Cold War Terror in the Americas: A History Lesson

August 26, 2008

The War on Democracy (DVD, 2007), a film by John Pilger, 94 mins,

Perhaps the most poignant moment in John Pilger’s latest documentary, The War on Democracy, comes during an interview with Sister Dianna Ortiz, the U.S. nun tortured by Guatemalan security forces in 1989. “I’ve heard people say that what happened in Abu Ghraib is an isolated incident,” she says, with a mix of outrage and disbelief. “And I just shake my head and say: Are we on the same planet? Aren’t you aware of our history? Isn’t history taught in the classroom about the role of the U.S. government in human rights violations?”

The answer, of course, is no. And that is the film’s raison d’etre: to tell the story of U.S.-sponsored terror in Latin America. The opening montage sets the stage for this telling, linking the era of Cold War interventionism to the present day as it ranges over archival footage of Richard Nixon’s triumphant arrival in Guatemala City, following the Arbenz coup; Bush I being heckled at a press conference as he lauds U.S.-backed Salvadoran president Alfredo Cristiani for “trying to do a job for democracy”; and Bush II declaring that the United States is not interested in imposing anything on the unwilling, but in helping others “find their own voice.” The film then shifts its attention to present-day Venezuela, where Pilger covers the Hugo Chávez phenomenon and weaves the story of the 2002 Venezuelan coup attempt into a wider history.

The film’s narrative of the coup attempt covers little ground not already covered in the Irish documentary The Revolution Will Not Be Televised—the military-business conspiracy, the fabricated pretext of a massacre supposedly carried out by chavistas, the media’s role as the coup’s most effective weapon, the coup leaders’ dissolution of the National Assembly and Supreme Court, the popular uprising that led to Chávez’s reinstatement. But Pilger does add an important epilogue: Not only did the U.S. government know that the coup plot was afoot (as declassified CIA documents demonstrate), but it had been channeling millions of dollars through USAID and the National Endowment for Democracy to leading Venezuelan opposition groups that played key roles in mobilizing the coup and whose members were given cabinet positions under the short-lived dictatorship.

Cut to Pilger interviewing former assistant secretary of state Roger Noriega, denying U.S. complicity with an appeal to logic: “Just because [the coup] happened after we provided support to these groups,” he says, “doesn’t mean it happened because we supported them.” Pilger peers over his glasses, and replies in his Aussie-accented baritone: “Mmm, yes, of course.” (The film doesn’t mention that Noriega was himself a USAID functionary during the 1980s, charged with funneling “nonlethal aid” to the Nicaraguan Contras.)

Pilger emphasizes Chávez’s status as a “hate figure” in the U.S. media, clipping together shots from cable-TV talking heads describing him as “an extreme threat” and his government as “criminal.” Echoing Pat Robertson, another says Chávez “should have been killed a long time ago.” Yet this is fluff compared to the histrionics we see from Venezuelan media, with their branding of Chávez as the second coming of Hitler. (Any viewer who thinks Venezuela is now somehow a bastion of state censorship will come away thoroughly disabused of the notion.)

Pilger interviews Chávez and visits La Vega, a hillside barrio in Caracas. There, he visits a government-sponsored misión, where members discuss how to get deeds for their homes, and a state-subsidized grocery store, where a woman tells the camera that before Chávez, “I didn’t know we had rights like everyone else,” as she shows us a package of white beans stamped with an article from the Bolivarian Constitution. These scenes are contrasted with a visit to toney East Caracas, where John Vink, an affluent Venezuelan, welcomes the dapper, well-mannered Pilger, a perceived class peer, into his fortified mansion and shows off his copious objets d’art. Vink tells him: “We adore Miami. It’s our second home. We are very U.S.-minded.”

