On June 25, Colombian Defence Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón and the Deputy Secretary-General of NATO, Alexander Vershbow, signed an Agreement on the Security of Information. The news comes a little more than a month after the Colombian Air Force began to participate in training exercises with NATO planes in Canada, and three weeks after President Juan Manuel Santos first announced his administration’s intention to seek increased cooperation with the military alliance, with an eye towards eventually becoming a full member. Santos’s words elicited strong condemnation from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)—with whom the Colombian government is currently engaged in peace talks—and the heads of state of Latin American countries such as Bolivia and Nicaragua, who have pointed out the incompatibility of NATO’s aggressive bombing campaigns with the efforts made by the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) to promote peace in the region.
While Colombia is unable to join NATO due to its geographical location, the agreement portends future collaboration in matters of security, and facilitates the participation of Colombia in a number of NATO activities. Although the idea might strike some as bizarre, this is actually a rather logical development when one considers the contemporary geopolitical situation in the region. Looming large is Washington’s intense militarisation of Colombia—a bastion of right-wing forces in an increasingly left-leaning region—as well as Bogotá’s recent signing of free trade agreements with both the United States and the European Union. Moreover, the death of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez—and the subsequent challenges that this poses for the Bolivarian Revolution and indeed the stability of the ALBA bloc as a whole—must also be taken into account.
The hidden fist of the market
As a member of UNASUR, it is highly unlikely that Colombia would have approached NATO to ask for protection, considering that any hostility it might currently face from neighbouring countries is precisely due to its close relationship with the United States. Furthermore, while Colombian soldiers have already served in Afghanistan under the NATO flag, their contribution is negligible in the grand scheme of things. Rather, the logic behind the agreement lies in its potential usefulness to transnational capital.
Free trade and economic liberalism have been inextricably linked with militarisation and imperial exploits for well over a century, and lest liberals turn sour on the concept of perpetual war, today’s poster boy for neoliberal globalisation, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, reminds us that “the hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist”. Indeed, the possibility of increasing cooperation between NATO and Colombia was initially broached in 2006, the same year that negotiations for the U.S.-Colombia free trade agreement began.
Neoliberalism began to make headway in Colombia during the 1990s, and accordingly, defence and security spending in the country shot up from $423 million in 1992 to more than $2.2 billion by only 1998. Under the guise of combating narco-trafficking and subsequently “terrorism”, the United States has since channelled well over ten billion dollars to its Andean ally via Plan Colombia and its successor the Patriot Plan. The former focused resources on the “transformation” and “modernization” of Colombia’s armed and police forces to combat guerrilla forces and maintain control over strategic territories, while the goals of the latter included gaining control of Colombian territory and increasing access to neighbouring countries. This involved the deployment of roughly fifteen thousand soldiers to the Ecuadoran and Venezuelan border regions, and led to a flaring of regional tension in the wake of an attack by the Colombian armed forces on a FARC camp in Ecuadoran territory in 2008, with the National Court of Justice of Ecuador eventually even issuing an arrest warrant for Santos, head of the Armed Forces at the time.
It appears, then, that the discourse surrounding “security” refers to nothing more than ensuring a stable investment climate for transnational corporations. In Colombia, this is a euphemism for the displacement of nearly five million people and the intimidation and massacring of union leaders, activists, and indigenous and Afro-Colombian communities by paramilitary and military units in order to carry out extractive activities, plant cash crops, and maintain the prevailing unequal power relations that have only deepened and been institutionalized by the recent free trade agreements.
The EU joins the fold
Beyond its role in Colombia proper, the United States has long used the country to gain a foothold from which it can militarise the rest of the continent. The ALBA bloc, however, has forced a partial retreat, as evidenced by the transfer to Colombia of personnel and equipment formerly stationed at the Manta base in Ecuador after Rafael Correa refused to renew its lease in 2009. Yet the NATO affair also demonstrates the increasingly imperialist role of Global Europe in the region, and particularly in Colombia, which has by far the institutional framework most friendly to transnational capital. Prior to its signing of free trade agreements with Colombia and Peru, the EU had already become the principal source of foreign direct investment in the Andean Community of Nations (CAN).
Although Washington has long considered the region its “backyard”, Europe’s more proactive role in South America has not led to tension with the U.S. because, as some critical scholars argue, contemporary imperialism should not be conceptualized as rival national bourgeoisies in competition with each other as much as the hegemonic expansion of the ruling transnational class and the imposition of its neoliberal agenda in all aspects of life and all corners of the world.
While it has grown to encompass elites from all over the globe, this transnational class remains largely North Atlantic in character, and its consolidation has coincided with that of the European Union and NATO. The latter has even recently grown to include former members of the Soviet bloc and Turkey, to which the alliance’s Madrid Headquarters were transferred on June 13. As that country’s ongoing protest movement was being violently repressed, James Appathurai, the Secretary General’s Special Representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia, managed to proclaim that “at its core” NATO is about “the respect of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.”
After making his realistic assessment of the market and the military, the imperial messenger Friedman gloated that his beloved “hidden fist is called the U.S. Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps”. NATO is often accused of being a mere front for U.S. military clout, but in reality Washington does not pull the strings by itself, and just this month, the directors of the NATO International Military Staff and the European Union Military Staff recently met under the rubric of the EU-NATO strategic partnership laid out in the 2012 Chicago Summit Declaration. Meanwhile, the Council of the European Union approved a mandate for the negotiation of a comprehensive trade and investment agreement with the U.S., further blurring the lines between national capitals and consolidating the power of transnational corporations around the globe.
The NATO doctrine in South America
The governments of the ALBA bloc are by no means immune from legitimate criticism, but much of the member states’ demonstrable success in reducing social inequality is due to their resistance, in one form or another, to the onslaught of transnational capital and neoliberalism. Bogotá has gone against the grain in this respect, and Colombian society has suffered the consequences accordingly. Stronger ties with NATO do not bode well, if only because it would provide even more support to the Colombian Armed Forces. Both the Colombian military and NATO are notorious for their atrocious human rights records, yet Santos’s administration is attempting to convince the FARC to turn in their weapons while effectively ignoring their central demand for more access to land, handing it over instead to transnational corporations. Moving beyond domestic issues, a NATO foothold in South America can only lead to destabilization of the entire region.
At this point, we can only speculate as to what exactly this stabilization will look like. Wikileaks cables have demonstrated the lengths that Washington went to in an attempt to undermine the Chávez administration through the funding of propaganda campaigns and opposition groups, and the previously discussed raid on a FARC camp in Ecuadoran territory in 2008 set a dangerous precedent for the use of Colombia as a base to carry out military incursions in the region. In view of the new Strategic Concept adopted by NATO at its 2010 Lisbon Summit, as well as the organization’s belligerent actions in North Africa and the Middle East, we can only hope that the ghost of Monroe does not come back to haunt the region in the form of the NATO doctrine: open up to transnational capital and interests, or we will bomb you to smithereens.
Dave Feldman is currently based in Paris, where he recently completed a Master’s degree in International Relations. He has been active in social justice struggles–particularly related to migrant rights–in the United States, Mexico, and France