2 op-eds that didn’t make it Rep. McGovern: The U.S. should change course
Aug 212005

Media: When you said that Venezuela and Cuba have not been helpful, or their activities in Bolivia, can you be more specific about why or how or what way?
Rumsfeld: I could be, but I don’t think I will be.
- Secretary Rumsfeld Media Availability En Route to Paraguay, 8/17

Nine months ago, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld went to Quito, Ecuador for a meeting of Latin America’s defense ministers. His message then was that the region had to cooperate and prepare for a fight against “terrorists, drug traffickers, hostage takers, and criminal gangs.” Many in the region bristled at the prospect of the Bush Administration exporting the “war on terror” to a part of the world with few terrorist groups.

Well, never mind that. On a trip to Paraguay and Peru last week, Rumsfeld did mention the threat of transnational crime and “antisocial behavior,” but his main focus was elsewhere, as the New York Times reported Friday.

Two senior Defense Department officials traveling with Mr. Rumsfeld said that post-Sept. 11, 2001, worries about Islamic militant groups operating in the so-called Tri-Border area, where the frontiers of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay meet, had receded. In their place, the officials said, is a more familiar set of concerns, including the Venezuelan and Cuban presidents. … Mr. Rumsfeld’s goal in Peru and in Paraguay earlier was to stitch together support for isolating Mr. Chávez, who has become bitterly anti-Washington. … The two American officials traveling with Mr. Rumsfeld said Mr. Chávez, sometimes with Cuban help, was quietly backing leftist movements in Bolivia and elsewhere in the region.

Faced with the growing appeal of Hugo Chávez and other populist leaders in the region, the Bush Administration sent its secretary of defense. It sent Donald Rumsfeld, one of the most visible faces of the globally unpopular Iraq war, and an unloved figure in Latin America.

Donald Rumsfeld who, by the way, is not the head of the U.S. diplomatic corps. He is the titular head of the U.S. military. Why is the U.S. Secretary of Defense traveling to Latin America to warn against a political tendency?

It may mean that the Bush Administration is starting to treat Hugo Chávez and what the Southern Command has called “radical populism” as a defense issue or a security threat. That would be a very bad idea. It’s important to say the following early and clearly:

  • The spread of leftist politics in Latin America is not something that should concern the U.S. military.
  • Confronting the spread of leftist politics in Latin America should not be a mission for U.S. military assistance to the region.
  • The U.S. government must not view Latin America’s militaries as a bulwark or counterweight against leftist political movements.

So far, the concerns about Cuba and Venezuela that dominated Rumsfeld’s trip have not translated into increased military assistance. In fact, both countries Rumsfeld visited have their non-drug military aid frozen right now, because neither Paraguay nor Peru has signed an “Article 98” agreement giving U.S. military personnel immunity from the International Criminal Court.

We think it’s important, though, to start talking about this now, because Rumsfeld and other officials are being so vague about the nature of the threat that they’re warning against. What exactly are Chávez and Castro doing to spread “radical populism” around the region? Donald Rumsfeld could tell you, but he doesn’t think he will. Just take his word for it.

The defense delegation did make clear, however, that it has its eye on Bolivia. Rumsfeld was hosted by two countries whose governments have both distanced themselves from Chávez-style populism, and who both share a border with Bolivia. (In Paraguay, in fact, the U.S. military has been carrying out joint military exercises, and rumors have been circulating about U.S.-funded improvements to a Paraguayan base in Boquerón, near the Bolivian border, which the U.S. embassy denies.)

Street protests have ejected two Bolivian presidents since October 2003: Gonzalo Sánchez de Losada, who had won with just over 20 percent of the vote, and his replacement, Carlos Mesa. In both cases, the protesters have been largely non-violent, and with the exception of the October 2003 protests, the state has not responded violently. The protestors have mostly been poor and/or indigenous Bolivians, whose political influence and organization have been increasing. Their demands include national control of natural-gas reserves, an end to hard-line coca-eradication policies, greater recognition of indigenous rights, and opposition to “neoliberalism” in general. Their main form of protest has been widespread road blockades, which usually means large groups of people in the middle of the country’s main roads, hauling in rocks and debris to prevent traffic from passing, and shutting down national commerce for weeks.

