COUPS, UNASUR, AND THE U.S.
COMMENTARY ARCHIVES, 6 Oct 2009
From a talk given in Caracas, Venezuela on August 29 (updated September 9)
The last time I had the opportunity to speak in Caracas—at long-distance that time—was about a year ago, right after the UNASUR (Union of South American Nations) meeting in Santiago in September 2008. That meeting was called "with the purpose of considering the situation in the Republic of Bolivia," after an uprising backed by the traditional elites who had lost power in the impressive democratic elections of 2005.
UNASUR condemned the violence and the massacre of peasants by the quasi-secessionist elements, and declared, "Their fullest and decided support for the constitutional government of President Evo Morales, whose mandate was ratified by a wide margin in the recent referendum." These are the words of the final Declaration, which also warned that the participating governments—all of the South American Republics—"energetically reject and do not recognize any situation that implies an intent of civil coup d’état, the rupture of institutional order, or that compromises the territorial integrity of the Republic of Bolivia."
In response, President Morales thanked UNASUR for its support and observed that, "For the first time in South America’s history, the countries of our region are deciding how to resolve our problems, without the presence of the United States."
True, and a fact of historic significance.
It is instructive to compare the Charter of the Organization of American States (OAS) with that of the African Union (AU). The latter permits intervention by African states within the Union itself in exceptional circumstances. In contrast, the Charter of the OAS bars intervention "for any reason whatever, in the internal or external affairs of any other state." The reasons for the difference are clear.
The OAS Charter seeks to deter intervention from the "colossus of the North"—and has failed to do so. That is an enduring problem in the Western hemisphere, nowhere near solution, though there has been significant progress. After the collapse of the apartheid states, the AU has faced no comparable problem.
South American Process of Integration
Last year’s UNASUR meeting in Santiago took a step forward in the difficult process of integration that is taking place in South America. This process has two aspects: external and internal. The external process establishes bonds among countries that had been largely separated from one another since the early European conquests, each one oriented towards the West. The internal process seeks to integrate the vast impoverished and oppressed majorities into the societies that took shape under colonial and neocolonial domination.
These societies have typically been ruled by small Europeanized elites who had amassed enormous wealth and were linked to the imperial societies in many ways: export of capital, import of luxury goods, education, and many other dimensions. The ruling sectors assumed little responsibility for the fate of their own countries and their suffering people. These critical factors sharply distinguish Latin America from the developmental states of East Asia. The processes of internal integration in South America, quite naturally, are arousing great concern among the traditional rulers at home and abroad, and strong opposition if they go beyond minor reforms of the worst abuses.
In early August, UNASUR met in Ecuador, which assumed the presidency of the organization. The announced goal of the meeting was to carry forward the process of integration, but the meeting took place under the shadow of renewed U.S. military intervention. Colombia did not attend, in reaction to broad concern in the region over its decision to accept U.S. military bases. The host of the meeting, President Correa of Ecuador, had announced that the U.S. military would no longer be permitted to use its Manta base, the last major U.S. base remaining in South America.
Bases and Coups
Establishing U.S. bases in Colombia is only one part of a much broader effort to restore Washington’s capacity for military intervention. In recent years, total U.S. military and police aid in the hemisphere has come to exceed economic and social aid. That is a new phenomenon. Even at the height of the Cold War, economic aid far exceeded military aid.
Predictably, these programs have "strengthened military forces at the expense of civilian authorities, exacerbated human rights problems and generated significant social conflict and even political instability," according to a study by the Washington Office on Latin America. By 2003, the number of Latin Americans troops trained by U.S. programs had increased by more than 50 percent. It has probably become higher since. Police are trained in light infantry tactics. The U.S. Southern Military Command (SOUTHCOM) has more personnel in Latin America than most key civilian federal agencies combined.
That again is a new development. The focus now is on street gangs and "radical populism": I do not have to explain what that phrase means in the Latin American context. Military training is being shifted from the State Department to the Pentagon. That shift is of some importance. It frees military training from human rights and democracy conditionalities under congressional supervision, which has always been weak, but was at least a deterrent to some of the worst abuses.
