Petras essays in english

27 de noviembre del 2001

Empire-building in Latin America: U.S. military strategy

James Petras
Monthly Review


Empire-building, particularly a capitalist empire in the early twenty-first century, requires an elaborate military architecture to expand, protect and consolidate the extensive economic interests that are central to modern empires.

While globalist theorists write about world ruling classes and the end of the nation-state, the military apparatus of the imperial state, particularly of the U.S., has grown immensely over the last decade and is of central importance in the promotion and protection of U.S. based multinational corporations, banks and export-importers.

The purpose of this essay is to describe and analyze the scope, depth and strategy of the U.S. military apparatus in Latin America -- to highlight its multiple links and controls over the military and how those controls are directed toward enhancing U.S. imperial state power.  The vast operations of the U.S. military and their success in fashioning client military institutions via a complex web of programs and joint activities refute the mindless rhetoric about the rule of global corporations.  To demonstrate the salience of the military, the essay will focus on the U.S. empire in Latin America. 

The first part of this essay will discuss the strategic economic interests of the U.S. and the ideological justification for the U.S. military expansion in Latin America.  In part two, the essay will focus on the architecture of the military empire, in particular establishing client or mercenary relationships.  Part three will discuss the operational goals and the propaganda designed to legitimate the militarization of Latin politics under U.S. tutelage.  The concluding section will discuss the dual phenomena of the expansion of U.S. military control and the expansion of militarys role in shaping the priorities of the Latin American politics, the impact on the substance and structures of the political system and the role of the U.S. empire in shaping inter-American politics.

The strategic military institutions and policies toward Latin America were succinctly detailed by General Peter Pace, United States Marine Corps, Commander-in-Chief of the United States Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM).  The area of responsibility of the USSOUTHCOM includes all of Central and South America, the Caribbean ad the surrounding waters, totaling more than 15.6 million square miles and totals over 404 million people.  This essay draws on General Paces testimony before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, March 27, 2001.

Economic Bases of Military Empire

The architects of U.S. military strategy in Latin America are acutely aware of the centrality of U.S. business interests in formulating policy.  The elaboration of military strategy and the programs designed to enhance U.S. military power within the Latin American armed forces is legitimated with reference to U.S. economic interests: profits, markets and access to strategic raw materials, especially energy sources.  General Pace, in his opening remarks to the Senate makes clear the economic bases of his subsequent exposition of U.S. military strategy: "More than 39percent of our trade is conducted within the Western Hemisphere.  Furthermore, 49 cents out of every dollar spent in Latin America is spend on imported goods and services form the U.S.  Latin America and the Caribbean supply more oil to the U.S. than all Middle East countries combined" [1]. Because of the rise of anti-imperial and anti-colonial movements worldwide, contemporary imperial powers, even as they engage in the most flagrant and obvious forms of domination, cloak their imperial policies and institutions in democratic rhetoric.

Threats to imperial power are couched in moralistic terms.  Imperial military expansion is justified in terms of jointly fighting international criminal activity, which adversely affects both the imperial center and the targeted Latin American country.  In practice, the real threat is nationalist military forces and participatory democratic political systems that challenge the dominance of the U.S.  The principle problems as defined by U.S. military strategists have to do with controlling the social consequences of neo-liberal economic policies and the economic exploitation of Latin America.  U.S. military expansion and the strengthening of the armed forces of Latin America is a major threat to the emergence of democracy and regional stability.  The military, however, views the consequences  - popular opposition - derived from U.S. dominance and exploitation as the threat to Latin America.

