Return of the Gunboat

Mexico City.

The resurrection and imminent dispatch of the United States Fourth Fleet to patrol the coasts of Latin America invokes the bad old days of Monroe Doctrine impositions and gunboat diplomacy for many citizens of those southern latitudes.

This April, the U.S. Navy announced the reactivation of the fleet that historically operated in the south Atlantic during World War II, dueling with Nazi U-boats.  Activating the Fourth Fleet “demonstrates U.S. commitment to our global partners,” Admiral Gary Roughead explained, adding a threatening fillip: “The Fourth Fleet will send a strong signal to all Navies operating in the region.”

Roughead maintains that the fleet’s focus will be on drug interdiction and “conducting training exercises” and its activation is “non-hostile.”  Frank Mora, a professor at the U.S. War College in Leavenworth Kansas told the Miami Herald, he thought the Fleet could be used in “environmental emergencies” and to control “youth gangs.”

The reactivated flotilla will sail in the strategic area overseen by the U.S. Southern Command or SOUTHCOM based in Quarry Heights, Panama and is to be homeported at Mayport in Jacksonville Florida.  The fleet is expected to group together 11 war ships homeported at Mayport, including an aircraft carrier (reportedly the soon-to-be commissioned “U.S.S. George H.W. Bush”) and a nuclear submarine.  To allay Latin leaders’ fears, Undersecretary of State for Hemispheric Affairs Tom Shannon was deployed to South America during July.

The Undersecretary’s visit to Brazil proved abrasive.  He was met by raucous demonstrators in Brazilia and closely questioned on the floor of the Brazilian Senate about the Fourth Fleet’s revival – one lawmaker recalled how in 1964, U.S. ambassador Lincoln Gordon had threatened to land marines stationed right off the Brazilian coast if leftist president Joao Goulart did not resign.  Ex-Brazilian president Jose Sarnay warned of U.S. Fourth Fleet designs on the enormous Tupi deep-water oil field that may hold as many as five to eight billion barrels and could turn Brazil into one of the top five petroleum producers on the planet.

The U.S. Navy currently operates out of six Latin bases – Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; Quarry Heights, Panama; Aruba, Curacao; Comalapa, El Salvador; Comayuga, Honduras; and Manta, Ecuador – the last-named about to be shut down by Ecuador.  Incensed by Washington’s participation in the March 1st bombing of a FARC guerrilla camp in the Ecuadoran jungle – Manta is believed to have provided logistical support for Colombian helicopters – President Raphael Correa has resolved not to renew the U.S. lease on that facility when it expires in 2009.  An educated guess has the base being relocated to La Guajira, Colombia close to the Venezuelan border which will not make Hugo Chavez happy.

Those attentive to Latin American history do not view the U.S. Fourth Fleet’s intentions as  “non-hostile.”  U.S. Naval blockades of Cuba in 1963 during the Soviet-American missile crisis and of revolutionary Mexico in 1914, stir bitter memories.  The U.S. Navy turned the Caribbean into an “American lake” from 1914 through the late 1920s, parking its fleet in Santo Domingo and repeatedly invading Nicaragua.

U.S. Navy flotillas land troops on sovereign soil, their long guns take out distant targets, and bombing raids and reconnaissance flights are launched from aircraft carriers.  Just the presence of the Fourth Fleet in Latin American waters smacks of strategic intimidation.

From Brazilia, Undersecretary Shannon flew south to Buenos Aires to deliver the good news that the Fourth Fleet would not enter Argentina’s territorial waters or inland rivers “without being invited.”  Shannon’s timing was impeccable.  President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner’s six month-old regime, which has been roiled by months of mobilizations led by big soybean farmers, was on maximum alert – the “soyeros” have blocked the nation’s highways since last January after Fernandez tacked a 15 per cent tax on exports in order to finance  programs for the poor.

Bi-lateral relations between Washington and Buenos Aires have been in the tank since the U.S. charged supposed bagmen for Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez with financing Fernandez’s campaign. The so-called scandal of the “Maletas” ($800,000 USD was alleged to have been smuggled into Argentina in a suitcase or “maleta”) is a scenario that Queen Cristina (as she is taunted by political opponents) labels “garbage.”

Writing in the Mexican daily La Jornada, left Latin American analyst Raul Zebichi concludes that Shannon’s voyage to Buenos Aires to sell the Fourth Fleet to Fernandez during the soyero crisis amounted to “deliberate destabilization.”  The sailing of the Fourth Fleet is “naked aggression by Washington to regain its hegemony” on a continent where U.S. influence has been impressively diminished by the serial victories of the Latin American electoral left.

Undersecretary Shannon then moved on to Bolivia where that majority indigenous Andean nation’s president Evo Morales is viewed by Washington as one of the ringleaders of the anti-American wave sweeping the southern continent.

