In April, the Summit of the Americas in Peru predictably led to articles fretting about declining US influence in the Western Hemisphere. Analysts were quoted (Christian Science Monitor, 4/11/18) worrying that Trump’s belligerent and racist outbursts would weaken Washington’s power in the region.
Closer ties to the United States, concerned “experts” suggest, would be the logical and inevitable choice of democracies in the region, if only US policy makers used enough finesse. Alfonso Serrano’s New York Times op-ed (4/16/18) suggested the US should counter Chinese influence with “friendly gestures” such as “re-enter[ing] the Trans-Pacific Partnership”—a trade agreement designed to give foreign corporations veto power over regulatory policies voters might want their governments to enact.
A few months earlier, a New York Times editorial (2/5/18) headlined “China, Elbows Out, Charges Ahead” warned readers that both Russia and China were looking to acquire “veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic and security decisions.” A few weeks later, the Times editorial board (2/22/18) warned that Russia was even seeking illegitimate authority within the United States: “Russian meddling in the politics of the United States and most every other Western country demands a tough response,” it insisted.
I agree with Aaron Maté’s critiques of the obsession with “Russiagate” in much of the US media, but in principle I certainly don’t want foreign officials or oligarchs to wield “veto authority” in my own country of Canada. Then again, I don’t want unelected Canadian oligarchs to do that either. The issue of “foreign meddling” can be difficult to untangle, because local and foreign elites are so often on the same page (ZNet, 5/3/09).
Corporate media generally raise no concern about the US wielding an illegitimate veto in other countries. Sometimes US influence is acknowledged to have been disastrous and malign, but generally when describing events in the last century.
Former New York Times reporter Stephen Kinzer, in an article published by the San Francisco Chronicle (4/5/18), mentioned Ronald Reagan’s exuberant praise for the genocidal Guatemalan dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, who had just died. To his credit, Kinzer noted more broadly that
Guatemala has long been under the shadow of US influence. Leftist President Jacobo Arbenz was overthrown in a CIA-backed coup in 1954, an event in which Ríos Montt, then a young junior military officer, played a minor role.
In fact, by the early 1990s, US “veto authority” in Guatemala had led to the killing of about 200,000 people, mainly Mayan peasants, according to a UN investigation, with over 90 percent perpetrated by the US-backed Guatemalan military and its armed allies. It should have led to several US presidents and officials being indicted for crimes against humanity.
Beginning with the election of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in 1998, Latin America went through a period where it seemed to be exercising its independence from the US through the election of numerous left-wing and center-left governments—collectively known as the “pink tide.” But over time, the US has asserted its veto authority by re-establishing pro-Washington, corporate-friendly governments in one pink tide nation after another—often through coups, judicial usurpation or electoral subterfuge.
In some of the cases described below, the US government acted directly and with undisguised brutality, but, it’s important to note, it did not act alone, because it has many natural allies: the Canadian and various EU governments, the corporate media throughout the region (including the wealthy class of people in the Americas who own media outlets, of course) and prominent NGOs. In some cases, US authority was increased by events in which its traditional allies in the region took the lead. All of them were setbacks, in some cases crushing defeats, for democracy in the region. In one case (Venezuela in 2002) the setback was temporary, but crucial to understanding the vilification campaign against Venezuelan democracy that has raged ever since, and that has made possible Trump’s brutal campaign to overthrow Chávez’s successor Nicolás Maduro.
The corporate media’s reaction to these assaults on democracy, with rare exceptions, ranged from ignoring them to spreading misinformation in defense of them. A US (and Canadian) public uninformed or badly mislead about foreign policy will not be able to reform it.
