Meet Colonel Ray Sitton, the single source in one of the thinnest of Seymour Hersh’s thinly sourced claims: that Henry Kissinger had not only presided over the secret and illegal carpet bombing of Cambodia but also organized a vast conspiracy—what participants described as an elaborate “double bookkeeping” protocol—designed to keep the bombing hidden from Congress and the public.
Here’s Sitton’s description of being tracked down by Hersh, in the early 1980s:
One day 2 years or so ago, I had a call from Seymour Hersh on leave from The New York Times, the guy who blew the whistle on My Lai. Seymour Hersh said, “I would like you to have breakfast with me in the dining room of the Hyatt Arlington,’ where I was staying at the time, ‘tomorrow morning.’ Could you do that? I have something I need to discuss with you?’ Yes, I could. I went down to breakfast with him. We chatted for a while. He brought in a huge sheaf of papers. He said, ‘In case you wonder how I found your name and your identity, here.’ He picked up that stack of papers and put it on top of the breakfast table. He had a copy of every piece of paper I ever generated on this project that he had obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and, of course, on the bottom of every one of them, the drafter’s name was Col Ray B. Sitton. That’s how he found me. I was in shock. I couldn’t believe he had been able to get those things.”
Before getting into what “those things” were, some background: the US bombed Cambodia, a sovereign nation Washington was not at war with, from 1965 to 1973. When Nixon and Kissinger entered the White House in early 1969, they greatly intensified (in terms of bombing rate and amount of munitions dropped) and expanded (in terms of extent of territory targeted) the air assault. They did so both because Cambodia reportedly housed the headquarters of the National Liberation Front and because they wanted to send a message to Hanoi that Nixon was “mad” and unpredictable. Between 1969 and 1973, the US dropped at least 500,000 tons of bombs on Cambodia, killing over 100,000 Khmer civilians, according to Ben Kiernan, the founding director of Yale’s Cambodian Genocide Program. Broadly speaking, Nixon’s and Kissinger’s Cambodia bombing comprised two named operations. The first, Operation Menu, ran from March 18, 1969, to May 1970. The second, Operation Freedom Deal, ran from May 1970 to August 1973. Menu was the phase that was most secret, carried out with the deception protocol put into place by Kissinger. Freedom was less covert, justified by requests for support from the Cambodian government to fight the growing insurgency. Still, the extent and intensity of Freedom Deal was under-reported in the US press, which was often fed confusing and mixed messages by the administration.
It wasn’t until 1973 that Congress and journalists began to investigate Operation Menu, around the same moment that the Watergate scandal was unfolding. At the time, some members of Congress were “convinced that the secret bombing of Cambodia will emerge as another, perhaps more dangerous, facet of the Watergate scandal,” as Hersh, then a New York Times reporter, wrote in July of that year.
But investigators couldn’t identify the person (it was Kissinger) in Nixon’s staff that presided over the cover-up nor find the link (Sitton) connecting the conspiracy to the White House. “Who ordered the falsification of the records?” one senator asked General Creighton Abrams, the commander of military operations in Vietnam. “I just do not know,” he answered.
Hersh didn’t give up. Nixon resigned, Ford finished his term, and Kissinger left office in 1977 having largely escaped association with Watergate. Compared to the preverbal thuggery of the rest of Nixon’s inner circle—Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Mitchell—not to mention actual thugs like G. Gordon Liddy, Kissinger’s reputation was intact: “prodigiously intelligent, articulate, talented, witty, captivating and imposing man…. he is not mean-spirited, he seems drawn to telling the truth, and he wants to serve his country well. He also appears to have a historical vision,” as none other than The New Yorker’s William Shawn wrote (in 1973).
Hersh, though, kept digging, researching a book that still remains the defining portrait of Kissinger. As Colonel Sitton, recalling his encounter with Hersh, said: Hersh “was so upset with Kissinger’s first book he had decided to write an exposé, a counter if you will.” Sitton here is referring to Kissinger’s The White House Years. Published in 1979, that first volume of Kissinger’s memoirs won the National Book Award for history. Today, most honest historians would place it in the category of fantasy. In it, Kissinger devotes, as he does in nearly every subsequent book he’s written, a good many pages distorting the catastrophe he helped visit on Cambodia.
Hersh “countered” in 1983 with The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House. An “authorized” biography of Kissinger will be out soon, but Hersh’s Kissinger is still the one to top. He gives us the defining portrait of the man as a preening paranoid, tacking between ruthlessness and sycophancy to advance his career, cursing his fate and letting fly the B-52s. Small in his vanities and shabby in his motives, Kissinger, in Hersh’s hands, is nonetheless Shakespearean, because the pettiness gets played out on a world stage with epic consequences. The Price of Power covers all of Kissinger’s many transgressions—from Bangladesh to Chile, from wiretapping his own staff to giving Suharto the greenlight to invade Timor.
But the secret bombing of Cambodia is the book’s centerpiece, fueling the paranoia that drives Nixon’s downfall.
Many of the recent criticisms that have been leveled at Hersh’s reporting on the killing of Osama bin Laden have revolved around how difficult it would be to keep elaborate “conspiracies” secret. “Hersh’s stories seem to become more spectacular, more thinly sourced, and more difficult to square with reality as we know it,” writes one critic at Vox.
But the cover-up of the bombing of Cambodia is as spectacular as it gets. And Hersh’s 1983 accurate claim that it was Kissinger who presided over the conspiracy comes from one single source: Ray Sitton.
In researching my own forthcoming book on Kissinger (Kissinger’s Shadow, out in August but available for preorder!) I came across a hitherto unknown interview Sitton, now deceased, did with an Air Force historian. The interview (the source of the above block quote) was conducted not long after Sitton’s woke up to find Hersh in the Hyatt’s breakfast room.
Here’s how the conspiracy worked: shortly after Nixon’s inauguration, on February 24, 1969, Kissinger and his military aide Alexander Haig held the first in a series of meetings with Sitton, who was an expert on B-52s assigned to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to work up a “duel reporting system,” a way to bomb Cambodia and keep it secret from Congress, while accounting for the use of spare parts, fuel and munitions.
Kissinger pushed Sitton to come up with a plan that would keep even the pilots of the B-52s in the dark as to where they were bombing. Sitton, though, told him that would not be feasible. Instead, they decided to “swear” the flight crew “to secrecy” (which means that as many, perhaps more, military personnel were involved in this conspiracy than the one Hersh is today derided for believing in).
Kissinger, Haig, and Sitton came up with a simple but comprehensive protocol. Sitton would work up a number of targets in Cambodia to be struck. Then he would bring them to Kissinger and Haig in the White House for approval. Kissinger was very hands on, revising some of Sitton’s work. “I don’t know what he was using as his reason for varying them,” Sitton recalled in his Air Force interview. “Strike here in this area,” Kissinger would tell him, “or strike here in that area.” Once Kissinger was satisfied with the proposed target, Sitton would use a special backchannel set up to send the coordinates to Saigon, and from there a special courier would be used to pass them on to the appropriate radar stations, where an officer would at the last minute switch out the official targets in South Vietnam for the covert ones in Cambodia. When the bombing was complete, he’d burn whatever documents—maps, computer print outs, radar reports, messages, and so on—that might reveal the true target and write up false “post strike” paperwork, indicating that the South Vietnam sortie was flown as planned. There was “a whole special furnace” set up in Saigon, along with others in the forward radar locations, for that job. “We burned probably 12 hours a day,” General Creighton Abrams (who, as one of the top military officers in Vietnam, recommended targets to Sitton) would testify before the Senate. The Senate would be provided “phony target coordinates” and other forged data. That way, it was possible to account for expenditures—fuel, bombs, spare parts—to Congress without Congress ever knowing Cambodia was being bombed.
