Beyond the sound and fury of its conquest of Iraq and campaign
against Iran, the world's dominant power is waging a largely unreported
war on another continent – Latin America. Using proxies, Washington
aims to restore and reinforce the political control of a privileged
group calling itself middle-class, to shift the responsibility for
massacres and drug trafficking away from the psychotic regime in
Colombia and its mafiosi, and to extinguish hopes raised among Latin
America's impoverished majority by the reform governments of Venezuela,
Ecuador and Bolivia.
In Colombia, the main battleground, the class nature of the war is
distorted by the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of
Colombia, known as the Farc, whose own resort to kidnapping and the
drugs trade has provided an instrument with which to smear those who
have distinguished Latin America's epic history of rebellion by
opposing the proto-fascism of George W Bush's regime. "You don't fight
terror with terror," said President Hugo Chávez as US warplanes bombed
to death thousands of civilians in Afghanistan following the 11
September 2001 attacks. Thereafter, he was a marked man. Yet, as every
poll has shown, he spoke for the great majority of human beings who
have grasped that the "war on terror" is a crusade of domination.
Almost alone among national leaders standing up to Bush, Chávez was
declared an enemy and his plans for a functioning social democracy
independent of the United States a threat to Washington's grip on Latin
America. "Even worse," wrote the Latin America specialist James Petras,
"Chávez's nationalist policies represented an alternative in Latin
America at a time (2000-2003) when mass insurrections, popular
uprisings and the collapse of pro-US client rulers (Argentina, Ecuador
and Bolivia) were constant front-page news."
It is impossible to underestimate the threat of this alternative as
perceived by the "middle classes" in countries which have an abundance
of privilege and poverty. In Venezuela, their "grotesque fantasies of
being ruled by a 'brutal communist dictator'", to quote Petras, are
reminiscent of the paranoia of the white population that backed South
Africa's apartheid regime. Like in South Africa, racism in Venezuela is
rampant, with the poor ignored, despised or patronised, and a Caracas
shock jock allowed casually to dismiss Chávez, who is of mixed race, as
a "monkey". This fatuous venom has come not only from the super-rich
behind their walls in suburbs called Country Club, but from the
pretenders to their ranks in middle-level management, journalism,
public relations, the arts, education and the other professions, who
identify vicariously with all things American. Journalists in
broadcasting and the press have played a crucial role – acknowledged by
one of the generals and bankers who tried unsuccessfully to overthrow
Chávez in 2002. "We couldn't have done it without them," he said. "The
media were our secret weapon."
Many of these people regard themselves as liberals, and have the ear
of foreign journalists who like to describe themselves as being "on the
left". This is not surprising. When Chávez was first elected in 1998,
Venezuela was not an archetypical Latin American tyranny, but a liberal
democracy with certain freedoms, run by and for its elite, which had
plundered the oil revenue and let crumbs fall to the invisible millions
in the barrios. A pact between the two main parties, known as puntofijismo,
resembled the convergence of new Labour and the Tories in Britain and
Republicans and Democrats in the US. For them, the idea of popular
sovereignty was anathema, and still is.
Take higher education. At the taxpayer-funded elite "public"
Venezuelan Central University, more than 90 per cent of the students
come from the upper and "middle" classes. These and other elite
students have been infiltrated by CIA-linked groups and, in defending
their privilege, have been lauded by foreign liberals.
With Colombia as its front line, the war on democracy in Latin
America has Chávez as its main target. It is not difficult to
understand why. One of Chávez's first acts was to revitalise the oil
producers' organisation Opec and force the oil price to record levels.
At the same time he reduced the price of oil for the poorest countries
in the Caribbean region and central America, and used Venezuela's new
wealth to pay off debt, notably Argentina's, and, in effect, expelled
the International Monetary Fund from a continent over which it once
ruled. He has cut poverty by half – while GDP has risen dramatically.
Above all, he gave poor people the confidence to believe that their
lives would improve.
The irony is that, unlike Fidel Castro in Cuba, he presented no real
threat to the well-off, who have grown richer under his presidency.
What he has demonstrated is that a social democracy can prosper and
reach out to its poor with genuine welfare, and without the extremes of
"neo liberalism" – a decidedly unradical notion once embraced by the
British Labour Party. Those ordinary Vene zuelans who abstained during
last year's constitutional referendum were protesting that a "moderate"
social democracy was not enough while the bureaucrats remained corrupt
and the sewers overflowed.
