Saturday, 14 March 2015

Is Obama’s Gitmo Statement Merely a PR Stunt?

--> Here's an old piece I wrote a while back...




My old dad always told me that, in politics, talk is cheap. You judge people by their actions, not their words. That is why I am not particularly hopeful when it comes to Obama closing Guantanamo Bay prison. This week, at the White House, the President stated the controversial jail was “not necessary to keep America safe.” He went on to explain why he feels it should close: “It is expensive. It is inefficient. It hurts us, in terms of our international standing. It lessens cooperation with our allies on counter-terrorism efforts.”

At no point did the President cite its gross immorality or its illegality under international law as factors, rather, it is simply a costly public relations nightmare for Washington. Obama appears quite happy to hold people without trial around the world, in less infamous jails. Indeed, in 2009, the Obama administration planned to simply transfer the Guantanamo inmates to a small prison in rural Illinois, far from the eyes of the foreign press.

Obama’s announcement comes in response to a mass hunger strike, now in its third month, which has led to growing international scrutiny of the cruel and unusual conditions at the prison. Increasing numbers of people are questioning why the US has a base there at all.

Back to History Class

The US intervened in the Cuban War of Independence, forcing the Spanish out, making way for US business interests. They pressurized exhausted Cuba into granting all manner of concessions, including signing a lease to allow the US to use the port as a coaling station. This coaling station evolved into a military base, and, eventually, what we have now. This despite strong protests from the Cuban government.

Described as the “gulag of our times” by Amnesty International, inmates are subjected to psychological, physical and sexual torture. “They used dogs on us” says Al-Jazeera journalist Sami al-Haj, released after six years without charge. “They beat me, sometimes they hung me from the ceiling and didn’t allow me to sleep for six days.” Violence is so prevalent that even the guards are not immune. In 2003, Sean Baker, an undercover US National Guardsman playing the role of a prisoner in a training exercise, was beaten so violently he suffered serious brain damage. Before his election, President Obama promised he would do everything in his power to close the unpopular prison. He even signed an order to close it in 2009, which was later, quietly, forgotten.

Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, nearly 800 people have been incarcerated at the jail, including at least 21 children like Canadian citizen Omar Khadr. Today, there are still 166 inmates from 23 countries. 86 of them were cleared for release in 2009 but remain interned. Even according to the Obama administration, 92% of the inmates have never been Al-Qaeda operatives. Only 12 are even accused of terrorism. The Bush administration released 532 inmates, Obama, just 72. Those that are charged will be taken to the Orwellian-named “Camp Justice”, to receive a military tribunal.

Despite his carefully chosen words about freedom and peace, President Obama has intensified the war in Afghanistan, violated Pakistan and Yemen’s national sovereignty with drone attacks, and continued to interfere in Americans’ privacy at home. The sad truth is Obama’s major achievement in human rights is to make George Bush seem like a civil libertarian. Until the President backs up his rosy words with concrete action, there is little reason to rejoice. The message should be “close Guantanamo, yes, but what about the still-open Abu Grahib and all the other detention centres round the world which have brought shame to America?”

A wise man once said “fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.”

Time will tell if we are all being fooled again.

US sanctions in Latin America: a new dawn in US foreign policy or hypocrisy as usual?


US sanctions in Latin America: a new dawn in US foreign policy or hypocrisy as usual?





The Obama administration’s easing of sanctions against the small island nation of Cuba was met with a mixed response at home, to say the least. Could this be the beginning of a new dawn in a more humane foreign policy? Many establishment figures welcomed the move. John Kerry was one of them, stating “it is time to try something new” to give “the best opportunity for the people of Cuba to improve their lives and to take part in the choices about their lives.” Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird agreed, “The more American values and American capital [my emphasis] that are permitted into Cuba, the freer the Cuban people will be,” he said.

However, many po-faced articles attacked the President as a spineless leader, guilty of faulty logic. There was also a good deal of concern about the fate of “free speech advocates” and “human rights campaigners” in Cuba. One Washington Post editorial laments that “with no consequences in sight, Cuba continues to crack down on free speech” while one Times article gives voice to another dissident’s opinion: “This is a blank check for the Castros and their heirs in power.” President Obama himself explained the embargo thus: “This policy has been rooted in the best of intentions…it has had little effect.”

