Double defeat for the White House and the Pentagon

By  |  21 / October / 2012

In less than a week the foreign policy of the U.S. suffered two defeats on two closely related issues: the triumph of Hugo Chávez and the failure to impose the Pentagon’s objectives at the Tenth Conference of Ministers of Defense.

On few occasions have elections divided a region so clearly as this past Oct. 7 in Venezuela. Politicians and a large part of the population understood that both the results of the election would determine the future of the Bolivarian process and the ability to broaden regional integration,  including the growth of Mercosur and probably maintenance of peaceful relations between neighboring countries.

“Of the 92 elections that we have monitored, I would say that the electoral process in Venezuela is the best in the world,” stated Jimmy Carter on Sept. 11, celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of the Carter Center[1]. A few days before the election in Caracas, the U.S. Ambassador, Patrick Duddy, suggested that if the elections were “acceptable, free and just”, the U.S. “should restart bilateral relations with mutual visits and the eventual renewal of communications had high levels regarding areas of mutual interest”.[2]

There were the expected reactions and some that were surprising. The fervor of Argentine President Cristina Fernandez and the cool but sincere congratulations of Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos were expected. The Chilean foreign minister Alfredo Moreno, member of the conservative government of Sebastian Piñera, highlighted that the Venezuelan elections were “an impeccable democratic exercise”. The spokesperson for the U.S. State Department, William Ostrick, congratulated “the Venezuelan people” but not the president, and called for the winner to understand that “more than six million persons voted for the opposition”. A similar message was sent by the European Union. [3]

The opposition accepted the results and no one cried fraud, which led many to expect Washington to tone down its usually hostile attitude toward the government of Hugo Chávez. On the contrary, on the same day of the crucial Venezuelan elections, the U.S. Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, began his second tour of the region. This time he traveled to Peru and Uruguay with a twelve-page document under his arm titled “The Western Hemisphere Defense Policy”, released by the Department of Defense on Oct. 3.

China–from caution to euphoria

With Chávez’s triumph,  the U.S.’s strategic and principal enemy consolidates its presence in the region. The role of China in Venezuela is key. The bilateral commercial exchange has passed from $1.9 to  $10.27 billions, which makes China Caracas’ principal business partner. China has provided $52 billion in “joint financial funds” for Venezuela to be paid for with petroleum and at a rate of 640 thousand barrels a day. [4]

The estimated output for the stagnant Venezuelan petroleum industry in 2014 is expected to be four million barrels a day, of which one million are to be exported to China. In late November the presidents of Venezuela and Colombia signed various agreements of cooperation regarding the Venezuelan-Colombian Binational oil pipeline for the export of five hundred thousand barrels of crude oil per day to the Pacific coast destined for China, which will be the “strategic partner” involved in the project with an investment of an estimated 8 billion dollars. [5]

Venezuela is reorienting its oil exports, which represent 90% of its total exports. In 1999– the year Chávez took power–the U.S. bought 1.5 million barrels a day from Venezuela. This dropped to 764,000 barrels in November of 2011–the lowest in nine years. [6] The Chinese market is gradually replacing the U.S. market.

On Sept. 16, 2010, Venezuela and China signed a long-term financial cooperation agreement. Chávez described that the size of the Chinese investment was unprecedented in the sixty-year history of the People’s Republic. He concluded, “All the petroleum that China will need to become a great power is here”. [7] Recall that Venezuela has replaced Saudi Arabia as the country with the largest known oil reserves.

But not everything is oil. China has 430 development projects in Venezuela in electricity, transportation, mining, housing, finances, as well as petroleum, gas and petrochemical. It is contributing to the development of the railroad system and there are 50 projects to mine aluminum, bauxite, coal, iron, and gold [8]. Binational cooperation has intensified in the last five years, since the Chinese Development Bank lent Venezuela $42 billion dollars– 23 percent of all international loans from the state bank. Compare this to the $29 billion the U.S. invested between 2003 and 2006 in the reconstruction of Iraq. [9]

Without a doubt the fresh investment by China is fundament for Venezuela’s economy, which receives almost no foreign direct investment. Even Chinese direct investment has been very low–only 240 million dollars between 1990 and 2009. [10] Perhaps for that reason the Chinese government, which had been reserved in the weeks before the elections, did not hide its enthusiasm for the re-election of Chávez to another six year period, promising to take the relationship between both countries to “a new level”[11].

