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¡Yanqui, No!: Why Latin America Didn't Join Washington's Counterterrorism Posse

Only one region on earth avoided participating in our post-9/11 torture system all-together.

| Tue Feb. 19, 2013 5:18 PM EST

Brazil's "Smokescreen"

Diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks show the degree to which Brazil rebuffed efforts to paint the region red on Washington's new global gulag map.

A May 2005 US State Department cable, for instance, reveals that Lula's government refused "multiple requests" by Washington to take in released Guantánamo prisoners, particularly a group of about 15 Uighurs the US had been holding since 2002, who could not be sent back to China.

"[Brazil's] position regarding this issue has not changed since 2003 and will likely not change in the foreseeable future," the cable said. It went on to report that Lula's government considered the whole system Washington had set up at Guantánamo (and around the world) to be a mockery of international law. "All attempts to discuss this issue" with Brazilian officials, the cable concluded, "were flatly refused or accepted begrudgingly."

In addition, Brazil refused to cooperate with the Bush administration's efforts to create a Western Hemisphere-wide version of the Patriot Act. It stonewalled, for example, about agreeing to revise its legal code in a way that would lower the standard of evidence needed to prove conspiracy, while widening the definition of what criminal conspiracy entailed.

Lula stalled for years on the initiative, but it seems that the State Department didn't realize he was doing so until April 2008, when one of its diplomats wrote a memo calling Brazil's supposed interest in reforming its legal code to suit Washington a "smokescreen." The Brazilian government, another Wikileaked cable complained, was afraid that a more expansive definition of terrorism would be used to target "members of what they consider to be legitimate social movements fighting for a more just society." Apparently, there was no way to "write an anti-terrorism legislation that excludes the actions" of Lula's left-wing social base.

One US diplomat complained that this "mindset"—that is, a mindset that actually valued civil liberties -- "presents serious challenges to our efforts to enhance counterterrorism cooperation or promote passage of anti-terrorism legislation." In addition, the Brazilian government worried that the legislation would be used to go after Arab-Brazilians, of which there are many. One can imagine that if Brazil and the rest of Latin America had signed up to participate in Washington's rendition program, Open Society would have a lot more Middle Eastern-sounding names to add to its list.

Finally, cable after Wikileaked cable revealed that Brazil repeatedly brushed off efforts by Washington to isolate Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, which would have been a necessary step if the US was going to marshal South America into its counterterrorism posse.

In February 2008, for example, US ambassador to Brazil Clifford Sobell met with Lula's Minister of Defense Nelson Jobin to complain about Chávez. Jobim told Sobell that Brazil shared his "concern about the possibility of Venezuela exporting instability." But instead of "isolating Venezuela," which might only "lead to further posturing," Jobim instead indicated that his government "supports [the] creation of a 'South American Defense Council' to bring Chavez into the mainstream."

There was only one catch here: that South American Defense Council was Chávez's idea in the first place! It was part of his effort, in partnership with Lula, to create independent institutions parallel to those controlled by Washington. The memo concluded with the US ambassador noting how curious it was that Brazil would use Chavez's "idea for defense cooperation" as part of a "supposed containment strategy" of Chávez.

Monkey-Wrenching the Perfect Machine of Perpetual War

Unable to put in place its post-9/11 counterterrorism framework in all of Latin America, the Bush administration retrenched. It attempted instead to build a "perfect machine of perpetual war" in a corridor running from Colombia through Central America to Mexico. The process of militarizing that more limited region, often under the guise of fighting "the drug wars," has, if anything, escalated in the Obama years. Central America has, in fact, become the only place Southcom—the Pentagon command that covers Central and South America—can operate more or less at will. A look at this other map, put together by the Fellowship of Reconciliation, makes the region look like one big landing strip for US drones and drug-interdiction flights.

Washington does continue to push and probe further south, trying yet again to establish a firmer military foothold in the region and rope it into what is now a less ideological and more technocratic crusade, but one still global in its aspirations. US military strategists, for instance, would very much like to have an airstrip in French Guyana or the part of Brazil that bulges out into the Atlantic. The Pentagon would use it as a stepping stone to its increasing presence in Africa, coordinating the work of Southcom with the newest global command, Africom.

But for now, South America has thrown a monkey wrench into the machine. Returning to that Washington Post map, it's worth memorializing the simple fact that, in one part of the world, in this century at least, the sun never rose on US-choreographed torture.

Greg Grandin is a TomDispatch regular and the author of Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Lost Jungle City, a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize. Later this year, his new book, Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World, will be published by Metropolitan Books.

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