Many, even on the left, have hailed the decision as a historic shift in US foreign policy.

While there does appear to be considerable debate among the elite on the subject, a number of key assumptions remain unchallenged and unexplored in the debate and many crucial facts remain unspoken. Firstly, the notion that United States is an honest broker, and its foreign policy has always been designed to improve the freedom and standard of democracy of those in foreign countries is apparent in virtually every article. No opinion column that this author has found challenges the concept of the United States’ ethical foreign policy. Remarkable, considering the US props up some of, if not most of, the world’s most violent dictatorships. Among these being  Saudi Arabia, where beheadings are common and women are not allowed to drive a car, Egypt, which has seen “unprecedented state violence” to “quash dissent”, according to Amnesty, and Israel, currently carrying out the world’s longest-running occupation of another country.  Indeed, as far back as 1981, Lars Schoultz found that the more a Latin American country tortured its own population, the more US foreign aid it would receive. 


Another key assumption underlying the mainstream commentary is that the United States has the right to interfere in the internal affairs of other sovereign nations. As William Blum has chronicled, the United States has overthrown more than 50 foreign governments since 1945. Yet, it is Cuba’s record with regard to its history of human rights abuses and state-sponsored terrorism that is under scrutiny.
This is a shocking reversal of the facts. For one thing, the greatest human rights abuses on Cuba occur at US-controlled Guantanamo Bay, where hundreds of political prisoners have been tortured. Furthermore, no mention is made to the fact that the United States has been waging a unilateral terrorist war against Cuba for more than 50 years. This is a war that has included widespread use of banned bio-chemical weapons resulting in a trillion dollars of damage to the island, according to the United Nations.

The embargo is almost unanimously opposed in the international arena. A resolution demanding the immediate end to the blockade of Cuba has been passed 23 times in a row at the UN. In 2012, the vote was 188-3, with the US picking up only Israel and Palau as support while managing to buy only abstentions from the Marshall Islands and Micronesia, apparently too embarrassed to vote against it.


These discarded facts notwithstanding, what makes the situation more extraordinary is that at the same time as lifting sanctions against Cuba, the US is currently placing sanctions on Venezuela for alleged human rights violations. These “human rights violations” include arresting political leaders, funded by the United States government through USAID who tried to overthrow the government last year. The White House went further this week, declaring a “national emergency with respect to the extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States posed by the situation in Venezuela.” The absurdity of such a statement needs no comment. Suffice to say, Americans will not be panic-buying groceries and going down into their bunkers. Older readers may remember similar outbursts from the Reagan administration, which claimed that Nicaragua “constituted an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States and hereby declare a national emergency to deal with that threat.” However, when US officials talk of threats to national security and foreign policy, what they mean is the threat of any country taking matters into its own hands and possibly “threatening” to bar the US government to do whatever it likes around the world.

It is commonly said that the US has taken its eye off Latin America in recent times, particularly since the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions. Therefore you will be forgiven for not following what has happened in the region since 2000. Venezuela was the first of eighteen countries to elect (and re-elect) progressive political parties into power. While far from perfect, the so-called “pink tide” has begun to address the shocking problems in their countries, such as poverty, inequality and national sovereignty. Venezuela in particular has been at the forefront of creating new regional institutions designed to replace the US-dominated Cold War organizations. For 500 years many Latin Americans felt the region had been under foreign domination, first European, later American. The continent, which was described by US officials as “America’s backyard” and “our little region over here that has never bothered anybody” has begun to free itself from US domination with alarming- or exhilarating depending on your political persuasion- speed. There is a general agreement among these nations that a precondition to genuine independence and integration was freeing themselves from US interference by setting up their own, independent institutions.


ALBA, a Venezuelan-inspired alternative to the US-backed Free Trade Agreement for the Americas, was launched in 2004. In contrast to the FTAA, which promoted free trade, trickle-down economics and investor rights, ALBA was specifically designed as a complimentary, South-South organization based upon the principles of solidarity, social development and cultural protection. Brazilian sociologist Emir Sader described ALBA as a system of exchange in which each country gives what it has and receives what it needs, according to the capacities and necessities of each participant. It is the only example of this kind of commerce in the world and is quite different from the market-based criteria of the WTO.” It has since expanded to 11 countries, mainly in the Caribbean region. ALBA focuses not only on trade in goods but also in programmes to help the disadvantaged. By 2011, it claimed it had lifted 11 million people out of poverty.

