Venezuela: same old, same old...

By Rodrigo Acuña

25 February 2014

Latin America Bureau

The recent violence in Venezuela, which has left some 13 people dead, once again highlights how some sections of the political right in that country are unwilling to change their stripes. They have used force in the past and, as long as they continue to gain a sympathetic hearing in the mainstream media, violent protests can and will be used in order to project the image of an ungovernable country.

In April 2002 these tactics contributed to a temporary coup against the democratically elected government of Hugo Chávez (1999-2013). Lasting for 47 hours, the coup quickly collapsed once the bulk of the armed forces decided to disobey their U.S.-backed right-wing generals and their political masters in the business community. However, by then, more than 19 people had been fatally shot by police snipers working for the opposition, while much of the media falsely ran the story that the Chávez government ordered the shootings.

Amidst the weeks following the death of Chávez in March last year, the local opposition for the first time in years made significant electoral gains. They did this by building on their electoral base while their key leader, Henrique Capriles Radonski, adopted some of the rhetoric of Chavismo. Despite paying lip service to the government’s vast social programs for the poor, and having himself been previously a recipient of US aid, Capriles still lost to Nicolas Maduro (Chávez’s chosen successor) in the April 2013 presidential race.  

A victory too close for comfort

Maduro’s win by 1.6 per cent nevertheless proved too close for comfort and it emboldened the opposition. Using their financial connections, they have unleashed an economic war  against the government by hoarding products (toilet paper, cornflour, cooking oil, coffee, etc.) in warehouses or smuggling them off to Colombia. State television in Venezuela often shows images of the authorities breaking up these illegal cliques. But it is limited to the Venezuelan state media outlets, not the private local and international press which have most influence and the largest audiences.

This situation has persisted for months, which is not to say that the government itself is not at fault for some of the country’s problems. According to Roger Burbach from the Centre for the Study of the Americas at Berkley University: ‘Maduro faces daunting economic problems as he tries to bring inflation and the black market foreign exchange rate under control, while dealing with serious corruption problems in and outside of the government.’

Despite this ongoing situation, in December last year the Maduro administration managed to win three-fourths of the country’s municipalities (49 to 43 per cent) in local elections.

Enter, stage right

Enter Leopoldo López, a wealthy Harvard graduate regarded as being on the extreme right. Since the opposition is divided into 30 different political parties, López – a participant of the 2002 coup and, following charges of corruption, barred from holding public office until 2014 – has decided that he and not Capriles should become the government’s main rival.

Described as a ‘divisive figure within the opposition’ by a 2009 leaked U.S. embassy cable published by Wikileaks, it was also noted that he was viewed as ‘arrogant, vindictive, and power-hungry - but party officials also concede his enduring popularity, charisma, and talent as an organiser.’

Coined 'La Salida' (The Exit), López’s current strategy is simple: align with conservative student protests and promulgate violence until the government is forced to resign. So far he is getting excellent media coverage as far away as Australia.

According to the New York Times on February 15, after a protest by the opposition, ‘a few hundred youths rioted, throwing rocks at the police and government buildings.’ The Times article of course did not elaborate on the violence, its key actors, nor their motivations. The headline for their story was how Venezuela blocked a cable television channel from Colombia which, it claimed, was fomenting ‘anxiety about a coup d'état.’

In a more detailed analysis Steve Ellner – Universidad de Oriente in Puerto La Cruz – recently noted that the tactic of using violence and blaming the government is an old one. Most noticeably used during the April 11, 2002 coup, in his view:

‘Today the same thing is happening, and the private media is promoting the same deceit. Opposition demonstrators have created havoc in the center of Caracas and elsewhere, burning public buildings, using firearms after having attacked the house of the governor in the state of Táchira.’

Ellner adds that while López ‘says it publicly’ he wants to overthrow the government, ‘the media is making it seem as if the violence is the work of motorcyclists supposedly on behalf of the Chavez government.’

Highly critical of the Maduro administration and placing the responsibility of public security on its hands, David Smilde – University of Georgia – also provides a more sober understanding of events. In his view, given December’s election results, Maduro’s position is notparticularly vulnerable’ and ‘it would make no sense in such a context for the government to organize violence against a modest student march (with a turnout of around 10,000 it was much bigger than recent protests, but by no means large by Venezuelan standards).’

Smilde adds: ‘Leopoldo López’s calls for peaceful mobilization are disingenuous when his acts seem to be intentionally creating the conditions for unintended violence. He is effectively putting student protestors in the line of fire to further what he sees as the interests of the country.’

Some restraint in the face of violence

In the coming weeks the violence in Venezuela may die down or continue, as the one year commemoration of Chávez’s death approaches. A retired opposition General has tweeted instructions on how best to decapitate pro-government supporters on motorbikes, resulting in one  death. The Chavistas, given their large numbers, have actually displayed some restraint, although this is not to excuse counter-violence on their part which in circumstances such as the present can and does take place.

Returning to López, should the Venezuelan judicial system follow through with his prosecution on charges of inciting violence (including terrorism), the judiciary and the government, despite the evidence, should not expect to win any accurate media coverage. If anything, López is likely to be turned into a martyr.

In Washington (as expected) the Obama administration will continue to condemn the government in Caracas while the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) will persist in rejecting regime change in Venezuela.  

*Dr Rodrigo Acuña is an Associate Lecturer in International Studies at Macquarie University. He researches and writes on Latin American politics. You can read more about him here.

Posted on March 7, 2014 .

Contrasting Perspectives on Latin America

By Rodrigo Acuña

September-October 2013

Canadian Dimension

With the recent protests in Brazil over a number of social grievances leading up to 2014 FIFA World Cup, and the NSA whistle blower Edward Snowden possibly making his way to Ecuador or Venezuela so as to seek asylum, Latin America has recently captured global media attention. In Brazil, as protestors originally took to the streets over a 20-cent hike in public transport fares, reporting by some of the major corporate media has often been surprisingly sympathetic to protestors.    

In the June 19 New York Times Simon Romero wrote that, given some of the Workers’ Party’s (PT) success in raising living standards, and doubling the number of university students from 2000 to 2011, expectations among Brazilians remained high and were not being met. In the June 22 issue of the Economist, a long-time champion of neoliberal economics, an article noted how “Brazilians pay taxes at rich-world rates (36% of GDP) and get terrible public services in return.” The piece observed that for a minimum-wage worker in São Paulo, whose employer does not cover transport costs as is required by law of formal employees, he or she must spend a fifth of their pay to get to work on public transport.

Commenting that Dilma Rousseff’s government has been “put on notice”, the Economist concluded: “In the past decade 40m Brazilians have escaped absolute poverty. Most are still only one payday from disaster, and will fight tooth and nail not to fall back. They see further gains in living standards as a right. The marches are a sign that they are waking up to the fact that they pay taxes and deserve decent public services, not just shiny stadiums.”  

Such analysis by the Economist is of course some-what hypocritical given its past praise of the PT’s adherence to market discipline while criticizing the more leftist governments in the region who are attempting to restructure the balance between corporate power, the state and U.S. interventionism. In Bolivia earlier this year, Hydrocarbons Minister Juan Jose claimed that, after the government of Evo Morales nationalised seven oil companies in 2006, the state has now obtained $16 billion in revenues. Mainstream media reporting of course rarely cover these developments as maintaining a laissez-faire environment for foreign investment is almost a standard prerequisite to obtaining favourable media coverage.

In the UK, although the Guardian often provides insightful reporting on Latin America and the Caribbean, when it came to the late socialist president Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, it often failed. Rory Carroll ― the Guardian’s Caracas-based foreign correspondent from 2006 until 2012 ― is a case in point.

In his book Comandante: Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela, published earlier this year by Penguin Press, Carroll had much to say on the eccentricities of Latin America’s outspoken leftist leader. Claiming that Chávez reviewed television footage after every broadcast of his weekly show Aló Presidente, he argues that while the former military colonel seemed to genuinely care for the country’s poor, over all his policies were a failure. The forty-nine laws established in 2001 for example, aimed to carry out land reform and increase taxes on foreign oil companies from 1 to 16 per cent, are described by Carroll as not being “truly radical” and drafted in a secret manner which upset big business.  

While Carroll has numerous interesting anecdotes to share based on his years of working in Venezuela, and discusses issues such as corruption within the government, and the inability of some observers on the Left to examine this in detail, his almost complete failure to give Chávez any credit for reducing poverty is noticeable.

Worse, as was observed in a petition to the Guardian signed by numerous experts on Latin America in late 2011, since 2001 hundreds of peasant activists have been killed by gunmen hired by large land owners. In their view: “[t]he Guardian's Caracas-based correspondent, Rory Carroll, reported none of this and has disregarded this grave human rights issue for years” ― a point which is again evident in his book.

A more sober analysis of Venezuela, and countries like Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil and Cuba, can be found in Roger Burbach, Michael Fox, and Federico Fuentes’ book Latin America’s Turbulent Transitions: The Future of Twenty-First Century Socialism available by Fernwood Publishing and Zed Books. With backgrounds in the alternative press and academia, these authors place their focus on the different political trajectories the leftist governments in the region are following in what many of them label as ‘socialism for the twenty-first century.’

In Venezuela, the authors note that the Chávez administration from 1999 did much to reduce poverty, as was noted in 2005 when UNESCO declared the country free of illiteracy. Citing another study from the Washington-based Centre for Economic and Policy Research, the authors also observe that from 1999 to 2007 the amount of primary care physicians in the public sector increased more than twelve times, from 1,628 to 19,571, “providing healthcare to millions of poor Venezuelans who previously had no access.” Other aspects of the Venezuelan political process are also discussed in this book, such as the struggle between community participation and the state’s growing and often corrupt bureaucracy.

Moving on to Ecuador, the authors argue that while president Rafael Correa has managed to reduced urban poverty by 17 percent, he has also come into conflict with some social movements given his inclination to open up sectors of the country to the mining industry. In Cuba, where a pro-Soviet model of socialism was promoted from the 1960s, Burbach, Fox and Fuentes contend that the state is looking to loosen restrictions on small businesses but, after opposition from unions and local party officials, the plan to lay off half a million workers was put on hold as the private economy does not have the conditions to absorb this new work force.  

When discussing Brazil, the authors highlight that due to the constraints of market forces, the PT domestically has been much more conservative than its socialist counterparts throughout the region. They write that, four months prior to Lula da Silva’s presidential victory in 2002, “[f]inancier George Soros cautioned that a Lula win would plunge Brazil into economic ‘chaos’, and the corporate media warned of rising inflation.” As a consequence of this pressure, Lula publically promised not to stray away from market economics. He then moved to promote large national private businesses which then further spread their tentacles throughout the region.

Although historically the PT promoted participatory councils and popular budgets, which were implemented in over 100 municipalities throughout the country, Burbach, Fox and Fuentes contend that, once in office, Lula decided not to pursue this avenue on a national scale as Chávez did in Venezuela.

After 2007 though, as internal dissent grew, the party saw an internal shift as its original concept of socialism again resurfaced as one of the PT’s central themes. Also, while the PT has been less bold on national issues, in foreign policy it has displayed greater independence which has worked in favour of Venezuela against the full wrath of Washington. The authors write that for the Left in the region: “Brazil under the PT has played a pivotal role in standing up to U.S. hegemony, integrating the region, and supporting the more radical governments in their push for ‘twenty-first-century socialism’.”

In the coming year, media interest in Brazil and South America will remain high due to the multimillion-dollar football extravaganza of the 2014 World Cup. If protests continue, the serious social issues throughout the country may also draw press attention. For those interested in understanding the deeper dynamics of the region though, and the diversity of political paths currently being chosen by various countries, looking at the pages of the alternative press, and works like Latin America’s Turbulent Transitions, should provide several insights.   

* This article is a slightly extended version of a piece which originally appeared in the magazine Canadian Dimension, Volume 47, No. 5.

Posted on October 14, 2013 .

Chavez's death: a Latin American perspective

By Rodrigo Acuña

ON LINE Opinion - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate

8 March 2013

I always expected to see video images of the Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in Havana Cuba delivering a passionate speech at the ex-Cuban leader Fidel Castro's funeral amid other leftist heads of state from Latin America and the Caribbean. The news of Chavez's declining health due to cancer over the last two years was well known, as were his repeated statements that cancerous cells no longer inhabited his body.

At times these announcements on the surface appeared accurate. In public the former-lieutenant colonel always tried to project an image of being strong, confident and joyful. Chavez loved to be seen on television, often inaugurating a new school or clinic in a shanty town surrounded by his supporters. But after winning a convincing fourth presidential election in October 2012 by 55% to 45%, and then in November declaring that he needed to return to Cuba for more surgery, it seemed clear Chavez was not well.

Then in early 2013, before a meeting of the economic-political bloc between Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Venezuela and numerous Caribbean countries coined the Bolivarian Alliance for the America (ALBA), Fidel Castro wrote to the Venezuelan Vice-President Nicolas Maduro: "however painful (Chávez's) absence, all of you will be capable of continuing his work." 

On January 30 a respected long-time observer of Latin America stated that: "[a]n atmosphere of sadness and imminent tragedy has taken over the towns and cities of Venezuela as Hugo Chávez nears death." Over seven days later, President Chavez was declared dead by an emotional Maduro.

A brief look at some of media commentary will indicate a focus on Chavez's less positive legacy. One of the Venezuelan president's strengths was that he was not formed by a political machine which closely monitored the electorate, and pre-screened speeches which turned him into a plastic wind-up doll ready to sell policies. While this aspect of Chavez endeared him to many Venezuelans, it was also his Achilles heel.

Only towards the end of 2011 in a lengthy interview did Chavez concede that one of his weaknesses was his impulsive nature and inability to self-censor some of his comments. By then though he had made countless unnecessary statements such as famously referring to U.S. President George W. Bush as "the Devil" at the United Nations General Assembly. Then there were his embarrassingly cosy relations with Iran, Syria and Libya whose own governments were as distant to Chavez's 21st century socialist philosophy as they were to Venezuela geographically.