Bolivia is not a target for the U.S. Fourth Fleet, having lost its access to the ocean in the Guano War of the late 19th century.  Nonetheless, Morales denounced U.S. ambassador Phillip Goldberg’s support of the right-wing “autonomy” movement that is promoting the secession of five Bolivian provinces, reading Shannon e-mails sent by U.S. AID officials to Bolivian citizens threatening aid cut-offs if they continued to support his government.

Only in Colombia, the first stop of Shannon’s checkered journey, did he find some satisfaction.  Touching down soon after the immaculately scripted “rescue” of Ingrid Betancourt and 14 hostages held by the weakened FARC guerrilla army, Tom Shannon laid on the blarney.  The Fourth Fleet’s intentions were honorable and “non-hostile.” The war ships will safeguard commercial shipping lanes and provide additional drug interdiction.

It didn’t take much effort to sell President Alvaro Uribe, George Bush’s top flunky in Latin America, on the idea.  Uribe even offered Barranquilla as a homeport away from home for U.S. war ships.  Fourth Fleet deployment to Colombia will provide much needed backup for Washington’s anti-drug, War on Terror Plan Colombia, a $6,000,000,000 boondoggle that has succeeded in expanding the nation’s cocaine acreage by 27 per cent in 2007.

If Uribe was supportive of the Fourth Fleet’s reactivation, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez was decidedly not, declaring the move to be “an act of war” and fretting about Yanqui sabotage of offshore oilfields.  In the Caribbean, Fidel Castro, an 82 year-old columnist for a Cuban communist youth paper, sneered that the Fourth Fleet is “the flotilla of intervention”.  Castro has had first hand experience with U.S. Naval blockades.

One immediate response of Latin America’s leftist leaders to Washington’s unilateral revival of the fleet has been the formation of UNASUR, a 12-nation mutual security pact that pointedly excludes the U.S.  Spearheaded by Brazil, the continent’s economic powerhouse, UNASUR seems designed to boost Brazilian armament industry sales as much as to stave off U.S. stabs to reestablish its hegemony over Latin America.

Mexico, which is banking on deep-water oilfields in the Gulf (an area under Fourth Fleet purview) to revive its sinking reserves, does not seem alarmed about the war ships on the eastern horizon – despite the rather touchy dispute over whether Mexico or the U.S. has title to those deep-water tracts.  The U.S. Navy trains Mexico’s Navy and supplies it with state-of-the-art weaponry.  Under the Merida Initiative, sometimes tagged Plan Mexico, the Mexican Navy is slated to receive Orion tracking planes and souped-up interdiction craft, part of the $1,400.000,000 USD war chest to rearm Mexico’s security apparatus – despite its reputation as one of the worst human rights abusers in the Americas.

Equipment received via the Merida Initiative, actually a hefty subsidy to U.S. defense contractors, will forge what Uruguayan political writer Carlos Fazio dubs “the third link” by which the Mexican security apparatus is annexed to Washington.  Indeed, just the need for spare parts will tie the Mexican military to the Pentagon for the life of the planes, helicopters, swift boats, and transport carriers Plan Mexico will buy.

Actually, the Merida Initiative, born in the Yucatan city of that name in a surge of enthusiasm during Bush’s first encounter with Mexico’s Felipe Calderon in 2007, almost didn’t make it to the wire.  When the U.S. Senate, urged on by Vermont’s Patrick Leahy, voted to impose human rights oversight on the package, Mexico almost backed out, accusing Washington of interfering in its domestic affairs.

The Senate bill would have mandated civilian trials for Mexican military personnel accused of human rights violation and would have strengthened the hand of non-government human rights organizations to watchdog how Merida Initiative equipment was used. The measure would also have pressed for an investigation into the 2006 murder of independent U.S. journalist Brad Will by Oaxaca security forces – indeed, the human rights components of Plan Mexico were largely due to the persistence of Brad’s friends who were sometimes escorted from congressional hearings for vehemently pushing their case.

The bill’s human rights provisions were rejected by all three sides of Mexico’s political spectrum.  Legislators compared the call for compliance with the odious “certification” process by which the U.S. Congress “certified” Mexico’s cooperation in Washington’s Drug War each year through the mid-1990s, a source of much distrust.  But Mexican politicos were not alone in their contempt for the new Plan Mexico – Bush White House drug czar John Waters accused Leahy and his Democratic cohorts of “sabotaging” the agreement, and Homeland Security chieftain Michael Chertoff warned that the human rights provisions were “unacceptable.”

The Senate bill was sent back to Congress for rectification but reemerged with an almost identical text – even the call for resolving Brad’s murder was left intact.  Yet in the magic realist mindset that passes for politics here, President Calderon, his Interior Secretary Juan Camilo Mourino, and Foreign Minister Patricia Espinosa chose not to acknowledge the unreconstructed language and signed off on the grant.  Espinosa made much of the affirmation that no U.S. soldier will set foot on Mexican soil as the result of the Merida Initiative – a phenomenon never contemplated by the agreement in the first place.