Accordingly, General Pace argues that The greatest threat to democracy (sic), regional stability and prosperity (?) In Latin America are illegal migration, arms trafficking, crime and corruption and illegal drug trafficking (comments in parenthesis are mine).  Illegal migration is directly related to the U.S. militarization of Colombia, the impoverishment of Peru, Central America and Mexico are due to the application of neo-liberal policies.  What the Commander of USSOUTHCOM describes as threats are in fact the practices of the military allies of the USSOUTHCOM.  U.S. backed Contras in Central America, CIA asset Montesinos in Peru, former Panama strongman Noriega (long time CIA asset) and numerous other military officials were actively involved in arms trafficking with the knowledge and support of USSOUTHCOM. The growth of illegal migration, a longstanding problem in Mexico is directly related to the huge transfers of profits, interest and royalty payments from Mexico to U.S. banks and corporations. The growing illegal migration problem from Colombia to neighboring states is a result of the strategy, military aid and advisory role coming from USSOUTHCOM.  The arming, training of the Colombian death squads (so-called paramilitary units) is part of a general strategy of militarizing Colombia and absolving the Colombian military of the widespread massacres of civilians social movements leaders.  The real concern of USSOUTHCOM is that the countries adjoining Colombia (Ecuador, Venezuela, Panama, Brazil) which are experiencing the same adverse effects of neo-liberal policies will be politically mobilized against U.S. economic interests and military dominance.  As General Pace notes, Several countries that share porous borders with Colombia will remain vulnerable to illegal migration and incursion by armed insurgents. The U.S. militarization of Colombia and its spill-over effects on adjoining countries means that USSOUTHCOM moves to militarize the whole region, increase arms shipments and control over the military forces throughout the region.  Regional militarization is now dubbed the Andean Initiative.

Arms trafficking.  The biggest arms trafficker in the region is USSOUTHCOM, not the drug cartels.  The second biggest traffickers are the military allies of Washington, particularly the arming of paramilitary groups.  The third biggest traffickers are the drug cartels which work with the military and police.  The guerrillas in Colombia have none of the heavy arms which the Armed Forces posses, not even man-portable air defense weapons systems.  Arms trafficking by insurgents is a very minor activity compared to that of USSOUTHCOM and its military allies. Moreover, the purposes or uses of arms purchases are dramatically distinct: U.S. and the Armed Forces traffic in weapons to protect the existing socio-economic order and terrorize the population, while the insurgents, light arms and home made missiles are designed to over throw that order and defend the peasantry.

Crime and corruption is another of General Paces threats to democracy and prosperity. Corruption of politics and politicians is most prevalent among the government power holders and high military officials with whom USSOUTHCOM actively collaborates with, advises and directs. Every major corruption scandal in Latin America over the past decade involved politicians and officials who toe the U.S. line on neo-liberal economic policy and hemispheric defense (read: U.S. hegemony).  While guerrillas kidnap wealthy individuals to finance their activities, the biggest U.S. banks, including Citibank, Bank of America and the leading banks in Miami and elsewhere launder between $250 and $500 billion a year, according to U.S. Senate hearings.  As far as drug trafficking, most of the profits are washed in U.S. banks.  The peasant growers receive a fraction of the final price.  Coca eradication, involving deep U.S. penetration at all levels of the Latin American military police and political system is a pretext for long-term, large-scale control by the USSOUTHCOM over the Latin American state apparatus.

The Architecture of the Military Sphere

The USSOUTHCOM is located in Miami (with a sub-headquarters in Puerto Rico).  It is responsible for planning, coordinating and conducting U.S. military activity in all of Latin America and the Caribbean.  USSOUTHCOM has established military bases with airfields in Aruba-Curacao in the Netherlands Antilles, Manta in Ecuador and Comalapsa in El Salvador.  These bases allow the U.S. to intrude in the airspace throughout most of Latin America as well as the sea and land.  In addition, the U.S. has a military operational base in Soto Cono, Honduras which provides helicopter support to U.S. interventionary missions in Latin America and the Caribbean. The facility with which the U.S. military was able to build this network of imperial-contra bases was largely the result of USSOUTHCOMs long-term support and training of client military officials in Latin America.  As General Pace notes, Excellent relations between the U.S. and El Salvador, strengthened by years of solid military-to-military contact, helped produce favorable negotiations on the FOL agreement (FOL=Forward Operating Locations, airbase).  The years of solid military-to-military collaboration includes the decade of the 1980s when over 75,000Salvadoreans were killed by the military.  The military victory over the guerrillas has been followed by the consolidation of the U.S. power over its Salvadorean clients, and the use of Salvadorean facilities as a forward base for U.S. military expansion throughout the region.  In Salvador the decade of collaboration with the military and the death squads has paid off: El Salvador is now a key locus for expanding USSOUTHCOMs control over the whole region. Today in Colombia USSOUTHCOM has embarked on a similar project with the Colombian military and its death squad proxies, the so-called paramilitary forces.