While states which have defied U.S. power have often had few options in choosing their associates, Chavez's embracement of regimes such as those in the Middle East made him look unsophisticated and autocratic despite having won numerous and closely monitored democratic elections. Having his own weekly television show 'Hello President' added to this image.

In 2005, during a research trip to Venezuela, I argued with a Venezuelan who worked for the Ministry of Education. Chavez, I told him, could easily open a new factory or school on his program, discuss various government policies, engage in his light-hearted humour, but was it really necessary for him to broadcast for five hours? Looking at me puzzled, the young bureaucrat simply replied: "but the people love him."

This short comment exemplified the thinking behind many in the Venezuelan government. Since Chavez could do no wrong in the eyes of his supporters, he was placed on a pedestal and given free reign.

There were of course deeper reasons why Chavez was, and will be for many years, deeply revered in Venezuela and Latin America.

From years of reading mainstream international coverage on Venezuela, you would think Chavez was popular because he engaged in rhetorical battles with Washington while simply handing out a few free chickens at the local markets on the weekend.

The dozens of programs which the Chavez's administration established to build housing, healthcare, new schools and child care centres were rarely discussed despite their visibility everywhere around the country for the foreign press.

Programs like Mercal, where low income Venezuelans can purchase cheap food at a state-owned super market chain, are found in most working class areas. While criticisms abound that Mercal stores often run out of numerous products (a claim which is in fact true), few analysts bother to ask two simple questions: where did poor Venezuelans shop before Mercal and how well did they eat?

Discussions with government officials were also revealing as many of them came from humble back grounds having only completed their university degrees under the Chavez government. Many whom I talked to in 2005 and 2011 were of Afro-Venezuelan heritage which, under former governments that sold cheap oil to the United States, would have undoubtedly been condemned to a life of poverty, with little hope of social mobility in a country where racism is still prevalent. According to the United Nations, between 1999 and 2010 Venezuela reduced poverty by 21% which is a remarkable success given the powerful political actors who worked against Chavez and, in April 2002, briefly ousted him in a U.S.-backed coup.

At a regional level Chavez also had an enormous impact. In 2008, in close collaboration with Brazil, Venezuela played a key role in establishing the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) which has begun to challenge the U.S.-sponsored Organization of American States (OAS).

In the coming weeks elections will now have to be held in Venezuela and Nicolas Maduro should win them comfortably. A former bus driver, trade union leader and Minister of Foreign Affairs from 2006 to 2012, Maduro should continue Chavez's policies although perhaps with less rhetoric.

For now, millions of Venezuelans are deeply mourning Hugo Chavez while presidents from around the region arrive in Caracas to pay their respects. Although he certainly did not solve all of the country's major problems, Chavez's record in reducing poverty is far better than that of former governments.

Posted on August 6, 2013 .

The dubious removal of Paraguay's former bishop president

By Rodrigo Acuña

Eureka Street 

2 July 2012

The recent questionable removal of Paraguay’s left-wing president Fernando Lugo probably broke some type of world record.

With just two hours for Lugo’s lawyers to prepare his defence, the former Catholic clergyman, once known as ‘Bishop of the Poor’, was ousted in a 39-4 vote by the Senate within twenty-four hours of his original impeachment.

Denouncing his removal from the presidency, in which he still had a year left to serve, Lugo summarised the event as a 'parliamentary coup d’état'. He has a point.

The developments which led to the impeachment revolve around the deaths of 17 people, including six police officers, on 15 June. That day, authorities were attempting to evict a group of families who had engaged in a land seizure in the Department of Canindeyú. This was not the first time such an incident occurred, but it was the bloodiest. 

When Lugo’s centre-left Patriotic Alliance for Change (APC) won the 2008 presidential elections, expectations by Paraguayans were high as 50 per cent lived below the poverty line – 35 per cent in abject poverty. 

During the electoral campaign, the student of liberation theology claimed his administration would reduce poverty and redistribute land. According to Eric Stadius from the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington, roughly two per cent of the Paraguayans  control three-quarters of all property.  

Once in office, the Lugo administration did attempt to carry out a mild land reform program. It also sought to increase taxes on soybean, as the South American country has recently become its fourth largest exporter in the world.

Despite the president’s plans, the opposition Colorado Party, through the legislature, constantly blocked his progressive reforms. 

In response, Lugo repeatedly sought to work with the opposition. He engaged in one political compromise after another to the point where sectors of his own constituency became seriously disgruntled. Eventually, some of Paraguay’s landless peasants decided to act independently, as they did in Canindeyú. 

Releasing a communiqué on that event, Paraguay’s National Committee for the Recovery of Ill-Gotten Lands placed the incident into a broader perspective:

'The slaughter in the department of Camindeyú was the result of a historic class conflict in Paraguayan society, the product of the support of the three branches of state, of a system of accumulation and hoarding of land in the hands of a few… The violence will continue if we do not initiate, once and for all, the return of lands belonging to the Paraguayan people that today are in the hands of persons not subject to land reform.'

The individuals blocking the redistribution of farm lands, which the committee was referring to, are Paraguay’s land owning elite. Often, they are top ranking members or associates of the Colorado Party who ruled Paraguay for 61 years since 1947. Most of this governance took place during the brutal US-backed dictatorship of General Alfredo Stroessner from 1954-1989. 

But even by Latin America’s right-wing thuggish standards, Gen. Stroessner earned an exclusive place in the pantheon of Washington’s stooges during the Cold War. Ruthlessly persecuting the native Guaraní people, over 1 million Paraguayans fled the dictatorship. Upon his death at age 93 in 2006, an article in the Washington Post by Adam Bernstein discussed Stroessner’s rule:

'El Excelentisimo’, as he sometimes trumpeted himself, was elected every five years with near-universal approval that he took for a clear mandate. However, voting fraud was rife, and he tended to receive overwhelming support from dead constituents. 
With a network of informants and the backing of the military, he tortured dissidents, both real and perceived.'

Commenting on the huge levels of corruption during the dictatorship, Bernstein added:

'Payoffs were essential to all commerce, with much of the swag going to top military officers. Paraguay became a sanctuary for smugglers in arms, drugs and everyday goods such as whiskey and car parts. 
In a noxious twist on Latin hospitality, Gen. Stroessner provided refuge for French-born international heroin dealer Auguste Ricord; strongmen such as Argentina's Juan Perón and Nicaragua's Anastasio Somoza Debayle (later assassinated in Paraguay); and war criminals, including Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor known as the 'Angel of Death' who performed genetic experiments on children.'

'In spite of my wishes' Stroessner once said, 'the party insisted that I be a candidate.' 

In 1989, the caudillo was overthrown by one of his high ranking henchmen, Gen. Andres Rodríguez, in a battle that cost the lives of roughly 500 soldiers. But the Colorado Party’s grip on the presidency did not end there. Its previous monopoly on power allowed it to rule the country until 2008 when it lost the elections to Fernando Lugo. Once this leftist led Paraguay, the Colorado Party all of a sudden decided human rights were important. 

When Lugo admitted to fathering a child during his time as a bishop, the opposition quickly used it against him. 

By late 2009, the president denied rumours that a possible military coup would take place against his government. But just to be on the safe side, he dismissed the country’s top military commanders. After the incident at Canindeyú, Lugo sacked the interior minister and police chief, but this was not enough to placate his political enemies. 

Commenting on recent developments, Stadius said: 'the political process in Paraguay is broken, and this essentially amounts to a political coup that threatens the country’s democratic legitimacy.' Reaction throughout the region has been swift with the majority of South American countries recalling their ambassadors in non-recognition of the new government headed by Federico Franco. 

Leftist leaders like Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, are all too aware that, like the 2009 coup in Honduras against Manuel Zelaya, they have lost another important ally. 

But according to the Associated Press, even Chile’s right-wing Piñera administration said Lugo's dismissal, 'did not comply with the minimum standards of due process' while Colombia’s conservative President Juan Manuel Santos noted that, 'legal procedures shouldn't be used to abuse.'

The German ambassador Claude Robert Ellner though, according to Associated Press, had a different response, stating that his government: 'will continue as normal with all cooperation agreements with Paraguay. We see the process of change happening within the laws and the constitution, because no parliament makes a coup d'état.' 

Likewise, the US State Department recommended 'all Paraguayans to act peacefully, with calm and responsibility, in the spirit of Paraguay's democratic principles.' 

As is evident from the country’s history, those principles are in abundance.

Posted on August 6, 2013 .

Cuba, the two blockades and more...

By Rodrigo Acuña from Havana, Cuba

ON LINE Opinion - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate

5 January 2012

I recently travelled to Havana, Cuba. I went there not as a political analyst or to practise journalism, but to get away from the difficulties of carrying out research in Caracas, Venezuela – one of Latin America's most overcrowded, violent and hostile cities, despite the efforts of its current administration to reduce poverty.

Once inside the island, I was quickly reminded that contemporary Cuba has two blockades. The first is the trade blockade imposed by the United States since 1960; the second is the policies the government has imposed, both to survive U.S. aggression and in its original pursuit of orthodox soviet socialism – i.e. complete state control of the economy.

Walk around Havana and the first blockade is evident. The capital of Cuba lacks paint, cement, lighting, plumbing, and just about everything else that is not produced in mass quantities inside the country. Washington not only restricts U.S. companies from selling goods to the Cuban state, it also penalises third parties which aim to trade with the island and, simultaneously, have other commercial dealings in the U.S.

Many Cubans have grown weary of hearing of "el bloqueo" (the blockade) from their political leaders as an excuse for all that is wrong in the country, despite its colossal and real impacts in allowing the island to develop.

Last October 27, the United Nations General Assembly voted 186-2 in favour of lifting the blockade. Only Israel supported the U.S. while the small Pacific nations of Palau, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands abstained. According to Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, the blockade has caused Cuba close to $ 1 trillion in economic damages in the last half a century.

Washington's actions against Cuba – which have only mildly improved under the Obama administration – of course have nothing to do with human rights, promoting democracy, or the fact that former leader Fidel Castro sided with the Soviet bloc during the Cold War.

At the core of the dispute is the United States self-appointed right to have puppet democracies or dictatorships in Latin America and the Caribbean (either is fine) while its own corporations pay few taxes, royalties or trade tariffs to local governments. And since the Cuban revolution defies Washington's self-appointed rights, the U.S. since 1959 has been committed to overthrowing the regime through just about any means, including terrorism.

At a National Security Council meeting held on January 14, 1960, State Department Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Roy Rubboton stated:

"The period from January to March might be characterized as the honeymoon period of the Castro government. In April a downward trend in US-Cuban relations had been evident. . . . In June we had reached the decision that it was not possible to achieve our objectives with Castro in power and had agreed to undertake the program referred to by Merchant. In July and August we had been busy drawing up a program to replace Castro."

The honeymoon period which Rubboton comments on is essentially three months in 1959. But even this is misleading. Once U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista and his cronies fled Havana, they left with 424 million dollars from the Republic's treasury leaving it almost bankrupt. Deposited in U.S. banks, Havana then asked Washington for the rendition and return of these funds – obviously to no avail since Batista's thugs were the very people the U.S. had once backed.

As with the Merchant program, other programs to destroy the Cuban political system have been in place since the 1960s. They included supporting Cuban-American mercenaries from Miami who would set off bombs in factories, hotels, trade ports, aeroplanes, burn-down sugar cane fields, murder teachers who were engaged in the country's literacy campaign, and even carry out acts of biological warfare. According to Cuban authorities these acts have left 3,478 civilians dead and 2,099 wounded.

Even after the Cold War ended, Washington has still supported (or turned a blind eye) to the actions of Cuban exiles in Miami. In 1997 close to a dozen bombs went off in Havana wounding 11 people and killing an Italian tourist. A year later, in an interview with the New York Times, CIA-trained Luis Posada Carriles confessed to paying a Salvadorian mercenary to carry out the attacks.

Over a decade later, in December 2009, the New York Times noted that Alan Gross – a U.S. contractor – was arrested for being part of a: "semicovert United States Agency for International Development program that has been supported for years by conservative Cuban-American exiles". Charged with distributing satellite telephone equipment to dissidents, Gross was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment.

Add to all these actions the 634 botched assassination attempts against Fidel Castro – according to the retired head of Cuban counterintelligence Fabian Escalante – and it should become evident why the Cuban political system has a Spartan like mentality.

Many Cubans of course will not talk at length about the first blockade as they have little power to change U.S. policy. Their concerns are with "el doble bloqueo" (the double blockade) which refer to the economic and political restrictions within the island. While Raul Castro – in power since February 2008 – has begun to liberalise the economy allowing small businesses to operate, taxes by the state, according to many of the Cubans I spoke to, seem too high.

For tourists who pay in Cuba's convertible currency – known as the CUC and pegged 1-1 with the U.S. dollar – a night out in Havana will be cheap matched with quality service. Eat at a restaurant with average Cubans though, paying in national currency, and your experience can at times be rather different. People employed in the hospitality industry are keen to work in places using CUC, but for those that do not their frustrations seem evident treating their fellow nationals as burdens, if not with open distain.

The average monthly wage in the national currency (roughly $US 20) does not suffice and forces Cubans to find other means to make ends meet. All too often this implicates stealing goods from the state and selling them in an illegal market.

Then there is the issue of racism which has deep historical roots in the Caribbean island.

During the first years of the revolution there were some genuine efforts to address discrimination towards Afro-Cubans. Presently though, this same drive does not seem to exist.

Arriving in Havana, an Afro-Cuban male at the airport had his bags pedantically checked by a rude customs officer. Expecting the same treatment as I was next in line, I was surprised to see the official simply walk off leaving his post unattended when it was my turn to have my luggage inspected.

In Havana's Museum of Rum you will find that the security guards are Afro-Cubans. However, look a little further, like at the people who take you on a tour throughout the museum, and you will notice that they are overwhelmingly Cubans of Spanish heritage. This is an image one runs into frequently in Cuba: most of the lower ranking jobs are staffed by Afro-Cubans while the more cushy ones go to whites.