Across the border in Colombia, the US has made Venezuela's neighbour
the Israel of Latin America. Under "Plan Colombia", more than $6bn in
arms, planes, special forces, mercenaries and logistics have been
showered on some of the most murderous people on earth: the inheritors
of Pinochet's Chile and the other juntas that terrorised Latin America
for a generation, their various gestapos trained at the School of the
Americas in Georgia. "We not only taught them how to torture," a former
American trainer told me, "we taught them how to kill, murder,
eliminate." That remains true of Colombia, where government-inspired
mass terror has been documented by Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and many
others. In a study of 31,656 extrajudicial killings and forced
disappearances between 1996 and 2006, the Colombian Commission of
Jurists found that 46 per cent had been murdered by right-wing death
squads and 14 per cent by Farc guerrillas. The para militaries were
responsible for most of the three million victims of internal
displacement. This misery is a product of Plan Colombia's pseudo "war
on drugs", whose real purpose has been to eliminate the Farc. To that
goal has now been added a war of attrition on the new popular
democracies, especially Venezuela.
US special forces "advise" the Colombian military to cross the
border into Venezuela and murder and kidnap its citizens and infiltrate
paramilitaries, and so test the loyalty of the Venezuelan armed forces.
The model is the CIA-run Contra campaign in Honduras in the 1980s that
brought down the reformist government in Nicaragua. The defeat of the
Farc is now seen as a prelude to an all-out attack on Venezuela if the
Vene zuelan elite – reinvigorated by its narrow referendum victory last
year – broadens its base in state and local government elections in
America's man and Colombia's Pinochet is President Álvaro Uribe. In
1991, a declassified report by the US Defence Intelligence Agency
revealed the then Senator Uribe as having "worked for the Medellín
Cartel" as a "close personal friend" of the cartel's drugs baron, Pablo
Escobar. To date, 62 of his political allies have been investigated for
close collaboration with paramilitaries. A feature of his rule has been
the fate of journalists who have illuminated his shadows. Last year,
four leading journalists received death threats after criticising
Uribe. Since 2002, at least 31 journalists have been assassinated in
Colombia. Uribe's other habit is smearing trade unions and human rights
workers as "collaborators with the Farc". This marks them. Colombia's
death squads, wrote Jenny Pearce, author of the acclaimed Under the Eagle: US Intervention in Central America and the Caribbean
(1982), "are increasingly active, confident that the president has been
so successful in rallying the country against the Farc that little
attention will shift to their atrocities".
Uribe was personally championed by Tony Blair, reflecting Britain's
long-standing, mostly secret role in Latin America. "Counter-insurgency
assistance" to the Colombian military, up to its neck in death-squad
alliances, includes training by the SAS of units such as the High
Mountain Battalions, condemned repeatedly for atrocities. On 8 March,
Colombian officers were invited by the Foreign Office to a
"counter-insurgency seminar" at the Wilton Park conference centre in
southern England. Rarely has the Foreign Office so brazenly paraded the
killers it mentors.
The western media's role follows earlier models, such as the
campaigns that cleared the way for the dismemberment of Yugoslavia and
the credibility given to lies about Iraq's weapons of mass destruction.
The softening-up for an attack on Venezuela is well under way, with the
repetition of similar lies and smears.
On 3 February, the Observer devoted two pages to claims
that Chávez was colluding in the Colombian drugs trade. Similarly to
the paper's notorious bogus scares linking Saddam Hussein to al-Qaeda,
the Observer's headline read, "Revealed: Chávez role in
cocaine trail to Europe". Allegations were unsubstantiated; hearsay
uncorroborated. No source was identified. Indeed, the reporter, clearly
trying to cover himself, wrote: "No source I spoke to accused Chávez
himself of having a direct role in Colombia's giant drug trafficking
In fact, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime has reported that
Venezuela is fully participating in international anti-drugs programmes
and in 2005 seized the third-highest amount of cocaine in the world.
Even the Foreign Office minister Kim Howells has referred to
"Venezuela's tre mendous co-operation".
The drugs smear has recently been reinforced with reports that
Chávez has an "increasingly public alliance [with] the Farc" (see
"Dangerous liaisons", New Statesman, 14 April). Again, there
is "no evidence", says the secretary general of the Organisation of
American States. At Uribe's request, and backed by the French
government, Chávez played a mediating role in seeking the release of
hostages held by the Farc. On 1 March, the negotiations were betrayed
by Uribe who, with US logistical assistance, fired missiles at a camp
in Ecuador, killing Raú Reyes, the Farc's highest-level negotiator. An
"email" recovered from Reyes's laptop is said by the Colombian military
to show that the Farc has received $300m from Chávez. The allegation is
fake. The actual document refers only to Chávez in relation to the
hostage exchange. And on 14 April, Chávez angrily criticised the Farc.
"If I were a guerrilla," he said, "I wouldn't have the need to hold a
woman, a man who aren't soldiers. Free the civilians!"
However, these fantasies have lethal purpose. On 10 March, the Bush
administration announced that it had begun the process of placing
Venezuela's popular democracy on a list of "terrorist states", along
with North Korea, Syria, Cuba, Sudan and Iran, the last of which is
currently awaiting attack by the world's leading terrorist state.