Why Are US Military Personnel Heading To Peru?

Authored by Nick Corbishley via NakedCapitalism.com,

The ostensible goal of the operation is to provide “support and assistance to the Special Operations of the Joint Command of the Armed Forces and National Police of Peru,” including in regions recently engulfed in violence. 

Unbeknown, it seems, to most people in Peru and the US (considering the paucity of media coverage in both countries), US military personnel will soon be landing in Peru. The plenary session of Peru’s Congress last Thursday (May 18) authorised the entry of US troops onto Peruvian soil with the ostensible purpose of carrying out “cooperation activities” with Peru’s armed forces and national police. Passed with 70 votes in favour, 33 against and four abstentions, resolution 4766 stipulates that the troops are welcome to stay any time between June 1 and December 31, 2023.

The number of US soldiers involved has not been officially disclosed, at least as far as I can tell, though a recent statement by Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel Lopéz Obrador, who is currently person non grata in Peru, suggests it could be around 700. The cooperation and training activities will take place across a wide swathe of territory including Lima, Callao, Loreto, San Martín, Huánuco, Ucayali, Pasco, Junín, Huancavelica, Iquitos, Pucusana, Apurímac, Cusco and Ayacucho.

The last three regions, in the south of Peru, together with Arequipa and Puno, were the epicentre of huge political protests, strikes and road blocks from December to February after Peru’s elected President Pedro Castillo was toppled, imprisoned and replaced by his vice-president Dina Boluarte. The protesters’ demands included:

Brutal Crackdown on Protests

Needless to say, none of these demands have been met. Instead, Peru’s security forces, including 140,000 mobilised soldiers, unleashed a brutal crackdown that culminated in the deaths of approximately 70 people. A report released by international human rights organization Amnesty International in February drew the following assessment:

“Since the beginning of the massive protests in different areas of the country in December 2022, the Army and National Police of Peru (PNP) have unlawfully fired lethal weapons and used other less lethal weapons indiscriminately against the population, especially against Indigenous people and campesinos (rural farmworkers) during the repression of protests, constituting widespread attacks.”

As soon as possibly next week, an indeterminate number of US military personnel could be joining the fracas. According to the news website La Lupa, the purported goal of their visit is to provide “support and assistance to the Special Operations of the Joint Command of the Armed Forces and National Police of Peru” during two periods spanning a total of seven months: from June 1 to September 30, and from October 1 to December 30, 2023.

The secretary of the Commission for National Defence, Internal Order, Alternative Development and the Fight Against Drugs, Alfredo Azurín, was at pains to stress that there are no plans for the US to set up a military base in Peru and that the entry of US forces “will not affect national sovereignty.” Some opposition congressmen and women begged to differ, arguing that the entry of foreign forces does indeed pose a threat to national sovereignty. They also lambasted the government for passing the resolution without prior debate or consultation with the indigenous communities.

The de facto Boluarte government and Congress are treating the arrival of US troops as a perfectly routine event. And it is true that the US military has long held a presence in Peru. For example, in 2017, U.S. personnel took part in military exercises held jointly with Colombia, Peru and Brazil in the “triple borderland” of the Amazon region. Also, the US Navy operates a biosafety-level 3 biomedical research laboratory close to Lima as well as two other (biosafety-level 2) laboratories in Puerto Maldonado.

But the timing of the operation raising serious questions. After all, Peru is currently under the control of an unelected government that is heavily supported by Washington but overwhelmingly rejected by the Peruvian people. The crackdown on protests in the south of the Peru by the country’s security forces — the same security forces that US military personnel will soon be joining — has led to dozens of deaths. Peru’s Congress is refusing to call new elections in total defiance of public opinion. Just a few days ago, the country’s Supreme Court issued a ruling that some legal scholars have interpreted as essentially criminalising political protest.

As Peru’s civilian institutions fight among themselves, Peru’s armed forces — the last remaining “backbone” in the country, according to Mexican geopolitical analyst Alfredo Jalife — has taken firm control. And lest we forget, Peru is home to some of the very same minerals that the US military has identified as strategically important to US national security interests, including lithium. Also, as I noted in my June 22, 2021 piece, Is Another Military Coup Brewing in Peru, After Historic Electoral Victory for Leftist Candidate?, while Peru’s largest trading partner is China, its political institutions — like those of Colombia and Chile — remain tethered to US policy interests:

Together with Chile, it’s the only country in South America that was invited to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which was later renamed the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership after Donald Trump withdrew US participation.

Given as much, the rumours of another coup in Peru should hardly come as a surprise. Nor should the Biden administration’s recent appointment of a CIA veteran as US ambassador to Peru, as recently reported by Vijay Prashad and José Carlos Llerena Robles:

Her name is Lisa Kenna, a former adviser to former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a nine-year veteran at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and a US secretary of state official in Iraq. Just before the election, Ambassador Kenna released a video, in which she spoke of the close ties between the United States and Peru and of the need for a peaceful transition from one president to another.

It seems more than likely that Kenna played a direct role in the not-so-peaceful transition from President Castillo to de facto President Boluarte, having met with Peru’s then-Defence Minister Gustavo Bobbio Rosas on December 6, the day before Pedro Castillo was ousted, to tackle “issues of bilateral interest”.