UNASUR, the Union of South American Nations, was inaugurated in 2008 and CELAC, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States, followed in 2011. These are regional organizations not unlike the EU. CELAC consists of every single Western hemisphere country except the United States and Canada, who were deliberately barred from entering. One of the goals of these organizations is to replace the US-dominated Organization of American States (OAS). Venezuela pioneered the Bank of the South, opened in 2009, and endorsed by Nobel Prize-winner Jospeh Stiglitz. It is a regional bank designed as an alternative to the Washington-based International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank. It has proven successful. Today, every country in South America, bar US-ally Colombia, has rid itself of the IMF once and for all. To go with the bank a new currency, the SUCRE, has been established, designed to replace the US dollar in international business. Trade between Latin American countries has greatly increased, and the United States has lost ground to China in trade in the region. South American governments have also launched their own TV channel, Telesur. The Venezuelan government created Petrocaribe in 2005 in order to promote solidarity with and development for the poorest countries in the region. Under the programme, countries can defer payment for discounted fuel, thus hastening their economic development. The US is known not to agree with the project and has pressured states not to join.

American power and prestige in Latin America has seriously declined since 2000. The US now does not have a permanent military base in South America, the only continent in the world where that is the case. South America was also the only continent where no country cooperated with the US rendition programme. South American countries are willing to grant asylum to Western dissidents like Julian Assange, Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. Uruguay has granted asylum to victims of Guantanamo Bay torture. In 2009, no South American nation recognized Palestine. Today, all, bar Colombia, have done so. So much for “America’s backyard.”

The situation in Latin America and the Caribbean is as follows: Venezuelan initiatives are leading countries to turn their backs on the United States. Its threat to the US is much the same as the Nicaraguan threat in the 1980s: the threat of a good example. The real threat to US hegemony in the region is not Cuba anymore: it comes from the potential of Venezuelan-led regional institutions. Hence détente with Cuba and hostility with Venezuela.

By 2006, conservative analysts like Jorge Castaneda recognized the US Empire in Latin America was crumbling and the best way to preserve it was to separate good countries from bad. By 2009, the same analyst lamented the Empire was all but over. It is in this light we should see the recent decisions to lessen the blockade of Cuba and ramp up sanctions against Venezuela. Cuba is simply not geostrategically important any more. Progressives all over the world look to South American states such as Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador as examples, rather than Cuba. Today, both Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece openly declare their admiration of and links to the Venezuelan government. By softening their stance towards Cuba, the US hopes to regain some influence in the Caribbean.

In his biography of Chilean President Salvador Allende, Oscar Guardiola-Rivera stated that Washington always saw the democratically elected socialist as a far greater threat than the military dictator Castro precisely because he was an avowed democrat and won elections. Thus Hugo Chavez and now Nicolas Maduro pose a greater threat to US power. Venezuela is now enemy number one in the region. Therefore the lessening of sanctions against Cuba, while simultaneously imposing sanctions on Venezuela under the pretense of protecting human rights, is nonsensical.

Far from isolating Venezuela, however, the US has succeeded only in isolating itself. Attempts at sowing division between the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ countries of Latin America have largely failed. Even allies like Colombia cannot be counted on to consistently toe the line. CELAC, representing all Western hemisphere nations except the US and Canada, condemned the new sanctions, with Ecuador’s President Correa labeling them “a bad joke.” Even American journalists find it funny. This week, as State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki explained that the US has a “long-standing policy “against backing coups in Latin America, journalist Matt Lee could not contain his laughter (video).

President Correa is correct. Ending sanctions on Cuba in the name of a new foreign policy while at the same time imposing sanctions on Venezuela because of supposed government repression is indeed laughable. It makes absolutely no sense if we take seriously the narrative on human rights and democracy peddled by the White House and echoed in the media. But it makes perfect sense if we view it as a cynical, realpolitik attempt to undermine the threat of a good example and a way of reestablishing American influence in the Caribbean through an increased presence in Cuba. Taking into account these factors, we can see there is no new, enlightened dawn in US policy, rather a switching of targets. It is, lamentably, business as usual.


