Cautious relations: Prudence required for military partnerships

Many Canadians consider Latin America to be inaccessible, culturally distant, and of little political or economic interest. That view was reinforced during the Cold War, when the United States took charge and gave Canada a pass, of sorts. The Munroe Doctrine, by then over 100 years old, established a clear precedent for U.S. military involvement. It was utilized, of course, in the fight against Communism – to great, and often dire, effect.

Meanwhile, Canada could maintain friendly relations with revolutionary Cuba, while also allowing our mining and banking interests to operate in non-democratic, sometimes brutal political environments. After a promising decade in the 1990s, however, the horrific events of September 11, 2001 shifted focus dramatically, and Canada and the U.S. took their eyes off the ball. The game got ahead of us.

We are now left with tough choices, not unlike in the Cold War: How to deal with Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, and the drug wars in the Andean countries and in Mexico? Canada wants to help, but we don’t want to support political activities that reject our values.

One country at a time
It is easy to speak of Latin America in generalities. Just follow the legacy of the Spanish and the Portuguese, take it through a nineteenth century revolutionary period that supported the interests of the white “criollos” – people of European descent who were born in the Americas – and then roll it up to a simple divide between military dictatorships and revolutionary insurgents. There you have it, a short take on most Latin American countries into the early 1990s. But of course it never was so simple, and it isn’t now.

Each nation has had a different relationship to its military. In some, the military has been used to quell internal dissent; in others it may have participated in coups, atrocities or full-scale civil wars. As Soviet power receded the armed forces often became less relevant, and in some countries the formerly all-important military has been left looking for something to do. At the same time, political processes and economies have opened, with active encouragement from Canada.

As a result, foreign investment in Latin America has increased, and more attention is being paid to the long-neglected rights of indigenous peoples, workers, and women, as well as the struggle to establish enforceable environmental regulations, especially in the face of increased investment in resource extraction, much of it from Canada. It should come as no surprise then that when these issues boil over, and conflict arises, Latin American countries often call in the armed forces.

The Guatemalan government did just this on January 8 and 9, 2007, when it brought in hundreds of soldiers to support police evictions of indigenous people so that Canada’s Skye Resources could extract nickel. I was present during this event. The show of police and military force was overwhelming, and Canada handled it poorly – our ambassador to Guatemala, Kenneth Cook, claimed that the grief stricken people that appeared in press photographs were “actors.” Wisely, given the atrocious reputation of the Guatemalan military, Canada has steered cleared of close ties. Imagine supporting a military used for domestic land evictions in a country where CIDA invests roughly $11 million a year in development projects.

Yet in the future Canada’s military will have closer relations with Latin American countries. To do so, Canada has to keep its eyes open to two issues that should be warning flags: the militarized response of the Mexican and Colombian governments to their internal drug crises, and the politicizing of the military in Colombia, Venezuela, Guatemala and Honduras.

Choosing alliances
No matter what one’s opinion is of the best response to the illegal drug trade, Canada should steer clear of deeper military relations with any Latin American country that is deploying its armed forces internally to maintain control. Mexico is by no means a failed state, but there are serious problems with its recent and widespread deployment of military units in the northwest. Corruption is endemic (in the past the military itself has been implicated in trafficking), as are abuses. Canada has a military attaché in Mexico City, and the 2005 Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America has established security ties between Canada, the U.S., and Mexico. Nonetheless, the Mexican military, which still has a heavy presence in the southern states of Oaxaca and Chiapas, is not a good candidate for closer relations.

The same goes for Colombia. On August 28, 2009 the twelve members of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) rejected the suggestion that there could be U.S. bases in Colombia. President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina went one step further, and said that the UNASUR Defence Committee should establish a verification system to check for the presence foreign troops. This might represent an opportunity for future Canadian involvement, but it also makes clear that any policy that ties Canada with U.S. military support for the drug war, or against perceived leftists threats such as Colombia’s FARC or Venezuela’s president Hugo Chavez, would be counter-productive.

We should also beware of politicized armed forces. The reason why Honduran president Manuel Zelaya was ousted this summer and why Venezuela’s Chavez is still in power, is simple enough: Chavez is a military man, and has kept the army close, whereas in Honduras Zelaya had no long-standing military connections. This resulted in Zelaya’s political opponents being able to leverage the armed forces. In effect, any environment in which the military is politicized, whether it be on the left (Venezuela, Cuba), or towards the right (Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras) is not worth the trouble of establishing military relations.

Possible engagement
There are two institutions in Latin America that for centuries have been able to reach from the cities far into the countryside: the Catholic Church and the military. For many years, and in many countries, the military was the state. This presents a serious problem when it comes to the development of civil society and human rights, but it can also be seen as an opportunity. Often well funded, and not without discipline, the army is seen by many in Latin America as a source of pride and a legitimate form of employment. And when crisis hits, it is the army that responds.

Which is where the Canadian military can help, and do it in such a way that builds our image and ties in nicely with our foreign policy. There are some solid precedents: in 1998 the Disaster Assistance Relief Team (DART) went to Honduras to provide aid after Hurricane Mitch. There is no reason we can’t develop specifically de-militarized disaster-relief assistance plans with a number of countries. As it stands, Argentina, Brazil and Chile are the focus of most defence-related activity in South America. Why? Because, according to the government, we have “stronger political and commercial ties.” This leaves many innocent players like Peru and Costa Rica on the sidelines. It also means we don’t reward a country like Nicaragua, which has worked hard to make its military apolitical.

In the 1980s Canada provided some modest peacekeeping assistance to stabilize Central America, and increasingly Canadian soldiers find themselves shoulder to shoulder with Latin Americans on UN missions. The Pearson Peacekeeping Centre is a great resource, but we need to move beyond visits, conferences, and MTAP language training. Now is also a good time to side-step talk of war games, the drug conflict, and anti-U.S. hysteria. Search and rescue is already a focus, but it can be expanded to include very small scale, land-based exercises for disaster relief. With the right communications strategy it would make us look good, and train us well for getting logistics right in challenging and new environments.

Latin America has become a testing ground for how military institutions will conduct themselves when faced with civil and geopolitical unrest. As Canada’s economic and political influence grows, so will the potential for serious miss-steps. We would be advised to pay close attention.

A Gold National Magazine Award winner, Timothy Wilson spent seven months as a human rights observer in post-conflict Guatemala.

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