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31 March 2008

Britain’s relations with Latin America

Hugh O'Shaughnessy gives his take on the visit of the leaders of Argentina and Chile to London and U

By Kenzie Eliasen

Two powerful Latin American presidents arrive in Britain this week. Both these women are shrewd so I fear it will not take them long to tumble to the facts about this country and Latin America. The British government, they will see, is ignorant and misguided about their nations. Just as it was about Iraq before Blair took Bush’s shilling five years ago, illegally invaded that country under his command and started the present bloody cataclysm there. With the Foreign and Commonwealth Office shaken and intimidated, Britain is today being lead by the nose by Washington around the Southern Hemisphere as easily as for the past five years it has been led around the Middle East.

Seen worldwide as the weak partner in a transatlantic relationship – the fifth wheel on the US motor car – and as a semi-detached member of the European Union, Her Majesty’s Government, thank God, presents no threat to President Cristina de Kirchner from Argentina and President Michelle Bachelet from Chile. But the legacy of Blairism and the continuing US connection mean there will be disappointment among who hoped that Britain would help Latin Americans with their principal problem, how to bridge the horrific chasm which separates the desperately poor majority from the minority of fat cats. Hopes for reform, effective democracy and the development of a market which would benefit the whole Atlantic world and boost international trade are not on the US agenda. Its past patronage of violent plutocrats such as Somoza, Videla and Pinochet confirms that.

In November, for instance, the FCO, the Department for International Development and the US-controlled Inter-American Development Bank held a conference in London on inequality in Latin America. But, bizarrely, the organisers had invited no-one from the governments of Bolivia, Venezuela, Ecuador or Nicaragua which had actually achieved something in combating inequality. When I ventured to ask why, the response was silence: no one found the courage to confess what I suspect which is they were absent because Washington did not like them.

Washington prefers the corrupt and murderous government of President Álvaro Uribe of Colombia. Consequently so does Britain.

And this despite a 1991 report from the US Defence Intelligence Agency which listed Uribe – senator, later governor of Antioquia province, a narco paradise – as among “important Colombian narco-traffickers”. The DIA noted he was a close friend of Antioquia’s drug boss Pablo Escobar.

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His is a country where a civil war has gone on for decades. There is no justice and drug dealing and corruption reaches the highest in the land.

Foreign minister María Consuelo Araujo had to resign a year ago when her family was deeply implicated with drug-dealing death squads. The US, which has big military bases there, has armed and trained the Colombian forces at a cost of a million dollars every day for the past seven years. In Meta, just one of Colombia’s 23 provinces, the military killed 287 civilians last year. These forces, responsible for large scale savagery and corruption, invaded neighbouring Ecuador a few weeks ago killing a group of Colombians and an Ecuadorean. Washington, with Britain in tow, then insolently censured Colombia’s neighbours for heightening the tension by sending troops to their borders to prevent any more Colombian state terrorism.

Now Dr Kim Howells, the FCO minister for Latin America, had himself photographed grinning and fraternising with Colombian General Mario Montoya, a former military attaché at the Colombian embassy in London with connections with death squads.

Britain’s bad decisions in Latin America – including that of aligning itself against President Hugo Chávez in Venezuela and other reforming leaders – come from its unthinking alignment with Washington in preference to the EU.

That is strengthened by the generally abysmal quality of media reporting from the region.

The Washington Post, which saw nothing wrong in the destruction of Iraq or the failed right-wing putsch against Chávez in 2002, has been vitriolic about the loud but democratically elected president of Venezuela. Features and leaders over the past year have referred to him as a “strongman”, a “crude populist”, an “autocrat”, “clownish”, “increasingly erratic”, a “despot” and a “dictator” and his government has been written off as a “dictatorship”, a “repressive regime” or a form of “authoritarianism”. The US paper’s hysterics, fostered by the Bush government, have been mirrored in the British media, not just in The Economist but also by editors from whom one might have expected better.

Overall I am puzzled by the Argentinian and Chilean presidential visits. They must have some inkling of the mess that awaits them in London. The charitable would say they’re perhaps just coming for the shopping.

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