There is a very clear doctrine on the general contours of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America—and elsewhere. It reigns with little challenge in Western commentary and most scholarship, even among critics. The major theme is what is called “American exceptionalism”: the doctrine that the United States is unlike other great powers, past and present, because it has a “transcendent purpose”: “the establishment of equality in freedom in America,” and indeed throughout the world, since “the arena within which the United States must defend and promote its purpose has become world-wide.”
The particular version of the doctrine that I quoted is not unusual. I selected it because it is the formulation by one of the most distinguished scholars, and an unusually honorable person and independent thinker, written in the glow of Camelot: Hans Morgenthau, founder of the tough-minded realist school of international relations, which avoids sentimentality and keeps to the hard truths of state power in an anarchic world. An honest and competent scholar, Morgenthau recognized that the historical record is radically inconsistent with America’s “transcendent purpose.” But he explains that we should not be misled by the sharp contradiction. In his words, we should not “confound the abuse of reality with reality itself.” Reality itself is the unachieved “national purpose” revealed by “the evidence of history as our minds reflect it.” The actual historical record is merely the “abuse of reality,” which is of only secondary interest. Morgenthau goes on to say that those who confuse “reality” with “the abuse of reality” are committing “the error of atheism, which denies the validity of religion on similar grounds.” His analogy is apt, if not in the manner he intended.1
Sometimes the august character of America and its “purpose” is raised to the level of pure logic. Thus in Harvard University’s prestigious journal International Security, the Eaton Professor of the Science of Government at Harvard, Samuel Huntington, explains that the “national identity” of the United States is “defined by a set of universal political and economic values,” namely “liberty, democracy, equality, private property, and markets.” Hence the United States has a solemn duty to maintain its “international primacy” for the benefit of the world. And since this is a matter of definition, so the Science of Government teaches, we may dispense with the tedious work of empirical confirmation—which, in fact, would be absurd, rather like seeking empirical confirmation for the thesis that 2+2 = 4. And in any event, empirical inquiry would only deal with the “abuse of reality.”2
These are, naturally, very welcome doctrines—at least to those who wield the clubs. In one or another form, the doctrines are quite commonly adopted, explicitly or tacitly. And for good reasons, which are surely familiar here in Chile and in much of the rest of the world.
A variant of these prevailing concepts is that it is the very nobility of our ideals that leads us to violate them regularly. Our lofty values lead to what political scientist Michael Desch calls “America’s Liberal Illiberalism.”3 As he explains, “Indeed, it is precisely American Liberalism that makes the United States so illiberal today.” The reason is America’s zeal in bringing to others the values that define its national identity, which sometimes leads to excess. He offers grand theses about the principles that inspire American action in the world, and lists some cases where they have allegedly been applied, but he too appears to recognize that evidence is superfluous; at least he provides none. Fortunately, because even the most superficial examination reveals that his own examples also fall under “the abuse of reality.” Like others, Desch argues that these ideals must be sincerely held, because they are articulated in internal discussion—as in the Soviet Union, fascist Japan, and other equally impressive cases, so we learn from released internal documents.
Other scholars routinely adopt the same perspective. Citing examples is unfair, because the practice is virtually reflexive, hardly more than the product of a good education, which, as George Orwell observed with regard to England, instills a “general tacit agreement that ‘it wouldn’t do’ to mention” certain unacceptable facts; or even to allow them to enter into consciousness. To pick one example of great current significance, the fine historian David Schmitz recently published his second major book on Washington’s policies of undermining democracy and its support for vicious monsters, including Mussolini and Hitler, and a postwar record that I need not mention. His scholarship is careful and accurate. His final conclusion is that “throughout most of the twentieth century, the United States supported right-wing dictatorships [in] violation of America’s political ideals” and its commitment to “the promotion of democracy and human rights.” He says “most” of the twentieth century because he begins in 1921 and believes that Carter was an exception, a judgment that is partially true but not easy to sustain if we attend to “the abuse of reality,” including Suharto, Somoza, Chun, and the shah, among notable examples.4
If we turn to the years before 1921, we find the same pattern: Woodrow Wilson’s depredations in the Caribbean, the murderous conquest of the Philippines that slaughtered hundreds of thousands, and much else. Practice in the nineteenth century need not be reviewed.
In short, throughout its history, the United States has consistently acted in violation of its ideals. But the doctrine that leaders are committed to these ideals is an unchallengeable article of faith, sacrosanct, holy writ. What happened is simply “abuse of reality.” With regard to Bush II, a minor problem in upholding the faith is that his dedication to the mission of “promoting democracy” was grandly declared in November 2003, when a new pretext was needed for the invasion of Iraq after the wrong answer was provided to what had been the “single question”: will Saddam abandon his programs of development of weapons of mass destruction (and for the really dedicated true believers, like Dick Cheney, his alliance with al-Qaeda)? While the “single question” was being upheld, references to democracy did not go beyond routine boilerplate, but as soon as they were enunciated, “scholars jumped on the democratization bandwagon,” as Middle East specialist Augustus Richard Norton observed, joining others—though not everyone: among Iraqis, 99 percent dismissed the newly discovered project, while 95 percent denied that the goal had been “to assist the Iraqi people”—views that were generally sustained as the tragedy of Iraq proceeded on its grim course.5
To be sure, U.S. intellectual culture is breaking no new ground. There are two problems with the conventional phrase “American exceptional-ism.” First, to sustain a belief in “exceptionalism,” one must scrupulously dismiss major parts of what actually happened as the mere “abuse of reality.” And second, the stance is not peculiarly “American”; rather, it is close to a historical universal among powerful states.
The same perspective guides major scholarship on current foreign policy. The most extensive scholarly article on “the roots of the Bush doctrine” opens with these words: “The promotion of democracy is central to the George W. Bush administration’s prosecution of both the war on terrorism and its overall grand strategy.” In one of Britain’s leading journals of international affairs, the major article on the same topic extends the scope of the thesis. The author writes that “promoting democracy abroad” has been a primary goal ever since Woodrow Wilson endowed U.S. foreign policy with a “powerful idealist element,” which gained “particular salience” under Reagan and has been taken up with “unprecedented forcefulness” under George W. Bush. Such doctrines are standard in scholarship. In journalism and intellectual commentary they are generally taken to be the merest truisms.6
There are prominent critics, who argue that it is important not to go too far in our idealism. New York Times diplomatic correspondent Thomas Friedman cautioned that our policy of “granting idealism a near exclusive hold on our foreign policy” may lead us to neglect our own legitimate interests in our dedicated service to others. In the second national daily, the veteran commentator of the Washington Post, David Ignatius, former editor of the International Herald Tribune, warned that the man he calls the “idealist-in-chief” of the Bush administration might be “too idealistic—his passion for the noble goals of the Iraq war might overwhelm the prudence and pragmatism that normally guide war planners.”7 He is referring to Paul Wolfowitz, who was soon removed from Washington as an embarrassment and sent off to head the World Bank with the mission of curtailing corruption—briefly, until he had to resign because of his involvement in a scandal. The many accolades to Wolfowitz at the time of his appointment scrupulously evaded his record, which is one of utter contempt for democracy and human rights, including strong support for General Suharto of Indonesia, one of the worst mass murderers and torturers of the modern era, and also the easy winner in the international ranking of most corrupt leaders. But Suharto offered great profits to the foreign investors to whom he opened Indonesia’s rich resources for plunder, and was therefore very popular in the West, along with many other monsters past and present, as long as they obey the rules.
