Article Link. “South America’s Strategic Paradox” in MINGA.

The Latin American multidisciplinary journal MINGA just published my article on “South America’s Strategic Paradox.” I was surprised that they wanted to do so because they have a very clear left-leaning orientation and my article was pretty much a straight-forward geopolitical analysis. This was the article that an editor of the New Zealand International Review felt was too broad in scope to publish. Go figure.

Social Media Link: 36th Parallel on South America’s “Strategic Paradox.”

I was asked to write a commissioned essay for a special issue on Latin America of a NZ international affairs magazine. I was told by the editor I could write on a specific subject of my choice. I decided to write about what I see as South America’s “Strategic Paradox:” increased overall (macroeconomic) regional prosperity largely brought about by the growth in trade with the PRC (rather than with the US or EU) did not translate into increased domestic social equality, security and stability (as most Western developmental economists and sociologists would believe). Instead, increasing income inequalities caused by limited domestic job growth, few wage improvements and negligible distribution of tax revenues from the expanding import-export sector exacerbated social tensions, leading to more domestic insecurity. To this is added an assortment of pathologies such as public and private sector corruption and negative collaterals like environmental degradation in the emerging primary goods sector (such as in lithium extraction). All of this is set against the backdrop of increasing US hostility to the PRC presence in the region, which it sees as a growing security threat that must be countered.

The result is that South America may be more prosperous than ever in aggregate terms (say, GDP per capita), but it is not more peaceful, stable or secure as a result. My conclusion is that with a few notable exceptions it is a lack of good corporate and public governance that explains the paradox. Meanwhile the great power rivalry in the region has taken on a pernicious dynamic of its own that if left unmitigated will only add fuel to the fire.

Unfortunately, the editor, who is not a political scientist or international relations specialist (she says that she specialises in propaganda and authoritarianism, although from her limited bibliography she shows little knowledge of the extensive literature on each!) decided that the essay was too generalised and lacking in data to be publishable as is (after asking me to limit the essay to 3500 words and write it for a general, not specialist audience). She challenged my mention of the ongoing use of the Monroe Doctrine by US security officials, even though I provided citations for both data and comments when pertinent (15 in all, including Congressional testimony from US military officials and data from the Economic Commission Latin America (ECLA)). I got the distinct impression that she wanted a puff piece, got a critical analysis instead, and decided to condescendingly ask for unreasonable revisions in order to reject the piece without seriously reading it. In other words, she did not like it, but not because of its lack of scholarship but because it did meet her expected editorial slant. In fact. from her tone it appears that she had no idea who I am before she commissioned the essay and then assumed that I am some ignoramus when it comes to discussing South American politics, geopolitics and social dynamics. Y bueno, que le vas a hacer?

The good part of this story is that since I am not paid for the work, am not an academic who needs it on my c.v. for promotion purposes, and have a couple of social media platforms on which to publish and disseminate it without editorial interference from uninformed non-specialists, I told her that I would not do as told, would not do the demanded revisions and instead would publish the piece elsewhere.

KP is one such elsewhere: https://36th-parallel.com/2024/01/05/south-americas-strategic-paradox/

Tell me what you think about it.

Media Link: The Era of Restive Politics.

In the latest “A View from Afar” podcast Selwyn Manning and I explore what can be called the era of restive politics in national and international affairs. We review recent political dynamics in the US, UK, Brazil, Italy, Iran and the PRC to highlight that in the post-pandemic world, public disgruntlement, resentment and frustration has less to do with ideology and more to do with governments failing to deliver on, much less manage popular expectations of what the State should provide to the polity. The issue is one of competence and responsiveness rather than ideological predilection.

This is true for authoritarian regimes as well as liberal democracies (hence the choice of a small-N “most different” comparative survey of case studies), but the remedies are all too often offered by populist demagogues who see political opportunity in the restive moment. You can find the podcast here.

Media Link: AVFA on Latin America.

In the latest episode of AVFA Selwyn Manning and I discuss the evolution of Latin American politics and macroeconomic policy since the 1970s as well as US-Latin American relations during that time period. We use recent elections and the 2022 Summit of the Americas as anchor points.

Indigenous socialism with a Chilean face.

Happy New Year everyone.

I am, by personal and professional inclination, loathe to speculate on uncertain future events. On the other hand, I have an abiding interest in distant political processes even though I cannot claim particular analytic expertise when considering them. Thus, when watching the recent Chilean presidential election from afar, I found myself wanting to offer a view while being unable to realistically give a prediction or even outline what the future course of affairs will be beyond the inauguration of Chile’s new president in March. An exchange with a long term reader (Edward Main) during the holiday break led me to look closer into the matter. With that in mind, I hope that readers will take the following as an interested bystander’s observations rather than an expert reflection of the ongoing turn of events.

Five days before Christmas and 51 years after Salvador Allende was elected as the first socialist president in Chilean history, Gabriel Boric re-made history as the youngest candidate (35) to win that office. A former student activist and Congressman from Punta Arenas in Tierra del Fuego, he first rose to prominence during the 2011 student demonstrations against increases in tuition fees at the University of Chile, then again during the 2019 anti-austerity demonstrations precipitated by a 30 percent rise in public transportation prices in Santiago. In 2021 Boric rode a wave of votes (the most since mandatory voting laws were dropped in 2012) to win 56 percent of the national ballot (although less than 60 percent of eligible voters cast ballots, leaving a large pool of disaffected or apathetic voters in the political mix). He campaigned on an overtly socialist, specifically anti-neoliberal agenda, promising to tax the super rich, expand social services and environmental conservation programs, promote pension reform and universal health care and make the fight against income inequality his main priority in a country with the worst income gaps in South America.

