US Gunboat Diplomacy in Latin America: A Way to Achieve Energy Security?


A new agreement between the United States and Colombia is being discussed, including the use of Colombian military bases by the US (two navy, two army, and three air force), adding 1,400 US military personnel, and a further $5 billion in aid over a period of 10 years. Other South American countries, such as Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador and Venezuela. Currently, the US maintains military installations in Aruba, Curaçao, Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras, Peru, Puerto Rico and Cuba. [1] Around the world, the US currently has 865 installations in 40 countries. [2]

Behind the US government's claim that it is reluctantly shouldering a burden in order to help Colombia fight “narco-terrorists” and stabilize the country are layers of intentional distortions and unspoken motivations. In Colombia the US has long been engaged in a colonial-management experiment, using Colombia as its military proxy to achieve regional hegemony and a plentiful supply of oil. By infusing massive amounts of economic and military aid, the US is helping to transform Colombia into an advanced military outpost for its designs on Latin America.

Additionally, the mythic rural guerrilla and the incessant exploitation of the personal drama of the hostages have triggered a convenient opportunity for the US to engage in “humanitarian multilateralism,” coupling this aid with demands for Colombia's economic liberalization along free-market lines. The Colombian government’s wholehearted adoption of the neoliberal recipe is a fundamental part of a strategy aimed at ensuring US energy security.

The historical context

How did this all begin? In the 1940s, factions of the Colombian bourgeoisie were fighting for two different projects: one being pushed by the agrarian oligarchy, the other by the modernizing urban elite. In 1948 an uprising was provoked by the killing of the liberal-populist leader Jorge Eliecer Gaitan, a lawyer linked with Colombia's labor movement and an advocate of land reform. Although certainly not a revolutionary Marxist, his assassination clarifies the reactionary methods of politics in Latin America: no attempt to make social changes will be accepted; even minor democratic-reformist challenges will be violently suppressed.

The subsequent pro-Gaitan demonstrations irritated the US government, which feared a “communist” rebellion led by peasants and workers. The following ten-year period is known as La Violencia (literally, “The Violence”), during which irregular armed groups supported by state forces attacked the dissatisfied masses of peasants, workers and students. These popular groups organized self-defense committees, which provided the seeds for later guerrilla movements. In 1959, the US government put together a survey team to analyze the communist threat in Colombia, resulting three years later in recommendations for the preparation of clandestine armed terrorist groups to act against “known socialists.” In the 1960s, the intense concentration of income and the increase in poverty stimulated the growing influence of the Communist Party and, in 1966, the establishment of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia). At this time, the US launched its Latin America Security Operation, supporting Colombian army efforts to control and demobilize areas previously under guerrilla control. With the growing influence of the guerrilla movement in the 1960s and 1970s, President Julio César Turbay Ayala (1978-1982) tacitly authorized the creation of paramilitary groups and death squads, set up by big landowners to contain the leftist advance.

Once again Colombian human rights advocates and labor leaders raised accusations of US support for anti-left movements. On the legal front, Ayala approved anti-guerrilla laws and increased military rule, along with murder, torture and arbitrary detentions. Later, Ayala supported Alvaro Uribe in his electoral contest for the presidency. Widespread right-wing human rights violations fueled the conflict, providing moral appeal to the guerrillas.

US involvement deepened with the training of Colombian troops (including at the School of the Americas) and furnishing them with advanced weaponry and US military counter-insurgency manuals. Parallel to this, during the 1960s-1970s the US operated similar military adventures all across Latin America, training right-wing terrorist groups and preparing military-bourgeoisie-led coups d’état in a series of clearly counter-revolutionary and extremely reactionary experiments. These autocratic coup regimes aimed to facilitate the expansion and accumulation of capital through the concentration of wealth and super-profits based on the repression of unions and workers. There is no denying the capitalistic character of the military dictatorships in Argentina (1966-1972), Brazil (1964-1985), Chile (1973-1990), Guatemala (1954-1986) and El Salvador (extreme right-wing military rule from 1979-1992), among others, as well as long-term US government complicity in human rights violations.

Communism, the war on drugs and post-9/11 counter-terrorism

The Cold War communist deterrence policy intertwined with the alleged fight against drug smuggling. Plan Colombia, which effectively started in 2000, serves as part of this counter-insurgency strategy, in which US economic assistance is used to strengthen the repressive Colombian security apparatus. [3] The aims are various: to install its own military apparatus and agencies in Latin America, to fight the FARC and to insure a steady supply of Colombian oil to the US.

The post-9/11 hysteria offered an opportunity for the Bush administration to boost the expansion of military aid under the label of "counter-terrorism," thus funneling more resources to state-sponsored anti-guerrilla violence. The administration characterized FARC as a new "Osama bin Laden." In addition, the Bush administration tried to link Iran to Colombia's neighbor Venezuela, implying that a nuclear-armed Iran might transfer "terrorist cells" to Latin America. This suspect reasoning helped produce new arguments for the expansion of US's own militarism in Latin America. The US government seemed willing to resort to any kind of spurious allegation to create legitimacy for its imperial desires, moving from its former Cold War rhetoric of containing the communist expansion to the fight against drug-trafficking, and from there to combating a new hybrid: the Islamic-Iran-funded/narco-terrorist/Chavez 21st-century socialism threat. [4]

