Tillerson’s Visit to Latin America
Ken Kalturnyk 29 March 2018
Editors’ Note: this article was the basis of a talk presented to Winnipeg’s Venezuela Peace Committee on 3 March 2018.
US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, made a six-day tour of Latin America in early February, visiting Mexico, Argentina, Peru and Colombia, with a final stop in Jamaica on February 7. The main purpose of his tour appears to have been to whip up support for further interventionist measures against Venezuela. However, he used the opportunity of the visit to Latin America as a forum to lobby against Russian and Chinese influence in the region, as well. However, before getting into the specifics of the Tillerson visit, I think it would be good to briefly discuss the global situation facing the US empire in order to put the visit into some kind of perspective.
It would be an understatement to say that US policy in the Middle East is in crisis. The failure of the regime-change intervention in Syria by the US and its allies, Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Qatar at the hands of the Syrian government and its allies, Russia, Iran and Hezbollah has led to a shifting of alliances in the region. Turkey, in particular, has become increasingly alienated from the US to the extent that it is threatening to engage US forces if they get in the way of Turkish attacks on the Kurds. US influence in the region has plummeted so low that no one even bothers to invite them to the negotiating table anymore.
In Iraq, US-Israeli attempts to divide the country and set up a Kurdish state have failed and Iraq has drifted further and further into the Iranian orbit. This is not just the case in the Shia regions of the country, but also in the Kurdish areas and, to an extent in the Sunni regions. Unlike the Americans who have been intent on dividing Iraq and bringing it perpetual war, Iran has proven to be a force for peace, reconciliation and unity of the Iraqi people.
In Afghanistan, after the longest war in US history, the US forces control only the major cities and almost nothing else. The Taliban has actually entered negotiations for a pipeline between Turkmenistan and India, guaranteeing the security of the pipeline both during and after construction, in return for transit fees.
In East Asia, the US encirclement of China is crumbling, with even the Philippines and South Korea showing flickerings of independence. Meanwhile, China is preparing to outmuscle the US in Central Asia and Europe, with its One Belt One Road initiative which will link China directly with European markets, while neutralizing the potential of a US naval blockade.
In Africa, as well as Latin America, Chinese capital is pushing out American capital and China is capturing greater and greater percentages of both markets for their goods and sources of raw materials.
With the election of Trump, the European nations are also distancing themselves from US policies, a process that began under Clinton and Bush Junior, but which receded somewhat during the Obama years.
What is a declining empire to do in the face of such setbacks? The US appears to have only one weapon in its arsenal – war, either open military war or economic war, which is what sanctions really amount to. Where the US cannot send its own troops for various reasons, it finances terrorist groups to do its bidding. Thus, increasingly, well-armed terrorist groups are appearing throughout Africa, in the Philippines and Ukraine.
There is nothing new about the connection between the US and various terrorist organization, although that connection is more open than ever before. Following the Second World War, the US financed Ukrainian fascists to carry out terrorist activities against the Soviet Union. They financed Tibetan terrorists to cause trouble in Tibet, with the hope of seizing Tibet as a military base and missile-launching site against China. More recently, it is a well-known fact that the CIA financed and organized the Chechen terrorists during the 1990s and early 2000s. Since 1979 they have supported and financed the MEK in Iran, despite the fact that it is listed as a terrorist organization by the US State Department.
Of course, the case of Al Qaeda and its various offspring was never even a secret, with the US openly bragging about how they organized, financed and armed that organization in order to overthrow the Afghan government and defeat the Soviet armed forces defending that government.
The various death squads in Latin America during the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s are more examples of the propensity of US imperialism to resort to naked, fascist terrorism to attain its goals.
However, in recent years, the US use of terrorists as their proxy army has not brought the desired results. ISIS has been crushed in Iraq, primarily by the Iraqi militias, and is on its last legs in Syria. The various so-called moderate terrorists in Syria are also being slowly destroyed, with only those groups allied with the Turkish Army able to maneuver anymore. The US imperialist policy of using terrorists to fight its wars is also running out of steam.
Within this climate of general defeat of US imperialism, a process that really started during the Clinton era, the world witnessed the election of Donald Trump as President of the US. In my opinion, there is really no difference between Donald Trump, Barack Obama, Bill Clinton or the two Bushes in terms of foreign policy. All of them are representatives of US imperialism and, hence, are warmongers and war criminals. The only difference is that Trump openly says or twitters what all of the rest said in secret. In addition, Trump has a lot less room to maneuver than his predecessors because the US empire is further along the downhill slope of its decline.
