Anti-Imperialists Against Revolution

The admirable anti-imperialist sensibility is unfortunately reduced by many in the left to a crude Manichean framework that actually undermines international solidarity. Examples are too numerous to mention. Moreover, it important to draw a distinction between the tasks of restraining one’s own imperial government and assessments of revolutionary developments in targeted countries.
In this connection, Roger D. Harris, head of the Task Force on the Americas, furnishes the latest confusion. He published a piece on Counterpunch today defending the Venezuelan government against a critical assessment from the left written by Clifton Ross. I will not assess the validity of Ross’ particular charges now but simply observe that such critiques are important to advancing any revolutionary process. (For an informal response to Ross that shares Harris’ indignation but actually focuses on the issues see this post by Michael A. Liebowitz).
For the most part, Harris too avoids directly engaging with Ross’ arguments. Rather, he deploys a completely inappropriate conception of the limits of solidarity. Here is Harris:
A class analysis is needed of what is happening in Venezuela. The many problems with the Bolivarian revolution are inherent in trying to create socialism on the foundations of capitalism. Within Chávismo there is an acute awareness of problems, and President Maduro is working on them. We support the overall Bolivarian struggle against outside interference, because the alternative of the opposition in power would mean no opportunity for a people’s agenda.
Ross is concerned about the contagion of state power. None of the 21st century socialist governments in Latin America pass his muster. All are corrupt, authoritarian, and going in the wrong direction in his view.
But it was through state power that the Bolivarian movement in Venezuela distributed land to 300,000 families, halved the poverty rate, reduced extreme poverty by two-thirds, went from being among one of the most economically unequal nations in the Latin America to being the among the most equal, reduced child malnutrition by 40%, increased social expenditures by 60%, built 700,000 homes, and returned 1 million hectares to Indigenous communities.
This same government has promoted community councils and other instruments of participatory democracy. Not surprisingly, according to the annual World Happiness poll, Venezuela is the second happiest country in Latin America.
This passage is sheer confusion. First, he takes it for granted that government rhetoric about socialism is genuine – that Caracas is “trying to create socialism”. He scarcely sees a need to demonstrate that assertion with evidence. Though it may seem alien in the U.S., much of the rest of the world is well aware of the appeal of socialism and the resulting rhetorical appropriations of the concept by politicians. It is an effective way to boost one’s popularity to attach oneself to a popular notion, not very different from U.S. politicians extolling democracy and liberty.
Next, Harris assures us that “President Maduro is working on [the acute national problems].” Well that’s a relief. No leader in the world deserves such embarrassing blind deference. The very display of it indicates a total failure to comprehend what democracy is really about. Would the Real Democracy movements in Spain or Greece ever place such faith in an individual? I very much doubt it.
Harris then bundles in these uncritical musings with an appeal against “outside interference” from Washington. He seems unable to contemplate the possibility of organizing against imperial interventions while retaining a critical attitude towards all governments.
Finally, Harris implies that Ross has a hopelessly utopian view of social advance. All the left governments fail to pass muster. Again, those with a genuine commitment to democracy should regard that as a virtual truism. All existing governments (let’s expand this beyond the hemisphere to the globe) really are corrupt and authoritarian. It is a definitional feature of the ‘liberal democratic’ nation-state.
Harris prefers to trot out a list of Caracas’ accomplishments in a manner reminiscent of the election cycle propaganda meme “What the fuck has Obama done so far?” Now let’s be clear here; I am very glad that Chavez was elected rather than a continuation of Rafael Caldera. I very much believe that choosing the lesser evil is frequently a prudent option. However, we should never allow our activism to be bounded by such circumscribed electoral choices. One of the accomplishments of a right-wing opposition linked to Washington’s imperialism is a corralling of thought within the left around the object of right-wing attack. The effect is to limit political movements from advancing leftward beyond the dear leader.

The WaPo runs an entire article today profiling the director of the new documentary film, The Act of Killing, on the legacy of the Indonesian genocide of 1965 and manages not to mention even once that the U.S. government was instrumental in facilitating it. Amazing. The article is consigned to the style section of the paper. No soul searching is prompted by the discussion of the bloody chapter.

