President Bush, concerned by Washington's waning influence in Latin America as well as the current leftist shift in many of the region's capitals, signed a waiver on Oct. 2 that authorizes the U.S. military to resume certain types of training to a number of militaries in the region.
This will affect eleven countries in Latin America and the Caribbean who were barred from receiving International Military and Education Training (IMET) and other types of military aid as a result of the "American Service-Members Protection Act" (APSA). The bill, passed in Congress in 2002, was intended to punish countries not signing bilateral agreements that would prohibit the prosecution of U.S. citizens at the International Criminal Court -- an institution that the Bush Administration is opposed to.
The Act had critics in Congress, the State Department and Defense Department, not because it was perceived as a bullying tactic, but because it diminished U.S. influence in the region.
"[IMET] allows us to share military doctrine and strategy and develop relationships with mid level officers, captains, majors and colonels who they think in 5-10 years will be running the military," said Adam Isacson, Director of Programs at the Center for International Policy in Washington D.C.. "It helps provide access and influence to key players in the region."
The waiver comes at a time when Ecuador and Nicaragua just elected left of center presidents, adding to the list that includes Chile, Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela -- where President Hugo Chavez was easily re-elected on Sunday. One thing that many of these governments have in common is a shared criticism of the type of corporate globalization championed by Washington, which involves free trade, as well as the privatization of public services and the deregulation of markets.
Venezuela's Chavez, demonized by Washington and the U.S. corporate media, has promoted alternative economic policies that include solidarity trade agreements, increasing social spending on education and healthcare and strengthening the government's role in the economy. Ecuador's new president Rafael Correa shares similar views, as he ran on a campaign of rejecting free trade and business as usual with multinational corporations. He also said he plans to restructure debt repayments to the International Monetary Fund to increase the government's social spending.
Voices out of Washington try to delegitimize these types of policies by labeling them as conducive to "radical populism" and "ultra-nationalism." Furthermore, they are seen as a national security threat as noted in a National Intelligence Estimate from April, entitled "Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States."
The report, parts of which were declassified and released to the public this year, states, "Anti-U.S. and anti-globalization sentiment is on the rise and fueling other radical ideologies. This could prompt some leftist, nationalist, or separatist groups to adopt terrorist methods to attack US interests."
General Bantz J. Craddock, former Head of U.S. Southern Command, had lobbied hard before Congress for lifting the constraints.
"Providing opportunities for foreign military personnel to attend school with U.S. service members is essential to maintaining strong ties with our partner nations," said Craddock to the House Armed Services Committee in March.
"Decreasing engagement opens the door for competing nations and outside political actors who may not share our democratic principles to increase interaction and influence within the region."
One of the "competing nations" Craddock worried about was China. He noted that China has increased aid, trade and resources with Latin American nations, sometimes with "no strings attached." Venezuela's expanding influence in the region, buttressed by its petrol diplomacy, would also be lumped into the same category as China.
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), in a March 14 Hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, also expressed alarm about how the restrictions allow China to gain influence in the region and at the possibility of that influence to extend to the region's militaries.
"The Chinese are standing by and I can't think of anything that is worse than having those people go over there and get indoctrinated by them. And I think maybe we should address that because that's a very serious thing," said Sen. Inhofe.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) said at the hearing that this was "a serious threat" and called for ending the IMET restrictions.
Now that the restrictions are lifted, military personnel from countries that include Bolivia, Paraguay, Ecuador and Peru can start attending classes again at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, formerly called the School of the Americas, as well as over 100 military training institutions in the U.S.
The CIP's Isacson pointed out that from 2003-2005 the number of military trainees in effected countries were cut in half. But he said that the presidential waiver "wasn't an earth shattering change."
Isacson coauthored a policy memo with Joy Olson from The Washington Office on Latin America examining the Defense Department's annual Foreign Military Training Report (which covers 2005). In it, they show how despite the APSA, training from other programs increased -- namely counter-terrorism/counter-narcotics programs. In fact, the number of Paraguayan military trainees almost doubled from 2004-2005.
What impacts the Presidential waiver will have is uncertain. But one thing is: the U.S. doesn't have the best history with its training of Latin American military personnel. And when the former head of U.S. Southern Command tells Congress, "The challenges facing Latin America and the Caribbean today are significant to our national security. We ignore them at our peril," there is reason to take notice.