Similarly, the U.S. political intervention in Ecuador to topple the popular junta in January of 2000 and the consolidation of the Noboa regime has greatly facilitated USSOUTHCOMs securing of the military base in Manta.

U.S. military intervention, by buttressing or imposing its clients within a country, provides a springboard for more general, regional control: a kind of imperial multiplier effect is triggered. The construction of imperial client military forces involves a multiplicity of activities.  As General Pace describes it, Our approach focuses on combined operations, exercises, training and education, security assistance and humanitarian assistance programs.

Both in form, organization and content, the Latin American military officials are trained and directed to serve U.S. imperial economic strategic and military interests.  Under these programs the U.S. demands the expansion of the military and an increase in their capacity to repress adversaries -- as defined by the U.S.  In each region, the Caribbean, Central America and the rest of Latin America USSOUTHCOM has been arming, training and indoctrinating nation alarmed forces to serve U.S. interests under USSOUTHCOMs leadership.  The purpose is to avoid using U.S. ground troops to lessen political opposition in the U.S.  The pattern is for Washington to direct and train the Latin armed forces via extensive and intensive joint programs and to sub-contract private mercenary companies to provide specialized military officials, all of whom are retired U.S. military officials.  The construction of this imperial network is described in the sardonic euphemistic language common to all contemporary bloody military endeavors.  For example, General Pace describes U.S. client-state building in the Caribbean as assisted Partner Nation security force training and new equipment fielding: The Caribbean clients subsequently hosted TRADE WINDS 2000, a multinational exercise that fosters maritime and land-based forces cooperation in response to regional crises...  The range of U.S. military involvement in the Caribbean has expanded greatly in the past couple of years.  The U.S. Coast Guard conducts operations and training and increases the flow of arms to the Caribbean military.  In these operations, a multiplicity of U.S. agencies operate on the ground, air and land of the Caribbean countries.  These agencies include, according to USSOUTHCOM, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), Department of Defense, U.S. Customs Service, U.S. Coast Guard and several other agencies.

In Central America, USSOUTHCOM seeks to increase the size and efficiency of their military forces to serve U.S. strategic interests.

Under the euphemistic rhetoric of peacekeeping, USSOUTHCOM has organized seminars and operations to promote subordination to U.S.  military and strategic goals.  In this context, peacekeeping refers to the organization of multi-country military forces of client states under USSOUTHCOM directed to secure conflictual areas and maintain or restore pro-U.S. client regimes.  The joint exercises are regarded by USSOUTHCOM as an excellent opportunity to train multinational staffs from Caribbean and Central American nations in peace keeping operations.  The USSOUTHCOM also trains and indoctrinates air and ground troops of Central America in a program dubbed Central Skies -- ostensibly for anti-drug campaigns, these are multiple purpose exercises designed to consolidate U.S. control, upgrade aerial surveillance against potential anti-imperial insurgents, as well as selective anti-drug campaigns.

The third region in which the military empire has extended its reach is the Southern Cone, including Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Paraguay.  Recent years have witnessed intensified indoctrination programs (dialogue), increased military collaboration under USSOUTHCOM tutelage (defense cooperation) and U.S. directed multilateral training exercise.  With strong U.S. military backing, the Chilean and Brazilian regimes are modernizing their military via increased expenditures, particularly purchases from U.S. arms manufacturers (Chile is negotiating the purchase of F-16 aircraft with Lockheed Martin).  Given the precipitous decline in living standards and the sharp cuts in budgets to finance the foreign debt to U.S. banks, the rest of the Latin American countries have constraints on funds available to purchase arms from the U.S. to defend the U.S. empire.