Boric’s victory is remarkable given the tone of the campaign. His opponent, Jose Antonio Kast, embraced Trumpian-style rhetoric and openly said that he would be the “Bolsonaro of Chile” (Jair Bolsonaro is the national-populist president of Brazil who emulates Trump, now hospitalized because of complications from a knife attack in 2018). He railed against Boric as someone who would turn Chile into Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, or even Peronist Argentina. Kast is the son of a card-carrying Nazi who fled to Chile after WW2 and built a sausage-making business that served as a launching pad for his children’s economic and political ambitions during the Pinochet dictatorship (the Kast family dynasty is prominent in Chilean rightwing circles). Jose Antonio Kast openly praised the strongman and his neoliberal economic policies during his presidential campaign while downplaying the thousands of murdered, tortured and exiled victims of Pinochet’s regime. He won a plurality of votes in the presidential primaries but lost decisively in the second round run-off between the two largest vote-getters.

Surprisingly given their vitriol during the campaign, both Kast and the outgoing president, rightwing Sebastian Pinera (son of a Pinochet Labour Minister who happened to be a friend of my father) extended their congratulations and offers of support to the newly elected Boric, who will be inaugurated in March. This makes the transition period especially important, as it may offer a window of opportunity for Boric to negotiate inter-partisan consensus on key policy issues.

Boric’s election follows that of several other Leftist presidential candidates in Latin America in the last two years, including those in Bolivia (a successor to the illegally ousted Evo Morales), Peru (an indigenous school teacher and teacher’s union leader) and Honduras (the wife of a former president ousted by a coup tacitly backed by the Obama administration). Centre-Left presidents govern in Belize, Costa Rica, Guyana, Mexico, Panama, and Suriname. A former leftwing mayor of Bogota is the front runner in this year’s Colombian presidential elections (now in Right-center hands) and former president Lula da Silva is leading the polls against Bolsonaro for the October canvass in Brazil. These freely elected Leftists are bookended on one end by authoritarian counterparts in Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela and on the other by right-leaning elected governments in Brazil, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala Paraguay and Uruguay. Argentina, which has a Peronist government, straddles the divide between Left and Right owing to the odd (and very kleptocratic) populist coalition that makes up the governing Party. 

One might say that the region is relatively balanced ideologically speaking, but with an emerging tilt to the moderate Left as a result of the exposure by the pandemic of inherent flaws in the market driven economic model that dominated the region over the last thirty years. It remains to be seen if this political tilt will eventuate in the type of socio-economic reforms upon which the successful Leftists candidates campaigned on. What is pretty clear is that it will not be a repeat of the so-called “Pink Tide” that swept the likes of Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales into power in the early 2000s, both in terms of the extent of their policy ambitions and the style in which they rule. This most recent wave still retains many characteristics of the much lauded (by the Left) indigenous socialism of twenty years ago, but it is now tempered by the policy failures and electoral defeats that followed its heyday. It is indigenous not only because of its origins in populations that descended from pre-colonial civilizations (although there is still plenty of indigena in Latin American socialism), but because it originates in domestic and regional ideological thought and practice. Within this dual sense of the phrase, it is moderation and pragmatism that appears to differentiate the original 2000s versions from what is emerging today.

Western observers believe that the regional move Left may give China an opportunity to make strategic inroads in the hemisphere. That view betrays ignorance of the Latin American Left, which is not driven by any Communist orthodoxy or geopolitical alignment with China (or even blind hatred of the US), but instead is a very heterogenous mix of indigenous, environmental, trade union, student and social movement activism that among other things is progressive on gender and sexuality rights and climate change. This is not a Leninist/Maoist Left operating on vanguardist principles of “democratic centralism,” but instead a fluid amalgam of modern (industrial) and post-modern (post-industrial) causes. What that means is, since China is soon to overtake the US as the primary extractor of raw materials and primary goods from Latin America and has a checkered environmental record as part of its presence as well as a record of authoritarian management practices in Chinese controlled firms, it is by no means certain that it will be able to leverage emergent elected Latin American Left governments in its favor. 

In fact, given what has been seen in its relationship with the three authoritarian leftist states, many of the elected Leftist governments may prove reticent to deepen ties with the Asia giant precisely because of concerns about a loss of economic independence (fearing debt diplomacy, among other things). The Belt and Road initiative may seem an attractive proposition at first glance, but it can also serve to choke national sovereignty on the economic as well as diplomatic fronts. Boric and his supporters are very much aware of this given problems that have risen from Chinese investment in the Chilean mining and forestry sectors (such as disputes over water and indigenous land rights).

This is worth mention as a relevant aside. Chile’s economy remains primary good export oriented. The bulk of its GDP is derived from mining, forestry, fishing and agriculture, including value added products such as wine. Recently, lithium deposit exploitation has exploded across the so-called “lithium triangle” comprised of northwest Argentina, southwestern Bolivia and northeaster Chile, with Chinese investors jockeying for position with Western interests in the development of salt flat mining in which lithium is extracted for commercial purposes in an increasingly e-based global economy. Such mining is environmentally damaging and machine intensive, so the benefits accrued go to those who can afford to invest in it rather than to workers associated with it. Chinese firms compete on the bottom line, not on social responsibility.

The political economic consequences of this dependence on primary good exports fuelled by foreign investment follows a larger pattern whereby Chilean economic elites resist public investment in anything other than service industries connected to primary good supply chains and ancillary businesses (input and output logistics, highways, port infrastructure and the legal and commercial apparatuses attendant to them). This has made for a significant urban-rural divide when it comes to economic opportunity, something that is not alleviated by the proliferation of universities and private education institutions during the last 30 years. In fact, the Chilean economic model discourages investment in value-added technological innovation that would undermine the primacy of the primary good export sector as the dominant economic, social and political constellation. Instead, Right governments have used low export tax policy as a means of promoting “trickle down” opportunity to those inserted into the main productive sectors while Left leaning governments have used tax revenues on exports as a means of alleviating social inequalities and dysfunction while expanding the service sector middle class. As the 2019 demonstrations made clear, neither has worked. Boric’s presidency has that as its fundamental conundrum.

That brings up the internal political dynamics at play in Chile. For Boric to succeed he will have to deliver on very high public expectations. For that to happen he needs to navigate a three-cornered political obstacle course.

