John Pilger on Latin America: the attack on democracy

An unreported war is being waged by the US to restore power to the privileged.

Beyond the sound and fury of its conquest of Iraq and campaign against Iran, the world's dominant power is waging a largely unreported war on another continent - Latin America. Using proxies, Washington aims to restore and reinforce the political control of a privileged group calling itself middle-class, to shift the responsibility for massacres and drug trafficking away from the psychotic regime in Colombia and its mafiosi, and to extinguish hopes raised among Latin America's impoverished majority by the reform governments of Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia.

In Colombia, the main battleground, the class nature of the war is distorted by the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the Farc, whose own resort to kidnapping and the drugs trade has provided an instrument with which to smear those who have distinguished Latin America's epic history of rebellion by opposing the proto-fascism of George W Bush's regime. "You don't fight terror with terror," said President Hugo Chávez as US warplanes bombed to death thousands of civilians in Afghanistan following the 11 September 2001 attacks. Thereafter, he was a marked man. Yet, as every poll has shown, he spoke for the great majority of human beings who have grasped that the "war on terror" is a crusade of domination. Almost alone among national leaders standing up to Bush, Chávez was declared an enemy and his plans for a functioning social democracy independent of the United States a threat to Washington's grip on Latin America. "Even worse," wrote the Latin America specialist James Petras, "Chávez's nationalist policies represented an alternative in Latin America at a time (2000-2003) when mass insurrections, popular uprisings and the collapse of pro-US client rulers (Argentina, Ecuador and Bolivia) were constant front-page news."

It is impossible to underestimate the threat of this alternative as perceived by the "middle classes" in countries which have an abundance of privilege and poverty. In Venezuela, their "grotesque fantasies of being ruled by a 'brutal communist dictator'", to quote Petras, are reminiscent of the paranoia of the white population that backed South Africa's apartheid regime. Like in South Africa, racism in Venezuela is rampant, with the poor ignored, despised or patronised, and a Caracas shock jock allowed casually to dismiss Chávez, who is of mixed race, as a "monkey". This fatuous venom has come not only from the super-rich behind their walls in suburbs called Country Club, but from the pretenders to their ranks in middle-level management, journalism, public relations, the arts, education and the other professions, who identify vicariously with all things American. Journalists in broadcasting and the press have played a crucial role - acknowledged by one of the generals and bankers who tried unsuccessfully to overthrow Chávez in 2002. "We couldn't have done it without them," he said. "The media were our secret weapon."

Many of these people regard themselves as liberals, and have the ear of foreign journalists who like to describe themselves as being "on the left". This is not surprising. When Chávez was first elected in 1998, Venezuela was not an archetypical Latin American tyranny, but a liberal democracy with certain freedoms, run by and for its elite, which had plundered the oil revenue and let crumbs fall to the invisible millions in the barrios. A pact between the two main parties, known as puntofijismo, resembled the convergence of new Labour and the Tories in Britain and Republicans and Democrats in the US. For them, the idea of popular sovereignty was anathema, and still is.

Take higher education. At the taxpayer-funded elite "public" Venezuelan Central University, more than 90 per cent of the students come from the upper and "middle" classes. These and other elite students have been infiltrated by CIA-linked groups and, in defending their privilege, have been lauded by foreign liberals.

With Colombia as its front line, the war on democracy in Latin America has Chávez as its main target. It is not difficult to understand why. One of Chávez's first acts was to revitalise the oil producers' organisation Opec and force the oil price to record levels. At the same time he reduced the price of oil for the poorest countries in the Caribbean region and central America, and used Venezuela's new wealth to pay off debt, notably Argentina's, and, in effect, expelled the International Monetary Fund from a continent over which it once ruled. He has cut poverty by half - while GDP has risen dramatically. Above all, he gave poor people the confidence to believe that their lives would improve.

