The resurrection of a US navy fleet from World War II is making Latin America’s leftist leaders queasy, sparking fears of a new imperialism and destabilisation in the region as nations bump up their defence budgets.
For the first time since 1950, the United States’ Fourth Fleet has been reactivated.
Created during WWII to chase German submarines and raiders, the fleet will, officially, fight against terror and drug trafficking in South and Central American waters.
The Fourth Fleet was activated on 1st July 2008, and is based in Mayport, Florida. It is now part of the US Navy system, which divides the world into regions, each of them patrolled by a dedicated fleet. Presently there are six US fleets cruising the seas of the globe.
The exact makeup of the fleet is not yet known, but Thomas Shannon, US assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs, insisted: “the fleet has no offensive capacities, no aircraft carriers, and no big warships.”
Admiral Stevenson Jones added that “the reactivation of the fleet will be done without any additional resources needed.”
Officially, its main mission is to fight against terror and drug-trafficking, participate in joint military exercises and also offer humanitarian support. USS Boxer, an amphibious assault ship, is already on a humanitarian mission in El Salvador and has a crew of doctors on board. USS Kearsarge, another assault ship, will have a similar mission in six Latin American countries.
Latin American leaders from the ‘pink wave’ – the left-wing head of states in the continent, who are traditionally opposed to US intervention in the area – have branded the reactivation as an imperialist initiative. Bolivian president Evo Morales even renamed it ‘the Fourth Fleet of intervention’.
During the weeks following the recreation of the fleet, Assistant Secretary of State Shannon toured Latin America to appease regional fears.
In Argentina his visit was highly anticipated. The day before his arrival in Buenos Aires, Argentina’s vice-chancellor, Victorio Tacetti, expressed concerns to local press about the fleet’s reactivation, since the countries’ bilateral relations have traditionally been harmonious.
Bureaucratic concerns have stemmed from comments made by Admiral James Stevenson, of the US Southern Command, reported in Argentine newspaper Clarín. “We’ve reworked our training exercises down here…things that are more brown-water than our traditionally blue-water operations,” he said. “There are tremendous river systems in South America where our partner nations are responsible for security.” (Colours are meant to distinguish between rivers and high seas, respectively.)
For Argentine leaders, this could be interpreted as US Navy incursions in the Río de la Plata, considered national territory. However, during the press conference that followed his meeting with Argentine president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, Shannon clearly rejected this idea.
“I assured the president that the US Navy will not enter any river, nor any littoral area. On the contrary, as I said, we are going to respect territorial waters of all the countries in South America, the Caribbean and Central America,” he said.
Looking for petrol?
Despite the fleet’s commitment to respect national waters limits, Brazilian politicians remain doubtful about what it could really mean. For Brazilian senator Pedro Simón the US’ intentions are clear. “Just as we speak of huge oil reserves on our coasts… we hear that the Fourth Fleet comes over here,” he said.
Indeed, Brazil recently discovered vast oil and gas reserves, including that of the Tupi field. Situated in south-eastern Brazil, this reserve is estimated to be hold between five and eight billion barrels of oil.
The problem is that these natural reserves could extend further beyond the 200-mile internationally recognised Exclusive Economic Zone. Any state could decide to contest Brazilian’s right to exploit these offshore reserves.
But by reactivating the Fourth Fleet, the US could send more warships to these oil-rich areas. Their sole presence would dissuade Brazilian companies from building new petrol extraction facilities in international waters.
For Venezuela’s president, Hugo Chávez, the reactivation of the Fourth Fleet is more than an economical challenge. During July’s Mercosur summit in the Argentine city of Tucumán, he vehemently denounced the fleet’s return, stating: “I do not have any doubt about it. It is a threat.”
Since his election in 1998, Chávez has become a symbol of ‘anti-US resistance’ and has developed relations with both Cuba and Iran, notorious enemies of his northern neighbour.
He has also been developing closer relations with Russia. On 22nd July, he was in Moscow to sign arms deals for an estimated US$1bn in air defence systems as well as three submarines. This last contract comes in addition to the previous US$4bn arms deals already signed, which included Kalashnikov assault rifles and military helicopters.
“We are a peace-loving country, but we are threatened by the United States,” he explained during a news conference, before claiming the Venezuelan reserves were the ‘world’s largest’. So far, the country has only been proven the have the fifth largest reserves, but it is the largest provider of oil to the US. According to Chávez, Venezuelans ‘are forced to defend themselves’. Venezuela’s total defence budget is estimated to be US$3.3m in 2008.
Venezuela has been particularly interested in buying planes, submarines and navy ships in order to defend itself. The renewed interest of the US in the Americas might act as a catalyst for weapons sales, and could destabilise the region.
The tempestuous relation between Venezuela and its all-powerful northern neighbour may also prove risky for the continent. Former Brazilian president Jose Sarney warned in Brazilian magazine Carta Capital, that if Venezuela “truly becomes a military power, an arms race in Latin America will ensue. It will lead to a strategic disequilibrium on the continent.”
The US cannot afford to sit atop a destabilised continent while it is engaged in costly wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Action will be needed to convince Latin America that the reactivation of the Fourth Fleet does not necessarily mean the return of an empire.