Into the Crystal Ball, Darkly

The Sept. 11 terror attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center have shattered all crystal balls, and the seers peering into the tunnel of 2002 are in the dark. Divining the future seems to have become a game of blind man's bluff in which the sole touchstone is the worst-case scenario.

One of the few certainties left in these tremulous times is that when the over-arching power in a unipolar world is gravely wounded by surprise attacks, global political relations are bound to experience radical transformations. The U.S. response to the attacks has been to declare a new world war against yet another "-ism." Preemptive strikes have been launched against those Washington lists as terrorists, and more could come.

Latin America is among the first to feel the effects of the ongoing re-ordering of imperial priorities. In our hemisphere, the White House is circling its wagons, shutting down borders, and seeking to extract unequivocal allegiance from its neighbors for the new North American crusade.

But how neighborly are people in countries like Argentina, Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil and Mexico really feeling?

Argentina's bank default came as a severe jolt to the hegemony of Washington's chief instruments of control in the region, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. And the resulting street protests—rooted were just a sampling of the discontent that the "Washington Consensus" economic model is breeding in the region. Bridling at decades of structural adjustment, many Latin Americans are poised to emulate the Argentine response.

How long will the United States suffer such foolishness? In 2002, housewives banging pots and pans, in the now-classic cacerola demonstrations of Buenos Aires, Quito, La Paz, Lima, Santiago, Sao Paolo, and Mexico City run the risk of getting tagged as terrorists for obstructing Bush and U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney's economic and energy strategies for the continent. A glance at history's lesson plan reminds us that not so long ago this same brand of dissenter was tarred as communist, and the generals of Latin America were unleashed at Washington's behest to crush out their kind in the name of hemispheric security. Is such a worst-case scenario in the wings for 2002?

Next door to ravished Argentina, Brazil is approaching a presidential election in which notorious globalphobic Luis Da Silva ("Lula") is leading the pack-a fact that must terrorize Bush and associates.

Further north, in Venezuela, Bush sets his sights on another potential terrorist. President Hugo Chavez has earned this satanic status by huddling with Saddam Hussein, Moamar Quadaffi, and Old Scratch himself, Fidel Castro. Could calls for Chavez' destitution by members of Venezuela's military be the result of efforts by Bush Inc. to demonize and destabilize the Chavez regime?

Up the coast, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have long been a fixture on the U.S. terror list. Now President Andres Pastrana's cancellation of peace talks makes way for the United States' Plan Colombia—originally an anti-drug scheme—to fuse the "War on Drugs" with the "War on Terrorism." Don't forget that Bush's father and former U.S. president, George Bush Sr., coined the concept of the narco-guerrilla. Are preventative air strikes and deployment of U.S. ground troops on Colombian soil in store for the year ahead?

As is de rigueur with U.S. wars, Bush's War on Terrorism is not just a little about oil. Nearly 42% of all U.S. imports now flow from the Americas, 27% alone from Mexico and Venezuela, with Canada supplying the rest. Colombia is the third-largest U.S. oil source in Latin America, which makes control of such conduits as the Cano Limon pipeline (bombed 130 times by guerrillas in 2001) a national security priority for Washington.

In the wake of Sept. 11, Washington wants the American producers to provide at least half its oil barrels while it reduces the 13% share furnished by the Saudi royal family, leaders of an increasingly unstable regime in a country whose populace appears to be ever more hostile towards the United States.

For Mexico, which ships 86% of its export oil output to the United States, a key concern must be whether it is inside or outside of Fortress America.

By enlisting in Bush's War Against Terrorism, harnessing security and energy production to Washington's war machine, Mexico repeats a familiar pattern—World War II, the Cold War, and the War on Drugs are instructive examples.

Bush is going to need a lot of Mexican oil to fly his bombers and fuel his envisioned lifetime war. He also has announced intentions to finally fill the 19 million barrels of the U.S. Strategic Reserve in Louisiana, historically supplied by Mexico.

Now as the Bush vampire brain trust thirsts for even more Mexican oil, this distant neighbor's resistance to increasing extraction of diminishing reserves and its reluctance to privatize its national oil monopoly Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex) must be weighed against Bush's "you-are-either-with-me-or-with-the-terrorists" doctrine.