The tributes to the “idealist-in-chief” managed to overlook not only his general record but even his behavior in 2003 during a highly revealing escapade that is one of the clearest examples on record of contempt for democracy: Donald Rumsfeld’s distinction between “Old Europe” and “New Europe,” taken up by many others. The criterion distinguishing the two categories was sharp and clear. “Old Europe” consisted of the governments that followed the will of the overwhelming majority of their populations and refused to join the Bush-Blair invasion of Iraq. “New Europe” consisted of the governments that ignored an even larger majority of the population and took their orders from Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas. Therefore “Old Europe” was bitterly condemned (sometimes in infantile ways that reveal quite strikingly the ranking of democracy in comparison with abject obedience to the master, for example, the rechristening of French fries as “freedom fries” in the Senate cafeteria), and “New Europe” was hailed as the hope for democracy. The favorite democrats of New Europe were Italy’s Berlusconi, honored with a visit to the White House, and Spain’s Aznar, who was even invited to the summit to join Bush and Blair in announcing the war—with the support of 2 percent of the Spanish population, polls showed.
Easily winning the prize for hatred of democracy was the “idealist-in-chief.” To everyone’s surprise, Turkey followed the will of 95 percent of its population and refused to join the invasion. The Turkish government was bitterly condemned by Colin Powell and others. Wolfowitz was the most outraged. He denounced the Turkish military for not compelling the government to follow Washington’s orders, and demanded that Turkey apologize and recognize that it is their responsibility to help America, whatever the ridiculous population believes.8
The most interesting feature of this episode was that it passed virtually unnoticed in the West, and indeed the Rumsfeld–Old/New Europe distinction became conventional. The episode did not in the least tarnish the reverence for Bush’s “messianic mission” to “promote democracy,” the “noble goal” lauded by the liberal press.
The reverence continues no matter how dramatic the refutation. To select just one of many cases, in January 2006, the population of Palestine voted in an election that was recognized to be free and fair—apart from the Bush administration’s intervention in an effort to gain victory for its favored candidate, Mahmoud Abbas. But the wrong side won. Instantly, the United States and Israel turned to severe punishment of the population for their democratic errors, with Europe toddling politely along. Israel even cut off water to Gaza, where water shortages are severe, and a few months later, as Israeli terror increased, it bombed and destroyed power plants that provide electricity for pumping and sewage removal. Always with firm U.S. support, all further demonstrations of Bush’s “messianic mission” to promote democracy. As always, there were pretexts; as usual, they collapse under even superficial examination.9
U.S.-Israel goals were not at all concealed: the goal was to impose suffering on the population to induce them to shift their support to Washington’s favorite. The dramatic demonstration of hatred and contempt for democracy was reported frankly, while right alongside the Bush administration was praised for dedicating itself to promoting democracy, or criticized because its excess of idealism might be harmful to ourselves. Easy tolerance of contradiction is an important talent to acquire, the talent for Orwell’s “doublethink”: the ability to hold two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, while accepting both of them.
It might be observed that Gazans are protected people under the Geneva Conventions, and any harm done to individuals except in response to their personal criminal acts is a severe crime. Furthermore, the High Contracting Parties that are signatories to the conventions are obligated to apprehend and punish those who are responsible for these breaches of its provisions, including their own leaders. These observations would be relevant in a world of law-abiding states. But they are scarcely even intelligible in this one.
We find similar conclusions when we turn to the most serious scholarship that deals specifically with democracy promotion. The most prominent scholar-advocate of the cause is Thomas Carothers, who was director of the Democracy and Rule of Law Project at the Carnegie Endowment. He identifies himself as a neo-Reaganite, agreeing with general scholarship that Wilsonian idealism took on particular “salience” under Reagan’s leadership. After Bush’s dramatic declaration of the suddenly discovered mission of democracy promotion, Carothers published a book reviewing the record of democracy promotion by the United States since the end of the Cold War. He finds “a strong line of continuity” running through all administrations, including Bush II: democracy is promoted by the U.S. government if and only if it conforms to strategic and economic interests. All administrations are “schizophrenic” in this regard, he concludes, a strange and inexplicable malady.10
Carothers also wrote the standard scholarly work on democracy promotion in Latin America in the 1980s, in part from an insider’s perspective. He was serving in the Reagan State Department in the programs of “democracy enhancement.” Carothers regards these programs as sincere, but a failure. He too is an honest scholar, and points out that the failure of the programs was systematic. Where U.S. influence was least, in South America, progress toward democracy was greatest, despite Reagan’s attempts to impede it by embracing right-wing dictators. Where U.S. influence was strongest, in the regions nearby, progress was least. The reason, he explains, is that Washington would tolerate only “limited, top-down forms of democratic change that did not risk upsetting the traditional structures of power with which the United States has long been allied [in] quite undemocratic societies.”11
In short, the strong line of continuity goes back well before Bush II, to the Reagan years, when the “powerful idealist element” in traditional U.S. policy gained “particular salience,” according to scholarship. Nonetheless, the dedication of our leaders to the principle is beyond question, throughout history and today, particularly under Reagan and Bush II.
In fact, the strong line of continuity goes back much farther. Democracy promotion has always been proclaimed as a guiding vision, but it is not even controversial that the United States regularly overthrew parliamentary democracies, often installing or supporting brutal tyrannies: Iran, Guatemala, Brazil, Chile, a long list of others. There were Cold War pretexts, but they regularly collapse upon investigation. I will not insult your intelligence by recounting how Reagan brought democracy to Central America by terrorist wars that left hundreds of thousands of corpses and three countries in ruins, a fourth tottering.
The paradoxical character of policy is also recognized at the liberal extreme of the policy spectrum, where it elicits regret but is felt to be unavoidable. The basic dilemma facing policy makers was expressed by Robert Pastor, a liberal Latin America scholar who was President Carter’s national security adviser for Latin America. He explains why the administration had to support the murderous and corrupt Somoza regime in Nicaragua, and when that proved impossible, to try at least to maintain the U.S.-trained National Guard even as it was massacring the population “with a brutality a nation usually reserves for its enemy,” in his words, killing some forty thousand people. The reason was straightforward: “The United States did not want to control Nicaragua or the other nations of the region,” he writes, “but it also did not want developments to get out of control. It wanted Nicaraguans to act independently, except when doing so would affect U.S. interests adversely.”12
The Cold War was scarcely relevant, but once again we find the dominant operative principle, illustrated copiously throughout history: policy conforms to expressed ideals only if it also conforms to interests. It is important to stress again that that term “interests” does not refer to the interests of the domestic population, but the interests of the concentrations of power that dominate the domestic society. The truism—essentially Adam Smith’s maxim—is often derided by respectable opinion as a “conspiracy theory,” or “Marxist,” or some other epithet, but it is readily confirmed when subjected to inquiry. In a rare and unusually careful analysis of the domestic influences on U.S. foreign policy, Lawrence Jacobs and Benjamin Page find, unsurprisingly, that the major influence on policy is “internationally oriented business corporations,” though there is also a secondary effect of “experts,” who, they point out “may themselves be influenced by business.” Public opinion, in contrast, has “little or no significant effect on government officials,” they find. As they observe, the results should be welcome to “realists” such as Walter Lippmann, the leading public intellectual of the twentieth century, who “considered public opinion to be ill-informed and capricious [and] warned that following public opinion would create a ‘morbid derangement of the true functions of power’ and produce policies ‘deadly to the very survival of the state as a free society,’” in Lippmann’s words. The “realism” is scarcely concealed ideological preference. One will search in vain for evidence of the superior understanding and abilities of those who have the major influence on policy.13
Let us turn to the founder of the noble ideals that have always animated the policies that consistently violate them. Wilsonian idealism was practiced most directly in Hispaniola, where Washington was carrying “the white man’s burden, the duty of the big brother,” as Wilson’s military governor explained. Meanwhile, the idealists who invaded Haiti and the Dominican Republic were taking over the valuable land and resources, and when that was accomplished, they left the country in good hands—the brutal National Guard in Haiti, and in the Dominican Republic, the self-proclaimed “Benefactor of the Fatherland,” Rafael Trujillo, the grand killer and torturer who was described by President Kennedy’s ambassador to the OAS as the “man responsible for the great work of Dominican progress, the man who brought trade between the Republic and the other American nations to a peak.” The enemy from whom Wilson’s marines were defending the inhabitants was not the Russians in this pre-Bolshevik intervention; rather the Huns, who were also blamed for the insurgency that sought to disrupt the idealistic venture. Dominican president Henríquez went to the Versailles Conference in 1919 to request that his country be included among the oppressed nationalities whose cause President Wilson claimed to champion in his famous Fourteen Points. But Henríquez failed: Wilson barred any consideration of the Western hemisphere. Among his other notable achievements at the Versailles conference, Wilson refused even to speak to a gentleman asking politely whether Vietnam might merit some limited form of self-determination; he later became famous under the name Ho Chi Minh.