In April 2002, Hugo Chávez, the country’s democratically elected president, was deposed for two days in a military coup. The US Office of the Inspector General conceded that the George W. Bush administration provided “training, institution building and other support” to groups involved in the coup. A business executive, Pedro Carmona, was installed as dictator. He abolished the constitution voters had ratified in 1999, and dismissed Supreme Court judges and legislators. About 60 people were killed in the street protests that, along with a revolt by a loyalist sector of the military, restored Chávez to office. While Carmona was in power, the Bush administration clearly welcomed the coup, spreading the lie that Chávez had “resigned.”
The US government was restrained in expressing its joy compared to the New York Times editorial board (4/13/02): “Venezuelan democracy is no longer threatened by a would-be dictator…. The military intervened and handed power to a respected business leader.”
The Washington Post editors (4/14/02), in contrast, objected to the coup, but made no appeal for Chávez to be restored to office. That was obviously unthinkable for US editorial writers. (See FAIR’s overview of how US newspapers responded to the coup at the time—6/2/02.) The Post, while uncomfortable with the coup, also spread the Carmona dictatorship’s allegation that it took place because Chávez had ordered troops to fire on protesters. Greg Wilpert (Venezuelanalysis, 4/13/07) documented that 19 deaths at an infamous march on the presidential palace, used as the pretext for the coup, were evenly split between opponents and Chávez supporters who had gathered in front of the presidential palace to defend it.
Compelling evidence emerged that snipers were deployed by opposition groups to shoot at people during the march. The private media in Venezuela manipulated footage of the march to push Carmona’s allegation, which the Post was far from alone in repeating. The 19 deaths at the march do not include the 60 people who were later killed protesting Camona’s rule.
International media used this deceitful approach as a template when the US-backed opposition went on to make other attempts to overthrow the government by force.
In February 2004, after years of imposing harsh economic sanctions on the country (and more than a century of direct and indirect US colonialism), Washington directly perpetrated a coup against Haiti’s left-leaning government. US troops kidnapped democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, while Canadian troops secured the airport in Port-au-Prince. Canada and France (whose troops were also involved with the coup) were both still taking bows at the time for not going along with the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq a year earlier.
Within months of the coup perpetrated by foreign troops, Gérard Latortue’s dictatorship was installed and backed by UN soldiers who would stay in Haiti for 13 years. The dictatorship ruled for two years and killed thousands of Aristide’s supporters. Most of the killings were perpetrated by Haitian police and paramilitaries; UN forces, however, also perpetrated massacres, sexual assaults and, through criminal negligence, killed 10,000 Haitians by bringing cholera in to the country in 2010. In 2016, Obama administration lawyers helped the UN win a court ruling in New York that blocked the families of cholera victims from receiving compensation.
Several years after Aristide was ousted, North American news articles casually criminalized any association with Aristide’s deposed government, and even called it a dictatorship: “Former Chief of Staff to Haitian Dictator Aristide Is Appointed to Montreal Immigration Board” stated one headline (Sun Media, 3/11/09).
In The Nation (2/29/12), Amy Wilentz smeared Aristide and his twice-elected former protege Rene Preval as part of a “triple threat” to Haitian democracy, along with the infamous US-backed dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, who had returned to Haiti in 2011. Wilentz said Aristide was one of “three former presidents currently in-country against whom human rights charges could conceivably be brought.” Impunity for Aristide and Preval had helped provide impunity for Duvalier, she argued, while making no mention of impunity for US government officials who perpetrated a coup and installed a dictator who killed thousands—Latortue, whose “impunity” she also ignored (HaitiAnalysis, 3/3/12).
In June 2009, Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was overthrown by the Honduran military, which has long had close ties to the US. What mattered most to the Wall Street Journal editorial board (7/2/09) was that an ally of Hugo Chávez had been ousted. The Journal worried (needlessly) that Obama might help restore Zelaya, handing “a political victory to the forces of chavismo in Latin America.”
As FAIR (9/24/09) explained, a falsehood was widely spread in US corporate media that Zelaya was ousted for illegally trying to extend his time in office. This lie was used to provide various levels of support for the coup: from outright celebration of it to “opposition” that still falsely accused Zelaya of having attempted a power grab (Znet, 7/21/09).
