Liberals and Military Dictatorships

BRAZIL: In 1971, the military dictator of Brazil, Emilio Medici, commented somewhat regretfully that, "The economy is doing fine, but the people aren’t." Ofcourse, he was claiming at the same time that the people would some day do better under military rule. But that was pie in the sky. It was the very design of the Brazilian military dictatorship to keep the people down, atomized, and exploitable in the interest of the elite that had supported and participated in the 1964 overthrow of civilian rule (the local elite, the transnationals, and the Brazilian and U.S. military establishments). The unions and social democratic parties were dismantled and the "people" deprived of any organizational protection and made fearful.

A classic Catholic Church document of the late 1960s was titled "The Cry of the People." In the description of the military regime in another church document, the development model put in place was said, by its brutal treatment of the masses, to have "created a revolution that did not exist." The upward redistribution of income was dramatic, not only in Brazil, but in the other National Security States brought into existence with U.S. support in the 1960s and later. But these regimes did provide a temporary "stability," explained clearly by the finance minister of the Argentine military dictatorship in 1977: "This plan can be fulfilled despite its lack of popular support. It has sufficient political support…that provided by the armed forces."

REAL TERROR NETWORK: It is of great interest and importance that the emergence, growth, and dominance of the National Security State in Latin America, complete with the widespread prevalence of death squads and torture, and the "marginalization of a people" (the title of another church document), took place in the U.S. backyard and with crucial U.S. initiative and support. It is also notable that U.S. liberals were in the forefront in advancing this process.

Lyndon Johnson was president when the democratically elected Juan Bosch was overthrown in the Dominican Republic in 1965 and replaced by a regime of terror, with U.S. help. Johnson was very active in the earlier and even more significant 1964 displacement of a democracy with a military dictatorship in Brazil. Maybe the most famous line describing that murderous transfer of power was the statement by Johnson’s Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Lincoln Gordon that the Brazilian "revolution" of 1964 was "the single most decisive victory for freedom in the mid-twentieth century." Gordon subsequently became president of Johns Hopkins University.

Quite a few of the real terror network regimes were ended and displaced with civilian rule in the 1980s and 1990s, although the heavy U.S. hand in Central America left that area devastated and with problematic and regressive politics up to the present day. But, as we know from reading Michael Ignatieff in the New York Times, the United States once again "changed course" and took on the task of "democracy promotion" in the early 21st century. According to Ignatieff: "The democratic turn in American foreign policy has been recent. Latin Americans remember when the American presence meant backing death squads and military juntas." And, "In the cold war, most presidents opted for stability at the price of liberty when they had to choose."

"Change of Course": But the turn had come and Bush was the first president who "actually risked his presidency on the premise that Jefferson might be right" in his notion that one day the U.S. democratic model will be spread "finally to all" ("Who Are Americans to Think That Freedom Is Theirs to Spread?" NYT, June 26, 2005). Ignatieff somehow knew that this change of course had occurred because George Bush said so.

This "democratic" thrust under Bush was also claimed by George Packer. Writing in the New Yorker, Packer asserted during the Bush years that, "No one should doubt that he and his surviving senior advisers believe in what they call the ‘forward strategy of freedom,’ even if they’ve had to talk themselves into it…. By now…it is clear that, however clumsy and selective the execution, Bush wants democratization to be his legacy." Packer tells us that no one should "misjudge his sincerity" and that arguing that it is a cover for an "American power grab …is not a good position for the opposition to be in, either morally or politically. The best role for critics in the president’s second term will be not to scoff at the idea of spreading freedom but to take it seriously—to hold him to his own talk" ("Invasion Vs Persuasion," the New Yorker, December 20/27, 2004). And in his edited volume The Fight Is For Democracy, Packer, along with Michael Tomasky, argues for a continuation of democracy promotion as central to U.S. foreign policy, allegedly less worrisome with Democrats in power than under Bush-Cheney, because the Democrats are more reliable pursuers of freedom. (see my review of Packer’s book in Z, "Liberals in Search of a Foreign Policy," December 2003.)

Now, with a liberal Democrat in power, we are once again "changing course" (this is a joke, as we didn’t really turn course under W. despite the idiocies of Ignatieff and Packer). Of course, Honduras is our prime illustration, as it is a throw-back to the 1964 Brazilian "triumph of freedom," and El Salvador’s "high turnout" election of 1982. But it is also droll to see President Obama announce 34,000 more troops for Afghanistan, with not the slightest indication of request from or clearance with Hamad Karzai, the newly-elected president of the sovereign state of Afghanistan. The election in Afghanistan was admitted in the mainstream media to be rather badly flawed, but their indignation was not great (as it had been for the Iranian election) and, of course, they don’t suggest that this discredits the U.S. war and escalation in that country. The U.S. right to invade, occupy, and kill at a distance is a given for the U.S. and NATO establishment.

COUP-RATIFICATION: Honduras is more interesting, with a relatively liberal U.S. president, elected with solid support from majority antiwar forces, Obama’s support of the June 28, 2009 military coup that ousted a democratically elected president is a throwback to the National Security State years. It is claimed that there is conflict within the Obama foreign policy ranks over how to deal with Honduras, but it is clear that the Administration knew the coup was going to happen and did nothing to stop it. Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was actually shipped out of his country through the U.S. base in Honduras. It is also clear that while there have been occasional verbal criticisms of the coup, and even penalties, the United States has stood alone, supported only by a few reliable Latin American clients—Panama, Costa Rica, and Colombia—in accepting the coup.