In Hispaniola itself, Wilson’s vicious treatment of the Dominican Republic was relatively benign, because its inhabitants had “a preponderance of white blood and culture,” the State Department explained, while the Haitians “are negro for the most part” and “are almost in a state of savagery and complete ignorance.” There is no need to review the events or the aftermath.14
More generally, Wilson’s dedication to self-determination, he explained, did not apply to people “at a low stage of civilization,” who must be given “friendly protection, guidance, and assistance” by the colonial powers that had tended to their needs in earlier years. His famous Fourteen Points held that in questions of sovereignty, “the interests of the populations concerned must have equal weight with the equitable claims of the government whose title is to be determined,” the colonial ruler. At home his idealism took the form of a “Red Scare” that was the worst attack on elementary civil rights in American history.15
As noted earlier, among the many reasons for regarding the fabled “American exceptionalism” with some skepticism is that the doctrine appears to be close to a historical universal, including the worst monsters: Hitler, Stalin, the conquistadors—it is hard to find an exception. Aggression and terror are almost invariably portrayed as self-defense and dedication to inspiring visions. Japanese emperor Hirohito was merely echoing a broken record in his surrender declaration in August 1945 when he told his people that “we declared war on America and Britain out of Our sincere desire to ensure Japan’s self-preservation and the stabilization of East Asia, it being far from Our thought either to infringe upon the sovereignty of other nations or to embark upon territorial aggrandizement.” If Asians have a different picture, it shows that they are backward and uncivilized people. They too are “naughty children who are exercising all the privileges and rights of grown ups” and require “a stiff hand, an authoritative hand,” the description of Latin Americans by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, though he advised President Eisenhower that to control the naughty children more effectively, it may be useful to “pat them a little bit and make them think that you are fond of them.” The Kennedy administration relied more on academic intellectuals, who were more respectful. Kennedy’s Latin American adviser, historian Arthur Schlesinger, recommended to the president that he should address Latin Americans with “a certain amount of high-flown corn” about “the higher aims of culture and spirit, [which] will thrill the audience south of the border, where metahistorical disquisitions are inordinately admired.” Meanwhile we’ll take care of the serious business.16
In the internal planning record, the guiding principles of policy are often articulated without illusion. The basic principles are revealed by the oldest concern of U.S. policy in Latin America: Cuba. In 1823, the Monroe Doctrine declared Washington’s right to rule the hemisphere, but it was not powerful enough to exercise that right because of the British deterrent. The British did not try to impede the murderous conquest of Spanish Florida in 1818 and could not prevent the conquest of half of Mexico or the remainder of the national territory. But British forces did bar the conquest of Canada and Cuba. The intellectual father of Manifest Destiny, John Quincy Adams, predicted that Cuba would eventually drop into U.S. hands by the laws of “political gravitation” just as “an apple severed by a tempest from its native tree cannot but choose to fall to the ground.” By the end of the century, the laws of political gravitation had come to apply, as Adams had anticipated. The British deterrent was overcome, and the United States was able to intervene to bar Cuba’s liberation from Spain, turning it into a “virtual colony” until 1959, to quote historians and policy analysts Ernest May and Philip Zelikow.17
The propaganda of 1898 held that the United States intervened to liberate Cuba from Spanish terror, a noble “humanitarian intervention” fulfilling what is now solemnly called “the responsibility to protect.” The power of U.S. propaganda is so great that it has prevailed in most of the world until quite recently. By now, it has been torn to shreds by serious scholarship, primarily the work of Louis Pérez, which reveals that Cubans were on the verge of defeating the Spanish armies when the United States intervened. Furthermore, had it not been for the valiant efforts of Cuban forces, the U.S. military campaign might have ended in a “military disaster,” even a “humiliating withdrawal.” In Pérez’s words, it was “war ostensibly against Spain, but in fact against Cubans.… The intervention changed everything, as it was meant to. A Cuban war of liberation was transformed into a U.S. war of conquest.” Some recognized reality at the time. The distinguished statesman Elihu Root, then secretary of war, declared bluntly that “we intend to rule and that is all there is to it.” The Cuban commanders were not even permitted to attend Spain’s surrender, and along with other Cubans, were treated with racist contempt, from the first moments.18
What happened after Cuba’s actual liberation in 1959 is highly instructive.19 Within a few months, the Eisenhower administration resolved to overthrow the government. Support for military operations began, later extended to a major terrorist war by Kennedy. Responsibility for the war was assigned to the president’s brother, Robert Kennedy, whose highest priority was to bring “the terrors of the earth” to Cuba, according to his biographer, Arthur Schlesinger. The terrorist war was no slight affair; it was also a major factor in bringing the world to the verge of nuclear war in 1962, and was resumed as soon as the missile crisis ended. And it continued through the century, from U.S. territory, though in later years Washington no longer initiated and supported terrorist attacks on Cuba, but only tolerated them, and continues to provide haven to some of the most notorious international terrorists who have been involved in these and other crimes: Orlando Bosch, Luis Posada Carriles, and numerous others. Commentators are polite enough not to recall the Bush doctrine that those who harbor terrorists are as guilty as the terrorists themselves, and must be treated accordingly: by bombing and invasion.
It is not that Washington lacks the means to punish those guilty of true crimes. Its capacity to do so was revealed when Cuban agents infiltrated the Miami-based terrorist networks that Washington was harboring, to try to expose and deter their terrorist operations. They gained substantial information. In 1998, high-level FBI officials were invited to Havana, where they were given thousands of pages of documentation and hundreds of hours of videotape about terrorist actions organized by cells in Florida. The FBI was not slow to react: it arrested the informants who provided the information, including a group now known as the Cuban Five.
The arrests were followed by a show trial in Miami. The Five were convicted, three to life sentences (for espionage; and the leader, Gerardo Hernández, also for conspiracy to murder). Since no punishment can be severe enough for those who exposed U.S.-based terror to the FBI, Hernández has even been denied the right to a visit from his wife. In July 2009, the Obama administration issued the tenth such visa denial, reportedly on grounds that she “constitutes a threat to the stability and national security of the United States.” Meanwhile, people regarded by the FBI and Justice Department as dangerous terrorists live happily in the United States, enjoying their freedom and privilege.20
The Eisenhower administration initiated the economic warfare against Cuba that was also sharply escalated by Kennedy. In internal documents, high officials explained that “the Cuban people are responsible for the regime.” Therefore the U.S. has the right to punish them because “if [the Cuban people] are hungry, they will throw Castro out.” Kennedy agreed that the embargo would hasten Fidel Castro’s departure as a result of “rising discomfort among hungry Cubans.” The punishment of the people of Cuba intensified when Cuba was in dire straits after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The author of the 1992 measures to tighten the blockade proclaimed that “my objective is to wreak havoc in Cuba” so that the people will suffer and force government policy to change (liberal Democrat Robert Torricelli). The basic thinking was expressed by a high State Department official in 1960: Castro would be removed “through disenchantment and disaffection based on economic dissatisfaction and hardship [so] every possible means should be undertaken promptly to weaken the economic life of Cuba [in order to] bring about hunger, desperation and [the] overthrow of the government”—a policy which, as you all know, was applied successfully here in Chile, with consequences that we need not review.