Vink, like another businessman Pilger interviews, is contemplating leaving Venezuela, which he sees as descending, or soon to be descending, into Bolshevik chaos. Yet, as Pilger notes, “capitalism has never had it better” in Venezuela. What, then, accounts for this panicky upper-class desire to escape? Pilger says it stems from the business class’s loss of political power, and leaves it at that. Unfortunately, the film, needing to get on with the story of U.S. interventionism, doesn’t have time to explore this important question with much depth. Indeed, it feels at some points as if the filmmaker was unsure whether this film ought to be a social documentary on contemporary Venezuela (which it is for about the first 40 minutes), or whether it should hew more closely to a survey of Washington-supported interventions.

With the story of the Venezuelan coup established, the film turns to the postwar history of U.S. interventionism in Latin America, scrolling the names of 21 countries in the region attacked by the United States, directly and indirectly, during Pilger’s lifetime. The retrospective of this history begins with the 1954 CIA coup against Guatemala’s Jacobo Arbenz, whom Pilger calls “the Chávez of his day.” The account of the invasion and coup—which would serve as the model for subsequent operations around the world, inaugurating the era of “plausible deniability”—includes footage of the late CIA operative (and Watergate figure) E. Howard Hunt matter-of-factly explaining the strategy he helped devise against Arbenz: “What we wanted to do was have a terror campaign,” he says, “to terrify Arbenz particularly, terrify his troops, much as the German Stuka bombers terrified the population of Holland, Belgium, and Poland at the onset of World War II.”

A similar, though more circumspect description—without reference to the Nazis as role models—comes from former CIA director Richard Helms, who is shown telling the Senate in 1975 that in the years following the Cuban revolution, the agency had task forces “striking at Cuba constantly,” attempting to blow up power plants, ruin sugar mills, and “do all kinds of things.” The narrative then shifts to Santiago, Chile, where Washington’s first neoliberal experiment in Latin America was only made possible by the bombing of the presidential palace.

During this segment, Pilger again confronts an apologist for U.S. policy during the era, this time Duane Clarridge, chief of CIA operations in Latin America during 1981–84, and a key architect of the Contra war. His response to Pilger stands out both for its denial and its frankness. Naomi Klein recently remarked in an interview in these pages that “the right is embarrassed about the Latin American laboratory [for neoliberal policy].” She continued: “They front-date the free-market crusade from its real start in 1973 to the 1980s, with Reagan and Thatcher, and then argue that the crusade was peaceful and democratic. They try to forget those early years under Pinochet.”

Not so Clarridge, a dedicated Cold Warrior with little interest in keeping up appearances. At first denying that the fascist regime’s murder and torture victims numbered in the thousands, he asserts—evoking Madeleine Albright on the disastrous Iraq sanctions of the 1990s—that Pinochet’s terror was worth it. “Sometimes, unfortunately, things have to be changed in a rather ugly way,” he says. Later, he hails Pinochet’s “economic miracle,” spearheaded by Milton Friedman’s Chicago boys, who introduced “real economics” to Chile.

The film then circles back to the present day, visiting perhaps Latin America’s most potent site of anti-neoliberal struggle: El Alto, Bolivia. Here, the story of repression is continued, as we see footage of the Bolivian army marching into the city and listen to Father Juan Delfin Mamani, as he shows us the church where the bodies of protesters were brought. But that story line is reversed, as Delfin recounts those tumultuous days of October 2003, when Bolivians swept into the streets of La Paz and threw out the Washington-friendly president, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada.

Ending on this upbeat note, Pilger warns any future would-be autocrats against crossing the “people on the hillsides,” invoking both Caracas barrios and El Alto. The film closes with some gorgeous wide-angle photography of both locales, nicely set to Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Though Pilger doesn’t say so explicitly, if Arbenz was the Chávez of his day, then the reverse is true: Chávez—together with Morales and Correa, and even Lula, Bachelet, and Kirchener—is the Arbenz of today, yet the coup against him failed. The dirty tricks of the past haven’t been working today, and this is really the key point. For the time being, at least, the strategy of U.S.-backed coups in Latin America has effectively been thwarted.

Pablo Morales is NACLA’s editor.


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