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
Coups and countercoups. Crackdowns. Economic crackups. Seven cents for a tube of toothpaste and $755 for a box of condoms. As a result of the latter, Bloomberg says, “Venezuela has one of South America’s highest rates of HIV infection” (disturbing, and, Bloomberg didn’t mention, exactly the same rate of HIV infection as in the United States). Falling oil prices. The arrest of an opposition leader. Washington plots. Human Rights Watch tweets. South America rallies.
What is going on in Venezuela? I have no idea. I’ve been too busy trying to track down the cameraman who accompanied Bill O’Reilly to El Salvador, where he didn’t report on the El Mozote massacre. So I asked a trusted panel of experts. Here’s what they say.
Above all, Miguel Tinker Salas, a professor of history at Pomona and author of The Enduring Legacy, a history of the Venezuelan oil industry, insists we have to keep perspective. Mexico, where the bodies pile high and the country is in the middle of a humanitarian crisis of staggering proportion, gets a “free pass” by the United States. Not so much Venezuela (where things might be bad but not 83,000-corpses bad).
Tinker Salas, whose timely Venezuela: What Everyone Needs to Know will be published in April, writes:
Reporting on Venezuela in the US, and depictions of the country by the Washington political establishment would lead anyone to believe that the country is once again on the verge of a precipice. The recent death of a student in Venezuela is tragic. But unlike in Mexico where impunity reigns, the policeman responsible for the student’s death was immediately arrested which didn’t stop the state department and Secretary of Kerry from issuing a rebuke [Editor’s Note: compare Venezuela’s Interior Minister Carmen Meléndez response to the killing of Kliver Roa with recent events in Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland….) In the current context, the government of Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela is depicted as losing popular support and purportedly relying on repression to stay in power (again, compare with Mexico). Sensational headlines typically focus on the lack of toilet paper and condoms as a way to ridicule the country and the political leadership that was elected after Chávez’s death. In Mexico, where over 50 percent of the population lives in poverty, and millions of poor and indigenous people lack access to food, or basic services, deplorable conditions go unremarked. Millions either emigrate or become displaced, and the tens of thousands of deaths are blamed on the drug cartels, thus absolving the US ally and financed government of responsibility. Most reporting seldom acknowledges the fundamental political and social change that has occurred in Venezuela in the past fifteen years or the empowerment of millions of people. The future in Venezuela is unclear and the crisis deep, and dissatisfaction has grown, yet the government still retains support.
So what is that base of the government’s support? Sujatha Fernandes, who teaches in the sociology department at CUNY’s Queens College and the Graduate Center and is the author of Who Can Stop the Drums? Urban Social Movements in Chávez’s Venezuela, points to the barrios, where despite the economic shortages and long lines for basic goods:
many of those poor barrio residents who make up the stronghold of the Bolivarian process are aware of the destabilizing role being played by the opposition on many fronts and are not the core of those expressing discontent. And speaking to ordinary Venezuelans, one does not get the sense of major economic calamity, despite hardships. The bonds of solidarity that have developed in recent times have given rise to such innovative responses as a barter economy.
Anthropologist Naomi Schiller, who has done extensive field work in the barrios, looking at community-media activism, puts the current crisis in context: “There have been few periods where Bolivarianism hasn’t been deeply embattled.” And the crisis takes its toll:
Constant pressure has narrowed spaces for reflection, constructive criticism and redress. In the midst of the economic crisis, state funding for community media initiatives has been greatly reduced. Catia TVe, a prominent community television station in Caracas, has cut its staff by half. The steadily diminishing reach of their minimum wage pay means that everyone must hold down multiple jobs. As elsewhere in Venezuela, new disparities have emerged between those who have access to dollars—via family abroad, through international travel, or other channels. But rather than abandon the project of building Bolivarian socialism, many barrio-based media producers continue to make television and radio towards the aim of constructing a more just and equal social order, seeking to do what they can with very limited resources.
And despite the ongoing crisis, those citizens who are organized in social movements and “politically mobilized, such as those who work in community media, continue, for the most part, “to blame the opposition and the continuous meddling of the US government:”
Even while they are frustrated with corruption and mismanagement and skeptical of some claims put forth by the Maduro government, they remain convinced, that if the opposition should gain power, their social and economic conditions would be far worse. Chavismo has always been internally divided, with multiple conflicting currents—some more committed to participatory democracy and building a communal state than others.