The punishment of Palestinians for voting the wrong way, already discussed, was no innovation. Rather, it is common and is considered acceptable across the political spectrum, with rare exceptions.
It should, again, not be thought that this form of savagery is somehow unique to the United States and its clients. Like other elements of “American exceptionalism,” it is probably close to a historical universal, routinely adopted by systems of power, though naturally most visible and destructive in the case of the most powerful states.
Also close to a historical universal, as far as I know, is the unwillingness of educated classes to perceive what they are doing: the Jennings corollary, once again. There was a revealing illustration a few days after the Palestinian elections of January 2006. The New York Times published a review of a collection of Osama bin Laden’s pronouncements. The reviewer, constitutional lawyer Noah Feldman, described Osama’s descent to greater and greater evil over the years, finally reaching the absolute lower depths, when “he put forth the perverse claim that since the United States is a democracy, all citizens bear responsibility for its government’s actions, and civilians are therefore fair targets.” Ultimate evil—and quite acceptable practice, as the Times reported two days later, when the United States and Israel announced that all Palestinians bear responsibility for the government they had just elected, so that they are all fair targets for terror and economic strangulation. Like Cubans.21
In one case, it is ultimate evil; in the other, it is noble idealism. The determining factor is agency. And unsurprisingly, the long record of similar practices received no more notice than the pairing of Osama’s doctrines with our own.
The reasons Cuba must be tortured were frankly explained in the internal record, particularly when the attack escalated under Kennedy. The basic reason was Cuba’s “successful defiance” of U.S. policies going back 150 years; not Russians, but rather the Monroe Doctrine. Then come the usual reasons for intervention: the concern that the Cuban example might infect others with the dangerous idea of “taking matters into their own hands,” an idea with great appeal throughout the continent because “the distribution of land and other forms of national wealth greatly favors the propertied classes and the poor and underprivileged, stimulated by the example of the Cuban revolution, are now demanding opportunities for a decent living.” That was the warning given to incoming President Kennedy by his Latin America adviser Arthur Schlesinger, along with the suggestions about how to handle Latin Americans that I quoted earlier. A few months later the analysis was confirmed by the CIA, which observed that “the extensive influence of ‘Castroism’ is not a function of Cuban power.… Castro’s shadow looms large because social and economic conditions throughout Latin America invite opposition to ruling authority and encourage agitation for radical change,” for which Castro’s Cuba might provide a model.22
The basic themes prevail with little change. When Washington reacted with fear and fury to the democratic election that brought Allende to office, the concern was not just the threat to corporate interests: rather, his election was perceived as a challenge to the whole ideological basis of U.S. global policy. As discussed in the previous lecture, policy makers feared that if the United States could not control Latin America, it could not expect “to achieve a successful order elsewhere in the world.” Similar concerns appear to have motivated Clinton’s bombing of Serbia, which was also guilty of “successful defiance,” so we learn from the highest sources in the Clinton administration, who inform us that “it was Yugoslavia’s resistance to the broader trends of political and economic reform—not the plight of Kosovar Albanians—that best explains NATO’s war.” The necessary “reforms” are the neoliberal policies that Clinton sought to impose on the world—though in the traditional manner, exempting elites at home, where he carried forward the Reagan-Thatcher project of constructing a powerful state for the rich and privileged, a “conservative nanny state,” as it is described by economist Dean Baker in a revealing study.23
Before World War II, although the United States was by far the world’s leading economy, it was not a major player in world affairs. Its domination was restricted to its own region, apart from forays into the Pacific: conquering Hawaii and the Philippines along with Pacific islands, part of the race of the industrial countries to exploit the riches of China during the years when it had lost its capacity to defend itself from conquest and robbery. The one major exception was the campaign to control energy resources, as the world began to shift to an oil-based economy after World War I. The United States was the greatest producer, but wanted to ensure control of resources elsewhere—the charge now leveled against China today. Wilson therefore expelled the British from Venezuela, which by 1928 had become the world’s leading oil exporter, with U.S. companies now in charge. To achieve the goal, Washington “actively supported the vicious and venal regime of Juan Vicente Gómez,” violating its Open Door policy to achieve “U.S. economic hegemony in Venezuela” by pressuring its government to bar British concessions—more abuse of reality in the service of Wilsonian idealism.24 Meanwhile the United States continued to demand—and secure—oil rights in the Middle East, where the British and French were in the lead.
By the end of World War II, everything had changed. U.S. industrial production more than tripled during the war, while industrial rivals were severely damaged or destroyed. The United States had literally half of the wealth of the entire world, along with incomparable security and military power, including nuclear weapons. U.S. planners had no doubt that they could now implement the Monroe Doctrine for the first time, and could also go on to dominate most of the world. High-level planners and foreign policy advisers determined that in the new global system the United States should “hold unquestioned power” while ensuring the “limitation of any exercise of sovereignty” by states that might interfere with its global designs, while developing “an integrated policy to achieve military and economic supremacy for the United States” throughout most of the world, all if possible. Since then, fundamental policies have changed more in tactics than in substance.25
It was particularly important to control Middle East oil, which was recognized to be “a stupendous source of strategic power” and “one of the greatest material prizes in world history,” in the words of internal documents of the 1940s. The influential planner A. A. Berle held that control of Middle East oil would yield “substantial control of the world.”26 France was expelled from the region by legal chicanery, and the British were gradually reduced to a junior partner. In Latin America, repeated efforts to follow an independent path elicited violence or economic warfare in ways I need not recount. Until recently, there was only a single survivor. Hence the seemingly irrational passion of the continuing assault against Cuba, in virtual isolation from world opinion as regular votes at the General Assembly show. And also in defiance of U.S. public opinion, which for decades has favored entering into normal relations with Cuba. And even in defiance of major segments of business, which is an unusual sign of a driving state interest: the Mafia doctrine—the Godfather does not easily tolerate disobedience, which could spread—an underappreciated principle of international order, to be added to the doctrines of Smith and Thucydides and the Jennings corollary.27
The conventional version of the Mafia doctrine is the “domino theory”: if we allow them to survive where they are, they’ll topple dominoes nearby, and will soon be a direct threat to us. So by the standard principles of preventive war, we must stop them at once, far from our shores. This version of the theory is regularly abandoned, often ridiculed as exaggerated, once the occasion for invoking it has passed. But the rational version of the doctrine persists, unchallenged, because it is quite plausible. Several examples have already been cited, and there are many others, including the U.S. invasion of South Vietnam, later all of Indochina. The Godfather’s concerns are valid.
We should not, however, underestimate the element of genuine fear, which is deeply rooted in American culture. The basic theme was expressed plaintively by President Lyndon Johnson, speaking to troops in Asia. “There are 3 billion people in the world and we have only 200 million of them,” he warned. “We are outnumbered 15 to 1. If might did make right they would sweep over the United States and take what we have. We have what they want.” So we have to stop them in Vietnam. Similar fears were voiced by Ronald Reagan when he strapped on his cowboy boots and declared a national emergency in 1985, warning that the fearsome Nicaraguan army was only “two days driving time” from Harlingen, Texas, an imminent terrorist threat if we don’t stop them in Managua. And when he bombed the nutmeg capital of the world, Grenada, because the Russians might use it to bomb the United States, if they could find it on a map.