The irony is that, unlike Fidel Castro in Cuba, he presented no real threat to the well-off, who have grown richer under his presidency. What he has demonstrated is that a social democracy can prosper and reach out to its poor with genuine welfare, and without the extremes of "neo liberalism" - a decidedly unradical notion once embraced by the British Labour Party. Those ordinary Vene zuelans who abstained during last year's constitutional referendum were protesting that a "moderate" social democracy was not enough while the bureaucrats remained corrupt and the sewers overflowed.

Across the border in Colombia, the US has made Venezuela's neighbour the Israel of Latin America. Under "Plan Colombia", more than $6bn in arms, planes, special forces, mercenaries and logistics have been showered on some of the most murderous people on earth: the inheritors of Pinochet's Chile and the other juntas that terrorised Latin America for a generation, their various gestapos trained at the School of the Americas in Georgia. "We not only taught them how to torture," a former American trainer told me, "we taught them how to kill, murder, eliminate." That remains true of Colombia, where government-inspired mass terror has been documented by Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and many others. In a study of 31,656 extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances between 1996 and 2006, the Colombian Commission of Jurists found that 46 per cent had been murdered by right-wing death squads and 14 per cent by Farc guerrillas. The para militaries were responsible for most of the three million victims of internal displacement. This misery is a product of Plan Colombia's pseudo "war on drugs", whose real purpose has been to eliminate the Farc. To that goal has now been added a war of attrition on the new popular democracies, especially Venezuela.

US special forces "advise" the Colombian military to cross the border into Venezuela and murder and kidnap its citizens and infiltrate paramilitaries, and so test the loyalty of the Venezuelan armed forces. The model is the CIA-run Contra campaign in Honduras in the 1980s that brought down the reformist government in Nicaragua. The defeat of the Farc is now seen as a prelude to an all-out attack on Venezuela if the Vene zuelan elite - reinvigorated by its narrow referendum victory last year - broadens its base in state and local government elections in November.

America's man and Colombia's Pinochet is President Álvaro Uribe. In 1991, a declassified report by the US Defence Intelligence Agency revealed the then Senator Uribe as having "worked for the Medellín Cartel" as a "close personal friend" of the cartel's drugs baron, Pablo Escobar. To date, 62 of his political allies have been investigated for close collaboration with paramilitaries. A feature of his rule has been the fate of journalists who have illuminated his shadows. Last year, four leading journalists received death threats after criticising Uribe. Since 2002, at least 31 journalists have been assassinated in Colombia. Uribe's other habit is smearing trade unions and human rights workers as "collaborators with the Farc". This marks them. Colombia's death squads, wrote Jenny Pearce, author of the acclaimed Under the Eagle: US Intervention in Central America and the Caribbean (1982), "are increasingly active, confident that the president has been so successful in rallying the country against the Farc that little attention will shift to their atrocities".

Uribe was personally championed by Tony Blair, reflecting Britain's long-standing, mostly secret role in Latin America. "Counter-insurgency assistance" to the Colombian military, up to its neck in death-squad alliances, includes training by the SAS of units such as the High Mountain Battalions, condemned repeatedly for atrocities. On 8 March, Colombian officers were invited by the Foreign Office to a "counter-insurgency seminar" at the Wilton Park conference centre in southern England. Rarely has the Foreign Office so brazenly paraded the killers it mentors.

The western media's role follows earlier models, such as the campaigns that cleared the way for the dismemberment of Yugoslavia and the credibility given to lies about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. The softening-up for an attack on Venezuela is well under way, with the repetition of similar lies and smears.

 

Cocaine trail

 

On 3 February, the Observer devoted two pages to claims that Chávez was colluding in the Colombian drugs trade. Similarly to the paper's notorious bogus scares linking Saddam Hussein to al-Qaeda, the Observer's headline read, "Revealed: Chávez role in cocaine trail to Europe". Allegations were unsubstantiated; hearsay uncorroborated. No source was identified. Indeed, the reporter, clearly trying to cover himself, wrote: "No source I spoke to accused Chávez himself of having a direct role in Colombia's giant drug trafficking business."

In fact, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime has reported that Venezuela is fully participating in international anti-drugs programmes and in 2005 seized the third-highest amount of cocaine in the world. Even the Foreign Office minister Kim Howells has referred to "Venezuela's tre mendous co-operation".