Washington’s most important ally in Latin America is planning to shut down the UN human rights monitoring office in its country. Constanza Vieira reports:
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos announced Tuesday that he would close the Colombia office of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
Díaz said the fact that the announcement was made just when Pillay was starting a four-day visit to Colombia indicated that it was aimed at “confounding her and all of us human rights defenders, to get us all to fight to prevent the OHCHR from pulling out.” ….

“We don’t need a U.N. human rights office in our country anymore,” Santos stated in an address given in Bogotá, which reached Pillay when she was in Santander de Quilichao, in the war-torn southwestern province of Cauca.

Pillay travelled to Cauca to meet for several hours with leaders of black, indigenous and rural communities who had plenty to say about the need for multilateral bodies to continue monitoring human rights in this country. ….

Pillay’s first visit was in October 2008, when the “false positives” scandal broke out, involving the killings of at least 1,416 people by the security forces as a result of the “body count” system. This army strategy used incentives like weekend passes, cash bonuses, promotions and trips abroad to reward soldiers and officers for “results” in the counterinsurgency effort.The bodies of the victims, some of whom were lured from poor neighbourhoods by false job promises and then killed, were presented as guerrillas killed in combat.Although extrajudicial executions have been committed for over three decades in Colombia, the statistics show that the number of “false positives” shot up during the government of rightwing President Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010).According to Javier Giraldo, the priest who directs the human rights and political violence data bank of the Jesuit Centre for Popular Research and Education (CINEP), it is “very worrisome that the peak in false positives killings occurred from 2006 to 2008 – just when President Santos served as defence minister.”

Santos was defence minister from July 2006 to May 2009. The CINEP data bank documented 918 “false positives” between 2006 and 2008.

Reports of killings of this kind dropped to 18 a year in 2009 and 2010, before increasing to 85 in 2011 and falling again to 52 in 2012.

As the article goes on to comment, being known as the worst human rights abuser in the hemisphere is becoming bad for business as Colombia tries to join the OECD, so now it’s trying to whitewash the situation by kicking out the UN observers. Undoubtedly it can count on Washington’s support.

William Lloyd-George has a piece in Inter Press Service on the small openings emerging for Ethiopia’s democracy movements. Ethiopia is of course a key ally for Washington and a recipient of copious amounts of aid, making the United States complicit in all the brutalities detailed below in Lloyd-George’s piece:
Since the violence that ensued after the ruling party won Ethiopia’s 2005 elections, this East African nation has seen little in the way of political dissent. That is, until the last few months.Since June, the country has witnessed protests in three of its major cities. Despite the significance of these protests, observers disagree over how much they signal a rebirth for the country’s opposition movement and the government’s tolerance of it.
In Gondar, protestors marched through the capital and called on the government to stop exploiting the anti-terrorism law and release those whom the law has been used to imprison, including political prisoners and journalists.  At the march’s peak, hundreds could be seen, at its lowest, dozens.
Hallelujah believes the protests could be a sign that the opposition is emerging again, he argued that they still face huge challenges that could hinder their chances of success. He said that it is hard for opposition parties to increase their membership freely, to raise funds and even to rent a hall for party meetings.“They are still operating in a very tight and unfriendly environment,” said Hallelujah. “We need legislative change in order for proper liberalisation where opposition groups are free to operate without arrests and other harassment.”In the run-up to the protests in Gondar, UDJ party leaders say they faced extreme harassment by the regional state authorities. According to the UDJ, on Jul. 13 local police surrounded the office and would not let their members out all day. Only at the last minute an unofficial deal was reached with the local commander to hold the protest, or so claim party members. Also, over 10 members of their group were arrested for distributing leaflets to the general public in the days leading up to the protest.Peering through rusty metal bars at Gondar’s Police Station 3, a simple mud hut structure, Amedemakryam Ezra, a UDJ party member, said he was arrested two weeks ago for distributing leaflets.“They beat my legs so bad, I could not even walk for a week,” Amedemakryam told IPS from the prison. “We have not been allowed out of this cell since. It’s horrible.”Before he could finish his sentence, another party member who was also arrested for distributing leaflets appeared. Maru Ashagere, a hairdresser, told IPS that the local authorities went to his parents’ chicken farm and said they would poison all the chickens as punishment for their son’s political activities.“This kind of harassment makes it very difficult for us to operate but we will struggle through none the less to achieve our goals,” Asrat Tassie, Secretary-General of UDJ, told IPS at the police station.  “Despite all this, we were able to go on with our protest and mobilise the people.”Not only were party members harassed, but some Gondar residents told IPS they were too scared to join the protests due to threats made throughout the city.
Note the reference to the repressive impact of the 2011 anti-terrorism law. Such laws proliferated in countries around the world after 9/11, as governments – particularly allies – took advantage of the new unrestrained tone set by Washington.