One area that oilmen like Bush and Cheney drool over is Pemex' exploration and development sector, where transnational contractors have made significant inroads in recent years. Uncovering new sources to ease the drain on the nation's shrinking reserves-now estimated at lasting no longer than 20 years-is an energy priority in Mexico.

But in opening up new sectors and deepening U.S.-Mexico oil ties, Mexican President Vicente Fox and his foreign minister, Jorge Castaneda, run the risk of fueling patriotic fervor linked to Mexico's oil industry even more, potentially sparking a retaliatory backlash in vulnerable southern oil fields. Indeed, one likely target for fresh exploration in response to increasing U.S. war-time energy needs is the southern state of Chiapas, where the eight-year rebellion of the largely Mayan Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) has nullified new prospecting for the better part of the past decade.

Located between Mexico's largest land-based oil producing state of Tabasco, and bordering Guatemalan oil fields, the jungle zone of southeastern Chiapas where the rebels have much influence, is thought to hold sizable natural gas and petroleum deposits. The zone has long been coveted by U.S. and European transnationals.

Increased pressure by the Bush and Fox administrations to open up Chiapas oil fields is certain to generate friction with the Zapatista rebels, who have long struggled for indigenous autonomy and local control of natural resource exploitation.

The Indians' refusal to cooperate with the Bush-Fox effort should insure their place on the U.S. terrorist list. Indeed, at a Dec. 30 Mexican congressional forum on international terrorism, U.S. Embassy official Christian Kennedy claimed that the EZLN was already on that list.

Embassy officials now say that Kennedy may have confused the Zapatistas with the Popular Revolutionary Army, or EPR, whose activities don't necessarily fit the job description, either.

A new uprising in Chiapas, featuring the EPR, which is increasingly active in the state, and dissident Zapatistas disaffected by the EZLN's abandonment of the armed option, should not be discounted on the list of worst-case scenarios.

The shards of shattered crystal ball foretell increased conflict between the Fox administration and Mexico's more than 15 million indigenous peoples. An expected Supreme Court turn-down of hundreds of appeals protesting the bogus Indian rights law, passed by Congress over Indian protests last spring, will force militant groups organized into the National Indigenous Congress to declare themselves autonomous and step outside of institutional channels, a shift guaranteed to trigger a broad band of friction with local authorities and the federal government. That will undermine the Fox administration as it gears up for critical 2003 mid-term elections around the country.

But the Indians are not the only ones plowing furrows into Fox's beetled-brow. The United States and Mexico are cohabitants of the same economic organism, and when el norte slumps into crippling recession, the Mexican economy stalls too.

More than half a million Mexican jobs went down the tubes in 2001, a quarter of them in the maquiladora sector, which motors Mexico's export-dependent economy. Despite Fox's pathological optimism, the Mexican GDP suffered zero growth this past year, and Wall Streeters prognosticate that 2002 will not get any better. Indeed, some prophets of doom, such as Morgan-Stanley-Dean Witter's Stephen S. Roach, are talking about a protracted deflation cycle that will mean rock-bottom commodity prices, massive unemployment, and moribund money markets for years to come.

In the face of such dire forecasts, Fox' upbeatness seems suicidal. As the gap yawns wide, between what the first president elected from the ranks of the opposition in 71 years promises and what he actually delivers, the remaining crumbs of his credibility are wiped away. Elected under the buzzword banner of change, Fox has changed little, and the president's ratings will fall below 50% before 2002 runs its course, assures veteran Fox-watcher Denise Dresser, a pundit at the University of Southern California.

The poor performance of the Mexican Congress also is souring those who retain belief in the party system. The legislators' opportunism, lust for short-term gain, and lack of national vision is fast turning a once-hopeful citizenry cynical. Such surliness on the part of the electorate does not bode well for Fox and his National Action Party in next year's midterms. In fact, such a souring enhances the chances of the venerable Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), once the longest running political dynasty in the known universe.

A PRI bounce-back from the dead in the 2003 midterms would be a Sept. 11-sized disaster for democratic aspirations in Mexico and yet another worst-case scenario for the near future.

In a year of worst case scenarios, the scenarios will only get worse.

John Ross is a veteran Mexico reporter, author of The War against Oblivion-Zapatista Chronicles, and Against Amnesia, a new chapbook of poetry.a

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