September 2002


After the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington, the United States has been using its superpower status to pressure the nations of Latin America to act as its unconditional allies in its 'war against terrorism'. However, the legitimacy of Washington's leadership has been questioned in Latin America because of the stance taken by the Bush administration towards the worsening economic crisis in the region, in which the US is widely seen to share responsibility.

By Gustavo Gonzalez

Santiago: Although, a year after the 11 September attacks on New York and Washington, most Latin Americans agree that the terrorist threat is a global one, they continue to disapprove of the US-British war on Afghanistan, and are wary about a possible military strike on Iraq.

Human rights activists and analysts who specialise in foreign affairs say that over the past year, the nations of Latin America have been pressured to act as unconditional allies of the US. The latter imposes its will thanks to its superpower status, according to a political analyst and former socialist senator from Spain, Jordi Sole Tura.

Above and beyond the support that Latin American governments have lent President George W Bush's 'war on terrorism', the legitimacy of Washington's leadership has been questioned because of the stance taken by the Bush administration towards the worsening economic crisis in this region, in which the US is widely seen to share responsibility.

In the Latinobarometro 2002 survey, the results of which were released in late August, 60% of a total of 18,526 respondents agreed on the existence of a 'global terrorist threat'. The proportion was slightly higher in Central America - 66% - and lower in South America and Mexico - 57%.

The opinion poll, which claims to be representative of the thinking of the region's 480 million people, also found that 57% of those interviewed were opposed to the war on Afghanistan.

The US and Britain launched their attack on the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in late 2001 in reprisal for its support for Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network, blamed for the 11 September attacks that toppled the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York and destroyed part of the Pentagon or Defence Department in Washington, DC.

In Mexico and South America, 62% of those surveyed by the poll that was carried out last April and May said that they were opposed to the military action against Afghanistan, compared to 45% in Central America.

The highest level of opposition to the war on Afghanistan - 80% - was found in crisis-stricken Argentina.

While it has been busy drumming up political support in Latin America for its 'war on terrorism', the Bush administration has been reluctant to support Argentina in its desperate attempt to pull out of its worst economic and political crisis ever, and has even backed the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in its intention to use the Southern Cone country - once an IMF poster-child - to 'set an example'.

The international body given the highest approval ratings by the Latinobarometro respondents was the UN, which ranked 6.86 on a scale of one to 10. The lowest grade went to the IMF, with a rating of 5.10.

Argentine analyst Marcelo Cantelmi argued that the US position vis-a-vis Latin America's current crisis and its aim to discipline the economy under the rigid yoke of neo-liberal orthodoxy would lead to a future without growth and without consumers; to 'a free market literally without a market'.

In US policy towards the region, Bush's claim to global leadership is complemented by his position with respect to the deterioration of Latin America's economies and the social consequences, according to historian Margarita Iglesias, coordinator of the Chilean chapter of the Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions for the Aid of Citizens (ATTAC).

'9/11 has served as a pretext for militarising social conflicts, by condemning them as favourable to terrorism,' said Iglesias, who was referring to a growing tendency to crack down harshly on protests and demonstrations. She added that 'new forms of repression are emerging, associated with the militarisation of the countries of Latin America'.

The clearest example of that trend, according to the activist, is Plan Colombia, originally touted as a strategy designed to combat the drug trade. But  Plan Colombia, Iglesias said, was a pretext to put into place 'a new form of squashing social protest and the struggle for citizens' rights'.

'Gringo blackmail' was the phrase used by Colombian analyst Humberto Tobon y Tobon to describe Washington's pressure to get Bogota to sign a bilateral accord that would leave US soldiers stationed in that country outside the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

A new 'anti-terrorism' law under debate in the US Congress stipulates that US military aid would be cut off to any signatory to the ICC statute - in effect since 1 July - that failed to ensure the protection of US soldiers and other citizens.

Washington is thus attempting to force countries that have ratified the treaty to leave the members of eventual US military missions outside of the jurisdiction of the ICC, which is not recognised by the Bush administration.

The ICC was created to try those accused of crimes against humanity who have escaped punishment in their countries of origin or have fled the countries where the crimes were committed.

The US is keen on safeguarding any troops that may take part in future military interventions in the countries it considers part of the 'axis of evil', whether they are considered allies of terrorism, like Iraq, or are deemed to have 'terrorist organisations' within their borders, like Colombia.

A year after 9/11, Latin America - like the rest of the world - is observing the US as it reaches a decision on attacking Iraq and overthrowing the regime of Saddam Hussein.

Richard Haass, chief adviser to US Secretary of State Colin Powell, visited the Chilean capital in the last week of August to sound out the position of the centre-left government of Ricardo Lagos towards a possible military strike against Iraq.

Haass met with Interior Minister Jose Miguel Insulza and the Foreign Ministry's director of planning, Carlos Portales.

When it becomes one of the temporary members of the UN Security Council in January 2003, Chile will take on a key role in marking Latin America's position towards the next phase of Bush's 'war on terrorism'.

Lagos' spokesman, Minister Heraldo Munoz, declined to comment on positions Chile may take in the future, but said that his government's post-9/11 support for the US was not unconditional.

In a 27 August column in the Buenos Aires daily Clarin, Argentine analyst Cantelmi wrote that 'the action against Saddam Hussein seems to have no link to the events of 9/11, nor to what happened in Afghanistan', but appears to be 'a strategy aimed at extending the borders of the empire'. - Third World Network Features/IPS

About the writer: Gustavo Gonzalez is a correspondent for Inter Press Service, with whose permission the above article has been reprinted.

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