Haig and Sitton were military men. But Haig worked for Kissinger, a civilian running an agency, the National Security Council, not subject to congressional oversight (since it wasn’t a cabinet-level office). As to Sitton, he did often wonder what he was doing participating in a shadow chain of command, bypassing superiors in the Department of Defense, plotting bombing targets in a vaulted room deep in the bowels of the Pentagon and then secreting them into Kissinger’s office for approval. As he put it in his Air Force interview: “I kind of felt I was way out on a limb and skating on some pretty thin ice with all my trips to the west basement of the White House.” But whenever he expressed these concerns to higher- ups, he was told: “Whatever you are doing, keep on doing it. It seems to be working. Do just what you are doing. When you get a call to go to the White House, go, because you don’t really have any choice.”
In Saigon, a whole “special furnace” was set up for the job. “Every piece of paper, including the scratch paper, the paper that one of our computers might have done some figuring on, every piece of scrap paper was gathered up,” Major Hal Knight, who in 1973 testified to Congress that he had carried out the falsification (out of all the hundreds, prehaps more, of military personnel who participated in this cover-up, Knight is the only one who turned whistleblower), said: “I would wait until daylight, and as soon as that time came, I would go out and burn that.” Knight went on:
I destroyed the papers that had the target coordinates on them. I destroyed the paper that came off the plotting boards that showed the track of the aircraft …. I destroyed the computer tape that took the target coordinates, UTM coordinates and translated them into information that the bombing computers could use. Then I also destroyed any scrap paper that went with that, and the brushgraph recording.
The secret illegal bombing of Cambodia entailed the creation of an elaborate, covert parallel chain of command stretching from the White House basement to radar stations in South Vietnam. “Maybe,” as Vox wrote in its bid to take down Hersh, “there really is a vast shadow world of complex and diabolical conspiracies, executed brilliantly by international networks of government masterminds. And maybe Hersh and his handful of anonymous former senior officials really are alone in glimpsing this world and its terrifying secrets.”
No reporter followed up Hirsh’s Sitton scoop, that Kissinger both designed and ran the covert bombing from the White House basement. By the time Hersh’s book appeared in the first term of the Reagan administration, Cambodia had become a minor historical footnote and Kissinger was well on his way to becoming one of the richest and most influential (through his consulting firm Kissinger Associates) former secretaries of state in US history.
The above description of the cover-up drew from Hersh’s Pricce of Power and Knight’s testimony, as well as from Sitton’s Air Force interview, which confirms in nearly every detail Hersh’s reporting.
Here’s what Sitton says about Hersh: There were some technical “inaccuracies” in his account, but “they aren’t all that important.” What did Sitton think of Hersh? “He made a lot of assumptions, thinking that he was so smart he knew that much about it. He didn’t do too badly.”
Read Next: Greg Grandin on how to how to discredit Seymour Hersh
Max Fisher, now at Vox, learned well during his apprenticeship under Marty Peretz at The New Republic. This week, he was among the first to try to smear Seymour Hersh’s piece in the London Review of Books, which argued that pretty much everything we were told about the killing of Osama bin Laden was a lie. Most importantly, Hersh’s report questions the claim that Washington learned of OBL’s whereabouts thanks to torture—a claim popularized in the film Zero Dark Thirty.
There’s a standard boiler plate now when it comes to going after Hersh, and all Fisher, in “The Many Problems with Seymour Hersh’s Osama bin Laden Conspiracy Theory,” did was fill out the form: establish Hersh’s “legendary” status (which Fisher does in the first sentence); invoke his reporting in My Lai and Abu Ghraib; then say that a number of Hersh’s recent stories—such as his 2012 New Yorker piece that the United States was training Iranian terrorists in Nevada—have been “unsubstantiated” (of course, other reporters never “substantiated” Hersh’s claim that Henry Kissinger was directly involved in organizing the cover-up of the fire-bombing of Cambodia for years—but that claim was true); question Hersh’s sources; and then, finally, suggest that Hersh has gone “off the rails” to embrace “conspiracy theories.”
For Fisher, the “many problems” with Hersh’s report are its “contradictions”—the fact that the Pakistani ISI or the US CIA acted, if we believe what Hersh writes, incoherently. “When fact seem to squarely contradict his claims,” Fisher writes—though he should have written, when facts seem to contradict how I, Fisher, believe intelligence agencies should act—Hersh’s “answer is that this only goes to show how deep the rabbit hole goes.”
Fisher was too quick by half. For the rabbit hole indeed goes deep. Just after he posted his piece, NBC news—not just “mainstream” but solidly in the Obama White House camp—confirmed one key claim in Hersh’s report: “Two intelligence sources tell NBC News that the year before the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden, a ‘walk in’ asset from Pakistani intelligence told the CIA where the most wanted man in the world was hiding—and these two sources plus a third say that the Pakistani government knew where bin Laden was hiding all along.” Other sources likewise confirmed at least the broad outlines of Hersh’s counter-narrative, and as they did, the pushback against Hersh went, as Adam Johnson at FAIR put, from “this is a lie” to “what’s the big deal, we knew this all along” (everybody should follow Johnson’s twitter feed).
Fisher’s not alone in accusing Hersh of frivolity (I had hopes for Fisher, who after the New Republic implosion wrote a thoughtful reflection on that magazine’s racism. But he’s since done one of the stupider pieces I’ve read on Ecuador’s Rafael Correa; Vox seems to be trying to fill the vacuum left by The New Republic when it comes to writing silly things about Latin America). To accuse Hersh of falling under the thrall of “conspiracy theory” is to repudiate the whole enterprise of investigative journalism that Hersh helped pioneer. What has he written that wasn’t a conspiracy? But Fisher, and others, believe Hersh went too far when in a 2011 speech he made mention of the Knights of Malta and Opus Dei, tagging him as a Dan Brown fantasist. Here’s Fisher, in his debunking of Hersh’s recent essay: “The moment when a lot of journalists started to question whether Hersh had veered from investigative reporting into something else came in January 2011. That month, he spoke at Georgetown University’s branch campus in Qatar, where he gave a bizarre and rambling address alleging that top military and special forces leaders ‘are all members of, or at least supporters of, Knights of Malta.… many of them are members of Opus Dei.’”
But here’s Steve Coll, a reporter who remains within the acceptable margins, writing in Ghost Wars about Reagan’s CIA director, William Casey: “He was a Catholic Knight of Malta educated by Jesuits. Statues of the Virgin Mary filled his mansion.… He attended Mass daily and urged Christian faith upon anyone who asked his advice…. He believed fervently that by spreading the Catholic church’s reach and power he could contain communism’s advance, or reverse it.” Oliver North, Casey’s Iran/Contra co-conspirator, worshiped at a “’charismatic’ Episcopalian church in Virginia called Church of the Apostles, which is organized into cell groups.”
Not too long ago, Ben Bradlee Jr. (son of no less an establishment figure than the editor of The Washington Post), could draw the connections between the shadowy national security state and right-wing Christianity: Iran/Contra was about many things, among them a right-wing Christian reaction against the growing influence of left-wing Liberation Theology in Latin America. Likewise, the US’s post-9/11 militarism was about many things, among them the reorganization of those right-wing Christians against what they identified as a greater existential threat than Liberation Theology: political Islam. Fisher should know this, as it was reported here, here, and here, among many other places.
Eager to debunk Hersh, it’s Fisher who has fallen down the rabbit hole of imperial amnesia.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this piece mistakenly identified the author of a book on Iran-Contra. The book was by Ben Bradlee Jr., not his father. The piece has been corrected.
