In the span of a few days two events occurred that reveal that in small Latin American countries that were previously subordinate to Washington, the ex-superpower no longer controls their decades-old allies. The recent episodes in Paraguay and Honduras reveal that the empire’s withdrawal from its own backyard is accelerating in the present systemic crisis.
The government of Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo decided to suspend the U.S. Southern Command’s (SouthCom) New Horizons program in his country. The program called for the deployment of 400 U.S. soldiers for "humanitarian" work. The foreign military presence in Paraguay has long been rejected not only by campesino and social movements, but also by neighboring Brazil. The Brazilian government objected to the operations held near the Itaipu Dam, which is responsible for 20% of the energy consumed by the eighth industrial power on the planet.
Lugo has explained his decision to refuse the SouthCom operations by citing "the new international scene in terms of defense, security, and sovereignty." The president affirmed the impact of recent debates in the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) regarding the U.S.-Colombia base agreement on his decision where he said, "The presence of American soldiers in the region was highly questioned."
Washington’s ambassador in Asunción, Liliana Ayalde, called the decision "regrettable." Her response reflects the imperial impotence of the United States in a country that had been one of its most docile allies for eight decades. Ayalde weakly denied that the presence of U.S. troops in Paraguay is related to intelligence work connected with the Guarani Aquifer, one of the largest fresh-water reserves on earth. Her comments regarding the social projects that the soldiers are building and their public health efforts also failed to resonate.
The Campaign for the Demilitarization of the Americas (CADA) and Peace and Justice Service of Paraguay (SERPAJ Paraguay) condemned the Medical Readiness Training Exercise (MEDRETE) program as an effort to meddle in the country’s affairs. Groups of around 50 soldiers from SouthCom traveled to remote villages, particularly zones embroiled in land conflicts, where in addition to handing out medicine and eye glasses they interrogated the population and trained the rural police force linked to the landowners.
The U.S. military presence in Paraguay has been interpreted as part of a vast plan to control a strategic zone that in the 1980s led Washington to build the military base in Mariscal Estigarribia only 200 km away, where they are able to deploy B-52s, C-130 Hercules, and C-5 Galaxy planes. With Lugo’s decision, the operations of soldiers who enjoyed diplomatic immunity are coming to an end, and Washington’s access to the region will suffer a setback.
Paraguay’s decision comes on the heels of the series of heated UNASUR meetings regarding the U.S.-Colombia base agreement. It also comes in the context of the surprise return of Manuel Zelaya to Tegucigalpa. Zelaya’s entry through the Brazilian Embassy places Lula’s country at the forefront of the crisis provoked by the coup leaders. It marks a notable success in Brazilian diplomacy that overshadows the administration of Barack Obama, as that government flounders somewhere between impotence and coddling of coup leaders.
Lula took the issue to the General Assembly of the United Nations, where the Security Council was convened. The joint action between Zelaya and the Brazilian Ministry of External Relations, with support from Venezuela, shook the political scene in Honduras and the region, and put the coup leaders—who are beginning to commit desperate errors—on the defensive for the first time. Zelaya’s return and Brazilian pressure forced the international community to take measures after weeks of dangerous inaction.
On the domestic front, the Honduran people—the main actors in the resolution of this crisis—seem to have taken note of the difficulties that the leaders of the coup find themselves in, and have increased their mobilizations, forcing the coup backers to show their most brutish and repressive nature. At the international level, the passive obstruction seen in past weeks is giving way to condemnation and more severe initiatives.
Brazil’s leading role, now at the center of the international stage, contrasts with the Obama administration’s weak response, which has consisted of simple declarations and symbolic measures, such as withdrawing visas for coup backers. Obama seems to have his hands tied, not only in regard to the domestic situation in his own country, where the most stubborn right-wingers are obstructing his administration and threaten to block basic reform, such as healthcare, but also with the growing decline of the United States as a world power. Neither the right-wing coup backers nor democratic governments have faith in U.S. diplomacy because its legitimacy in designing world order is in question.
The image of Zelaya appearing to greet his people from the balcony of the Brazilian Embassy is as unforgettable as the unanimous applause that Lula garnered in the General Assembly of the UN. The European Union, the most neutral governments of the region, and even the White House aligned themselves behind the demand for immediate restitution of the Honduran President. Independent of how the crisis in Honduras is resolved, Lula and Brazilian Foreign Minister Celso Amorim emerge as more powerful players on the world stage and Brazilian diplomacy has expanded its role in the region.
The rising star, Brazil, is beginning to fill the void left by the declining role of the United States in the region. The political and military accords reached with France permit the South American country to rely on a solid ally to attain a desired seat on the UN Security Council.
That new role also has its costs. Brazil will continue to honor its alliance with Washington. The nation has no intention of precipitating a rupture with the United States. Instead it seeks to consolidate its autonomy and free up its hands in the region without suffering direct obstruction from the U.S. government. For many of Brazil’s neighbors, the switch from U.S. to Brazilian domination could mean little real change if the rising power behaves like a "subimperialist," as Rui Mauro Marini warned three decades ago.