The Bush Administration seems to believe that this rise of poor and indigenous opposition is not a homegrown Bolivian phenomenon, that in fact it owes to meddling from the Cuba-Venezuela “axis.” A July 27 State Department letter to Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Florida) voiced concerns “that Venezuela is using its wealth gained from oil production to destabilize the country’s democratic neighbors in the Americas by funding anti-democratic groups in Bolivia, Ecuador, and elsewhere.”

The Pentagon-run American Forces Press Service goes further, citing “the menace Cuba and Venezuela pose to the region, and most immediately, to Paraguay’s neighbor Bolivia. A senior defense official told reporters traveling with Rumsfeld that Cuban ideology, backed by Nicaraguan financing, is targeting nations like Bolivia that are teetering between democracy and leftist governments and could go either way.”

Because of the deliberate vagueness of Rumsfeld’s and other officials’ statements, we don’t know what exactly the U.S. government thinks Chávez and Castro are supporting in Bolivia.

The distinction is important. Are they encouraging the spread of violence, insurgency, terrorism or assassination? If so – if the evidence indicates that foreign actors are encouraging Bolivians to murder Bolivians – then the Venezuelan assistance would be a regional security issue.

Or are Cuba and Venezuela merely supporting leftist political parties and non-violent social movements? For instance, though no proof has been presented, it would not be surprising to learn that Chávez is giving funding, and Castro advice (he has no money to give) to the MAS (“Movement Toward Socialism”), Bolivia’s leading leftist party, led by cocalero leader and congressman Evo Morales.

Though it supported the protests that forced the exits of Sánchez and Mesa, MAS is a political party participating in the electoral process, electing congressmen and mayors, and forging alliances with other, more moderate parties and movements. MAS has its sights on the early elections called for December 4, but Morales is polling only 21 percent, and the party performed disappointingly in late 2004 local elections, so it will need to do some coalition-building if it expects to make a good showing. It is a stretch to call a party that’s participating in its third straight electoral campaign "undemocratic."

Whether or not it exists, Cuban-Venezuelan support for MAS is not an issue for the Bolivian military, or any other military, to take on with U.S. encouragement. One of the most promising developments in Latin America since the Cold War ended is that most of the region’s militaries have not stood in the way of leftist parties and candidates who have come to power through elections. External support for MAS is not a reason to reverse this progress. It is not a reason to re-politicize the region’s militaries. And it is not a reason to increase U.S. military assistance.

Besides, funding foreign opposition movements is something the United States does all the time, including in Venezuela. When these movements aren’t violent, this aid usually stirs up only mild protest. If Chávez’s “meddling” merely consists of using his oil money to support like-minded political parties, the Bush Administration can do many things to express its displeasure. But there’s no need to involve either the U.S. or the Bolivian militaries.

Instead of blaming the rise of Bolivia’s leftist politics on foreign machinations, the U.S. government should alter its policies to address the reasons why the MAS and similar movements have won the hearts and minds of so many Bolivians. Jim Shultz, a U.S. citizen who runs the Democracy Center, a Cochabamba-based NGO, said it well recently in his excellent “Blog from Bolivia.”

Let’s be clear. Does the left in Bolivia have ties and kinship with Cuba and Venezuela? Absolutely. Are the influences from those two countries the reason for Bolivian political upheaval? Absolutely not. … I can tell you all – living here, not in the US second guessing at things from afar – that the political uprisings of the past five years in Bolivia are the product of genuine Bolivian movements about taking back control of the nation’s future.

The Bush Administration should forget about whatever support is coming from Venezuela and treat Bolivia’s populism as the homegrown movement that it is. If it wants to keep this movement from turning virulently anti-American, it will have to respond with more than just visits from Rumsfeld and gifts of riot gear.

At the regional level, nobody expects the Bush Administration to support the Chavista agenda for Latin America. From his expansion of military roles to his arms purchases to his elimination of checks on the executive branch, we have concerns about Chávez too. But if the Bush Administration were truly serious about the spread of Cuban-Venezuelan influence, it wouldn’t treat it as a defense or military issue. Presenting an attractive alternative to “radical populism” will require much more creativity than that.