The Obama administration officially opposed the coup, but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton maneuvered to weaken the regional response to it, as she explained in her book Hard Choices:
We strategized on a plan to restore order in Honduras and ensure that free and fair elections could be held quickly and legitimately, which would render the question of Zelaya moot and give the Honduran people a chance to choose their own future.
The passage was edited out of the paperback edition of her book. To further render the usurpation “moot”, the US government then increased funding to the coup perpetrators, the Honduran military, in the years that followed.
A New York Times news report (8/11/16) in 2016 gushed over the US government’s role in Honduras, presenting it as “a striking rebuke to the rising isolationists in American politics” who “seem to have lost their faith in American power”—and sending the coup, and a spike in crime homicides and political assassinations that followed it, down the memory hole (FAIR.org, 8/17/16). Nicholas Casey of the New York Times (8/14/17) would lie even more flagrantly a year later, saying that the US government had “unsuccessfully” tried to “broker a deal” for Zelaya’s return after the coup (FAIR.org, 8/18/17).
The democratically elected left-leaning President Fernando Lugo was deposed in a parliamentary coup in 2012. He was elected in 2008 and briefly disrupted the hegemony of the Colorado Party—the party of the former US-backed dictator Alfredo Stroessner, whose 35-year rule ended in 1989. Lugo, staunchly opposed by Paraguay’s private media and military, and isolated in Congress, was pushed out. Obama’s government gave its blessing to Lugo’s ouster. Paraguay now reliably votes with the United States at the OAS in its efforts to overthrow Venezuela’s government (e.g., Huffington Post, 6/4/16).
One of the more candid news articles about this incident at the time (Reuters, 6/22/12) referred to the “six decades of rule by the Colorado party” and “Alfredo Stroessner’s brutal 35-year dictatorship,” but still neglected to mention US support for it.
More frequently, Western media simply ignored the rollback of democracy in Paraguay. For example, an article by Juan Forero in the Washington Post (7/12/12 ; FAIR.org, 8/1/12) about “creeping authoritarianism” in Latin America completely ignored the coup in Paraguay that occurred a month earlier (as well as the Honduran coup of 2009)—and instead singled out elected left-wing governments in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua.
A US federal judge based in New York forced Argentina into a technical default on its bonds in June 2014—exercising an illegitimate veto over a debt-restructuring agreement agreed to by 90 percent of bondholders. Judge Thomas Griesa effectively imposed serious economic sanctions on Argentina on behalf of “vulture funds” while the left-of-center government of President Cristina Fernández was in office.
Dean Baker (Beat the Press, 8/21/14) observed that a news article in the New York Times (8/20/14) deceptively referred to the vulture funds as “holdout investors.” The vulture funds bought the bonds dirt cheap after Argentina’s debt default in 2001 with the objective of one day reaping profits from a favorable court ruling. The clue is in the name: “vulture funds.”
The Supreme Court, the Obama administration and the IMF simply looked the other way: The US Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal of the ruling, and the Obama administration did not ask it to do so. The IMF said it would file an animus brief, but reversed itself in response to US objections. Several months later, Mauricio Macri, a right-winger who apes US belligerence towards Venezuela, prevailed in a very close election. The judge in New York then withdrew his imperial injunction. Macri has just entered into a $30 billion loan agreement with the IMF, which will come with policy strings attached—enhanced US veto power, in other words.
Macri’s rapprochement with the global financial system earned him a place on Time’s “100 Most Influential People” list for 2016—with his testimonial (4/21/16) written by Paul Singer, the hedge fund billionaire who led the efforts to force Argentina to pay off the vulture funds. “If he lives up to his promise, Argentina may finally do the same,” Singer concluded. Time identified Singer by noting that he “has been involved in debt negotiations with the Argentine government for several years”—a rather roundabout allusion to the fact that the president he was praising had just agreed to give his investment firm $2.3 billion.