George Bush signed the Merida Initiative into law June 30 and in mid-July Chertoff flew into Mexico City for discussions on implementation and to “evaluate eventual risks to mutual security.”

Oddly, the day the Homeland Security boss went home, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration leaked an intriguing story to the daily El Universal: Mexican drug war troops had discovered a car bomb factory in Culiacan, Sinaloa, where a bloody battle between cartels has taken over 500 lives since the first of the year.  The DEA suspected that the Sinaloa cartels’ hit men were being sent through Chavez’s Venezuela (where else?) to Iran (where else?) for advanced terrorist training.

Preposterous? Under current security arrangements, the Iran gambit could become a pretext for the U.S. military occupation of Mexico, which on the face of it is of course highly unlikely.  But Plan Mexico folds into the ASPAN – the North American Agreement on Security and Prosperity, a sort of security and energy NAFTA.  Much as NAFTA was aimed at integrating the economies of its three member nations, ASPAN proposes to integrate security and energy structures – a goal greatly advanced by Plan Mexico.

In addition to ASPAN, Mexico has been designated the U.S.’s southern security perimeter by NORCOM, the United States Northern Command, which is responsible for keeping terrorists out of North America.  The suggestion that Iran-trained terrorists are car-bombing a few hundred miles south of the border could have the stealth bombers on the runways at NORCOM headquarters in a hollowed-out mountain in Colorado in a jiffy.

Foreign minister Espinosa’s affirmation that Plan Mexico will not land U.S. troops on Mexican shores flies in the face of the facts.  Since 2006, the Yanks have offered at least 60 training courses to Mexican army and navy troops inside Mexico – 700 Mexicans are trained in the United States at the Center for Strategic Forces in Fort Bragg North Carolina under the provisions of the IMET program.  U.S. Naval trainers offer courses at Veracruz on the Gulf Coast and Manzanillo on the Pacific.

But the physical presence of U.S. military personnel on the ground here is mooted by the Pentagon’s reliance on civilian mercenaries.  SY Coleman, which advertises itself as “a warrior in the global war on terror” on its web page, has been recruiting pilots “with experience in international military conflicts” to fly reconnaissance over Mexico’s Caribbean off-shore platforms, an inviting terrorist target.  Blackwater WorldWide just opened its western training facilities in a huge warehouse several hundred yards from the U.S. – Mexican border on the Otay Mesa in San Diego, and in July provided security for John McCain on a Mexico City campaign stopover according to knowledgeable sources, that notorious mercenary army’s first known sighting inside Mexico.

Blackwater has recently been awarded big boodle Department of Defense drug war contracts and appears to be bulking up to challenge DynCorps which holds the franchise on privatizing Washington’s War on Drugs in Latin America.

With the Yanquis’ Fourth Fleet working Latin America’s Atlantic coast, the United States Coast Guard patrols its Pacific flank.  During the last week in July, the Coast Guard and the Mexican Navy found themselves under submarine attack – a 36-foot submergible with five tons of Colombian cocaine aboard was spotted by the Americanos’ radar 100 miles off Oaxaca and towed to port where the crew was jailed.

In addition to cocaine, Pacific shipping lanes are also important to liquid natural gas tankers, another inviting terrorist target, operating under contracts with Spanish energy titan REPSOL between Peru and LNG terminals in Manzanillo in southern Mexico and the Sempra Corporation’s Ensenada facility hard by the U.S. border.  In fact, the Ensenada terminal, which provides San Diego with energy, was to have been located in that U.S. port city but fears the plant could be taken out by terrorists moved it to Mexico.

Deploying the U.S. Pacific Fleet, which is homeported in San Diego, to Latin America’s west coast, is surely being weighed by Navy brass.

What does presumptive President Barack Obama think about all this updated gunboat diplomacy? The only clue voters have as to Obama’s Latin policies was a speech he delivered months ago to win the hearts and minds of the gusano-laced Cuban American National Foundation in Miami in which platitudes were a dime a dozen – no end to the Cuban embargo, Hugo Chavez was “dangerous”, Colombia’s Uribe a “democratic hero.”  Given this repertoire it doesn’t sound like much is going to change when Obama takes the helm of state.  All the pieces are in place – Plan Mexico, Plan Colombia, ASPAN, SOUTHCOM, NORCOM, and NAFTA – to keep the Consensus of Washington thriving during an Obama presidency.

“What’s good for Latin America is good for the United States of America” the presumptive president told the gusanos in Miami, failing to annunciate the other half of the equation: what’s good for the United States is usually very bad for Latin America.

JOHN ROSS is in the heat of the first draft of “El Monstruo – Tales of Dread & Redemption In The Most Monstrous Megalopolis On Planet Earth”. Write




JOHN ROSS’s El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption in Mexico City is now available at your local independent bookseller. Ross is plotting a monster book tour in 2010 – readers should direct possible venues to