The USSOUTHCOM directed joint military exercises with Southern Cone countries, dubbed CABANAS, took place in the year 2000 in Argentina, against the host countrys constitution and without general public knowledge or legislative approval.  Once again, the exercises were organized to combat internal enemies, not outside invaders, and were designed to integrate Latin American forces under U.S. command to repress internal insurgencies, if any of the crisis ridden participating neo-liberal regimes collapse.  The naval counterpart of CABANASis UNITAS exercises; The largest U.S. directed multinational naval exercise in the Western Hemisphere.  USSOUTHCOM has designed these exercises to organize its command structure, deepen its influence in the general staff of the Latin military and educate the officials to U.S.military procedures and tactics in order to more efficiently implement USSOUTHCOMs political priorities.

The fourth region designated by USSOUTHCOM is the Andean Ridge, including Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia.  In the midst of the popular uprising in Ecuador in January 2000 the U.S. military, along with the U.S. Ambassador played a major role in encouraging senior military officials to overthrow a popular junta and support the new President (Noboa).  As General Pace describes the U.S. role, In Ecuador, USSOUTHCOM has worked closely with the U.S. Ambassador and President Noboas administration to provide assistance to Ecuadors military, particularly in the management of national crisis.  For propping up the Noboa regime, USSOUTHCOM was able to secure the Manta Air Base on the northwestern coast, a key launching pad for extending U.S. aerial surveillance in all of the Andean region and, more specifically, for providing aerial intelligence to the U.S. trained and directed Colombia Armed Forces (and death squads) engaged in counter-insurgency activity.  From Manta, U.S. military empire has extended its aerial control throughout South America.  As General Pace noted, a lynchpin in resetting our area of responsibility (AOR), architecture (military apparatus) and extending the reach of our DM and T (Detection, Monitoring and Tracking) aircraft coverage in the Source Zone (drug-producing areas.)

The new military empire has been extended beyond land, sea and air control to encompass the rivers in Colombia and Peru.  USSOUTHCOM has trained and equipped river based armed forces in both countries.  In Iquitos, Peru, U.S. naval special forces, Seals, are a major operational force in what General Pace describes as the finest facility of its kind in the AOR (area of our responsibility).

In Colombia with $1.3 billion in U.S. military aid allocated for Plan Colombia, USSOUTHCOM is involved on all levels of Colombian military operations.  It has trained three elite Counter-narcotics Battalions for counter-insurgency operations.  It is training the crews of Colombian helicopter gun ships and working with U.S. military mercenaries sub-contracted by the Pentagon.  USSOUTHCOM senior officials and Special Forces are active in the killing grounds directing combat operations and coordinating military death squad collaboration, as was the casein El Salvador, Guatemala and earlier in Vietnam.  In Bolivia U.S. Special Forces and DEA (Drug Enforcement Police) are active in Chapare, training and building new military bases.

The activities of USSOUTHCOM are inter-related.  The multi-lateral military exercises are preludes to the indoctrination training programs.  General Pace states: USSOUTHCOMsexercise program is the engine for our Theater Engagement Plan (training programs).  The training indoctrination programs, are particularly geared toward those Latin American officials who demonstrate a greater propensity to serve in the SOUTHCOMs imperial military networks. The Latin American officials who complete the U.S. indoctrination programs are valued assets of the military empire, as many go on to become senior officials. 

General Pace clearly identifies the role of the U.S. military training programs and the benefits to the Empire.  International Military Education and Training (IMET) and its companion Expanded IMET provide professional education opportunities to selected military and civilian candidates.  These Programs are the backbone of our combined professionalization and military education.  They provide funding for military and civilian personnel from our Partner Nations to attend professional development courses in United States military institution.  At only modest cost, these programs represent valued investments as many of the students go on to become senior leaders in their respective militaries and government agencies. 

In FY00 (fiscal year 2000) USSOUTHCOM received $9.8 million for IMET and trained2,684 students, including 474 civilians.  The process of building a military empire is thus an integrated and inter-related process that begins with military exercises with client states (Partner Nations), where promising military officials are selected and indoctrinated.  These officials later rise to the top and become valued assets to the Empire, providing military bases for the U.S. Armed Forces to occupy air, land, sea and river space of the country.  The expansion of the U.S. imperial state and the integration of the client military officials within the networks, highlights the importance of the state in the contemporary world.