In one corner is his own political support base, which is comprised of numerous factions with different priorities, albeit all on the “Left” side of the policy agenda. This include members of the Constitutional Convention charged with drawing up a replacement for the Pinochet-era constitution still in force (something that was agreed to by the outgoing government in the wake of the 2019 protests). The Convention must design a new constitution with procedural as well as substantive features. That is, it must demarcate governance processes as well as grant enshrined rights. The balance between the two is tricky, because a minimalist approach that focuses on processes and procedures (such as elections, office terms and separation of powers) does not address what constitutes a “right” in a democracy and who should have rights bestowed upon them, whereas an encompassing approach that attempts to cover the universe of social endeavour risks granting so many rights to so many people and agencies that it overwhelms regulatory processes and becomes meaningless is real terms (the latter happened with the 1988 Brazilian constitutional reform, which covers a plethora of topics that have been cumbersome to enforce or implement in practice).

Not all of the delegates share the gradualist, incremental, moderately pragmatic approach to policy agenda-setting that Boric espouses, and because they are independently elected, it signals that the future of Chile resides in a very much redesigned approach to governance. It is even possible that delegates consider moving from a presidential to a parliamentary democracy given that Chile already has a very splintered party system that requires the building multiparty coalitions to form majorities in any event. Whatever is put on the table, Boric will have to urge delegates to exercise caution when it comes to sensitive issues like taxation, military funding and autonomy, land reform (including indigenous land rights, which have been the source of violent clashes in recent years) etc., less it provoke a destabilizing backlash from conservative sectors. In light of that and the strength of his election victory, it will be interesting to see how Boric approaches the Constitutional Convention, how his Cabinet shapes up in terms of personnel and policy orientation, and how his support bloc in Congress responds to his early initiatives.

The latter matters because Boric inherits a deeply fragmented Congress that has a slim Opposition majority but which in fact has seen all centrist parties lose ground to more extreme parties on both the Right and Left. Even so and depending on the issue, cross-cutting alliances within Congress currently transcend the usual Left-Right divide, so it is possible that he will be able to use his incrementalist moderate approach to advance a Left-nationalist project that keeps most parties aligned or at least does not step on too many Party toes. On the other hand, the fact Boric won 56 percent of a vote in which only 56 percent of eligible voters went to the polls means that his policy proposals could easily be rejected on partisan grounds given the lack of unified majorities on either side of the ideological divide.

In another corner are the political Opposition, dominated by Pinochetista legacies but increasingly interspersed with neo-MAGA and alt-Right perspectives (what I shall call Chilean nationalist conservatism). The Right has a significant presence in the Constitutional Convention so may be able to act as a brake on radical reforms and in doing so create space for Boric and his supporters in the convention to push more moderate alterations to the magna carta (each constitutional change requires a 2/3 vote in order to pass. This will force compromise and moderation by the drafters if anything is to be achieved).

The fact that Pinera and Kast, scions of the Pinochetista wing (they do not like that name and disavow ties to the dictatorship other than support for its “Chicago School” economic policies), readily conceded and offered support to Boric may indicate that the neoliberal wing of Chilean conservatism understands that many rightwing voters may have abstained from voting or voted for Boric on economic nationalist grounds as a result of Pinera’s adherence to market-oriented policies that clearly were not alleviating poverty or providing effective pandemic relief even as the upper ten percent of society continued to capture an increasing percentage of national wealth. This could mean that the Chilean Right is less disloyal to the democratic process as it was in the run up to Allende’s election and therefore more committed—or at least some of it is—to trying to reach compromises with Boric on pressing policy issues. In that sense their presence in the Constitutional Convention may prove to be a moderating influence. 

Conversely, in the wake of the defeat the Chilean Right might fragment between Pinochetista and newer factions, which will mean that conciliation with government initiatives will be difficult until the internal power struggle within the Right is resolved, and then only if it is resolved in a way that marginalizes Trump and Bolsonaro-inspired extremists within conservative ranks. After all, what sells in the US or Brazil does not necessarily sell in Chile. The most important arena in which this internal dispute will have to be resolved is Congress, where extreme Right parties have taken seats from traditional conservative vehicles. On the face of it that spells trouble for Boric, but the narrow Right majority in Congress and Pinochetista disdain for their extreme counterparts may grant him some room for manoeuvre.

In a very real sense, Boric’s political fate will be determined in the first instance by the coalition politics within his own support base as well as within the Right Opposition.

The final obstacle is getting the Chilean military on-board with the new government’s project. Of the three factors in this political triumvirate, the armed forces are both a constant and a wild card. They are a constant in that their deeply conservative disposition and institutional legacies are unshakable and guaranteed. This means that Boric’s government must tread delicately when it comes to civil-military affairs, both in terms of national security policy-making but also with regard to the prerogatives awarded the armed forces under the Pinochet constitution. Along with the Catholic Church and landed agricultural interests, the Chilean armed forces are one of the three pillars of traditional Chilean conservatism. This ideological outlook extends to the national paramilitary police, the Carabineros, who are charged with domestic security and repression (the two overlap but are not the same).

Democratic reforms (such as allowing female combat pilots) have been introduced into the military, especially during the tenure of former president Michelle Bachelet as Defense Minister, but the overall tone of civil-military relations over the years since democracy was restored (1990) has been aloof, when not tense. Revelations that Pinochet and other senior offices had received kickbacks from weapons dealers produced a paratrooper mutiny in 1993, and when Pinochet returned from voluntary exile in the UK in 2000 he was greeted with full military honors in a nationally televised airport ceremony. This rekindled old animosities between Right and Left that saw the military high command issue veiled warnings about leaving sleeping dogs lie. Until now, that warning has been heeded.