The democratically elected President Dilma Rousseff was overthrown in a parliamentary coup in August 2016. Seizing on a steep drop in her popularity due to an economic crisis, legislators abused their power by ousting her for an accounting procedure involving the budget deficit which was not an impeachable offence. She was one of the few Brazilian politicians not to be accused of corruption for personal gain—unlike her unelected successor, Michel Temer, who was caught on videotape authorizing bribes.
Temer, whose domestic approval rating has long been in single digits, forced through austerity policies rejected by Brazilian voters at the polls since 2002 when the leftist Lula da Silva was first elected. Lula was just imprisoned on extremely dubious grounds and barred from running for president in October.
Lula was once hailed by Western media as part of a “Good Left,” with which the US government could have cordial relations, unlike the government of Venezuela. In 2012, the US-backed candidate in Venezuela’s presidential election insisted he was a Lula-like leftist, even though Lula endorsed Hugo Chávez. Though a few members of the US Congress expressed “grave concern,” the US government winked at the ouster of Dilma, and has been silent over the imprisonment of Lula.
A New York Times editorial (4/12/18) called Lula’s jailing a gain in “the fight against corruption,” but worried that it might turn into a “setback for democracy.” Is it not already a huge setback for democracy that the Brazilian right has been using an incredibly unpopular and unelected president to ram through austerity policies rejected by voters? The Brazilian right has also ensured that the country has become yet another reliable ally, providing political cover for US attacks on Venezuela.
Another government that will likely be joining US attacks on Venezuela very soon is Ecuador’s. Its president, Lenín Moreno, was part of the “Bad Left” government of Rafael Correa for ten years. As I explained in a piece for FAIR (2/14/18), Moreno immediately received flattering press coverage when he revealed that his entire presidential campaign in 2017 had been fraudulent. Moreno ran as a passionate Correa loyalist but after the votes were counted shifted hard to the right, imposed political uniformity on the national media, and trampled all over the constitution and judicial independence.
Moreno instantly won over the private media by attacking Correa. Moreno then ensured that public media no longer provided any effective counterbalance; one of his very first moves in office was to put the former editor of a private right-wing newspaper in charge of the government-run paper. In a crucial TV interview Moreno gave in January, about two weeks before a referendum he called by decree (in violation of the constitution), the public and private media journalists were barely distinguishable from each other. The most aggressive question Moreno faced was why he still had some former allies of Correa in his cabinet. Interesting question to ask a man who, during his presidential campaign, praised Correa’s administration as “legendary” and Correa personally as the “best Ecuadorian.”
Moreno’s cynical moves since taking office were spun by the international press as Moreno “being his own man” and showing “tolerance of independent journalism.” Moreno has recently showed off that “tolerance” by cutting Julian Assange off from receiving phone calls, visitors or internet access in the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where Assange has been trapped for several years for the “crime” of being a publisher.
In Ecuador’s case, the traditional allies of the United States gained the upper hand on their own by working with opportunists and imposters within the ranks of Correa’s government. The corporate media then helped sell this as a victory for democracy and press freedom.
The intention here isn’t to argue that left-of-center governments in the region never do bad things. During his “Good Left” period, Lula’s government helped the US crush Haiti’s democracy, heavily contributing troops to the UN mission after the 2004 coup. (Venezuela’s government under Hugo Chávez, in contrast, never recognized the Latortue dictatorship in Haiti as legitimate.)
Ultimately, though, to the US government and its traditional allies, the only good left in the Americas is an overthrown left, and if possible an imprisoned left. They will gladly veto the democratic choice of voters to accomplish that goal, or support others who exercise an illegitimate veto in the way they like. The pattern is clear, as has been documented in numerous histories of the US/Latin American relationship, but you’ll have a very hard time learning about it from the “free press.”