By Lamia Oualalou | It’s now official: The Pentagon is going to resuscitate its Fourth Fleet, with the mission of patrolling Latin American and Caribbean waters. Created during the Second World War to protect traffic in the South Atlantic, the structure was dissolved in 1950. “By reestablishing the Fourth Fleet, we acknowledge the immense importance of maritime security in this region,” declared Adm. Gary Roughead, head of the Pentagon’s naval operations. Based in Mayport, Florida, the fleet will operate under the double orders of the American Navy and the Army’s Southern Command, responsible for Latin America and the Caribbean. Vice Adm. Joseph Kernan will command the fleet, which should include a nuclear aircraft carrier.
According to Alejandro Sanchez, an analyst at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a research center on Latin America based in Washington, “the reestablishment of the Fourth Fleet is more of a political than a military gesture, designed to confront the rise in power of left-leaning governments in the region.” The Pentagon does not trouble to camouflage its intentions: “the message is clear: whether local governments like it or not, the United States is back after the war in Iraq,” Sanchez explains.
De facto,, Washington’s military influence in the region has diminished considerably since September 11, 2001, and the launch of the “war against terrorism.” Concentrated on the Middle Eastern arc of crisis, the Pentagon did not pay much attention to the political upsets in its own backyard. Leftist governments, now broadly in the majority in Latin America, reproach the United States with the support it gave the dictatorships that reigned over several decades and to the ultra-neo-liberal policies those dictatorships applied.
While Washington assures that its sole interest in the region is combating “new threats” (terrorism, drug trafficking and the Maras gangs of Central America), Latin American people often see it as the pursuit of “imperialist” interests dictated by energy needs. The tensions between Washington and the radical presidents of the sub-continent’s main oil and gas producers (Venezuela, Equator and Bolivia) accentuate that perception.
As a sign of defiance, almost all Latin American countries have refused to sign the American Serviceman Protection Act, a treaty that prevents legal pursuit of American soldiers for crimes committed abroad.
The plan to install a military base in Paraguay, close to Bolivian gas fields, was denounced by Brazil and Argentina. Ecuador has made it known that the American military base installed in Manta until 2009 will not be allowed to renew its mandate. Worse still, Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, has relaunched the idea of a South American Defense Council, explicitly excluding all United States intervention.
Washington’s sidelining comes at a time when new sources of conflict are arising in the region, as, for example, the one that pits Colombia on one side and Ecuador and Venezuela on the other, or that between Bolivia and Chile over sea access. An arms race is underway in the region, where governments have taken advantage of the economic revival to reequip their armies, neglected since the 1970s.
American arms manufacturers are no longer alone in this market: some European countries, but especially China, Russia and Iran, are trying to get a footing in a region that also attracts them for its natural resource and energy potential.