Despite more than a decade of upheaval, the current moment, Schiller believes does “appear to be the most severe crisis that Chavismo has attempted to weather.”
Over the years, poor Venezuelan Chavistas, Schiller says, echoing Fernandes, have proven remarkably resilient and active in taking control of their lives, to the best of their ability. Supporters of Chávez and now Maduro are often depicted as “unproductive ‘clients’ who expect handouts in the form of subsidized food and irrationally cheap gas prices” (tropical versions of Romney’s 47 percenters). But, she says, the “Bolivarian movement has been built by people who have used state funds to educate themselves, build alliances, participate in local governance, feed their neighbors, make their own media, and care for the sick. They have sought to transform oil dollars into thriving communities.” That model might no longer be sustainable.
But not everyone in Venezuela is “organized.” Daniel Hellinger, a professor of International Relations at Webster University, who is the author of a number of books and of a monthly newsletter, Caracas Connects, points out that both planned destabilization and real popular discontent can exist simultaneously: “economic mismanagement and economic sabotage are not two mutually exclusive hypotheses about the sources of long lines.” Still, “disapproval of Maduro does not automatically enhance the position of the opposition:
As long as the people in the barrios do not join protests, the Maduro government will most likely not fall. But whether the Chavista base in the cities will turn out and vote for the PSUV in [scheduled National Assembly elections] December, despite the party’s superior organization, is much more problematic…. While the government may ultimately come up with hard evidence against [Caracas mayor Antonio] Ledezma, concern about his arrest [on charges of sedition] is not limited to the opposition. ‘Criminalization of dissent,’ as some commentators call it, is increasingly of concern to the left wing of Chavismo too.
Hellinger also points out that “arrests of security personnel and talk of coups on the part of the government”—however real the plotting might be—could backfire, “simply by making a coup more plausible.”
And what of that reported coup attempt? What is the opposition up to? Steve Ellner, co-editor of the recently published Latin America’s Radical Left: Challenges and Complexities of Political Power in the Twenty-First Century and professor at the Universidad de Oriente in Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela, writes that
the discourse of leading members of the Venezuelan opposition is deliberately vague, but their intentions are obvious. They engage in what President Maduro calls a “double band”: they swear support for peaceful solutions but at the same time encourage a non-democratic path to power along with disruptive and even violent tactics. From February to May of last year the dual approach served to justify widespread anti-government disruptions, which included mass destruction of state property and numerous deaths including six National Guardsmen. The slogan “exit now” (first launched by the now jailed Leopoldo López) was a euphemism for regime change by any means, even while opposition leaders claimed they were simply pressuring President Maduro to resign. (The very same leaders had called on Chávez to resign in the weeks leading up to the April 2002 coup.) In another example of intentional ambiguity, the opposition insisted on the liberation of “political prisoners” jailed during last year’s protests, without distinguishing between peaceful and violent protesters.
Now opposition leaders are calling for a “transition” away from the current government in order to hold new elections, revamp the public administration, negotiate with multilateral financial agencies, review the expropriations of companies by the Chavista government, free “political prisoners” and significantly increase oil production (in apparent violation of OPEC quotas). The Maduro government claimed that the proposal to form a transitional government was linked to a coup plot involving Air Force officers as well as Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma, who it jailed as a result. If the real aim of these opposition leaders is to pressure Maduro to resign, why don’t they confine their slogans to references in favor of that objective? All Venezuelans know that Maduro, who counts on considerable mobilization capacity and the nation’s largest and best organized political party, is not about to resign. The non-electoral road to power necessarily involves violence and eventually a military coup.
Much of the discussion of Venezuela has to do with its economy. Here’s Mark Weisbrot, co-director of DC’s Center for Economic and Policy Research, on the topic:
For 15 years, most of the western media has been saying that the Venezuelan economy was on the verge of collapse. This was the analysis in much of the business press even when the economy was booming and inflation was under control. Are they finally right? Inflation was 68.5 percent for 2014, and Venezuela’s GDP shrank by 2.8 percent. The economy has also been plagued by shortages of consumer and other goods, including some medicines. Venezuela’s government bonds carry the highest interest rates in the world. Clearly there are serious problems that need to be resolved.
