David Rieff on the Future of Latin America

Question: What do you make of Russia’s plans to remilitarize in Latin America?

Rieff:    The Russian military was in such terrible state as anyone whose travel with… know as I have knows.  You know, incredibly tired equipment on the, you know, just this side of collapsing entirely.  Helicopters, you know, held together with masking tape and etcetera, you know, all the metallurgy from the 1950s in terms of aircraft engines, etcetera, etcetera.  You know, Russia’s rich, you know, if it wants to create a proper professional army.  And obviously, all kinds of announcements are being made, just… We’re speaking on the 30th of March.  And, I think, this week, the defense minister’s office in Moscow announce that there’ll be 5 new pursuit submarines, capable of launching proper missiles built in the next few years.  If they carry through on this, if they demobilize this extremely inefficient conscript army and replace it with the proper volunteer professional army, they certainly have the means to do so.  But… So far, I don’t think it’s very clear.  Stationing a few bombers in Havana or in Caracas isn’t going to change anything.  That… And the Americans are not… The American defense department under this secretary of defense, under Robert Gates, are not so stupid as to use this as… to panic over this.  These people are… Gates, General Jones, the National Security Adviser, Admiral Mullen, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, these are very sophisticated people.  They understand that a couple of [two polyps] in Venezuela can be shut down easily enough by US anti-aircraft forces.  I don’t think that’s the problem.  I think the question is whether the Russians intend a… to create out of the ruins of this post-Soviet army a proper army and to… proper military, excuse me, and to whether… What they did in [Afghanistan in Southeast Asia] is part of a more general plan to recreate a zone of interest and influence.  Or whether these were just specific actions, having to do with the very particular state of relations and view towards Georgia.  That, I don’t have a sense of…   

Question: How worried should we be about Mexico’s narco war?

Rieff:    I think the situation is really terrible.  And I think the Obama administration is late.  Although, I think, it’s very much to their credit that they’ve realized they were late.  And as a result, Secretary of State Clinton and the Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and various senior figures of the military are now down there a lot.  No, this is the gravest threat to Latin-American states since the attempt by the Colombian drug cartels 15 years ago, to do a similar thing, which was, in fact, to create a free zone for themselves, that the state would understand, could not be challenged.  That failed in Colombia but only barely.  And it really only failed definitively when President Uribe came into power.  And most Colombians I know would argue.  It failed because everything else was tried.  That is, say, the [Preston government in Borgata] tried to negotiate both with [Arco] traffickers quietly and with the FARQ guerillas publicly.  And that didn’t work.  And in the end, there was a war and the Colombian state beat back this fundamental challenge to its authority.  Not perfectly, not… The FARQ still controls, vast watches of Colombia and may, very well, continue to do so for the foreseeable future.  But at least the high water marks seem to have been reached and the tide is going out again.  I think Mexico is very much in that situation.  I think in a few… Some of the border cities as well as in a few of the resort cities, there is an effort to, again, create this kind of free zone.  And whether the Calderon government is strong enough to beat it back is the great question.  I mean, in many ways, Mexico… What happens in Mexico is at least as important and in my view, more important than what happens in Pakistan.

The author sees little threat in Russia’s forays into the Caribbean but much to worry about in Mexico’s narco war.

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