Washington Revives the Fourth Fleet: The Return of U.S. Gun Boat Diplomacy to Latin America

• Administration not bothering to conceal implicit threat to the region

• After ignoring Latin America for most of his Presidency, Bush dispatches the Navy

• The steady remilitarization of Panama may provide a safe haven for the revitalized fleet

• FTA with Panama could grant U.S. access to canal zone military facility for Fourth Fleet

• Correa facetiously suggests that Manta be moved to Colombia

The dearth of diplomatic content in the April 24 Pentagon announcement left little mystery regarding the purpose behind Washington’s decision to reestablish the Fourth Fleet to patrol Latin American and Caribbean waters. As Washington shifts its attention back to the Western Hemisphere, it will have to grapple with issues that have been on the back burner for more than a decade. The return of the Fourth Fleet, largely unnoticed by the U.S. press, appears to represent a policy shift that projects an image of Washington once again asserting its military authority on the region, coincidentally coinciding with the announcement that Brazil has just launched a military initiative, the Conselho Sul-Americano de Defesa, embracing two of its neighbors with whom Washington has chilly relations.

The Rise of an Autonomous Latin America During a Period of U.S. Neglect
While Washington has been involved in the Middle East, a number of Latin American governments have been enjoying a degree of de facto freedom from the State Department’s traditionally pervasive influence. This has given regional policymakers the opportunity to implement economic models, trade patterns and ideological commitments contrary to the liking of the U.S. Certainly, Venezuela’s Chavez stands out as the most energized and driven anti-U.S. regional leader, easily outranking Castro’s Cuba in regards to their contemporary influence. Not without his critics, the boldness of Chavez’s challenge to U.S. hemispheric supremacy and his willingness to duke it out manoamano with the most powerful country in the world has aided his ascent to becoming a pivotal hemispheric leader. The surge in crude oil prices worldwide that began soon after Chávez took office, vaulting from $8 in 1998 to over $130 a barrel has today allowed him to implement an aggressive and foreseeing foreign trade and aid policy. Chávez single-handedly upgraded Venezuela’s military by using surplus petro-dollars to purchase large quantities of sophisticated Russian and Spanish military hardware.

In an apparent victory for Washington diplomacy, the socialist Chilean diplomat José Manuel Insulza was elected in 2005 to head the Organization of American States. Initially supporting the State Department’s perspective on trade strategy, he, in practice, asserted himself as a fairly reliable defender of Latin American autonomy. In 2006, Venezuela had fought a determined campaign against Washington favorite, Guatemala, to gain a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council. To the dismay of both countries, a relatively “neutral” Panama eventually won the seat. While Washington campaigned to prevent Caracas from being seated, countries with compromised international standing such as Libya and Iran were chosen by their regional caucuses to the Security Council’s 2007-2009 term, without concerted U.S. opposition, indicating a lack of consistency in U.S. policy.

The Region’s Array of Ideologies and Balance of Forces
The most significant legacy for Washington arising from its recent absence from American policy is the rise of ideologically left-leaning governments. This group of often like-minded leaders, sometimes referenced as the Pink Tide nations, is now considered a threat to Washington’s regional supremacy. At the forefront leftward shift are Venezuela’s Chavez, Bolivia’s Morales, Ecuador’s Correa, Cuba’s Castro, and Nicaragua’s Ortega. Comprising a more moderate left are Uruguay’s Vasquez and Paraguay’s Lugo. Brazil and Argentina, generally considered charter members of the Pink Tide countries, continue to deal with matters pragmatically, usually influenced by their status as regional heavyweights.

The U.S. only has two reliable allies in South America, Colombia’s Uribe and Peru’s Garcia. As these two leaders see it, it is in their best interest not to join the Pink Tide. Uribe, whose high domestic approval ratings reflect successes in his combating of the FARC, is receiving financial support from the U.S. Garcia, who tends to engage in “chameleon” politics, has made domestic policy rather than foreign policy his priority. This is in his best interest as he faces waning approval ratings that reflect the divisions within his ruling APRA party and the complex fall out from the trial of former dictator Alberto Fujimori.

The White House Does Not Get It When it Comes to Latin America
The inattention to Latin America by the Bush Administration has created a debacle in recent years. The White House and the State Department did not place seasoned Latin Americanists at the top of the policymaking ladder. In spite of his Jamaican descent, for example, Colin Powell never demonstrated a strong interest in the region as Secretary of State. During Powell’s term, policy initiatives regarding Cuba were left almost exclusively to Assistant Secretary of State Otto Reich, U.S. Diplomat Roger Noriega, and United States Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte. These Cold War-era hawks continued to center regional policy on a decidedly anti-Cuban bias, while focusing a comparably hostile posture toward Hugo Chavez. Visits to the Latin America by U.S. leaders including Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice from April 25-30, 2005 to Brazil, Colombia, Chile, and El Salvador; President Bush in March 2007 to Brazil; and by then Defense Secretary Rumsfeld to Paraguay in April 2005, tended to be photo opportunities that did little to improve relations in any significant manner..

Recent U.S. policy initiatives in Latin America include the debut of the Central American Free Trade Agreement-Dominican Republic (CAFTA-DR). Gaining the backing of Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, CAFTA-DR will expose signatory countries economies to an influx of cheap U.S. subsidized agricultural produce and the domination by multi-national corporations that may stamp out local competition. Also, the shadowy, coerced ousting of Jean-Bertrand Aristide in Haiti in February 2004 had several members of the Caribbean Community upset with the U.S. and France of helping bring about the de-facto coup against the Haitian president.