Read Next: Greg Grandin on capitalism and slavery
Last week, Columbia University presented the Bancroft Award to two books that directly address the relationship of capitalism, slavery, expansion, and empire: my The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World and Sven Beckert’s Empire of Cotton: A Global History. Both are part of a renewed scholarly attention to capitalism and slavery, carried out by historians such Walter Johnson, Edward Baptist, Calvin Schermerhorn, Bonnie Martin, Kathryn Boodry, Seth Rockman, Ada Ferrer, Adam Rothman, and Caitlin Rosenthal (and keep an eye out for Ned Sublette and Constance Sublette’s forthcoming, The American Slave Coast: A History of the Slave Breeding Industry).
The argument that capitalism was dependent on slavery is, of course, not new. In 1944, Eric Williams, in Capitalism and Slavery, made the case. In 1968, the historian Lorenzo Greene wrote that slavery “formed the basis of the economic life of New England: about it revolved, and on it depended, most of her other industries.” Even before the expansion of slave labor in the South and into the West, slavery was already an important source of northern profit, as was the already exploding slave trade in the Caribbean and South America. Banks capitalized the slave trade and insurance companies underwrote it. Covering slave voyages helped start Rhode Island’s insurance industry, while in Connecticut, some of the first policies written by Aetna were on slave lives. In turn, profits made from loans and insurance policies were plowed into other northern businesses. Fathers who “made their fortunes outfitting ships for distant voyages” left their money to sons who “built factories, chartered banks, incorporated canal and railroad enterprises, invested in government securities, and speculated in new financial instruments” and donated to build libraries, lecture halls, universities and botanical gardens. Many of the millions of gallons of rum distilled annually in Massachusetts and Rhode Island were used to obtain slaves, who were then brought to the West Indies and traded for sugar and molasses, boiled to make more rum to be used to acquire more slaves. Haiti’s plantation’s purchased 63 percent of pickled fish from New England. In Massachusetts alone, David Brion Davis writes, the “West Indian trade employed some ten thousand seaman, to say nothing of the workers who built, outfitted, and supplied the ships.”
Starting in the early 1800s, Southerners in the United States began to defend slavery as their “peculiar institution” and northerners didn’t mind, since the phrase suggested that chattel bondage was quarantined from the rest of the nation, that it was, or soon would be, a relic of its past and would not define its future. But, for all the variation that distinguished the Catholic south from the Protestant north, for all the variance in regional intensity, the way the institution spread in different moments in different places, there was nothing peculiar or particular about it. Slavery was the western hemisphere’s universal institution. Centuries of buying and selling human beings, of moving them across oceans and continents, treating humans as property, paying taxes on them, putting them to labor, making profit off of their reproduction, and using them as collateral and capital, brought together the Western Hemisphere’s diverse parts, even those parts that didn’t seem to be directly implicated in the slave trade, into a greater whole. Slavery standardized maritime and commercial jurisprudence, including insurance. Slavery spurred individual regions to develop their comparative advantage—salting of fish in New England, curing of meat in Argentina, for examples (discussed in The Empire of Necessity). Defending slavery, opposing it, or attempting to reform and regulate it led to the transformation of Christianity, moral philosophy, and international law. Research into how to ameliorate the coerced transport of humans, or to make the transport more profitable, led to advances in medicine that today benefit us all. One of the things I tried to show in The Empire of Necessity was how, in Montevideo and Buenos Aires at least, the high mortality rate of the Middle Passage led to the secularization of medical knowledge: Every time a doctor threw back a hatch to reveal the horrors below, it became a little bit more difficult to blame mental illness on demons.
Despite all this scholarly work, each generation—from W.E.B. Du Bois to Robin Blackburn, from Eric Williams to Walter Johnson—seems condemned to have to prove the obvious anew: Slavery created the modern world, and the modern world’s divisions (both abstract and concrete) are the product of slavery. Slavery is both the thing that can’t be transcended but also what can never be remembered. That Catch-22—can’t forget, can’t remember—is the motor contradiction of public discourse, from exalted discussions of American Exceptionalism to the everyday idiocy found on cable, in its coverage, for example, of Baltimore and Ferguson.
In any case, for the award ceremony, the Bancroft folk asked for brief summations of our book. Here’s an excerpt from Sven’s:
Empire of Cotton explains the industrial take off of Europe and North America as a result of the emergence of peculiar kinds of uniquely powerful states, who built peculiar connections to capital owners who then, jointly, succeeded in integrating distant regions of the world into a European dominated world economy. They did so by engaging in violent trade with Asia, by transporting enslaved workers from Africa to the Americas, and by capturing huge expanses of land from native peoples in many regions of the world. In the story that follows from that account, the countryside matters as much as cities, slave labor as much as wage labor, violence as much as the rule of law, and coercion as much as contracts. The history of the United States is central to the ensuing story, because it was there that most of the cotton for world markets was grown, and, until 1865, almost exclusively grown by slaves. The United States matters to this story because it was one of the earliest examples of successful industrialization—in cotton textiles. And the United States matters because it helped pioneer new relations between industry and agriculture with the emergence of sharecropping regimes in the wake of the American Civil War. Just as much as the United States mattered to cotton, cotton mattered to the United States. Cotton reinvigorated slavery, established the young nation’s place in the global economy and eventually helped create the political and economic conflicts that resulted in civil war.
And here’s a bit from mine:
My first thought, when I learned that Sven’s Empire of Cotton and my book, The Empire of Necessity won the Bancroft Award, was to wonder whether cotton was a necessity or a freedom. And then I thought, of course, they are both, the wealth created from the trade and the labor needed to create the wealth. The two books complement each other well. Where The Empire of Cotton focuses on the material, institutional, and economic foundations and legacies of slavery, state formation, and market expansion, The Empire of Necessity(though describing in detail the labor and environmental processes associated with a range of free and unfree labor) is concerned more with the physic and imaginative structure of slavery.… Capitalism is, among other things, a massive process of ego formation, the creation of modern selves, the illusion of individual autonomy, the cultivation of distinction and preference, the idea that individuals had their own moral conscience, based on individual reason and virtue. The wealth created by slavery generalized these ideals of self-creation, allowing more and more people, mostly men, to imagine themselves as autonomous and integral beings, with inherent rights and self-interests not subject to the jurisdiction of others. This process of individuation creates a schism between inner and outer, in which self-interest, self-cultivation, and personal moral authority drive a wedge between seeming and being. My point is that slavery was central to capitalist individuation, to the schism between inner and outer, which I believe accounts for the endurance of racism in American society, its quicksilver nature, as well as for its deniability. This is a dinner, not a conference. So I’ll end by cutting to the chase: I think the story at the center of The Empire of Necessity—revolving around the New Englander Amasa Delano’s complete and utter blindness to the social world around him—captures the power of a new kind of racism, based not on theological or philosophical doctrine but rather on the emotional need to measure one’s absolute freedom in inverse relation to another’s absolute slavishness. This was a racism that was born in chattel slavery but didn’t die with chattel slavery, instead evolving into today’s cult of individual supremacy, which, try as it might, can’t seem to shake off its white supremacist roots.