However, what has been delineated in Colombia is a classic colonial strategy: the use of repressive force to protect the economic and military interests of the dominant power. Using the Colombian government as its willing proxy, the US aims to discourage and limit the progressive role of Venezuela and reinforce US regional hegemony. Today Colombia is the biggest recipient of US aid outside the Middle East and the third largest anywhere, behind only Israel and Egypt. [5] The main purpose of this assistance to Colombia is to defend oil company pipelines, which are central to the US drive to achieve a monopoly over world oil reserves. [6]

Although Colombian petroleum is an obvious object of imperialist ambitions, considering that the country is the fourth biggest oil producer in South America, Colombia is also rich in coal and agricultural-based products. [7] One official US Department of Commerce website states that "Colombia is already a strong trading partner and has the potential to be an even greater place to do business. Trade with Colombia offers expanded economic opportunities for U.S. manufacturers, workers, and farmers. It is a growing market for U.S. exporters and a good economic and policy partner of the United States." [8]

Of course, this trade project is based on "free trade" bilateral agreements, i.e. the traditional neoliberal model. This quest for colonies as suppliers of raw materials is also creating a new arms race [9] in the region, proving once more that the so-called peaceful capitalist epoch is over - if we even accept that it ever existed. "Plan Colombia 2.0" must be scrutinized and understood as part of US capitalism's search for global control and world dominance. In other words, the exercise of US influence in the region will be pursued by any means, including by military force. If a new Plan Colombia that includes a military build up is put into place, it would expose the fraudulence of a supposed "unarmed" neoliberal hegemony.


Is anything new?

The premises of capitalist political economy rest on a search by central economies for the monopolistic control of global resources. Therefore current capitalist militarism is precisely an expression of the normal expansion of capital. Colonialism is not capitalist production transformed; it is the implementation of capitalist relations on a world scale. As Marx and Engels (1848) explained, "The need of a constantly expanding market for its products chases the bourgeoisie over the entire surface of the globe. It must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere." The distribution of the world into spheres of influence leads to a situation of conflict, where war is not an expression of a further stage, but rather an integral part of the necessity for capitalist reproduction. As Georg Lukacs argued in 1924, it needs to be recognized that "world war is the logical result of imperialist development." Although simplifications are difficult, there is a definite structural pattern in colonial relations.

To put it bluntly, under the slogan of a humanitarian multilateralism "to save Colombia from the violent drug dealers," there is another subtle imperialist intervention at work - subtle because it does involve direct foreign military invasion, even though it is nonetheless responsible for a violent change in the regional power balance based on military-economic aid. The undeniable driving force behind US expansionism in Colombia and other parts of the world is its thirst for more diversified sources of oil. US expansionism is not solely military, however. It is also accompanied by a carefully devised model of subservient economic relations, achieved by the imposition of neoliberal guidelines in the form of free-trade agreements.

Today, as in the past, colonial violence is one of the main mechanisms used in the process of neoliberal globalization to open up new markets on the world periphery. In the present, we are witnessing the continuation of the old colonial pattern of lackey states, i. e. satellites used by the United States to advance its interests. This development illustrates the necessity of opposing greater US influence in Latin America. Policies like a Plan Colombia 2.0 should be used as a springboard for renewed popular struggles against neoliberal policies and the militarism that inevitably accompanies them.

Notes and references

[1] Israel, E. Aliança Colômbia-EUA pode acelerar gasto militar na região. Swiss Info. 06.08.2009., retrieved 14.08.2009.

[2] Jalife-Rahme, A. Las 865 bases militares de EEUU en 40 países. Rebellion. 10.08.2009., retrieved 14.08.2009.

[3] The dollar cost of Plan Colombia can be found at; $5.5 billion have been transferred to the Colombian state since 1999.

[4] Fox News, Venezuela, Iran Agree to Strengthen Military Ties. 30.04.2009.,2933,518508,00.html, retrieved 14.08.2009; also see the conservative News Max magazine: Collie, T., Venezuela-Iran Terror Network Growing in Latin America. 29.01.2009., retrieved 14.08.2009.

[5] PBS, Colombia, The pipeline war., retrieved 14.08.2009; Forero, J., New Role for U.S. in Colombia: Protecting a Vital Oil Pipeline. The New York Times. 04.10.2002., retrieved 14.08.2009.

[6] Between 10-15% of the Colombian army is being used to protect oil pipelines, subsidizing the costs of the oil companies. Penhaul, K., Protection for Oil Pipeline Raises US Profile in Colombia,. San Francisco Chronicle, 16.02.2002; Robles, F. U.S. Trains Colombians to Protect Oil Pipeline, Miami Herald, 13.12.2002; Kouri, J., Counterterrorism: US Aids Colombia with Protection of Oil Pipelines, American Daily, 10/10/05., retrieved 10.08.2009.

[7] Energy Information Administration, Official Energy Statistics from the U.S. Government: Colombia. 14.08.2009.

[8] The US Department of Commerce's International Trade Administration manages, retrieved 14.08.2009.

[9] Terra Noticias, Aliança Colombia-EUA pode acelerar gasto militar na região, 06.08.2009,,OI3910702-EI8140,00.html, retrieved 14.08.2009.

--Vinicius Valentin Raduan Miguel is from Brazil and is a graduate student in political science at at the University of Glasgow. Reach him at