The drugs smear has recently been reinforced with reports that Chávez has an "increasingly public alliance [with] the Farc" (see "Dangerous liaisons", New Statesman, 14 April). Again, there is "no evidence", says the secretary general of the Organisation of American States. At Uribe's request, and backed by the French government, Chávez played a mediating role in seeking the release of hostages held by the Farc. On 1 March, the negotiations were betrayed by Uribe who, with US logistical assistance, fired missiles at a camp in Ecuador, killing Raú Reyes, the Farc's highest-level negotiator. An "email" recovered from Reyes's laptop is said by the Colombian military to show that the Farc has received $300m from Chávez. The allegation is fake. The actual document refers only to Chávez in relation to the hostage exchange. And on 14 April, Chávez angrily criticised the Farc. "If I were a guerrilla," he said, "I wouldn't have the need to hold a woman, a man who aren't soldiers. Free the civilians!"

However, these fantasies have lethal purpose. On 10 March, the Bush administration announced that it had begun the process of placing Venezuela's popular democracy on a list of "terrorist states", along with North Korea, Syria, Cuba, Sudan and Iran, the last of which is currently awaiting attack by the world's leading terrorist state.

http://www.johnpilger.com

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 28 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Everybody out!

Martin O’Neil for New Statesman
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Why the British addiction to period drama is driving away our best black and Asian actors

There is a diversity crisis in British TV and film as, increasingly, stars are decamping to America to make their career there.

Back in April, a six-part drama called Undercover premiered on BBC1. Perhaps you were one of the five million people who watched it: the story was audacious and continent-hopping, enfolding a narrative about a man on death row in the United States with an all-too-believable tale of a Metropolitan Police officer who marries a woman he is meant to be keeping under surveillance.

The reason the programme attracted so much attention, however, was not what it was about, but whom. Starring Sophie Okonedo and Adrian Lester, Undercover was widely reported as the first mainstream British television drama with black actors in the lead roles. This wasn’t true: as James Cooray Smith wrote on the New Statesman website, that milestone was passed in June 1956 by Mrs Patterson, a BBC adaptation of a Broadway play starring Eartha Kitt.

Yet Undercover was still a breakthrough. Smith, casting his mind back over more than six decades of British television, could not think of more than a handful of other examples. Writing in the Observer, Chitra Ramaswamy expressed her feelings with quiet devastation: “In 2016, it is an outrage that it’s a big deal to see a successful, affluent, complicated black family sit at a ­dinner table eating pasta.” Think about that. In 2016 in Britain, a country where more than nine million people describe themselves as non-white, it is news that a black, middle-class family should not only feature in a prime-time BBC drama but be at its heart. Undercover exposed how white most British television is.

Actors of colour have appeared on British film and TV screens for decades, and they have been visible on British stages for centuries – yet they have been shunted into the margins with depressing regularity. In January the actor Idris Elba urged British MPs to take the matter seriously. “Although there’s a lot of reality TV,” he argued, “TV hasn’t caught up with reality.”

In February, there was renewed uproar over the lack of racial diversity in Hollywood at the 88th Academy Awards, and the infuriated hashtag #OscarsSoWhite blossomed again on social media. A month later, Lenny Henry argued that black and minority ethnic (BAME) talent was being “ghettoised”. The term could hardly be more charged. Speaking at the London premiere of Mira Nair’s film Queen of Katwe, the actor David Oyelowo said: “What we need now is for a change to come. I think the talk is done.”

There has been some change. In March, the Royal Shakespeare Company opened a production of Hamlet starring Paapa Essiedu, an actor of Ghanaian heritage raised in London. It was the first time that a black performer had taken the role for the company. A new set of BBC diversity targets both on- and off-screen was unveiled in April. Noma Dumezweni is playing Hermione in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in the West End, and in October the BFI launched Black Star, a nationwide season celebrating black talent in film and TV. But what does the picture really look like, in late 2016? And what, if anything, needs to change?