It would mean taking some steps like the following:

  • Treat the spread of “radical populism” as a diplomatic issue, not a defense challenge. Hugo Chávez is constantly visiting his neighbors, listening to what they have to say, burnishing his image and opening channels of communication. By contrast, the United States cannot be said to be assiduously courting leaders and parties throughout the region. While U.S. officials have paid a few more visits this year, the high-level meetings and diplomatic initiatives are still quite rare, and the OAS is a vastly underutilized forum. Meanwhile, much of the region sees us scolding about counter-terrorism, counter-drug certification, and International Criminal Court immunity while reducing economic aid, budging little on debt relief or immigration, and giving little ground in trade negotiations.

  • Keep your mouth shut and don’t take the bait. In a letter to Rumsfeld last week, Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Arlen Specter wrote, “I suggest it may be very helpful to U.S. efforts to secure Venezuela’s co-operation in our joint attack on drug interdiction if the rhetoric would be reduced.” That’s good advice. Chávez and Fidel Castro thrive on public criticism from U.S. officials. Whenever Rumsfeld or another senior official criticizes him in public, Chávez invokes the stereotype of the big bully to the north, keeps his supporters on the alert and diverts the debate away from legitimate concerns like militarization, arms purchases, curbs on the media or persistent unemployment. By contrast, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice earned praise for avoiding public name-calling during her April trip to the region.
  • Increase economic aid. If the U.S. government is truly worried about the stability of the region’s democracies, it will have to do more – and spend more – to help elected governments reduce popular disenchantment and frustration. More aid is needed to help democracies become more responsive, more accountable, and better able to deliver basic services. This is not happening. According to the Bush Administration’s last foreign aid budget request, nearly every country in the region can expect a significant cut to its development assistance, anti-disease programs, and economic support funds in 2006. Bolivia, which is expected to undergo a $4.6 million cut in alternative development aid, is no exception. While Bolivia is among the countries considered eligible to receive a large grant of economic aid under the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA), its approval is far from certain, especially given this year’s political turmoil. The MCA isn’t designed to aid basket cases.
  • Do a better sales job. It’s not news that the United States’ image is suffering worldwide, in large part because of widespread opposition to the Iraq war and the Bush Administration’s unilateralism. That damage will be hard to undo. But more candor, less heavy-handedness, and much more investment in public diplomacy – the stuff that the U.S. Information Agency used to do before congressional Republicans closed it down – would make a difference. However, even a slick PR campaign from Karen Hughes will have little effect if poor Latin Americans continue to see the U.S. government as a bully, a scold, or an ally of corrupt local political elites.
  • Cut back dependence on imported oil. It’s ironic that even Hugo Chávez’s biggest detractors are increasing his revenue every time they fill up their SUVs – especially now, as oil closes in on $70 per barrel. If the Bush Administration really loathed and feared Chávez that much, it would reduce the flow of dollars to him by investing far more in developing alternative fuels and encouraging fuel conservation. Since absolutely none of that is happening, we can conclude that the administration’s concerns about Chávez and the spread of “radical populism” don’t go that far.

2 Responses to “Leftist politics are not a security threat”

  1. jcg Says:

    Can’t say I see anything wrong with the argument here. It’s completely clear that, until proven otherwise, there is no reason to treat most of the mentioned leftist politicians (including Chavez, at least for now there’s little solid, public evidence against him, despite U.S. claims) with such suspicion and, in some cases, apparent paranoia.

  2. Stephen Says:

    This is an excellent site. Very informative and well written.

    As to Chavez, it looks like the US is making the same mistake with him as they made with Castro. The more we demonize him (either officially or unofficially), the stronger he gets at home. Ignoring him seems like a better strategy. I know Chavez is attempting to spread oil sales to reduce dependency on the US, but the bottom line is, the US is the top market and his nation will continue to depend on that market. That means the US has extraordinary leverage over Chavez if there is ever a crisis.

    But aside from that, the US has a great aversion to anything that doesn’t fit their version of “democracy” and is overly concerned with leftist political movements in Latin America to the detriment of the people who live in those countries. How many massacres have been enabled by US assistance to “anti-leftist” groups that are little more than narco-terrorists or corrupt government militias? For shame. We should be more clever than that.

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