The inflation and shortages are mostly a result of a dysfunctional exchange rate system. A cut in the supply of dollars in the fall of 2012 set in motion a spiral in which the black market rate rose, pushing up inflation, which in turn pushes the black market rate further. There are currently two fixed rates (6.3 bolivares Fuertes, or Bfs, per dollar for food and medicine, and 12 Bfs for some other goods) and a new floating rate that began trading on February 15 , in addition to the black market. An adjustment needs to take place to push the price of dollars to a level that will eliminate the excess demand. The new floating rate announced last week is currently at about 172, not far from the black market rate of 191 for cash transactions. It remains to be seen if this new foreign exchange market will arrest the process of the inflation-depreciation spiral— and the capital flight that comes with it—and whether it could be a step toward unifying the exchange rate.
The problems are resolvable. In the past two years, Venezuela has cut imports by 33 percent, almost as much as Greece has done with 6 years of depression. So the hardest part of an adjustment—even taking into account the fall in oil prices—is done. According to Bank of America’s estimate, Venezuela has reserves and assets that it could turn into cash totaling $70 billion, or more than one and a half times the level of annual imports. With just the government’s gold reserves it could buy up all of the government and PDVSA (the national oil company) bonds that come due in the next three years; a debt default is therefore extremely unlikely. In short, Venezuela’s economic problems are fixable, but to fix them serious reform is needed—most importantly in the exchange rate system.
Still, there are serious social contradictions in the political and economic model left behind by Chávez. Andrés Antillano, a professor of criminology at the Universidad Central de Venezuela, says that:
Under Chavismo, we went from a deregulated economy, in the hands of the private sector, to state capitalism sustained by the appropriation and redistribution of oil revenues to the underprivileged. Notwithstanding the profound social and egalitarian nature of the policies implemented during this period…what we see in Venezuela today are signs of the exhaustion of the rentier and statist economic model. At the same time, we have witnessed shortages and the dismantling of the productive apparatus. In this context, the ruling classes and their political organs, the parties of the right, seek to restore their power. In the economic sphere they demand liberalization and the monopoly of oil revenues. Politically, the ruling class seeks to overthrow the Bolivarian project and impose a neoliberal government to serve their interests.
In this context, Antillano says, speculation, hoarding and manipulation of foreign currency have proven to be extremely “successful” tactics in “discrediting the government and creating social unrest.” For its part, Maduro’s Bolivarian government has proven
weak and embattled. Without the strong leadership of Chávez, who held together a heterogeneous political field and gave it a clear strategic direction, the current cabinet has not been able to set a clear path of action and has postponed decision-making. This indecision, in part, indicates its desire to avoid taking steps that would harm the poorest—steps which conservative sectors advocate—such as devaluing the bolívar, ending price controls and reducing social spending.
What will happen, what is to be done? Here’s Antillano:
The Bolivarian project is at a crossroads. The exhaustion of both the rentier model and the development model of state capitalism demands that it either take a neoliberal turn by deregulating the economy, in which the wealth of the nation would return to the wealthy, or—taking advantage of the disillusionment with the rentier model—advance towards a post-capitalist model in which productive capacities are socialized in the hands of the people.
George Ciccariello-Maher, who teaches at Drexel and is the author of We Created Chávez, says that new model Antillano talks about is already being built—by politicizing and empowering (even more than has already taken place) the self-help socialism described by Fernandes and Schiller. The Bolivarian Revolution is in a “tight spot:”
But with all this emphasis on the towering heights of the economy and the national conflict between Chavistas and anti-Chavistas, we run the risk of losing sight of what is always lost sight of: the historically poor, the revolutionary grassroots, those who knew shortages and insecurity long before wealthy elites raised these as banners; those who know the dangers and corruptions of state power but have opted to vie strategically for it nonetheless. While supporting Nicolás Maduro and the continuity of the Revolution, many have thrown their weight behind the construction of a parallel, communal “state,” contributing their efforts to an expanding network of self-governed communes. These communes, while only just beginning to emerge, are producing goods as they produce new people and new political relations. As one communal organizer recently told me: “This is the most difficult moment of the Bolivarian Revolution, but the communes are where the vitality is.” Vitality will only get us so far, however, and it is unclear whether or not the political will exists to drive forward the communal project: too many Chavista political elites have too much to lose if the communes succeed. But perhaps the economic crisis will override: the private import sector has proven to be the government’s Achilles’ heel, and communal production is far more efficient than state-managed farms and factories. Venezuela is at a tipping point: too socialist to thrive in the global system, still too dependent on capitalism to break with it. The only way out is forward, and the only way forward is through the commune.