That Lorenzo Greene quotation is not from 1968 but his 1942 Columbia dissertation (and book published the same year) titled “The Negro in Colonial New England” (the 1968 date is a reprint; h/t Joseph Fronczak). Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery appeared in 1944, but was based on his 1938 Oxford thesis (thanks Richard Drayton). Greene was one of the founders of African-American history and taught at Lincoln University, in Jefferson City Missouri. In 1928, in an essay titled "Slave-holding New England and its Awakening," Greene nicely captures how an easy turn of phrase can turn freedom into slavery, and slavery back into freedom: “Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Haven, members of the New England Confederation, gave slavery a legal sanction in the instrument of government drawn up in 1643. The provision read: ‘There shall never be any kind of slavery, villinage, nor captivitie amongst us, unless it be captives taken in just warres, and such strangers as willingly sell themselves or are sold to us, and these shall have all the liberties and Christian usages which the Law of God, established in Israel concerning such persons doth morally require.” “Later,” Greene noted, “by dropping the word ‘strangers’ from the law [in 1670], Massachusetts made it possible for the children of slaves to be held in bondage.”
Read Next: Greg Grandin on protests in Mexico and Baltimore
Yesterday, as Baltimore restaged the intifada, protesters in Mexico, in Chilpancingo, the capital of the state of Guerrero, rammed a flaming truck into the glass-fronted congressional building, and set fire to at least six other vehicles. They had taken to the streets to mark the seven-month anniversary of the disappearances of the 43 students, who have come to represent the hundreds of thousands of dead as a result of US-Mexico’s drug, immigration, and trade policies (a number of the relatives of the disappeared are currently in New York, where they are appealing to the United Nations to end Washington’s so-called Merida Initiative, or Plan Mexico, which sends billions of dollars to Mexico to supposedly fight drugs but which the relatives of the 43 say goes to “suppress dissent”).
Elsewhere this week, in Oaxaca, protesters did damage to the building of the governing Partido Revolucionario Institucional. Videos of the Chilpancingo protest are here, here, here. In Mexico City, demonstrators erected an “anti-monument,” a large red 43 in the middle of the business center.
Obviously, the right way to think about the murder of Freddie Gray and the protests that followed is to think deeply about slavery and post-abolition racism in the United States. Immediately after the trouble began yesterday, historians and critics on social media were broadcasting information about Baltimore’s history as a slave port, its long history of police brutality, its equally long history of resisting race terror. Apparently, Spiro Agnew’s law-and-order response to a protest that turned violent in 1968 bought him his spot on Nixon’s ticket.
One can also, without diluting the power of that deep history, think about the repression and reaction laterally, as an effect of the same transnational policing and trade policies responsible for the disappearance of the 43 student-activists in Mexico. Since the August murder of Michael Brown and the September abduction of the 43 Mexican students, #BlackLivesMatter and #TodosSomosAyotzinapa are just two of the hashtags that have captured distinct heterodox protest movements that are converging.
I was at an event the other night at CUNY, a “Citizen’s Tribunal,” part of a “caravan” that is bringing the parents and advocates of the 43 disappeared to over 40 US cities (Roberto Lovato writes about it here in The Nation). At the CUNY event, a lawyer for the parents said that the two principal obstacles to “neoliberalism”—and hence the two principal targets of neoliberalism’s enforcers—were the ejidos, that is, peasant communities who still hold and work their land in common, and the rural teacher-training institutes (like the one where the 43 were enrolled), which for decades has taken the lead in protesting the dispossession generated by “free trade.” In the wake of Baltimore, that observation put me to think that Mexican peasant communities and African-American urban communities are broadly structurally analogous in their relation to “free trade” capitalism.
On both sides of the border, the absence of any sane, humane, industrial or rural policy has created concentrations of dispensable peoples. On both sides of the border, children of these dispensable people are most vulnerable. “In 2007, Baltimore City African American infants were almost nine times more likely to die before age 1 than White infants residing in Baltimore City.” In Mexico, the southern agrarian states, including Guerrero, that have suffered under NAFTA have similarly stunningly high rates of infant mortality. On both sides of the border, these people, the victims of failed government policy, are then blamed for the failure of government policy, their culture, their attitude, their “values,” and their music (rap, hip-hop, and the narcocorrido). On both sides of the border, rolling protests, days of rage and frustration like those seen in Baltimore and Chilpancingo have difficulty coalescing into a national movement, building a coalition with elites or national-level political parties due to the fragmentation of politics, itself an effect of government economic policy.
On both sides of the border, US federal money funds the overpolicing of the crisis. “The weapons that are given to Mexico [by Washington] are used to kill us, not help us,” said Blanca Luz Nava Velez, whose 19-year-old son, Jorge, is among the missing. And on both side of the border, the crisis is generated by federal policies (enacted by both Washington and Mexico City) that are designed to keep pay low and jobs precarious: What demands can a segregated labor force divided by a garrisoned border make on capital that can go anywhere it wants, anytime it wants?
Advocates of the North American Free Trade Agreement did say that economic liberalization would bring about a convergence. They were right. Just wait to see what the TPP brings.
Read Next: Greg Grandin on bloody Earth Day
The temperatures are rising and so is the body count. Every year, more and more environmental activists—many of them first peoples on the front lines of the new global resource extraction wars—are killed. In 2010, the number was 96. In 2011, 106. Last year, 116 people were murdered defending their farms, community, or livelihood in land, logging, dam, or mining disputes, according to a new report out just in time for Earth Day by Global Witness.
Two-thirds of the killings take place in Latin America, according to the report, How Many More? Brazil at 29 murders and Colombia with 25 are the highest in total numbers. But Honduras, with 12 assassinations, is the most dangerous place to be in the world for a grassroots environmentalist, in terms of per capita killings. Global Witness highlights Honduras as a case study in its report, and the chapter is well worth a read.
The 2009 Honduran coup (which was pushed by the neoconservative right in this country and eventually sanctioned by the Obama administration, with Hillary Clinton as secretary of state legitimating the putsch) was about many things, as Dana Frank and I wrote about at the time in The Nation: a reforming president, Manuel Zelaya, who apologized for the security forces’ social cleansing (that is, murder) of “delinquents”; who signaled his tolerance and support of LGBT activists; who began to make the morning-after pill legal; and who tried to raise the minimum wage.
But one of the main flashpoints of the conflict that led to Zelaya’s ouster was his efforts to regulate resource extraction, namely mining, hydro-electricity, logging, and biofuels. Central America, particularly Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, is caught in a new cycle of rural dispossession, as sweeping as the twentieth-century heyday of coffee, cotton, banana, and sugar export. Under the Wild West terms of post–Cold War “free-trade” treaties, land that might be used for subsistence farming, or to grow crops for the local market, or kept as bio-diverse forest, is being ripped up and dug into. Water is poisoned or diverted. In the midst of neoliberal abundance—with Walmarts, or Walmart-owned megastores, sprouting up in every major city—children are dying of malnutrition, as land that used to provide basic staples is put to multinational profit.
People are fighting back. A friend, a longtime activist in Guatemala, reports that conflicts over mines and dams in the country’s Western Highlands, especially in the department of Huehuetenango, remind her of the mobilization that drove the country’s civil war of the 1970s and 1980s. In El Salvador, “the most water-stressed country in Central America,” the FMLN-led government has tried to issue a moratorium on mining, since mining companies pour toxic chemicals into drinking and farming water. (So far, Sandinista-governed Nicaragua has been spared fatalities, though plans to build a new, China-financed inter-oceanic canal is meeting resistance.)
And Zelaya, six years ago, tried to regulate rural resource extraction, allying with peasants and environmentalists (such as José Andrés Tamayo, a Catholic priest who in 2005 won the Goldman Prize for environmental activism for his work with rural communities to oppose commercial logging; this year, the prize went to another Honduran, Berta Cáceres, who helped the indigenous Lenca oppose a mega-dam). For that, among the other reasons cited above, Zelaya was felled in what New Yorker writer William Finnegan aptly called an “old-fashioned coup.” Today in El Salvador, the powers-that-be are opting for a more modern solution: mining interests are suing El Salvador for its mining ban in international trade courts, since under the terms of the Central American Free Trade Agreement, “corporations can sue governments if they perceive that government actions threaten their future profits.” Some will rob you with a six gun, others with a fountain pen (the Obama-pushed Trans Pacific Partnership would extend such corporate power over nearly the whole Pacific rim, making the trade treaty as destructive an instrument as bulldozers and guns).