It is a mistake to ridicule these fears because of the manifest absurdity. In Johnson’s case, at least, they were probably sincere, drawn from a long tradition. Literary critic Bruce Franklin has shown that a leading theme of popular literature since colonial days is that we are about to be destroyed by monsters, but are saved at the last moment by a superweapon or a superhero. And as he also shows, the monsters are commonly those we are crushing. This fear of them reveals itself in mobilization for aggression and violence abroad, and at home in the hatred of the next generation of immigrants that has been a pervasive feature of this immigrant society, and is once again taking ugly forms today. It is an element of the periodic outbursts of so-called populism: the idea that they are taking our country away from us, poisoning our culture and society, stealing our hard-earned money, particularly salient now with a growing recognition that whites are becoming a minority—a persecuted minority, as many see it. One doesn’t have to keep to rabid talk-show hosts to perceive the sentiment. A version appears in more mainstream commentary and even in scholarly literature, and plays no slight role in foreign and domestic politics.28
The end of the Cold War brought some changes, but more in pretexts and tactics than in principle. The “war on drugs” was redeclared by Bush I with a huge government-media propaganda campaign just in time to provide a pretext for the invasion of Panama to kidnap a thug who was convicted in Florida for crimes mostly committed when he was on the CIA payroll—incidentally killing unknown numbers of poor people in the bombarded slums, thousands according to Panamanian human rights investigators, but there was no U.S. inquiry: “We don’t do body counts,” as explained by General Tommy Franks, the conqueror of Iraq. The “war on drugs” also had an important domestic component. Much like the “war on crime,” it served to frighten the population into obedience as domestic policies were being implemented to benefit extreme wealth at the expense of the large majority, one part of broader processes to which we return.
The alleged threat was later transmuted from drugs to narcoterrorism, exploiting opportunities offered by 9/11. By the end of the millennium, total U.S. military and police assistance in the hemisphere already exceeded economic and social aid. That is a new phenomenon. Even at the height of the Cold War, economic aid far exceeded military aid. Predictably, the policies “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. From 2002 to 2003, the number of Latin Americans troops trained by U.S. programs increased by more than 50 percent, and has probably increased since. Police are trained in light infantry tactics. The Southern Military Command (SOUTHCOM) by then had more personnel in Latin America than most key civilian federal agencies combined. The new focus is on street gangs and “radical populism”: there is no need to tarry on what that phrase means in the Latin American context. Military training is being shifted from the State Department to the Pentagon. That frees military training from human rights and democracy conditionalities under congressional supervision, never very strong, but at least a deterrent to some of the worst abuses.29
The U.S. Fourth Fleet, disbanded in 1950, was reactivated in 2008. Its responsibility extends to the Caribbean, Central and South America, and the surrounding waters. The official announcement defines its “various operations” to “include counter-illicit trafficking, Theater Security Cooperation, military-to-military interaction and bilateral and multinational training.” The reactivation of the fleet understandably elicited protest and concern from the governments of Brazil, Venezuela, and others.30
Impediments to U.S. militarization of Latin America continue, however, including the decision of Ecuador’s president Rafael Correa to terminate Washington’s use of the Manta military base, the last one open to the United States in South America. But that does not end the story.
In July 2009, as the United States terminated its operations in Ecuador, the United States and Colombia concluded a secret deal to permit the United States to use seven military bases in Colombia—“one of the few places left in the Americas where the Yanqui military is welcome,” Time magazine observed.31 In Honduras, the United States uses the Palmerola military base, called the “unsinkable aircraft carrier” when it served as a major base for Reagan’s terrorist war against Nicaragua, possibly a factor in Obama’s isolated stance in accepting the 2009 Honduran elections under military rule after the president was expelled (see pp. 67–68). After the United States endorsed the Honduran elections, Honduras signed a security pact with Colombia, adding another piece to the U.S.-run project of remilitarization of the region.32 The United States also has access to bases in the Dutch islands Curaçao and Aruba, regarded as threats particularly by Venezuela, close by.
The officially highlighted purpose of the Colombian bases is to counter narcotrafficking and terrorism, “but senior Colombian military and civilian officials familiar with negotiations told the Associated Press that the idea is to make Colombia a regional hub for Pentagon operations,” AP reported. There are reports that the agreement provides Colombia with privileged access to U.S. military supplies. Colombia had long before become the leading recipient of U.S. military aid (apart from Israel-Egypt, a separate category). Colombia has had by far the worst human rights record in the hemisphere since the Central American wars of the 1980s wound down. The correlation between U.S. aid and human rights violations has long been noted by scholarship (see p. 261).33
AP also cited an April 2009 document of the U.S. Air Mobility Command. This study proposes that the Palanquero base in Colombia could become a “cooperative security location” (CSL) from which “mobility operations could be executed.” From Palanquero, the authors observe, “Nearly half the continent can be covered by a C-17 (military transport) without refueling.” This could form part of “a global en route strategy,” which “helps achieve the regional engagement strategy and assists with the mobility routing to Africa.” For the present, “the strategy to place a CSL at Palanquero should be sufficient for air mobility reach on the South American continent,” the document concludes, but it goes on to explore options for extending the routing to Africa with additional bases, all of which are to form part of the U.S. system of global surveillance, control, and intervention, a remarkably ambitious construction with no historical parallel.34
In May 2009 the air force submitted a budget request to Congress, explaining that the Palanquero base would provide “full spectrum operations” over most of the hemisphere and thus “increase our capability to conduct Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR), improve global reach, support logistics requirements, improve partnerships, improve theater security cooperation, and expand expeditionary warfare capability.” Among the tasks is to counter the “threat from narcotics funded terrorist insurgencies [and] anti-U.S. governments.”35
On August 28, 2009, the newly formed Union of South American Nations, UNASUR, met in Bariloche (Argentina) to consider the military bases. The final declaration stressed that South America must be kept as “a land of peace,” and that foreign military forces must not threaten the sovereignty or integrity of any nation of the region. It instructed the South American Defense Council to investigate the document of the Air Mobility Command. Problems of implementation were left to subsequent meetings.36
A month after the UNASUR meeting, the Panamanian press reported that Obama-Clinton had arranged for two new air and naval bases in Panama for U.S. operations, again near Venezuela.37
Bolivian president Evo Morales was particularly bitter about the plans for military bases. Drawing on his background in a coca growers union, he said he had witnessed U.S. soldiers accompanying Bolivian troops who fired at his union members. “So now we’re narcoterrorists,” he continued. “When they couldn’t call us communists anymore, they called us subversives, and then traffickers, and since the September 11 attacks, terrorists.” He warned that “the history of Latin America repeats itself.”38
Morales observed that the ultimate responsibility for Latin America’s violence lies with U.S. consumers of illegal drugs: “If UNASUR sent troops to the United States to control consumption, would they accept it? Impossible!”
Morales’s rhetorical question can be extended. Suppose that UNASUR, or China, or many others claimed the right to establish military bases in Mexico to implement programs to eradicate tobacco in the United States: by aerial fumigation in North Carolina and Kentucky, interdiction by sea and air forces, and dispatch of inspectors to the United States to ensure it was eradicating this poison—which is turned into products far more lethal than cocaine or heroin, incomparably more than cannabis. The toll of tobacco use, including “passive smokers” who are seriously affected though they do not use tobacco themselves, is truly fearsome, overshadowing the lethal effects of other dangerous substances (even the second largest killer, alcohol, which like tobacco causes great harm to non-users).
The idea that outsiders should interfere with the production and distribution of these lethal substances is plainly unthinkable. The fact that the U.S. justification for its drug programs abroad is accepted as plausible, even regarded as worthy of discussion, is yet another illustration of the deep roots of the imperial mentality in Western culture.