Over a decade later, in December 2009, the New York Times noted that Alan Gross – a U.S. contractor – was arrested for being part of a: "semicovert United States Agency for International Development program that has been supported for years by conservative Cuban-American exiles". Charged with distributing satellite telephone equipment to dissidents, Gross was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment.

Add to all these actions the 634 botched assassination attempts against Fidel Castro – according to the retired head of Cuban counterintelligence Fabian Escalante – and it should become evident why the Cuban political system has a Spartan like mentality.

Many Cubans of course will not talk at length about the first blockade as they have little power to change U.S. policy. Their concerns are with "el doble bloqueo" (the double blockade) which refer to the economic and political restrictions within the island. While Raul Castro – in power since February 2008 – has begun to liberalise the economy allowing small businesses to operate, taxes by the state, according to many of the Cubans I spoke to, seem too high.

For tourists who pay in Cuba's convertible currency – known as the CUC and pegged 1-1 with the U.S. dollar – a night out in Havana will be cheap matched with quality service. Eat at a restaurant with average Cubans though, paying in national currency, and your experience can at times be rather different. People employed in the hospitality industry are keen to work in places using CUC, but for those that do not their frustrations seem evident treating their fellow nationals as burdens, if not with open distain.

The average monthly wage in the national currency (roughly $US 20) does not suffice and forces Cubans to find other means to make ends meet. All too often this implicates stealing goods from the state and selling them in an illegal market.

Then there is the issue of racism which has deep historical roots in the Caribbean island.

During the first years of the revolution there were some genuine efforts to address discrimination towards Afro-Cubans. Presently though, this same drive does not seem to exist.

Arriving in Havana, an Afro-Cuban male at the airport had his bags pedantically checked by a rude customs officer. Expecting the same treatment as I was next in line, I was surprised to see the official simply walk off leaving his post unattended when it was my turn to have my luggage inspected.

In Havana's Museum of Rum you will find that the security guards are Afro-Cubans. However, look a little further, like at the people who take you on a tour throughout the museum, and you will notice that they are overwhelmingly Cubans of Spanish heritage. This is an image one runs into frequently in Cuba: most of the lower ranking jobs are staffed by Afro-Cubans while the more cushy ones go to whites.

Numerous Afro-Cubans are unhappy with the status quo, in particular young males who are regularly stopped by the police and unnecessarily asked for identification papers. Over ten years ago, when I first visited the island, I once saw Fidel Castro speak on television for over two hours to a graduation of young police officers. He informed them of the need to be firm in dealing with crime, but likewise, that Cuba's police force should not resemble those of most Latin American countries where corruption and extrajudicial killings are the norm.

Such public talks by Fidel Castro were common back then and, whether one agreed with his political philosophy or not, one had the sense that he was aware (and indeed attempting) to resolve the country's problems. In contrast, these days, other than the occasional handshake with a visiting foreign head of state, Raul Castro is almost completely absence from Cuban television.

Taking into consideration the reality of both blockades, it is also too simplistic to say that average Cubans are gripped between U.S. aggression and a one-party state. While dissidents like the known blogger Yoani Sanchez are published by major corporate publications outside Cuba (left-wing Colombian or Honduran bloggers are of course given no such dissemination), within the island they have next to no support.

On one occasion, I travelled with a group of Afro-Cuban rappers to a recording studio in the apartment of a dissident rock group. Uninformed as to the meaning of the location I was in, I found it odd when an old man began to ask me several questions. Presumably one of the relatives of one of the young men from the rock group, his eyes widened when I told him I was of Chilean parents. "Ah yes... Chilean president Allende", he said. "He was a socialist, but a democratic type." "Yes", I replied, "and he was also overthrown in a violent U.S.-backed coup because he did not control the armed forces."

Looking around me after leaving the studio, which inside is covered with street art and some anti-government slogans, the thought crossed my mind that I might be approached by someone from a Committee for the Defence of the Revolution (CDRs), or maybe even the state security services. No such thing happened and the rappers I was with showed no signs of being even remotely edgy. Inside the studio their lyrics discussed their daily struggles but none of them were actively working against the government.

Walk through the streets of Havana and you won't find secondary or tertiary students throwing stones battling police, or harshly criticising the government like their counterparts are currently doing in neoliberal Chile. The country's economic problems are on their minds, but a bottle of rum, a stroll through el Malecon or an outing in a nightclub will often suffice to placate discontent.

Programs on state television like Deja Que Te Cuente (Let Me Tell You), which mock government bureaucrats and the inadequacies of the economy, also provide some type of a vent for popular criticisms of the system.

The latest issue of censorship in Cuba is in fact surprising. It is not around a song or concert by Los Aldeanos – a distinguished underground hip hop duo and perhaps the government's harshest critics inside the country –, or an article by Sanchez. Instead a song called Chupi Chupi by local reggaeton artist Osmani Garcia has upset some party stomachs. And what is Garcia's call to arms against the establishment? A cheesy chauvinist video clip about oral sex.

Leaving Cuba on my way to the airport I was once again reminded of another part of the island, the one Western journalist often ignore completely in their hunt for an interview with dissidents.

Speaking to a cab driver he told me he recently bought his taxi and was making a fair living. When I told him I was returning to Venezuela, where two or three times a week young men will jump on my bus route and tell passengers they once use to "rob and shoot people", have now "reformed" themselves, and are only asking for a "small collaboration" because they "do not want to hurt anyone onboard", the cabbie shook his head and showed me his political stripes:

"My father was part of Fidel's personal security team. When the U.S. supported the military coup against Hugo Chavez in 2002, my father wept and I was truly sad."

Like this cab driver and his father, there are hundreds of thousands of Cubans who still feel some type of loyalty to the political system. Often they have worked in Third World countries as doctors, teachers or in the military. In Venezuela there are over 40,000 Cuban medical professionals practising in miserable violent slums. While some of these professionals defect to the U.S., the overwhelming majority does not.

As we continued our journey exchanging views, I told this cabbie that despite the rundown aspect of Havana and many of Cuba's serious problems, I was still amazed with the tranquillity, safety and human warmth of the island's contemporary society.

I informed him that in Havana I did not see homeless children begging for food, or looking to pickpocket me like I have experienced in other cities in the Latin America. Neither are there violent armed gangs, enormous drug infested slums, or levels of police corruption where an officer of the law is only too happy to mug or execute someone for a few hundred dollars.

While Cuba these days certainly needs a little more capitalism, a shake-up of its ageing bureaucracy, and yes, more democracy, the crude one-party state capitalism which China has adopted, at the cost of leaving 50 million Chinese homeless by developers, should not be embraced.

Furthermore, instead of being the objectives of a select dissident minority, which lacks "leadership and legitimacy" in Cuban civil society as thoughtfully explained by Rafael Hernandez, the abolition of the current political system would have to be something most people on the island were actually presently striving to achieve through a mass popular movement.

The coming years of course will indicate what aspects of their system Cubans will decide to keep, modify, or abolish completely. As always, their belligerent and self-interested historical neighbour 90 miles away will keenly be following events.

Posted on August 6, 2013 .

The Captain Of A Sinking Ship?

By Rodrigo Acuña from Caracas, Venezuela

New Matilda  

10 October 2011

Since the Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez announced in late June he had a cancerous tumour, media around the world have gone into a frenzy of speculation over his health and upped their attacks on his government. And since Chavez has a tendency to confuse support for a state's right to sovereignty in the face of foreign aggression with open support for its regime (such as Iran, Libya and Syria), it is easy for some journalists to distort the reality of events here in Venezuela.

On 29 September, the Miami Herald published an article by Antonio Maria Delgado who claimed that "sources close to the situation" had information that Chavez had been urgently hospitalised due to kidney failure. A day later, playing baseball, the Venezuelan president held a press conference, calling these types of reports "morbid and inhumane".

Chavez singled out the Miami Herald for criticism. In July the paper also ran a story by Roger Noriega — ex-US ambassador to the Organisation of American States (OAS) — who claimed the former military colonel had few chances of living more than 18 months.

Elsewhere, the commentary has been slightly more moderate — but also inaccurate. Writing on Chavez's previous medical treatment in Cuba, Virginia Lopez in The Guardian commented:

"For the past 12 years, Chavez has amalgamated a coalition of political actors from across the spectrum under his homemade brand of populist ideology that mixes socialist programmes with Bolivarian instincts and strong anti-imperialist rhetoric aimed chiefly at the main export market for Venezuela's biggest revenue earner, oil."

While conceding that Chavez has a "magnetic leadership" and "undeniable charisma", Lopez claimed his "popularity has been declining as a result of the country's severe electricity crisis, acute housing shortage, and one of the highest murder rates in the region."

A few months ago Rory Carroll — The Guardian's usual Latin American correspondent — wrote: "Venezuela's tottering economy is forcing Hugo Chavez to make deals with foreign corporations to save his socialist revolution from going broke."

In similar vein, Juan Forero in May wrote an article for the Washington Post with the title: "Chavez's influence wanes in Latin America". In Forero's view, Chavez's authority has declined "as Venezuela's oil-powered economy has gone bust and concerns have been raised about his governing style, which includes the jailing of opponents."

There are some real economic and social difficulties  in Venezuela, but the way neighboring states perceive the country's economy are different to the views getting a run in the US media.

Until Chavez became ill in June, the foreign ministers and presidents of almost every country in Latin American and the Caribbean were expected to arrive in Caracas for the third summit to consolidate the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). This organisation, whose meeting has now been rescheduled for early December, will effectively work as the new OAS —  "without the US or Canada" —  according to Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa.

In 2008, in another geopolitical foreign policy initiative which Venezuela promoted, the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) was ratified. It is an institution where South American countries can discuss regional matters and Venezuela and Brazil successfully lobbied for UNASUR to have its own South American Defense Council.

Diplomatically both countries state they want South America to be a "zone of peace". Their real intentions seem obvious: to end the US hegemony south of the boarder where Washington-backed military coup d'états, heavy funding for right-wing political parties and invasions have continued well past the end of Cold War. Just look at Venezuela in 2002, Haiti in 2004, Honduras in 2008 and Ecuador in 2010.

Recently, the Obama Administration added four high ranking members of the Venezuelan government to its list of "Foreign Narcotics Kingpins", allegedly for aiding Colombian leftist rebels. It also allocated $US20million to Chavez's rivals for next year's elections.

Media conglomerates such as El Nacional, Globovision, and the Cisneros Group, as a Wikileaks cable recently revealed, have also gone as far as to meet with former US ambassador to Venezuela, Patrick Duddy, to discuss editorial approached. And as a study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR) noted in September 2010, these private media outlets, together with cable TV, still overwhelmingly dominate the media market in Venezuela.

Despite this opposition, if Chavez's claims that he is now free of cancerous cells are true, most indicators point towards him winning another presidential term in 2012 with both pro-government and opposition polls placing his popularity in the mid-to-high 50 per cent range.

Here in Caracas, the changes since my last visit in 2005 are noticeable. Gone are the street vendors who distressingly congested the inner city offering everything from clothing and toothpaste to hardcore pornography. The vendors are still around but there are fewer of them and they have been allocated specific markets to work at. 

At the San Jacinto market in El Venezolanano Plaza, 24-year-old Harold Niebles notes that, in contrast to working on the streets, it is "much easier to work in a market run by the state" where he can rent a space for his store. Niebles — a street vendor since he was seven — says his main concerns are the market's safety regulations as there have been "too many fires this year".

When asked if he planned to vote for Chavez in 2012, Niebles, like his co-vendor Luis Hernandez, aged 18, isn't sure — although his family has benefited from the government's education and health programs.

Similarly, the Boulevard of Sabana Grande in previous years was overcrowded by street vendors and there was lots of petty crime. One of the capital's important commercial sectors, the Boulevard these days is full of working class families enjoying themselves. Appropriate street lighting and a stronger police presence have made the difference.

In March this year, the Metropolitan Police was, in fact, officially disbanded and replaced with the new National Bolivarian Police (PNB).

Previously, Venezuela had 134 different police forces. The Metropolitan Police was one of the most notorious in terms of corruption, extra judicial killings and political subservience to local mayors. They were dressed in civilian clothing, police badges and blue raincoats (forms of identification which could be easily removed at their convenience) and any sensible person avoided unnecessary contact with them, as  I did in 2005.

By contrast, the PNB has been trained at the new National Experimental Police University having undertaken courses in ethics and human rights. This seems to be producing some positive results: 100 new officers have been expelled due to corruption. In low income areas, the PNB has developed athletic and cultural community programs working with 21,000 children. The administration here is keen to highlight these triumphs but the youth of the PNB's officers, and their at times passive attitude to physically walking the streets, is also apparent.

In another development, the Chavez administration is engaging in large public works to tackle the country's housing problem. Known as Gran Mision Vivienda, $US 6.9 billion this year have been allocated to build 150,000 homes.

This project is jointly funded by the state and private banks. On state TV images of hundreds of new homes being given to people are a regular feature. They are sometimes fully furnished if, for example, they are for victims of last year's floods in the state of Vargas. Chavez claims his administration will build two million homes between 2011 and 2017.

When asked to comment on the disparity between the government's policies and lack of accurate coverage of Venezuela by foreign journalists, Fernando Travieso — oil expert at the Bolivarian University of Venezuela —  was rather blunt. "I think the ones that are in chaos, and it saddens me ... are in the north of London with the protests that have occurred due to right-wing measures that have been implemented."

From Travieso's perspective, journalists in the UK and the US are missing the point. They have plenty of problems to be analysing in their own countries such as the "growing accelerated rates of poverty in the United States". With oil prices continuing to remain around the $US100 mark, and with Venezuela now acknowledged to have the largest crude oil reserves in the world, the government of Hugo Chavez looks set to maintain the economic power to fund its domestic and international policies, in spite of what other political observers may have you believe.

Posted on August 6, 2013 .

My Fellow Americans

By Rodrigo Acuña

New Matilda 

3 December 2008

The former Cuban leader Fidel Castro once said that when it came to Washington, he preferred the Republicans in power because with Democrats it was difficult to know who he was dealing with.

