Even in an age of “realists” and vigilantes, there is still cause for optimism

It's not too late for the world to learn the lesson of the US's foreign policy mistakes.

The most important anniversary of the year has been the 40th anniversary of 11 September 1973 – the crushing of the democratic government of Chile by General Augusto Pinochet and Henry Kissinger, US secretary of state. The National Security Archive in Washington has posted new documents that reveal much about Kissinger’s role in an atrocity that cost thousands of lives.

In declassified tapes, Kissinger is heard planning the overthrow of President Salvador Allende with Richard Nixon. They sound like Mafiosi thugs. Kissinger warns that the “model effect” of Allende’s reformist democracy “can be insidious”. He tells the director of the CIA, Richard Helms: “We will not let Chile go down the drain,” to which Helms replies: “I am with you.” With the slaughter under way, Kissinger dismisses a warning by his senior officials of the scale of the repression. Secretly, he tells Pinochet, “You did a great service to the west in overthrowing Allende.”

I have known many of Pinochet’s and Kissinger’s victims. Sara De Witt, a student at the time, showed me the place where she was beaten, assaulted and electrocuted. On a wintry day in the suburbs of Santiago, we walked through a former torture centre known as Villa Grimaldi, where hundreds like her suffered terribly and were murdered or “disappeared”.

Understanding Kissinger’s criminality is vital when trying to fathom what the US calls its “foreign policy”. Kissinger remains an influential voice in Washington, admired and consulted by Barack Obama. When Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain commit crimes with US collusion and weapons, their impunity and Obama’s hypocrisy are pure Kissinger. Syria must not have chemical weapons, but Israel can have and use them. Iran must not have a nuclear programme, but Israel can have more nuclear weapons than Britain. This is known as “realism” or realpolitik by Anglo-American academics and think tanks that claim expertise in “counterterrorism” and “national security”, which are Orwellian terms meaning the opposite.

In recent weeks, the New Statesman has published articles by John Bew, an academic in the war studies department of King’s College London which the cold warrior Lawrence Freedman made famous. Bew laments the parliamentary vote that stopped David Cameron joining Obama in lawlessly attacking Syria and the hostility of most British people to bombing other nations. A note at the end of his articles says he “will take up the Henry A Kissinger Chair in Foreign Policy and International Relations” in Washington, DC. If this is not a black joke, it is a profanity on those like Sara De Witt and Kissinger’s countless other victims, not least those who died in the holocaust of his and Nixon’s secret, illegal bombing of Cambodia.

This doctrine of “realism” was invented in the US after the Second World War and sponsored by the Ford, Carnegie and Rockefeller Foundations, the Office of Strategic Services (a forerunner of the CIA) and the Council on Foreign Relations. At the great universities, students were taught to regard people in terms of their usefulness or their expendability: in other words, their threat to “us”. This narcissism served to justify the cold war, its moralising myths and cataclysmic risks, and, when that was over, the “war on terror”. Such a “transatlantic consensus” often found its clearest echo in Britain with the British elite’s enduring nostalgia for empire. Tony Blair used it to commit and justify his war crimes until his lies got the better of him. The violent deaths of more than a thousand people every month in Iraq are his legacy; yet his views are still courted and his chief collaborator, Alastair Campbell, is a jolly after-dinner speaker and the subject of obsequious interviews. All the blood, it seems, has been washed away.

Syria is the current project. Outflanked by Russia and public opinion, Obama has now embraced the “path of diplomacy”. Has he? As Russian and US negotiators arrived in Geneva on 12 September, the US increased its support for the al-Qaeda affiliated militias with weapons sent clandestinely through Turkey, eastern Europe and the Gulf. The Godfather has no intention of deserting his proxies. Al-Qaeda was all but created by the CIA’s Operation Cyclone, which armed the mujahedin in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan. Since then, jihadists have been used to divide Arab societies and in eliminating the threat of pan-Arab nationalism to western “interests” and Israel’s lawless colonial expansion. This is Kissinger-style “realism”.

In 2006, I interviewed Duane “Dewey” Clarridge, who ran the CIA in Latin America in the 1980s. Here was a true “realist”. Like Kissinger and Nixon on the tapes, he spoke his mind. He referred to Salvador Allende as “whatshisname in Chile” and said “he had to go because it was in our national interests”. When I asked him what gave him the right to overthrow governments, he said, “Like it or lump it, we’ll do what we like. So just get used to it, world.”

The world is no longer getting used to it. In a continent ravaged by those whom Nixon called “our bastards”, Latin American governments have defied the likes of Clarridge and implemented much of Allende’s dream of social democracy – which was Kissinger’s fear. Today, most of Latin America is independent of US foreign policy and free from its vigilantism. Poverty has been cut almost by half; children live beyond the age of five; the elderly learn to read and write. These remarkable advances are invariably reported in bad faith in the west and ignored by the “realists”. That must never lessen their value as a source of optimism and inspiration for all of us.

John Pilger’s new film, “Utopia”, will have its premiere at the National Film Theatre in London on 3 October and open in cinemas in November

Pinochet (left) waving from his motorcade shortly after the coup on 11 September 1973. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

John Pilger, renowned investigative journalist and documentary film-maker, is one of only two to have twice won British journalism's top award; his documentaries have won academy awards in both the UK and the US. In a New Statesman survey of the 50 heroes of our time, Pilger came fourth behind Aung San Suu Kyi and Nelson Mandela. "John Pilger," wrote Harold Pinter, "unearths, with steely attention facts, the filthy truth. I salute him."

This article first appeared in the 23 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Can Miliband speak for England?

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"We are not going to change": Barcelona defies terror with a return to normality

After a attack which killed 14 and injured scores more, shock gives way to defiance and unity.

A perfect summer afternoon in Barcelona suddenly turned into a nightmare on Thursday evening, a nightmare that has become far too common in Europe in recent years. 

“I was having a coffee here [in Plaça Catalunya] and was about to go and walk down there like everyday, because I live just off the Ramblas”, says 26-year-old Eneko de Marcos, pointing down the promenade. “I stayed because I was waiting for a friend, and when she came we heard a big noise and then everyone was running."

Thousands of people, most of them tourists, had been ambling casually along the Ramblas, the most iconic of Barcelona boulevards, which descends from Plaça Catalunya to the old port and the sea, when a white van had mounted the pedestrianised centre of the walk and began driving into people. 

Even after the van came to a stop, leaving a trail of dead and injured in its wake, De Marcos and hundreds of others were trapped for hours inside bars, shops and hotels while the police cordoned off the area and investigated the scene.

Seeing the Ramblas and the surrounding areas completely empty of people following the attack is, for anyone used to the area, unreal and the first reaction for most has been shock. Barcelona had felt safe both to locals and tourists, which had been coming to the city in increasing numbers since last year, many perhaps trying to avoid other destinations in Europe seen as more at risk of attack. 

Shock gave way to confusion and fear during the evening. The van driver was still at large and a series of ugly images, videos and unconfirmed rumours about other attacks spread across social media and the news. The number of victims increased steadily to 13 dead and more than 80 injured of many different nationalities.

At 11pm the city centre and its surroundings were eerily quiet and dark. Few people were venturing on to the streets, and the bar terraces which would normally be packed with people enjoying the late dinners Spaniards are famous for were half empty.

The next morning Barcelona woke up to the news that after 1am that night the Police had stopped a second attack in the touristic beach town of Cambrils, an hour and a half away to the south. What was going on? The streets of Barcelona were still quiet, far too quiet in a city usually noisy and crowded, and again the terraces, so symptomatic of the Barcelona’s mood, were unusually empty.

“I always said something like this would never happen in Barcelona”, says Joaquín Alegre, 76, walking through Plaça de Catalunya the morning after with his friend, Juan Pastor, 74, who nods and agrees: “I always felt safe.”

But slowly fear had given way to defiance. “Afraid? No, no, no”, insists Joaquín. “We’re going to carry on like normal, respecting the victims and condemning the attack, but we are not going to change”, says Juan.

Little by little the Ramblas and the whole area started to fill up during the day. People came from all directions, all kinds of people, speaking all kinds of language. The day was beautiful, the sky was blue, there are no clouds in sight and it got hotter by the minute. It began to look like Barcelona again.

“It’s important not to show fear, that’s what (the terrorists) want”, says Emily, an 18-year-old from Dresden, in Germany, who landed yesterday at Barcelona airport with her mother a few minutes after the attack. She says people were checking their phones while still on the plane and then one girl said aloud there’d been a terrorist attack in Barcelona. “It’s important to come here (to Plaça Catalunya) at this time”, says her mother, Anna, 42, both of them sitting on a low wall at the square.

Next to them, where the Ramblas begins, people once again filled the boulevard full of shops and hotels, which many locals also see as a symbol of how tourism has gone wrong in Barcelona. But Catalans, Spaniards from elsewhere and foreigners mingled happily, feeling united against a common enemy. Many left flowers and lit candles at the feet of a big ornamental lamppost on top of the Ramblas, many others did the same next to the famous Canaletes fountain a little down the promenade. 

“We the people have to respond to this by getting out and taking the streets”, says Albert Roca, a 54 year old publicist, who’s decided to come against the wishes of his girlfriend, who told him he was crazy. “I took a picture of the Ramblas and sent it to her and wrote, ‘Look how many crazy people there are’.”

Just before noon the Mayor of Barcelona Ada Colau visited the Plaça Catalunya with her retinue. She is a very popular figure who comes from civil society in a country where many citizens don’t feel properly represented by traditional politicians. Many people followed her carrying roses, a symbol of Barcelona, while they made their way into the square.

Shortly after, around 100,000 people packed Plaça Catalunya and its adjacent streets for a minute of silence begins for the victims. Only the flapping of pigeon’s wings overhead can be heard. And then an applause and a loud chant break the silence: “I am not afraid! I am not afraid!”, sang the people in Catalan.

Along with Colau in the centre of the square there was Carles Puigdemont, the head of the Catalan regional government and leader of the independence movement that has called for a referendum on 1 October, and along side them, King Felipe as the head of State, and Mariano Rajoy, the Prime Minister of Spain and a bitter political rival of Puigdemont. Seeing them standing together presents an image that until yesterday afternoon would’ve seemed impossible.

Very slowly people start emptying the square, where many still remain singing defiantly. “The attacks yesterday were a disgrace”, says a doorman just outside the city centre as Barcelona began returning to normality, “but we are going to carry on, what else can we do?”