American Fourth Fleet operational in South American waters

South America is in the midst of developing itself as an autonomous region and refuses to be treated as the US backyard any longer. Washington follows this evolution with suspicion. After almost sixty years of inactivity, the Fourth Fleet, the American marine controlling Latin-American waters, is active again since this summer.
Starting the 1st of July, the American Fourth Fleet is again operational. The creation of that Fleet dates from the Second World War, when they served in Atlantic and Caribbean coast waters chasing German submarines. With the Reciprocal Assistance Agreement of 1949, the Fourth Fleet was dismantled. ‘By that agreement, the security of the whole continent was entrusted to the American army which systematically relied on national armies to that end,’ says the retired Venezuelan general Alberto Muller Rojas – an intimate adviser of president Hugo Chávez. Mueller Rojas, vice-president of the new Venezuelan Socialist Party (PSUV) was recently a guest at  the Transnational Institute in The Hague for a lecture on the Fourth Fleet and the South American Defense Council.

New Powers, New balances

‘They say about this Fourth Fleet that it will be rather symbolic’, chuckles the general, ‘but it will indeed carry bombs on board.’ More specifically it consists of ten enormous aircraft carriers, with each the capacity of ninety hyper modern combat planes and two nuclear reactors. The presence of the fleet will be accompanied by military exercises - Operativos Nuevos Horizontes –  a program  running for a longer time already in Central-America. According the official statement of the Pentagon the re-establishment of the Fourth Fleet shows ‘the engagement of the USA towards its regional allies.’
Local US newspapers add other reasons: the strong economical growth of Brazil, the increasing commercial activities in the Panama Canal which the USA no longer controls, the age of Fidel Castro and the ‘belligerent’ attitude of Venezuela.

Apart from the the Fourth Fleet, the USA have a certain number of fixed military bases in the region, the so-called Forward Operating Locations (FOLs). They were created in December 1999 when the US  handed the region of the Panama Canal – where their Southern Commando was located - back to Panama. The Southern Commando was replaced by military bases on Aruba, Curaçao and the Netherlands Antilles and by a air force base in Ecuador. For all these bases, the contract will end next year.
Ecuador already voiced that it is not prepared to prolong it. The air force base will very likely be moved to La Guajíra in Colombia –  looking straight in the eyes of  Venezuela. The contracts for the bases on Aruba and Curaçao should also be renewed or replaced. Mueller Rojas did already discuss this topic with the Dutch minister of External Relations, Maxime Verhaegen.

South-American Defense Council

In the entire region – including Mexico, Central-America and the Caribbean – the budget for military expenses increased from 25 billion dollar in 2003 to 38 billion dollar in 2007, according to the leading International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. Especially the military budget of Brazil, Colombia, Chili and Venezuela mounted seriously and Brazil predicts an increase of fifty per cent in military hardware between 2008 and 2011.

On the one hand these higher expenses are just a way to catch up. Since the return to democracy in the eighties these countries have dramatically reduced their defense budgets – what happens today is an updating of out-of-date material. On the other hand, the present economical growth of these countries gives way to a larger budget that can be spend on weapons.

And there are quite some things to protect. Venezuela feels, because of its associations with the Farc, threatened by Colombia, ally of the USA and equipped with the most modern military material. Chávez for his part made clear that he is prepared to intervene in Bolivia if the rebellious provinces in the east of the country would threaten the process started by the Bolivian president Evo Morales.

The most remarkable gesture in the process of closing South American ranks came from Chili, which half June signed an agreement with Bolivia concerning military cooperation. That agreement follows more than a century of tensions about the recognition of their common border. Totally in line with this regional integration, Brazil launched at the end of May, at the same time as the foundation of the South American union Unasur, the idea of creating a South American Defense Council. By the beginning of September a draft of the project should be ready, although Colombia  refuses for the moment being part of such a council.

