A long time ago back back in the 1980s I was living in New York, when I read a story in the New York Times about a group of armed Nicaraguan exiles, consisting mostly of former members of the Somoza National Guard, who were conducting military exercises in the Florida Everglades and receiving training from the CIA.
I remember being genuinely amazed by this. It wasn’t just the fact that the remnants of a defeated dictatorship were being trained in broad daylight by the world’s most powerful democracy to overthrow a popular revolutionary government – what shocked me the most was that neither the NYT or any other media outlet seemed to think there was something odd or untoward about such behaviour.
Those exercises were of course the first public appearance of the Nicaraguan Contras, who went on to inflict havoc on Nicaragua, bombing its harbours, murdering peasants, teachers and health workers in a bloodstained campaign of terror as part of the Reagan administration’s covert operations policy of ‘rolling back’ revolutionary or pro-Soviet governments. The main focus of these efforts was Central America, where the US colluded with some of the worst regimes in the western hemisphere in an attempt to turn back a revolutionary tide that was surging through the region.
This was a time when the Sandinistas were held responsible for ‘subverting’ El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, when many Americans believed that Nicaragua was a direct military threat to the United States, when the Reagan administration routinely insisted that the Sandinistas had to be held back because otherwise they would reach Texas. In 1985 Reagan issued a package of sanctions against Nicaragua, which he justified on the basis on Nicaragua’s `continuing efforts to subvert its neighbors, its rapid and destabilizing military build-up, its close military and security ties to Cuba and the Soviet Union and its imposition of Communist totalitarian rule.`
These accusations weren’t just ordinary lies, they were big fat steaming whoppers, of the type that Reagan routinely delivered with his folksy sincerity. But they were also lies with a purpose. Because it is one of the unquestioned assumptions of US foreign policy that the America never acts aggressively, but only out of self-defence against aggression, even when that supposed aggression comes in the form of a tiny, civil war-ravaged country of three million people.
This week Barack Obama joined that less-illustrious-tradition, when he took the extraordinary decision to issue an executive order declaring ‘a national emergency with respect to the unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States posed by the situation in Venezuela.’
We all know that Venezuela and the US haven’t got on for some time, but the best that can be said about language like this is that it leans just a little bit towards hyperbole and hysterical exaggeration. A less charitable view might conclude that Obama’s declarations were inane, dishonest, and devoid of any meaning beyond their sefulness as a marketing strategy to launch a new campaign of regime change in Venezuela and a new round of sanctions aimed at undermining the Maduro government.
It almost goes without saying that Obama’s order is deeply hypocritical as well as semantically void. Like Reagan before him in Nicaragua, Obama is at pains to point out that
‘The order does not target the people of Venezuela, but rather is aimed at persons involved in or responsible for the erosion of human rights guarantees, persecution of political opponents, curtailment of press freedoms, use of violence and human rights violations and abuses in response to antigovernment protests, and arbitrary arrest and detention of antigovernment protestors, as well as the exacerbating presence of significant public corruption in that country.’
Not all these accusations are entirely false, though some of them are wilfully exaggerated and distorted, and ignore certain facts that might shed further light on them, such as the violence of the opposition. Many of these accusations could be made – in spades – against some of the US’s key allies, whether it’s Uzbekistan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia or Egypt, but none of these countries have been designated national emergencies or threats to US national security.
In 2005 the Uzkek dictatorship shot dead 700 demonstrators at Andijan, and the strongest condemnation from the US government was a polite call for ‘pressure valves that come from a more open political system.’ Ouch. Suck on that Mr Karimov. And last year Egypt killed more than 1,000 protesters in a few days, and Obama cancelled plans to hold joint military exercises with the Egyptian military. Burn, Sisi. Since then Egyptian kangaroo courts have been handing out death sentences to Muslim Brotherhood members like raffle ticket in two-minute trials that amount to considerably more than an ‘erosion’ in human rights guarantees. No threat to national security there either.
There is also the question of human rights ‘erosion’ in the US itself, a country where it is possible for cops to throttle a black man to death in broad daylight and not even get charged with manslaughter. Last year as many as 1,039 Americans were shot dead by police. Last month alone 39 Americans were killed in police shootings – four less than the 43 who died in last year’s demonstrations in Venezuela, some of whom were killed by opposition demonstrators. The Maduro government did at least carry out investigations into those events and has promised to punish security officials responsible for ‘excesses.’
This doesn’t mean that the Venezuelan government’s human rights record is beyond criticism or that its problems are invented. There is no doubt that Venezuela is in deep trouble right now. The weaknesses of its state-sponsored redistribution have been ruthlessly exposed by the collapse in oil prices. Inflation, high prices, soaring crime rates and shortages of basic goods are all combining to create a crisis that the opposition is keen to take advantage of.
But one thing is clear: these problems are not the business of the United States, and they are not a threat to American national security. And the real purpose of Obama’s executive order was revealed in the statement from White House spokesman Josh Earnest, that ‘The Treasury Department and the State Department are considering tools that may be available that could better steer the Venezuelan government in the direction that we believe they should be headed.’
US sanctions against Nicaragua were similarly intended to make the Sandinistas ‘mend their ways’ or rather ‘cry Uncle’ as Reagan once prosaically put it. But it isn’t the role of the United States in the early 21st century to ‘steer’ Venezuela or any other Latin American government in any direction at all.
Those days are gone, or at least they should be, and it can only be hoped that Obama’s crude attempts to use human rights as a lubricant for new forms of imperial intervention will not bring them back.