We don’t have to guess at what is driving US policy, if it can even considered a policy. Various US spokespersons, including Trump, openly state repeatedly that they see Russia and China as their main enemies and their main goal is to isolate and defeat those states. As I have previously noted, so far that goal appears to be getting further and further out of their grasp.
I would like, at this point, to address the issue of why the US always turns to war to solve its problems. I have seen all kinds of commentaries on this issue. One of the main explanations I have seen is that the US needs to sell weapons to keep its Military-Industrial Complex rolling in cash. Others claim that it is all about oil. Various Russophiles and Sinophiles claim that Russia and/or China have always been the issue. In my view, none of these explanations tells the entire truth, although each may contain a kernel of truth. I remember in the early 1990s just after the Soviet Union had fallen that a policy paper was floated in the US ruling circles. It had a title about the so-called New World Order and it is possible that it eventually morphed into the Project for a New American Century. Anyhow, that paper identified the major threat to US hegemony in the world, namely the fact that US economic and financial power was in decline. And when an empire starts losing its economic and financial dominance, its political dominance is certain to follow the same decline. Recall that at that time Russia was in shambles and China had not yet flexed its economic muscles, so the problem facing the US empire was not those two countries, per se. In fact, at that time, the US was more concerned about Europe and Japan eclipsing them. So, the authors of the paper examined what were the remaining strengths of the US and, of course, quickly arrived at the conclusion that the only real strength remaining was military power. The authors concluded that the US should use its military power to reverse the decline in economic and financial power. I don’t think that the authors explained how that should occur, but there is only one way to transform military power into economic and financial power and that is to wage war against any country that threatens your economic and financial interests, which is pretty much what the US has done ever since.
Unfortunately for the US imperialists, the authors of that policy paper were somewhat optimistic about the extent of US military power and also missed the point that without a strong economy it is impossible to continue to finance a powerful military machine. Furthermore, in order for that policy to work, the military force had to be used against the main economic and financial threats to US imperialism, which in the 1990s would have meant war against Europe and Japan, but that wasn’t really a possibility. Of course, wars in the Middle East have affected the Europeans both economically and socially, but have not been nearly as effective as direct bombing of European competitors would have been. What the US needed was the destruction of Europe similar to the destruction of the Second World War.
Today, Europe has been more or less brought to heel and Japan has yet to recover fully from its 1992 recession. However, China has emerged as the second, or possibly first, largest economic power and Russia has re-emerged as a major military power. In addition, the Russian and Chinese economies are becoming increasingly intertwined. So, now the US policy of using military power to restore its lost economic power means war against Russia and China, which is also not realistic. Hence, the coup in Ukraine and the financing of terrorist groups in the Caucasus and Central Asia. But, again, those efforts do not have a major impact on either Russia or China in the same way that direct destruction of infrastructure would have.
Therefore, that policy paper from the early 1990s was really nothing but a pipedream, a lot of hot air. If the US academics had not declared the end of history, they may have learned that there is nothing that can reverse the decline of an empire once it loses its economic dominance and that military campaigns only hasten their demise. However, the US Americans have never been very good students of history.
As a result, the US has gone from one military disaster to the next, desperately striving to preserve their empire as their economy circles the drain. Proving over and over again that military power depends on economic power and not the other way around.
At this point, having follow this policy blindly for almost three decades and having all but lost in Syria, US threats have focused increasingly on Iran, North Korea and Venezuela. These three states are key to US ambitions in the Middle East, East Asia and Latin America, respectively. However, North Korea is capable of defending itself and inflicting enormous damage on the US and its allies – South Korea and Japan. In addition, the South Koreans are determined not to be sacrificed for US interests and are pursuing a détente with the North, although the Japanese government appear oblivious to the fact that Japan would also be destroyed by another Korean war. It has long been the openly discussed strategy of the North Korean government to target Japanese nuclear power facilities in the event of a nuclear attack on North Korea by the US, so Japan is risking total destruction with its support for a US military attack on North Korea.
Of course, the destruction of South Korea and Japan, in itself, would have an enormous impact on the international economy, not to mention the impact that such an adventure would have on US-China relations, including the risk of all-out nuclear war.