That’s the context. Here’s Global Witness’s report on the current situation in Honduras:
Killings only reflect the most extreme manifestation of attacks on environmental and land defenders. In 2014 Honduran activists were subject to violent acts, stigmatization, intimidation and threats to their life. Powerful economic interests, often through the use of private security companies, are suspected as the main perpetrators of abuse. There are reportedly 5 times as many private security guards as police officers in Honduras and most security companies are owned by former high-ranking police or military officers. The Honduran police and army themselves have also committed human rights violations against activists. Criminalization of human rights defenders by the state is especially acute. The NGO COFADEH (The Committee of Relatives of the Detained-Disappeared in Honduras) has recorded 3,064 cases of the improper use of criminal law against defenders since 2010 [emphasis added]. This situation is particularly severe for environmental and land activists as the ex-UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of Human Rights Defenders Margaret Sekaggya remarks: “[Honduran] defenders who denounce environmental issues and educate citizens about their rights to land and food have been branded as members of the resistance, guerrillas, terrorists, political opponents or criminals.”
The Honduran government recently passed, in 2013, a new “general mining law” which removed a moratorium on new mining project. Since then, Global Witness points out, “4 activists have died due to their opposition to mining projects.” Since 2009, the fertile, lush Aguán Valley, home to small scale peasant communities, has become a war zone: 82 campesinos fighting agribusiness have been executed between 2010 and 2013.
During the Cold War, a large degree of political repression in Latin America was carried out by an alliance of rural landowners and death squads—an alliance that was nurtured, encouraged, and financed by Washington. In this new cycle of accumulation and dispossession that alliance has, in a way, been resurrected and updated: the “landlords” now are much more directly integrated into multinational resource extracting corporations. The “death squads” are now above board, legal private security firms (many of them staffed with former Colombian paramilitaries) hired to “protect” private property. Global Witness:
Although information on the perpetrators of violence against defenders is hard to verify, in many cases private security companies used by mining, hydropower and agribusiness have been suspected of involvement. Private security guards were implicated in 13 of 29 killings of campesinos in Bajo Aguán investigated by Human Rights Watch between 2009 and 2013, for example. Similarly, the 2013 visit to Honduras by the UN Working Group on the use of mercenaries voiced concern about the alleged involvement of private security companies hired by landowners in serious human rights violations, including killings, disappearances, forced evictions and sexual violence.
And instead of being funded directly by Washington, the alliance is capitalized by multinational “development” institutions. Again, here’s Global Witness: “The World Bank’s private lending arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), loaned US$30 million to Dinant, a palm oil company tainted by assassinations and forced evictions of farmers in Bajo Aguán and owned by one of Honduras’s richest and most powerful businessmen [and 2009 coup plotter], Miguel Facussé.” (In 2009, Teo Ballvé in The Nation reported on USAID funds used to finance biofuel plantations on land stolen by paramilitaries).
To keep track of the blood spilled in this new phase of intensified dispossession and resource extraction, along with all of Latin America’s diverse food sovereignty, anti-GMO, and environmental activists fighting for a dignified life, these websites and organizations are indispensable: Upside Down World, the Americas Program of the Center for International Policy, Rights Action, NACLA, CISPES, the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala, and La Via Campesina.
Read Next: Greg Grandin on Eduardo Galeano
Eduardo Galeano, one of Latin America’s most beloved writers, died on Monday in a hospital in Montevideo, after a long battle against lung cancer. His first book, Las venas abiertas de América Latina, which the late Hugo Chávez famously presented to Barack Obama as a present, appeared in 1971 (published in English by Monthly Review Press in 1973 as Open Veins of Latin America). In 1973, Galeano was driven out of his home country of Uruguay following a US-supported coup. Then, after yet another US-supported coup in Argentina, he found exile in post-Franco Spain, where, in 1978, he published Días y Noches de Amor y de Guerra (Days and Nights of Love and War, in English) and began his famous trilogy, Memory of Fire. These books are the highest expression of a genre that Galeano perfected. He somehow managed to be at once fragmentary and meta, impressionistic and expansive, weaving together fact, pre-Columbian myth, and snippets from everyday life into sprawling people’s epics.
Galeano’s death comes just a few days short of the first anniversary of the passing of Gabriel García Márquez. Galeano, born in 1940, was younger than García Márquez. But the works that made each of them famous came out in Spanish within years of each other. Cien años de soledad appeared in 1967; Las venas abiertas four years later. Both were translated into dozens of languages, and sold millions and millions of bonafide copies, along with the countless bootlegs hawked by street vendors from Santiago to Mexico City.
One Hundred Years of Solitude is a work of dense allegory operating on a bewildering array of levels and could be mistaken for something other than political. But for the artists, writers, and activists of Galeano’s and García Márquez’s generation, whatever else that storm was that wiped away Macondo, it was also capitalism. As if to underscore the point, Galeano subtitled the preface to Open Veins: “120 Million Children in the Eye of the Tempest.”
As they did with García Márquez, English-speaking audiences tended to like the sentimental Galeano, the Galeano who wrote of quixotic dreams and forgetting, who spoke in enigmas and historical metaphors. Me, I prefer the Galeano who used poetry to leaven an analysis of “modes of production” and “class structure,” of “endless chains of dependency that have been endlessly extended” and of a Latin America that had been force-fitted into the “universal gearbox of capitalism.”
Galeano himself came to think his early writing was too pessimistic and schematic, when last year an off handed remark was amplified into a New York Times' headline: "Galeano Disavows his Book." But economic reductionism possesses its own kind of lyricism: “The more freedom that is granted trade,” Galeano wrote in 1971, “the more prisons are needed for those who suffer from that trade. . . . The massacres caused by poverty (miseria) in Latin America are secret: every year, three Hiroshima bombs explode, silently, over its communities that are used to suffering with clenched teeth. This systematic violence, unseen but real, increases: the crime is covered not in the sensationalist press but in the statistics of the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization.”
Within a year, then, with the deaths of García Márquez and Galeano, we have lost two embodiments of Latin America’s irrepressible Hegelianism, a refusal (as I put it in a Times review of Galeano’s last book, Children of Days) to give up on the idea that, despite all the tortures and terrors from the Spanish Inquisition to the death squads and disappearances of the Cold War, that history is redeemable. Centuries of repression and struggle have had an effect opposite of despair, searing into the region’s political culture an ability to both recognize the dialectic lurking behind the brutality and answer every bloody body with ever more adamant affirmations of humanity.
And like all good dialecticians, from Paulo Freire to Sartre, Marx and Hegel, Galeano’s histories were histories of being and becoming: “At the end of the day,” he said, “we are what we do to change who we are.” That’s an expression that, if abstracted from Galeano’s larger social criticism, could sound maudlin, reproduced ad nauseum on twitter feeds and FB pages. And indeed, with Gabo and Galeano gone, we are left with the insipid Paulo Coelho, who, though he got whatever talent he has from a Jesuit-educated leftist youth, now apparently thinks that “individuals are the true catalysts for historical change.” God help us. If Latin America ever finally loses the concept of what Galeano’s generation called realidad social – social reality – the world is in real trouble.
Galeano’s influence can’t be overestimated. I can’t think of any other book that Chávez could have handed Obama that would, in a single gesture, convey so much meaning, instantly transmitting to millions of Latin Americans years of imperial depredation. When Subcomandante Marcos of the Mexican Zapatistas (who since last June goes by the name Subcomandante Galeano) described, in one of his first communiques, oil wells as a “thousand teeth sunk into the throat of the Mexican Southeast,” he was echoing Open Veins.