The role of the military as political guarantor and veto agent is enshrined in the Pinochet constitution. So is its receipt of a percentage of pre-tax copper exports. These powers and privileges have been pared down but not eliminated entirely over the years and will be a major focus of attention of the Constitutional Convention. With 7,800 kilometers of land bordering on three states that it has had wars with and 6,435 kilometers of ocean frontage extending out to Easter Island (and all the waters within that strategic triangle), the Chilean military is Army-dominant even if the other two service branches are robust given GDP and population size (in fact, the Chilean military is one of the most modernized in Latin America thanks to its direct access to copper revenues). What this means is that the Chilean armed forces exhibit a state of readiness and geopolitical mindset that is distinct from that of most of its neighbors and which gives it unusual domestic political influence.

The Chilean armed forces High Command continues to operate according to Prussian-style organizational principles that, if instilling professionalism and discipline within the ranks, also leads to highly concentrated and centralized decision-making authority in the services Flag-rank leadership. Moreover, although the Prussian legacy has diluted in recent years (with the Army retaining significant Prussian vestiges, to include parade march goose-stepping, while the Air Force and Navy have adored UK and US organizational models), the Chilean Navy is widely seen as a bastion for the most conservative elements in uniform, with the Air Force encompassing the more “liberal” wing of the officer corps and the Army and Carabineros leaning towards the Navy’s ideological position. The effect is to make democratic civil-military relations largely hinge on the geopolitical perspectives and attitudes of service branch leaders towards the elected government of the day.

Successfully navigating these three obstacle points will be the key to Boric’s success. The groundwork for that is being laid now, in the period between his election and inauguration. Should he be able to reach agreement with supporters and opposition on matters like the scope of constitutional reform and short-term versus medium-term fiscal and other policy priorities in the midst of a public health crisis, then his chances of leaving a legacy of positive change are high. Should he not be able to do so, then his attempt to impart a dose of pragmatism and moderation on Chilean indigenous socialism could well end in disarray.

We can only hope that for Boric and for Chile, the country advances por la razon y no por la fuerza.

Media Link: “A View from Afar” on NZ security strategy and the end of neoliberalism in South America.

I have not had much time to blog in recent weeks but continue the weekly series of podcasts with Selwyn Manning. This week we discussed efforts to develop a comprehensive national security strategy for New Zealand that goes beyond Defense White Papers and annual reports from various security agencies, then turned to recent elections in South America as an indicator that neoliberalism is well and truly dead as an economic policy approach and, perhaps more importantly, as a social theory. You can find the episode here.

Infiltrating extremism.

Preamble

When I got my Ph.D. I was given an extraordinary opportunity to create a Latin American Studies program for US intelligence officers. My then father-in-law (a retired FBI agent and Legal Attache) knew a retired CIA guy who had links to the Naval Postgraduate School, where the program was to be housed. My father-in-law mentioned to the ex-CIA officer that he had a son-in-law who grew up in the region and that I was about to graduate with a degree in Political Science specialising in the comparative politics and international relations of Latin America. Although I was a “commie” in his eyes, he believed that I would probably pass the security clearances. I was invited to interview for the job along with a few others and lo and behold, I got it.

My task was to create a six course MA-level curriculum in Latin American Studies for civilian and military intelligence officers who would be heading into the region after taking intensive language courses at the Defence Language Institute (DLI)–conveniently located just down the road from NPS–as a requirement for graduation. I drew up syllabi for the History of Latin America, Latin American Government, Politics and Societies, Latin American Civil-Military Relations, Latin American International Relations, Latin American Economics and Latin American Insurgencies and Revolutionary Movements and taught all courses except the economics course. The students wrote a thesis in their final two quarters after being language certified at DLI, so the entire course of study lasted eighteen months (12 of course work/thesis and six of language training).

Notice the practical aspect of this curriculum. No literature offerings, no post-modern reflections on Latin American intersubjectivity, no electives in poetry or music (although there was plenty of that on offer at off-campus parties). While all of that is important and should be the stuff of civilian university offerings, this was different. The idea was to immerse the students in the realpolitik of the region, teach them proficiency in the language(s) in which they would have to operate, and then send them into the field where they would join more experienced officers for their first assignments.

I got the security clearances needed to supervise classified theses (Top Secret), which was an interesting process because even then in the mid-1980s the investigators were obsessed with whether I had ties to a communist party. They did not care about Peronists and when I told them that I was more of a Euro-Marxist along neo-Gramscian lines, they just stared blankly and asked if he had any relationship with Che Guevara. Since I did not belong to a CP and Gramsci did not travel in the same temporal or political circles as El Che, I was deemed fit for purpose.

NPS is located in Monterey, California, which is a very beautiful place. The Monterey Institute for International Studies (MIIS) is located there and I managed to secure an Adjunct Professor job at it teaching Latin American Politics. My in-laws lived in Carmel down the road, and there was blue water, open roads and clean air to run, swim and bike galore. Plus NPS has a serious gym with some very serious fitness freaks in it, so I was always able to work out and find training partners rain or shine (this privilege continued when I was in the Pentagon years later. Let’s just say that the US understands the benefits of sports and exercise quite well). My students were all around my age–late 20s and early 30s–so we played ball together even though technically I outranked them on and off the field. That made for some amusing moments when arguing with opposing players.

Student discipline, as you would expect, was superb. Many were very conservative in their political views but they understood where I was coming from given my background and also understood that they needed to comprehend why the US was opposed in many places and who opposed them (remember, these were the days of the Sandinistas, FMLN, Sendero Luminoso and assorted other leftist insurgencies). It was more than just knowing the enemy of the day. As I used to say to them, “you guys are professional security agents of a superpower but the people fighting in the insurgencies opposing the US and its client regimes are all volunteers. Why is that?” Since I had a visible distaste for military-bureaucratic authoritarians of the right as well as Lenenists and Stalinists, it was illuminating for them to hear me explain the reasons why.

I did a very good job getting that curriculum up and running (called the Western Hemisphere Area Studies program in the Department of National Security Affairs). But it was not to last. During the second Reagan administration word got out that there was a Marxist teaching at NPS and an ideological inquisitor from the Defence Department, ironically the son of a political theorist that I had studied under at Chicago, came to see what I was doing. Although no one said anything bad about me and in fact my students and colleagues were full of praise, I was ordered to start teaching Latin American maritime strategy and naval warfare even though no other area studies program had such requirements (there were already established programs in Asian, Middle Eastern and European Studies in the NSA Department).

Needless to say, although I had been studying geopolitics since undergraduate school and had a fair handle on Latin American military thinking, it was clear that, as a civilian who does not sail, I would struggle to fulfil the task. So I quit and went off to a civilian university, where two things happened: I continued to get military officers as my students because their commands were pleased with what I taught so moved them to the school I went to; and I developed a consulting relationship with various military commands and the intelligence community that was to last until I emigrated to NZ.

One of the most interesting things about that job was the unexpected and informal quid pro quo I developed with the intelligence community. Within weeks of joining NPS I was invited to give lectures around the country to military and civilian intelligence audiences (including, I must admit, the infamous School of the Americas). On one side, I was very sporty in those days and so managed to convince various military commands to allow me to run the obstacle courses on a number of military bases when visiting them to guest lecture (needless to say the military guys were suckers for putting a civilian academic through the grinder of their physical training routines). With my knowledge of the subject already established, the ability to do hard exercise in turn led to me being invited to join in various US irregular warfare activities as an observer, then advisor and consultant, something that continued until I left the US for NZ.

On the other side, I was eventually asked to participate in some leadership analysis and strategic deconstruction exercises for intelligence shops in DC and elsewhere (of ideology and tactics, such as whether guerrilla groups adopted Marighella’s two-pronged approach to irregular warfare, Guillen’s “Robin Hood” urban warfare approach or Guevara’s “foco” theory and whether they were Leninist, Maoist, Trotskyite or hybrid in ideological orientation). I had the security clearances so that was never an issue, and because I spoke both Spanish and Portuguese and lived so long in Latin America, I was very well received wherever I went because of the insights that I could offer on things like cultural mores, social do’s and don’ts, etc. Eventually the relationship with the intelligence community developed to the point that I would get invited to see aspects of how they trained human intelligence officers and even got to offer my thoughts on how to improve said training. I was told that the courtesy was simply a way of repaying me for my efforts in creating and running the Western Hemisphere Area Studies program. It was very enlightening to see how and what intelligence officers are taught before they become case officers in the field and/or subject analysts.

The exposure to both the military and intelligence sides of the coin (no pun intended for those in the know) was a luxury that few non-career people get to enjoy. It became the basis for how I approach the subjects of strategic analysis, threat assessment, intelligence collection and warfare.

The issue.

Which brings me in a much convoluted way to the point of this post: the differences between detecting, monitoring and infiltrating rightwing as opposed to to leftwing extremist groups. That was something that came up in conversation from time to time during my days in and around the US intelligence and military communities, since both types of group have historically been present in Latin America. From rightwing paramilitary death squads like Mano Blanca in El Salvador and the Triple-A in Argentina to the leftist populism of the Tupamaros in Uruguay and Bolivarians in Venezuela to the Maoism of Sendero Luminoso in Peru and FARC in Colombia to the Trotskyite tendencies of the ERP in Argentina, both sides of the ideological spectrum have armed extremist factions with violent histories.

The basic difference, and the one that makes the extremist Right easier to infiltrate than the extremist Left, is that the Right defends the capitalist class structure of society whereas the Left seeks to overthrow it. What that means is that the Right, as a defensive or restorative movement, seeks and often receives the shelter of capitalist class fractions, including some directly represented in government. Unconsciously or consciously, the extremist Right operates on behalf of the capitalist State, whereas the extremist Left seeks to confront it. The extremist Right sees itself as the ideological vanguard of a system of property-based class relations that is too weak to defend itself from assorted usurpers. It therefore offers autonomous protection to the capitalist class fractions most threatened by those groups and often receives capitalist support and cover in return.

The extremist Left has no such luxury. Dedicated to the overthrown of the capitalist system and the State that emerges from and serves it, leftist extremists cannot afford to reveal themselves to potential patrons outside of ideological fellow travellers. Back in the day, this forced many Latin American revolutionaries to seek support from Cubans, Russians, Chinese and Vietnamese even if these were not fully cognisant of the ideological and physical terrain in which the Latin Americans were fighting in (Che Guevara’s failed campaign in Bolivia being a remarkable example). Although extra-regional and foreign, they at least could be trusted out of shared ideological conviction, whereas even members of the domestic petit bourgeoisie, organised labour and public service could not be trusted due to their penchant for cooptation and hence betrayal of the class line.

Because of this, Left extremists have developed comparatively secure operational security systems in which secrecy, insularity, compartmentalisation, siloing and atomisation of cellular networks is paramount. Right extremists, on the other hand, prefer more overt displays of power tied to the classes that they support and defend. This occurs via public demonstrations such as the march on Charlottesville or the assault on the US Capitol, but the usual displays are local in nature. This can be seen in the connections between US extremists like Oathkeepers and Proud Boys with members of the Trump entourage and retrograde billionaires like Erik Prince or the Pillow Guy. It is likely to be the case with Action Zealandia, whose overt public media efforts (including Facebook and Twitter accounts) serve as a disguise for more violent planning and hint at links to funding and patronage beyond the known membership. These groups operate openly but generally conceal their violent tendencies and more extreme views in the public space while cultivating relationships with class allies and sponsors under the guise of moderation.

Such is true even when the Right moves to decentralised small cell or lone wolf tactics because unlike Left extremists, there is always a class patron in the background and a broader network of enablers and accomplices to which the extremists look for shelter and camouflage. To that can be added the more specific commonalities that cross between certain Right subgroups, including the symbology of tattoos and heraldry, interest in body-building (a trait shared by some jihadists), tenuous if not hostile relationships with females, interest in weaponry and anger at the way “things” are going in society. The combination of personality traits and collective expression of identity are the most visible signs of a penchant for extremism and lie at the core of the type of profiling that is the bread and butter of counter-terrorism operations. But this needs to be supplemented by a broader perspective in order to discern the full context in which extremists materialise and operate.

Put another way, whereas for Mao the peasantry were the sea in which the guerrilla fish swam in pre-revolutionary China, for the Right in liberal democracies it is among the (I would argue descendent) capitalist class fractions where the extremists seek to organise and hide. That is the starting point from which counter-extremist measures should be undertaken.

Broader historical context supports this view. Leftist perspectives have been the exception to capitalist rule since the end of the Cold War. Leftist extremists were mostly defeated where they engaged in armed struggle and those that did not fight, say in Europe, North America and the Antipodes in the 1960s and 70s, were coopted and bought off. What was Left into the 2000s has very little support and even less shelter for its extremist elements. Moreover, once the political Left adopted market-friendly “Third Way” policies and the activist Left splintered into identity politics and other forms of post-modern self-characterisation, the movement as a whole lost the class line unifier that could have allowed it some critical mass for revolutionary action propelled by an extremist vanguard. Today the Left are extremist in name only, running from the terms “radical” and “socialist” rather than embracing them for the emancipatory promise they contain within.

Contrarily, as a pro-capitalist movement, the ideological Right has ridden a market-oriented and -led political wave that harks to the Chicago Boys in Chile, Reaganism, Thatcherism and the pro-market reforms in NZ of the mid 1980s to become an all encompassing and largely unchallenged world view that continues to this day. It is not just a dominant theory about preferred economic organisation, policy and behaviour. It has become a holistic world-view based on principles of individualism, property and self advancement even if these principles are more mythical than real. In this cultural environment extremist Right views flow as a sub-current in the dominant ideological stream while Left extremists swim against it. One side hides in the open while the other seeks the cover of marginality. This has consequences for their respective praxis.

Because the extremist Left cannot “hide” in the capitalist class structure it is much more furtive and surreptitious in its approach to the armed struggle. Because the extremist Right sees itself as a champion of a system of property and society under siege and therefore well supported by the “silent majority,” it is more prone to let its guard down in front of kindred spirits when it comes to enunciating its plans and preparations for confrontation with those who would seek to challenge tradition, custom and class relations. When its views are repeated and shared by politicians as shared “truths” (say, by calling for NZ borders to be closed to people from “dirty” places like India or by saying that US elections were “stolen” by an evil cabal of liberal swamp people), then there is reason to believe that they are justified in assuming that their more devilish schemes will go unnoticed or be wilfully ignored. What differences may exist between more moderate Rightists and their extremist counterparts (say, on Jews), the unifying binds of capitalist class defence is what ultimately ties them together. A Leftist extremist is a threat to the system and traditional values; a Rightist extremist is a misguided or overzealous defender of that which is given and good.

This is true as much on-line as it is in the real world. That matters because on-line has become a major channel for extremist recruitment and organization. In the world of political blogs and message boards, the language of Rightwing extremism overlaps and mixes with those of economic or social conservatives, whereas the extremist Left is seldom seen or heard at all, much less in “moderate” Left conversations. After a period of supposed self-reflection and increased moderation, mainstream Rightwing blogs in NZ have reversed course and allow thinly veiled extremists back onto their threads. From my perspective this is a good thing because if intelligence agencies are worth their budgets, they will spend time using their technical and analytic skills to triangulate between the frothing blog commentators, the quietly vile ones, and the denizens of hate fests like 4 Chan’s political boards in order to determine measures of violent intent. It really is not hard if the will is there and resources are made available. To repeat: more often than not extremists on the Right are more likely to be hiding in plain sight when compared with those on the Left.

Less readers point to lone wolf attacks as evidence that I am wrong, let me state that I reject the notion that people like the Christchurch, Pittsburgh, San Diego and El Paso killers (to name a few) flew under the radar and that no one could have predicted their murderous actions. Contrary to the official narrative, all of these had on-line and physical presences that pointed, if not screamed aloud what their intentions were. But in each case they were cloaked in concentric circles of sympathy, connivence and disinterest that allowed them to move unimpeded towards their final act. Intelligence agencies with other priorities downplayed the danger posed by the extremist Right even after the 2011 Norway attacks, considering it to be a local enforcement problem rather than a global security threat even though rightwing groups and individuals were well established on-line. Official postmortems of these crimes all sought to downplay this particular fact, attributing blame to maladjusted and socially isolated individuals acting out on completely unforeseen dark fantasies.

I beg to differ. In any event I very much doubt that any Leftist could have gotten that far in this day and age. Or a radical Muslim, for that matter, even though, in spite of their conservatism, penetrating jihadist circles is harder precisely because they do not enjoy capitalist class support in the societies in which many live.

In summary, this is just one way in which intelligence analysis can help focus and allocate resource better within a given threat landscape. As I have written elsewhere, it is good to downplay the specific ideological cause behind irregular acts of violence such as that involved in terrorism, since that focuses attention on the crime rather than the motive (because doing so elevates the latter over the former in the public eye, thereby reifying the crime). But within the confines of the agencies involved in countering extremist threats there needs to be a nuanced understanding of the difference between ideological motivations as they translate into support networks, operational security and tactical opportunities presented to violent-minded extremists. That in turn allows security agencies to design proactive infiltration and monitoring strategies that seek to detect and impede extremist plots earlier rather than later with an eye towards deterring or disrupting rather than defending against or responding to them.

In other words, one must understand the breadth and depth of the socio-economic and cultural terrain if one is to move undetected within the landscape of ideological extremism.


Why do they do it? A note on the passing of Robert Barros.

I recently heard that my old friend Robert “Bob” Barros died of cancer in Buenos Aires last month. Bob was part of my graduate student cohort in Political Science at the University of Chicago in the early 1980s, and we studied under the same group of neo-Gramscian/analytic Marxist “transitologists” who helped redefine and renovate the study of comparative politics world-wide.

