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Storm Clouds Over Latin America—and a videotape from bin Laden
September 10, 2007

I'm off to Washington D.C. for a TV spot (see my Events page for viewing times), just in time to fly out of Ronald Regan International Airport on September 11th. Lucky me. We'll see if there are any anniversary plots, stunts, foul-ups, delays, what have you. I'm expecting a long day.

Of course, the recent arrests in Germany and Osama bin Laden's most recent "makeover" tape only remind us that anniversaries are extremely important among the ideological and the obsessed. And what an interesting tape it was. Transcripts remain unavailable as yet, but from the spattering of reports available, one learns that bin Laden has taken to a form of capitalism-bashing that prompted one wag to comment that he seems to have been reading more from Das Kapital than the Koran.

One wonders whether bin Laden isn't secretly in league with Michael Savage, Rush Limbaugh, Ann Coulter, Bill O'Reilly and others of that ilk in an attempt to fuel the flames of hardliner paranoia, scaremongering Americans into believing that in truth the new threat is the same as the old threat, nothing but a cabal of anti-capitalist malcontents who once again, in the guise of radical populist movements throughout the world, have resurrected the Red Menace in new cloth, employing their favorite weapon, cowardly terrorism. The Politics of Envy drenched in blood. Islam is just a ploy. What they really want is your condo.

Problem is, those who crow loudest against America do seem to be reading from the same script. There's no monolithic ideology uniting them, though—even in the days of the Cold War, communism was far less uniform than either its proponents or enemies would have had you believe—unless one considers anti-Americanism as an ideology. Already, pundits are connecting the dots: bin Laden, Ahmadinejad, Chávez.

There's truth to a link between the last two—they've embraced conspicuously and publicly, and of course share an interest in OPEC leadership. But the increasing ties between Iran and Venezuela exist beyond the realm of photo ops. For the first time there are direct flights between Tehran and Caracas, and supposedly scrutiny of passports is less than exemplary. (Even so, I've been told by folks who study such matters that as of now, the major Islamic infiltration in Venezuela is Sunni, not Persian-Shiite; that may be cold comfort.) And Russia and China, the real power players lurking in the background (exemplifying what some commentators think of as the real new security threat: authoritarian capitalism) know only too well the benefit of keeping America preoccupied with lesser irritants.

But suggesting that al Qaeda is part of a new evil triumvirate with Iran and Venezuela requires one too many trips to the Kool-Aid bowl. A link between Sunni bin Laden and Shiite Ahmadinejad is even more far-fetched than the purported link between bin Laden and Saddam Hussein—not that that will stop some people from clamoring that it's all too true.

Similarly, claims that Chávez is masterminding a regional anti-American turn in Latin America to the radical left is also wrong-headed—again, though, not that that has stopped rightwing hardliners from making that claim.

In truth, our Iraq policy has poisoned our international standing everywhere, including Latin America, where anti-Yaquismo is a traditional turn of mind. But an inclination is not a political movement, and though Chávez is on good terms with Morales in Bolivia, Correa in Ecuador, and even former bishop Fernando Lugo in Paraguay—he's actually on talking terms with everyone on the subcontinent except Uribe in Colombia and Saca in El Salvador—none of these otherwise cordial leaders is marching in lockstep. (Lugo, a mere candidate at this point, but with growing support among his country's poor, has made efforts to distance himself from Chávez, as has Correa and even, to a lesser extent, Morales.) Add to that such center-left "threats" as the Kirchners in Argentina, Lula in Brazil, Vazquez in Uruguay, and Bachelet in Chile, and you can almost hear those conservative knickers working themselves into a twist.

What I fear, however, is that rightwing rhetoric will succeed with an uninformed public in painting these left-of-center leaders as a unified threat, requiring severe measures to stop a regional move toward a new form of anti-capitalist tyranny with designs on destroying the American way of life. The left will (over)react by embracing populist leaders who use their generosity toward the poor and anti-American-imperialist rhetoric to disguise the dismantling of their own democracies—of whom Chávez is now the prime example. The right will riposte by characterizing liberals as "useful fools" who fall for the camouflage of social democrat verbiage while the populists systematically tighten the screws on power, while the left will respond that the right, in its typical militarist paranoia, has demonized the only legitimate forces for social change and economic justice in the region. Thus, policy will become a shadow play of ideological shibboleths where actual conditions in the region become nothing more than props in a prolonged bout of rhetorical mudslinging and one-upmanship.

It might be good to remember that the two main social forces we were promoting in the region during the last two decades of the last century—democracy and a kind of Über-capitalism as preached by the "Chicago Boys"—weren't necessarily the best bedfellows. The strong turn toward disassembling the public bureaucracies endemic in the region and the selling off of public industries only served to further entrench the economic elites and widen the gap between rich and poor in a region where this division was the cause of much of the political volatility of the past century. And though electorates were willing to be patient to see if the changes could help spread prosperity, when it became obvious that this wasn't occurring, they resorted to their newly acquired weapon: the ballot. This is the real reason for the leftward turn in the region, not some insidious Marxist plot that only the cognoscenti, inoculated from liberal nonsense, can discern.

The good news is, military intelligence analysts I've spoken with have a far subtler view of the region than the talking heads. The bad news: We've all learned what civilian policymakers can do with cherry-picked intelligence. And a belligerent posture from the suits at the Pentagon could quickly undo two decades of a subtle shift toward a military policy in the region by its men and women in uniform that is more respectful of human rights and civilian control of the military. It's not an accident that there have been no military coups in the region reversing democratic gains, something that was almost comically routine before 1990. This is a frequently overlooked benefit of the American military's partnering with Latin American militaries over the past two decades. I'm not saying the gains are uniformly benevolent, but I also think that those who consistently call for the closing of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (formerly the School of the Americas) fail to see that something has changed since the 1960s and 1970s, and for the better.

Given all that, it sometimes behooves on to get grounded in a few minor but key facts. An example: last week I spoke in brief about the three American servicemen—Keith Stansell, Marc Gonsalves, and Thomas Howes—who were taken hostage by guerillas of the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) on February 13, 2003. For more about their situation, go here. You can leave messages for the servicemen at this site, and also learn more about kidnapped presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt, who has been a prisoner of FARC since February 2002.

Also, I'd like to refer you to the blog of a gentleman I met during my trip to SOUTHCOM. His name is Max Buendia, and he's a savvy cat. His reflections on his Christmas day trip to visit Colombian soldiers in a Bogota military hospital are sobering, moving, and enlightening. Go here.

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