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!

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The Brexit plague

Theresa May is just the latest victim of a virulent political malady that has already destroyed David Cameron and destabilised Britain.

Theresa May thought she had a shrewd plan for how to make Brexit work – first of all, for her. Having said almost nothing during the toxic 2016 EU referendum campaign (much to David Cameron’s dismay), she was well positioned – only superficially, it turned out – to benefit from the political devastation that followed. With Remain defeated and Leave destroying itself, May’s combination of saying nothing while projecting steely competence was artfully presented as just what the country needed.

No more pandering to the 24-hour news cycle, no running commentary, no flashy headline grabbing. That May didn’t chase headlines became the new headline. It was a seductive narrative, given the shouty unpleasantness that had come before. The Prime Minister’s moral authority became subtly bound up with avoiding saying too much: a void had entered a vacuum and it was being presented as a virtue. “He posits a principle,” as Nietzsche quipped, “where he lacks a capacity.”

But the Brexit strategy that won May power during the post-referendum carnage – there’s been an earthquake: everyone lie down very still under a table – turned out to be inadequate as a plan for contesting a general election. The longer the campaign dragged on, the clearer the contours of the gaps and inadequacies became. Conservative MPs, most of whom are Remainers, were asking the country to vote in a parliamentary majority in order to smooth the path of a hard Brexit. Over the course of the campaign, voters sniffed expediency and called it out.

The convenient narrative now in vogue – that the election was scuppered by May’s advisers – is a displacement activity. In fact, May’s advisers had initially done almost too good a job at turning her deficiencies into virtues. The problem wasn’t that they didn’t make enough of May; they had made too much. The shortfall between myth and reality added to the look of a politician who had been rumbled. During the election campaign, an uncomfortable alternative crystallised: the absence of style does not guarantee the presence of substance.

It is hard to imagine a swifter or more complete collapse in political standing. The wild swings in May’s reputation, however, offer a kind of mitigation. She must take responsibility for the campaign, but not for the national mood, especially how it has been coarsened and confused by Brexit. Just as May didn’t deserve her stellar ­pre-election personal polling, she doesn’t deserve the opposite arrangement now.

Is Britain becoming increasingly ungov­ernable? Some argue that the electorate has internally contradictory desires: first it votes for Brexit, then it votes to deprive the government of a majority as it tries to effect Brexit. A rival theory holds that the country has been let down by poor political leadership. But the two explanations, apparently opposed, in fact interact in a compound ­effect: erratic leadership unsettles the judgement of those being led.

***

A friend of mine mischievously likened this to a familiar rural scene: “Anyone who has observed a large flock of sheep being marshalled by a young or incompetent sheepdog will have noticed how, with each badly executed move by the sheepdog, the flock becomes ever more frightened and rebellious.”

Confusion also manifests itself as a thirst for someone to blame, and it has briefly settled on May. She is just the latest victim of a virulent political malady: the Brexit plague.

Given that many of us are getting used to being wrong so much of the time – I anticipated a Remain win and then a May majority – I was pleased to chance upon an old column I wrote for this magazine, the central argument of which I’d almost forgotten: “The Brexit crown won’t stay on anyone’s head for more than a few days . . . Like a superbug, Brexit inhabits its host spokesmen and women before choking the life out of them. The illness takes a horrible course, first imbuing the victim with great energy and enthusiasm, as though the ailment was in fact a cheering tonic . . .

“To adapt the celebrated lines spoken by ­Anthony Blanche in Brideshead Revisited, does Brexit, politically speaking, spot and kill everyone it touches”?

I wrote those lines in July 2016, when Theresa May had been Prime Minister for one week. It was one thing, I argued, to win referendum support for Brexit as a story about what Britain should or could become (or what it once was). But any politician ­trying to make Brexit a political reality would be left “floundering amid tectonic shifts in the political landscape that they helped to initiate”.

During this year’s general election, however, I failed to follow my own logic. If I had done so, I would have seen that May would find it much harder than everyone predicted to win an election while keeping the Brexit Question under control. She tried not talking about Brexit, and that sounded disingenuous. Then she tried talking about Brexit, but there wasn’t much appetite for listening.

May’s Brexit strategy and the rest of her electoral pitch were in contradiction. On the one hand, there were the reassurances to the Brexit constituency: May the steely deliverer of promises, the “bloody difficult” woman of her word, with an unflinching desire to follow things through. Brexit means Brexit; sighs of relief all round.

Then there was the usual play to the bottom line: the Tories are the only people you can trust with the economy. In other circumstances, even a relatively flat and uninspiring Tory leader who promised “strong and stable” leadership amid economic uncertainty – a firm hand on the tiller and all that – would surely have defeated the Corbyn-McDonnell-Abbott axis comfortably.