Despite Castro's semi-favourable comments on US President-elect Barack Obama, who he described before the election as "no doubt more intelligent, educated and level-headed than his Republican rival", his past remarks on the unpredictability of Democratic administrations may still be relevant for Latin American countries.

South of the Rio Grande, Obama's victory has certainly been welcomed as a change from eight years of George W Bush's diplomatic and economic bullying. In Colombia, the number of human rights abuses increased during the Bush years.  A brief military coup against Venezuela's democratically elected president Hugo Chávez in 2002 was also publicly supported by the Bush administration. In 2004, the neoconservatives in Washington were again up to more tricks, occupying Haiti militarily after Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted in questionable circumstances.

According to most polls, throughout Latin America Bush will be remembered as one of the most loathed US presidents in history, with the invasion of Iraq touching a particularly raw nerve.

In contrast, during his presidential campaign, Obama repeatedly portrayed himself as a man of consensus who would seek to build better diplomatic relations with the rest of the world. Liberal commentators — whether in the US, Europe or the Hispanic world — could not praise Obama enough. 

A more critical look at the policies on Latin America likely to be adopted by an Obama administration suggests that the current optimism is unwarranted. Yes, relations will hopefully improve, but a sharp break with the past seems unlikely — especially in view of the number of ex-Clinton officials Obama has thus far signed on board.

Latin American leaders have already clearly articulated their priorities to the President-elect.  Following Obama's election to the White House, Brazil's President Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva stated "I hope the blockade of Cuba ends, because it no longer has any justification in the history of humanity."

An hour later in La Paz, Bolivia's first indigenous president, Evo Morales, who earlier this year expelled the U.S. ambassador for his alleged support for local opposition groups made his own statement: "My greatest wish is that Mr Obama can end the Cuba embargo, take troops out of some countries, and also that surely relations between Bolivia and the United States will improve."

Hugo Chávez and Cuban president Raúl Castro have both indicated they will be willing to engage in dialogue with a new Democratic administration in Washington.

Unfortunately, although Obama has promised he will close down Guantánamo Bay as a detention camp, and is even — under certain circumstances — willing to open a dialogue with Havana and Caracas, there is little evidence to suggest he will lift the embargo on Cuba.  The embargo has now endured for close to half a century; in the aftermath of the island's recent hurricanes, the consequences were particularly devastating.

In a speech delivered on 23 May 2008 to the Cuban American National Foundation in Miami, Obama said that while he would not lift the embargo on Cuba he would as President "immediately allow unlimited family travel and remittances to the island."

Furthermore, the senator from Illinois described Hugo Chávez as a demagogue and stated that he would "fully support Colombia's fight against" the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) while working with the government "to end the reign of terror from right wing paramilitaries". There will, however, be some problems pursuing the latter given the vast body of evidence linking the incumbent president of Colombia Álvaro Uribe Vélez to paramilitaries and the drug cartels.

According to Stuart Grudgings, reporting for Reuters on 5 November, Obama "also voiced support for US ally Colombia when it launched a military raid against guerrilla forces camped inside neighbouring Ecuador in March even though it was condemned by many Latin American governments". 

Following the Colombia-Ecuador and Venezuela crises, right-wing opposition groups attempted to violently disrupt — if not overthrow — the leftist Morales Government in Bolivia in September. South American countries took an unprecedented move and met under the banner of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), sidestepping the Organisation of American States (OAS) — traditionally the forum to resolve such disputes and historically heavily influenced by the US.

With Venezuela often at the helm, many Latin American countries are pushing for their continued economic and political integration. Like its Republican predecessor, the new Obama administration will not be able to ignore this challenge to Washington's traditional role in the region. Organisations like UNASUR and the Bank of the South (Banco del Sur), a joint South American venture aimed at withstanding the influences of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), are a reality.

Several countries in the region are also calling for the establishment of a unified currency to challenge the US greenback. Although falling oil prices have put a dent into Chávez's funding plans for these projects, many social movements and governments are still committed to seeing the region unified in a similar manner to the European Union, albeit with a much more radical socio-political agenda.

While not explicitly acknowledging these trends, Obama made it clear in his Miami speech that he would only be talking to some Latin American leaders, hardly a show of support for regional unity. Through an initiative called the Energy Partnership for the Americas, Obama stated that he intended to "establish a program for the Department of Energy" with US "laboratories to share technology with countries across the region".

He added: "We'll assess the opportunities and risks of nuclear power in the hemisphere by sitting down with Mexico, Brazil, Argentina and Chile. This is a unique role that the United States can play. We can offer more than the tyranny of oil."

The comment on the "tyranny of oil" was, of course, aimed at Venezuela.

Though some of his speech may have been designed to placate his right-wing Cuban Miami audience, Obama's remarks on a possible US-led proliferation of nuclear power in the region do not seem responsible. In November — and most likely in response to the Obama initiative — Chávez and Russian president Dimitri Medvedev signed a cooperation accord whereby Moscow will aid Caracas in developing nuclear power for peaceful purposes — or so they claim.

Whether an Obama administration will be able to deflate the hopes of many Latin American countries for regional unification remains to be seen. In the current parlous financial climate, the actions of the US in the region may be limited, although organisations like UNASUR and the Bank of the South have not yet been consolidated to their full potential.

Reflecting on Obama's victory, Rafael Correa — president of Ecuador and a strong ally of Venezuela — summarised these issues succinctly. With the Democrats in power, Correa said he expected relations between the US and Latin America to improve. His real dream? That one day "Latin America really doesn't have to worry about who is the president of the United States because it is sovereign and autonomous enough to stand on its own two feet."

Posted on August 5, 2013 .

American influence?

By Rodrigo Acuña

The Drum Opinion (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) 

15 July 2009

Last week's military coup in Honduras highlights the limits of democracy in Latin America.

The coup's leaders complained that the country's president, Jose Manuel Zelaya, was attempting to extend his presidency with a referendum on the constitution which if passed, would have facilitated his potential re-election.

Much of the mainstream media have repeated this view but it is simply false.

As Latin American experts Pablo Navarrete and Victor Figueroa-Clark recently pointed out in the New Statesman, the referendum, which was "non-binding", even if won by Zelaya, would have only paved the way for another vote that would have taken place after Zelaya stepped down from office in January 2010.

The current Honduran constitution was written in the early 1980s, during Ronald Reagan's presidency and shortly after 16 years of military dictatorships. Like other constitutions in Latin America, which were created during or briefly after the generals stepped down, Honduran's has countless restrictions, loop holes and flaws. The same could be said about the country's other institutions.

Commenting on the Central American state, Greg Grandin - professor of history at New York University - recently said:

"The Honduran military is effectively a subsidiary of the United States government. Honduras, as a whole, if any Latin American country is fully owned by the United States, it's Honduras. Its economy is wholly based on trade, foreign aid and remittances."

During the 1980s, with heavy backing from the Reagan administration, Honduras was used as a permanent base for the right-wing Contras against the Nicaraguan Sandinistas. Currently, the country hosts one of the largest US military bases in Central America and receives $US 1.4 million per year in education and exchange programs.

It is precisely because of the nature of the relationship between the United States and Honduras that the role of the Obama administration in recent developments needs to be scrutinized. Did Washington give the Honduran military the green light to remove Zelaya? While for now that question cannot be answered in full, we do know the following.

Both the head of the Honduran military, General Romero Vasquez and airforce General Luis Suazo, who led the coup against Zelaya, are graduates of the notorious US School of the Americas (renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation), where key Latin American dictators and tortures during the Cold War were trained.

According to lawyer Eva Golinger, who has been crucial in uncovering Washington's role in the 2002 coup in Venezuela, the US has been providing up to $US 50 million to organisations in Honduras which look favourably on US interests.

In a recent report in the Washington Post on June 29, it was claimed US diplomats had been negotiating privately to stop the coup. An official quoted in the paper said events had "been brewing a long time".

Also, while after some hesitation, US President Barack Obama did call events in Honduras an illegal coup, the British newsagency Reuters reported that "Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the administration was not formally designating the ouster as a military coup for now, a step that would force a cut-off of most US aid to Honduras".

For those familiar with US-Latin American relations, the above pattern is all too common: a coup takes place against a leader not adhering to Washington's interest, the US at the time denies involvement and then 20 years later archival evidence confirms the White House did in fact support a military take over.

Zelaya's own political trajectory fits the scrip neatly.

Elected to the presidency in 2005 on a conservative law and order ticket, once in office Zelaya soon moved to the political left.

Criticising the practises of local and international business, he increased the minimum wage by 60 per cent. Justifying his actions, Zelaya claimed he had the support of the country's unions and that his decision would "force the business oligarchy to start paying what is fair".

On other fronts, the president increased teachers' wages and invited Cuban doctors into the slums. In a country where 70 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line, Zelaya's actions did not go unnoticed by most Hondurans.

Then he crossed another boundary. The president travelled to Cuba and Venezuela and signed Honduras to the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) - a fair trade agreement between nine Latin American countries which stands in sharp contrast to free market doctrines.

In late 2008, it was reported that Zelaya sent Obama a personal letter harshly criticising Washington's history of "interventionism" in the region, and demanded a new approach to fighting the drug trade.

Earlier this year, at the Fifth Summit of the Americas, the ALBA countries declined to sign the final statement of the conference which was heavily promoted by the Obama administration. It claimed the declaration did not "respond to the global economic crisis" and "unjustly excludes Cuba, without mentioning the general regional consensus that condemns the embargo".

As numerous experts on Latin America are aware, the region is now clearly divided between those which want to remake the status quo (ie the ALBA camp through agreements such as a regional currency), and those which want to reposition it - eg Brazil or Chile.

While the Obama administration may make all the appropriate diplomatic statements about the coup in Honduras, it is doubtful it is really lamenting the removal of Zelaya.

In past Unleashed articles I have argued that the US has not taken kindly to the ALBA alliance, or any country which has joined the Venezuela-Cuba alliance.

Whatever one may think of these countries, they are pushing for a regional alliance which questions US hegemony in the region.

Organisations like the Union of South American Countries (UNASUR) and the Bank of the South stand in direct contrast to the aims of the US-led Organsiation of American States (OAS) and the Inter-American Development Bank in the way they do business.

Also, various countries (again led by the Venezuela alliance) have been moving to have US military bases removed from their countries.

Honduras may have eventually moved in that direction and this is why Washington is not pushing for sanctions on the new military government.

Even if Zelaya did not move in that direction, the fact that he joined the Venezuela-Cuba alliance was enough to upset the local political right and again, the United States and its pro-free market organisations.

Back in Honduras, developments still look bleak despite recent talks in Costa Rica to end the crisis. Zelaya's attempt last week to return home failed after his aeroplane was denied entry into Tegucigalpa's main airport. Awaiting supporters were gunned down by police in front of the international press.

Throughout the country, military repression has cost the lives of several of the Zelaya's supporters. Dozens others have been arrested and beaten after protesting against the coup. A media black out has occurred with Amnesty International reporting that:

"Many broadcasters appear to have closed for fear for their safety. Others, such as Canal 36, have been closed by the security forces and members of the military are reported to be patrolling their premises."

Despite almost universal condemnation, the new Micheletti regime is confident it will hang on to power claiming credits from the US and the European Union will continue to flow into the country.

And with a US-trained military, Honduran 'democracy' should be more than safe.

Posted on August 5, 2013 .

Fidel Castro: His last days in Havana?

By Rodrigo Acuña

The Drum Opinion (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) 

3 February 2009

Recent reports in the media have indicated that the former Cuban leader Dr Fidel Castro Ruz is perhaps at the end of his life. On January 1, marking the 50th anniversary of the 1959 Cuban revolution, Castro, in an unusually short statement, wrote one sentence to mark the occasion. Over a week ago, the President of Venezuela Hugo Chávez claimed that his Cuban ally would not make a return to public life.

On January 21 though, reports on Castro's health changed as it was confirmed Argentina's President Cristina Fernández held a one hour meeting with the Cuban. Two days later, Castro published a new article - a regular practice since he underwent surgery in July 2006 for gastrointestinal problems. Castro wrote:

"I have shortened my "Reflections", just as I resolved to do this year, in order not to interfere or get in the way of the comrades of the Party and state as they make constant decisions about objective difficulties stemming from the world economic crisis. I am fine, but I insist, none of them should feel constrained by any of my Reflections, the seriousness of my condition or my death."

Once dead, there will most likely be two common interpretations of Fidel Castro. The first version is now well known.

Having overthrown the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, the young Castro was quickly able to manoeuvre himself into the top position as victory gave him unprecedented political capital. Claiming he would soon hold elections, Castro nevertheless, while pushed by Washington to trade with Moscow, keenly established a one party state.

Whether it was developing a dairy industry or Cuba's agriculture, many critics have long claimed Castro always thought he knew best - above the experts and, at times, at the expense of the economy. Anecdotes of his micro management are notorious.

A brilliant orator, Castro often undermined this by delivering speeches that would last hours. In 1986, at the third Communist Party Congress in Havana, the Cuban leader spoke for seven hours and ten minutes. Before Pope John Paul II visited Cuba in 1998, Castro on television delivered another marathon performance as one of the members on the panel next to him fell asleep live on air - something that occasionally happened to bureaucrats throughout the 1990s.

While he allowed himself vast publicity, Castro's dissenters where not granted the same rights. Interviewed by Barbara Walters in 1977, his response to a question on Cuba's media policies was self explanatory:

Walters: "Let me be specific. Your newspapers, radio, television, motion pictures are under state control. No dissent or opposition is allowed in the public media."
Castro: "Barbara, we do not have your same conceptions. Our concept of freedom of the press is not yours. And I say this very honestly. I have nothing to hide. If you ask us if a paper could appear here against socialism, I could honestly say, no it cannot appear. It would not be allowed by the party, the government or the people. In that sense, we do not have the freedom of the press that you posses in the U.S."

Add to Castro's record his government's treatment of homosexuals, and the Cuban certainly has a few questions to answer.