Read Next: Greg Grandin on Bill O’Reilly in El Salvador
What is worse? Bragging that you “covered” a war that you didn’t cover? Or “covering up” a war crime?
Judging by the firestorm that hit Bill O’Reilly last week, the US media (with the exception of HuffPo’s excellent Roque Planas) clearly thinks O’Reilly’s war-zone exaggerations are worse than his role in covering up, either intentionally or unwittingly, a massacre.
To recap: The massacre took place in El Salvador, in the small village of El Mozote near the Honduran border, on December 11, 1981. It was carried out by the US-created and -trained Atlacatl Battalion. Between 733 and 900 villagers were slaughtered.
New York Times journalist Ray Bonner was one of the first outsiders on the scene, having walked for days from Honduras to get to El Mozote. His report on the killing ran on the front page of the Times on January 27, 1982. That day, The Washington Post also published a front-page story by Alma Guillermoprieto, who arrived at El Mozote shortly after Bonner. Both stories were accompanied by photographs by Susan Meiselas.
The Reagan Administration went into damage-control mode. The White House was worried that reports of atrocities committed by its Salvadoran allies would jeopardize its plan to increase military assistance to the country. Bonner was especially targeted by administration officials, who pressured the Times to pull him from El Salvador (Reagan’s ambassador to El Salvador, Deane Hinton, called Bonner an “advocate journalist”). The details of that campaign can be found in Mark Danner’s New Yorker reporting, as well as his follow up book, The Massacre at El Mozote. The Times’ editor, AM Rosenthal, sided with Washington, pulling Bonner—who had been based in El Salvador and therefore knew the country—back to Washington. After working at Metro for a time, Bonner left the paper.
As this smear campaign was unfolding, O’Reilly was sent by CBS Evening News to El Salvador. In his words, he was sent “to check out an alleged massacre in the dangerous Morazán Territory.” This had to have been the El Mozote massacre. No other massacre was being reported on in the press that would have caught the attention of CBS news editors.
O’Reilly went to El Salvador. But he didn’t go to El Mozote. Instead, he went to the next town over, a fairly large municipal seat. In his memoir, O’Reilly writes: Meanguera “was leveled to the ground and fires were still smoldering. But even though the carnage was obviously recent, we saw no one live or dead. There was absolutely nobody around who could tell us what happened. I quickly did a stand-up amid the rubble and we got the hell out of there.”
This is all a lie, as O’Reilly’s own report—broadcast on CBS on May 20, 1982—clearly shows. Meanguera is not leveled; there are no fires; at least eight people can be seen, going about their business. O’Reilly also writes that he arrived at Meanguera by car in a harrowing journey, but the clip reveals he travelled part of the way in a Salvadoran helicopter.
But these lies—however fun they are to catch O’Reilly in—are not important. It should be no surprise to anyone that O’Reilly exaggerates and distorts. What is important is that O’Reilly was asked to investigate the El Mozote massacre. He didn’t. O’Reilly was sent to follow up reports (by Bonner and Guillermoprieto) of a major atrocity committed by US allies that would have had implications for Ronald Reagan’s hardline Central America policy. He didn’t.
O’Reilly’s report aired on May 20, 1982. If he had investigated the El Mozote massacre—if he had even mentioned the El Mozote massacre—it might have kept the jackals off of Bonner. And that might have kept Bonner in El Salvador. And that would have provided the American public with an experienced reporter sending back information that might have had an impact in the debate over Reagan’s Central American policy. In turn, Bonner’s removal sent a message: Reporters, writes Michael Massing of the Columbia Journalism Review, became “wary of provoking the embassy.” “If they can kick out a Times correspondent,” said one reporter, “you’ve got to be careful.” Apparently one Times journalist told Bonner, “I'm not going to get caught in the same trap that you did.”
O’Reilly’s Salvador segment isn’t just a sin of omission (not mentioning Mozote and thus burying the massacre). It is a sin of commission. Take a look at it. O’Reilly sounds as if he is reading a set of talking points drawn up for him by the White House. One of the key rhetorical strategies to dilute opposition to Reagan’s Central American policy—which would result in the escalation of three wars (in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua) and the deaths of over 300,000 civilians at the hands of US funded and trained allies—was to muddy the waters, and establish plausible deniability.