The first challenge is that many in the film and TV industry find it difficult to talk about the subject. Researching this article, I lost count of the number of people who demurred to go on the record, or of actors who seemed eager to speak but were then dissuaded. Fatigue might be partly to blame – it’s exhausting to be asked repeatedly about diversity because you didn’t go to Harrow and your skin isn’t white – but I got the sense that there’s more going on.

One man who passionately believes this is the screenwriter Trix Worrell, the creator of the pioneering Channel 4 sitcom Desmond’s, which brought an African-Caribbean barbershop in south-east ­London to Middle England’s living rooms in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“TV is very difficult to break into. There’s a protectionism there,” he says with a shrug, when we meet for coffee on the seafront in Hastings, where he now lives. “People are nervous about rocking the boat.”

Though cheerful about most of the things we discuss, Worrell admits to feeling a roiling anger when it comes to this particular matter. Does he think that diversity has improved since he was pitching Desmond’s, three decades ago? “No. I say that with absolute certainty and surety.”

It is hard to underestimate the influence that Desmond’s had. The series ran for 71 episodes and at its peak it had five million viewers, remarkable for a sitcom. Starring the veteran actor Norman Beaton alongside a largely British-Guyanese cast, it made that community visible in a way that has not been rivalled in Britain in the 22 years since it came off air. It did so with the deftest of touches, addressing problems of interracial relationships and tensions within the black community through warm comedy.

“Up to that point, black people were ­never seen on TV,” Worrell recalls. “The only time we appeared in any media was in the red tops – muggings, vice. The idea was to show a black family who were just like any other.” Yet it seems that, apart from the spin-off comedy series Porkpie, occasioned by Beaton’s sudden death in 1994, Channel 4 has regarded the idea of portraying a normal black family in a sitcom as too great a gamble in the years since, despite an increase in the number of non-white roles in its other drama output.

Worrell smiles, but it is clear that the ­matter isn’t a joke. “The thing that’s said among black people is that there’ll only be one black sitcom every ten years.”

***

When I phone Paapa Essiedu while he’s on a lunch break from Hamlet, I am prepared to get a more positive perspective. Just 26, Essiedu has had a spectacular and seemingly unimpeded rise. A graduate of the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, he joined the RSC in 2012 and then hopped to the National Theatre in Sam Mendes’s King Lear, before returning to Stratford. The Telegraph greeted his debut as Hamlet with the notice that every actor dreams of: “A new star is born”.

But Essiedu seems ready to implode with frustration. “It’s ridiculous,” he says. “This stuff has been here for decades and decades: we’re lying to ourselves if we think there’s been a lack of awareness until now. Lots of people are talking and talking, but we need action.” Has he experienced racism directly? “Put it this way: quite often, I’ve been in a room where everyone else is white.”

A major issue, he says, is the apparently unshakeable addiction of British TV and film to corsets-and-cleavage period drama, which has left many BAME actors locked out of the audition room. The BBC is in the middle of a run of literary spin-offs, from War and Peace to The Moonstone. Over on ITV, we have had Victoria and the invincible Downton Abbey.

It still feels as though much of British drama is stuck in an airbrushed version of the country’s past. Though partly set in contemporary Egypt, BBC1’s adaptation of The Night Manager by John le Carré had only a handful of non-white actors in significant roles. Allowing for exceptions such as the BBC’s version of Andrea Levy’s Windrush-era novel Small Island, broadcast in 2009, you could be forgiven for thinking, had you never visited Britain, that people of only one skin colour live in this country. That the largely white drama series are successful on the export market only helps to extend the cycle.

“Producers say, ‘Oh, we commission stuff that people want to watch,’” Essiedu tells me. “But it’s such a narrow version of history – middle-to-upper-class Caucasian men, generally. Period drama can be from anywhere in the world: Africa, Asia. Where are those stories?”

Drama is just a sliver of broadcasting output, but other genres aren’t much better. Journalists from ethnic-minority backgrounds have made steady progress in television newsrooms – but not fast enough, Channel 4’s Krishnan Guru-Murthy has ­argued; there is a glaring absence, however, when it comes to lifestyle and entertainment TV. The recent success of the intrepid youth TV star Reggie Yates notwithstanding, it is difficult to ignore or account for the dearth of BAME presenters in documentaries and “serious” factual programming; and no major current British chat show has a permanent anchor who isn’t white.