Iran is also not a pushover and just this past week President Putin declared that any nuclear attack on its allies would be met with an immediate response from Russia, which now has missiles incapable of being stopped by any US missile defense system. I believe that was a warning to Israel and the US not to even consider a limited nuclear attack against Iran, which has been bandied about in Israeli circles for some time now. It may also apply in the case of North Korea, although I am not convinced that Russia sees North Korea as an ally.
So, while any insanity is possible on the part of the US and its leaders, realistically, that leaves Venezuela as the most likely target of US imperialism’s next war. So, Tillerson’s visit to the region must be seen within that light.
Indeed, prior to his departure for Latin America, Tillerson gave a speech in Texas where he revived the ghost of the Monroe Doctrine and called for a military coup in Venezuela to supposedly “restore democracy”. Both statements plagued Tillerson throughout his tour. Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray stated that the Mexican government did not agree with a military coup in Venezuela, a sentiment shared by Argentine President Mauricio Macri. It is noteworthy, that Canadian Foreign Minister Christa Freeland was part of the press conference where the Mexican Foreign Minister voiced his disagreement, but she remained silent. I believe that speaks volumes about where the Trudeau government stands on the matter.
Tillerson was also campaigning during his tour for sanctions against Venezuelan oil in order to starve the Venezuelan people into submission. It is not clear from the reports that I have seen whether any state other than Argentina bought into the sanctions proposal, and clearly Colombia is the only country in the region to publically fall in line with the idea of a US military invasion of Venezuela, an idea which has been floated from time to time. What those Latin American officials are saying in private is anyone’s guess, but the fact is that they cannot openly embrace a more violent intervention by the US.
Of course, US intervention in Latin America did not begin with Trump. Nor was Trump the first US official to suggest military intervention in Venezuela. However, Trump has succeeded in lowering the prestige of the US in Latin America to unprecedented depths. According to some opinion polls, support in Latin America for the United States has dropped from 49% in 2016 to 24% in 2017 and Trump’s support in Latin America is only 16%. This is hardly surprising, since Trump manages to insult the peoples of that region on a regular basis.
However, the record unpopularity of US imperialism throughout Latin America has serious consequences for US policy in that region. First, it makes it extremely difficult for any leader in Latin America to openly side with the US on aggressive intervention in Venezuela. It will make it even more difficult for them if the US decides to either impose further economic sanctions or to intervene militarily.
There is also the question of the attitude that the American people may take towards such moves. In his talk in Winnipeg in January, Arnold August pointed out that there are divisions within US American economic interests on the question of the embargo against Cuba. I am sure that similar divisions exist in regard to sanctions against Venezuela. While there are obviously energy capitalists in the US who would like to use sanctions to eliminate Venezuelan oil sales to other Latin American and Caribbean nations, there are other capitalists who rely on Venezuelan crude oil to keep their refineries open.
In addition, the US American people are, in general, opposed to any more foreign wars in which their children will be killed or maimed. And despite the decades that have elapsed since the US debacle in Vietnam, it is still very much an open wound in US society. The jungles of Venezuela are sure to open those wounds even further if the US decides to send its own troops to Venezuela.
So, while anything is possible, especially when we are dealing with an empire in decline, some things are more likely than others. In terms of likelihood, I don’t believe it is likely that the US will send troops to Venezuela. I also don’t think it is very likely that any country in Latin America, with the possible exception of Colombia, would agree to send its armed forces into Venezuela.
So, that leaves the US with limited options. Latin America is not like the Middle East or Africa where serious terrorist forces can find refuge in various places to carry out their activities. Colombia is not capable of defeating Venezuela on its own and no other country in Latin America has stepped forward to join a US military crusade. The US is not likely to send its own troops to die in the jungles. There also doesn’t seem to be much of an appetite in Latin America for sanctions against Venezuelan oil.
However, the US administration is openly talking about sanctions against Venezuelan oil and Venezuela would be hard hit even if only the US applies sanctions. Venezuela has been attempting to diversify its markets for oil exports to lessen its dependency on exports to the US market, but it has a long way to go to achieve that goal. The US imperialists know this, so there is a good chance that they will carry through with such sanctions.
