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21 July 2008updated 24 Sep 2015 11:01am

America’s confused outlook

The re-appearance of the fourth fleet prompts Hugh O'Shaughnessy to cast his mind back to his first

By Kenzie Eliasen

Let me remind you, in case you missed it, that this month the US Navy’s Fourth Fleet,disbanded in 1950, took to the waters of the Caribbean, the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans once again. According to whom you listen to, the sailors’ tasks as they steam out of their base in Florida will be to police, or to protect, to threaten or to build confidence and trust in the region by focusing on, we are told, threats common to the US, the Caribbean and Latin America. President Evo Morales of Bolivia is blunter. For him the warships are just “the Fourth Fleet of Intervention”.

Its re-appearance now made my thoughts race back to 1962 and the first of my many trips to Venezuela. The experience of landing at dusk at the international airport of Caracas on a narrow ledge of land beside the Caribbean port of La Guaira was thrilling. Even more thrilling was the taxi ride up the motorway, through its tunnels and over its viaducts into the blazing light of the Venezuelan capital itself thousands of feet up in the Andes. The short, smooth ride brought me face to face not just with a dazzling dose of Latin glamour but also with the wisdom of the rulers of what was Spain’s empire in America. It demonstrated to me the care they took where they could to establish their capitals well away from the coasts. At sea level the British, French and Dutch under commanders such as Francis Drake or the Netherlander Piet Hein could deploy their powerful fleets and plunder the galleons taking treasure back to Spain.

Throughout Spain’s lands in America ports from La Guaira to Cartagena and Barranquilla, and from Veracruz, Valparaiso and Tampico to Portobelo took their chance at sea level under whatever protection their fortresses’ cannon could offer. Mexico City, Bogota, Quito, Managua, Guatemala, Santiago de Chile and the rest with their politicians in their viceregal palaces and treasuries were out of reach of foreign enemies’ cannons, outside the range not only of direct fire from ship-borne guns but also of any amphibious force that their foes wanted to put ashore.

The same is the case today as it was three centuries ago. Chavez in Caracas and Correa in Quito can afford to laugh at the US Navy. In landlocked Bolivia – where Evo Morales’ government is allowing local inhabitants to set the speed at which locally stationed US forces have to evacuate their lands, the threat from the Fourth Fleet is nugatory.

The question remains why George Bush thinks the new deployment of the Fourth Fleet is worth the candle. Ever before the collapse of Fanny Mae and Freddie Mac, the domestic funding agencies, the Federal budget was already overstretched as the collapse of the dollar showed. The strains imposed on US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan – as evidenced by their defeats by the Taleban whom they once created to fight agains the Soviets and compounded by the audacious frauds of US civilian contractors – are piteous.

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Washington’s outlook is confused. We are told that while assault carriers menace Venezuela and US war planes intrude into Venezuelan airspace from their base in the Netherlands Antilles the State Department is seeking to mend bridges not just with Chavez in Caracas but with Ahmedinejad in Teheran. It’s very puzzling.

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One big loser is George Bush’s main ally, President Alvaro Uribe high up in his Andean capital of Bogota. The freeing of the guerrrillas’ long-term prisoner Ingrid Betancourt gave him a little respite and he has gone to make a bit of peace with his adversary Chavez while he can. Buy sadly for him President Correa of Ecuador hasn’t come round to forgiving him for his recent murderous attack on Ecuadorean territory and Uribe’s decision to opt out of the Latin Americans’ new defence alliance has not commended him to the rest of the continent.

The other day he lost his foreign minister. Up there in the heights of Bogota the Colombian leader doesn’t look safe. He looks isolated.