Anyone who has travelled to Cuba though, and speaks a respectable level of Spanish, will be able to confirm that Fidel Castro has his supporters. While in countries like Australia during the 1960s and 70s, many of the baby boomer generation flirted with leftist politics, in the Caribbean island, millions of people believed they were constructing a new society.

So abandoned was the countryside prior to 1959, in less than three years the Castro brothers, Camilo Cienfuegos and Ernesto "Che" Guevara, were able to build strong bonds with the peasants and overthrow Batista. Decades later, the new generations of the revolution travelled to countries like Angola and Nicaragua as teachers, doctors and soldiers attempting to model their parents' values.

When Washington moved against Havana by imposing an economic blockade, approved military actions and terrorist acts by former Batista collaborators - which cost countless lives and did not end until the late 1990s - and went to ridiculous levels to try and assassinate Castro, the former lawyer's status grew to gargantuan proportions.

If Castro was harsh at times, his supporters have always argued it is because the island has been under virtual war-time conditions. In 1991, the U.S. State Department published a series of internal documents covering U.S. policy towards Cuba from 1958-1960. One document states:

"The majority of Cubans support Castro ... the only foreseeable means of alienating internal support is through disenchantment and disaffection based on economic dissatisfaction and hardship ... every possible means should be undertaken promptly to weaken the economic life of Cuba ... a line of action which, while as adroit and inconspicuous as possible, makes the greatest inroads in denying money and supplies to Cuba, to decrease monetary and real wages, to bring about hunger, desperation and overthrow of government."

This statement alone could broadly summarise Washington's aggression towards Havana since 1959.

Today in Latin America, for leftists presidents like Hugo Chávez and Bolivia's Evo Morales, Castro is a mentor; for millions of their supporters in the slums, he is a legend - a point not difficult to understand when one considers that thousands of Cuban doctors and teachers are working in those countries. Shortly before his surgery in 2006, Castro's visit to Argentina was broadcast live on television as massive crowds turned out to hear his words. If Cuba and Castro are presented to the world by the Western press as isolated relics of the past, in countries throughout Latin America this is hardly the case.

Writing recently in the Los Angeles Times, Latin American experts William M. LeoGrande and Peter Kornbluh commented that:

"Last October, the United Nations General Assembly voted for the 17th time in as many years to condemn the U.S. embargo by a vote of 185 to 3. In December, 33 Latin American and Caribbean nations in the Rio Group granted Cuba full membership and called for an end to the U.S. embargo. A policy adopted half a century ago to isolate Cuba today isolates only the U.S."

From their perspective, due to divisions in the Cuban-American lobby, the new U.S. President, Barack Obama, has an unprecedented opportunity to normalise relations with Havana. While an end to the embargo is an unlikely scenario, if this were to happen, many Cubans would be given new opportunities to do with their political system as they see fit instead of having to concentrate on meeting their daily needs.

At present, dissidents like Yoani Sánchez do exist, and publish with difficulties, however, there is nothing remotely resembling the types of mass movements that challenged the Soviet systems in Eastern Europe.

As for Fidel Castro, only time will tell if he lives for a few more days, weeks, months or even years. Once dead, celebrations will break out in Miami while countless people throughout Cuba will genuinely mourn him. What future generations decide to do with the revolution will be another matter.

Posted on August 5, 2013 .

Bolivian crisis unites South America against US

By Rodrigo Acuña

The Drum Opinion (Australian Broadcasting Corporation) 

30 September 2008

Despite the lack of in-depth coverage by the  international media, the recent political crisis in Bolivia has made two things clear. 

For a start, it seems the government of Evo Morales still has the backing of the majority of the population and, until now, most of the rank and file of the armed forces. 

Secondly, the crisis has allowed South American countries to rally behind Morales through the new Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) in contrast to the U.S. led Organisation of American States (OAS) - traditionally the forum to discuss such matters. 

Having won the presidency in 2005 by 54% - the largest electoral victory in the country's history - Morales' Movement for Socialism (MAS) took office after a backlash against neoliberal economics and the mobilisation of Bolivia's indigenous peoples who represent over 60% of the population. 

While some social movements have been far from happy at the pace of change, the MAS administration has taken many measures to address poverty. 

Renationalising the hydrocarbons sector, the government from 2004-2007  increased its revenue  by $US1.3 billion dollars - approximately 10% of GDP - according to the Washington based Center for Economic and Policy Research. 

In 2007, six new national hospitals were built as MAS - with Venezuelan funds and through the aid of Cuban doctors and teachers - has been aiming to establish basic health care and education for Bolivians. 

Placing his administration to a recall referendum last August, Morales triumphed by 67.4% of the vote making inroads by up to 20% into opposition territory such as the resource-rich eastern departments of Beni, Pando and Tarija. 

None of these trends have curtailed the actions of the local opposition and Washington from destabilising the Morales government. 

Soon after their defeat in the referendum, the opposition, headed by right-wing separatists and their paramilitary groups in Santa Cruz, engaged in violent demonstrations and takeovers of government buildings. 

Scenes of opposition leaders, often of European decent, insulting Morales as that "bloody Indian" trade unionist became all too common as their followers beat up MAS supporters (including unarmed women) and burnt down government offices. 

In El Porvenir, Pando, some 30 peasants were killed while up to as many as 40 persons have disappeared in what  one analyst  called the worst massacre "since right-wing President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada presided over the slaughter of more than 70 unarmed protestors in October 2003." 

On September 11, President Morales expelled U.S. ambassador Philip Goldberg on the grounds that his constant meetings with the local opposition were unacceptable. Based on the available evidence, Morales could have acted against Goldberg much earlier. 

In the February issue of the U.S. magazine the  Progressive, Benjamin Dangl - an expert on Bolivian politics - wrote:

"Declassified documents and interviews on the ground in Bolivia prove that the Bush Administration is using U.S. taxpayers' money to undermine the Morales government and co-opt the country's dynamic social movements - just as it has tried to do recently in Venezuela and traditionally throughout Latin America."

Dangl notes that one declassified communication, from the U.S. embassy in Bolivia to Washington in July 2002, included the following message:

"A planned USAID political party reform project aims at implementing an existing Bolivian law that would... over the long run, help build moderate, pro-democracy political parties that can serve as a counterweight to the radical MAS or its successors."

According to the document, through the Office of Transition Initiatives the U.S. Agency for International Development has funnelled, "116 grants for $US4,451,249 to help departmental governments operate more strategically". 

Unlike the Nixon administration's involvement in the overthrow of the Allende government in Chile in 1973, Latin American countries this time have not stood by and let developments unfold. 

Proposed in 2007 by the Venezuelan government, UNASUR aims to be the South American equivalent of the European Union. Despite Hugo Chávez's less than diplomatic expulsion of the U.S. ambassador in his own country in support of La Paz, almost every government in the region chose to meet under UNASUR while practically ignoring the OAS. 

This was UNASUR's first meeting to resolve a regional crisis and Washington was not invited. 

While the Bush administration was quick to put Bolivia and Venezuela on its list of countries who are failing to meet their responsibilities in fighting narcotics, and surely the Morales government will face further turmoil, for now, it looks like Chávez and his regional allies have scored another goal against the United States.

Posted on August 5, 2013 .

Settling Accounts: Latin American rage reaches the US

By Rodrigo Acuña

 The Drum Opinion (Australian Broadcasting Corporation)

20 August 2008

Despite the best spin on the benefits of neoliberal accords such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) by sections of the U.S. press, large numbers of Mexicans and Latin Americans have been illegally heading north due to poor employment opportunities at home.

In 2004, after ten years of the NAFTA agreement, open unemployment in Mexico "reached an all-time high" according to one expert, while "there are more illegal immigrants pouring into the United States than ever."

Likewise, the U.S. has had to deal with the ramifications of having backed numerous brutal right-wing military dictatorships in Central America from the 1960s and 1970s, through to the early 1990s.

Largely composed of war refugees' children, the 1990s saw an explosion of violent Hispanic gangs - commonly known as 'maras' - throughout the United States; a situation that was further aggravated once harsh immigration laws saw their deportation to Central America.

From 2000 to 2004 alone, the U.S. deported roughly 20,000 young Hispanics with criminal records to Central America while in 2005, U.S. authorities place membership of the maras at 70,000 to 100,000.

One voice which has captured some of these developments is the Afro-Peruvian Hip Hop artist Felipe Coronel - a.k.a. Immortal Technique. Born in Lima, Peru at the end of the 1970s, Technique and his family eventually fled from their war torn country. Growing up in Spanish Harlem, like countless youths Technique became involved in street violence and was incarcerated at the end of the 1990s.

After legally defeating a potentially long prison stretch, the man that emerged from penitentiary made the world notice his rage.

Releasing Revolutionary Volume 1 in 2001, Technique was described by The Source magazine as one of the most talented rappers to be unsigned by a major label. With songs like The Poverty of Philosophy, the rapper questioned the inability of some Latinos in the United States to envision their native countries as prosperous, independent of U.S. intervention and with elites of European heritage whose power has been stripped:

"You see, most of Latinos are here because of the great inflation that was caused by American companies in Latin America. Aside from that, many are seeking a life away from the puppet democracies that were funded by the United States; places like El Salvador, Guatemala, Peru, Colombia, Nicaragua, Ecuador and Republica Dominicana, and not just Spanish-speaking countries either, but Haiti and Jamaica as well.
"As different as we have been taught to look at each other by colonial society, we are in the same struggle and until we realize that, we'll be fighting for scraps from the table of a system that has kept us subservient instead of being self-determined. And that's why we have no control over when the embargo will stop in Cuba, or when the bombs will stop dropping in Vieques."

His second album, through an independent label Revolutionary Volume 2, condemned the Bush administration's 'war on terror'. And earlier this year, he again went on the warpath releasing his third album The 3rd World. Again, he does not hold fire:

"I'm from where the gold and diamonds are ripped from the earth/Right next to the slave castles where the water is cursed/From where police brutality's not half as nice/It makes the hood in America look like paradise/Compared to the AIDS infested Caribbean slum/African streets where the passport's an American gun/From where they massacre people and try to keep it quiet/And spend the next 25 years trying deny it."

As with all of Technique's work, The 3rd World presents provocative political-social commentary while prison life, although explicitly described, is hardly glorified.

Last year in the United States, another Hispanic tried to remind that society of some of its legacy in Latin America. Recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, the author Junot Díaz writes about the tribulations of a poor immigrant Dominican family in Paterson, New Jersey whose past has been devastated by Rafael Trujillo's dictatorship.

Using humour, sarcasm and cross cultural references to cover numerous themes, Díaz, like Technique, is not afraid to use colourful and explicit language to indite Washington's record in the Dominican Republic, his country of origin.

Whether poor Hispanics in the U.S. will ever mobilise to the point of seriously challenging many injustices in their current society - as millions are starting to in Latin America through the election of numerous leftist governments - voices such as those of Immortal Technique or Junot Díaz are attempting to, as we say in Spanish, rendir cuentas (settle accounts).

Posted on August 5, 2013 .

Paraguay: how Lugo Méndez went from Bishop to President

By Rodrigo Acuña

The Diplomat

May 2008

The recent election of ex-Catholic Bishop Fernando Lugo Méndez in Paraguay has seen another leftist leader take office in Latin America. With a ten-point lead over his nearest rival Blanca Ovelar, Lugo’s centre-left Patriotic Alliance for Change (APC) obtained a convincing 41 per cent of the vote seeing the end of the Colorado Party’s rule since 1947.

As one observer has noted, throughout Paraguay, Lugo’s victory has been celebrated as if the era of General Alfredo Stroessner’s dictatorship (1954-1989) were finally at an end.

Before he came under international attention, throughout Paraguay, the 56-year-old Lugo was simply known as the “Bishop of the Poor” from San Pedro - one of the most northern and impoverished provinces of the landlocked country. Employed as a teacher in his youth, in 1977 Lugo entered the priesthood. That same year, he moved to Ecuador and worked as a missionary with that country’s indigenous peoples until 1982. In 1992, Lugo was appointed head of the Divine Word in Paraguay and in 1994 was ordained a Bishop.

What is also commonly not known about Lugo is his personal and family’s resistance to the Stroessner dictatorship. As the distinguished Brazilian liberation theologist and Dominican friar Frei Betto recently noted, during the General’s rule Lugo’s father was detained more than 20 times while three of his brothers were tortured and expelled from Paraguay. In 1983, Lugo was also expelled from the country because his sermons were considered subversive.

By 1996, he hosted the fifth Latin American Congress of Basic Ecclesial Communities in San Pedro. In 2005, according to Andrew Nickson from the University of Birmingham, Lugo was forced to resign from his post in 2005 by the Catholic hierarchy “because of his support for invasions of large landholdings by landless families”. After 100,000 people signed a petition for the ex-Bishop to run for President, in December 2006 he accepted the offer and resigned from the priesthood.

Throughout the election, the ex-Bishop-turned-politician faced considerable opposition.

Out going President and strong ally of Washington, Nicanor Duarte Frutos, charged Lugo as a social agitator whose political supporters wanted to “burn properties, service stations and other resources to upset the social peace". Duarte, as reported in the Los Angeles Times on April 20, said “the one responsible for the violence and death is going to be Fernando Lugo and his band of delinquents and kidnappers”.

Duarte, according to another report, claimed that Venezuela was involved in the Paraguayan elections, while posters bearing Lugo’s resemblance labelled him the “ambassador” of the Colombian rebels.

Lugo however has kept his distance from Venezuela. Although the ex-Bishop has expressed admiration for Hugo Chávez’s social policies aimed at reducing poverty, he has also said he sees himself politically somewhere between Chávez and Brazilian President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva.

Undoubtedly, if Lugo is serious about serving the needs of most Paraguayans, his administration will face tremendous challenges.

For a start, Paraguay has never really recovered from the brutal right-wing Stroessner dictatorship.

In the past, although United States aid for Paraguay was not as substantial, as with the case of other military regimes in Latin America, it was nevertheless crucial to propping up Stroessner. In 1974, Amnesty International’s Report on Torture noted that “although Stroessner has said that he considers the American Ambassador to be an ex-officio member of his Cabinet, the US has never officially acknowledged or taken steps to prevent the use of torture by a government which appears to by very much within its sphere of influence”.