Latin America’s current generation of left politicians came of age reading Galeano, and they are offering loving tributes. One of the most thoughtful is from Uruguay’s former president José Mujica. Mujica, born five years before Galeano and a leader of the Tupamaro insurgents in the 1970s, referenced the “old argument about whether art is form or content.” “Surely,” Mujica said, “art is both, and so was Galeano.”
The source of that content and form in Galeano was Marxism. In an interview he gave in 2005, Galeano talked about an epigraph from Marx he used for Días y Noches de Amor y de Guerra: “In history, as in nature, decay is the laboratory of life.” It was, Galeano said, a “perfect definition of the dialect.” But when his German publisher asked where, in Marx, he had found the epigraph, he couldn’t remember. Galeano looked and looked: “I dedicated my life to finding that phrase.” No luck.
I couldn’t find it in Marx either, even with Googlebooks. But Galeano might have gotten it from the French theorist George Bataille, who also used it as an uncited epigraph in this essay, written around 1929. That actually would make sense, for Bataille was (like Galeano would become) a mystical, or surrealist, Marxist. Galeano probed history’s inner logic, trying to make sense of its eternal recurrence, why the past in Latin America seemed inescapable, why it kept intruding into the present. Why the spirits of the past seemed so easy to conjure up, why it was necessary to play out each new scene in world history in venerable disguise and borrowed language, to paraphrase Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire. Even his first book, Open Veins, which Galeano himself described as economistic, reveals itself to be not just influenced by the dependency economists of the time but also by Walter Benjamin, whose Angel of History’s “face is turned toward the past.” Benjamin’s Angel contemplates history as a “single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble.”
Galeano wrote in Open Veins that:
The ghosts of all the revolutions that have been strangled or betrayed through Latin America’s tortured history return as new experiences, as if the present had been predicted and generated by the contradictions of the past: history is a prophet who faces backwards: because of what was, and against what was, it announces what will be. And that is why in this book, which aims to provide a history of the looting and an account of how the current mechanism of plunder operate, there appears both the Conquistadors and the jet-setting technocrats, Hernán Cortés and the Marines, agents of colonial Spain and the International Monetary Fund, dividends from slave trade and profits from General Motors. Also, defeated heroes and today’s revolutionaries.
To think historically, Benjamin wrote— that is, to think like the rearward facing Angel—was "to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed." When you think about it, that’s a nice description of what Galeano tried to do.
Read Next: Greg Grandin on how U.S. soldiers and contractors sexually abused 54 Colombian children
When Colombian men rape Colombian women, it is news. When US soldiers and private defense contractors are the rapists, not so much. Last week, FAIR noticed that not one major media organization in the United States has covered the charge, reported in Colombia (and online in English by the invaluable Medellín-based >Colombia Reports), “that US military soldiers and contractors had sexually abused at least fifty-four children in Colombia between 2003 and 2007 and, in all cases, the rapists were never punished–either in Colombia or stateside–due to American military personnel being immune from prosecution under diplomatic immunity agreements between the two countries.” Nor, as far as I can tell, have any of the State Department’s allied human rights groups made mention of the allegations.
The media silence goes hand in hand with the official immunity granted not just to US diplomats, but soldiers and employees of shadowy private security firms hired by Washington to carry out much of Plan Colombia. One of the rapes occurred in 2007 and was reported in the Colombian press. It was allegedly committed by Army sergeant Michael J. Coen and an employee of a private security contractor, César Ruiz. The victim was a 12-year-old girl. “They abducted her, they drugged her, they took her to the air base near the town of Melgar and raped her, they took videos of her,” the victim’s mother told reporters. Then they drove her into town and pushed her out of their car in front of a church. The crime was well covered in Colombia, but a search of Proquest news turned up only one item in English the United States, a translation of a piece that was part of reporting in Spanish published by the Nuevo Herald (affiliated with the Miami Herald) by Gonzalo Guillén and Gerardo Reyes:
The U.S. government has made little effort to investigate a U.S. army sergeant and a Mexican civil contractor implicated in Colombia in the rape of a 12-year-old girl in August 2007, according to an El Nuevo Herald investigation.
The suspects, Sgt. Michael Coen and contractor Cesar Ruiz, were taken out of Colombia under diplomatic immunity, and do not face criminal charges in the United States in the rape in a room at Colombia’s German Olano Air Force Base in Melgar, 62 miles west of Bogota.
Colombian prosecutors issued arrest warrants. But they were “not executed because of the immunity of Coen and Ruiz.” Under a series of treaties dating back to 1962, members of the US military stationed in Colombia are immune from prosecution. That immunity has since been extended to private security firms, which have been implicated in a series of crimes in Colombia related to drug- running, money laundering and rape.
Guillén and Reyes write that the US military made no effort to interview key witnesses, including the victim. A representative of the US Army did show up at the victim’s hometown of Melgar to question the victim’s mother, Olga Lucia Castillo, about the “life and customs” of her daughter: “In an interview with El Nuevo Herald, Castillo said a man who introduced himself as Jhon Ramirez, US Army criminal investigator, interrogated her at a police station in downtown Bogota. The interview was blunt, Castillo said, with Ramirez armed with a gun during the interrogation.”
“He seemed more interested in having me sign a release exonerating (Coen and Ruiz),” Castillo said, “than learning what happened with my daughter.”
Here, in Spanish, Guillén and Reyes provide a detailed description of the assault, based on an interview they did with the mother. After the crime, the victim tried to commit suicide, and the family had to flee Melgar, joining the millions of others of Colombia’s internally displaced peoples (Colombia is second only to Syria in numbers of internal refugees).
This case is back in the news in Colombia because it was included in a report issued by the Comisión Histórica del Conflicto y sus Víctimas—a commission established to write an overview history of Colombia’s armed conflict. The commission (whose 804-page report can be found here) is a sort of watered-down version of a truth commission, established in a 2014 accord signed by the Colombian government and FARC guerrillas as part of peace talks aimed at ending the country’s half-century-long civil war. It was quickly put together, meant mostly to allow all sides in the conflict to present their interpretation of the conflict’s origins.
The chapter titled “sexual imperialism” (part of a larger section on the role of the United States in supporting state terrorism, written by Renán Vega, a Colombian historian based at the Universidad Pedagógica Nacional de Bogotá) recounts another serious sexual assault that, like the rape described above, was covered by the Colombian press, both in print and on TV, but ignored in the United States: in 2004, “53 underage girls were sexually abused by mercenaries, who filmed and sold the tapes as pornographic material.” According to one news story, the scenes on the tapes were “hard, crude, and violent.” The case was taken up by the Colombian human-rights organization, “Corporación Colectivo de Abogados ‘José Alvear Restrepo.’” But immunity held. The victims of this crime likewise were forced to flee their homes. At least one committed suicide.
The Comisión Histórica doesn’t name the private security firm involved. The Colombian press, however, identifies DynCorp, a Virginia-based contractor. Dyncorp is only slightly less infamous than Blackwater, having been involved in numerous international outrages, including, as David Isenberg, author of Shadow Force: Private Security Forces in Iraq, writes, “a sex slavery scandal in Bosnia in 1999, with its employees accused of rape and the buying and selling of girls as young as 12.”