Adil Ray’s BBC1 comedy Citizen Khan, which focuses on the escapades of the overbearing Muslim patriarch Mr Khan and his family in the Sparkhill area of Birmingham, is a rare exception. It has just returned for a fifth season. A worthy successor to Desmond’s in its tongue-in-cheek approach to potentially inflammatory issues (the 2014 Christmas special featured the birth of Mr Khan’s grandson, Mohammad, on Christmas Day) the programme also resembles its forebear in a more depressing way: it appears to be one of a kind.

When I ask Ray why he thinks this is, he selects his words carefully. “It’s not prejudice exactly,” he says, “but in the TV business, there are a lot of formulas. If you’re doing curry, get an Asian person. If it’s hip-hop, someone who’s black. If you’re doing a walk in the countryside, or drinking tea in the Cotswolds . . .” He leaves the sentence hanging.

What appears on screen is only the visible part of the problem. Actors get cast in roles only if writers write them; projects get made only if commissioners commission them. TV and film are notoriously incestuous and competitive industries. Careers are unstable. Knowing someone who knows someone is often – too often – the only way of getting work.

According to figures produced this year by Creative Skillset, many media companies fail dismally when it comes to representation. Just 24 per cent of those in senior roles in cable or satellite firms are female; 4 per cent of employees in positions in senior terrestrial broadcast are BAME; and, if the numbers are to be believed, there are no BAME people at all working on the senior production side of independent film companies. The figures aren’t entirely robust – they rely on organisations filling in forms and returning them – but if they’re anywhere near the truth they make for grim reading.

The BBC’s statistics are more encouraging (according to the latest figures, BAME people make up 13.4 per cent of staff overall and hold 9.2 per cent of leadership roles) but don’t include freelancers, an area in which it is reasonable to suppose that, without quotas to fill, representation will be worse. In September, the media regulator Ofcom put broadcasters on notice that they could face “harder-edged” regulation if they did not improve diversity.

Chi Onwurah, the MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, who has been vocal about these matters in parliament, says that the BBC has a special duty to up its game. “It’s not doing enough,” she tells me. “If it was, there wouldn’t be a problem. It was very interesting watching the [European Union] referendum; all the efforts broadcasters have gone to to make sure there was balance. If they went to half that effort for BAME, gender and disability, it would be a different world.”

The BBC is keen to show that it is paying attention. Last year, it appointed Tunde Ogungbesan as its new head of “diversity, inclusion and succession”, and in April his team announced eye-catching targets: gender parity across every part of the corporation; 8 per cent of staff disabled; 8 per cent of staff lesbian, gay or trans; 15 per cent of staff from BAME backgrounds. Those numbers will be replicated on screen, lead roles included, and are roughly equivalent to averages for the overall population of Britain.

Yet the idea that established BBC presenters will go quietly seems optimistic. Take the ruckus that the comedian Jon Holmes recently raised when his contract with The Now Show (Radio 4) wasn’t renewed. Holmes asked in the Mail on Sunday: “Should I, as a white man . . . be fired from my job because I am a white man?”

Ogungbesan – a former head of diversity for Shell – has a businesslike attitude to the challenges he faces, which are, he concedes, considerable. “We’ve got four years to do this, and we know there’s a hell of a lot of work to do.” That is why his team has given itself a deadline. “Hopefully, when we hit those targets in 2020, we’ll be the most diverse broadcaster in the UK.”

How does he respond to Onwurah’s suggestion that the BBC is skilled at announcing targets but less good at making change happen? “We’re publishing our results,” he says. “You’ll be able to hold us to it.”

And what if the targets aren’t met? Ogun­gbesan laughs, for perhaps a touch too long. He will not consider the possibility. “I’m like a boxer. I refuse to look at it.”