Military bases are also being established where possible to support what are called "forward operations"—meaning military intervention of one or another sort. In a related development, the U.S. Fourth Fleet, disbanded in 1950, was reactivated a few weeks after Colombia’s invasion of Ecuador in March 2008.
With responsibility for the Caribbean, Central and South America, and the surrounding waters, the Fleet’s "various operations…include counter-illicit trafficking, Theater Security Cooperation, military-to-military interaction and bilateral and multinational training," the official announcement says. Quite properly, these moves elicited protest and concern from the governments of Brazil, Venezuela, and others.
In past years the U.S. routinely helped carry out military coups in Latin America or invaded outright. Examples are too numerous and familiar to review and are awful to contemplate. That capacity has declined, but has not disappeared. In the new century there have already been three military coups: in Venezuela, Haiti, and now Honduras.
The first, in Venezuela, was openly supported by Washington. After a popular uprising restored the elected government, Washington immediately turned to a second plan to undermine the elected government: by funding groups of its choice within Venezuela, while refusing to identify recipients. Funding after the failed coup reached $26 million by 2006. The facts were reported by wire services, but ignored by the mainstream media.
Law professor Bill Monning of the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California said that, "We would scream bloody murder if any outside force were interfering in our internal political system." He is, of course, correct: such actions would never be tolerated for a moment. But the imperial mentality allows them to proceed, even with praise, when Washington is the agent.
The pretext, invariably, is "supporting democracy." In the real world, the measures employed have been a standard device to undermine democracy. Examples are numerous. To mention just a few, that is how the ground was prepared for the U.S.-backed military coup in Haiti after its first democratic election in 1990, bitterly opposed by Washington.
And in another part of the world, it is happening right now in Palestine where the outcome of a free election in January 2006 was counter to Washington’s wishes. At once, the U.S. and Israel, with Europe tagging politely along as usual, turned to severe punishment of the population for the crime of voting "the wrong way" in a free election, and also began to institute the standard devices to undermine an unwanted government: "democracy promotion" and military force.
In this case, the military force is a collaborationist paramilitary army under the command of U.S. General Keith Dayton, trained in Jordan with Israeli participation. The Dayton army received great acclaim from liberals in the government and the press when it succeeded in suppressing protests in the West Bank during the murderous and destructive U.S.-backed Israeli military campaign in Gaza earlier this year. Senator John Kerry, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, was one of many close to the Obama administration who saw in this success a sign that Israel may at last have a "legitimate negotiating partner" for its U.S.-backed programs of taking over what is of value in the occupied territories, under the guise of a "political settlement."
All of this is routine, and very familiar in Latin America, where U.S. invasions have regularly left what remains of the country under the rule of brutal National Guards and collaborationist elites. The policies were initially developed with considerable sophistication a century ago after the U.S. conquest of the Philippines, which left hundreds of thousands of corpses.
And these measures have often been successful for long periods. In the original testing ground, the Philippines, the impact still remains a century later, one reason for the continuing ugly record of state violence, and the failure of the Philippines to join the remarkable economic development of East and Southeast Asia in recent years.
Returning to coups in Latin America in the new millennium, the first one, in Venezuela, was unsuccessful. The second was in Haiti two years later. The U.S. and France intervened to remove the elected president and dispatched him off to Central Africa, actions that precipitated yet another reign of terror in this tortured country, once the richest colony in the world and the source of much of France’s wealth, destroyed over the centuries by France and then the U.S.
I should add that the harrowing history, in Haiti and elsewhere, is almost unknown in the U.S.—worse, it is replaced by fairy tales of noble missions that have sometimes failed because of the unworthiness of the beneficiaries. These are among the prerogatives of power, and facts that cannot be ignored by the traditional victims.
The third coup is of course the one taking place right now in Honduras, where an openly class-based military coup ousted left-leaning President Zelaya. This coup was unusual in that the U.S. did not carry it out or directly support it, but rather joined the Organization of American States in criticizing it, though weakly. Washington did not withdraw its ambassador in protest as Latin American and European countries did, and made only limited use of its enormous military and economic influence, as it could easily have done by simple means—for example by canceling all U.S. visas and freezing U.S. bank accounts of leaders of the coup regime.
A group of leading U.S. Latin American scholars recently reported that "not only does the administration continue to prop up the regime with aid money through the Millennium Challenge Account and other sources, but the U.S. continues to train Honduran military students at the Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation—the notorious institution formerly known as the School of the Americas," from which much of the top Honduran military has graduated. Amnesty International has just released a long and detailed account of extremely serious human rights violations by the coup regime.
If such a report were issued concerning an official enemy, it would be front-page news. In this case it was scarcely reported, consistent with the downplaying of coups to which U.S. political and economic power centers are basically sympathetic, as in this case.
The U.S. surely hopes to maintain and probably expand its military base at Soto Cano (Palmerola) in Honduras, a major base for the U.S.-run terrorist war in Nicaragua in the 1980s. There are unconfirmed rumors of plans for other bases. (The best source of information and analysis is the consistently outstanding work by Mark Weisbrot at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, who also reviews the media’s refusal to rise to minimal journalistic standards by reporting the basic facts.)
Imperial Mentality and Drug Wars
The justification offered for the new military bases in Colombia is the "war on drugs." The fact that the justification is even offered is remarkable. Suppose, for example, that Colombia, or China, or many others claimed the right to establish military bases in Mexico to implement their programs to eradicate tobacco in the U.S., by fumigation in North Carolina and Kentucky, interdiction by sea and air forces, and dispatch of inspectors to the U.S. to ensure it was eradicating this poison—which is, in fact, far more lethal even than alcohol, which in turn is far more lethal than cocaine or heroin, incomparably more than cannabis.
The toll of tobacco use is truly fearsome, including "passive smokers" who are seriously affected though they do not use tobacco themselves. The death toll overwhelms the lethal effects of other dangerous substances.
The idea that outsiders should interfere with U.S. production and distribution of these murderous poisons is plainly unthinkable. Nevertheless, the U.S. justification for carrying out such policies in South America is accepted as plausible. The fact that it is even regarded as worthy of discussion is yet another illustration of the depth of the imperial mentality, and the abiding truth of the doctrine of Thucydides that the strong do as they wish and the weak suffer as they must—while the intellectual classes spin tales about the nobility of power. Leading themes of history, to the present day.
Despite the outlandish assumptions, let us agree to adopt the imperial mentality that reigns in the West—virtually unchallenged, in fact, not even noticed. Even after this extreme concession, it requires real effort to take the "war on drugs" pretext seriously. The war has been waged for close to 40 years and intensively for a decade in Colombia.
There has been no notable impact on drug use or even street prices. The reasons are reasonably well understood. Studies by official and quasi-official governmental organizations provide good evidence that prevention and treatment are far more effective than forceful measures in reducing drug abuse: one major study finds prevention and treatment to have been 10 times as effective as drug interdiction and 23 times as effective as "supply-side" out-of-country operations, such as fumigation in Colombia, more accurately described as chemical warfare.
The historical record supports these conclusions. There is ample evidence that changes in cultural attitudes and perceptions have been very effective in curtailing harmful practices. Nevertheless, despite what is known, policy is overwhelmingly directed to the least effective measures, with the support of the doctrinal institutions.
These and other facts leave us with only two credible hypotheses: either U.S. leaders have been systematically insane for the past 40 years; or the purpose of the drug war is quite different from what is proclaimed. We can exclude the possibility of collective insanity. To determine the real reasons we can follow the model of the legal system, which takes predictable outcome to be evidence of intent, particularly when practices persist over a long period and in the face of constant failure to approach the announced objectives. In this case, the predictable outcome is not obscure, both abroad and at home.
Abroad, the "supply-side approach" has been the basis for U.S.-backed counterinsurgency strategy in Colombia and elsewhere, with a fearful toll among victims of chemical warfare and militarization of conflicts, but enormous profits for domestic and foreign elites. Colombia has a shocking record of human rights violations, by far the worst in the hemisphere since the end of Reagan’s Central American terror wars in the 1980s, and also the second-largest internal displacement of populations in the world, after Sudan.
Meanwhile, domestic elites and multinationals profit from the forced displacement of peasants and indigenous people, which clears land for mining, agribusiness production and ranching, infrastructure development for industry, and much else. There is a great deal more to say about this, but I will put it aside.
At home, the drug war coincided with the initiation of neoliberal programs, the financialization of the economy, and the attack on government social welfare systems, real, even though limited by international standards. One immediate consequence of the war on drugs has been the extraordinary growth in scale and severity of incarceration in the past 30 years, placing the U.S. far in the lead worldwide. The victims are overwhelmingly African-American males and other minorities, a great many of them sentenced on victimless drug charges. Drug use is about the same as in privileged white sectors, which are mostly immune.
In short, while abroad the war on drugs is a thin cover for counterinsurgency, at home it functions as a civilized counterpart to Latin America limpieza social cleansing, removing a population that has become superfluous with the dismantling of the domestic productive system in the course of the neo-liberal financialization of the economy.
A secondary gain is that like the "war on crime," the "war on drugs" serves to frighten the population into obedience as domestic policies are implemented to benefit extreme wealth at the expense of the large majority, leading to staggering inequality that is breaking historical records, and stagnation of real wages for the majority while benefits decline and working hours increase.
These processes conform well to the history of prohibition, which has been well studied by legal scholars. I cannot go into the very interesting details here, but quite generally, prohibition has been aimed at control of what are called "the dangerous classes"—those who threaten the rights and well-being of the privileged dominant minorities. These observations hold worldwide, where the topics have been studied.
They have special meaning in the U.S. in the context of the history of African-Americans, much of which remains generally unknown. It is, of course, known that slaves were formally freed during the American Civil War, and that after ten years of relative freedom, the gains were mostly obliterated by 1877 as Reconstruction was brought to an end.
But the horrifying story is only now being researched seriously, most recently in a study called "Slavery by another name" by Wall Street Journal editor Douglas Blackmon. His work fills out the bare bones with shocking detail, showing how after Reconstruction African-American life was effectively criminalized, so that black males virtually became a permanent slave labor force.
Conditions, however, were far worse than under slavery, for good capitalist reasons. Slaves were property, a capital investment, and were therefore cared for by their masters. Those criminalized for merely existing are similar to wage laborers, in that the masters have no responsibility for them, except to make sure that enough are available. That was, in fact, one of the arguments used by slave owners to claim that they were more moral than those who hired labor.
The argument was understood well enough by northern workers, who regarded wage labor as preferable to literal slavery only in that it was temporary, a position shared by Abraham Lincoln among others.
Criminalized black slavery provided much of the basis for the American industrial revolution of the late 19th and early 20th century. It continued until World War II, when free labor was needed for war industry.
During the postwar boom, which relied substantially on the dynamic state sector that had been established under the highly successful semi-command economy of World War II, African-American workers gained a certain degree of freedom for the first time since post-Civil War Reconstruction. But since the 1970s that process is being reversed, thanks in no small measure to the "war on drugs," which in some respects is a contemporary analogue to the criminalization of black life after the Civil War—and also provides a fine disciplined labor force, often in private prisons, in gross violation of international labor regulations.
For such reasons as these, we can expect that the "war on drugs" will continue until popular understanding and activism reach a point where the fundamental driving factors can be discerned and seriously addressed.
Last February, the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy issued its analysis of the U.S. "war on drugs" in the past decades. The Commission, led by former Latin American presidents Cardoso, Zedillo, and Gavíria, concluded that the drug war had been a complete failure and urged a drastic change of policy, away from criminalization and "supply-side" operations and towards much less costly and more effective measures of education, prevention, and treatment.
Their report had no detectable impact, just as earlier studies and the historical record have had none. That again reinforces the natural conclusion that the "drug war"—like the "war on crime" and "the war on terror"—has quite sensible goals, which are being achieved, and therefore continue in the face of a costly failure of announced goals.
Returning to the UNASUR meeting, a dose of realism, and skepticism about propaganda, would be helpful in evaluating the pretexts offered for the establishment of U.S. military bases in Colombia, retention of the base in Honduras, and the accompanying steps towards militarization.
It is very much to be hoped that South America will bar moves towards militarization and intervention, and will devote its energies to the programs of integration in both their external and internal aspects—establishing effective political and economic organizations, overcoming the terrible internal problems of deprivation and suffering, and strengthening varied links to the outside world.
But Latin America’s problems go far beyond. The countries cannot hope to progress without overcoming their reliance on primary product exports, including crucially oil, but also minerals and food products. And all these problems, challenging enough in themselves, are overshadowed by a critical global concern: the looming environmental crisis.
Current warnings by the best-informed investigators rely on the British Stern report, which is very highly regarded by leading scientists and numerous Nobel laureates in economics. On this basis, some have concluded, realistically, that "2009 may well turn out to be the decisive year in the human relationship with our home planet."
In December, a conference in Copenhagen is "to sign a new global accord on global warming," which will tell us "whether or not our political systems are up to the unprecedented challenge that climate change represents." I am quoting Bill McKibben, one of the most knowledgeable researchers. He is mildly hopeful, but that may be optimistic unless there are really large-scale public campaigns to overcome the insistence of the managers of the state-corporate sector on privileging short-term gain for the few over the hope that their grandchildren will have a decent future.
At least some of the barriers are beginning to crumble, in part, because the business world perceives new opportunities for profit in alternative energy. Even the Wall Street Journal, one of the most stalwart deniers, has recently published a supplement with dire warnings about "climate disaster," urging that none of the options being considered may be sufficient and that it may be necessary to undertake more radical measures of geoengineering, "cooling the planet" in some manner.
Meanwhile, however, the energy industries are vigorously pursuing their own agenda. They are organizing major propaganda campaigns to defeat even the mild proposals being considered in Congress. They are quite openly following the script of the corporate campaigns that have virtually destroyed the very limited health care reforms proposed by the Obama administration so effectively that the business press now exults that the insurance companies have won—and everyone else will suffer.
The picture might be much grimmer even than what the Stern report predicts. A group of MIT scientists have just released the results of what they describe as, "The most comprehensive modeling yet carried out on the likelihood of how much hotter the Earth’s climate will get in this century, [showing] that without rapid and massive action, the problem will be about twice as severe as previously estimated six years ago—and could be even worse than that [because the model] does not fully incorporate other positive feedbacks that can occur, for example, if increased temperatures caused a large-scale melting of permafrost in arctic regions and subsequent release of large quantities of methane."
The leader of the project, a prominent earth scientist, says that, "There’s no way the world can or should take these risks," and that, "The least-cost option to lower the risk is to start now and steadily transform the global energy system over the coming decades to low or zero greenhouse gas-emitting technologies." There is little sign of that.
While new technologies are essential, the problems go far beyond. It will be necessary to reverse the huge state-corporate social engineering projects of the post-World War II period, or at least severely ameliorate their harmful effects. These projects quite purposefully promoted an energy-wasting and environmentally destructive fossil fuel-based economy.
The state-corporate programs, which included massive projects of suburbanization along with destruction and then gentrification of inner cities, began with a conspiracy by manufacturing and energy industries to buy up and destroy efficient electric public transportation systems in Los Angeles and dozens of other cities; they were convicted of criminal conspiracy and given a light tap on the wrist. The Federal government then joined in, relocating infrastructure and capital stock to suburban areas and creating the interstate highway system, under the usual pretext of "defense." Railroads were displaced by government-subsidized motor and air transport.
The public played almost no role, apart from choice within the narrowly structured framework of options designed by state-corporate managers. One result is atomization of society and entrapment of isolated individuals with self-destructive ambitions and crushing debt. A central component of these processes is the vigorous campaign of the business world to "fabricate consumers," in the words of the distinguished political economist Thorstein Veblen, and to direct people "to the superficial things of life, like fashionable consumption" (in the words of the business press).
The campaign grew out of the recognition a century ago that it was no longer as easy as before to discipline the population by force, and that it would therefore be necessary to resort to propaganda and indoctrination to curtail democratic achievements and to ensure that the "opulent minority" is protected from the "ignorant and meddlesome outsiders," the population. These are crucial features of really existing democracy under contemporary state capitalism, a "democratic deficit" that is at the root of many of today’s crises.
While state-corporate power was promoting privatization of life and maximal waste of energy, it was also undermining the efficient choices that the market does not provide—another destructive built-in market inefficiency. To put it simply, if I want to get home from work, the market offers me a choice between a Ford and a Toyota, but not between a car and a subway. That’s a social decision and in a democratic society would be the decision of an organized public. But that’s just what the dedicated elite attack on democracy seeks to undermine.
The consequences are right before our eyes, in ways that are sometimes surreal—no less surreal than the huge resources being poured into militarization of the world while a billion people are going hungry and the rich countries are cutting back sharply on financing meager food aid.
The business press recently reported that Obama’s transportation secretary is in Europe seeking to contract with Spanish and other European manufacturers to build high-speed rail projects in the U.S., using federal funds that were authorized by Congress to stimulate the U.S. economy. Spain and other European countries are hoping to get U.S. taxpayer funding for the high-speed rail and related infrastructure that is badly needed in the U.S. At the same time, Washington is busy dismantling leading sectors of U.S. industry, ruining the lives of the workforce, families, and communities.
It is difficult to conjure up a more damning indictment of the economic system that has been constructed by state-corporate managers, particularly during the neoliberal era. Surely the auto industry could be reconstructed to produce what the country needs, using its highly skilled workforce—and what the world needs—and soon, if we are to have some hope of averting major catastrophe. It has been done before, after all.
During World War II, the semi-command economy not only ended the Great Depression, but also initiated the most spectacular period of growth in economic history, virtually quadrupling industrial production in four years as the economy was retooled for war, and laying the basis for the "golden age" that followed.
But all such matters are off the agenda and will continue to be until the severe democratic deficit is overcome. In a sane world, workers and communities would take over the abandoned factories, convert them to socially useful production, and run the factories themselves. That has been tried, but was blocked in the courts. To succeed, such efforts would require a level of popular support and working class consciousness that is not manifest in recent years, but that could be reawakened and could have large-scale effects.
These issues should be very prominent right here in Venezuela, as in other oil-producing countries. They were discussed by President Chavez at the meeting of the UN General Assembly in September 2005. I will quote his words, which unfortunately were not reported, at least in the U.S. press:
"Ladies and gentlemen, we are facing an unprecedented energy crisis in which an unstoppable increase of energy is perilously reaching record highs, as well as the incapacity of increased oil supply and the perspective of a decline in the proven reserves of fuel worldwide…. It is unpractical and unethical to sacrifice the human race by appealing in an insane manner to the validity of a socioeconomic model that has a galloping destructive capacity. It would be suicidal to spread it and impose it as an infallible remedy for the evils which are caused precisely by them."
These words point in the right direction. To avoid the suicide of the species there must be coordinated efforts of producers and users, and radical changes in prevailing socioeconomic models and global organization. These are very large and urgent challenges. There can be no delay in recognizing and understanding them, and acting decisively to address them.
Noam Chomsky is a leading linguist, a long-time professor at MIT, a social critic, and author of numerous articles and books, including his latest, Failed States.
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