President Hugo Chavez and America’s “Backyard”

Hugo Chavez Mural

AP Photo

As sure as the sun rises in the East we can count on seeing a host of North America’s most prominent “conservatives” and right-wingers hyperventilate in the days ahead about what a horrible “friend of Castro” Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was. There will be obituaries that refer to Chavez as a “communist” or a “dictator” or a “strong man” or worse. But the simple fact remains: Chavez, who died of cancer at the age of 58, was the only president of Venezuela in modern memory who did ANYTHING for the poor people of that country who make up the vast majority of its nearly 30 million citizens.

Hugo Chavez was singled out for the white-hot hatred of the American Right (and much of the “mainstream” media) primarily because he was the first Venezuelan president to try to address the crying needs of the impoverished majority of people in his country. After decades of failed “neo-liberal” economic policies imposed from outside that produced more poverty than development the people elected him to try something new. He was a nationalist leader who made it abundantly clear that he sought to break out of the U.S. system of control of the Western Hemisphere that dates back to the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 (and he became immensely popular throughout Latin America for it).

One of the biggest “mega-slums” on Earth is located in Caracas, which resembles more a slum with a city in the middle of it than a city with a slum around it. With so many desperately poor people in Venezuela, compounded by the disastrous “neo-liberalism” the U.S. rammed downed the throat of Latin America, the only surprising thing about the hemisphere turning toward socialism when it had the chance was that it didn’t do it earlier. This turn toward a New Deal, where the votes of the majority and the wellbeing of the poor actually matter to the government, is what enraged U.S. elites from the moment Chavez was elected in 1998.

The dominant frame in the corporate media of Hugo Chavez and Venezuela predictably reflected the class priorities of the tiny ruling elites of both countries. Like the wealthiest Venezuelans, American elites seemed to be aghast that a Venezuelan government could come to power that instead of serving the interests of large landowners, industrialists, oil tycoons, and big banks, would actually implement successful “socialist” reforms to lower the poverty rate.

During the George W. Bush years people like Michael Ignatieff and others were telling us, in the wake of 9/11, we had to “get used” to “the burden” of the United States being an aggressive imperialist power. Hugo Chavez became a potent symbol against this neo-con project for a “new American century.” And that symbolic stand against U.S. imperialism is why Chavez got under the skin of the ruling elites so badly.

In fact, the elites in the United States, the CIA and people like Otto Reich in the State Department, working hand-in-glove with their allies among the .01 percent of the wealthiest Venezuelans, were so upset by the idea of an oil rich nation to the south turning toward socialism that in 2002 the George W. Bush administration assisted right-wing elites in Venezuela in an attempt to oust Chavez in an illegal and unconstitutional power grab reminiscent of an uglier era.

The 2002 coup attempt had more in common with the actions of the United States in Latin America back in the 1960s and 1970s than it did in the modern era. (There are exceptions, however, to this modern trend, such as Haiti where the U.S. helped oust Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004, and Honduras, where the U.S. played a role in keeping Honduran President Manuel Zelaya out of power in 2009.)

The attempted coup d’etat against Chavez, which the Bush Administration pretended to have nothing to do with, like the Iraq War and the current drone strikes, underscores America’s rogue behavior internationally. It’s strange to hear the full-throated denunciations of Chavez, who gave free heating oil to low-income people in the northeast and never lifted a finger against the people of the United States.

Like the Nixon Administration claiming it had nothing to do with the coup in Chile in 1973 or the Eisenhower Administration pretending to be unaware of the coup in Iran in 1953, there was no reason to believe Bush officials when they said they had nothing to do with the 2002 coup in Venezuela.

Condi Rice and Ari Fleischer were sure quick to offer their congratulations to the coup plotters after they seized power. They even promised to help the new government. Then, in an Orwellian twist, they blamed Chavez for usurping the Venezuelan Constitution. Watch the documentaryThe Revolution Will Not Be Televised, for Bush officials and the corporate media’s response. How thin their commitment to “democracy” really was when the people doing the ousting were aligned with the right U.S. banks and corporations.