In 2000, the ties between Washington and Asuncion continued as a US airbase in Estigarribia was built with a capacity to host 16,000 North American troops. Further construction of US military bases has also been discussed. However, most Paraguayans have become critical of their country’s ties to the White House.

Similarly, people have asked that their government revise its hydroelectric contracts with Brazil and Argentina. Established under Stroessner’s rule, hydroelectric plants in Itaipú and Yacyretá provide Brazil with cheap energy below market prices.

Once in office, Lugo aims to increase the cost of energy to Brazil while also carrying out a land reform program since 2.5 per cent of the population owns 70 per cent of productive lands. Roughly 50 per cent of Paraguayans live below the poverty line - 35 per cent in abject poverty.

With the Colorado Party controlling vast sectors of the state apparatus though, Lugo as President will require substantial political courage to carry out his popular mandate. Support from other leftist governments in the region will be vital.

Posted on August 5, 2013 .

Colombia: mixed messages

By Rodrigo Acuña

The Diplomat  

January 2008

The recent release of hostages by Colombia's largest rebel movement the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), has again demonstrated the rebels' willingness to engage in peace negotiations with the government of Álvaro Uribe Vélez.

And yet, if the latest reports that the FARC have kidnapped six tourists are correct, it also reveals that their leadership does not regard its international image - which is deservedly bad enough - high on its list of priorities. This is particularly the case after the successful mediating role played by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and the declaration passed by his country's National Assembly which stated that the FARC and the Army of National Liberation (ELN) - the country's second largest leftist guerrilla group - to be insurgents and not terrorists.

The civil war in Colombia is undoubtedly complex with no members of the conflict free of committing human rights abuses. Growing coca plantations and manufacturing cocaine is a lucrative trade whose dirty money is touched by all hands. However, despite these complexities, a few things should be straightforward to understand.

For a start, naming the FARC and the ELN as terrorists - as did the US State Department since November 2001 - has been based on political motives rather than these organisations abandonment of their Marxists and liberation theology philosophies - as much as they have degenerated in the last two decades.

Guerrilla movements in Colombia have a long history often originating after all legal means to establish trade unions or leftist political parties were closed off through harsh violence. When the country plunged into civil war after the moderate centre-left presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán was assassinated in 1948, guerrilla organisations emerged in even greater numbers as poor peasants were driven off their lands for having supported Gaitán.

Although many rebels rallied under the banner of the Liberal party - Colombia's second oldest political organisation - until it reached an agreement with the Conservatives in 1958, many insurgents continued to fight after these accords since, from their perspective, the settlement would not bring about a greater degree of social justice or the legalisation of organisations such as the Communist Party.

And hence a war has raged in Colombia which seems to have no end.

When the cocaine trade flourished in the mid-1970s, the conflict became even more complex. The ELN, like the M19 - a former rebel group who signed a peace accord in the late 1980s - decided not to become involved with cocaine but instead relied on ransom from kidnappings as their key source of revenue.

The FARC however was more pragmatic. It taxed poor peasants, robbed cocaine gangsters and eventually kidnapped anyone they thought could pay up. While the cocaine cartels in return declared war on the FARC through the creation of huge right-wing paramilitary armies, by 2002, according to one estimate, the guerrillas made over $US200 million through kidnappings and $US500 million from taxing sections of the drug industry.

Colombia though has had its chances for peace. Nowhere was this more evident than when the Uribe Accords were signed in 1984 between the government and the FARC.

Steven Dudley - Bureau Chief of the Andes for The Miami Herald - in his book Walking Ghost: Murder and Guerrilla Politics in Colombia has written about the peace accords which included allowing the FARC to legally establish a political party called Unión Patriótica (UP).

While Dudley notes the complexities of the negotiations and how the FARC used them to continue to arm itself, his analysis of how the ring-wing paramilitaries and sections of the Colombian establishment destroyed the UP - and hence eliminating the possibility for a permanent peace - are clear:

"From almost the beginning, the UP's enemies dissected the new party's purpose. These enemies didn't wait to hear the UP's platform or understand its motives. They simply equated the UP with the FARC and started shooting."

Dudley adds that since the UP's formation in 1985 "thousands of UP militants were killed. Hundreds of others went into hiding or fled the country. Even when it was clear that the UP had no more political power, their enemies kept killing them."

Among the dead were two UP presidential candidates as well as any hopes that the FARC would again broaden its political views to include moderates and more importantly, trust the Colombian state. When talks were resumed in 1999 with the aid of United Nations mediators, some observers believe this had more to do with the political pressure on then president Andrés Pastrana than a real commitment for peace. By then the FARC had a standing army between 17-19,000 troops and controlled roughly 30 per cent of the country.

Seen as an unacceptable scenario by Colombia's hawkish generals and the Clinton administration, behind closed doors the counter-insurgency Plan Colombia was devised during the peace talks aimed at ridding the country once and for all of the FARC. In 2002, as expected, negotiations broke down and war was back on the agenda.

These days, despite more than US$4 billion in recent years having poured into Colombia from the United States, and Uribe's deep links to the paramilitaries and drug cartels, perhaps unlike any pervious head of state, the FARC hardly looks defeated.

According to a 2007 Amnesty International report more than "3000 killings and enforced disappearances of civilians were attributed to paramilitary groups since they declared a "ceasefire" in 2002". With the army, the paramilitaries are by far the biggest human rights abusers whose actions, along with Plan Colombia, do nothing but garner support for the rebels.

President Chávez - who the FARC see as an acceptable mediating figure - has recently declared he disapproves with the guerrillas' policy of kidnapping and will ask them to reconsider it. This is a positive step.

Unfortunately, until Colombia has a government which is serious about bringing to justice members of the military and paramilitaries for human rights abuses, taking an independent stance from Washington and, more importantly, allowing the FARC to create a political party who will not have its candidates gunned down at the polls like the UP's were, peace in the Andean country seems quite remote.

Posted on August 5, 2013 .

Whose Che?

By Rodrigo Acuña

New Matilda  

9 October 2007

It is 40 years since Ernesto “Che” Guevara - the Argentine revolutionary who had helped Fidel Castro overthrew the US-backed Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959 - was captured with the aid of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and executed by the Bolivian military.

Ceremonies commemorating Guevara's death have been held throughout Latin America, with the largest taking place in Cuba, Venezuela, Argentina, Mexico, Nicaragua and, ironically, Bolivia - a country whose population once denounced Guevara to local troops as he attempted to ignite another revolution.

In 1967, as Guevara lay dead next to his Cuban comrades in the Vallegrande hospital, displayed before the international press like a trophy by Bolivian generals, few could have imagined that one day Cubans would return to Bolivia at the request of the country's Head of State. Since Evo Morales - an astute trade union leader of humble origins - became Bolivia's first Indigenous President in 2005, Cuban teachers and doctors have arrived in their hundreds, providing services that were much needed by the impoverished population.

Even Mario Teran - the miserable and, at the time intoxicated, Bolivian soldier who executed Guevara - is reported to have received eye surgery by Cuban doctors.

In Australia, like in many parts of the world, Guevara has been both placed on a pedestal or demonised out of all proportion. Writing earlier this year in The Australian, Cassandra Wilkinson quoted Guevara - generally, out of context - defending Cuba's right to execute Batista's former, often CIA-trained henchmen.

Wilkinson constructs her image of Guevara using a book entitled, Exposing the Real Che Guevara and the Useful Idiots Who Idolise Him by Cuban émigré Humberto Fontova. The book paints Guevara as a failed physician and psychopathic guerrilla, who killed 14,000 people, as well as puppies and was “deathly afraid to drive a motorcycle”. Fontova's work could not obtain any serious academic reviews and to say that it merits a 10-second glance at a secondhand bookshop may be too kind.

And, the Herald Sun's Andrew Bolt provides another predictable angle on his blog.

It's true that, since 1967, Guevara has been elevated to saint-like status - particularly in Cuba. After his death was announced, Castro held Guevara up as the New Man who belonged to the future - the model to which all generations should aspire.

And yet, for a supposed man of the future, Guevara looked very much like a Latin male of the 1960s. A chauvinist, it is claimed the rebel on some occasions publicly berated his wife in the harshest of terms. With his military subordinates, Che's reputation as a commander of little patience was notorious. According to Dariel Alarcón Ramírez's book Memorias de un Soldado Cubano, Guevara would often listen patiently to a soldier's account and then respond in the bluntest of terms: “Look, what you are saying is shit.” Guevara's honesty and distaste for privileges were admired but also deeply disliked - because they bordered on the puritannical.

Asked to comment on Guevara, Jeff Browitt, Senior Lecturer in Latin American Studies at the University of Technology Sydney, said:

"Now we all know the good things about Che, but let's look at a couple of problems: the New Man had no room for the New Gay Man and besides that, Che contributed towards the silencing of critics of the Revolution … and if one thing undermines revolutionary gains it is the unwillingness to listen to internal criticism."

These points certainly tarnished Guevara - and Cuba.

Yet, for all his faults, it is not difficult to understand the factors that shaped Guevara. And one need not share his view of how the world should work (and I certainly don't).

Before Guevara became a Comandante in Castro's guerilla army and as highlighted in the recent film The Motorcycle Diaries, the medical student travelled widely throughout Latin America, coming face to face with the severe poverty endured by peasants and labourers. In 1952, Guevara and his friend Alberto Granados were arrested and interrogated in Bogotá, Colombia - at the time under the dictatorship of Laureano Gómez - simply because the authorities suspected they may be potential subversive agents. They were only released after local students convinced the authorities this was not the case.

In Guatemala in 1954, Guevara witnessed a moderate social democratic regime demonised by the local press and then violently overthrown by the United States. The country eventually plunged into a brutal dictatorship after a civil war which saw roughly 200,000 dead civilians - most murdered through US-backed State terror.

When the vagabond doctor met the Castro brothers in Mexico in the mid-1950s, Guevara found a project he could wholeheartedly support and once triumphant, would not allow to be overthrown through force.

So what can be said about Guevara's views on the use of violence? For one thing, his point on the need for progressive or Left-wing governments in Latin America to be able to resort to violence still seems relevant today - were it not, a little US-backed coup in Venezuela in 2002 could not have been repelled.

Guevara's support for the death penalty and his role in the executions at La Cabaña barracks are by far the most contentious. Writing in Compañero: The Life and Death of Che Guevara, the Mexican intellectual Jorge Castañeda states:

"Guevara's responsibility for the events at La Cabaña - though it cannot be diminished, as Che himself never tried to do - must nonetheless be seen within the context of the time. There was no bloodbath; nor were innocent people exterminated in any large or even significant numbers. After the excesses of Batista, and the unleashing of passions during those winter months, it is surprising that there were so few abuses and executions."

By 1997, the year the book was published, Castañeda had already made a Christopher Hitchens-like political conversion from Left to Right - but even he can respect certain facts.

John Lee Anderson in his biography of Guevara writes that most of Batista's thugs were “sentenced in conditions … above board, if summary affairs, with defence lawyers, witnesses, prosecutors, and an attending public”.

By the time Guevara reached Bolivia in 1967, most credible accounts have the guerrilla leader giving his captives appropriate medical attention, in a dignified manner. And he often called off attacks when he realised he was again going to be fighting a group of poorly trained 17-year-old boys.

Even though most Latin Americans today do not embrace Guevara's views of guerrilla warfare, or of a one Party State, his calls for actions are still revered because they were based on real and ongoing problems such as the region's abysmal poverty, an almost complete inability by elites to accept some degree of social accountability, or the United States' tumultuous record of interventions.

One need not be a Marxist to understand these points.

Posted on August 5, 2013 .

Cuban detainees' hope for fair trial

By Rodrigo Acuña

Eureka Street

3 October 2007

Outside the alternative media, last month saw nearly no coverage of the incarceration in the United States of Cuban agents Gerardo Hernández, Antonio Guerrero, Ramón Labañino, Fernando Gonzáles and René Gonzáles.

Now into their ninth year of imprisonment, the Cuban Five — as they are otherwise known — are serving a variety of sentences that include convictions for conspiracy to commit espionage and homicide. By most credible accounts, the Cubans are in prison — some on life sentences — for political reasons and not because they have broken any serious laws, other than overstaying their visas.

The current saga began in 1997 when nearly a dozen bombs struck Havana. With hotels, restaurants and nightclubs targeted, one explosion at the Copacabana Hotel wounded 11 people and killed Italian tourist Fabio di Celmo.

Experience has taught the Cuban government that when bombs explode in Havana, or failed assassination plots against Fidel Castro take place, the first place to look is Miami — the haven for ex-patriots who fled after dictator Fulgencio Batista was overthrown in 1959. And there is one man who has stood out for his use of terrorism to overthrow Castro; CIA-trained Luis Posada Carriles.

If there were any doubts, on July 12 1998 in New York Times, Carriles admitted to paying a Salvadorian mercenary to carry out the 1997 attacks in Havana, including the bombing which killed di Celmo. When asked if he had regrets for the murder, Posada Carriles replied in the negative: 'I sleep like a baby ... It is sad that someone is dead, but we can't stop ... That Italian was sitting in the wrong place at the wrong time.'

When it was clear that Cuban exiles in Miami where behind the new wave of attacks in Havana, Castro's government took two courses of action.

The first was to dispatch Castro's personal emissary, Colombian Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez, to request US president Bill Clinton address the issue of terrorism by Cuban exiles. The second was to monitor the activities of Posada Carriles and 60 other emigrés, many whom belong to paramilitary organisations. This was the role of the 'Cuban Five'.

For its part, the Clinton administration seemed to have displayed some willingness to address Cuba's concerns. Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) agents travelled to Havana and exchanged information with local officials regarding the bombing that had taken place. But unfortunately, like many of Clinton's policies towards the Caribbean island, incompetence or sheer cynicism won the day. Instead of addressing the threat posed by the Miami emigrés, the FBI arrested the Cuban Five in September 1998 in Miami using information provided by Havana.

