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SOUTHERN CONE
Concerns grow about US role in region
6/12/2002
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Southern Cone countries worry about possible US interference in the aftermath of the failed coup attempt in Venezuela.

Politicians from across the spectrum in South America are growing increasingly concerned that new political winds blowing through the region could stir problems with Washington.

These concerns were heightened considerably after news concerning the US role in the failed April 11 coup to topple Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was made public (LP, April 22, 2002).

On April 22, Capt. Riccoh Player, spokesperson for the US Department of Defense, admitted that US military personnel were with the coup leaders when Chávez was forced to abandon the presidential palace.

Player said that Col. Ronald MacCammon, the US military attaché in Caracas, and the second in command, Lt. Col. James Rodgers, met with military personnel and oilman Pedro Carmona at the Tiuna Fort, the largest military base in Venezuela and headquarters of the troops that rose up against the president. Carmona attempted to take over the presidency before Chávez returned to power two days after the coup attempt.

The same day Player admitted to the meetings, US Sen. Joseph Biden, a Democrat from Delaware, told the weekly Newsweek that "the Senate Foreign Relations Committee would investigate documents that reveal contact between US authorities and officers in the Venezuelan army who participated in the coup."

Evidence of the US role against Chávez has political analysts concerned that a similar scenario could take place in several South Cone countries where left-wing candidates lead presidential polls and political instability threatens others.

Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, of the Workers Party (PT), remains at the top of the polls in Brazil’s upcoming October elections. Known simply as Lula, he polled 41.6 percent in an early June survey by the Instituto GPP. His closest competitor, former Health Minister José Serra, polled 18.4 percent.

In neighboring Uruguay, Montevideo Mayor Tabaré Vásquez, of the left-leaning Broad Front coalition, is once more expected to run for the presidency. He is the early favorite.

Growing levels of instability wrack Argentina and Paraguay. Argentine President Eduardo Duhalde has a very tenuous grip on power and Paraguay’s Luis González Macchi has stumbled from crisis to crisis. Violent demonstrations against his government’s plan to privatize state-owned companies left one person dead in early June.

Juan Tokatlian, a professor at the San Andrés University in Buenos Aires, said US President George W. Bush’s team for Latin America is troubling.

"They never showed themselves as defenders of democracy in Venezuela. Furthermore, they supported the coup leaders. I think it is time to begin seeing the United Sates as a problem for democratically elected governments" in Latin America, said Tokatlian.

"Because of the recent events in Venezuela, it would seem that the tension between democracy and the economic process produced by the neoliberal model is dangerous for democratic values," he added.

According to the thesis put forth by Tokatlian and other analysts, Bush’s approach to Latin America is essentially tied to economics and its fundamental pillar is the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), which would be dominated by the United States with all the other governments of the region lined up behind it (LP, April 30, 2001).

Chávez’s rejection of the FTAA — he argues that the region is not ready for the agreement, set to begin in 2005 — is not the only problem Washington sees in Venezuela. Chávez is viewed negatively for his efforts to revitalize the Organization of Oil Exporting Countries (OPEC), his ties to Iraq and Libya, and his close relationship to Cuban President Fidel Castro (LP, March 12, 2001).

The US role in the failed Venezuelan coup has raised fears in Argentina, where Duhalde is increasingly weak and there are growing calls for him to call elections for September instead of waiting for the planned elections in September 2003.

Faced with persistent rumors that Duhalde would resign and call elections, US Ambassador James Walsh has asked Sen. Juan Maqueda, next in line to occupy the presidency if Duhalde quits, if he would be willing to take over.

"We have to be more alert than ever before. What happened in Venezuela could happen here," said Argentine Rep. Leopoldo Moreau, of ruling Peronist party.

"The satisfaction shown for the coup to unseat Chávez is an alarming sign and indicates that the United States is moving away from its commitment to democracy," added Rep. Jorge Rivas, of the opposition Alternative for a Republic of Equals.

The same fears exist in Brazil, where Lula has led Serra and former Rio de Janeiro Gov. Anthony Garotinho by at least 23 percent in each poll since the campaign got underway. Lula is a strong opponent of the FTAA and an ally of Cuba’s Castro.

"Brazil should not participate in negotiations leading toward the formation of the FTAA, because its commercial and legal architecture will aggravate the economic and social problems in the country. The United States has imposed as a condition maintaining and broadening protectionist measures that hurt our exports," said Lula.

Reaction in the United States to a possible Workers Party (PT) government in Brasilia has been swift.

On May 2, the major US investment banks, Merryl Lynch, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley, lowered their ratings on Brazilian bonds and recommended that investors "get rid of their Brazilian paper in the face of an uncontrollable situation that would be caused by a PT government."

Goldman Sachs told its clients, "We believe that Lula will continue to rise in the polls, creating a climate of political instability in all of South America." The company added that clients should sell Brazilian paper and buy Mexican bonds, because "the government there is absolutely predictable."

Lula’s complaints that these companies demonstrated a lack of respect for Brazil got unexpected support from Finance Minister Pedro Malan, who also rejected the criticisms of the Wall Street investors.

"In Venezuela we saw how Bush broke all commitments to democracy, because democracy is intolerable for the right wing. In countries like Brazil, where a major change is on the horizon, we have to be on the look out. The United States will intensify its policy of intervention and has already started to destabilize a future Lula government," said Rep. Aloizio Mercadante, the PT’s secretary for international relations.

A similar feeling is shared in Uruguay, with the Broad Front expressing concern about the US role in Venezuela. The Broad Front has the best chance of capturing the presidency with Vásquez in the 2004 general elections.

"Venezuela showed once again that the US


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