How the left is living off Latin America

John Pilger's new film rightly slates US intervention - but its fawning over Chavez substitutes fantasy for political analysis.

Rob Lyons

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‘This film is about the struggle of people to free themselves from a modern form of slavery. Richard Nixon, president of the United States, once said of Latin America: “People don’t give a shit about the place.” He was wrong. The grand design of the United States as a modern empire was drawn on the hopes of an entire continent known contemptuously as “The Backyard”. The extraordinary witnesses in this film describe a world not as American presidents like to see it, as useful or expendable. They describe the power of courage and humanity among people with next to nothing.’

This is how John Pilger introduces his new film about America’s relationship with Latin America, The War On Democracy. Pilger has been churning out earnest documentaries like this for the UK’s ITV network for decades now. He started in the 1970s, when ITV was also producing shows like World in Action and This Week and the station had a reputation for producing decent documentaries and current affairs shows to balance the family entertainment. Now, when the station’s most watched output is endless talent shows and naff celebrity reality TV formats, and the channel’s current affairs coverage is headlined by the embarrassingly bad Tonight with Trevor McDonald, Pilger’s heart-on-his-sleeve films stick out like a sore thumb.

With his programmes increasingly shunted to late-night slots, he has joined the documentary bandwagon and given his latest effort for ITV a theatrical release, too. The War On Democracy is Pilger-by-the-numbers. Hooked off a description of the failed coup in Venezuela in 2002, Pilger describes how the US has spent over 50 years interfering in Latin America to produce regimes harmonious with America’s perceived security interests.

Pilger begins the history lesson with the election of the moderate government of Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán in Guatemala in 1951. Arbenz introduced some modest land reforms to bring more of Guatemala’s land into cultivation. However, this directly threatened the interests of United Fruit, a company that owned vast areas of underutilised land in the country and whose board members included US secretary of state John Foster Dulles. Former CIA operative Howard Hunt describes how the Agency stoked unrest in the country before engineering a coup that saw Arbenz replaced by a military dictator, Castillo Armas.

This pattern was repeated throughout Latin America in subsequent years. Pilger produces a roll-call of countries around the world in which the US has intervened to prop up a dodgy but friendly regime or to oust an unfriendly one. For the most part, America has got its way, the most notable exceptions being the failure of the US to reverse Castro’s revolution in Cuba and the debacle in Vietnam.

For Pilger, the worst example of US interference in Latin America took place in Chile, where the elected government of Salvador Allende was brutally overthrown by General Augusto Pinochet on 11 September 1973. (The irony of the date is not lost on Pilger.) Supporters of the Allende government were rounded up in the main stadium in Santiago, and over the following weeks many were tortured and shot. Many more disappeared in subsequent years. According to Pilger, Chile remains deeply affected by the Pinochet years in which an economic experiment was conducted in the country under the influence of Chicago economist Milton Friedman. While the country is apparently prosperous today, Pilger shows it is a deeply unequal society with great wealth sitting side-by-side with grinding poverty. Yet, he argues, there is little appetite in the country to express political dissent, with Chileans preferring to keep their heads down rather than risk a return to the dark days of the 70s and 80s.

While Pilger provides a fleeting if useful summary of America’s interventionist past, it is Venezuela today that is central to The War On Democracy. The country has become famous/infamous due to the rise to power of firebrand president Hugo Chavez. To commentators on Fox News, he’s a ‘criminal’ who should be assassinated at the earliest possible opportunity. To the people living in the barios, the ramshackle breeze-block settlements that house millions of poor people in Venezuela, he is a hero. It is here that the increased access to healthcare and education provided by Chavez is most appreciated.

Yet Chavez has critics on the left, too. His presidency has coincided with a boom as oil prices have leapt up. He is in a strong position internationally – Venezuela provides about 12 per cent of America’s oil needs – and relatively well-off at home. Critics have argued that he has failed to capitalise fully on this economic situation, and where he has done so, it has been done in a way that promotes him and increases his power.

