Feb 3, 2018

Tillerson in Latin America

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson touched down on Mexican soil Thursday and many Mexicans were not happy about it.  Tillerson is heading out into the land of "rapists and thieves", etc. to talk about the central themes of Trump policy in the region: the war on drugs, now referred to in government circles as "transnational crime" since the U.S. public's enthusiasm for a drug war has decisively waned in recent years, and, of course, immigration.

Tillerson plans to do a grand sweep of Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Colombia and Jamaica with a focus on a country he won't visit--Venezuela. The general purpose of the tour seems to be to convey two messages -- 1) no, the Trump government is not just a bad joke, and 2) yes, I am still Secretary of State.

The representative of the most unpopular U.S. government in decades, if not ever, Tillerson brings   his baggage of general opprobrium, plus a carry-on of indignation generated by his remarks just the day before setting off in which he warned the region of Chinese and Russian influence.

In a speech at the University of Texas, née Sonora, Tillerson said:

"Latin America does not need new imperial powers that seek only to benefit their own people." Not surprisingly given the history of the region, Latin Americans understood that as 'Just shut up and be happy with the old one'. You now, the one that goes around the world spouting the "America First" agenda (and doesn't mean "America" as a continent).

His statement was so inadvertently revealing that it provoked irate responses in the Latin American press. The Mexican daily La Jornada wrote (translation mine):
The affirmations cited are an unmistakable show of cynicism and ignorance--characteristics of the Trump administration--given that if any superpower has been characterized by its predatory trade and economic practices and its military support of dictatorial Latin American governments, it's the United States..."
He went on to say,
Russia’s growing presence in the region is alarming as well, as it continues to sell arms and military equipment to unfriendly regimes who do not share or respect democratic values. Our region must be diligent to guard against faraway powers who do not reflect the fundamental values shared in this region. The United States stands in vivid contrast. 
Here in Mexico nothing could be more tone-deaf than this image of the United States suddenly being a moral ally against other countries "who don't share our values." Apart from the long history of intervention, Mexicans have watched with growing outrage as the Trump administration proclaimed them the "other" that threatened U.S. values.

The Agenda

Tillerson has been the Secretary of State in abstentia for the Western Hemisphere until this trip. He stood alongside the real architect of the new Trump Era policy in the region, John Kelly, in several previous visits, but had little to do with the remapping of policy here and appeared more as a figurehead. Occasionally we've gotten a glimpse behind the public diplomatic protocols of his dealings as an empowered oil executive.  But except for the oil-rich U.S. nemesis, Venezuela, he hasn't shown a lot of interest in the region.

General Kelly however, does have a vision for the Americas. He sees a web of military bases and proxy forces that guarantee the United States can shield international investment and pre-empt threats to elites. As former head of Southern Command he has a militarist preference for confronting problematic drug by battling traffickers in the streets and fields (of foreign countries) with arms, rather than in the schools and courts with arguments.

The Kelly agenda is also all about borders. Who is kept in and who is kept out is the core of his foreign policy and what has defined Trump policy in the region. His stint at Homeland Security really never ended when he left for the White House as he continues to coordinate both Homeland Security and foreign policy in this region. Current Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen's total loyalty to her old boss and his boss (to the point of making herself ridiculous in the defense of Trump's "shithole countries" comment) proves the point.

In Texas, trying to sound like a statesman, Tillerson laid out three pillars for Latin American policy. (Washington likes the image of pillars--we have four of vastly differnt sizes in the Merida Initiative and every time policy appears to be crumbling we get more pillars, or one pillar is changed for another. As any architect knows, the problem with this kind of pillar construction is that if the foundation is rotten no number of pillars can hold up the structure.)

Anyway, the new pillars he presented are "economic growth, security and democratic governance"-- the same pillars we've had for years. Pillar One-economic growth- says nothing about who reaps the benefits, what happens to unrenewable resources or sustainability and environment. Tillerson focused first on NAFTA. Taking a different position from his boss, he tried to assuage the Texans and the Mexicans that Washington just wants to update the agreement:
I’m a Texan, former energy executive, and I’m also a rancher. I understand how important NAFTA is for our economy and that of the continent. But it should come as no surprise that an agreement put into place 30 years ago, before the advent of the digital age and the digital economy, before China’s rise as the world’s second-largest economy – that NAFTA would need to be modernized.
Our aim is simple: to strengthen our economy and that of all of North America, to remain the most competitive, economically vibrant region in the world. 
So Tillerson views NAFTA from the point of view of a U.S. "Texan, former energy executive and rancher." Then there's Peña Nieto who sees it from the point of view of a rapacious politician and representative of the Mexican transnational elite.

Tillerson, former head of ExxonMobil, adds:
We see a future where energy connectivity from Canada to Chile can build out and seize upon energy integration throughout the Americas, delivering greater energy security to the hemisphere and stability to growing economies. South America is blessed with abundant energy resources. Colombia, Peru, Brazil, Guyana, and Argentina all have significant undeveloped oil and natural gas. The United States is eager to help our partners develop their own resources safely, responsibly, as energy demand continues to grow.
His phrase "seize upon energy" jumps out at Mexicans who have zealously guarded their oil reserves from U.S. interests up until Peña Nieto finally privatized them. Mexico auctioned off the largest block of offshore drilling contracts to date the day Tillerson arrived.