Empires are most dangerous when they are in their ascendancy and when they are nearing their deathbed. The US is far past the former and not yet at the latter. I think that the US imperialists understand quite well that their empire is slowly slipping away, but they are convinced that they can still salvage it. I don’t think they are at the point where they realize that all is lost and they become like a cornered rat, striking out blindly to inflict as much damage on their enemies as possible before they expire. In fact, most imperialists, old or new, have failed to realize that the game was over until it was too late. Hopefully, that will be the case with US imperialism, as well.
So, the US imperialists are faced with two scenarios: 1) continue doing the same things they have been doing and hope that the results change for the better for them; or 2) launch a suicidal attack against, Iran, North Korea or Venezuela. While an attack against Venezuela does not carry with it the same kind of danger of a superpower collision that attacks on either Iran or North Korea do, I think that the US military clearly knows that it cannot win such a war, a war which would inevitably eventually involve all or most of Latin America.
Given such a choice, I believe that the US will continue to muddle along as it has been doing for several years now. It will continue to finance and organize the opposition in Venezuela, with the same disastrous results. It will continue to talk about stronger measures in “defense of democracy” and will continue to be applauded by the likes of Chrysta Freedland and other toadies of imperialism. And the more threats the US makes, the stronger the resistance to imperialism will become in Venezuela and throughout Latin America. Even sanctions against Venezuelan oil could easily backfire on the US, as it is likely to intensify the internal struggle of the Venezuelan people against the oligarchs and force Venezuela further along the path towards socialism.
In addition, time is not on the side of the US imperialists. A new economic crisis is looming, one which will dwarf that of 2008. Trump’s recent announcement of tariffs on steel and aluminum imports is triggering an international trade war between the US and its closest allies, as well as with China. A trade war at this time will be extremely dangerous, as the average rate of capitalist profit is already extremely low and a trade war will reduce it further yet. This could very well have the effect of hastening the next international economic crisis. If that occurs, it is highly unlikely that the US will be able to focus on foreign policy because things are likely to get extremely lively within the US, itself. Another round of bank bailout would not go over well, a spike in unemployment would not go over well and the Republicans and Democrats are already at each other’s throats, so anything is possible in the US, including large-scale social unrest.
From that perspective, I believe that Tillerson’s tour of Latin America was an abject failure. Nowhere was he greeted with enthusiasm or even the hope that he would bring gifts. He was reduced to issuing threats, twisting arms and complaining that China is pushing the US out of Latin American markets. His threats that “other imperialist” would not act in the interests of Latin Americans must have brought chuckles from even the most abject US lackeys. It appears to me that none of the US allies is confident anymore of the ability of the US to carry out its threats and they are waiting to see which way things shake out before they commit themselves one way or the other. As I said, time is not on the side of US imperialists and everyone seems to sense this.
I’ve been trying for some time to figure out why there is such a lull in the anti-imperialist, anti-war movement in Canada. Why has there been such a lukewarm response to our petition campaign. I think there are many factors at play, including the fact that the Canadian media rarely mentions Venezuela and when it does, it is always to attack the Madura government. However, I remember the run-up to the US aggression against Iraq, with the entire Canadian media, including the CBC, beating the drums for war and demonizing Saddam Hussein, but the majority of Canadians still opposed that war. I think that one of the factors at this time is that no one takes the US seriously anymore. No one looks at it as a great power, but rather as a pathetic joke, a caricature of its former self. This attitude towards the US has become almost routine – even foreign leaders of US allies mock them and their foreign policy. Unfortunately, although US imperialism has become somewhat of a joke, it is still armed to the teeth and capable of inflicting enormous damage on the entire world. Hopefully, after the next atrocity committed by US imperialism, which is bound to happen sooner or later, the scorn and laughter will transform into condemnation and rage. If the US is foolish enough to send troops to Venezuela, I think that day will come shortly thereafter.
On that note, I would just like to end by saying that I don’t believe it is wise to wait for US imperialism to go into crisis. We have no control over the movement and no way of predicting when it may once again go into flow. But there are things that we can do to prepare ourselves for that moment. I applaud this organization and its work in support of the Venezuelan people and their revolution; this work is very important and should not be underestimated. However, the greatest support we could provide to the people of Venezuela and other peoples struggling for independence and democracy is to transform the Canadian government from a capitalist, pro-imperialist government to a socialist and anti-imperialist government. None of the existing political parties has such a project on their agenda, so I believe we should start exploring other possibilities. If we do not do so, it will not happen on its own.
See also UN Human Rights Council Condemns Sanctions Against Venezuela 29 March 2018