Chavez is, nonetheless, still popular, particularly amongst the poor. Pilger illustrates this by recounting the attempted coup against him in 2002. In Pilger’s telling, a growing campaign against Chavez on Venezuela’s privately-owned television stations led to a major demonstration in the capital, Caracas, on 11 April. A counter-demonstration was organised for the same day by supporters of the president but the two demonstrations were supposed to be kept apart. In the event, the organisers of the anti-Chavez march redirected their march to the presidential palace, ensuring it would clash with the pro-Chavez demonstration. When the two marches were close, shots were fired by snipers, killing anti-Chavez marchers. The anti-Chavez TV stations then produced footage suggesting that Chavez had ordered the shootings, and opposition groups and disaffected army officers used the situation to seize power. It was only when the people of the barios took to the streets to demand the return of their president that the army, which overwhelmingly backed Chavez, re-took the presidential palace and restored Chavez to power.

Pilger reveals how the US knew about the plot in advance and had provided funding to some of the opposition groups involved. Moreover, Pilger suggests the footage used was misleading and quotes a CNN journalist who was told days before that there would be killings on the march. In other words, Pilger suggests, the whole situation was a set-up, a full-frontal attack on the democratic will of the Venezuelan people, with the US at least indirectly involved. What Pilger doesn’t discuss is the wider circumstances of the crisis, including a general strike organised by the major trade unions which began on 9 April, nor the instruction to broadcasters to run many of Chavez’s speeches in the days before the demonstration. Nor does Pilger question just how strong this coup was when it lasted a mere 48 hours or how ‘popular’ this restoration of Chavez was when it was carried out by the army rather than the people.

Pilger is almost fawning in his efforts to provide an alternative to the anti-Chavez line coming from Washington and the rants of Fox News commentators against the Venezuelan leader. He appears to give Chavez an extremely easy ride in an interview with the leader, while doing a Louis Theroux-style softly-softly exposé of the lifestyles of the richer members of Caracas society. For all of Pilger’s talk of Venezuela (and latterly, Bolivia) as models of popular resistance, leaders like Chavez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales have much in common with the populism of previous Latin American leaders like Juan Peron in Argentina, appealing to the poor but without any great principle behind their actions. This leaves the mass of people as a stage army to be called upon when it suits these leaders, and leaves open the possibility of an ever-greater centralisation of power in the name of ‘The People’. In Chavez’s case, he has recently moved against privately-run TV stations that have been critical of him.

The main problem with The War On Democracy is that, to the limited extent that Pilger provides an analysis of the situation, it is one transposed from previous battles, fortified with a heap of liberal wishful thinking; it’s old-fashioned, brutal US imperialism versus dogged, popular people power. While left-wingers in Europe and America have been enthusiastic supporters of Third World liberation struggles for forty years or more, these movements became even more important to them as militancy in the West went into decline. For British leftists in the 1980s, picking coffee beans with the Sandinistas or boycotting South African apples became more important than struggles at home (including the war in Ireland).

In the present era, when political struggle is a nostalgia trip, a disoriented left looks to any semblance of resistance elsewhere to cheer themselves up rather than seriously question what happened to political struggle in their own ‘backyard’. The most ridiculous example of this has been London mayor Ken Livingstone’s mission to Venezuela to provide ‘consultancy’ for the Chavez government in exchange for cheap oil to run London’s buses. For the British left, Chavez is the anti-American Third World leader du jour.

But things have changed enormously in Latin America since the 1970s. There is no ‘other power’ like the Soviet Union for nationalists in Latin America to appeal to, so Venezuela and Bolivia have limited room for manoeuvre. On the other hand, the absence of a communist threat or an alternative system both reduces the need for the US to attack recalcitrant regimes and reveals America’s lack of purpose. In the past, Washington knew what it didn’t want – communism or socialism on its doorstep. Now that’s no longer on the agenda, America doesn’t have any clear mission in Latin America.

Hence, for all the bluster, Venezuela and the US are still on speaking terms with each other. While America would be quite happy to see the back of Chavez, he offers little in the way of a threat to them and they have every interest in stability in Venezuela because they need the country’s oil. Pragmatism reigns.

This pragmatic reality rather undermines Pilger’s case. For all the entirely proper anger that Pilger feels for the way in which America brutally stamped its influence on the region in the past, there is something ultimately quite empty about a documentary that sees what it chooses to see rather than providing an adequate and realistic explanation for events in Latin America today.

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