But these are not normal circumstances, because the economic uncertainty is bound up with a choice and a policy: namely Brexit. So May, in effect, was promising to provide strength and stability in order to deliver certain uncertainty. She made a big play of being just the person who could calmly and unshakeably steer the ship inexorably towards what will surely be a huge storm.

You can be totally confident it’s going to happen, that thing which inspires little confidence, but you can’t trust Labour with the numbers: this was the Tory party’s idea of a trump card. The second part is definitely true, but it loses its lustre after the Brexit bit.

Here there were similarities with the 2016 US presidential election (albeit a different result). Donald Trump was gifted the ­perfect opponent. He is a vulgar fraud who is professionally dodgy, yet his easy defence was: “But what about the Clintons?” For the establishment also had reputational problems, only with the added burden of lacking both the entertainment factor and an outsider narrative. The ideal candidate to beat Trump would have been self-evidently principled, which has never been a strong suit for the Clintons.

***

The Tories, with their strong and stable pursuit of a hard Brexit, were tainted by subliminal economic uncertainty. And Corbyn’s Labour, vide Diane Abbott at the calculator, was also inevitably tainted by economic uncertainty. Labour, however, could sugar the pill with a lot more free stuff. The lesson here is not, as some Conservatives have argued following Hillary Clinton’s defeat and Theresa May’s debacle, that it is no longer possible to win as a stability candidate. But it is true that a stability candidate cannot easily succeed if he or she shares a sufficiently similar weak spot with a more novel and superficially intriguing electoral outsider.

It turned out that Labour had chosen a strangely effective moment to take refuge in frivolous dissent. In these serious times, unseriousness proved a harbour for them. Though it sounds absurd, it is possible that a more credible opposition would have done worse at the polls because the Tory scare story would have felt more plausible. Labour has another advantage: even though the party played its part with its feeble referendum campaign, the electorate doesn’t blame Labour for the Brexit-induced political crisis. Nor should it.

Given that backdrop, my conjecture is that for all the flaws of May’s campaign – the defensive catenaccio, the bleak tone, the lack of wit and charm – the election could never have been properly about the Prime Minister. Ironically, by trying to turn the election into a vote of confidence in her competence, May in fact made it less likely that she would become the personification of Brexit.

Instead, she will now probably end up as a bit-part player in a much bigger story: the tale of Britain’s increasingly ham-fisted attempt to leave the EU on tolerable terms. For a quiet Remainer whose catchphrase became “Brexit means Brexit”, that is an appropriate decline in influence.

When the election was called, initially it seemed like another pragmatic masterstroke; the Tory party, which understands power better than any other party in the world, was doing what it does best: reorganising itself to benefit from the new political reality. Yet there was a different kind of shy Tory during this election: not the shy Tory who doesn’t want to own up to Toryism, but the shy Tory who sought a modest win. Many Conservative supporters I know wanted May to win the election but not too handsomely. They feared a landslide would lead to a resurgent Europhobic Tory right. Far from the original spin that the election was needed to create a bulwark against the hard Brexiteers, Tory-Remain voters feared the opposite. And when lots of your own potential supporters don’t want a big win, you scarcely win at all.

It is often said that early elections backfire because the electorate resents the disruption. In this instance, that resentment was especially deep among Tory-leaning Remainers.

There is always a deeper rhythm and May is not entirely responsible for the beating drum. It is not quite true that, in her words to the 1922 Committee of Tory backbench MPs, she “got us into this mess”.

The Brexiteers, most of them Conservatives, created the mess. Their relentless obsession with Europe pressed David Cameron into holding a referendum. Strands of the Leave campaign pandered to mob elements that they then couldn’t appease. Then came the Brexiteers’ inability to settle on a realistic candidate after the referendum, leaving a Remainer to do their bidding.

My first instinct after the referendum was that the process of Brexit had to be fronted by a Brexiteer. It was their show: over to them. When that person became Andrea Leadsom, I recoiled and changed my mind. Now I think I was right first time. Brexit must anoint one of its own. I’m also beginning to suspect that the electorate’s desire to see the right people blamed for Brexit will prove stronger than the desire to actually brexit. The superficial logic said: Corbyn can’t be PM, so call an election. A quite different disquiet was revealed: who is to blame for this annoying chaos?

That is an augury for the immediate future of British politics – blame. When a new economic reality bites, there will be a lot of Brexit anger to be redirected. In the process, the old political parties and alignments will be pushed to breaking point.

Perhaps the pull of political justice will demand that the cracks, when they come, ought to be in the appropriate places. That craving for justice may trump the need for competence. If Brexit does turn into a disaster movie, who would be a suitable protagonist? It is hard to escape the logic that the most apposite outcome – even if it is unappealing, especially for the long-term health of the nation – is that Brexit should be delivered by those who initially won the popular argument.

When the mood turns, however, the same movement that craved a populist hero will need a panto villain.

Step forward, Boris Johnson: your country needs you. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Everybody out!