Building a post fossil-fuel economy and energy plant is clearly not a language Exxon's Tillerson speaks. As John Saxe Fernandez notes, Tillerson's oil interests are reflected in his Latin American itinerary focused on isolating Venezuela and opening up the Hemisphere to U.S. companies like his under the Maximum Extraction Principle and the Mexican government is lockstepping alongside. Saxe Fernandez warns: 
..this energy entreguismo (a Spanish word for surrendering resources to a foreign power) creates extremely high-risk climate and war for our region in relation to the United States.
The Secretary of State talked about more than his oil-hegemony goal. He slammed Cuba and Venezuela as the blight on an otherwise democratic continent (nothing on Honduras' stolen elections, Mexican authoritarianism or Brazil's court maneuvers to bar the presidential frontrunner) and hinted ominously at support for a military coup in the latter.  singled out for praise Argentine president Mauricio Macri and his "market-basd economic reforms". But sympathetic words from the hegemon to the north may be counterproductive for the conservative leader, who has faced mass protests in the streets and slipped to an approval rating of 39% in January following his latest move to slash the nation's safety net.

On security Tillerson turned to the "transnational criminal organizations", again using the U.S.'s undeniable responsibility for cartel violence as a justification for further intervention and militarization. "Shared responsibility" has been the catchword for intervention since the Obama administration launched George Bush's joint drug war in Mexico and Central America. By citing U.S. demand, the Pentagon and US arms manufacturers have reaped millions in tax dollars to train and equip Mexican and Central American police and armed forces. According to Tillerson, this failed, interventionist model will continue to be U.S. policy:

We acknowledge our role as the major market for illicit drug consumption and the need for shared approaches to address these challenges. The opioid epidemic we are facing in this country is a clear, tragic representation of how interconnected our hemisphere truly is. Violence and drugs do not stop at our southern border. That is why we continue to employ a coordinated, multilateral approach to diminish the influence of these groups. It is time we rid our hemisphere of the violence and devastation that they promote.
Not one expert has pointed to evidence that this strategy has worked. The opioid epidemic is demonstrably demand-driven, not supply driven, and is overwhelmingly dominated by prescription drugs produced and distributed in the United States rather than foreign heroin. Mexican heroin can pose a serious health risk for Mexicans in growing and trafficking areas and for U.S. consumers, but the roots of the problem are in U.S. communities and pharmacies, and in the contradictory prohibition and enforcement regime. If dealt with there, the size and power and violence of Mexican groups will wither.

Tillerson believes that the current course is just fine, however. Ten years and 150,000 Mexicans killed and 33,000 disappeared in drug war-related violence--many of them by security forces--with no reduction in the availability of prohibited drugs appears to be insufficient reason to change course. Human consequences don't enter into the equation at all -- he talks about the Merida Initiative as if it were a (very expensive) package of good intentions, rather than a policy that has already racked up a decade of bloodshed and failure:

Through the Merida Initiative – a partnership between the United States and Mexico focused on improving security and the rule of law – the United States is providing assistance to build the capacity of Mexican law enforcement and judicial institutions. By providing inspection equipment, canine units, and training, we equip law enforcement officers with tools to eradicate opium poppy production, tighten border security, and disrupt trafficking activities – not just in drugs but in trafficking of humans. By improving cross-border communications, we make both sides of the border safer.
It's spin-off, the Alliance for Prosperity in Central America, gets the same treatment. He refers to the Kelly-sponsored meeting at SouthCom last June where:
the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security, along with our Mexican counterparts, cohosted the Conference on Prosperity and Security in Central America. Through many productive conversations with public and private sector leaders across the region, opportunities were identified to help Central American countries grow their economies, strengthen their institutions, and better protect their people. More opportunities for Central Americans will weaken the hold of transnational criminal organizations, address the underlying causes of legal and illegal immigration, and result in less violence.
This sounds reasonable, but the same policy, which has been going on for years, has actually played a major role in expelling people through megaprojects and land grabs and increased inequality, increasing violence through militarization of public safety and decreased rule of law by propping up repressive and corrupt governments in the name of battling organized crime, to which they are often tied.

At Friday's press conference in Mexico City, Mexico's Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray rambled obsequiously, Canada's Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland mentioned the importance of "advancing democracy, especially in Venezuela" without saying a word about Honduras's recent election that the OAS deemed too dirty to call. Tillerson came back to his favorite theme of the need "to promote market-based energy development". He also said they discussed following up on the Central America conference last June on the Northern Triangle countries, stating, "Success there will better protect all of our countries and provide opportunities for the citizens of Central America." This statement in the context of the fraudulent election is meant to put a nail in the coffin of Honduran democracy.

In response to questions, Videgaray said that they did not discuss DACA but said if they come back "it will be a win situation for Mexico and a lose situation for the United States". he said Mexico would not support any decision on Venezuela that involved violence. Tillerson basically said the US would prefer a peaceful solution, but that depends on Maduro.

Tillerson went into a drawn-out attempt to justify Trump's anti-immigrant policies. He also revealed that they had a working dinner with the Mexican armed forces on disrupting transcriminal (sic) organizations, meaning the drug war will continue, more miltarized than ever since Mexico passed the Internal Security Law and Donald Trump took office.

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