Grim reminder of bloody US touch

By Peter Huck

Former dictator's conviction over massacre in Guatemala brings into focus dark episodes in Washington's past

The landmark conviction of former Guatemalan dictator General Efrain Rios Montt of genocide and crimes against humanity - the 1982 massacre of 1700 Ixil Mayan Indians considered sympathetic to leftwing guerrillas - and United States backing for the scorched earth campaign, was a grim reminder of bloody footprints left by Washington, in this case the Reagan Government, across Latin America.

The general, described as "a man of great personal integrity" by President Ronald Reagan, was sentenced to 80 years in prison. Witnesses described rapes, torture and murders in military sweeps that wiped out hundreds of Mayan villages. The trial also implicated Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina, one of Rios Montt's field commanders. Perez Molina is said to have taken part in summary executions.

The two-month trial echoed other dark episodes from US-Latin American affairs - a 1954 CIA coup deposed Guatemala's reformist President - where Washington often emerges as the bullying gringo, a perception dating to the 1823 Monroe Doctrine, when President James Monroe warned Europeans to stay out of the New World.

Recent efforts of rapprochement with Latin America, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and Canada, pushed by President Bill Clinton in 1994, yielded mixed results. In September 2001 President George W. Bush said: "The US has no more important relationship in the world than the one we have with Mexico." This sentiment was quickly swept away by 9/11 and Mexico was forgotten.

Now Washington is again talking up closer ties. President Barack Obama has just made whirlwind trips to Costa Rica and Mexico. The leaders of Peru and Chile are scheduled to visit Washington in June. And Vice-President Joe Biden will visit Brazil and Colombia this month. Security and economic issues loom large on the agenda.

"All told, we will have the most active stretch of high-level engagement on Latin America in a long, long time," Biden said last week. "There are so many opportunities. There's so much more we believe we can do."

Does this herald a new dawn in US-Latin American relations? Obama stresses only economic ties and robust institutions can reduce poverty [driving poor migrants north to the US, which promises immigration reform] and combat narco-traffickers.

But as Brazil and Mexico flex their economic muscles on the world stage and China makes long-term investments in the hemisphere - part of a global Great Game between Beijing and Washington - the upsurge in diplomatic activity is a tacit acknowledgement the US can no longer count on Latin American acquiescence.

"The countries in the Americas are more active global players," said Ricardo Zuniga, Obama's Latin American adviser on the National Security Council. "We're running into each other in more parts of the world and in more multilateral organisations."

When Obama attended the sixth Summit of the Americas, held in Colombia last year, Latin America growth rates were broadly double those in the US, mired in the aftermath of the 2008 crash. The US wants to tap into energy from Mexico, Brazil and Argentina, reducing dependence on Middle East oil. The President is also promoting free trade, specifically the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, which includes Peru, Chile and Mexico. Colombia and Costa Rica are waiting in the wings.

Obama's efforts are hampered by the huge US deficit, extreme partisanship in Washington, and lingering Latin American distrust of US intent.

"The US no longer occupies the inviolate position it has held for centuries," says Dr Riordan Roett, director of Western Hemisphere Studies at Johns Hopkins University. "We have good relations with some countries. We have bad relations with others."

The "bad" category includes left-leaning Ecuador, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Venezuela. Argentina has also proven difficult, due to its defiance in honouring business debts.

"Political relationships are very complicated," says Roett. "All the Latin America nations recognise Cuba. They don't understand our Cuba policy. And most Latin American nations have strong trade ties with China. If China and the US are adversaries they don't want to take sides, alienating Beijing to please Washington."

And while good nations fall into the free trade camp, bad nations are less keen. For many years Washington's nemesis was Hugo Chavez, the late Venezuela leader.

"I'm critical of Chavez," says Sanho Tree, a Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, "but he did some good things. One of those things was to destroy the Monroe Doctrine. Venezuela used its oil money to help wean other nations off dependency on the US, to create different spheres of power in the region, and different leadership roles. It's become a more interesting place. It's no longer the US backyard."

It is a long way from Monroe Doctrine gunboat certainties. Take the US-led War on Drugs. That term was retired by Obama, even as Colombia - the beneficiary of more than US$8 billion ($9.79 billion) in US counter-drug trafficking and other aid since 2000 - and other Latin American states suggest decriminalising drugs, a notion stonewalled by the US.

The Ixil massacres were spawned, in part, by US obsessions with communism. Today, says Tree, the US has an evangelical faith in the free market.

Less is said about the downside: Nafta pauperised thousands of Mexican peasants who, unable to compete with subsidised US food imports, lost their lands and were forced into border sweat shops, or maquiladoras. It also bequeathed legions of jobless young men, today's drug cartel foot soldiers. Might free trade also backfire?

The elephant in the room is China. While the US was engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan China, sensing a vacuum and hungry for raw materials, began forging alliances in Latin America, with ventures in Peru, Argentina, Ecuador, Venezuela and Bolivia. They include huge infrastructure projects, such as the Sao Joao da Barra super port in Brazil, a fellow member of the BRICS economic bloc.

Plans for a Chinese-funded railway in Colombia, between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans show even US allies have their own agendas.

It is a strategic trend that alarms Washington, even as Beijing worries about "encirclement" as the US joins Latin American Pacific seaboard allies in the TPPA.

As the global scramble for markets and resources intensifies, and China's economy overtakes the US, perhaps as early as 2016 according to the OECD, it is an open question whether Washington can remodel its traditional hegemony in Latin America.

- NZ Herald

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