Monday, 3 March 2014

Venezuelan Opposition "Shooting Themselves in the Foot" - Buxton



Professor Julia Buxton. Souce: http://spp.ceu.hu/

Friday, 28th February, 2014

Amid a storm of angry objections by Venezuelan students at her talk in London, and a torrent of violent twitter abuse, renowned Venezuelan expert Julia Buxton maintained that the current anti-government protests are doing nothing to advance the opposition’s cause. Indeed, the protests have divided the opposition into moderate and radical factions. Buxton was speaking to an engaged audience in Glasgow, Scotland, elaborating on her recent influential article, “The Real Significance of the Student Protests.”

                  The reaction to the demonstrations has been remarkable. Sensationalist reports of gangs of state-sponsored paramilitaries on motorbikes shooting up middle-class neighborhoods and (faked) pictures of tortured civilians have flooded the internet. What is ironic, for Buxton, is that the violence needed no exaggeration. Fourteen people on both sides have been killed already and much of Caracas is ablaze. The Mesa De la Unidad Democrática (MUD) had recently been making positive inroads into the Chavista majority. However, Buxton contends that the protests have increased public disillusionment with the opposition, and has, ultimately, proved detrimental to their cause. Recent opinion polls show only 23 percent of Venezuelans support the protests.  


US Involvement?

                  Student movements tend to be progressive. However, these students are primarily from the elite, private universities. They are English-speaking and highly westernized. Buxton sees them as defending their privilege, neoliberalism and the ancien regime that they are too young to remember. The students have expertly used social media to focus international attention to their cause: Venezuela has the 4th highest twitter penetration in the world. Yet, in emphasizing the international, the students have overlooked domestic opinion. The poor majority do not use any social media and are, with good reason, mistrustful of the students. She alleged that the student leaders had been given copious media training and even flown to the US to meet with government officials. Student leader Yon Goicoechea received the $500,000 Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty in 2008 for his role in previous anti-government uprisings. This is added to the “hundreds of millions of dollars” in support the opposition has received from Washington since Hugo Chávez's election.  This may explain the coordinated, slick media campaign.


International Reaction

While the US was quick to condemn the government (John Kerry claimed their actions were “unacceptable”), Mercosur has stood firmly behind the government. President Fernandez de Kirchner reaffirmed her solidarity with President Maduro. Even the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs placed the blame on the State Department. It would not be in the interests of Brazil or Argentina to see a successful insurrection in Venezuela, as it may destabilize the entire region, (lest we forget the consequences of the 1973 coup in Chile). What is remarkable about the protests, Buxton claims, is the state’s refusal to repress the opposition. She commented on the lenient response from the government. This stands a far cry from the Caracazo in 1989, where the Carlos Andrés Pérez government mowed down thousands of protesters with machine guns.


What Maduro Must Do

                  It is ironic that the economic downturn and the rise in crime primarily affect the poor and affect the rich students the least, yet it is the opposition that are mobilizing around these issues. Buxton urged Maduro to begin to reconnect with the grassroots of his party and attack the causes of public discontent. Crime should be addressed with wide-ranging prison and judicial reforms, while recentralizing the police and instituting tougher gun control law would reduce violent crime. Meanwhile, she said, Maduro must improve the much-lauded social programs and attack the waste and corruption of the state.


“Complete Hypocrisy”

                  Buxton dismissed the Western media’s apparent outrage over repression and censorship as “complete hypocrisy.” She noted that in her native United Kingdom, 136 students were arrested in 2010 during protests against rising tuition fees while two men were sentenced to four years in jail for posting Facebook messages and one man was sentenced to 16 months for stealing an ice cream during the London Riots. In contrast, Venezuelans are wanted for murders and incitement to violence. Far from the Western media’s depiction, she characterized Venezuela as having “one of the least regulated media sectors in the world”, having only recently brought in “modest reforms” to bar television stations from inciting murder or armed revolution. Nevertheless, opposition leaders such as Henrique Capriles, Leopoldo López and María Corina Machado have had no trouble appearing on television. She characterized Venezuela as a “profoundly democratic society” being forced to split into two polar opposite camps because of the protests, despite the “great diversity of opinions” in the country.

