Before recently ousted Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez regained power after a failed coup attempt, the short-lived government of Venezuelan businessman Pedro Carmona was immediately and enthusiastically endorsed by the Bush administration. Meanwhile, Otto Reich, a key Latin American policymaker for Bush, told a delegation of ambassadors that Chavez was “responsible for his fate.” This was a remarkable statement from a man who in the months leading up to the coup had hosted many of its architects—including Carmona himself—at the White House.
When he ran the Office of Public Diplomacy under the Reagan administration, Reich reported directly to Oliver North, of Iran/Contra fame. But Reich isn’t the only Iran Contra veteran supportive of the recent coup. Elliot Abrams directs the National Security Council for democracy, human rights and international operations. Although Abrams was convicted of misleading Congress over the Iran Contra affair—whereby arms bought by violating U.S. sanctions on Iran were sold to the Contra guerrillas in Nicaragua—he was pardoned by the first President Bush. Earlier in his career, Abrams was a leading theoretician of “Hemispherism,” which put a priority on combating Marxism in the Americas. Hemispherism played a major role in the 1973 coup in Chile, and as well as many repressive regimes and death squads that followed in Argentina, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.
Isabel Ayala of El Salvador is all too familiar with this brand of U.S. foreign policy. Says Ayala, “After they came to our house and took away my brother, we didn’t sleep in our house anymore. We were afraid that the military would come take us away too.” Days later, her brother’s dead body was found, near a mother and daughter, both of whom had been decapitated. For years in El Salvador, such events were commonplace.
This incident happened during a period in which various groups in El Salvador were organizing themselves and joining forces to improve living and working conditions for their people. Groups like the “Union de Trabajadores del Campo” (farm workers union), as well as factory unions in the capital San Salvador, had joined together to create the Popular Revolutionary Block (BPR), in a joint struggle for “just demands.” Salvadorean President Romero, who was also General Romero, used his armed forces to crush the BPR, sending its members into the hills, or into refugee camps in Honduras, such as the one to which Isabel and what remained of her family eventually fled. The BPR eventually evolved into the FMLN, which fought against the Salvadoran government for more than a decade.
Romero’s fight against the FMLN was heavily financed by the Reagan administration, who viewed the FMLN as a threat to U.S. interests. During the Cold War, leftist groups raised the specter of a Communist foothold in Central America. The FMLN also threatened the supply of cheap fruit and sweatshop-produced goods to North America. Had the FMLN gained control of El Salvador, it would have meant a far different government for the United States—and American corporations—to deal with.
Ayala is currently on a month-long speaking tour of Montana. Since arriving here, she has addressed university and high school classes, churches, and community groups around the state. Her gentle words tell a strong and bitter truth about her experiences. Much of what she discusses is based on her recent trip to Colombia with her partner, Missoula human rights activist Scott Nicholson, where they witnessed firsthand the results of another U.S.-supported project, Plan Colombia.
What Isabel saw in Colombia gave her a sickening case of déjà vu. “The Colombian paramilitary are using the same tactics of kidnap, torture, and mass killing that the death squads used in El Salvador” she says. “They operate the same way within communities, targeting and intimidating those who work for human rights.”
Indeed, many of the strategies of Washington’s $2 million per day war in Colombia are taken straight from El Salvador: U.S.-trained battalions, advanced gunships, intensive intelligence gathering, and hundreds of U.S. military advisors. In El Salvador, the army had no interest in reining in the death squads because they were an essential weapon in its war against the left. The Colombian situation, says Ayala, is similar. And by leaving the dirtiest work to the paramilitaries, the army can claim a clean human rights record as it seeks more military aid from Washington.
As Ayala notes, the U.S. government pays lip service to human rights, while the flow of U.S. “aid” is often dictated more by drugs, oil, and terrorists than by humanitarian goals. And that “aid” is often in the form of weapons. During the 12-year civil war in El Salvador, for example, the United States spent $5 billion opposing the FMLN. By comparison, after two devastating earthquakes in 2001 the U.S. government chipped in $110 million for rebuilding efforts.
Last week, while rushing to legitimize the short-lived Carmona regime in Venezuela, the White House stated that although Chavez had been elected by “the majority of voters” this did not confer “legitimacy” on the Venezuelan government. A look at two laws that Chavez had recently pushed through the Venezuelan National Assembly sheds light on why he was popular with his people and unpopular with Bush. One law ordered big plantation owners to turn over untilled land to the landless. The other law nearly doubled royalties paid by oil extractors in Venezuela.
When asked how the current situation in Venezuela relates to her own experiences in El Salvador, Ayala notes that the current President of El Salvador, Francisco Flores, was the only Latin American leader to recognize the Carmona government, suggesting that despite the current peace in El Salvador, undercurrents of Hemispherism continue to seethe not far beneath the surface.