***

If British TV and film don’t get their act together soon, there may be no one left to cast. Increasingly, black and Asian stars are decamping to America to make their career there. Among those who have joined the brain drain are Archie Panjabi and Cush Jumbo (The Good Wife), David Oyelowo (Selma) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave). Idris Elba, who brooded brilliantly in BBC1’s crime procedural Luther, would likely never have been cast in a big British series if he hadn’t already made a name in the United States with The Wire. Before she appeared in Undercover, Sophie Okonedo said in an interview that the scripts she was offered from the US far outnumbered those from the UK.

Visiting Los Angeles recently, I tracked down Parminder Nagra, who made her name in Bend It Like Beckham before being spotted by a producer for the long-running medical drama ER. In 2003 she was offered the role of the Anglo-American doctor Neela Rasgotra, which she played until the series ended in 2009. A big part in the NBC crime drama The Blacklist followed, along with other film and TV work.

She never intended to move, she says, laughing ruefully, when we meet at a café in a well-to-do suburb of LA populated by movie folk. She has worked occasionally elsewhere but, 13 years on, she is still on the west coast. “The jobs I’ve got, like most actors, haven’t come about in a conventional way. It’s generally because someone is open-minded enough to look at you.”

Although she is careful to make it clear that the US is far from a utopia in terms of how it portrays race, sexuality or gender on screen – she tells a gruesome tale of a white writer who sent her his attempt at an “Asian” character – Nagra senses that things are more open in the US. “It’s a bigger pond here, because of the sheer size of the country,” she says. “There are writers of colour in the UK, but what happens is that you’ve only got one or two people at the top who are making decisions about the taste of the country . . . Those people are white.”

The landscape is certainly more open in the US. Leaving aside the allegations about Bill Cosby, NBC’s Cosby Show (1984-92) was a force for good, with its focus on a middle-class African-American family and with the numerous ethnically diverse shows it made possible: A Different World, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, In Living Color, Scandal (the last was commissioned by the influential black writer-producer Shonda Rhimes). Back in the early 1980s, the gentle NBC sitcom Gimme a Break! – starring Nell Carter – explored issues of racism, too.

US cable and online subscription ­services are even more courageous. Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black has an ethnically kaleidoscopic cast and plotlines that vault across almost every conceivable question of gender, sexuality, body image and politics. Where it has apparently taken the BBC until 2016 to realise that families can be both black and upper middle class, ABC in the US was years ahead: in 2014 it commissioned Black-ish, which offers a subtle portrait of an advertising executive who frets that he is losing touch with both his Obama-era kids and his inner-city origins.

Nagra nods. “There still are a lot of issues here, but if you’re an actor of colour, there is more work. All those British period dramas are really well done, but there’s a yearning there: ‘Can I please just see somebody like me on TV?’”

The reason all this matters is that TV, theatre and film have a duty to show us not merely who we are, but who we can become. In Undercover, Okonedo becomes Britain’s first black, female director of public prosecutions: this may seem unlikely, given the state of the UK’s judiciary, yet seeing it on TV helps to shift perceptions. No one would argue that Okonedo’s co-star Dennis Haysbert got Barack Obama into the White House by playing a black president of the United States in 24, but perhaps it made such a world marginally more imaginable.

The time is overdue for British TV to abandon its fetish for bodices and show us what our nation actually looks like, in all its variety – and to be more imaginative about the kind of history it presents. Colour-blind casting is mainstream in theatre. Actors of various heritages appear in Pinter or Chekhov and no one raises an eyebrow.

Anthropologists argue that race and gender are forms of performance, sets of shared codes, rather than something intrinsic to who we are. Is it so difficult to imagine a Jane Austen production with performers of black or Asian heritage? Is that any harder to believe than the thousand impossibilities we witness every day in TV drama?

I ask Essiedu if he is optimistic. Yes, he says forcefully. “I have to be. Optimism is the only way we initiate change.”

When I put the same question to Nagra, she pauses to think. “I remember being asked about this when I started ER, and I was a bit tired of the issue even then. Yet here we still are.” Her expression is wry. “So ask me in ten years’ time.”

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile