Latin America: The history of imperialist-backed wars

Issue 

The US government is clearly seeking to foment war between its client state Colombia, the third-largest recipient of US military aid in the world, and revolutionary Venezuela.

As well as a sustained propaganda barrage of unfounded allegations against Venezuela by the US and Colombian governments, there is an increased presence of right-wing Colombian paramilitary groups with ties to the Colombian state active inside Venezuela.

But the clearest sign of US intentions was the announcement in July that the US had signed an agreement to increase the number of military bases in Colombia to seven.

Imperialist fomented war between Latin American nations is not new. After most Latin American states won independence from Spain in the early 19th century, many have fought wars on behalf of neo-colonial powers seeking to win control over natural resources.

Long and bloody inter-Latin American conflicts waged over raw materials such as cotton, nitrates and oil have resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths. It has also left a bitter legacy of socio-economic dislocation for the impoverished masses, who continue to pay a heavy price for the follies of corrupt ruling elites.

One such conflict was the Paraguayan War of 1864-70. The Brazilian, Argentine and Uruguayan regimes acted as British proxies against the Paraguayan military dictatorship of Francisco Solano Lopez.

With international cotton prices soaring as a result of the US Civil War (which reduced supply), cotton profits enabled Lopez to build up the largest army on the South American continent. Determined to control the cotton-producing Plata basin in its entirety, Paraguay invaded Brazil in 1864, winning a series of early victories.

Despite mutual tensions, Argentina and Uruguay quickly formed an alliance with Brazil.

Lopez's ambitions clashed with British industry's own expansionist designs. Fearing that a victorious Paraguay would rob them of a controlling stake in the South American cotton industry, a consortium of financial entities (including the Bank of London, Baring Brothers and Rothschild) financed the allied war effort.

The influx of foreign credit ensured the localised conflict developed into a prolonged war.

After crushing the Paraguayan army in a series of grinding set-piece battles, the alliance invaded Paraguay, whose heavily-outnumbered Guarani indigenous population carried out prolonged guerrilla resistance.

The fighting only ended when the Brazilian army killed Lopez in 1870.

It is estimated that during the war, out of a population of 500,000, at least 300,000 Paraguayans died. At least 100,000 alliance soldiers also died in the conflict, which is barely remembered outside South America.

The economies of all belligerent nations suffered a deep, debt-related depression that lasted decades. A defeated Paraguay lost half of its territory.

Foreign capital also played a key role in the 1879-84 War of the Pacific, fought between Chile and an alliance of Peru and Bolivia.

Acting under British instructions, who financed the operation, Chile invaded and annexed the nitrate-rich Atacama desert territories of Tarapaca and Arica in Peru, and Antofagasta in Bolivia.

Equipped with the latest British weaponry and supported by seven British warships, Chilean troops advanced as far as Lima.

The prize for the victor was control of the world's largest reserves of saltpetre, then a key ingredient in the manufacture of explosives. Britain's aim was a dominant stake in this strategic resource, whose profitability increased exponentially with global demand for armaments in the decades leading up to the First World War.

Peru suffered years of occupation. A popular guerrilla insurgency, which continued long after organised resistance had collapsed, prevented the complete dismemberment of the Peruvian state.

At least 20,000 Peruvian soldiers died in the conflict, with unknown civilian casualties. Bolivia lost 10,000 people, along with its access to the Pacific. Bolivia remains a landlocked nation.

Bolivia and Paraguay fought the Chaco War from 1932-35 over the Gran Chaco region. Following the discovery of oil, it was thought the disputed region, claimed by both Bolivia and Paraguay, might be the next "black gold" bonanza.

Foreign oil companies got involved, with US-based Standard Oil backing Bolivia's claims and the joint British-Dutch venture Shell Oil backing Paraguay.

Having inflamed tensions by financing a massive military build-up, the competing oil giants provoked the conflict in June 1932. In the fighting, more than 100,000 casualties were sustained on both sides.

By 1935, Paraguay controlled three-quarters of the Chaco region and claimed victory. Neither belligerent derived a net benefit from the ruinously expensive war, which shattered the overstrained economies of both nations.

Peru and Ecuador have also fought each other on behalf of big oil interests. The last major clash, known as the Cenepa War, was in 1995. Hundreds died in the month-long Amazon struggle, during which Peruvian soldiers mounted a series of ill-advised frontal assaults against heavily-fortified Ecuadorian positions.

All of these senseless inter-Latin American resource wars have served a broader political purpose for North American and European capital — fostering discord and setting back the cause of progressive regional integration.

Today, the US seeks to control Venezuela's abundant oil reserves and to crush the example of its alternative development model.

Washington is seeking to keep the peoples of Latin America at each other's throats to undermine the progress towards political and economic unity — using ordinary people as pawns in the old imperialist game of divide and conquer.