Read Next: Greg Grandin on remembering those murdered at Oscar Romero’s funeral
Yesterday, March 24, was the thirty-fifth anniversary of the 1980 execution of Salvadoran Bishop Oscar Romero by CIA-backed and funded assassins. The details of Romero, recently declared a martyr by Pope Francis, are well known: shot in the heart while saying mass, his blood spilled over the altar and, some say, into the communion wine, soaking the bits of white sacramental bread on the floor. His murder took place the day after he urged Salvadoran soldiers to disobey their superiors:
Brothers, you come from our own people. You are killing your own brother peasants when any human order to kill must be subordinate to the law of God which says ‘Thou shalt not kill’. No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. No one has to obey an immoral law. It is high time you recovered your consciences and obeyed your consciences rather than a sinful order. The church, the defender of the rights of God, of human dignity, of the person, cannot remain silent before such an abomination…. In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression.
The repression, of course, didn’t stop. Ronald Reagan, soon to enter the White House, and then George HW Bush, would spend nearly $2 million a day to keep it going for more than a decade, claiming many tens of thousands of lives.
Romero’s sacrifice is well known, his name soon to be inscribed in the Book of Saints. Less remembered is that between thirty and thirty-five poor Salvadorans, largely anonymous, at least as far as public recognition is concerned, were killed at his funeral, which took place on March 30. Here’s a video of the chaos outside San Salvador’s cathedral. And here’s a description from Father James Connor, who was helping to celebrate Romero’s funeral mass inside.
The funeral ceremonies started calmly on a beautiful, but hot day. A procession of some thirty bishops (from England, Ireland, Spain, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela, Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Panama, Costa Rica and the United States) and more than 200 priests wound its way through eight or ten blocks of the city from the church where we had vested to the cathedral. Hundreds of people lined the sidewalks, many of them listening to a radio broadcast of the event on their transistor radios. We had been assured that the day would be peaceful and free of “events.” The Popular Front, including the far left, had covenanted to observe nonviolence in honor of the archbishop, and it seemed unthinkable that the hard-line right would desecrate this moment unless first provoked.
At first, all went as promised. The bishops and clergy processed into the cathedral through a side door, went out the front door to salute the altar set up in front of the cathedral, and then moved to our assigned places. The clergy remained inside the front door of the cathedral while the bishops stood outside on the altar platform and faced the square. The entire plaza was filled in of more than 100,000 persons, and thousands more spilled over into the side streets leading to it.
All went peacefully through a succession of prayers, readings, hymns until the moment in his homily when Cardinal Ernesto Corripio Ahumada of Mexico, the personal delegate of Pope John Paul II, began to praise Archbishop Romero as a man of peace and a foe of violence. Suddenly, a bomb exploded at the far edge of the plaza, seemingly in front of the National Palace, a government building. Next, gunshots, sharp and clear, echoed off the walls surrounding the plaza. At first, the cardinal’s plea for all to remain calm seemed to have a steadying impact. But as another explosion reverberated, panic took hold and the crowd broke ranks and ran. Some headed for the side streets, but thousands more rushed up the stairs and fought their way into the cathedral.
As one of the concelebrating priests, I had been inside the cathedral from the start. Now I watched the terrified mob push through the doors until every inch of space was filled. Looking about me, I suddenly realized that, aside from the nuns, priests and bishops, the mourners were the poor and the powerless of EI Salvador. Absent were government representatives of the nation or of other countries. The ceremony had begun at 11 am and it was now after noon. For the next hour and a half or two, we found ourselves tightly packed into the cathedral, some huddled under the pews, others clutching one another in fright, still others praying silently or aloud.
The bomb explosions grew closer and more frequent until the cathedral began to shudder. Would the whole edifice collapse? Or would a machine-gunner appear in a doorway to strafe the crowd? A little peasant girl named Reina, dressed up in her brown-and-white checked Sunday dress, clung to me in desperation and pleaded, “Padre.”
We lived through that horror of bombs, bullets and panic, now dead bodies were being carried into the cathedral from outside, for nearly two hours. At certain moments one could not help wondering if we would all be killed…. Eventually, the bombing and shooting subsided. The papal nuncio to El Salvador received assurance by phone from some government source that it was safe for the people to leave the cathedral. Gradually, we filed out into the street with hands raised high above our heads, according to instructions, so as to assure any potential snipers that we were unarmed.
Later in the afternoon, back at the Jesuit residence where I was staying, we listened by radio to the government’s official account of the incident. The entire affair, the statement explained, was the work of leftist terrorists. Our own experience had given us, of course, a different picture…. All of us knew full well that we had not been held captive in the cathedral by leftist terrorists, as the official version had it, nor had any leftists attempted to make off with the archbishop’s body.
Here’s another description of events that day.
Read Next: Greg Grandin on Rand Paul and the secret history of vaccinations
Last month, Senator Rand Paul said a few confusing things about vaccines, leading some to ask: Is he or is he not an anti-vaxxer? In an interview with CNBC’s Kelly Evans, the senator from Kentucky stated that he had heard of “many tragic cases of walking, talking normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines.” Then a recording surfaced of an earlier 2009 conversation, where Paul engaged in the kind of wild linkages that libertarians have become famous for: Social Security leads to serfdom and flu shots put us on the death march to the gulag. “The first sort of thing you see with martial law is mandates,” Paul said, “and they’re talking about making [the flu vaccine] mandatory.”
But Paul also said something in that Evans interview that didn’t get much attention, which I found curious (especially coming from a libertarian who had trouble explaining why his brand of individual supremacy isn’t really just white supremacy or in what way it is different from his dad’s out-and-out racism). Paul said: “I’m a big fan and a great fan of the history of the development of the smallpox vaccine, for example. But you know, for most of our history, they have been voluntary.”
An unexceptional statement. Senator Paul is a history buff. And as an ophthalmologist, he’s interested in the history of science. Except that anyone who actually knows the history of the smallpox vaccine knows that it was anything but voluntary, at least for the many African and African-American slaves the vaccine was experimented on (including by Thomas Jefferson) and whose blood streams served as the best and cheapest way to transport the vaccine across the Americas.
I have no idea whether Paul knows this history, despite being its big and great fan. But it’s not just for rhetorical effect that conservatives and libertarians like Paul and Sarah Palin “invoke slavery for all sorts of things that,” as The Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart points out, “don’t come anywhere close to matching the evil it represented.” The “right to health care,” Paul once said, is “basically saying you believe in slavery.” That sounds like a ludicrous statement, except that there’s a reason he, along with other likeminded individualists, can’t stop talking about slavery.
The ideal of freedom they champion was born in chattel slavery, by the need to measure one’s absolute freedom in inverse relation to another’s absolute slavishness. And try as they might, this patrimony is inescapable: individual supremacy is white supremacy. It’s a point I’ve argued in The Empire of Necessity: Slavery, Freedom, and Deception in the New World (it’s just been released in paperback and, in case I haven’t mentioned it, NPR’s Fresh Air named it the best book of 2014, including non-fiction and fiction). A bit of the book describes the role the slave system had in the development of modern medicine, including the smallpox vaccine.
As is often the case with libertarian hyperbole, Paul’s warning that public health is related to enslavement has a real, if inverted, relationship to actual history: enslaved Africans and African-Americas lived under “martial law;” for them, “healthcare” was “slavery.” In the early 1800s, both Spain and Portugal disseminated the smallpox vaccine throughout the Americas via the “arm to arm of the blacks,” that is, enslaved Africans and African-Americans, often children, who were being moved along slave routes as cargo from one city to another to be sold. They were forcibly vaccinated: doctors chose one slave from a consignment, made a small incision in his or her arm, and inserted the vaccine (a mixture of lymph and pus containing the cowpox virus). A few days after the slaves set out on their journey, pustules would appear in the arm where the incision had been made, providing the material to perform the procedure on yet another slave in the lot—and then another and another until the consignment reached its destination. Thus the smallpox vaccine was sent through Spanish America, saving countless lives even as it helped stabilize the slave system. Smallpox epidemics, along with other virulent disease, threatened the viability of slave trading as a business, cutting into profits as much as fifty percent.