Bob wrote a number of influential works, particularly Constitutionalism and Dictatorship, a study of the Pinochet regime’s attempts to provide a legal mantle to its rule (and aftermath); “Personalization and Institutional Constraints,” on the tension between personalist dictators and their attempts to institutionalise their rule; “On the Outside Looking In” and “Secrecy and Dictatorships,” which addressed the methodological and substantive problems in studying (opaque) authoritarian regimes.

Bob’s work received awards and international recognition. Yet rather than seek the material comfort and security of a tenured position at a US university, he chose to follow his love of the Southern Cone by moving to Argentina to work at a small university there. He eventually found a partner and had a daughter with her. The last time I saw him was in 2017 when my family and I visited my childhood and his adopted home town.

Rather than write an obituary for Bob I thought I would share an anecdote about him and how it reflects on intellectual enterprise and scholastic endeavour. It goes like this:

While in graduate school Bob, I and other students of Latin American society would regularly get together over coffees to ruminate about life in general and politics in particular. The students came from a cross section of disciples–history, sociology, anthropology, political science–all connected by the Centre for Latin American Studies. We shared classes together and that became the basis for many personal and professional friendships that continue to this day.

(As an aside, I never saw such gathering after I arrived to teach at a university in New Zealand. Instead, grad students headed to the campus pub for piss-ups and academic staff met for tea and gossiped in the departmental common room, then retreated to their offices and later homes. There was, in the ten years that I lasted in that environment, no sense of intellectual community that I could discern of, at least in what passed for political studies those days. From what I am told, the contrast between my grad student experience and those of today’s grad students at that NZ university remains the same).

During some of those Chicago Kaffeeklatschs we debated whether the Argentine and Chilean juntas kept records on the atrocities they committed–the number, ages and gender of those detained, tortured, and murdered, the ways in which they were hunted down and disposed of, the types of barbarity to which they were subjected to, the children that were removed from them, etc. By the late 1970s and early 1980s when we got together over coffee there was enough information leaking out of both countries to suggest that the abuses were both systematic and wide-scale, which suggested that given the military bureaucracies involved, records might be kept.

We asked these questions because our collective reading under our common mentors had shown that Nazis, Stalinists and assorted others before them kept records that incriminated them clearly and recorded for all posterity their culpability in committing crimes against humanity. But why would they do so? Why would they not just erase all evidence of their crimes rather than leave a probatory trail that could be followed? Knowing that what they were doing was extreme and that the shadow of the future would determine how their actions would be read by subsequent generations, and knowing that such record-keeping would deny them any possibility of plausible deniability down the road in the event that they did not prevail for all time and thereby get to write the historical narrative as they pleased, we wondered about the authoritarian mindset, the pathological and sociopath motivations, collective versus individual madness and assorted other possible sources for meticulous record-keeping by murderous authoritarians. We then speculated if the Southern Cone dictatorships shared these traits.

As it turns out, those conversations provided me with the basis for doing my own field research on “desaparecidos” (disappeared) in Argentina during the 1976-83 dictatorship, where I worked as a part of a group of human rights organisations trying to determine the fate of hundreds of men, women and children who went missing during those years. I knew that there must be records on them, and sure enough there mostly was. Later on, the questions from those conversations provided me with the primary tools for engaging in leadership analysis work for the US security community. For Bob, it turned into a large research project on authoritarian legal frameworks that became the basis of his Ph.D. dissertation that eventually became the book on Constitutionalism and Dictatorship.

What he discovered is that, apart from grossly backwards forms of personalist rule, the majority of authoritarians feel the need to provide a legal mantle around their behaviour. This is both a way of justifying their actions as well as setting both precedent and parameters for future regimes in terms of potential judicial action as well as justifying their own rule. Whether they believe that their actions are legitimate or not, authoritarians want to give them the appearance of legality. That way, should they ever be prosecuted for, say, human rights violations, they can argue that what they did was justified by law and constitutional precept.

This may seem retrospectively obvious to the casual observer, but Bob provided meticulously-research details of the thinking that goes into creating such legal and institutional edifices.

I will not try to further summarise Bob’s richly detailed works or the many implications and avenues of future research opened by them. I simply would urge readers with an interest in how authoritarians try to legitimate and institutionalise their rule to have a look at his writing.

Que descanses en paz, querido amigo!

Media Link: Standing Places interview.

I did an interview with former student Ivor Wells for his Standing Places podcast out of London. The chat is a bit of rambling meander across several topics, with pauses and background interruptions, but we manage to cover a fair bit of detail, starting with the issue of self-isolating during the pandemic. Think of it as two old friends having a yarn about life in these times.

The coming resource war.

During my time in the Pentagon I had the privilege of sitting down with military leaders and defence and security officials from a variety of Latin American nations. Sometimes I was present as a subordinate assistant to a senior US defence department official, sometimes as part of a delegation that included people from the State Department and other agencies, and sometimes I was on my own or part of a small team exploring avenues of dialogue or negotiating details of bilateral and multilateral agreements.

One of the more interesting meetings I had was with small group of senior Brazilian military officers led by the then number two officer in the Joint Staff of the Armed Forces (which answers to the Brazilian Ministry of Defence, in an arrangement similar to that between the US Department of Defence and the Joint Chiefs of Staff but with a more vertical hierarchy within it based on officer seniority between service branches). In that meeting I asked the Brazilians what they considered to be the greatest threat to their national security. The answer was astounding: “The pattern of consumption in the North,” said the senior Brazilian officer. Sensing my surprise, he went on to explain that emphasis on economic growth in Northern capitalist societies was causing the rapid depletion of their natural resources along with a host of other environmental problems. He even brought up, at a time when the subject was embryonic, the issue of “global warming,” noting that Brazil was starting to see the subtle impact of climatic shifts in its maritime and terrestrial environments.