Even if we adopt the imperial premises, it is hard to take seriously the announced goals of the “drug war,” which persists without notable change despite extensive evidence that other measures—prevention and treatment—are far more cost-effective, and despite the persistent failure of the resort to criminalization at home and violence and chemical warfare (“fumigation”) abroad—at least, with regard to the announced goals.39
In February 2009, the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy issued its analysis of the U.S. “war on drugs” in past decades. The commission, led by former Latin American presidents Fernando Cardoso (Brazil), Ernesto Zedillo (Mexico), and César Gavíria (Colombia), concluded that the drug war had been a complete failure and urged a drastic change of policy, away from forceful measures at home and abroad and toward much less costly and more effective measures. 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”—is pursued for reasons other than the announced goals.40
To determine the reasons, we may adopt a procedure familiar in the legal system, which takes predictable consequences to be evidence of intent, particularly when the consequences are so clear over a long period, along with the predictable failure to reach the announced purposes.
The consequences have always been clear. The programs underlie counterinsurgency abroad, with particularly harsh effects in the main target, Colombia; and at home serve as “population control,” in part by frightening the population, a standard mode of imposing discipline, in part by removing a superfluous population, mostly Black and Latino, by sending huge and growing numbers to prison—the civilized counterpart to Latin American “social cleansing” (limpieza social). This neoliberal phenomenon has led to by far the highest incarceration rate in the world since the programs took off thirty years ago, adding another dark chapter to the history of African Americans, to which we return.
The “war on drugs” was a centerpiece of President Nixon’s domestic policies, though unlike his successors he included prevention and treatment as significant components. The reasons for his large-scale revival of the “war on drugs” were not obscure.41 Nixon and the right, joined by elite sectors quite generally, faced two crucial problems in the early 1970s. One was the rising opposition to the Vietnam War, which was beginning to cross a boundary that must be zealously guarded: some were even charging Washington with crimes, not merely errors committed in an excess of benevolence and naiveté, as liberal commentators insisted. A related problem was activism, particularly among young people, which was bringing about an “excess of democracy,” liberal intellectuals warned while calling for restoration of obedience and passivity, along with measures to overcome the failure of the institutions responsible for “the indoctrination of the young”—schools, university, churches—to perform their tasks, and perhaps even government control of the media if self-censorship did not suffice. And in Nixonian hands, much harsher measures.42
The drug war was a perfect remedy. With the enthusiastic participation of the media, a tale was concocted of an “addicted army” that would bring down domestic society as the shattered troops returned home, all part of an insidious communist plot. “The Communists [in Vietnam] are battling American troops not only with firepower but with drugs,” the respected liberal commentator Walter Cronkite proclaimed, while his colleagues lamented that the “worst horror to have emerged from the war” is the plague of addiction of American troops (Stewart Alsop). Others chimed in as well, with little skepticism, and little reaction even to horrifying statements like these. Though drug use appears to have been roughly on the order of the youth culture generally, there was indeed extremely serious addiction: alcohol and tobacco.
The ideological construction fulfilled these functions admirably. The United States became the victim of the Vietnamese, not the perpetrator of crimes against them, and the sacred image of the “city on the hill” was preserved. Furthermore, the basis was laid for a “law and order” campaign at home to discipline those who were straying beyond the bounds of subordination to power and doctrine. Successes were impressive. By 1977, President Carter could inform the country that we owe the Vietnamese no debt, because “the destruction was mutual.” For Reagan the war was a “noble cause.” The first President Bush was able to go on to inform the Vietnamese that of course we can never forgive them for the crimes they have committed against us, “but Hanoi knows today that we seek only answers without the threat of retribution for the past,” and being an unusually compassionate people, we will agree to let them join the world if they show good faith in dealing with the only moral issue remaining from the noble cause: dedicating themselves to finding the bones of American flyers shot down while flying over North Vietnam on their missions of mercy.43
All this passed with no detectable criticism or even comment, another impressive tribute to the culture of imperialism. But though the successes have indeed been substantial, they were far from complete. Activism not only continued but expanded, with significant civilizing effects on the general society.
Militarization of South America is a component of much broader global programs, as the “global en route strategy” indicates. In Iraq, there is virtually no information about the fate of the huge U.S. military bases. Reports from the contractors in charge—effectively mercenary forces—indicate that they are still under construction despite formal commitments to withdraw. The immense city-within-a-city “embassy” in Baghdad not only remains, but its cost is also to rise under Obama to $1.8 billion a year, from an estimated $1.5 billion in Bush’s last year. The Obama administration is also constructing mega-embassies in Pakistan and Afghanistan that are completely without precedent. Throughout the Gulf region, billions of dollars are being spent to develop “critical base and port facilities,” along with military training and arms shipments expanding the U.S. global system of militarization. The United States and UK are demanding that the U.S. military base in Diego Garcia, used heavily in recent U.S. wars after Britain expelled the inhabitants, be exempted from the planned African nuclear weapons–free zone (NWFZ), just as U.S. bases are exempted from similar efforts in the Pacific to reduce the nuclear threat. Not even on the agenda, of course, is a NWFZ in the Middle East, which would mitigate, perhaps end, the alleged Iranian threat. The enormous global support for this move, including a large majority of Americans, is not considered relevant.44
Meanwhile global military expenses continue to rise, though with a setback caused by the 2008 financial crisis (but not in the United States). The annual Yearbook of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute reports that for 2008, the United States accounted for over 40 percent of global military expenses, eight times as much as its nearest rival, China. The United States is of course alone in having a vast network of military bases around the world and a global surveillance and control system, and in regularly invading other countries (with impunity, given its power). From 1999 to 2008, global military spending increased 45 percent, with the United States accounting for 58 percent of the total. Since 2002, the value of the top one hundred arms sales industries, primarily U.S.-based, increased by 37 percent in real terms, until the recession. The United States is also the world’s largest arms supplier, with $23 billion in receipts in 2007 and $32 billion in 2008, including the small arms and light weapons that are used in most of the conflicts around the world—twenty out of twenty-seven of the world’s major wars, according to the report by the New America Foundation, which released these figures. A congressional study found that in 2008 the United States signed weapons agreements valued at $37.8 billion in 2008, amounting to over 68 percent of the global total, a sharp increase from $25.4 billion in 2007. Italy was second, with $3.7 billion in worldwide weapons sales in 2008. Russia was slightly below Italy, its sales having dropped by two-thirds, from $10.8 billion in 2007. “The growth in weapons sales by the United States last year was particularly noticeable against worldwide trends,” the press reported, noting that global arms sales in 2008 had dropped by 7.6 percent from 2007 and reached the lowest level since 2005. The United States opposes international regulation of arms sales. In the winter 2008 UN session, Washington voted against a global treaty regulating the arms trade, though it was not alone: it was joined by Zimbabwe.
Obama is “on track to spend more on defense, in real dollars, than any other president has in one term of office since World War II,” according to independent monitors, and “that’s not counting the additional $130 billion the administration is requesting to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan next year, with even more war spending slated for future years.” In January 2010, Congress passed his Pentagon budget with supplemental funding for Afghanistan pending. The $708.3 billion budget (with another $33 billion expected for Afghanistan) is not only a record, but also amounts to almost half the deficit, which is also reaching post–World War II highs, largely as a result of the tax cuts for the rich and lavish spending of the Bush administration. A major contributory factor was the “efficient market” theology touted by the economics profession, which prevented the Federal Reserve from attending to an $8 trillion housing bubble. The huge bubble, along with the consumer spending based on this mirage, sustained the economy until the inevitable crash—much as the Clinton economy was sustained by a tech bubble, though the extravagance and the crash were much less severe than under Bush.