Peter Hart at FAIR draws our attention to a WaPo article with some revealing and forthright quotes from an anonymous “senior U.S. official who specializes in Africa”

Hart accurately comments:

It was strange, though, to see the Post write that

the U.S. government has become dependent on several countries with checkered democratic records. That in turn has lessened Washington’s leverage to push those countries to practice free elections and the rule of law.

Hart provides a useful survey of U.S. alliances in Africa so I will excerpt it at length:

The record of the U.S. government’s support for authoritarian, corrupt and/or murderous regimes is not really up for debate. The only question is whether one believes that the U.S. continuously suspends its its deep-seated preference for democratic rule and human rights in order to pursue certain policy goals, or whether the historic record suggests that there is little such preference at all. ….

Craig Whitlock’s piece (“Niger rapidly emerges as a key U.S. partner in anti-terrorism fight in Africa,” April 14, 2013) affirms that Niger “is rapidly emerging as a key U.S. partner.” The nation’s president, Mahamadou Issoufou, was “invited [Washington] to base surveillance drones here.”

Whitlock then proceeds to use the misleading construction: “the U.S. government has become dependent on several countries with checkered democratic records. That in turn has lessened Washington’s leverage to push those countries to practice free elections and the rule of law.”

In Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa, President Ismail Omar Guelleh has ruled unchallenged over his tiny country since 1999 by marginalizing political opponents and confining journalists. Still, the U.S. government has embraced Guelleh as a friend because he has allowed the Pentagon to build a major counter-terrorism base on his territory.

In Uganda, where Yoweri Museveni has served as president for 27 years, U.S. officials have objected to the persecution of gay men and lesbians and other human-rights abuses. But Washington has kept up a generous flow of foreign aid. It also pays Uganda to send troops to war-torn Somalia and lead a regional hunt for Joseph Kony, the brutal leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army.

In Kenya, U.S. diplomats warned there would be unspecified “consequences” if the country elected a fugitive from the International Criminal Court as its new president. Kenyans did so anyway, and the Obama administration has hesitated to downgrade relations because it needs help on counter-terrorism.

Human-rights groups have also accused the U.S. government of holding its tongue about political repression in Ethiopia, another key security partner in East Africa.

“The countries that cooperate with us get at least a free pass,” acknowledged a senior U.S. official who specializes in Africa but spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid retribution. “Whereas other countries that don’t cooperate, we ream them as best we can.

The official said the administration of former president George W. Bush took the same approach in Africa. Many U.S. diplomats and human-rights groups had hoped Obama would shift his emphasis in Africa from security to democracy, but that has not happened, the official added.

“There’s pretty much been no change at all,” the official said. “In the end, it was an almost seamless transition from Bush to Obama.” ….

In Mauritania, the U.S. government was compelled by U.S. law to suspend military and counter-terrorism aid twice, because of coups in 2005 and 2008. Washington was forced to do the same thing in Niger after its coup in 2010 and in Mali last year, when a Malian army captain who had received extensive training in the United States overthrew a democratically elected leader.

Washington resumed counter-terrorism aid to Mauritania and Niger after those countries subsequently held elections. The Obama administration is eager to patch up relations with Mali as well so it can take a more direct role in combating al-Qaeda forces in the northern half of the country; U.S. officials are pushing for national elections in July. ….

But Moussa Tchangari, the general secretary of Alternative Citizen Space, an activist group in the capital, said the [Niger] government’s close ties with the U.S. and French militaries would allow it to resist domestic calls for reform.

“There is a need for change in our country, but our government doesn’t want to do what is necessary,” he said. “Having a foreign military presence protects them.”

The Geography of Violence

A piece in the WaPo today on the bureaucracy around U.S. aid to Egypt noted in passing that the Egyptian military’s tanks are built in Michigan.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich), who heads the Armed Services Committee, believes that the U.S. law requiring a cutoff in aid in the event of a coup “does not apply to direct military-to-military assistance,” a spokesman said. His position has drawn particular attention on the Hill because a General Dynamics plant where Egypt’s tanks are produced is in his home state.