The USSOUTHCOMs expansion of the military empire also includes expanding command, control, communications and intelligence infrastructure for fixed and mobile operations throughout Latin America.  By building up this infrastructure, the Latin American client states provide USSOUTHCOM with, in the words of General Pace, satellite communications (which) are vitally important to our deployed forces in times of crises.  USSOUTHCOM has initiated several programs to increase the Empires effectiveness in controlling Latin Americas rebellious people.

According to General Pace the control by USSOUTHCOM of the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) apparatuses and operations in the client states are a topreadiness priority for dominating Latin America.  The ISR, provide U.S. military and Latin client commanders at all echelons with indications, and warnings, situational awareness and battle damage assessments.  These sophisticated surveillance systems are needed to provide protection for the U.S. military officials directing the client armed forces in combat.  In more euphemistic terms General Pace states Sophisticated surveillance systems are needed to enhance force protection for our limited number of forward deployed personnel in high threat areas.  General Pace admits U.S. military forces are in actual combat situations, directing  military forces against popular insurgents within Latin America.

The scope and depth of USSOUTHCOM involvement speaks to the re-colonization of the client states military apparatus via co-optation, and direct military presence and control over air, land, sea and river routes.


The U.S. military empire, directed by USSOUTHCOM has built and extended a multiplicity of functional and regionally based organizations, coordinated by the U.S. Command in Miami and Puerto Rico.  The empire includes control and influence over air space, coastal waters, river routes and land - via airports, naval facilities and military bases.  The Empire is built and sustained by the supply of military hardware, training and services to their Latin American and Caribbean clients.  USSOUTHCOM executes a vast number (178 in the year 2000) of programs, combining operations and training exercises, educational opportunities, mobile training teams, unitex changes and military financing and sales.  Above all it has consciously and systematically used counter drug training and operations for co-opting Latin officials and integrating them into the U.S. military empire.  Today, the U.S. military empire resembles the colonial imperial empires: white commanders from USSOUTHCOM and mestizo officials directing dark-skinned front line troops.  It includes Special Forces and sub-contracted mercenaries, death squads and conscripts, electronic detection in the air and machete wielding paramilitary forces on the ground.  The spread of the Empire extends southward from Miami through the Caribbean and Central Americano the Andean countries and the Southern Cone.  It is an unwieldly empire, open to challenge and even defections as the emergence of nationalist military uprisings in Venezuela and Ecuador testify.  While the Empire pours billions in arms and sends thousands to recruit and indoctrinate the Latin military, its lower rank officials and rank and file are also pressured by the massive social struggles and declining living standards in their countries. Fissures have appeared, even as the Empire has prepared multi-national forces.  The role of USSOUTHCOM is to constantly intervene to prevent major defections, maximize Latin military involvement.  U.S. aerial and operational support is designed to minimize the use of U.S. ground forces in combat. 

The question is whether this will be enough.  If the ongoing crises induced by the economic pillage leads to a full scale popular uprisings how solid are the Latin American military clients?  Could they withstand the force of the nation against empire?  The lessons of Iran 1979are clear: even a large scale modern, heavily equipped U.S. trained and advised military can be defeated.

What is absolutely clear is that the State - the imperial State via its military apparatus is essential in securing the markets, investments of the U.S.-based multi-national corporations.  The  otal absence of this powerful and growing role of the U.S.-based military empire in the writings of Globalization theories is another example of the vacuity and irrelevance of their arguments.


General Pace is somewhat ingenious in his handling of data.  The Western Hemisphere he refers to includes Canada which is obviously not part of Latin America and is the biggest U.S. trading partners in the hemisphere.  Secondly, his claim that 49 cents out of every dollar spent on imported goods and services is dubious, since most of South America , Argentina, Brazil and Chile have major trade relations with Europe and Asia.  It may be the case that his figures are inflated by including debt servicing as a service from the U.S.