Latin America: The Attack On Democracy
by John Pilger
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 such 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 "neoliberalism"
- a decidedly unradical notion once embraced by the British Labour
Party. Those ordinary Venezuelans 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. This critique of Chavez's "Bolivarian
Revolution" from the barrios was drowned in the Venezuelan
and foreign media's unrelenting propaganda that he was planning
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 paramilitaries 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
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 Venezuelan 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 and their death squads.
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.
On 3 February, the London 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 tremendous 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 Raúl
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. 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.