Many of the same “conservatives” in North America who can’t wait to denounce Hugo Chavez and everything he stood for, not long ago, were just fine with the U.S.-backed juntas that dominated Latin America for decades. From Generals Augusto Pinochet in Chile and Rios Montt in Guatemala, to the “Dirty Warriors” in Argentina, the Duvaliers in Haiti, and the murderous junta during the Reagan era in El Salvador — these same right-wingers who condemn Chavez’s record were awfully quiet (or supportive) back then. These types of pro-U.S. regimes to the south could do anything they wanted to their own people so long as they were anti-communist or on the “right” side of the “war on drugs.” They could practice all manner of human rights abuses, including torture, political imprisonment, “disappearances” of labor leaders and other community activists, or take part in CIA-backed coups. So long as the targets were labor leaders or poor people death squads could roam wild, many of them receiving training at the U.S. Army School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia, (since rebranded the “Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation”).

And amidst the noise and static around Hugo Chavez’s legacy, will anyone stop to remember the murder in November 1989 of six Jesuit priests at the University of Central America in San Salvador? Father Ignacio Ellacuria, the Spanish-born rector of the university, the housekeeper, Elba Ramos, and her 16-year-old daughter, and five other priests were marched into a back garden, ordered to lie face down, and shot in the back of the head. The Far Right in El Salvador despised Father Ellacuria for trying to broker a peace settlement between the government and the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN). Members of a Salvadoran Army unit, including an officer who later became El Salvador’s Defense Minister, covered up the military’s role. Some of the soldiers had attended the School of the Americas. The atrocity touched off a long-standing, largely Catholic protest movement, “SOA Watch,” which organizes annual vigils and demonstrations at Fort Benning each November commemorating the 1989 killings.

Throughout the 1980s, the Reagan Administration and its Blue Dog Democratic allies in Congress had argued that the contra war in Nicaragua, the U.S. military aid to El Salvador and Honduras, and the invasion of Grenada, were all vital steps in countering Soviet power in the region. President Reagan had painted a dire picture of the threat:

“Using Nicaragua as a base, the Soviets and Cubans, can become the dominant power in the crucial corridor between North and South America. Established there, they will be in a position to threaten the Panama Canal, interdict our vital Caribbean Sea lanes and, ultimately, move against Mexico.”

In one of his State of the Union addresses Reagan called Nicaragua a “Soviet ally on the American mainland” and asked: “Could there be any greater tragedy than for us to sit back and permit this cancer to spread?”

Today, it’s pretty dumb to hear spokespeople of the Right throw around the term “communist” to smear Hugo Chavez. What does that term mean in 2013 more than 20 years since the fall of the Soviet Union and when Maoist China manufactures just about everything we buy?

Long before the Russian Revolution of 1917 the United States was treating Latin America like its “backyard.” In the 1850s, William Walker inserted himself briefly as the dictator of Nicaragua. The Spanish-American War of 1898 secured U.S. dominance of Cuba and Puerto Rico, and in 1903 Panama became a de facto U.S. protectorate after President Theodore Roosevelt seized the country “and let Congress debate.” The “Roosevelt Corollary” to the Monroe Doctrine institutionalized U.S. military power in the region; and President William Taft’s “Dollar Diplomacy” sealed its finances in the hands of U.S. investors. President Woodrow Wilson’s 1915 invasion of Haiti set the stage for a string of pro-U.S. governments there. Historians have noted dozens of U.S. military and CIA interventions in Latin America in the post-World War Two period. But in the years following the 1959 Cuban uprising that swept Hugo Chavez’s friend Fidel Castro into power the stated purpose of U.S. policy — from the Bay of Pigs and the 1965 invasion of the Dominican Republic, to the contra war in Nicaragua and the intervention in Grenada — had been justified to “contain” or “roll back” Soviet influence.

But in December 1989, when President George Herbert Walker Bush invaded Panama to oust General Manuel Noriega (who had been trained at the SOA and on the CIA payroll), the intervention harkened back to a day before their existed a “communist threat.” The United States would not hesitate to protect its interests in its “backyard” with or without the justification of fighting international communism.

joseph palermoThe drug war accommodated a new rationale well suited for the post-Cold War environment. The “New World Order” that replaced the Cold War, at least as far as Latin America was concerned, looked a lot like the older world order where U.S. military imperatives would be decisive with or without a Soviet “menace” in the hemisphere.

Hugo Chavez defied this history of power relations in the hemisphere. And for that defiance elite voices will vilify him, but a far larger number of people will see him as a hero.

Joseph Palermo
Joseph Palermo’s Blog

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

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