I should briefly note, as an aside, that one of the interesting aspects of the Brazilian high command is that many senior officers do advanced post-graduate degrees in France, and tend to focus on public policy and politics. This is a bit different that many countries that send their officers to US or UK War Colleges for professional development and prefer not to have them study politics rather than things like public administration. Like the US, Brazilian officers hold lower-level degrees in “harder” subjects relevant to their military disciplines, but then go on to study at places like the Paris Institute of Political Studies (commonly known as “Sciences Po”). There they receive a distinctly non-US type of political science training, to include the philosophies of people like Althusser, Poulantzas, Foucault, Derrida, Levi, Glucksman, Proust, Aron and others not usually associated with the military enterprise and certainly not part of the standard post-graduate curriculum of US (or NZ) military officers.

With this in mind it should not be surprising that the Brazilians had a slightly different take on what constitutes threats to their national security. But then the general went on. He advanced the notion that eventually Brazil would find itself at war with Northern powers over control of the Amazon. He pointed out that once unchecked economic growth led to the degradation of Northern environments and depletion of natural resources above the equator, the great Northern powers would turn on the Amazon (and elsewhere, like Sub-Saharan Africa) in an attempt to continue their pattern of resource exploitation.

At that point the US admiral sitting next to me turned and said “dang, boy, I have not heard that one before.”

The Brazilian general was not assuaged or convinced by my protestations that the US would never go to war with Brazil over its natural resources. He was not mollified by my attempts to explain that the US would more likely partner with Brazil to preserve its sovereign assets. He told me that although he had no doubt that I was a sincere young fellow and had the ear of the administration that I served, nothing I said would be binding once the next administration arrived and even then, should the US try to negotiate a partnership agreement/treaty with Brazil on control of the Amazon, Brazil would reject it on grounds of foreign interference in its sovereign affairs.

That was in 1994. But the Brazilian view continues to this day.

I write this to provide context to the current discussion of wildfires in Amazonia and the differences between Northern powers and Brazil (or more precisely, the administration of Jair Bolsonaro) when it comes to how to handle the situation now and into the future. Bolsonaro, who calls himself the “Trump of Brazil” and who campaigned as “candidate machete” in rural parts of the country, is a climate change denying homophobe with vulgarian tendencies and unsavoury links to both criminal gangs and extreme right-wing groups, including those operated by paramilitary organisations and and ex-military officers (Bolsonaro is a former Army officer and son of an Amazonian miner). During the campaign and once in office he promised to roll back environmental regulations and those that protected endangered indigenous communities in the Amazon basin, who were already under siege from logging and farming encroachment in their traditional homelands. His promise to bulldoze the Amazon in order to promote economic growth on the way to great power status resonated with nationalists as well as foreign and domestic agricultural and logging conglomerates, who poured both open and dark money into his campaign.

Once Bolsonaro assumed office the practices of clear-cutting and slash-and-burning accelerated dramatically, something that when combined with prolonged drought in Brazil’s north and west contributed to the wildfires that as of yet remain unchecked in many places. Bolsonaro has accused environmentalists of deliberately setting fires to advance their agendas, has rejected some types of international fire-fighting aid (such as from the EU) and has launched into a war of words with the likes of French Prime Minister Macron (including rude comments about the Macron’s wife) in defence of what Bolsonaro claims are assaults on Brazilian sovereignty by foreign powers wishing to gain control over its natural resources.

This is where things get dangerous. The Brazilian military has as one of its national security pillars defence of its natural resources against foreign efforts to seize them in the face of increased environmental destruction. The Bolsonaro government supports clearing large parts of the countryside in the quest for more arable land for commercial purposes and is determined to resist foreign entreaties to reign back the deforestation policy in the interest of global climate sustainability. The scene is then set for armed confrontations between the Brazilian military and any actors (foreign or domestic) that may seek to use direct action to protect the rainforest and pantanal (the southwestern wetlands that extend to the Paraguayan and Bolivian borders). The threats are unlikely to come from state actors over the short-term and certainly not from Brazil’s neighbours, but over the medium to long term the possibility that resource wars might erupt over Brazil’s intransigence cannot be discounted.

In fact, Brazil ultranationalists are already spreading rumours that the unexplored hinterlands are being “infiltrated” by foreign forces, and the Brazilian Army has suspended participation of several Northern militaries in jungle warfare exercises over concerns that it is gives forward intelligence about terrain and Brazilian war-fighting capabilities (the Brazilian Army operates a world-renown jungle warfare school–CIGS– in Manaus, the capital of Amazonas state. The battalion prayer includes the following phrase: “If we perish defending the Brazilian Amazon, O God, allow us to do so with dignity and deserving of victory. Selva!” (“Jungle!” in Portuguese).

What is worse, significant elements in the Brazilian defence establishment categorically deny that the Amazon is at ecological risk or that it serves as the much vaunted “lungs of the earth.” The vehemence and xenophobic tone of their views is well captured here.

The fact that the Amazonian region is huge and relatively lawless contributes to the Brazilian military’s concern with exercising control over it. Without significant foreign enemies, the Brazilian Navy has placed great emphasis on its riverine capability, while the Army uses the presence of drug, people and weapons smugglers as a justification for conducting counter-insurgency and low-intensity warfare exercises in the far reaches of the basin, especially the border regions adjacent to Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Suriname, French Guyana and Guyana. Such an extended land border (which also includes Paraguay and Uruguay) makes Brazilian geopolitical strategists acutely focused on staving off intrusions of any nature, so it is not surprising that Brazil has closed its border with Venezuela in order to staunch refugee flows fleeing the Bolivarian kleptocracy that passes for a government in Caracas (it has also closed its borders to Venezuelans trying to enter Brazil from other neighbouring countries).

The combination of a traditional continental geopolitical focus within the Brazilian security establishment, military concern that resource depletion elsewhere will lead to foreign attempts to steal or capture by stealth Amazonian resources, and the presence in presidential office of a demagogic nationalist-populist fixated on untapping those resources for Brazilian gain regardless of environmental consequence may prove explosive down the road should any international moves be made to limit Brazil’s ability to exploit what it considers to be its God-given gift of natural resource endowment.

Or, as that Brazilian general said to me 25 years ago, “the developed world has destroyed its natural resources on the way to becoming modernised industrial societies and now wants to deny Brazil the ability to do the same. We will not let that happen.”