23 August 2007 Edition
“We’ll intervene whenever we decide it is in our national security interests to intervene and if you don’t like it, lump it. Get used to it world, we’re not going to put up with nonsense.”
In a world of carefully nuanced soundbites and rhetoric it is refreshing, and disconcerting at the same time, to have US foreign policy so bluntly outlined as it was by former CIA officer Duane Clarridge earlier this week on John Pilger’s film, War on Democracy, shown on UTV on Monday.
In possibly his best work since his 2002 documentary on Palestine, Pilger takes us through the decades of brutality and oppression that made up the so-called spreading of democracy throughout ‘America’s backyard’ during the latter half of the 20th century.
Former CIA operatives are refreshingly candid about their work. “Democracy didn’t mean a thing to us then and I don’t think it does today,” said Philip Agee, a CIA officer in Ecuador, Uruguay and Mexico before resigning from the organisation in disgust in 1968.
Another former operative recalls how they helped overthrow the Guatelman government with a ‘..little bombing..’ and another that they trained death squads in torture and assassination in the School of Americas in the US .
But it is Duane Clarridge, who spent almost 40 years as a CIA operative and directed some of that organisation’s most controversial and brutal operations in Central and Latin America during the mid 1980s, who manages in a repulsive way to steal the show.
Proud of his activities he belittles hundreds of reports from dozens of international human rights organisations and the UN providing evidence of atrocities by US backed regimes all over the Americas as the product of ‘propaganda mills’.
Perhaps it is worth noting that his denials of the scale of the depravity of US operations in Latin America are not out of character. In 1991 Clarridge was charged with seven counts of perjury and giving false statements following investigations into illegal payments to the Contras. He was pardoned by the first President Bush before the trial could even begin.
But the film is not simply an account of the nightmarish policies of successive US administrations, but of the fight-back taking place right across the Continent against the right-wing economic policies pushed by the US and its corporate interests.
A large portion of the film looks at the rise to power of Hugo Chavez in Venezuala, examining the literacy and health programmes established there with the aid of the country’s oil wealth and interviewing the President about his experiences of the US backed coup against him in 2002.
The story of the overthrow of Chile’s Allende government in 1973 and the slaughter that followed, including vivid testimony from the victims of torture, is harrowing and powerful.
One of the film’s few flaws is Pilger’s failure to comprehensively deal with the claim that Pinochet’s neo-liberal economic programme, driven by Chicago economics professor Milton Friedman, was a success. While there is footage and interviews from some of Chile’s poorest citizens, the absolute disaster of neo-liberal economics should have been explored in greater detail.
As journalist Greg Palast has pointed out, “In 1973, the year General Pinochet brutally seized the government, Chile’s unemployment rate was 4.3%. In 1983, after ten years of free-market modernisation, unemployment reached 22%. Real wages declined by 40% under military rule.
“In 1970, 20% of Chile’s population lived in poverty. By 1990, the year Pinochet left office, the number of destitute had doubled to 40%.”
To reverse the damage of neo-liberal economics, the Pinochet government was forced to renationalise banks and industry on a scale even Allende had not considered.
Pilger concludes with a look at the struggles that made up the Bolivian Gas War, which consisted of a mass uprising, chiefly by indigenous communities, against proposals by the Bolivian government to privatise the country’s massive gas reserves.
Troops killed 16 civilians and injured dozens more protestors who took to the streets of La Paz, sparking a more intense wave of protest leading to the collapse of the government.
The election in 2005 of Evo Morales led to nationalisation of the country’s natural resources. He has forged a relationship with Chavez and an increasing amount of left-wing administrations in Latin and South America.
Some criticism of the film has centred on what critics suggest is a soft interview with Venezualan President Hugo Chavez. While there may be some merit in this suggestion, it misses the point of the film entirely. The heroes of Pilger’s films are not Chavez, or Evo Morales in Bolivia. They are what he refers to as ‘the people who came down from the hills’. The impoverished men and women who came from the barrios around Caracas to re-install Chavez after the 2002 US-backed coup. The indigenous Mayans of Bolivia who took back control of their natural resources and forced the President to resign. The Chileans who endured beatings and torture at the hands of Pinochet.
As Pilger says in his conclusion, if the newly elected leaders of these countries fail to deliver, the people have shown their ability to change them.
Occasionally when a film ends you are left looking at the screen shaken and genuinely moved by what you have seen. War on Democracy is just such a film. It is not just a film that explores the sources of oppression, but inspires one to resist.