Indeed, the US embassy in El Salvador sent out a memo that concluded: “it is not possible to prove or disprove excesses of violence against the civilian population of El Mozote.” And here’s O’Reilly echoing the conclusion in his memoir: “I explained that while a scorched-earth policy was clearly in effect in remote village—the evidence was right there on tape—it was impossible to say just who was doing the scorching. Could be the muchachos [that is, the guerrillas], could be the government. The ninety-second package contained great video and a fairly impressive ‘on the scene in a very bad place’ stand-up by yours truly.”
Of course, it was not impossible: Bonner and Guillermoprieto did so under considerably more dangerous and difficult circumstances.
No matter. Bonner was out. O’Reilly, and Oreillyism (defined as the transformation of journalism into a narcissistic, self-referential circus, a “stand-up” routine that has no referent in the real world) was in.
The piece I posted on O’Reilly’s reporting on February 9th got some attention, though not as much as David Corn’s and Daniel Schulman's follow-up, which framed the issue as all about Bill O’Reilly—was he exaggerating? Was he lying? Is water wet?
The controversy took off. But the El Mozote angle—the question as to why O’Reilly didn’t report on the massacre if that was his assignment—got completely, absolutely, disappeared from the debate (again, with the recent exception of Roque Planas’s piece).
The media focused exclusively on O’Reilly’s actions in Buenos Aires during the Falklands-Malvinas war (where he was sent after El Salvador). Cable news and Mother Jones dug up old CBS staffers to “prove” that O’Reilly didn’t cover the actual war.
And after a few cycles, it’s not even about Argentina any longer. It’s about O’Reilly-Corn. The “charges aren’t sticking!” says Politico. David Corn “hangs up” on radio interviewer! O’Reilly “threatens.” Rachel Maddow “slams” O’Reilly. Corn says that “O'Reilly's ‘Violent’ Rhetoric Has My Friends and Family Worried.”
Whatever the case, it is almost all over. Attention is drifting away. O’Reilly will survive and Oreillyism will abide. There are already reports that O’Reilly has vanquished Corn, from mainstream outlets as New York and Slate.
Meanwhile, I’ve been talking to CBS staffers trying to pin down the specifics of O’Reilly’s quick trip to El Salvador. In particular, I’d like to locate his cameraman and/or the producer for the piece. Here are the questions I’d ask:
Why, if Bill O’Reilly was sent to investigate the El Mozote massacre, didn’t he go to El Mozote?
Was he briefed by the US embassy? By the US ambassador?
Did O’Reilly talk to anyone other than Salvadoran soldiers?
Did he ever try to speak with Ray Bonner or Alma Guillermoprieto?
At what point did O’Reilly decide to make the story about Meanguera rather than El Mozote?
Did O’Reilly try to find the whereabouts of Rufina Amaya, the lone survivor of the massacre, who, hiding in a tree, watched the soldiers rape, execute, and burn alive her neighbors? (The Reagan administration and the Salvadoran government went after Amaya, disputing her testimony. But Amaya’s version of events was confirmed by both an exhumation and a UN truth commission investigation. “Mama, they’re killing me. They’ve killed my sister. They’re going to kill me,” Amaya heard her son cry from her hideout).
Eric Engberg, a longtime CBS correspondent who was in Buenos Aires during Malvinas-Falklands War and who has helped expose O’Reilly’s many distortions regarding that episode, tells me that O’Reilly was arrogant, “lazy,” and “stupid”—pretty much all the qualities on display in the El Salvador segment. It was a “very weak piece,” in Engberg’s opinion—it “made no sense.”
But Engberg doesn’t think O’Reilly was motivated by politics. He “lacked any political sophistication.” Central America, Engberg says, wasn’t an important story—it was a place that greenhorn reporters were sent. But it was exactly because Central America wasn’t important that O’Reilly could get away with the kind of insipid story he filed. I suspect Engberg is right. O’Reilly’s conservative “politics” always seemed like a shtick to me—a much better career move than (mis)reporting on massacres in Central America.
But maybe we can take l'affaire O’Reilly-Corn as a lesson: the kind of contentless “critique” launched on O’Reilly doesn’t challenge Oreillyism. It fulfills Oreillyism.
Read Next: Greg Grandin on Chile's left turn
The story of how Chile, in the decades after its 1973 coup and death of democratically elected socialist president Salvador Allende, became one of the most neoliberal societies on the planet is well known. But there’s been a remarkable reversal over the last few years. Chile’s current president, Michelle Bachelet, less than a year into her second, non-consecutive term, is advancing an ambitious legislative agenda, related to voting, education, labor, same-sex civil unions, abortion and the environment.