With fresh money for petroleum, Venezuela pays half the interest it would on the international market (6% compared to 12%) and with this money it can develop projects such as the 33,000 houses China’s Citic is building and meet the growing state costs. In return Chávez offers the Chinese participation in drilling heavy oil along the Orinoco belt and in the mining project Las Cristinas, which has one of the largest gold reserves in the world. [12] Venezuela also signed an agreement with Citic to expand mineral resource exploration. [13]

Thanks to Chinese cooperation, Venezuela launched two satellites into orbit. The first, Simon Bolivar launched in 2008, is a communications satellite and the Miranda in 2012 is used for urban planning, military operations, and the fight against illegal mines and cultivations. According to the Chavez government the satellites enable the country to “plan our territory, take care of our environment, our borders, our natural resources, and our people.” [14]

Venezuelan relations with Russia have also been strengthened, but they are mostly just basic diplomatic and military arrangements. The Russian arms industry is increasing exports, although it is far behind the U.S. Between 2012 and 2015 the top buyer of Russian arms will be India again at $14 billion, with Venezuela coming in second, displacing Algiers and China with projected purchases of $3.2 billion according to Ígor Korotchenko, the director of the Center for Commercial Arms Analysis. [15]

Leon Panetta’s second tour

Just before voting began in Venezuela Oct. 7 before, Secretary Leon Panetta set off on his second tour of the region in less than five months. [16] He went armed with the “Defense Policy for the Western Hemisphere”, a document that outlines defense priorities as a continuation of the document released in January. In both documents, the objectives consist of “maintaining the U.S. as a world leader”. [17].

The policy designed for the region by the Pentagon and the White House takes into account two new realities: changes in the world, including the new role of South America and what they call “the limitation of resources”, as a consequence of debt and the economic crisis that imposes restrictions on their military budget.

As a consequence, the Pentagon no longer sees a direct military role in the region as its main method of operation, but seeks to maintain its “leadership” through “innovative economic focuses with a minimal footprint”. This means more “cooperative efforts” for “bilateral and regional alliances” on the basis of “common security interests”. [18]

The U.S. finds itself at a “strategic point of inflection” that indicates the need to redirect efforts to the Asian Pacific region. In Latin America, the U.S. is trying to find “partners” who will become “security exporters”. The document mentions two cases: Colombia, whose security forces share “technical knowledge in areas of aviation, anti-kidnapping and the drug war”, and El Salvador whose “trainers” are working in Afghanistan and Iraq.

This is a consequence or achievement of Plan Colombia, although Panetta did not mention it. On the basis of these alliances the Pentagon argues that “a interconnected web has begun to flower: a system of cooperation for defense” on the basis of alliances that are “flexible, agile, and capable of responding to the desires of the friendly nation and change to augment the capacity of the military forces in those countries”.

Nonetheless, the objectives and means are defined unilaterally by the Department of Defense: “The actual threats to stability and regional peace come from the spread of drug trafficking and other forms of illicit trafficking, gangs and terrorism, whose impact can be made worse by natural disasters and an unequal lack of economic opportunity.” Added to this are the threats from cyberspace.

Despite the proposal of “innovative” alliances, Panetta continues to be committed to “mature and professional defense institutions”, among them the Conference of Ministers of Defense of the Americas held every two years and the Inter-American Defense Board (IDB) of the OEA. Panetta released the document right before participating in the Tenth Conference inaugurated Oct. 8 in Punta del Este.

As described by the Argentine analyst Horacio Verbitsky, Panneta’s document “uses the terms Security and Defense interchangeably”, which most South American countries do not view positively. [19] Recall that MERCOSUR “rejects the use of the term natural disaster and replaced it with socio-natural”, with the idea of dealing with these as complex situations and above all on the basis of petitions “not between armed forces but as requested by the government of the affected country.”