Maduro convened a “peace dialogue” with the right, although Machado and Capriles did not attend. She postulated that it was Capriles’ credibility that was injured by this, not Maduro’s, as the moderate opposition wished to negotiate. Therefore, she predicted, the socialists’ popularity will remain unaffected but the MUD’s may fall, as the lower middle-class (some 20% of the population) may abstain from voting for Capriles, who has been outflanked and undermined from the right. As such, the protests have been a profoundly self-defeating venture, and the opposition has effectively shot itself in the foot.


Alan MacLeod is a journalist and PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow. He can be reached at @AlanRMacLeod

Monday, 24 February 2014

Venezuela: Some Context to the Protests

Source: breitbart


     In recent days, angry anti-government protests have erupted in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas. If we are to believe some influential Venezuelan bloggers, the government is sending teams of motorbike-riding death-squads roaming around rich neighbourhoods looking for people to kill. Social media is awash with pictures of children, apparently having been beaten to within an inch of their life by government thugs. This, the New York Times eagerly reports, is making Secretary of State John Kerry “increasingly concerned.” Surely this must be the beginning of a democratic uprising against an authoritarian dictator?

     All this does not sit easily with the reaction elsewhere, however. President Morales of Bolivia alleged that, far from being a spontaneous democratic uprising, this was a US-financed coup d'etat which was trying to destroy Hugo Chavez's humanist legacy. Morales went on to say that “on behalf of the Bolivian people, we send our energy and support to the courageous Venezuelan people and president Nicolás Maduro.” President Fernandez de Kirchner sent her solidarity to the President and people of Venezuela in the face of violent attacks on its sovereignty. Similar statements have been made by the Presidents of Ecuador and Nicaragua and even from political parties in Europe. Indeed, Unasur, the Union of South American Nations, has stood firmly behind President Maduro, while even the Washington-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs praised the government for its moderation in dealing with violent protesters and castigated the White House for its “misguided policy toward South America.”


     But what on Earth has the White House got to do with all this? And why are so many respected international bodies talking about imperialism? You would be forgiven for not knowing, as no New York Times or Washington Post article has revealed the fact that Washington has been funding and training the heads of these protests for at least 12 years. Indeed, the US government has spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to overthrow the Venezuelan, Bolivian and Ecuadorean governments. Those leading the protests, Leopoldo Lopez and Maria Corina Machado, are not students, but two of the wealthiest people in South America; Machado is a personal friend of George W. Bush. She was also involved in the last three opposition attempts to overthrow the government: in 2002, 2002-2003 and 2004. In 2002, with the financial, technical and political help of the US government, she and her co-conspirators kidnapped President Hugo Chavez and installed Pedro Carmona as President. He immediately suspended the constitution, sacked all politicians, sacked all judges in the country, suspended human rights, gave himself power to rule by decree, and even changed the name of the country. They were only stopped by a massive revolt, some 25-50 times the size of the current protests, of ordinary, poor Venezuelan citizens.


     Prominent among the current protesters are students from Caracas' elite, fee-paying universities, who wish for change in the country. And yet Venezuela has changed enormously since Hugo Chavez's election in 1998. Poverty was reduced by 50%, extreme poverty by 72%. The bottom 40% of Venezuela's population have seen their slice of the economic pie expand by nearly half and those in the economic percentile 40-70 have also seen their incomes rise. How did the government manage this? By destroying the middle class? In fact, those in percentiles between 70-90 have seen their comparative income stay virtually the same. It is only the top 10% of Venezuelan society, and in particular, the top 1% who have seen their incomes fall. It is from these groups that these young Venezuelans disproportionately come from. In 1998, Venezuela was the most unequal country in the most unequal region in the world, with some of the highest proportions of private jet ownership and child malnutrition in the world. Thanks to massive social programs, a national health service was created and UNESCO hailed Venezuela's achievements in reducing illiteracy. Very little of this has ever been reported by the media.




     But the government was far from winning universal support. Chief among their adversaries were the Venezuelan middle and upper classes, who use their power in business, finance and the media to put pressure on the government. Venezuela still faces a host of pressing social and economic problems, some of which have been highlighted by protesters as key issues. But to characterize these protests as democratic movements against an illegitimate government is altogether misleading. Let us not forget that Maduro's party has won 18 elections since 1998, elections which have drawn near-universal praise for their fairness, with Jimmy Carter stating that Venezuelan elections are “the best in the world.”This latest attempt at revolution can only be seen as an attempt by the upper-classes to regain their power lost under the Chavez government.


