Ballots and Bullets

by CONN HALLINAN

May has been a month of upheaval, from the streets of Beirut, where the Bush Administration appears to have miscalculated disastrously, to Santa Cruz Province in Eastern Bolivia, where a continent’s new political realignment is trying to checkmate a slow motion rightwing coup.

The Lebanon explosion was touched off by people who forgot the first rule of warfare: don’t pick a fight with people who can kick your butts. One should also add, don’t listen to White House neoconservatives.

According to Nicholas Noe of The Guardian (UK), this particular debacle was the work of neocon prince, Elliot Abrams, Deputy National Security Advisor for Middle East Affairs, one of the architects of the disastrous invasion of Iraq.

Abrams is a big fan of civil wars. He helped design one in Nicaragua during the Reagan Administration (and was found guilty of lying to Congress about it). He worked diligently to set one in motion among the Palestinians last year by trying to pull off what he called a “hard coup” against Hamas. According to the Israeli daily Haaretz, Abrams arranged for guns and ammunition to flow to anti-Hamas militias through Egypt and Jordan. But Hamas beat their opponents to the punch and now control Gaza, as well as expanding its influence on the West Bank.

After the Iraq and Hamas debacles, why didn’t the White House rein in the Prince of Chaos? Because chaos is part of the Bush Administration’s designs for the Middle East. It is easier to dominate amid disorder, and the messier the better.

Iraq disintegrating. Check

Palestinians at war with one another. Check

So, on to Lebanon.

Abrams is a strong supporter of the current Lebanese government, an alliance of Sunnis, Christians, and some Druze that dominates the politics and economics of Lebanon. Left out in the cold are the Shiites who, though they make up a plurality of Lebanon’s complex ethnic landscape, have endured more than a hundred years of poverty and political marginalization.

That all changed when, after 22 years of occupation, Hezbollah drove Israel out of Southern Lebanon in 2000, letting the government in Beirut know that they would no longer accept third class citizenship.

The May 7 fighting was set off when the current government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora fired a Shiite general who commanded the country’s international airport and demanded that Hezbollah dismantle its private underground communication system. But it was Hezbollah’s secure phone system that allowed the Shiite organization to keep the Israelis off balance during their 2006 invasion of Lebanon. Israel tapped into the government’s wireless system with ease.

According to Noe, Siniora’s demands followed a series of meetings between the governing March 14 coalition and “U.S. officials.”

The government certainly knew the latter demand would start a fight and, in anticipation, brought in U.S.-trained Sunni militia from the northern city of Tripoli. Hezbollah and its Shiite ally Amal (which some reports say did most the fighting), wiped the floor with them, eventually talking over the Sunni stronghold of West Beirut before turning it over to the Lebanese Army.

Fighting is still going on in the country’s north and the east.

Did Abrams and Siniora really think they could push around an organization like Hezbollah that fought the Israelis to a standstill in 2006? Did they think the Lebanese Army would intervene in spite of the fact that the Army’s rank and file is mostly Shiite? Was there some kind of promise of U.S. support for the anti-Hezbollah coalition?

Was the Prince of Chaos sowing death and destruction in order to blame the turmoil on Hezbollah’s allies, Syria and Iran, thus creating a casus belli for going after the two regimes? President Bush told the BBC that Iran and Syria were behind the whole matter, and according to Andrew Cockburn in Counterpunch, the President has authorized a $300 million program to undermine Iran, including “operations against Iran’s hezbollah allies in Lebanon,” as well as “efforts to destabilize the Syrian regime.”

Or was is the recent fighting just a classic example of one of Karl von Clausewitz’s dictums about war: “Against stupidity, no amount of planning will prevail.”

Maybe Congress should get some answers.

***

Separatism hiding behind a veil of “autonomy” is what the Bush Administration is supporting in Bolivia, where a May 4 referendum to take local control of gas, water, and land in the eastern province of Santa Cruz passed by 82 percent.

Well not quite. While 82 percent of those who voted went for autonomy, 40 percent of the electorate rejected the proposal by heeding the central government’s call for a boycott, or just voting “no.”

Bolivia, the poorest nation in Latin America, is divided between the resource-poor highlands where most of the population is indigenous, and the east, where wealthy elites and landowners dominate the economy. Some of the landowners are Croatians who came after World War II, where many of them were associated with a pro-Nazi regime allied to Hitler’s Germany. .

The country’s current leftist government, led by Aymara Indian Evo Morales, has partially nationalized the nation’s energy industry, greatly increasing the government’s income. Earnings from national gas jumped from $180 million to $2 billion a year. 

 Jim Schultz, Executive Director of the Democracy Center in Cochabamba, Bolivia, told Democracy Now, that the referendum “is the latest move by an elite in Santa Cruz to try to separate itself from what the national government under Morales has been trying to do.”

That program includes alleviating poverty and instituting land reform.

According to Benjamin Dangl of Upside Down World, recently declassified documents show that the Bush Administration has used the U.S. Agency for International Development and the National Endowment for Democracy to encourage separatist groups in Santa Cruz, including the openly secessionist Civic Committee.

The Bolivian Electoral Court, the Organization of American States, the European Union, and the Morales government all say the referendum was illegal.

Similar autonomy referendums are being held in Beni, Pando, and Tarija provinces in the coming weeks. Tarija Province contains 80 percent of Bolivia’s gas reserves.

The Santa Cruz referendum would give the province the right to negotiate separate agreements with private energy companies and to resist land reform.

Countries in the region have reacted sharply to the Santa Cruz referendum.

“Nobody is going to recognize this illegal referendum,” said Rafael Correa, president of Ecuador. “It’s a strategy to destabilize progressive governments in the region.”

Brazil’s Foreign Affairs Minister Celso Amorim said that South America would never accept “separatism in Bolivia.” The Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas said that it rejected “the destabilization plans that aim to attack the peace and unity of Bolivia,” and that none of its member nations would recognize any “juridical figure that aims to break away from the Bolivian national state and violate the territorial integrity of Bolivia.”

The group includes Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba, Bolivia, Dominica, Antigua, and St. Vincent. Ecuador is in the process of joining.

Argentina has also condemned the vote.

One immediate impact of the vote may be to slow down or even halt land reform efforts in Santa Cruz.

Energy is a different matter. Since most Bolivia’s gas and oil currently goes to Brazil and Argentina, an as long as those countries refuse to do business with the separatist provinces, there is virtually no way that Santa Cruz and Tarija can get their oil and gas out. 

On the other hand, the U.S. has a base in neighboring Paraguay, and it is beefing up its military throughout the region. On April 24, the U.S. Navy announced that it was re-forming the Fourth Fleet to give it “a naval presence” in the Caribbean and Latin America.

The original Fourth Fleet was dismantled in the 1950s.

The fleet, based in Mayport, Florida, will include an aircraft carrier and support ships, giving the U.S. a military arm that will be independent of land bases.

“The message is clear,” says Alejandro Sanchez of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. “Whether local governments like it or not, the U.S. is back after the war in Iraq.”

The ramping up of the U.S. military in Latin America and Washington’s support for the “autonomy” movement in Bolivia might be a coincidence. So might the U.S.’s stepped up rhetoric about Syria and Iran and support for the Siniora government’s against Hezbollah.

Coincidence?

CONN HALLINAN is an analyst for Foreign Policy in Focus.

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