Thursday, October 07, 2004
US Military targets 'radical populism' in Latin America
Compared with civilian government agencies, the U.S. Southern Command (Southcom) has a growing and disproportionate role in U.S.-Latin American relations. Between August 2002 and July 2004, Southcom Commander Gen. James Hill made 78 trips to Latin America, a record unlikely matched by any State Department official. In her 2003 book The Mission, Washington Post reporter Dana Priest claims that Southcom has more people working on Latin America—about 1,100—than most key civilian federal agencies combined, including the Departments of State, Agriculture, Commerce and Treasury, as well as the office of the Secretary of Defense.
The Southern Command’s leading role in the region has important policy implications. In his annual “Posture Statement” testimony given before Congress in early 2004, Gen. Hill presented a list of emerging threats in Latin America that went well beyond the military’s normal purview, identifying “radical populism” and street gangs as major new threats facing the hemisphere. When challenged that these “emerging threats” deserve a civilian, not military response, Southcom’s Washington liaison office replied that the commander raised these issues because he sees himself as the lead “watchdog” on regional developments and believes it to be his role to help policymakers identify potential problems in the region.Southcom and Defense Department personnel are now publicly describing “radical populism” and gangs as disturbing trends, and their focus on these issues suggests they see a role for themselves, or their uniformed colleagues in the hemisphere, in countering them. Yet social problems should not be defined as emerging military threats; doing so risks justifying a military response. Policymakers must recall the fundamental differences between a police force—a body designed to protect a population through minimal use of force—and a military, which aims to defeat an enemy through use of force. Using the wrong tool for the job, as happens when military personnel are sent into cities to fight common criminals, carries strong risks for human and civil rights. Brazil has already moved its military into anti-gang efforts, and Guatemala and Honduras have established joint military-police patrols. Instead of encouraging military assumption of policing roles, the United States should support police reform and the strengthening of civilian institutions so that they are better able to confront the internal security challenges at hand
The identification of “radical populism” as a threat is particularly disturbing. As policymakers currently conceive it, the term appears to be directed at political leaders and social movements that espouse economic and social policies that might make some U.S. policymakers uneasy, but which are far from threats requiring a military response.