     It turns out those death squads and the pictures of tortured children were manipulated, as were our emotions. But triflings such as this matter little to the media, who will continue to bang the drum for regime change. They are unlikely to get their wish. For all its faults, and there are many, the majority are standing behind the government, with only 23% of Venezuelans supporting the protests (not that one would guess this given the media coverage) .Tread carefully through the minefield of Venezuelan politics.


Friday, 3 May 2013

Is Obama's Gitmo Proclamation any more than a P.R. stunt?





     My old dad always told me that, in politics, talk is cheap. You judge people by their actions, not their words. That is why I am not particularly hopeful when it comes to Obama closing Guantanamo Bay prison. This week, at the White House, the President stated the controversial jail was “not necessary to keep America safe.” He went on to explain why he feels it should close: “It is expensive. It is inefficient. It hurts us, in terms of our international standing. It lessens cooperation with our allies on counter-terrorism efforts.” At no point did the President cite its gross immorality or its illegality under international law as factors, rather, it is simply a costly public relations nightmare for Washington. Obama appears quite happy to hold people without trial around the world, in less infamous jails. Indeed, in 2009, the Obama administration planned to simply transfer the Guantanamo inmates to a small prison in rural Illinois, far from the eyes of the foreign press.

     Obama's announcement comes in response to a mass hunger strike, now in its third month, which has led to growing international scrutiny of the cruel and unusual conditions at the prison. Increasing numbers of people are questioning why the US has a base there at all.


Back to History Class


     The US intervened in the Cuban War of Independence, forcing the Spanish out, making way for US business interests. They pressurised exhausted Cuba into granting all manner of concessions, including signing a lease to allow the US to use the port as a coaling station. This coaling station evolved into a military base, and, eventually, what we have now. This despite strong protests from the Cuban government.

     Described as the “gulag of our times” by Amnesty International, inmates are subjected to psychological, physical and sexual torture. “They used dogs on us” says Al-Jazeera journalist Sami al-Haj, released after six years without charge. “They beat me, sometimes they hung me from the ceiling and didn't allow me to sleep for six days.” Violence is so prevalent that even the guards are not immune. In 2003, Sean Baker, an undercover US National Guardsman playing the role of a prisoner in a training exercise, was beaten so violently he suffered serious brain damage. Before his election, President Obama promised he would do everything in his power to close the unpopular prison. He even signed an order to close it in 2009, which was, after congressional and Republican opposition, dropped.



Lies, Damn Lies, and Statistics


     According to the American Civil Liberties Union, nearly 800 people have been incarcerated at the jail, including at least 21 children like Canadian citizen Omar Khadr. Today, there are still 166 inmates from 23 countries. 86 of them were cleared for release in 2009 but remain interned. Even according to the Obama administration, 92% of the inmates have never been Al-Qaeda operatives. Only 12 are even accused of terrorism. The Bush administration released 532 inmates, Obama, just 72. Those that are charged will be taken to the Orwellian-named “Camp Justice”, to receive a military tribunal.




     Despite his carefully chosen words about freedom and peace, President Obama has intensified the war in Afghanistan, violated Pakistan and Yemen's national sovereignty with drone attacks, and continued to interfere in Americans' privacy at home. The sad truth is Obama's major achievement in human rights is to make George Bush seem like a civil libertarian. Until the President backs up his rosy words with concrete action, there is little reason to rejoice. The message should be “Guantanamo needs to close, yes, but what about dozens of other detention centres round the world which have brought shame to America?”

     A wise man once said “fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.” Time will tell if we are all being fooled again.




Friday, 19 April 2013

Hugo Chavez, Margaret Thatcher: Two Ideologies, Two Deaths, Two Legacies

By Alan MacLeod



Hugo Chavez and Margaret Thatcher, two great statespeople of our age, representing fundamentally opposing world views, have died. Their deaths have sparked passionate sentiment, for and against. Doubtless, history will remember them as two great figureheads in world politics.