One of the great challenges in combating misery and violence in the world is the difficulty in organizing against the bloody effects of cruelty orchestrated half a world away. The suffering resulting from the production at that General Dynamics plant (perhaps a reference to the plant in Muskegon, MI) is almost invisible to most Michiganders as a result of distance and deliberate concealment by elite media. International solidarity in such circumstances must confront the inherently more organized machinations of the elite. Never an easy task.


Mohammad Al Attar, a Syrian playwright, interviewed Chomsky on June 16th, eliciting a number of interesting observations on the situation in Syria. One under-appreciated contribution that an anarchist outlook provides (in contrast to Maoism in particular but many other variants of ‘socialism’ as well) is a more critical attitude towards centers of power that happen to be at odds with the superpower(s).

For a long time, the Arab world and other places beside have played host to stories and illusions about the supernatural power of the United States, which controls everything through complex conspiracies and plots. In this worldview, everything that takes place can be explained in terms of imperialist conspiracies. This is an error. Without a doubt, the United States are still a great power and capable of influencing events, but they are not always able to manipulate them by means of complex conspiracies: this really is beyond their capacities. Of course the Americans do sometimes try to do this, but they fail, too. What happened in Syria is not outside our understanding: it began as a popular and democratic protest movement demanding democratic reforms, but instead of responding to it in a constructive, positive manner, Assad reacted with violent repression. The usual outcome of such a course of action is either a successful crushing of the protests or otherwise, to see them evolve and militarize, and this is what took place in Syria. When a protest movement enters this phase we see new dynamics at play: usually, the rise of the most extremist and brutal elements to the front ranks.
You have a cautious stance on recent Western statements about arming opposition fighters. Why is this?
It is linked to an evaluation of the consequences. Once again, I believe there are much simpler ways that the West can take before making the leap to military aid, some of which I have mentioned above, but which further include providing increased levels of humanitarian aid. If we are serious, we must look at the consequences of such an action. What would be the result on a humanitarian level? My question is practical, not ethical. My response would be not dissimilar to the answers given by other observers who are closely following the situation in Syria, such as Patrick Cockburn, who said that such a step would only escalate the military confrontation while maintaining the same military balance, since the regime’s allies—Russia, Iran and Iraq—will continue to do what they have always done and supply the regime with more advanced weaponry.

You see negotiations, accompanied by political and diplomatic pressure, as the best way to force the regime into making concessions. But there is a commonly held belief among Syrians that their regime will never make any serious concessions nor negotiate with the opposition, even if the revolutionaries were standing on the steps of the presidential palace. Gaddafi is a recent example of such an attitude.
I may agree with you on that. However, to force the regime into negotiations you have to change the circumstances so they are compelled to accept. One way to do this is for Geneva—with the consent of the major powers—to create a situation whereby the regime is encouraged (or rather, forced, which they can manage if they really want to) to accept a resolution based on a transitional period, which paves the way for Assad eventually stepping down.

There is the difficulty of convincing the broad swathes of the Syrian population who have been forced to take up arms, that the supply of weapons from abroad will only make things worse, while the regime is receiving massive and continuous aid from its allies. Do you not think that the real challenge does not so much lie in accepting these arms, but in blocking those who supply arms to garner support for their own agendas?
Once again the question that bothers me is: What would be the consequences of taking such a step? It is not just a question of increasing the casualties and the destruction but of entrenching Syria’s current balance of military power on higher level, with more weapons available, and all that would entail for Syria. As for your point about agendas, that’s another issue altogether. What do you expect from a country like Saudi Arabia, for instance?

There is one astonishing point related the Syrian revolution. Individuals and groups belonging to the Far Left in Europe, the Arab world and other regions of the globe, have evinced hostility to the revolution on the grounds that it is part of an American and imperialist plot. Hostility also comes from the Far Right, which regards it as an extremist threat to the existence of minority communities and Christians in particular. We have heard similar statements from the French Far Right and from Nick Griffin, leader of the extremist British National Party who visited Damascus, defending Bashar Al Assad. How do you interpret this phenomenon?
Just disregard them. They are insignificant. They represent groups that cannot be reached or communicated with. There is no need to worry too much about your inability to convince fringe groups it is difficult to reach out to in the first place. There are groups far more important, active and influential over the decision-making process that should be reached out to first.



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