But she is doing it—or able to do it—only because she is being pushed from below. Chile, long held up as a model of “free market” orthodoxy, has become a different kind of example. It’s become model of intersectionality on the march: social movements, students, environmentalist, worker, LGBT—have not only scored concrete victories, they are showing that it is possible to de-neoliberalize policy and resocialize consciousness.
Before the details, take a second to consider the chronology of Chile’s political history since Augusto Pinochet, who seized power in 1973, stepped down as formal head of state in 1990. For twenty years, between 1990 and 2010, Chile was led by a series of democratically elected Concertación governments, a center-left political coalition that simultaneously consolidated (and legitimated) Pinochet’s neoliberal economic model while gradually working to democratize society.
In 2009, at the end of Bachelet’s first term, Concertación lost (since the “transition to democracy”) its first presidential election, to Sebastián Piñera, a right-wing businessman who made his money in that sine qua non of neoliberal economics: the credit card. This conservative interregnum (2010–14) jump-started a mobilized left. Popular protests, constrained during the rule of nominal Concertación allies in previous governments, picked up steam. Especially environmentalists (who last year won a major victory, scuttling plans to despoil Patagonia) and students took the lead.
Piñera had many historical connections to Chile’s old death-squad Pinochet right. But to get elected he successful passed himself off as something like a European conservative, a modern technocrat. Protest movements, in particular those led by students—hundreds of thousands of them occupying high schools and universities and taking over public spaces across the country—utterly destroyed Piñera’s effort to present himself as a center-left moderate. His poll numbers plummeted and never recovered. Here’s The Economist’s lament, in 2012 : “Two years ago Mr Piñera, a billionaire businessman, led the centre-right Alliance to power after two decades of rule by the centre-left Concertación coalition.… [in 2010] his approval rating soared to 63% … Thanks mostly to the students, it is now just 29%.” Thanks, students!
The movement had specific demands having to do with de-privatizing education (more on that below). But it linked demands to a comprehensive analysis. The placards, slogans, memes, innovative tactics, and alliances with other social groups, especially unions, made it clear that despite whatever they weren’t learning in the classroom, they were learning something somewhere: Pinochet was singled out as the founders of a “system” that had a local expression in Chile, but was global in its reach: Neoliberalismo. And they made it clear that neoliberalismo was much more than a set of policies or privatizations, it was the colonization of consciousness, a “way of life,” a capitalist metaphysics. Dressed as zombies, protesters staged public performances of Michael Jackson’s Thriller followed up by mass public kiss-ins. Social-solidarity life against neoliberal death.
Pinochet was portrayed as an “eternal dictator.” Though dead, “he mocks us,” he “continues governing,” he “continues to give orders”—through both the market and center-left politicians who argued that there was no alternative. Accused by politicians of being “over-ideologized,” the students threw the charge back, saying the country’s elites were the over-ideologized ones: fascist, neoliberal, Pinochetista. Take a look at this book, The Memes and Caricatures of the Student Movement, by Juan Federico Holzman, to get a sense of the movement’s marriage of creativity and structural analysis (its images are from the Internet, but the street graphics were just as innovative and cutting).
It is impossible to overstate the success in which student protests—led by different, at times rival organizations, including the youth wing of the Communist Party—created a new public common sense. The fact that market economics produced not harmony and equilibrium but “structural inequality” is now the starting point of policy debate in Chile. Even Piñera, a diehard Pinochetista, in terms of economics if not bodily torture, was forced to criticize Chile’s “excessive inequality” and praise the objectives of the student movement: “They are asking for a more just society, a more egalitarian society,” he said, quoted in The New York Times, “because the inequalities we are living in Chile are excessive and, I feel, immoral.”
During her first term, Bachelet, from Allende’s old Socialist Party, was by far the most progressive of Concertación elected presidents. Yet she operated within the restraints of the model left in place by the dictatorship. The hardcore right had been losing ground ever since Pinochet’s 1998 arrest in London, and then his death in 2006. But, as The Economist put it, Concertación remained a “model of fiscal responsibility,” having “entrenched a fiscal rule that requires the government to balance its books over the economic cycle and to save windfall profits when the price of copper—Chile’s main export— is high.”
But the protests that checkmated Piñera changed the limits of the possible, as the series of reforms winding its way through Chile’s bicameral legislature reveals.
Two of the most important reforms have to do with voting rights and education, which makes sense. In Chile, through the twentieth century, until 1973, literacy, the vote, and social democracy were closely intertwined. When Allende first ran for congress in the late 1930s, the vote in Chile was extremely restricted: Allende won his first seat with just over two thousand votes, barely 3 per cent of his district’s total population: the franchise was then limited to literate men. Literate women didn’t get the vote until 1949. Over the next few decades, the expansion of the vote and the expansion of public education went hand in hand, with the Chilean left gaining electoral success by expanding popular education. In 1937, as many as 350,000 children had no school to go to. As a new senator, Allende introduced a bill to build classrooms and hire teachers for them. He also proposed peasant and worker literacy programs. The goal, Allende said, was to turn Chile “into one big school.” As more people could read, more people could vote (literate women got the right in 1949). And as they did, more people voted for socialism. By 1970, literacy meant electoral democracy, and electoral democracy meant social democracy. More than a million Chileans voted for Allende that year (and nearly another million voted for a Christian Democratic candidate who ran on nearly an identical socialist platform). Once in office, Allende’s Popular Unity coalition revoked the last literacy restriction: it wasn’t until 1971 that all men and women over the age of 21, literate or not, were allowed to vote. Talk about the slow boring of hard boards.
It made sense, then, that Pinochet would target both the franchise and public education for destruction.
In terms of the vote: before stepping down as the head of state, Pinochet changed the rules by which congress was elected, putting into place a system of disproportional representation. It’s complicated, but you can read the details of Chile’s “binomial” voting here. In effect, it made it necessary to win a super-majority in any electoral district to get the majority of seats in that district, a maneuver designed to, according to Chilean political scientist Carlos Huneeus, “freeze” into place elite interests.
Regarding education: neoliberals turned Chile into the “most pro-market school system in the world,” as the Chilean Mario Waissbluth, a professor at the Universidad de Chile, wrote on Diane Ravitch’s blog. The nation became a pioneer in charter schools, vouchers, privatized teacher training, and for-profit universities. Weissbluth continues:
Two thirds of the 56% of private voucher (charter) schools are for profit, and they can charge on top of it to parents. Therefore, the richest ones mix their sons with their socioeconomic peers, the middle class with the middle class, and so on down to the poorest which go mostly to free public schools. Subsidiarity by the book. Until now, anyone can set up a for-profit subsidized charter school anywhere, without any quality requirements whatsoever. Teacher training also became fully unregulated. Today some universities and institutes ‘sell college degrees’ (for a profit) to students…. National certification and examination for teachers is, of course, voluntary. Freedom. Freedom. The market will solve everything.
Waissbluth goes on to provide equally dreary details concerning intense segregation, literacy rates and standardized tests, which seem to be some hell-spawn of neoliberal market efficiency and late medieval scholasticism.
“Reform” is too mild a word to describe what is currently going on in Chile, but here is some of the proposals that either have recently passed congress to become law, or, hopefully, will soon:
Voting: On January 14, the Chilean Senate passed a law that does away with Pinochet-era gerrymandering. It’s expected that the lower house, where Bachelet has a larger majority to work with, will likewise approve the bill. The law will assign “electoral seats in proportion to the number of votes cast for each individual candidate.” Opponents are criticizing the measure, warning of “neopopulism” and political instability. But Socialist Senator Juan Pablo Letelier (son of an Allende diplomat, Orlando Letelier, who was blown up by Pinochet in Washington, DC, in 1976) said, when the Senate passed the bill, that “today we return to the tradition of this country: a representative and proportional system.… This hard-won achievement is the beginning of a new era, and marks the end to one of the most disastrous inheritances of the dictatorship.”
Legislation also mandates that at least 40 percent of party candidates be women.
Education: Bachelet campaigned promising to fulfill much of the student protest movement’s agenda. This last month, congress passed the first in what is expected to be a series of education reforms. The bill is complicated, and gradual, with many modifications. (Here’s a decent summary in Spanish. Here’s one in English.) The law ends “profits at state-subsidized schools and eliminates their selective entrance policies.” Starting in March 2016, it also begins to eliminate the multi-tiered system of public voucher and private tuition described by Waissbluth above, moving soon to completely free and public education funded by the state. “What we’ve put an end to here is a set of illegitimate bases put in place during the dictatorship, behind the nation’s back, and today we’ve recovered Chile’s historic tradition and the best practices in the world,” Bachelet’s education minister said.