The Pentagon proposal by way of Chile, one of its most important partners in the region, consists of the armed forces coordinating disaster response, adding that deployment should be done “with units or means with a minimum capacity of seven day of self-sufficiency”.  This paragraph alarmed various foreign ministers, among them Argentina, since this “technical” capacity excludes most countries in the region, leaving the Pentagon in a situation of being the only actor, as occurred before the earthquake in Haiti in January 2010.

Verbitsky considers the “U.S. intention to reform the IDB to not lose a tool of control in relation to the armed forces and regional security”. Several countries question the validity of the multilateral hemispheric defense institutions created during the cold war, including the Inter-American Reciprocal Assistance Treaty (IRAT) created in 1947 and the IDB, a body created by the OEA in 1942.

The failure of “military diplomacy”

A sign of new times, various ALBA countries (Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua) arrived at the Tenth Council of Defense Ministers after coming to an agreement in June to leave the IRAT, which they consider fatally wounded by the Falklands (Malvinas) Islands conflict in 1982, when the United States supported England, a power outside the hemisphere, instead of Argentina. [20]

In addition, Brazil and Uruguay have expressed reluctance to participate in the IDB. The Uruguayan Minister of Defense, Eleuterio Fernandez Huidobro, stated in his speech at the Conference of Ministers that that IDB at 70 is “very old” and was “born when very ugly things were happening in the world.” [21] He added that inequality “is the big problem underlying or hovering over the rest” and that “all the soldiers in the world will not resolve that.”

Fernandez Huidobro asserted, “in all these years we have suffered from the actions of worst criminal transnational organizations worse than those of drug and arms trafficking and terrorism. I’m talking about a good part of the financial system that through predatory actions, robbery, and fraud has devastated the richest rich countries of the world, and especially their populations. The go free, let loose on society, this highly dangerous transnational band that we cannot omit from our list of threats and risks.” Panetta listened in silence.

The declaration that best reflected the regional attitude came from the Brazilian former foreign minister, and current defense minister, Celso Amorim. He was the first give his speech at the conference and stated that on the continent “a system of Inter-American Defense conceived of after the Second World War has nothing to do with the world of today”, which is now “a multipolar world in which there is not a single threat or even a homogenous continent.” [22]

He defended cooperation on issues of health, defense and natural disasters, but “always with civil authorities” at the lead. He went on to question the role of the major powers in the Middle East and the composition of the UN Security Council, stating that Brazil’s priorities are UNASUR and the South American Defense Council. He supported the Argentine claim of sovereignty over the Malvinas (Falkland) Islands and defended a south Atlantic free of nuclear arms, adding that “our problem is not proliferation, but to disarm and that the great powers should destroy their nuclear arsenals.”

All of this occurred in less than twenty-two minutes. Amorim also criticized the Chilean proposal to create a coordinating mechanism for humanitarian assistance in natural disasters, which Panetta supported.

The 29 countries that took part in the Conference of Defense Ministers discussed the final document for l48 hours. They approved the creation of a voluntary cooperative system for humanitarian assistance “that respects the legality of each country and that the coordination and direction of assistance be under the charge of the civil authorities”, as the Chilean Minister of Defense Andrés Allamand explained.

The humanitarian assistance proposal passed with opposition from Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Surinam and Venezuela, and the abstentions of Guyana and Uruguay. “This is the first time in the history of this continental forum–organized since 1995—that a vote wins without consensus.” (AFP, Oct. 10).

The final declaration of the Tenth Conference of Ministers of Defense left out the main concerns of the Pentagon, especially its regarding its tendency to forge agreements directly between the armed forces of each South American country without going through the politicians in a kind of “military diplomacy”.

On the contrary, the declaration of Punta del Este “includes support for Argentina’s sovereign rights over the Malvinas Islands” (initially rejected by Canada and the U.S.) and a vague and generic ”recommendation regarding the study of the Inter-American Defense System”. The Unasur countries, with the exception of Chile and Colombia that supported Argentina in other terms, supported the Argentine claim and “demonstrated their concern for the growing militarization of the South Atlantic and the military exercises taking place on the Malvinas Islands.” [23]

The pointed debate over the Malvinas revealed enormous differences. Canada stated that only the settlers who live on “the Falklands Islands” should make decisions and the U.S. stated that the issue should not be taken up at the meeting.

