council concluded: “If the U.S. cannot control Latin America, it cannot expect ‘to achieve a successful order elsewhere in the world.”

The fundamental aims and methods of U.S. Empire have not changed since. Consequently, any military buildup by the U.S. in Latin America will be viewed with alarm by anyone whose interests are not aligned with U.S. imperialism.

Why has Venezuela in particular reacted so strongly? Venezuela is one of the greatest oil and gas producers in the world. The U.S. has a strategic interest in maintaining control over any nation with these resources. For most of the last century, Venezuela has been dominated by a tiny oligarchy closely tied to U.S. imperialism. The riches of Venezuela’s natural resources have been choked off at the top with the lower classes receiving comparatively little benefit.

That has been changing recently. For almost a decade Venezuela has been propelled forward by one of the strongest social movements in the world. This movement has fought for and won giant strides in the fields of political freedoms, health care, literacy, workers’ rights, and more. These have primarily benefited Venezuela’s working and lower classes. Thus, these benefits have come at a significant cost to Venezuela’s ruling elite and the U.S. corporate and political interests they defend.

For a variety of exceptional historical and personal reasons, President Chavez has aligned himself with this powerful social movement rather than the rich and powerful. Many Chavistas (supporters of Chavez) refer to him as their tool. By this they mean that, under his presidency, they have received government support for their grass roots organizing efforts that have allowed them to develop much further as a result. In Venezuela, workers, peasants, and others from the lower classes have been able to create community and workers’ councils that can grow to challenge the traditional organs of state power that were created to continue the rule of the oligarchy.

It would be bad publicity for any U.S. politician to openly oppose this empowering movement of the people. The corporate and big business media can’t even bring themselves to acknowledge it. Instead, they demonize Chavez. This would fool no one familiar with the situation in Venezuela. The real aim of the U.S. Empire is to regain control over Venezuela, and its resources, for the benefit of the business elite. Their real target is the Venezuelan working and lower classes. Chavez’s characterization of the U.S. military buildup in Colombia as a “threat” stems from this awareness.

Motive Turns into Action

Motive, however, is not enough to prove the intention of a crime. What actions has the U.S. taken to put Venezuela on alert?

In 2002, there was a coup attempt in which President Chavez was kidnapped. In documents obtained by Eva Golinger under the “Freedom of Information Act,” it has been revealed that not only was the U.S. State Department aware of this plan beforehand, they discussed it and thought it would succeed.

After the coup attempt was defeated as a result of the mobilization of millions of Venezuelans and the refusal of key sections of the military to cooperate with the coup makers, there was another attempt to overthrow Chavez a few months later. This time the oil company bosses locked out their workers in an attempt to strangle Venezuela’s economy. This could not have happened without the U.S. covert support. Again, this illegal effort on the part of the Oligarchy and U.S. corporate interests was defeated because of the awareness, determination, and mobilization of Venezuela’s working classes.

In August 2004, the Oligarchy attempted to recall President Chavez using a section of the Chavez-initiated Venezuelan Constitution they had originally opposed. The U.S. poured millions into this effort through the deceptively named National Endowment for Democracy. In spite of this intervention, the people voted overwhelming to keep Chavez with millions flooding the streets in support. This was a crushing defeat for the Oligarchy.

An Adjustment of Tactics

After this, the U.S. Government adjusted its tactics because they realized that they could not rely on Venezuela’s Oligarchy.

One tactic they continued to use has been to fund right-wing groups within Venezuela. Since 2002, USAID has provided $50 million to 520 anti-Chavez groups and NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations.)

The U.S. Government and corporate media have accelerated their campaign to vilify President Chavez. The U.S. big business media and politicians claim that Chavez is repressing freedom of speech. As an example, they point to RCTV and 33 radio stations that they claimed were closed down. What they don’t tell the American people is that these media outlets were not closed down, their licenses were not extended. They had refused to go through the same process that all media outlets must go through to extend their licenses. While they can still broadcast on other wavelengths, the government-controlled wavelengths the radio stations broadcast over have been turned over to community-controlled media and the wavelengths RCTV used are now used by a public broadcasting station.

The U.S. big business media and politicians refer to Chavez as a dictator, though he has received strong majority votes in internationally monitored elections more often than any other national leader in the world. They have called Chavez a destabilizing agent in South America, though they never explain to the American people what this means. They have accused him of supporting the FARC (a Colombian guerrilla group) and narco trafficking. However, the only evidence for this is an alleged laptop obtained by a Colombian military raid into Ecuador aimed at a FARC leader. Predictably, this evidence is not available for public scrutiny because of “security concerns” and the nature of this evidence remains shrouded in mystery.

In short, the U.S. government, its politicians, and the corporate press are engaged in making accusations against Chavez no matter what the evidence. It is an old tactic governments use to fool their own people — if you’re going to lie, make it big and repeat it often until it is accepted as fact.

Most menacingly, the U.S. government has been engaged in a number of military exercises off Venezuela’s coast. From early April to late May of 2006, the U.S. Navy conducted a series of exercises under the name of “Operation Partnership of the Americas.” These exercises involved four ships with 60 fighter planes and a total of 6,500 soldiers. Two weeks before the announcement of these exercises their commander, General Bantz Craddock, had appeared before a U.S. Senate Committee hearing in which he characterized the Venezuelan Government as a “destabilizing force.”

