It's time for the US to stop propping up Latin American militaries. Colombia's recent raid on Ecuador's territory is a case in point
A rumpus erupted this week when the reformist President Rafael Correa of
Ecuador sacked his defence minister and top military brass over the debacle
surrounding the attack on its territory by Colombia last month. The incident, in which at least 21 members of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Farc) were killed, has had international repercussions.
What use are armies in a region like Latin America? Many of the region's governments cannot (or will not) drag their citizens out of poverty, or even help to feed the millions who are constantly hungry. None, apart from Cuba, is caught up in the sort of life and death military crises that plague the Middle East and East Asia.
What, therefore, is the justification for subsidising soldiers?
When the Ecuadorean military let him down by suppressing what they knew about the Colombian attack, Correa - a devout, US-educated leader who is trying to improve the lot of the indigenous majority in Ecuador - moved swiftly. He put his personal secretary, who could be relied on to play fair and push the cause of reform, into the defence ministry. Then, when some senior commanders impudently marched into the Carondelet presidential palace in Quito on Tuesday demanding that he hear their
complaints, Correa justifiably sacked them.
Ecuador has the misfortune to share a border with Colombia, the most heavily
armed and corrupt republic in the region, which has for years received more
US military funding than any other country apart from Israel and Egypt. Washington, which maintains various bases in Colombia - and one in Ecuador which Correa is closing down - wants its ally President Alvaro Uribe to pursue the Farc's guerrillas with fire and sword. It is forcibly uprooting the thousands of hectares of coca bushes that make the country the world's prime source of cocaine.
The eradication of the coca bush has manifestly failed, as the falling international price of cocaine attests, and the flood of drug profits means that corruption and violence reaches the highest levels in Colombia. For instance, a foreign minister, Maria Consuelo Araujo, had to resign a year ago when her family was revealed to be deeply implicated with drug-dealing death squads. Few Colombian union leaders or journalists feel safe. Colombia's neighbours, Venezuela and Ecuador, don't either.
Yet the Ecuadorean military and intelligence services, who themselves have a close relationship with the Pentagon and the CIA, quietly decided to throw their lot in with the Colombians and not the government that paid them and to which they owed loyalty. They sat on the news of the Colombian attack: Correa learnt of it when Uribe himself told him over the phone. And they didn't tell their president that an Ecuadorean had been killed.
Latin America's recent history has been spattered with military forces who receive US money, training and weapons and are more loyal to the US than to their own governments. Throughout the 20th century, the US - always keen to maintain its hegemony in the region - befriended the Latin American military. During the second world war, Juan Domingo Peron's naive admiration of Mussolini showed there was some pro-Axis sentiment in the officer corps. Justifiably, that had to be fought. In the
mid-1940s, Harry Truman firmly established the practice of the US wooing the
region's military. As the Cold War developed the US embrace became tighter,
with the Pentagon preaching that Latin officers' loyalty was to western (in other words, American) values, and not necessarily to their own countries.
In 1954 a faction of the Guatemalan army with US backing overthrew the elected government, starting a reign of terror which continues to this day. In 1973, the Chilean military overthrew Salvador Allende and set up a 17-year long dictatorship which was much more to the liking of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger than the elected civilian government had been.
In the early 1980s, backed by Jimmy Carter, the Somoza dictatorship's National Guard fought the popular Sandinista uprising amid much bloodshed and the murder of an archbishop. Yet six years ago, with the cold war long over, some Venezuelan officers - urged on by US military in Caracas - backed the failed putsch against the elected president, Hugo Chavez.
In Bolivia in 2005, and without government permission, the air force sent some Chinese weapons that Bolivia had acquired to Texas, where the US wanted to examine them.Today, when the priority is no longer to fight Nazism or the Russians but to tackle disease, hunger and illiteracy, the time has surely come for the US to stop supporting Latin America's military and support reform. Whether the US or Britain like it or not, the Cubans and much-maligned Venezuelans are doing exactly that all over the continent. They are harvesting the fruits of a popularity to which neither Bush nor Brown can aspire.