What the countries of Latin America reject is the approach of the Pentagon to maintain direct relations with the military of each country, ignoring the governments as the Inter-American Defense Board did for decades by the Southern Command does now. Verbitsky’s description of how the U.S. Military Group operated in Argentina, where for decades it kept offices with in the officers’ headquarters of the armed forces, in a “horizontal and direct interaction with the armed forces, without asking for authorization or informing the Minister of Defense” [24], illustrates a way of operating that is no longer accepted under the new relations.

The continuation of the Bolivarian process and quite possibly its deepening in the years to come will encourage the growth of political, economic and military autonomy in the region with regards to the United States.

Raúl Zibechi is an international analyst for the weekly Brecha of Montevideo, professor and researcher on social movements in the Multiversidad Franciscana of Latin America, and advisor to several grassroots organizations. He writes the monthly “Zibechi Report” for the CIP Americas Program www.cipamericas.org.

Translation: Joseph J. García

Editor: Laura Carlsen

See Spanish original at http://www.cipamericas.org/es/archives/8077

Resources

Agencia Xinghua, “Relaciones con Mercosur y China marcarán próximos seis años de Venezuela”, 27 de setiembre de 2012.

Departament of Defense, “La política de Defensa para el Hemisferio Occidental, octubre 2012.

Horacio Verbitsky, “Los nuevos desafíos”, Página 12, 8 de octubre de 2012.

Mark Weisbrot, “Why the US demonises Venezuela’s democracy”, The Guardian, 3 de octubre de 2012.


[1] Citado por Mark Weisbrot, The Guardian, 3 de octubre de 2012. La conferencia completa se puede escuchar en http://cartercenter.org/news/multimedia/Conversations/30-years-of-the-carter-center.html La referencia a Venezuela en el minuto 44 del discurso de Carter.

[2] Citado por Clovis Rossi, Folha de São Paulo, 9 de octubre de 2012.

[3] “EEUU no felicita a Chávez pro valora votación de la oposición”, AFP, 8 de octubre de 2012.

[4] Agncia Xinghua, 27 de setiembre de 2012.

[5] Radio Caracol, 19 de mayo de 2012 en http://www.caracol.com.co/noticias/economia/venezuela-dice-que-oleoducto-con-colombia-transportara-500000-barriles-dia/20120519/nota/1690890.aspx

[6] Associated Press, 2 de febrero de 2012

[7] La Jornada, 26 de setiembre de 2010.

[8] Idem.

[9] “China financia Chávez, em troca de petróleo, e ajuda na sua reeleição”, Valor, 1 de octubre de 2012.

[10] “China, no tan cerca como busca Chávez”, La Nación, 7 de octubre de 2012.

[11] Agencia Telam, 8 de octubre de 2012.

[12] Valor, 1 de octubre de 2012.

[13] http://www.delglobo.com/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=4475:venezuela-y-china-acuerdan-explotación-de-oro-en-las-cristinas&Itemid=7

[14] El Universal, 29 de setiembre de 2012, en http://www.eluniversal.com.mx/notas/873531.html

[15] Gazeta Russa, 9 de octubre de 2012.

[16] Sobre la primera gira puede ver, Raúl Zibechi, “El Pentágono busca recuperar la iniciativa en Sudamérica”, en http://www.cipamericas.org/es/archives/6866

[17] www.defense.gov/news/WHDPS-Spanish.pdf

[18] Todas las citas pertenecen al documento del Departamento de Defensa.

[19] Página 12, 8 de octubre de 2012.

[20] “Continente debatirá pertinencia del sistema interamericano de defensa”, AFP, 6 de octubre de 2012.

[21] El País, 9 de octubre de 2012.

[22] “Multiplicidad de percepciones impide sistema continental de defensa”, AFP, 8 de octubre de 2012.

[23] http://www.presidencia.gub.uy/wps/wcm/connect/Presidencia/PortalPresidencia/Comunicacion/comunicacionNoticias/declaracion-final-x-conferencia

[24] “Las cartas sobre la mesa”, Página 12, 30 de setiembre de 2012.

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