In 2008 the U.S. Navy reactivated the Fourth Fleet, which had been out of commission since the early 1950s. This fleet had been used to combat German Naval presence in Latin America and the Caribbean waters during World War II. Today, the stated purpose of this reactivation is to combat terrorism, keep the sea lanes open, counter drug trafficking, as well as provide humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. Regardless of the stated intentions, what this reactivation accomplishes is the establishment of a floating base for U.S. interventions throughout the continent, including Venezuela.

Had another nation supported coup attempts in the U.S., funded opposition groups, deceptively and outrageously misrepresented our elected leaders, and conducted military exercises off our shorelines, there is no question that the U.S. would respond harshly. Given this, Chavez’s statement that the U.S. military buildup on Colombian bases is a “threat” seems comparatively restrained.

The Honduras Coup

In addition to the factors discussed above that provide evidence of the U.S. government’s hostility towards Venezuela, there is the additional matter of the coup in Honduras. (See the articles “The Significance of Washington’s Coup Attempt in Honduras” and “Compromising Democracy in Honduras” by Shamus Cooke on this web site.) Members of the Obama Administration had discussed this coup with its authors beforehand. Ousted President Zelaya’s crimes, from the point of view of the U.S. government, were that he cut into U.S. corporate profits by raising the minimum wage 60 percent, that he aligned himself with ALBA, a Venezuelan and Cuban initiative to create a Latin America trading block to counter exploitive free trade policies such as NAFTA and the FTAA, and that Zelaya wanted to push for a non-binding referendum of the Honduran people to see if there was popular support for a Constitutional Assembly. (The current top-heavy constitution of Honduras was imposed by the Reagan Administration in 1981.) While the Obama Administration has made some statements opposing the coup, it has taken no serious measures against it and has attempted to use the situation to weaken Zelaya’s political strength should he come back into power.

The strength of the anti-coup protests has been strong enough to shut the country down for weeks at a time. There can be little doubt that if it wasn’t for U.S. backdoor support of the coup makers, President Zelaya would have been back in power weeks ago.

President Zelaya stated of the coup against him “If presidents are going to be appointed by the military and politicians by using illegitimate authority, we will be moving back some 100 years. We cannot return to those times in which the presidents had to sleep in their suits and with their suitcases made, since they could surprisingly be expelled or killed just any in any moment.” (President Zelaya had been kidnapped by the Honduran military while he slept.) The U.S. Empire is attempting to reverse a leftward swing across Latin America. This left moving process started in Venezuela and has accelerated with the election of President Chavez. The coup in Honduras is a warning to Venezuela of the U.S. government intentions.

The Arrogance of Empire

Empires have a habit of overreaching themselves. With costly long-term occupations going on in Iraq and Afghanistan while the economy is in severe recession, the U.S. Empire would appear to have already reached its limits. However, it is compelled by its economic nature to make the maximum profit by controlling and exploiting as much of the globe as possible. Wounded animals are always the most likely to attack when cornered. In its current unstable state, the U.S. Empire is more likely to lash out regardless of its limitations.

The U.S. military buildup on Colombian bases is not so large as to expect a full-scale war with Venezuela immediately. Most likely, this buildup will be used initially for smaller scale terrorist acts and other covert activities aimed at Venezuela and countries in Latin America aligned with President Chavez.

Such an approach can rapidly escalate, however. The U.S. could quickly find itself massively invested in a direct war with Venezuela or, at least, a costly war in which the Colombian military, fattened by U.S. tax dollars and “military advisors,” fights as a proxy army against Venezuela.

On top of the Iraq and Afghanistan occupations, this could put the American Empire’s continued economic and political domination in danger. It is unlikely that the shoulders of the American economy are so strong as to be able to hold up such colossally wasteful spending. Furthermore, Venezuela is one of the most militarily and economically strong nations in the region. Even more important, its population has been emboldened by the revolution and they are willing to fight if necessary.

Then there is the question of the American people. The military occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan are very unpopular. Millions are losing their jobs, having their homes foreclosed, suffering from a lack of or inadequate health care insurance, or are having their families directly impacted by U.S. war policies. An acceleration of military developments in Latin America could prove to be more than the American people are willing to take without large scale rebellion.

All this poses a challenge to American working people, the anti-war movement and North American groups in solidarity with the people of Latin America. In order to take a more pro-active role against war in Latin America, trade unions, peace organizations and solidarity groups will have to work more closely together. The U.S. military buildup on Colombian bases could likely be a stepping-stone on its way to a new war front. Whenever there are mass demonstrations against the occupations, speakers, educational material, and creative actions should aim at getting the truth out about the U.S. military bases in Colombia. In between mass demonstrations, labor activists and the anti-war and solidarity movements should use every means at their disposal to spread the word and activate people. This would include countering the lies about Venezuela in the corporate press, using independent media as well as community and union forums to tell the truth, and organizing actions against the U.S. buildup and other acts of aggression in Latin America. In taking this on, we will not only be defending grass roots activity in Venezuela, we will be inspiring the grassroots’ and workers’ movements in the U.S. to rise to the struggles we face in this country.

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Mark Vorpahl is a unionist and anti-war activist and writer for Workers Action. He may be reached at portland@workerscompass.org