On a Knife’s Edge

After decades of stumbling from crisis to crisis and government to government, Peru rests on a knife’s edge. When Castillo, a virtual nobody from an Andean backwater who had played an important role in the teachers’ strikes of 2017, rode to power on a crest of popular anger at Peru’s hyper-corrupt establishment parties in June 2021, Peru’s legions of poor and marginalised hoped that positive changes would follow. But it was not to be.

Castillo was always an outsider in Lima and was out of his depth from day one. He had zero control over Congress and failed miserably to overcome rabid right-wing opposition to his government. Even in his first year in office he faced two impeachment attempts. As Manolo De Los Santos wrote in People’s Dispatch, Peru’s largely Lima-based political and business elite could never accept that a former schoolteacher and farmer from the high Andean plains could become president.

On December 7, they finally got what they wanted: Castillo’s impeachment. Just hours before a third impeachment hearing, he declared on national television that he was dissolving Congress and launching an “exceptional emergency government” and the convening of a Constituent Assembly. It was a preemptive act of total desperation from a man who held no sway with the military or judiciary, had zero control over Congress, and had even lost the support of his own party. Hours later, he was impeached, arrested by his own security detail and taken to jail, where he remains to this day.

Castillo may be out of the picture but political instability continues to reign in Peru. The de facto Boluarte government and Congress are broadly despised by the Peruvian people. According to the latest poll by the Institute of Peruvian Studies (IEP), 78% of Peruvians disapprove of Boluarte’s presidency while only 15% approve. Congress is even less popular, with a public disapproval rate of 91%. Forty-one percent believe that the protests will increase while 26% believe they will remain the same. In the meantime, Peru’s Congress continues to block general elections.

Peru’s “Strategic” Resources 

As regular readers know, EU and US interest in Latin America is rising rapidly as the race for lithium, copper, cobalt and other elements essential for the so-called “clean” energy transition heats up. It is a race that China has been winning pretty handily up until now.

Peru is not only one of China’s biggest trade partners in Latin America; it is home to the only port in Latin America that is managed entirely by Chinese capital. And while Peru may not form part of the Lithium Triangle (Bolivia, Argentina and Chile), it does boast significant deposits of the white metal. By one estimate, it is home to the sixth largest deposits of hard-rock lithium in the world. It is also the world’s second largest producer of copper, zinc and silver, three metals that are also expected to play a major role in supporting renewable energy technologies.

In other words, there is a huge amount at stake in how Peru evolves politically as well as the economic and geopolitical alliances it forms. Also, its direct neighbour to the north, Ecuador, is undergoing a major political crisis that is likely to spell the end of the US-aligned Guillermo Lasso government and a handover of power to Rafael Correa’s party and its allies.

And the US government and military have made no secret of their interest in the mineral deposits that countries like Peru hold in their subsoil. In an address to the Washington-based Atlantic Council on Jan 19, Gen. Laura Richardson, head of the U.S. Southern Command, spoke gushingly of Latin America’s rich deposits of “rare earth elements,” “the lithium triangle — Argentina, Bolivia, Chile,” the “largest oil reserves [and] light, sweet crude discovered off Guyana,” Venezuela’s “oil, copper, gold” and the fact that Latin America is home to “31% of the world’s fresh water in this region.”

She also detailed how Washington, together with US Southern Command, is actively negotiating the sale of lithium in the lithium triangle to US companies through its web of embassies, with the goal of “box[ing] out” US adversaries (i.e. China and Russia), concluding with the ominous words: “This region matters. It has a lot to do with national security. And we need to step up our game.”

Which begs the question: is this the first step of the US government and military’s stepping-up-the-game process?

The former president of Bolivia Evo Morales, who knows a thing or two about US interventions in the region, having been on the sharp end of a US-backed right-wing coup in 2019, certainly seems to think so. A few days ago, he tweeted the following message:

The Peruvian Congress’ authorisation for the entry and stationing of US troops for 7 months confirms that Peru is governed from Washington, under the tutelage of the Southern Command.

The Peruvian people are subject to powerful foreign interests mediated by illegitimate powers lacking popular representation.

The greatest challenge for working people and indigenous peoples is to recover their self-determination, their sovereignty and their natural resources.

With this authorization from the Peruvian right, we warn that the criminalization of protest and the occupation of US military forces will consolidate a repressive state that will affect sovereignty and regional peace in Latin America.

Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel Lopéz Obrador, who refuses to acknowledge Boluarte (whom he calls the “great usurper”) as Peru’s president and has recently faced threats of direct US military intervention in Mexico’s drug wars from US Republican lawmakers, had a message for the US government this week:  “[Sending soldiers to Peru] merely maintains an interventionist policy that does not help at all in building fraternal bonds among the peoples of the American continent.”

Unfortunately, the US government does not seem interested, if indeed it ever has been, in building fraternal bonds with the peoples of the American continent. Instead, it is set on upgrading the Monroe Doctrine for the 21st century. Its strategic rivals this time around are not Western European nations, which are now little more than US vassals (as a recent paper by the European Council of Foreign Relations, titled “The Art of Vassalisation”, all but admitted), but rather China and Russia.

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