The silent metamorphosis of South America

South America doesn’t only have to defend a political project. It also has to defend its crucial, strategical resources like valuable raw materials, supplies of fossil fuels and reservoirs of freshwater, that indeed continually gains importance in a world of limited supplies. And they rather manage them their selves than giving them out of hands.

On the subcontinent  remarkable changes take place that demonstrates the region’s will to stand completely on its own feet. The foundation of the South American Union Unasur at the end of May  gives a clear expression thereof. The Unasur, inspired by the EU-model, unifies twelve countries. They promise in the foundation treaty to safeguard peace on each other’s territory, to acknowledge each other’s sovereignty and to respect the multicultural and multi-ethnical character of the countries. Furthermore, the Unasur wants to stimulate integration on the level of infrastructure, energy and trade, and the member states want to cooperate more closely in the economical, political, social as well as cultural sphere.

These are promising declarations of intent and a lot of beautiful rhetorics but the integration project goes beyond that, it’s more than mere theory. Between Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela and Bolivia common projects on energy already started. To stimulate cooperation concerning petroleum supplying Petrosur was created on the initiative of Venezuela. And in the meantime there’s also a Banco del Sur, which is, thanks to the Venezuelan petrodollars, able to grant loans to countries as Bolivia and Ecuador – by these means they become less dependent on the International Monetary Fund.
All of these unifying initiatives replaced the American Freetrade Zone ALCA, a project insisted on by the USA in vein for years. Meanwhile, countries like Ecuador and Bolivia join the Venezuelan promoted Alternativa Bolivariana, based on complementation rather than competition.

How difficult some things evolve, is made clear by the struggle of Evo Morales in Bolivia, although the changes already made can be called historical. Laura Carlsen, researcher of Latin-America for the Center for International Policy says: ‘Everywhere in Latin-America, attempts to create a more just and peaceful society have encountered many internal and external obstacles. But what is striking is that there are efforts made for far-reaching changes. And the definition of “hope” is not the extent of guaranteed success, but the power of a new vision.’

Dangerous pretext

In the above described new context are Ecuador as well as Venezuela – considered as loyal alliances – quite annoyed by the Colombian guerrilla. Although the release of Ingrid Betancourt was indeed once again a heavy defeat in a row of many for the Farc, the roll of the rebellious group is far from over. Juan Munévar of the International Crisis Group points out the enormous task that still awaits. ‘The military success of last months will only prove fruitful when accompanied by a political strategy.’
There are after all still hundreds of hostages left in custody. And although many rebels desert, the Farc remains a heavy armed army of eight thousand men that still recruits young people on the countryside. According general Mueller Rojas it is indeed far from game-over for the Farc. Big was the surprise when Hugo Chávez begin of June distantiated himself from the Farc and called the group an ‘anachronism’. ‘The time of armed rebellion in Latin-America is over,’ according to Chávez. Rafael Correa, president of Ecuador, agreed with him on this point.

The previous months Chávez came under attack when Farc-laptops – taken after an invasion of a Farc-camp on Ecuadorian territory – gave ‘incontestable’ proof of Chávez’ financial and military support to the Farc. On top of that did these compromising computer files turn up at a moment when Chávez’ popularity in his own country was fading. He had already lost a referendum on the revision of the constitution to strengthen the socialist character of the Venezuelan state. After that, the population radically turned down a proposal to politicize the universities and in the beginning of June Chávez had to write off a bill concerning strengthening the power of the intelligence services – the so-called ‘Gestapo law’.

In light of the upcoming local elections at the end of November it is important for Chávez to improve his image and to make a few populist concessions – that explains his changed attitude towards the Farc. Moreover, Fidel Castro, his good friend, is op the opinion that the Farc should disarm. In addition, one can point out motives reaching further than Venezuela. ‘You, of the Farc, should clearly understand this: you are a pretext for the empire to threaten us all,’ said  the Venezuelan leader. Today, Colombia is that empire’s biggest ally in the region, and Colombia is of course very close to Venezuela. And to Bolivia and Ecuador, and other regimes of the like.

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