Just as contrasting as their ideologies were, was the reaction to their deaths, from both the media and the public. In a New York Times Obituary, Simon Romero described Chavez as “astute and manipulative”, and accused him of “strutting about like a strongman”. In the UK, the Guardian went on the offensive, claiming “the debate continued as to whether Chavez could fairly be described as a dictator, but a democrat he most certainly was not”, seeing as he “assidously fomented class hatred”.

The Times' reaction to Thatcher's death could hardly have been more different: “The world has lost one of the great champions of freedom and liberty”. Praise was more muted in Britain, mostly going down the “great and controversial figure” line.



This contrasted with the reactions from the public themselves. Across Venezuela there were mass public scenes of grief, with few openly revelling in the death of the President. There was even a candlelight vigil for Chavez in London. A month later, long-planned street parties erupted in towns and cities that residents claimed Thatcher had destroyed.





The two represent the two primary ideologies of the age: neoliberalism and 21st century socialism. Thatcher's neoliberalism, known by many names, free-market economics, Reaganomics, the Washington Consensus, Neoconservatism, traces its philosophical roots to the work of objectivist philosopher, Ayn Rand. In a 1959 interview Rand gave a summary of her position. “Man's highest moral purpose is the achievement of his own happiness...I challenge the moral code of altruism, the precept that man's moral duty is to live for others.” 


Going further, she stated to a shocked interviewer that, “I consider helping others evil” and that “love should be treated as a business deal.” Her ambitious goal was to revolutionize human relations. Shunned by academia, she found an audience in the business community, where her central messages struck a chord. Thatcher echoed Rand's vision when she insisted that “there is no such thing as society, only individuals”.Their philosophy was summed up in the three words by the movie, Wall Street: greed is good.



Rand's effect on the business community was explored in Adam Curtis' excellent documentary trilogy, All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace.



Neoliberalism's economic basis is in the work of Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek. Friedman was close to both Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Often discussed but rarely defined, for World Bank economist John Williamson, its key features are:

  • Fiscal discipline
  • A redirection of public expenditure priorities toward fields offering both high
    economic returns and the potential to improve income distribution, such as primary health care, primary education, and infrastructure
  • Tax reform (to lower marginal rates and broaden the tax base)
  • Interest rate liberalization
  • A competitive exchange rate
  • Trade liberalization
  • Liberalization of inflows of foreign direct investment
  • Privatization
  • Deregulation (to abolish barriers to entry and exit)
  • Secure property rights.

Critics argue that these policies have the effect of transferring control of the economy from institutions which, in theory at least, have the well-being of society as their primary goal to entities only concerned with profits. Under neoliberalism, humans have no inalienable rights, only what they achieve on the markets. Thus, rights enshrined in the United Nations Charter, such as the right to water, to healthcare and an adequate standard of living, are outdated, “a letter to Santa Claus”, in the words of Jeane Kirkpatrick, former US Ambassador to the UN.

While Rand is scornful of religion and established morality, many socialists see it as a crucial part of their beliefs. Tony Benn, former candidate for leader of the British Labour Party, Thatcher's bête noir, and vocal supporter of Chavez, states that his socialism comes from the book of Genesis:



Chavez defined his 21st century socialism at the World Social Forum in 2006:


But Chavez was quick to distance the movement from previous failed attempts and from dogmatic ideologies of the past:


Today, more than 360 million Latin Americans live under left-wing governments dubbed the “Pink Tide” in the West. They are not homogeneous, they range from the eco-socialism of Morales in Bolivia, to Ecuador's radical young economist, Correa to the Workers' Party and Lula in Brazil, but basic principles of equality and integration unite them. Critics claim a reliance on state leads to corruption and inefficiency, and that enforced collective action is an attack on the pure liberty of the individual. 

It is not by chance that an anti-neoliberal agenda has developed in Latin America. It was in the "Empire's Workshop" where Thatcher and Friedman's ideas were first implemented. After overthrowing President Allende, a democratic Marxist who had stood for many of the same things Chavez did, dictator General Pinochet invited protégés of Friedman and Hayek to Chile. There, they had free reign to carry out their ideas, thanks to the General's brutal suppression of the population. The result was not dissimilar to the West today: soaring unemployment and poverty, falling industrial production and purchasing power falling to just 40% of what it had been in 1970 (Grandin, Empire's Workshop, p.170), coupled with a rise in wealth and power of a small section at the top of society.

