Puebla Panama and Free Trade:
Low intensity conflict against Cuba and Venezuela, infrastructure programs like Plan Puebla Panama, the Free Trade Area of the Americas, and the war in Colombia may seem to have little in common. But they are all part of the same “Thing” in the sense used by John Thelwall the 18th Century English dissident. They are all measures taken by a ruthless State and private sector network determined to protect its interests whatever it takes.
It also helps to imagine this “Thing” in the sense of the John Carpenter film of that name – a destructive monster that takes on any shape it chooses. In Latin America, the Thing is the determination of the United States corporate plutocracy and its local allies to advance their own interests over those of the poor majority. The fact that George W. Bush and his regional allies are running out of time politically is behind the increasing urgency of attacks on Cuba, provocations in Venezuela and efforts to tie up “free trade” deals in the region by the end of 2005.
Mexico and Cuba - over the verge of a breakdown
The recent breakdown in relations between Cuba and Mexico is a symptomatic detail of regional United States strategy to consolidate corporate control of the Americas.  The vision of a Free Trade Area of the Americas has little room for social policy -- prioritized in Cuba. As a result of its commitment to “free trade” Mexico sits just a place or two above Cuba in the United Nations Human Development Index.
While the poor majority in Mexico have been subjected to the dubious benefits of the North American Free Trade Agreement for a decade, Cuba has been blockaded by the United States for over 40 years. Mexico's recent much-criticized condemnation in Geneva of Cuba's human rights record comes when violent repression of legitimate dissent in Chiapas and elsewhere is again resurgent. Despite the obvious contradictions, Mexico's President Vicente Fox seems determined to push through plans to meet the needs of his corporate backers and allies.
Plan Puebla Panama
Fox is the main proponent of Plan Puebla Panama (PPP), a regional integration program that prioritizes corporate transport and energy needs, allocating them over 80% of its budget. PPP and its hemispheric twin, the South American Regional Infrastructure Integration initiative share the same false neo-liberal economic logic that minimizes the importance of social policy and maximizes deregulation. Policies on health, education and environmental issues are heavily subordinated to the needs of big business.
Full of modish jargon about beneficent “synergies” and “transversal axes”, PPP documentation of the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) , tries to soft-sell the overall scheme and its components. But in every case the basic intention is clearly apparent in throwaway lines that tell it like it is. Try these from the IADB Spanish web site:
“The participation of the private sector requires the harmonization of norms and regulations between markets that will be integrated through the construction of transmission lines of sufficient capacity.” (Mesoamerican Energy Initiative)
“An essential principle is to....optimize the use of available sources of finance taking into account the principle of fiscal responsibility which the countries of the region have imposed which prevents the realization of projects whose costs the States and users are not able to absorb.” (The Mesoamerican Transport Initiative)
Translation: Participant countries will take on debt to provide cut price energy and transport infrastructure for corporate business to be paid for by local taxpayers. The rules for all this will be made multilateral, stripping away national sovereignty over energy and transport policy. Making formal obeisance to environmental sustainability the transport plan prioritizes “corridors” and “nodes” that “stimulate integration” completely ignoring the transport needs of communities excluded from these business-friendly “corridors”.
When it comes to paying for all this, the private sector balks. Why should they pay out when the region's poverty stricken tax base can be made to pay anyhow – deepening their poverty even more? As the PPP paper on transport policy puts it, “The concession to private entities of investment, construction, maintenance and operation of public infrastructure is a policy that the PPP countries encourage, although to date successful experiences of this type are few.”
Bogus “participation” - late may as well be never
Many of the policy documents reveal a schizophrenic appreciation of what “participation” and “consultation” mean. The PPP bureaucrats have a dim understanding that such processes exist and need to be mentioned. But the hollow period between word and deed is emphatic.
For example, PPP documents talk about the need for environmental impact assessments before accepting projects. Yet they are already implementing far reaching electrical energy integration and highway construction projects for which there has been virtually no consultation with people affected by them. Examples abound, from Usumacinta in Mexico to Lempa on the Salvadoran-Honduran border to Bocana de Paiwas in Nicaragua and down into the Darien Gap in Panama.
Such authoritarian and elitist policy-making renders self-evident the reason why the interests of indigenous peoples in the Isthmus have been neglected. PPP began life under the woe-begone Zedillo government in Mexico in the mid-1990s and was taken up again with renewed vigor by Vicente Fox in 2000. It was only in 2002 that members of indigenous peoples' groups began to “participate” in the PPP – mainly as passive recipients of “training”.