The court case which then unfolded was bizarre.

In the initial proceedings, according to defence lawyer José Pertierra, the prosecution stated:

'We arrested these five men and confiscated 20,000 documents from their computers, but ladies and gentlemen of the jury none of these 20,000 documents contain a single page of classified information.'

Instead, US authorities claimed that the Five had conspired to commit espionage — predominantly based on the fact that Antonio Guerrero was employed in a metal shop in the Boca Chica Navy Training Base.

The charge of conspiracy to commit homicide was established around an incident which occurred in 1996 over the Florida Straits, where Cuban MiGs shot down two Cessna aircraft belonging to the Miami based group Brothers to the Rescue (BR).

Although the exact location of the downed aircraft — which left three individuals dead — is contested by both Cuba and the US, prosecutors claimed that the Five were in part responsible for the pilots' deaths because they had relayed information to Havana on the actions by BR.

Why Cuba would need undercover agents in Miami to perform the tasks of their air radar systems remains in question, as do most aspects of the prosecution's case.

Reviewing the legal proceedings, a United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detentions noted that 'the trial did not take place in the climate of objectivity and impartiality which is required in order to conclude on the observance of the standards of a fair trial'.

Noting that the Cuban nationals were unjustly detained for 17 months in solitary confinement — a point also raised by Amnesty International — the UN report also documented that the Five's lawyers were denied the opportunity to study all the available evidence before US authorities invoked the Classified Information Protection Act.

Moreover, in August 2005, a three-judge panel of the Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit in Atlanta quashed the convictions of the Five. They ruled that the Cubans did not obtain a fair trail in Miami and acknowledged that the defence had produced evidence that revealed terrorist actions by Cuban emigré groups in the US. This included the role played by Posada Carriles who was referred to as a terrorist.

The incumbent Bush administration however had other ideas about the case and through its Solicitor General appealed to all 12 judges of the Eleventh Circuit. A year later they nullified the decision of the three-judge panel.

With more legal entanglements moving the case back and forth the latest appeal by the Five has been rejected. It seems the case will remain unresolved for some time yet.

However, with international pressure mounting for the release of the Five — which includes eight Noble Prize winners and six British MPs — Washington's double standards on terrorism regarding Cuba seem all too apparent.

A clear indication of this is that despite the further evidence of Carriles' involvement the US refuses to extradite him to Cuba or Venezuela for trail over his role the 1976 bombing of a Cuban civilian airliner, which left 73 people dead.

Leaving aside what one may think of the government in Havana, there can be few doubts that since 1959 almost every US administration — directly or through the Miami exiles — has seen Cuban civilians as 'fair game' in their efforts to overthrow Castro. Cuban estimates of the number of victims of terrorism are 3,478 killed and 2,099 wounded.

If the Democrats win office next year, will a different approach to US-Cuban relations be embraced? Current reality leaves the Cuban Five incarcerated.

Posted on August 5, 2013 .

Latin America: Pilger goes Latino

By Rodrigo Acuña

New Matilda

27 September 2007

In his first feature film The War on Democracy, journalist John Pilger aims to expose Washington's foreign policy in Latin America, and does not pull any punches.

Through a series of interviews with activists, scholars and incumbent and retired Washington officials, and not the least with the “ordinary” people of Latin America, Pilger seeks to illustrate some of the current changes taking place in the region following the coming to power of current Left-wing governments.

For example: Mariela Machado - a poor Afro-Venezuelan who is a strong supporter of Chávez - reveals why the current political shifts are important. Referring to the notorious barrios, before Chávez she tells Pilger, "On the maps all these hills and houses did not figure, they were shown as green spaces" - showing how previous governments never bothered to document the pitiful slums of Caracas.

When Pilger meets the flamboyant president Hugo Chávez, the Venezuelan leader describes how he went to school barefoot and was strongly influenced by his grandmother who taught him the values of solidarity with others - even when one has little to share.

Chávez tells Pilger his administration is aiming to create a society "where people are included and are equal, where there is no exclusion, there is no poverty, where human values reign".

Considering how much money the Chávez administration has invested into essential services like public health and education, and is acting as the engine for the economic integration of Latin American countries - to negotiate with the United States on more equal terms - the singing President's ambitions seem mostly sensible. Pilger highlights these issues well, although a more critical take on the Venezuelan President would have been healthy.

Much of Chávez's political rhetoric towards the Bush administration, for example, is tongue-in-cheek - a point understood by Pilger though missed by most non-Spanish speakers - but he undoubtedly goes too far on occasion. Within Latin America, Chávez's words have caused unnecessary political entanglements, while his praise for almost everyone anti-US foreign policy - Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, for example - are distasteful to many who would otherwise be supportive.

The War on Democracy has many classic Pilger moments. When a Venezuelan businessman tells the Australian that the current political situation is comparable to "Russia in 1914" - he meant to say 1917 - Pilger laughs and points out that no one is exactly bashing the door down to expropriate his business.

When another businessman shows Pilger his affluent home and gloats how Venezuelan elites built Miami because they had so much money and didn't know what to do with it, Pilger can barely contain his rage, and his sarcasm in the exchange is undiluted.

But there are moments that are beyond humour. Pilger talks to Bolivian priest Juan Delfin Mamani about the political struggles of his constituency, and Roberto Navarrete walks Pilger through Chile's notorious national football stadium where people were tortured during Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship. These scenes are simply stated and deeply moving.

The cinematography of the film is also impressive and enhances the work's message. The frightening slums of the hills of Caracas should allow people to ponder how humans can live in such miserable conditions - or such opulence, as highlighted by the lives of Venezuelan elites.

One of Pilger's greatest strengths though is his ability to get interviews with current or ex-government officials, who often get an uncomfortable grilling.

Pilger's encounter with Duane R Clarridge - head of the Central Intelligence Agency's Latin American division in the early 1980s and author of A Spy for All Seasons: My Life in the CIA - is highly insightful, not to mention frightening.

When Pilger questions Clarridge on the human rights record of the Salvadorian death squads which Washington trained in the 1970s and 1980s, Clarridge eloquently responds, "That's all bullshit". Human rights organisations, such as Amnesty International, are all liars, according to the CIA man; he adds in an agitated voice, that the United States will "intervene whenever we decide it's in our national security interest to intervene. And if you don't like it, lump it. Get used to it, World, we're not going to put up with nonsense."

It's a shame that in the feature-length The War on Democracy Pilger does not venture out of his usual documentary format. The film starts with the journalist telling us what his film will be about - and just in case we might have forgotten by 10 or 15 minutes into it, he keeps reminding us with his running commentary.

Pilger is obviously an intelligent and passionate man, but his documentary work might benefit from providing his audience with less emotive commentary. The archive footage and frank interviews in his film are powerful enough, and leave his audience with ample evidence to draw their own conclusions.

Sometimes, subtlety is a stronger tool.

Posted on August 5, 2013 .

A Narco-Terrorist State

By Rodrigo Acuña

New Matilda

18 April 2007

 A recent article by Paul Richter and Greg Miller in the Los Angeles Times has again brought international attention on Colombian President Álvaro Uribe Vélez. At the centre of the LA Times article is a leaked report from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), which claims that Colombian army chief General Mario Montoya and a paramilitary group carried out an operation against Marxist rebels in 2002, that left 14 people dead and ‘dozens more disappeared in its aftermath’.

Given the nature of the activities of paramilitary groups in Colombia and Uribe’s ‘long and close association’ with Montoya, the revelation adds to a scandal which, Richter and Miller say, ‘already has implicated the country’s former Foreign Minister, at least one State Governor, legislators and the head of the national police’.

Uribe and his Government have long been beyond the pale. His close relationships with Colombia’s drug cartels and paramilitaries run so deep that political scientists should seriously consider categorising Colombia as a ‘narco-terrorist State’ — with strong backing from Washington, of course. (As Richter and Miller point out: ‘President Bush called Uribe a "personal friend"  … during [last month’s] visit to Bogotá, and his Government is one of the Bush Administration’s closest allies in Latin America’.)

The history of the current Colombian President is ghastly. His papá, Alberto Uribe Sierra, did not set Álvaro a good example. During the 1970s, Uribe Sierra lived in a middle-class neighbourhood in the Colombian city of Medellín and was heavily in debt. However, as Forrest Hylton notes in his excellent history, Evil Hour in Colombia, by a ‘strange reversal of fortune’ Uribe Sierra became a ‘political broker, real-estate intermediary, and recognised trafficker’.

Having also become a huge cattle rancher, Uribe Sierra was part of a group of narco-speculators who purchased cheap land where Left-wing guerrillas were active. In 1983, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — the guerrilla group commonly known by their Spanish acronym FARC  — decided to pay Uribe Sierra a visit and he was killed after a failed kidnapping attempt. When the younger Uribe became aware of his father’s death, according to Hylton, he flew to his father’s ranch in the private helicopter of Medellín’s cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar.

Escobar and Uribe Sierra had become good friends after the latter had been involved in ‘fund raising’ for a project known as ‘Medellín without slums’ — most likely another one of Escobar’s countless scams to launder his huge empire’s drug money.

Álvaro Uribe entered politics at the age of 26 when he was elected mayor of Medellín in 1982 — a payback for his father helping finance the campaign of Belisario Betancur, President of Colombia from 1982 to 1986. Sacked after three months for what Tom Feiling writing in New Internationalist termed his ‘ties to the drug Mafia’, Uribe then became Director of Civil Aviation and ‘issued pilots’ licences to Pablo Escobar’s fleet of light aircraft flying cocaine to Florida’. Feiling goes on to report that:

'In 1995 Uribe became Governor of his home province of Antioquia … [P]rivate security services and paramilitary death squads enjoyed immunity from prosecution under Governor Uribe and were free to launch a campaign of terror. Thousands of trade unionists, students and human rights workers were murdered, disappeared or driven out of the province.'

During his run for President in 2002, Uribe’s tough talk against FARC and National Liberation Army (ELN) — Colombia’s second largest Left-wing guerrilla army — was popular with many middle- and upper-class Colombians. And his paramilitary friends made sure the rest of the population made the right choice as well. Even then, Uribe only managed 53 per cent of the votes, after just 25 per cent of the electorate bothered to vote.

According to Rafael García — a former high-level official in Colombia’s intelligence agency serving an 11-year sentence for money-laundering (amongst other charges) — what happened in 2002 was a ‘massive electoral fraud’ as paramilitary groups personally selected candidates for Congress.

Since gaining power, these politicos and Uribe have persuaded up to 30,000 paramilitaries to demobilise, serve ‘symbolic jail terms’ and/or continue in the drug trade — a case in point being the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia (AUC), the country’s most notorious paramilitary organisation with deep ties to narco-trafficking.

Colombian Senator Jorge Robledo — representing the Polo Democrático Alternativo (PDA), who with Gustavo Preto has been instrumental in pushing the Senate to discuss Uribe’s past — has commented about the latest scandals:

'The director of the nation’s secret service, DAS, Jorge Noguera, is in prison for his participation in paramilitary crimes … All the Congresspeople who have gone to prison already are Uribistas [supporters of Uribe]. Of the 19 in line for judgement, 17 are Uribistas … The organisation ARCOIRIS, with 83 congresspeople from paramilitary-controlled zones — 90 per cent are Uribistas. This is not to say that all Uribistas are [paramilitaries], but it does say the phenomenon is that these are friends of the President. This is understood in the exterior, and Democratic Senators in the US like McGovern and Leahy have noticed as much. Leahy said in [the Colombian newspaper] El Tiempo that the US Government must correct its support for Uribe. Leahy said ‘someone explain to me who we are working with in Colombia’.
We in the PDA insist that these are political, not just penal, responsibilities for Uribe. He has to explain why so many of his friends are involved. And we also want to know how far is the US involved? The US Embassy is full of CIA, DEA, FBI, and they don’t have any idea what is happening with paramilitarism? It is not credible.'

 In an article published in the January edition of NACLA Report on the Americas — a distinguished journal on Latin American studies — Colombian economist and human rights worker, Héctor Mondragón, notes that: ‘Never before have drug traffickers had so much power in Colombia’. Using the Government’s own statistics, Mondragón argues that in 2005 over $US3 billion entered the country with no record of its origin, and this is ‘just a portion of the billions of dollars and euros that the paramilitaries have laundered’. In his view, the Bush Administration is well aware of these actions, but prefers to turn a blind eye as:

'Colombia is becoming the eternal battleground, in order to secure the country as a base of operations for controlling Ecuador, Venezuela and possibly even Peru, Brazil and Bolivia. They say, ‘Have patience with Colombia; we’re heading to Venezuela and Ecuador! Be patient with Iraq; we’re on our way to Iran’.'

If one considers how Ronald Reagan and Bush senior’s Administrations supported the Contras — also deeply involved in the drug trade — to overthrow the Sandinistas in Nicaragua during the 1980s, then such developments are not without precedent. And remember that Colombian paramilitaries were used in 2004 to try to overthrow the Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

The current involvement in the drug trade by the Colombian cartels, paramilitaries and their political allies such as Uribe, of course, overshadow the relationship FARC has with cocaine and their own human rights abuses. Although FARC’s involvement with drugs is ‘hard to measure’ according to expert Mario Murillo in his book Colombia and the United States: War, Unrest and Destabilisation, their involvement is ‘still seen as a small percentage of the overall amounts of money exchanged globally in the international drug market’.

And anyway, since the 1980s according to numerous reports, between 75-85 per cent of all human rights violations have been carried out by the Colombian military and their paramilitary allies, with the rest attributed to the guerrillas. While FARC and ELN should certainly be held accountable for violations against civilians, their record pales in comparison to the brutal and systematic crimes of the Colombian State.

Since Uribe took power in 2002, over 500 trade unionists have been killed, often in the most brutal manner. His utter contempt for human rights organisers was expressed openly in 2003 when he declared them to be ‘spokesmen for terrorism’ and challenged them to ‘take off their masks … and drop this cowardice of hiding their ideas behind human rights’.