And not just in Spanish and Portuguese America. Harriet Washington, in Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present, documents the smallpox experiments Thomas Jefferson preformed on his Monticello slaves. In fact, much of what we now think of as public health emerged from the slave system. Slave ships were floating laboratories, offering researchers a chance to examine the course of diseases in fairly controlled, quarantined environments. Doctors and medical researchers could take advantage of high mortality rates to identify a bewildering number of symptoms, classify them as diseases and hypothesize about their causes. That information then filtered into the larger medical community. Rand Paul is an ophthalmologist, and for an example of how that profession benefited from slavery, read about the 1819 case of the French slave ship Rôdeur, which I write about in The Empire of Necessity.
During the late January measles outbreak, which many blamed on the anti-vaxxer movement, Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig was one of the few commentators who smartly pointed out that anti-vaccination parents merely reflect the “very virtues American culture readily recommends,” including “individualism, self-determination, and a dim, almost cynical view of common goods like public health.” The idea of “rugged individualism,” Bruenig writes, “functions in a feedback loop with American politics.”
That feedback loop, which has its origins in the history of American slavery, has two basic beats: Individual rights (to property, guns, speech, etc.) are freedom. Social rights (to education, medicine, and a decent, dignified life) are slavery.
Read Next: Greg Grandin on whether Venezuela really is an “extraordinary threat” to the United States
Yesterday, Barack Obama sent a letter to Congress announcing that he was applying the International Emergency Economic Powers Act to Venezuela, declaring the “situation” there to be an “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.” Washington named seven Venezuelan politicians as targeted by the act, their property in the US liable to seizure.
It’s a serious step taken with extraordinarily strong language (as the head of the Organization of American States pointed out; “very harsh,” he said). Reuters writes: “Declaring any country a threat to national security is the first step in starting a U.S. sanctions program. The same process has been followed with countries such as Iran and Syria, U.S. officials said.”
Set aside the irony (within hours of an administration spokesperson’s accusing Venezuela of criticizing other nations in order to distract from its problems, New Jersey’s soon-to-be-indicted senator Robert Menendez applauded the sanctions), the hypocrisy (forget Saudi Arabia, think of Mexico or Colombia), or the hyperbole (an “extraordinary threat”?). It’s hard to figure out what the White House hopes to accomplish with this move. It will achieve exactly the opposite of its stated intention to isolate Caracas.
Within Venezuela, it will confirm to many the validity of President Nicolás Maduro’s accusations that the United States has been leading a soft coup against his government. One doesn’t have to be a committed Chavista to appreciate the irony, condemn the hypocrisy or recoil from the hyperbole. Obama just threw Maduro a lifeline.
Outside Venezuela, Latin American nations will bristle at the attempt to apply a sanctions regime associated with the mess Washington has made in the Middle East to the region. The more suspicious among them will see the opening to Cuba as bait-and-switch, an attempt to use the good will generated by that move to isolate and destabilize other adversaries, pressing its advantage as falling commodity prices put strains on Latin American economies (the Trans Pacific Partnership is part of this divisive strategy).
Over the last few months, there was some indication that support for Venezuela by other South American nations, like Brazil, was waning. In an essay that was posted yesterday but probably written before the threat designation, Time argued that Obama’s “decision to reopen relations with Cuba is having an interesting side effect: it’s helping isolate Latin America’s other hard-line leftist regime in Venezuela.” Daniel Wilkinson, the managing director of Americas Watch, which has been sharply critical of Venezuela since at least 2008, said: “Until very recently, most countries in the region were reluctant to say anything about Venezuela …. If this is just U.S. sanctions, and the U.S. is doing it on its own, then it’s much easier for Venezuela to play the victim card. That’s why it’s really important for the U.S. government to be working with other democratic governments in the region to make this more of a collective.”
I’m assuming that quote was provided before the White House went ahead and did “it on its own.”
The most dangerous consequence of this action is to put Colombian peace talks between the government and the FARC in jeopardy. Over the last few years, Colombia has rejected its assigned role as a regional Israel, much to the disappointment of anti-Chavistas. Its president, Juan Manuel Santos, refuses (unlike his predecessor, Alvaro Uribe) to play the part of an Andean Netanyahu. Santos knows that a stable Venezuela, on good terms with Bogotá, is essential to bringing Colombia’s internal conflict to an end. As Rafat Ghotme, a Colombian professor of international relations, puts it, “both presidents need each other. Maduro needs Colombia, in order to legitimate the Bolivarian Revolution in a regional system. And Santos needs Venezuela, because it is the principle external actor that can convince FARC to continue in the peace process.”
Santos is a conservative who has brought Colombia in from the regional cold, establishing good and working relationships with South American left-of-center governments. Recently, the Colombian president has proposed turning the massive Colombian-Venezuela-Brazilian border into the “world’s largest ecological [corridor] and would be a great contribution to [the] fight of all humanity to preserve our environment, and in Colombia’s case, to preserve our biodiversity.” This, of course, would be practically difficult, if not impossible. Still, it serves as a sharp alternative vision to the reality of the US-Mexico border, which Washington has turned into a militarized death-march.
A cynic might say that the point of the threat designation isn’t directed at Caracas at all, but is aimed to break up the Colombia-Venezuelan partnership that is taking shape and pull Bogotá back into the fold.
Venezuela is, without doubt, in crisis. And people of good will can debate whether the origin of the crisis is inherent in the Bolivarian Revolution or results from the backlash. Caracas represses, to some degree, civil society. The United States manipulates the civil society of the countries it deems a problem. Since both of those statements are true, some perspective is required.
As far as economics is concerned, David Smilde, who lives in Caracas and runs the Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights blog, provides some. Here’s a recent post: “My wife and I went grocery shopping for a family of four last night, in a chain supermarket in Eastern Caracas. There were fruits and vegetables of all kinds. There was also plenty of: cheese, yogurt, lunchmeat, sausages, bacon, pasta, bread, crackers, cookies, nuts, wine, beer and soy oil. From the meat cooler we got a nice pork loin and some smoked pork chops…. Not available were: chicken, beef, milk, coffee, rice, sugar, corn oil, laundry soap, dish soap, paper towels and toilet paper.” Importantly, Smilde mentions that one researcher told him that “data collection was showing much lower levels of scarcity in homes than in stores.” Even more importantly, “from 2007-2012, consistent scarcity levels of around 10-20 percent coincided with a historic increase in calories and protein consumption” [my emphasis]. In other words, people under Chavismo are eating better and more healthily. Inflation is a serious problem, but it is fixable, as Mark Weisbrot argues.
As to political repression, neighboring Colombia, Washington’s well-funded ally, provides some perspective: it ranks behind only Syria in the number of internally displaced peoples, 5.7 million according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. Afro-Colombians and indigenous communities have “borne the brunt” of the repression that has taken place since the Colombian-US free trade treaty went into effect three years ago, many at the hands of right-wing demobilized paramilitaries. Along with trade unionists.
And where do those victims who don’t stay in the country flee to? Venezuela. The UNHCR, which writes that “refugees continue to cross into the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela regularly,” calls Caracas’ refugee integration program “inspirational.” It is what “can be achieved when UNHCR, its partners and Venezuelan government agencies work together to include refugees in public policy.”
And what do at least some of the refugee children do once they are in Venezuela, according to the UNHCR? They learn to play Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.”
Read Next: Greg Grandin on the battle between the government and opposition in Venezuela