The indigenous peoples of the region are the Palestinians of Central America. Their rights to their lands are being pulled out from underneath their feet. When they resist, coercive push all too often turns to violent shove, applied by whatever means necessary.
For people outside Latin America that reality is embodied most vividly by the Zapatista movement in Chiapas. A sharp reminder of the ruthless enemies they confront took place on April 10th this year in Pasté near Zinacantán when 35 indigenous Zapatista supporters were wounded when they were ambushed. The incident was the culmination of an intimidation campaign that has displaced over 400 indigenous people from their homes in the area. 
“War on terror” and “war on drugs”? They mean “war on the poor majority”.
The corporate infrastructure integration plans and “free trade” deals being implemented from Mexico to Colombia take place in the context of US foreign policy public relations campaigns like the “war on drugs” and the “war on terror”. Indigenous peoples and impoverished rural workers and their families bear the brunt of these murderous fictions. In practice, in Colombia for example, the United States and big multinationals have signed up major drug-dealing paramilitary bosses by proxy.
Drugs have always been a consistent source of income for US-supported anti-Castro Cuban groups, as they were for the CIA-run Nicaraguan Contra. In Colombia the government and military continue to protect major narcotics dealers like Salvatore Mancuso because individuals like him and Israeli-trained death-squad leader Carlos Castano mobilize thousands of paramilitaries as crude muscle to protect US and European corporate interests. Occidental Petroleum, Harken Energy, BP-Amoco, Repsol are all companies that have benefited from paramilitary violence. In the process, over many years, these murderous forces have displaced millions of Colombians from their rural homes.
British Petroleum's involvement in abuses against the Warao people in Colombia has been well reported. So has the violence against trades unionists raising questions about the involvement of multinational companies like Coca Cola, Drummond (the US coal company) and Nestlé. In April this year, Amnesty International published a report criticizing the US and Spanish governments as well as Occidental Petroleum and the Spanish energy giant Repsol. Amnesty denounced their training and financing of Colombian army units notorious for human rights abuses in the oil rich Arauca province. 
The Colombian connection
It's no surprise that the US and British governments offer assistance to Colombia's President Uribe. Nor that allies like Mexico and Honduras are happy to deal with him at the same time that they denounce Cuba for human rights abuses. George W. Bush and Tony Blair tolerate drugs dealers and mass-murdering terrorists in Colombia at the same time as they mislead people about the war on terror and the war on drugs and offer implausible apologies for systematic human rights abuses in Iraq.
Their allies follow their lead. When Ricardo Maduro the president of Honduras visited Colombia last year he welcomed President Uribe's enthusiasm for integrating Colombia in Plan Puebla Panama. Colombia is already advancing plans to integrate its energy system with Panama's. At the time Maduro was cozying up to death-squad patron Alvaro Uribe, he was getting ready to denounce Cuba's alleged human rights failings in Geneva. 
The coming Contra war against Venezuela
Right now, the US military, the Colombian government and military and their paramilitary allies are gearing up for a Contra-style war against Venezuela. Over recent years they have built up a network of armed rural workers they call “soldier-campesinos” in states bordering Venezuela, establishing rural cooperatives covering large extensions of territory. This policy provides land and fighters designed expressly to serve both as a buffer against opposition guerrillas inside Colombia and as a springboard to mount incursions into Venezuela. Colombian writer Gloria Gaitan  has written about one such cooperative called Colanta. Gaitan links that development to calls for independence by some Venezuelan states controlled by anti-Chavez opposition forces such as the resource rich state of Zulia.
Last week's incursion by a group of over 100 Colombian paramilitaries into Venezuela to attack a military base was part of this strategy. The Venezuelan army broke up the plan and captured fifty five of the invaders. Most were reservists in the Colombian army. Brought into Venezuela in military uniform they were discovered on the farm of one of the leaders of the Venezuelan opposition Coordinadora Democratica. They had been training there for over a month. 
The incident is a clear sign that the US government and their stooges in the Venezuelan opposition are working together with the Colombian army and their paramilitary allies to foment a Contra style war in Venezuela. They may even hope to Balkanise Venezuela so as to provoke a crisis demanding intervention by the US under cover of the Organization of American States. The beauty of this strategy for the US government is that its main stages have virtually been budgeted for already – no embarrassing trips to Congress asking for more money, like in Iraq.
All the signs are of an intensification of the low intensity conflict against Venezuela and Cuba and an acceleration in both the infrastructure and “free trade” processes through the rest of 2004 and into 2005. Inevitably that will mean more repression, death and destruction for vulnerable communities throughout the region. It's what the Thing does best.
is an activist based in Central America. Contact:
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