PART 10: IMPERIALISM IN LATIN AMERICA
OLD WINE IN NEW BOTTLES
Before taking leave of the world stage, Obama administration officials announced the end of US imperialism in Latin America.
American imperialism is “part of the past. It most definitely is part of the past.” So said the assistant Secretary of State for Latin America, Roberta Jacobson, who today serves as Donald Trump’s ambassador to Mexico.
US policy toward Latin America is no longer couched in terms like hegemony or hemispheric security, which are easily seen as synonyms for US domination. Today’s policy arrives in phrases like human rights, women’s rights, indigenous rights, respect for the environment, anti-corruption and anti-impunity.
Those concepts are actually being used to attack the sovereignty of independent nations – to reduce their chances of reaching their destinies. No clearer case exists than the persecution of the Oxec hydroelectric companies in Guatemala.
Much of Guatemala today – thanks to help from the United Nations and others from abroad – is dominated by heavily-armed militias which the UN has designated as “human-rights groups” and “indigenous leaders.” In many areas of the country, those groups have expelled legitimately-elected officials from power and have supplanted the police and army, which do not dare to challenge them.
The militias have their own self-designated justice systems, including clandestine prisons, which they use to intimidate ordinary people. Most consistently, the militia leaders have forbidden development projects in their zones by companies like Oxec; projects that would create wealth, jobs and prosperity for rural peoples.
Those projects would also remove the militias’ ability to control the populations they dominate. As it happens, the partisans of international law – who are enamored of slogans like human rights, indigenous rights, and others – have given decisive support to the militias.
In late 2015 Bernardo Caal, an activist who had worked with several of the militias, brought suit against two Oxec projects in the Q’Eqchi indigenous region of north-central Guatemala. Caal asserted that the company had failed to consult the indigenous communities about the projects, as they are required to do by law.
The plaintiff asked the Supreme Court, Guatemala’s second-highest judicial body, to cancel the Oxec licenses, claiming the company had not consulted the communities in the manner outlined by Convention 169 of the International Labour Organization (ILO), a UN agency.
Advocates for the company and the ministry vigorously disputed this claim, saying that responsible officials had done exhaustive work in consulting the communities. People from indigenous communities testified that they had indeed been consulted. They said they wanted the projects to proceed.
Those witnesses also said that Caal did not speak for them. Their testimony pulled the rug out from under Caal’s claim to represent anyone but himself – and, of course, whatever “indigenous leaders” for whom he might have been fronting.
The court, however, ruled in Caal’s favor; whereupon the companies, and Guatemala’s Ministry of Energy and Mines, appealed the case to the country’s highest judicial body, the Constitutional Court.
While the company and the ministry argued facts and law, the plaintiff argued politics. Caal, and the people for whom he was fronting, wanted the court to enshrine their interpretation of ILO Convention 169 as part of Guatemala’s national law. And the court delivered a verdict that must have exceeded the plaintiff’s wildest dreams.
The Constitutional Court decreed that its interpretation of ILO Convention 169 would henceforth serve as a basis for guidelines in all consultations that include indigenous communities. The court also said that the government would have to meet those standards – not just in the case at hand, but in all future cases.
Further – and here the magistrates really showed their hand – the court issued an order to Congress: within one year, Congress must pass a law setting the conditions under which indigenous communities must receive consultations, in line with the court’s decision.
Above all, the Oxec decision showed the members of the country’s highest court trying to capture power for the judicial branch – a power that would then be used to make the nation subservient to their interpretation of international law. The high court’s decision flatly contradicted Guatemala’s ratification of ILO Convention 169, which ruled out any measure inconsistent with the Constitution.
Old-fashioned imperialism used to come from outside. This newfangled imperialism has been getting delivered by the nation’s own Constitutional Court – together with the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a UN-appointed agency which is now the dominant power in Guatemala’s justice ministry.
Some years ago, the CICIG received a request that it investigate the activities of a “human-rights” militia in the San Marcos region of western Guatemala. That militia, which calls itself the FRENA or “Front for Resistance in Defense of Natural Resources,” had supplanted the elected officials of the region and instituted its own tyrannical rule over the citizens of the region.
With the complicity of the central government, FRENA cowed the army and police into inaction. The militia’s defining accomplishment was that it had blocked a hydroelectric project and had kept it blocked for several years; an action that spread poverty and encouraged many people to run toward the United States in search of economic opportunity.
In the summer of 2014, citizen groups told visiting reporters from the US that they wished for the hydroelectric project to proceed, and also for law enforcement to be in the hands of police rather than the militia. In a separate conversation with those same reporters, the militia leader – who called himself the “indigenous mayor” of the provincial capital – cited ILO Convention 169 as though it were part of his breviary, which indeed it was.
In 2015, a genuine human-rights activist complained to the CICIG and asked that it investigate the activities of the FRENA militia. The CICIG’s mandate is to investigate and dismantle extra-legal armed groups that interfere with basic freedoms and are beyond the reach of the law. That mandate could have been written with reference to an armed body like the FRENA.
But the CICIG commissioner declined this request in a letter which he addressed not to the activist but to justice minister. The commissioner claimed that such an investigation would contravene the CICIG’s “need to optimize its available resources during the term of its mandate.”
It was a classic bureaucratic dodge that also served the purpose of telling the Justice Ministry to lay off the matter as well. The commissioner later stated that the Justice Ministry “by legal mandate . . . must investigate all crimes committed in the country.”
As matters now stand, the CICIG and the Constitutional Court are aligned for the purpose of inflicting their interpretation of international law on Guatemala. Their choices put the interests of the US – which gives crucial material support to the CICIG – entirely in the dark. By neglecting to take a hard look at its own policy, the US tolerates damage to its own vital interests, while exalting the interests of its enemies.
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