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U.S. Militarization in Latin America

A recent report by several Washington-based policy groups reveals growing disenchantment with the Obama administration’s lack of effort to curb U.S. militarization in Latin America.

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President Barack Obama has largely disappointed hopes for an "equal partnership" with the countries of Latin America, according to a series of annual reports on U.S. relations with the region released recently.

The report by three U.S. groups with close ties to non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in the region found that the administration's military base agreement with Colombia, its equivocal response to the military coup d'etat in Honduras, and its failure to move more quickly to normalise relations with Cuba have been among the chief reasons for growing disillusionment.

The groups expressed particular concern about the continued emphasis on military and security aid programmes and the leading role played by the U.S. Southern Command (SouthCom) in developing relations with Latin America.

"In 2010, 47 percent of Washington's more than three billion dollars in aid to Latin America is going to militaries and police forces," noted Adam Isacson, senior security analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and co-author of the report, "Waiting for Change".

"That's the highest proportion in a decade, and it indicates an unbalanced approach," he added. "Add to that the new military-basing agreement signed last October with Colombia, and the main face that most of the region is seeing from the Obama administration is a military one."

At the same time, the 28-page report noted some welcome signs of change since earlier this year, notably Washington's nearly one-billion-dollar relief effort in Haiti after the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake followed by a proposed development aid package of 1.15 billion dollars over the next 18 months. The Senate this week takes up a proposed five-year, 3.5 billion dollar aid package.

The report also noted favourably Obama's 2011 budget request that would modestly trim the amount of military aid devoted to Washington's generation-old "war against drugs" and to boost spending on drug prevention and treatment programmes in the United States to reduce demand.

The report, which was co-produced by WOLA, the Latin America Working Group Education Fund (LAWGEF), and the Centre for International Policy (CIP), is the latest in a series, known as "Just the Facts," dating back to 1995. The project, which is constantly updated on the website www.justf.org, focuses primarily on U.S. military and security policies and aid programmes in the region.

In addition to reporting recent trends and statistics relevant to U.S. military and security assistance, the report also makes a number of recommendations for policymakers here.

The latest report, for example, calls for a more decisive shift in the balance of U.S. aid to Latin America and the Caribbean away from military spending and towards development assistance, particularly in health, education, and rural development, and the reform of key civilian-led institutions, including the judiciary and the police, to fight corruption and reduce human rights abuses.

Washington should also reassure Latin American governments and publics that it is "not seeking to project its military power in the region" and ensure that the "lead actor and voice" in U.S. policy there is the State Department, rather than SouthCom.

It urges Washington to continue withholding aid – particularly military aid – to Honduras until its new government takes "real steps" toward punishing those responsible for last June's coup d'etat and subsequent human rights abuses and promotes a "substantive, inclusive dialogue" to build a more democratic society.

More generally, policymakers should make clear that Washington cares as much about the protection of human rights in countries perceived as close partners, notably Colombia and Mexico, which together receive the vast majority of U.S. military aid to the region, as in other countries, such as Venezuela, according to the report.

"The refusal to use conditions attached to military aid to Colombia and Mexico signalled to human rights groups that the United States would continue turning a blind eye to its closest allies' abuses," the report asserted.

"With the weak, contradictory response to the coup in Honduras, and a stand-by-our-man approach towards allied governments in Mexico and Colombia, the first year has been disappointing," noted Lisa Haugaard, LAWGEF's director. "Now that the president's human rights team is in place, we're hoping to see a greater willingness to take action.

The groups also called for the administration to "put immigration reform back on the agenda and move it forward" – a message that was conveyed personally to Obama just last week by visiting Mexican President Felipe Calderón.

Obama, however, told his guest that he lacked sufficient Republican support to push a reform package through the Senate this year, and most independent analysts believe any immigration overhaul is unlikely before next year at the earliest.

Obama's pledge at the April 2009 Summit of the Americas in Trinidad to seek "an equal partnership" with Latin America – as well as his critique of George W. Bush's foreign policy during the 2008 election campaign – had created "unrealistic expectations" for a decisive break with the militarism and unilateralism of his predecessor, according to the report, which added that those expectations have "much dimmed".

"Our fifteen years of documenting trends in the U.S. military relationship with Latin America, through Democratic and Republican administrations, have convinced us that the underlying structural relationship is only affected to a limited degree by the White House's current inhabitant," it said.

"It has also convinced us that a growing trend towards the militarisation of U.S. foreign policy spans administrations," it concluded.

"We continue to see an increasing U.S. military role in relations with the region," said Joy Olsen, WOLA's director.

"This is true whether the issue is military presence on the U.S.-Mexican border, the U.S. Southern Command filling the civilian leadership vacuum on inter-agency efforts, the emergence of new aid programmes in the defence budget, or a declared U.S. military interest in helping the region confront internal threats like gangs."

Jim Lobe is the Washington bureau chief of the Inter Press Service and a contributor to IPS Right Web (https://rightweb.irc-online.org/). He blogs at http://www.lobelog.com/.

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