The deficit is arousing huge concern among the right wing and the media, a concern with perhaps some merit, even though running deficits is an appropriate policy to help stimulate an economy in deep recession. A lead story in the New York Times, for example, is headlined “A Red-Ink Decade” and warns of two “stunning” numbers in the president’s budget proposal: the deficit for the coming year and the long-term deficit projection. The article praises the president for recognizing that it may be necessary to cut entitlement programs and increase taxes—which means letting Bush-era tax cuts for corporations and the rich expire. There is no reference to another “stunning” number: the military budget, untouchable and virtually unmentionable.45 What the Times and other commentators project is cutbacks in programs that serve people rather than concentrations of power—and surely not the military. That is particularly likely after “health care reform” has turned into another giveaway to the insurance companies and Big Pharma, in violation of the public will, and without the obvious steps to reduce costs in the manner of other industrial societies, critical matters to which we return.46
In short, moves toward “a world of peace” do not seem likely to fall within the “change you can believe in,” to borrow Obama’s campaign slogan.
A crucial question is what Obama’s position will be on “missile defense”—understood on all sides to be, in effect, a first-strike weapon—and militarization of space. On the latter, he has called for “a worldwide ban on weapons that interfere with military and commercial satellites,” which would mean that the U.S. project of the weaponization of space—so far in isolation and over global objections, spearheaded at the UN by China—would remain undisturbed, while there would be a ban on any interference with satellites, including those essential for the militarization of space. He has also called for a space weapons ban, a very welcome step, but presented in a way that leaves “a lot of wiggle room” (Victoria Samson at the Center for Defense Information). More disturbing are the remarks of Michael McFaul (special assistant for National Security Affairs and senior director for Russian and Eurasian affairs at the National Security Council) on the eve of Obama’s first trip to Russia. McFaul informed the press that “we’re not going to reassure or give or trade anything with the Russians regarding NATO expansion or missile defense,” referring to U.S. missile defense programs in Eastern Europe (to which we return) and NATO membership for Russia’s neighbors Ukraine and Georgia. Obama has spoken about eventual abolition of nuclear weapons, in accord with the legal obligation of signers of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, but again in rather vague terms. And as longtime antinuclear activist Joseph Gerson has observed, Mikhail Gorbachev and others have recognized that “Russia will not be able to embrace serious efforts to achieve abolition unless space is demilitarized—something which is not discussed in Washington’s agenda.”47
Obama’s approach may be an improvement over Bush, and offers prospects for popular movements that seek to rid the earth of these threats to survival of the species. But a lot of work will be needed.
Returning to Latin America, Washington planners are now facing a broad range of new and unexpected problems. Although Central America was largely pacified by Reaganite terror at least temporarily, the region from Venezuela to Argentina is falling out of control. And the traditional mechanisms—violence and economic warfare—are losing their effectiveness. Bush and associates did try to resort to the traditional means in Venezuela in 2002, backing a military coup to overthrow the democratically elected government—another illustration of the “strong line of continuity” in democracy promotion. But the effort failed. After a popular uprising restored the elected government, Washington immediately turned to funding groups of its choice within Venezuela while refusing to identify recipients: $26 million by 2006 for the new program after the failed coup attempt, all under the guise of supporting democracy. When the facts were reported by wire services, law professor Bill Monning at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California said, “We would scream bloody murder if any outside force were interfering in our internal political system.”48
Monning 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.
In a second coup attempt, the United States and France succeeded in eliminating the elected government of Haiti, as already discussed.
The third military coup was in Honduras in 2009, a class-based coup ousting left-leaning President Zelaya. The U.S. reaction was unusual in that Washington joined the OAS in criticizing the coup, though tepidly, not withdrawing its ambassador in protest as Latin American and European countries did. Meanwhile, the United States continued to train Honduran officers, and the IMF, largely U.S.-controlled, provided a $150 million loan to the coup regime—after having withdrawn loans to the democratically elected Zelaya government because of disagreement with his economic policies. In an unprecedented move, the IMF had also provided immediate offers of aid to the coup regime in Venezuela in 2002.49
Amnesty International released a long and detailed account of serious human rights violations by the Honduran coup regime. If such a report were issued concerning a official enemy, it would be front-page news. In this case it was scarcely reported, consistent with the downplaying of human rights violations by governments to which U.S. political and economic power centers are basically sympathetic, as in this case.50
Soon Obama ended the limited deviations from the normal track. He separated the United States from almost all of Latin America and Europe by accepting the military coup, which his administration refused to describe in those terms. Virtually alone, the United States recognized the subsequent elections held under military rule. Obama’s ambassador to Honduras, Hugo Llorens, called the elections “a great celebration of democracy”—echoing Kennedy-Johnson ambassador to Brazil Lincoln Gordon after the U.S.-backed military coup in 1964, which instituted the first of the neo-Nazi national security states that spread through the continent, the worst plague of repression in its history. The goal of these national security states, as described by Latin America scholar Lars Schoultz, was “to destroy permanently a perceived threat to the existing structure of socioeconomic privilege by eliminating the political participation of the numerical majority…[the] popular classes.”51 Gordon exulted that the Brazilian coup was “the most decisive victory for freedom in the mid-twentieth century,” adding that the “democratic forces” now in charge should “create a greatly improved climate for private investment.” Like Honduras, “a great celebration of democracy.”
Ties between the Pentagon and the Honduran military are so close, and U.S. aid is so decisive for this virtual client state, that the United States could easily have joined Latin America and Europe in defending democracy. But Obama chose to keep to the tradition: democracy is fine, if and only if it accords with U.S. state and corporate power interests. So it is fine in Eastern Europe, up to a point. But not in our own domains, unless it meets the Reaganite conditions already quoted. The vast majority of U.S. aid to Honduras was never suspended. In contrast, after recent military coups in Mauritania and Madagascar aid was suspended immediately. The United States also blocked an OAS resolution that would have refused to recognize Honduran elections carried out under the dictatorship—elections that Washington quickly applauded. After the election, Arturo Valenzuela, Obama’s State Department official in charge of Western hemisphere affairs, told the press that “the issue is not who is going to be the next president.… The Honduran people decided that”—choosing between two coup supporters while the elected president was holed up in the Brazilian Embassy. Meanwhile Lewis Anselem, Obama’s representative to the OAS, instructed the backward Latin American peons that they should join the United States in the real world, abandoning their “world of magical realism,” and should recognize the military coup as Big Brother did.
Obama even broke new ground in support for the military coup. There are two government-funded organizations that claim to support democracy in the world: the International Republican Institute (IRI) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI). The IRI regularly supports military coups to overthrow elected governments, most recently in Venezuela in 2002 and Haiti in 2004. But the NDI had held back, including in these two cases. In Honduras, for the first time, Obama’s NDI agreed to observe the elections under military rule, unlike the OAS and the UN, still wandering in the realm of magical realism.52
Nevertheless, resort to violence is no longer a readily available option in the face of disobedience in Latin America and popular opposition in the United States. Resort to economic warfare is also more restricted than in the past as one government after another restructures or repays debts, freeing themselves from control by the IMF—basically an arm of the U.S. Treasury Department.
Developments in Latin America should be understood within a broader global perspective. The prospect that Europe and Asia might move toward greater independence has seriously troubled U.S. planners since World War II, and concerns have significantly increased with the evolution of a “tripolar order” (North America, Europe, East Asia) by the 1970s. It is now expanding beyond, along with new and important interactions in the former colonial world (Brazil, South Africa, India, and others), and rapidly growing Chinese engagement with the EU and the countries of the South.