The United States did support a Costa-Rica brokered deal that would have allowed Zelaya to resume office briefly before the November 29 election, but that deal broke down and the presidential election was held under siege conditions, with two candidates running who supported the coup and were hostile to the populist forces that Zelaya had come to represent.

The election was a coup-ratification effort with no alternative candidates, under conditions of state terrorism.

As Amnesty International (AI) reported as early as August 2009: "Since Zelaya was overthrown by the military in June, 4,000 people have been arrested, hundreds beaten and hospitalised and dozens charged with sedition. Yet more have been kidnapped, raped, tortured, ‘disappeared’ and assassinated. Independent media has fared little better. Anti-coup TV and radio stations have been raided by the army and forced off air; their broadcasting equipment confiscated or destroyed with acid. In one case, journalists leapt from third-floor windows to escape the soldiers. Yet Hondurans have continued marching, striking, blocking roads—and meanwhile getting used to day and night curfews, the smell of tear gas and the grief for friends and family members murdered by the coup regime. They have been struggling, not merely to protest at the trampling of their democratic rights, but also because of the hope which Zelaya had begun to inspire" (AI, "Honduras: human rights crisis threatens as repression increases, "August 2009.)

From June 28 to November 3, an estimated 21 protesters and anti-coup leaders were killed by the police and armed forces. There has been no official U.S. protest at this violence and these killings—and the media have been virtually silent. We may recall the publicity given the killing of a protester, Neda Agha-Soltan, in Iran—but dead protesters in Honduras are not made heroes and heroines—they don’t exist. This, of course, allows the Honduran election to be made credible and sets the stage for coup-normalization.

DEMONSTRATION ELECTIONS: The New York Times has once again done an outstanding job of protecting a coup and putting a "demonstration election" in a good light. Reporter Elisabeth Malkin has provided "news" articles on the Honduras election that are classics in the apologetic vein: "Conservative Poised to Win In Honduras" (November 30, 2009) and "Fate of Ousted Leader Clouds Election Results in Honduras" (December 1, 2009). They are also throwbacks to the Times’s performance in the Salvadoran elections of 1982 and 1984 and the Nicaraguan election of 1984. The Salvadoran elections were, like Honduras’s, held under conditions of state terror, with nobody allowed to run who represented ordinary people or opposition to war. The New York Times in 1982 suppressed the fact that the Salvadoran army had actually prepared a death list of 138 liberals and leftists—who naturally did not run for office.

The propaganda line of U.S. and Salvadoran officials was that, even though the opposition did not support the election and called for non-voting, the turnout was a valid measure of government and opposition support. The army was the good guy that "supported" the election (even if it did kill many thousands of civilians). The large Salvadoran turnout was heavily featured in the mass media: the election was a "success"; we had a "fledgling democracy." For Nicaragua in 1984, there was no terror and the voter turnout was also large. But this was a Sandinista-run election so the media did not feature the turnout. The New York Times declared that election a "sham."

Malkin plays the same game in reporting on the Honduras election as her paper did for El Salvador. She says nothing about the absence of an opposition leader in the election, though she mentions victor Porfiro Lobo’s claim that he will call for a "grand national dialogue" before taking office. With respect to the well-documented state terror—including mass arrests, violent disruption of protests, and killings—Malkin says, "There was a visible police and military presence around the capital…." Deep in her first article she mentions that "human rights groups denounced the patrols as part of a campaign of intimidation" and witnesses reported police misbehavior at a resistance gathering in San Pedro Sula. But she gives no quotes from human rights groups or the 70 or more election observers or data on police-army violence or anything about attacks on dissident media. Of course, the latest election results are not being described as "clouded" by either the absence of an electoral opposition party or by state terror.

Malkin even cites one source that suggested that Zelaya supporters "could try to disrupt the voting." In the "turnout" tradition, Malkin says that, "Much of the suspense appeared to hang on how many of Honduras’s 4.6 million voters would turn up rather than who they would vote for." She doesn’t mention inducements and pressures to vote. The photo accompanying her November 30 article shows two nuns peaceably voting in Honduras. Can you imagine such a photo being shown during the election in Iran? Can you imagine Malkin showing the police beating up a protester or the dead body of a Honduran police victim? (Among other sources, AI offered many photos of police and army violence in the run-up to the election, but the Times and corporate media in general were not interested.)

So it is coup-time once again in the U.S. backyard, with an accelerated class war by violence, protected once again by the mainstream media. The economy is doing poorly in Honduras and the people are doing worse. But the hope of the Honduran elite is that the populist measures pushed by Zelaya can be more-or-less permanently put on ice, so that the economy might recover while the people don’t. For the U.S. elite, the hope is that Honduras returning to the U.S.-ultra-client status, along with new military bases in Colombia and greater U.S. attention to Latin America, might turn the tide toward the "economy" and away from populism and "the people." It would be sad if this hope is realized.


Edward S. Herman is an economist, media critic, and author.