Hayek recommended Chile as a model for Thatcher to follow. She agreed Chile to be an “economic miracle”, but lamented that Britain's “democratic institutions and the need for a high degree of consent” made “some of the measures” taken “quite unacceptable”. (Grandin, p.172)

Likewise in Venezuela, President Carlos Andres Perez, on instruction from Friedman's students, imposed a sweeping austerity “packet” on Venezuela, privatizing state-owned assets and removing price controls on oil, plunging the population into poverty, to the point where ordinary Caracas residents spent more than 25% of their income on bus fares (Jones, Hugo! p.116). This despite running on an anti-neoliberal ticket, calling the bankers and economists “genocide workers in the pay ofeconomic totalitarianism” during his election campaign.

Desperate Venezuelans began rioting for food, but their protest soon became one against the system itself. The government acted quickly. The military was called in, surrounded the poor quarters of the city, and commenced three days of war against its inhabitants. The L.A. Times' Bart Jones speaks of Red Cross workers being gunned down in the street, “mass graves” being filled with “mutilated corpses”, “tied up corpses” with “bullets in the back of their heads” and children being gunned down as the armies fired indiscriminately into shanty towns (Jones, pp. 121-124). Perhaps 3,000 were killed, a similar number to the Tienanmen Square crackdown, in a country with a population more than 40 times smaller.

So it was not in Seattle, but in Caracas where the first direct protest against neoliberalism occurred, and it was the outrage at the brutal suppression of the people which spurred Chavez onto the political stage. Latin America is ten to twenty years ahead of the West, in economic terms. After decades of brutal neoliberal austerity, an alternative has emerged and fought back. Similar ideas have begun to appear in the West, thanks to the Occupy Movement, which swept America and Europe last year. Those in the West have much to learn from the region, even if it is what not to do.

The Guardian released a piece on the legacy of Margaret Thatcher. It showed a 65% increase in British poverty, from 13 to 22% of the population. Inequality, as measured by the GINI index, rose from .253 to .339. The planned destruction of the manufacturing industry led to record high unemployment. The irony of Thatcherism is that her policies have left far more people dependent on the welfare state than previously.






In contrast, even Thatcher's allies at the World Bank admit that Chavez managed a 50% decrease in poverty, and a 65% decrease in extreme poverty. Their figures show too that unemployment fell from 14.5% in 1999 to 7.6% in 2009. Venezuela's inequality has dropped from .487 in 1998 to .392 in 2009. Today, it is the most admired country in Latin America. A similar story is being played out in other Latin American countries.







For all this, Thatcher was remarkably successful in shifting the political discourse to the right. Her policies of privileging business led to record corporate profits and increased concentration of media ownership. Socialists like Tony Benn were pushed to one side and Tony Blair became leader of a “New Labour”, largely indistinguishable from the Conservatives. When asked what she thought was her greatest achievement, Thatcher responded “Tony Blair and New Labour”. Benn agreed, ruefully.

The concentration of money has led to the rightward shift of the media, too. The “free-market” has led to independent media bought up or swamped by massive conglomerates. Media outlets are increasingly beholden to corporations for advertising. Today, questioning neoliberalism is heresy, leading to even supposedly left-of-centre newspapers wondering if we should be “worried by the rise of the populist left in Latin America”. It is becoming increasingly hard to hide the successes of countries of Latin America in solving age old problems by bucking the supposed iron rules of neoliberal economics. But the media continues to try. The New York Times bemoans Chavez's “irresponsible handouts”, while the Washington Post insists he remains in power only by “showering the poor with gifts”. What are these gifts? The Telegraph finally enlightens us: “lavishing state funds” on projects like operations to restore sight to the blind and soup kitchens. Such is the aversion to the state in Western intellectual culture that providing even basic food and medicine, in accordance with the UN Declaration of Human Rights, are serious transgressions on freedom. 


Despite Thatcher insisting that “there is no alternative”, Latin America is providing a model for a different future. A silent battle for heaven and Earth is being waged. And we all must choose sides. Which one are you on? Choose wisely, because the fate of the 21st century will be decided on which one of these ideologies prevails.