Also, the government announced in December that it would use the revenue from its tax reform (see below) to fully fund free higher education.
The Federación de Estudiantes de la Universidad de Chile, one of the main groups leading the education protests, has criticized the reform for both not going far enough and for not being based on ongoing consultation with social movements. Facing ongoing pressure—massive demonstrations continued after her inauguration last year—Bachelet has promised that this is just the first step in what will be an ongoing process of de-privatization.
Abortion: Bachelet, a medical doctor, has just sent a draft bill to Congress that would decriminalize medically necessary abortion. Like the disproportional congressional representation, an “outright ban on terminations was put in place during the final days of Augusto Pinochet’s 1973-1990 dictatorship.” According to one poll, 79 percent of Chileans are in favor of the right of the woman to have an abortion: 60 percent “under specific circumstances” and 19 percent with no restrictions. This in a country that didn’t legalize divorce until 2004.
Civil unions: In January, the Chilean congress approved civil unions for same-sex couples.
Tax reform: Last September, Bachelet raised taxes, with a mix of regressive (sales taxes on alcohol, etc.) and progressive (large business will see their rates go from 20 to 27 percent) levies. “The legislation seeks to raise $8.2 billion, or 3 percent of gross domestic product, through higher taxes on companies and the closure of loopholes for wealthy individuals,” reported Bloomberg. The new revenue will go to support social programs, such as healthcare and education. “The tax reform is a fundamental tool to attack the structural inequality in Chile,” Bachelet said at the end of last year. “The idea is to level the field.”
But most importantly, the tax reform eliminates (within a few years) another bulwark put in place by Pinochet, an extremely regressive capital-gains exemption. Here’s Bloomberg describing it (before Bachelet’s re-election):
A system set up by former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1984 to boost investment is being used to help the rich avoid taxes.… In a country of 17 million people, only 0.3 percent of tax payers pay the top income rate, depriving Chile of the money it needs to improve education and tackle the worst income inequality in the 34-nation Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, says opposition candidate Michelle Bachelet. The rich in Latin America’s wealthiest nation evade the 40 percent tax on income over $100,000 a year by keeping earnings in investment companies, says Sergio Endress.
But a backlash is underway: “parent” groups committed to privatized education (and undoubtedly funded by corporations invested in privatized education) have taken to the streets. Conservatives, fearing that proportional representation will bring about their political extinction, are appealing the constitutionality of the voting law. Democracy (defined as proportional representation), say a number of right-wing senators, “contradicts the meaning and tenor of the current constitution” (considering that the charter was written by Pinochet’s Chicago Boys and modeled on Friedrich Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty, they have a point).
And Bachelet is receiving what might be called the Kirchner treatment by Chile’s corporate media, which is focusing obsessively on a business scandal involving her son. The right-wing opposition is threatening to make it a criminal case.
With poll numbers falling as a result, Bachelet might have to make a choice: back away from her agenda or throw in fully with the social movements. It was smart of her to push through that proportional representation reform bill early in her term.
Read Next: Greg Grandin on David Corn and Bill O’Reilly
Imitation is a form of flattery, so I’m flattered that Mother Jones’s David Corn found my post on Bill O’Reilly’s possibly covering up war crimes in El Salvador so inspiring that he basically wrote an expanded version. A mention, rather than an anonymous link, would have been nice. It took a bit of effort to track down that CBS footage. But hey.
What is really annoying, however, is that my larger, and I think important point, about El Salvador’s serving as a key moment in the post-Vietnam degeneration of war journalism gets completely lost. As does O’Reilly’s coverup, intentional or not, of war crimes. Corn makes it all about O’Reilly. Which, of course, means it is really all about Corn. Now it gets turned into a lame Politico he-said, he-said spat between Corn and O’Reilly. Corn is a “guttersnipe,” says O’Reilly. Corn “hits back.”
So here’s how it works: Bill O’Reilly goes to El Salvador and avoids talking about a US-implicated war crime. David Corn writes about Bill O’Reilly going to El Salvador and avoids talking about a US-implicated war crime. And the circle remains unbroken. Bread and circuses, circuses and bread.
Also see Freddie Deboer on the matter.
Read Next: Greg Grandin on whether Bill O’Reilly covered up war crimes in El Salvador