Navy Prepares for the Fourth Fleet
The revived Fourth Fleet will be headquartered at the United States Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) base at Mayport Naval Station in Florida. Rear Admiral Joseph Kernan, current commander of the Naval Special Warfare Command, will direct it when it becomes operational on July 1, 2008. The degree of integration among the Fourth Fleet, SOUTHCOM, the U.S. Coast Guard and other Homeland Security agencies in carrying out discreet operations in the area of anti-terrorism remains to be seen. The precise size of the fleet is also unclear. An April 24 Bloomberg report mentions that the fleet will be lead by the nuclear aircraft carrier, USS George Washington. SOUTHCOM presently has eleven vessels that could potentially be placed under the authority of the Fourth Fleet. The head of SOUTHCOM, Admiral James G. Stavridis, is also a ranking naval officer. The working relationship among fleet commanders in terms of coordinating forces and missions could prove to be problematic.

This past April, vessels from the U.S., Brazil, and Argentina participated in UNITAS Atlantic “a SOUTHCOM-sponsored multi-national naval exercise to enhance security cooperation.” Part of the series of international exercises that are emerging in the region, participating Latin American militaries saw UNITAS Atlantic as a way to train their personnel and gain access to greater military technologies The USS George Washington was among the participating U.S. warships. In March-April of 2008, another military exercise, TRADEWINDS 2008, took place off the coast of the Dominican Republic and involved a number of Caribbean countries, the U.S. and the United Kingdom. Some Latin American and Caribbean military personnel may be excited by the arrival of the units of the Fourth Fleet at their docks with the possibility of obtaining valuable instruction from their U.S. and British counterparts while others will uncomfortably recall the days of the era of U.S. Naval supremacy.

Friendly Ports
The emerging geopolitical situation in the Western Hemisphere calls into question where the friendly ports will be available for the Fourth Fleet to harbor. Ecuador’s Correa adamantly insists that he will not tolerate any renewal of the U.S. lease of Manta, a multipurpose facility located on Ecuador’s Pacific coastline, which expires in 2009. Rumors have been circulating that Peru is the next candidate for the U.S. to negotiate moorage rights, but President Alan Garcia repeatedly denies such speculations. With the loss of Manta, what other friendly harbors will exist in the region? A close ally of the U.S., President Uribe of Colombia, could invite the Manta base operation to relocate to Guajira, near the border with Venezuela. Although the rumor received some validation by U.S. Ambassador to Colombia William Brownfield, who previously served as ambassador to Venezuela, Colombian Defense Minister Juan Manuel Santos emphatically has denied the possible move.

Panama instead has emerged as one of the U.S.’s most plausible candidates. Recently, there have been steps taken which indicate that the country is cautiously militarizing. Panamanian President Martín Torrijos appointed military man Jaime Ruiz to the head of the police force on May 13 even though the country’s constitution states that it should be a civilian post. The Panamanian Minister of Government and Justice, Daniel Delgado Diamante, in reference to Merida Initiative (passed by the U.S. House of Foreign Affairs on May 14th and currently awaiting action senate action, its goal is to combat crime and narco-trafficking in Mexico and Central America), has stated that Panama deserves a greater quantity of U.S. monetary aid since it previously seized 70 tons of cocaine, as opposed to Mexico’s 46 tons. If Panama is militarizing under the cover of its anti-drug efforts, then the government is likely to welcome U.S. economic aid, technology, equipment, and expertise. There is potential for the perfect swap; military aid for a naval haven for the Fourth Fleet. If U.S. anti-drug and anti-terrorism operations are moved from Manta, the next step could very well be relocating to La Gaujira or the Panama Canal among other possibilities.

The Fourth Fleet from a Geopolitical Point of View
The revival of the Fourth Fleet may do little more than attempt to introduce a quick fix to Bush’s failed U.S. policy towards Latin America. The Fleet’s rebirth implies that Washington’s gun boat diplomacy represents a new call to arms. The U.S. may again be prepared to use the prospect of military force if it is found necessary to protect U.S. national interests in Latin America. In particular, the possibility of using the Fourth Fleet already seems to be involved in a calculated and provocative move against Washington’s current bete noir, Hugo Chávez. As Admiral Gary Roughead, chief of naval operations, stated, “this change increases our emphasis in the region on employing naval forces to build confidence and trust […] through collective maritime security efforts that focus on common threats and mutual interests.” The senior naval commander’s ominous words evoke sentiments akin to the collective security provisions of the Rio Pact of 1947, rather than a civic action template that stresses the use of military assistance mainly to provide humanitarian aid and relief. Traditionally organized along other lines, requires a different type of explanation than the rationale given for the revival of the Fourth Fleet. Left-leaning Latin America has good reason to question the motives behind over the renewal of the U.S. notion that the Caribbean Sea is virtually mar Americanus.

The Pentagon’s aspirations – particularly during the tenure of Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, to improve ties with militaries throughout the Americas by regular “ministerials,” could inadvertently encourage its Latin American counterparts to initiate similar scenarios of expansion, modernization, and the revival of their dangerous central roles plagued by past military juntas in their respective societies.

The Dispatch of the Fourth Fleet: A Turn to Style, not Substance
Washington’s Fourth Fleet initiative is mainly not a welcomed development in U.S. Latin American policy relations. While raising apprehensions of covert U.S. military and intelligence ranks to the armed forces of hemispheric leftist regimes, as voiced by Correa of Ecuador in April 2008, the Fleet’s presence could also lead to the diminishment of local funding for broad social and humanitarian needs as Latin America’s defense establishments will seek to bolster their budgets in response to the growing threat posed by neighboring militaries which are building up their armed forces. The return of gun boat diplomacy is only a confirmation to Latin America that the U.S. is unaware of some of the new realities as the region seeks out its destiny without the White House at its helm.

Panama Scholarship Contributed by COHA Research Associate Erina Uozumi.