Whether the current crisis will see Uribe resign or call new elections is unclear, but if Bush is remotely serious about the ‘War on Terror’ and the ‘War on Drugs’, then he could start by dealing with his amigo in Bogotá.

Posted on August 5, 2013 .

Apologists for State Terrorism

By Rodrigo Acuña

New Matilda

20 December 2006

It is a truism that all evaluations of history are tainted by one’s vision of how the world should work. Another truism is that a lack of primary sources can often leave certain grey areas in the historical record.

Sometimes, however, events or eras are roughly clear and some degree of consensus is achieved.

 General Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile (1973–1990) is one such case. In particular, the illegitimacy of his regime and its vast human rights violations against anyone broadly on the political Left or who opposed his regime. Most serious Latin American studies scholars and journalists would agree that Pinochet brutally overthrew a government which, despite many faults, was democratically and legitimately elected.

Dissent from a consensus, of course, always exists and on 15 December, The Australian published a strange article by James Whelan, a neo-conservative journalist who for many years has written works which present the Pinochet era in a favourable light. Whelan’s piece was revisionism of the worst kind.

My initial reaction to Whelan’s article was that it was not worthy of a reply. Not only was it the voice of a vociferous neo-con (Whelan occasionally writes on Latin America for Online Human Events which comes recommended by the likes of ex-US President Ronald Regan and the corrupt Colonel Oliver North), his piece was filled with many factual errors and omissions.

Given that a minimal amount of research could have discovered these errors, the publication of such a piece led me to two conclusions: either the editorial standards at The Australian are rather poor or it believes in publishing apologists for State terror who have fertile imaginations.

Whelan’s arguments are quite simple: President Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity (UP) Government which was overthrown by Pinochet’s military coup on 11 September 1973 was committed to "ending the bourgeois democratic State", it "plunged Chile into a hell-on-earth chaos", and it was General Pinochet and his policies who saved the country.

Although he concedes without "the slightest doubt" that there were "abuses" under the General’s rule, the "overwhelming majority of the dead and missing were, in fact, either outright terrorists or those who were sheltering, financing and supporting them".

"A war on terror tends to be a dirty war", comments Whelan.

Whelan’s first point is quite simple to disprove. The Allende Government acted within the Chilean Constitution and there was no real indication that it wanted to replace Chile’s multi-party system with a Soviet, Cuban or any other totalitarian style of government. In Valparaíso on 4 February 1971, in a challenge to Socialist Party Secretary Carlos Altamirano Ortega, Allende stated that:

'We have said that the transformation and changes are going to be made within bourgeois democracy. And if comrade Altamirano reckons that we ought to go faster, I say to him that we are not going to go faster.'

Dr James Levy — honorary fellow at the Department of Spanish and Latin American Studies at the University of New South Wales — argues that Allende’s UP Government acted within the Constitution and that, "No one has ever proved anything to the contrary."

He adds that many of the Allende Administration’s programs were, in fact, a continuation of the policies of the previous Christian Democrat Government of Eduardo Freí (1964–1970). Levy states:

'The nationalisation of Chilean copper, for example, followed on Frei’s ‘Chileanisation’ of copper; the agrarian reform program was initiated under the Christian Democrats and the Minister responsible was retained by the Allende regime to push it forward; the mobilisation of the impoverished barrios [slums] likewise began under the Christian Democrats — and I could go on.'

Given the various successes of the Allende Government in improving the lives of the poor, it was the Chilean Right (with a little help from their friends at the Central Intelligence Agency) who created an atmosphere of turmoil. This ranged from pursuing the impeachment of Allende by legal means, hoarding food and funding strikes which stopped production, to assassinating members of the military who were loyal to the Constitution and were not willing to be Washington’s lackeys.

Whelan’s article mentions none of these facts. Likewise, it was inconvenient for him to recall that, after more than two years in power, the UP won 44 per cent of the popular vote in the March 1973 Chilean Congressional elections — up from 36 per cent in 1970 and one of the largest increases by an incumbent government in Chilean history.

Washington had literally declared an economic war on Chile which had devastating consequences but, once Chile’s political right and the US’s Nixon Administration realised that the Allende Government was not going to crumble, nothing was left but to find a man willing to betray the Constitution and carry out a coup.

One of Whelan’s biggest errors was to say that the Pinochet regime was engaged in a war against terrorists thus de-legitimising the majority of victims of the Pinochet era. In the majority of cases, these victims’ only crime was belonging to a trade union, a left-wing political party or simply having voted for Allende.

According to Associate Professor Barry Carr, Director of the Institute of Latin American Studies at La Trobe University, Whelan’s arguments are "typical of [those run during] the dictatorship" — noting that he hasn’t heard them for "20 years". Carr, who is one of Australia’s most internationally respected scholars on Latin America, agrees that there were terrorists in Chile at the time but, he says, they "worked for a vast network of State terrorism which was created by the Pinochet Government".

In 2005, the National Commission on Political Imprisonment and Torture appointed by Chilean President Ricardo Lagos handed down the second part of its report. Whelan claims that the Commission’s figures on torture were "frivolous" — as if that Commission was the only one to have recorded the testimonies of the dictatorship’s victims. Giving a gross figure for the current Chilean Government’s annual reparations to victims of the military regime of $254 million, Whelan ignores that for most victims this boils down to a pension of 112,000 Chilean Pesos ($230–260) a month, which is less than Chile’s minimum wage of 135,000 pesos per month.

And according to Margarita Durán Gajardo — a Chilean human rights activist based in Santiago with the Committee of Human Rights — there are many tens of thousands of people whose claims are still being processed by the judicial system.

In Carr’s view, one of the only reasons why an article like Whelan’s would attempt to "seriously re-write history", is that "in the past few years the neo-cons have not been doing too well in Latin America — hence this vilification of a moderate government like that of Allende". Whelan, according to Carr, is also attempting to present Pinochet as one of the first warriors against terrorism — merging the Cold War into the War on Terrorism.

When asked to comment on Whelan’s article, a long-time human rights activist in the Chilean community, Gonzalo Parra — co-ordinator of the Chilean Popular and Indigenous Network — said it was a distasteful piece. He added:

'Contrary to the economic growth mentioned by Whelan, the reality is that the majority of Chileans continue to struggle on a daily basis against that very political and economic system that is the legacy of the Dictator — a system that puts Chile in the top 10 countries of drug abuse, child abuse, domestic violence, delinquency and unequal distribution of wealth.'

Pinochet supporters have long felt proud that the General, unlike his regional counterparts, was not corrupt. Some concede that he was brutal but at least he was 'clean'. Whelan goes as so far as to say that Pinochet’s opponents have proven 'nothing' in terms of his embezzling State funds.

In Carr’s view, the scholarship on this issue also proves the contrary — pointing to embarrassing documents, where Pinochet’s wife Lucía rebukes her husband for not having swindled enough on a particular deal. In March 2005, a US Senate investigation found that the General concealed more than $US13 million in dozens of secret bank accounts. The fact that Pinochet was not brought to trial on this issue, like his human rights record, is more a reflection of the poor state of judicial neutrality in Chile rather than the General’s innocence.

None of the points I have made are really new. The scholarship on the Allende Government, on Pinochet’s coup and his regime’s gross human rights violations is voluminous. A simple telephone call by The Australian to any of Australia’s respected Latin American Studies Departments could have de-legitimised Whelan’s claims.

I called Tom Switzer — Opinion Editor at The Australian — and asked him about his paper’s decision to run the Whelan article. He said that he had commissioned the piece, having run an article by Ariel Dorfman a few days earlier. The logic is, of course, simple: since Dorfman is a progressive Chilean writer and an ex-member of the Allende Government, The Australian has the right to publish someone like Whelan? Switzer conceded that Whelan’s views were a minority, outside of the scholarly consensus. However, according to Switzer, this has not stopped the paper from publishing in the past.

This is not an example of setting up a balanced debate, it’s a case of pretending a debate about the facts exists when it really doesn’t.

On 20 February, 2003, then US Secretary of State Colin Powell was asked to comment on the morality of the United States’s role in the overthrow of the Allende Government. In a rare moment of honesty, Powell responded: "It is not a part of American history that we are proud of".

Likewise, The Australian should not be proud of publishing commentators like James Whelan who refuse to accept the existence of State terrorism.

Posted on August 5, 2013 .

The Mystery of the Missing Ballots

By Rodrigo Acuña

New Matilda 

13 September 2006

This week, one of the largest cities in Latin America is almost at a standstill as tensions rise over what many are calling a fraudulent election. Yet with notable exceptions, the international press have ignored the crisis.

Since the 2 July Mexican presidential election, which was won by National Action Party (PAN) candidate Felipe Calderón under controversial circumstances, the historical Zócalo Plaza and other prominent areas of Mexico City have been occupied by hundreds of thousands of supporters of rival candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador from the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PDR).

Obrador's supporters claim that he was robbed of electoral victory through fraud, while Obrador himself has declared he will set up a parallel government if votes are not recounted in full.

Statistician Dr Victor Romero from the National University told SBS Dateline on 30 August that 'there is a possibility   statistically speaking, very strong   that there was an interference with the computer system of the [Federal Electoral Institute].'

According to Romero, 'the PDR was winning and suddenly, at about 70 per cent [of the vote count], they started losing.' Romero said that as the last 30 per cent of the results came in, the PDR's share never increased    which is a statistical impossibility.

Investigative journalist Greg Palast wrote in The Guardian on 7 August that, as expected, Obrador was ahead of Calderón until midnight on election night when 'precincts began reporting wins for Calderón of five to one, then 10 to one, then as polling nearly ended, of 100 to one.'

'The ruling party would have us believe that a million voters waited in line, took a ballot, made no mark, then deliberately folded the ballot and placed it in the ballot box, pretending they'd voted,' wrote Palast.

According to Laura Carlsen, Director of the International Relations Centre in Mexico City:

'Reports in the streets and letters to the press testify to the thousands of voters who waited in line for hours, only to be told that their polling place had run out of ballots. Thousands more were informed that their names had disappeared from the rolls.'

However, on 5 September the seven-judge Federal Judicial Electoral Tribunal ruled in favour of Felipe Calderón.

This is not the first time vast numbers of Mexicans have been slightly upset with the status quo.

On 1 January 1994 the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into effect. That same day in the southern Mexican State of Chiapas, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) declared war on the Mexican Government.

The indigenous communities represented by the EZLN viewed the NAFTA agreement as a 'death sentence' as it heralded an end to the country's system of land distribution and collective ownership, which was established in the early 1930s under the Government of Lázaro Cárdenas.

An important background to the current crisis is the fact that in recent years, many Mexicans have been badly affected by NAFTA. In 2003, a major study commissioned by the Food First Institute into the effects of NAFTA on Mexican farmers found that, 'While the price farmers get for their crops has fallen over the last 20 years, the retail price has risen steadily, along with the cost of farming, squeezing farmer's income and draining consumer's wallets.'

Although the maquiladoras (export assembly plants for the United States) developed rapidly in the 1990s (the collateral damage was tens of thousands of US auto workers), the wages they offer Mexicans are a pittance. Many women in these factories still have to moonlight as prostitutes to feed their children.

Despite these appalling labour standards, article 1110 of NAFTA allows corporations to seek compensation against any government actions, or changes in regulations, that might reduce corporate profits.

In 1996, two years into NAFTA, Mexico entered its worst recession since the 1930s. Over a million jobs were lost. The crisis was eventually resolved by a $US20 billion rescue package from the Clinton Administration   Mexico basically mortgaged its future oil revenues to the US Treasury Department.

After 70 years of corrupt rule, the loss of power by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in the 2000 elections should therefore have been another clear sign that the country's political and economic system needed serious reform in favour of the vast numbers of poor.

Unfortunately, the new President, the PAN's Vicente Fox   a former supervisor of Coca-Cola's operations in Mexico and all of Latin America   deviated little from the standard economic philosophy.

During the 2000 election campaign, Fox claimed that if he were elected, a million jobs would be created every year, the armed conflict with the Zapatistas would be solved in ' 15 minutes,' and economic growth would increase by 7 per cent a year.

Throughout his term, Fox not only failed to create work but, according to a 2005 United Nations Human Development report, 180,000 jobs were lost from 2000 to 2005 with unemployment figures similar to those of the early 1990s. While extreme poverty did decrease, wages in the country stagnated, with general social inequality on the rise.

Mexicans did not stand idly by as their living standards declined.

One vehicle for change in Mexico in the past few years have been the Zapatistas. Their 'other campaign' in the past months   calling for people to organise politically at a grassroots level   has drawn enormous crowds, while their leadership has continually called for restraint by other armed groups.

Because the EZLN have abstained from electoral politics, however, most poor Mexicans have turned towards the policies of López Obrador.

Although much can be said about Obrador, the New York Times's editorial on 19 June this year summarised his policies well. 'No ambitions to foment revolution' were noted, with the Centre-Left candidate stressing the 'importance of good relations with Washington,' accepting 'a market economy' but wanting to 'make it fairer to Mexico's poor.'

Obrador is clearly a man Mexico's economic and political elites could do business with. But the country's ruling clique have once again demonstrated their colossal stupidity by robbing Obrador   like Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas in 1988   of victory in the presidential elections.

The current protests in Mexico   along with 40,000 teachers who have occupied the central plaza in the town of Oaxaca since May demanding better pay   have largely been ignored by the international press.

But as tensions continue to rise, there are real fears that the present stand-off can only be resolved through significant bloodshed.

US President George W Bush and Chile's Michelle Bachelet may recognise Calderón as President, but the hundreds of thousands of people on the streets think otherwise, as did the 155 members of Congress who recently blocked Fox from delivering his final State of the Union address.

With protesters refusing to move just two days out from Mexican Independence Day celebrations on 15 September, and a large military parade planned for 16 September, it remains to be seen if the military will join the people in the traditional Independence Day cry of ' ¡Viva Mexico!' or support Fox and a fraudulent President who is due to take office at the end of the year.

Posted on August 5, 2013 .