U.S. intelligence has projected that in the coming decades, the United States, while controlling Middle East oil for the traditional reasons, will itself rely mainly on more stable Atlantic Basin resources (West Africa, Western hemisphere). Control of Middle East oil is now far from a sure thing, especially after the arrogant blundering of the violent Bush clique in Iraq—portrayed as a success, but informed observers know better.53 These expectations are also threatened by developments in the Western hemisphere, accelerated by Bush administration policies that left the United States remarkably isolated in the global arena. The Bush administration even succeeded in alienating Canada, no small feat. The reason was Washington’s rejection of NAFTA decisions favoring Canada that led Canada to establish closer relations with China. Canadian officials said that Canada might shift a significant portion of its trade, particularly oil, from the United States to China; not very likely, but an unusual gesture of independence. In a further blow to Washington’s energy policies, the leading oil exporter in the hemisphere, Venezuela, has forged probably the closest relations with China of any Latin American country, and plans to sell increasing amounts of oil to China as part of its effort to reduce dependence on the openly hostile U.S. government. Latin America as a whole is increasing trade and other relations with China, with some setbacks but likely expansion, in particular raw materials exporters such as Brazil, Peru, and Chile. For Brazil, now often called “the farmer of the world,” China is now its largest trading partner. The increase is part of the tendencies toward a more diverse and multipolar world that are of considerable concern to American planners, who had long taken global hegemony for granted.54
Meanwhile Cuba-Venezuela relations have become close, each relying on its comparative advantage. Venezuela is providing low-cost oil, as it does elsewhere in the Caribbean, while in return Cuba organizes literacy and health programs, sending thousands of highly skilled professionals, teachers and doctors, who work in the poorest and most neglected areas, as they do elsewhere in the third world. Joint Cuba-Venezuela projects are also reported to be having an impact in the Caribbean, where with Venezuelan funding Cuban doctors are providing health care to thousands of people who had no hope of receiving it. Operation Miracle, as it is called, is described by Jamaica’s ambassador to Cuba as “an example of integration and south-south co-operation,” and appears to be generating enthusiasm among the poor majority. The United States and Mexico toyed with the idea of an oil subsidy to counter Venezuelan petro-diplomacy, but apparently did not pursue it.
Venezuela’s entry into Mercosur was described by Argentine president Néstor Kirchner as “a milestone” in the development of this trading bloc, and welcomed as opening “a new chapter in our integration” by Brazilian president Lula da Silva. Venezuela also supplied Argentina with fuel oil to help stave off an energy crisis, and bought almost a third of Argentine debt issued in 2005, one element of a regionwide effort to free the countries from the controls of the IMF after two decades of disastrous effects of conformity to its rules. The IMF has “acted towards our country as a promoter and a vehicle of policies that caused poverty and pain among the Argentine people,” President Kirchner said in announcing his decision to pay almost $1 trillion to rid Argentina of the IMF forever. Radically violating IMF rules, Argentina enjoyed a substantial economic recovery from the disaster left by IMF policies.
Steps toward independent regional integration advanced further with the election of Evo Morales in Bolivia in December 2005. Morales moved quickly to reach a series of energy accords with Venezuela. He too committed himself to reversing the neoliberal policies that Bolivia had pursued rigorously for twenty-five years, leaving the country with lower per capita income than at the outset. Adherence to the neoliberal programs was interrupted during this period only when popular uprisings compelled the government to abandon them, as when it followed World Bank advice to privatize water supply and “get prices right”—incidentally depriving the poor of access to water.
Since the election of Morales in 2005, Bolivia’s economic performance has been quite impressive. A Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) study found that in the four years since Morales took office, economic growth “has been higher than at any time in the last 30 years, averaging 4.9 percent annually.… Projected GDP growth for 2009 is the highest in the hemisphere and follows its peak growth rate in 2008,” along with “several programs targeted at the poorest Bolivians.” These are doubtless factors in Morales’s election in December 2009 by a majority of 64 percent to 26.4 percent for his right-wing opponent, a gain of 10 percent over his unprecedented victory in 2005.55
Throughout most of South America, Washington and elite opinion are compelled to support governments of a kind that might have been harshly condemned and undermined not many years ago, a reflection of the general shift toward independence in Latin America. The indigenous populations have become much more active and influential, particularly in Bolivia and Ecuador, where they want oil and gas to be domestically controlled or, in some cases, oppose production altogether. Many indigenous people apparently do not see any reason their lives, societies, and cultures should be disrupted or destroyed so that northern urbanites can sit in their SUVs in traffic gridlock. Some are even calling for an “Indian nation” in South America. Meanwhile internal economic integration is reversing patterns that trace back to the Spanish conquests, with Latin American elites and economies linked to the imperial powers but not to one another.
It is even possible that Latin America may come to terms with some of its severe internal problems. Latin America is not merely the victim of foreign forces. The region is notorious for the rapacity of its wealthy classes and their freedom from social responsibility. Comparative studies of Latin America and East Asian economic development are revealing in this respect. International economist David Felix writes that consumption patterns and elite “status competition” have been quite different in the two regions: in Latin America, there is “a fervor, approaching in some cases insatiability,” for foreign-produced luxury goods for Western-oriented elites, in contrast with the homegrown-goods orientation of Asian societies. Asia concentrated on “building up the physical and human capital base prior to turning to consumer durable production,” in contrast to Latin America. South Korea, for example, raised itself from half the per capita income of Ghana in 1960 to become one of the world’s leading industrial societies by radical violation of neoliberal rules, including control over foreign exchange (violation could bring the death penalty), while “spending on anything not essential for industrial development was prohibited or strongly discouraged” through various means, Cambridge University economist Ha-Joon Chang observes. Latin America has followed a radically different course. And not surprisingly, South Korea’s economic miracle slowed when Korea began to apply orthodox economic precepts after the crash of the late 1990s. These included the financial liberalization demanded by what Chang calls “the unholy trinity”: the World Bank, World Trade Organization, and the IMF, all run by the global rulers.56
Latin America has close to the world’s worst record for inequality, East Asia the best. The same holds for education, health, and social welfare generally. Imports to Latin America have been heavily skewed toward consumption by the rich; in East Asia, toward productive investment. Capital flight from Latin America has approached the scale of the debt—suggesting a way to overcome this crushing burden. According to Karen Lissakers, U.S. executive director of the IMF, “Bankers contend that there would be no [debt] crisis if flight capital—the money the citizens of the borrowing countries sent abroad for investment and safekeeping—were available for debt payments,” although “these same bankers are active promoters of flight capital,”57 and can confidently expect to be bailed out when borrowers default, the burden being transferred to the poor, who never incurred the debt in the first place, and to northern taxpayers. In East Asia, in contrast, capital flight has been tightly controlled. In Latin America, the wealthy are generally exempt from social obligations. East Asia differs sharply. Latin American economies have also been more open to unregulated foreign investment than Asia.
Any shift in these patterns is highly unwelcome in Washington, for the traditional reasons: The United States has expected to rely on Latin America as a secure resource base, and has feared, as already mentioned, that if it cannot control this hemisphere, then it cannot expect “to achieve a successful order elsewhere in the world.”
For many reasons, the system of U.S. global dominance is fragile, even apart from the damage inflicted to it by Bush planners and the deep financial crisis of 2007–8.58
Developments in Latin America today are of very great importance in themselves, and the challenge they pose to Washington planners is very real, particularly when the global context is considered. There are opportunities for cooperative development and interchange, and progress toward a better future. The solidarity movements of the 1980s in the United States were something entirely new in hundreds of years of Western imperialism. No one from the imperial societies dreamed of going to live in an Algerian or Vietnamese village to help the victims of imperial assault, or to offer the protection given by a white face. But it did happen in the 1980s, many thousands of people in fact. By now it is extending to a global popular solidarity movement, with roots right in mainstream America, often in churches, including evangelical churches. The exciting internal developments in much of Latin America are strongly influenced by popular organizations that are coming together in the unprecedented international global justice movements, ludicrously called “anti-globalization” because they favor globalization that privileges the interests of people rather than investors and financial institutions. Just where all of this will lead, of course no one can say, and there is sure to be an uneven path ahead. But there are opportunities today for real progress toward freedom and justice, in hemisphere-wide cooperation, even extending beyond. Though the gains are fragile, and face bitter opposition at home and abroad, these are welcome prospects. The critical task for today is to make use of these opportunities, and to carry their promise forward.