U.S. Latin Americanist cold warriors and their far-right allies in the region kicked off a propaganda campaign in May to influence Congress and U.S. citizens against Venezuela and fellow ALBA (Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our Americas) countries. With declining attention being paid to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, neoconservatives and neoliberals want to turn our attention to rolling back social and economic advances in Latin America.
The campaign began with a May 22 opinion piece in the Miami Herald penned by Reagan administration chief propagandist Otto Reich and continued with a congressional briefing that he moderated on May 26. His premise in the Miami Herald article: “Dictatorships are being established in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua by an alliance of self-avowed ‘21st-century socialist’ leaders who utilize free elections to reach power and then set about destroying the very institutions of democracy that put them there.”
He claimed that ALBA, which is a trade agreement based on cooperation rather than competition, “has not only managed to survive as a retrograde movement in a modernizing hemisphere, but is now actively exporting its subversive model to neighboring countries.”
Background on Otto Reich
Reich knows a lot about subversion. As head of the Office of Public Diplomacy in the Reagan White House, Reich used military PSYOPS techniques to mold congressional and public opinion in favor of Reagan’s illegal Contra War to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.
In a finding dated Sept. 30, 1987, the Comptroller-General of the U.S., a Republican appointee himself, found that efforts of Reich’s office were “prohibited, covert propaganda activities,” “beyond the range of acceptable agency public information activities...” He concluded that Reich’s office had violated “a restriction on the State Department’s annual appropriations prohibiting the use of federal funds for publicity or propaganda purposes not authorized by Congress.”
According to information compiled by the National Security Archive, a staff report by the House Foreign Affairs Committee concluded that “senior CIA officials with backgrounds in covert operations, as well as military intelligence and psychological operations specialists from the Department of Defense, were deeply involved in establishing and participating in a domestic political and propaganda operation run through an obscure bureau in the Department of State which reported directly to the National Security Council rather than through the normal State Department channels… Almost all of these activities were hidden from public view and many of the key individuals involved were never questioned or interviewed by the Iran/Contra Committees.”
Reich’s history calls into question his own democratic credentials, an issue which gained currency with his very public support for the June 28, 2009, military coup against democratically-elected President Manuel Zelaya in Honduras.
House of Representatives Briefing
The purpose of Reich’s Miami Herald piece was to call attention of the press and policymakers to a congressional briefing on May 26, in the Rayburn House Office Building provocatively entitled: “Legitimacy Lost: How 21st Century Socialism Subverts Democracy in Latin America.” The briefing, moderated by Reich, featured Ileana Ros- Lehtinen, chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, fellow Florida Congressman Connie Mack, chair of the Sub-Committee on the Western Hemisphere, and its ranking member Eliot Engel (D-NY) plus two panels of U.S. and Latin American opponents of the democratic political and economic changes increasingly prevailing in Latin American elections.
By chance or design, on May 24, the State Department declared sanctions against Venezuela’s state-owned oil company for refusing to recognize U.S. sanctions against Iran. Rep. Mack took credit for the sanctions.
The congressional briefing was sponsored by Americas Forum which says it advocates for a “robust U.S. engagement within the Hemisphere.” An article on the organization’s web page headlined “Venezuelans could be forced to donate organs under 21st Century Socialism” reminds me of articles from my childhood with titles like “Communists Will Take Away Your Children”.
Hard right former Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar’s Fundacion Para el Analysis y los Estudios Sociales also co-sponsored, as did the Inter-American Institute for Democracy. Aznar's government posthumously granted a medal of Civil Merit to Melitón Manzanas, the head of the secret police in San Sebastián under the Fascist government of Francisco Franco (1936-1975). The Inter-American Institute for Democracy web site includes a report on a lecture they sponsored entitled, “BOLIVIA: The Path to a Plebiscitary Dictatorship”.
The Heritage Foundation and Hudson Institute, right-wing Washington think tank powerhouses also co-sponsored along with the Venezuelan opposition group Liberenlos Ya!, something called Secure Free Society which does not appear to have a web page, and finally the Center for Security Policy, which according to Wikipedia advocates a policy of "Peace through Strength," which "is not a slogan for military might but a belief that America's national power must be preserved and properly used for it holds a unique global role in maintaining peace and stability."
None of the co-sponsoring organizations have what one would call stellar democracy credentials. All do hold in common authoritarian philosophies, the rule of elites under the hegemony of U.S. leadership and of course, that democracy is inseparable from free market capitalism.
The speakers, led off by Chairwoman Ros-Lehtinen, laid out a litany of complaints, half-truths and comments in the tradition of Arizona Senator John Kyl’s, “not intended to be a factual statement”. The speakers proclaimed elected presidents Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales, Rafael Correa, and Daniel Ortega as dictators. They reserved their strongest language for Chavez and worked hard to brand the word ALBA with a connotation approaching that of Al-Qaeda.
The attacks on ALBA would be laughable if it weren’t for the fact that those making the charges hold positions capable of setting public policy and molding public opinion. ALBA is a cooperative trade agreement entered into by Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador and several small Caribbean island nations. Under ALBA, Venezuela trades oil to Cuba in exchange for Cuban doctors. It trades oil to Nicaragua in exchange for beef and black beans (which Nicaraguans won’t eat). Nicaragua trades beef and other food products to Cuba in exchange for doctors and literacy trainers. Cooperative trade is anathema to the neoliberal “free” trade ideology because it doesn’t force nations to compete and most importantly does not force down wages.
Ros-Lehtinen made the link clear when she used the briefing to criticize U.S. “special interest groups” that stand in the way of signing free trade agreements, singling out the Colombia FTA as an example. The congresswoman criticized the role that Chavez played (along with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, whom she didn’t mention) in the negotiated return of ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya. Under Zelaya, Honduras was also a member country of ALBA. Ros-Lehtinen, who vocally supported the coup in Honduras said about the likely return of its membership in the Organization of American States made possible by Zelaya’s return, “Honduras should not have been suspended and its return is long overdue.”
She went on to say about Venezuela that sanctions are “just the first step and more must be done.” She went on to say that Otto Reich “will be very involved in these efforts” and will take a more “active role” on trade, democracy and security. Since he is now a paid lobbyist, one wonders just what role Ros-Lehtinen sees for Reich?
The role she sees for the master propagandist may have been revealed in Reich’s remarks following hers. He called ALBA an “ideology” and a “threat to democracy.” He said the “dictatorships” are trying to spread their ideology to other Latin American countries. Reich, who is an expert in the “Big Lie” technique perfected in his namesake, the Third Reich, called for the US to take more of a role in “ending ALBA” because, he claimed, “ALBA exiles or imprisons without charges whoever disagrees with it.”
Most of the other panel speakers said the predictable things, usually without any evidence to back their claims. Notable though for one upping Reich was Joel Hirst, a Fellow on the Council of Foreign Relations. Hirst was Acting Head of the Office of Transition Initiatives in the U.S. embassy in Venezuela from 2004-2008. In that position he had the responsibility for allocating funds to the Venezuelan opposition. In 2006, when I led a delegation to Venezuela to investigate U.S. interference in that year’s presidential elections, we were refused a meeting with Hirst.
He accused the ALBA countries of supporting the doctrine of “asymmetric warfare” which he described as guerrilla warfare, terrorism, arming children, contempt for the Rules of War and International Humanitarian Law, and “imperial” control. He predictably threw the FARC, Hezbollah, and Iran into the mix.
Carlos Ponce, the Reagan-Fascell Fellow at the misnamed National Endowment for Democracy laid out the right-wing case that the presidents of Venezuela, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Bolivia, though democratically elected, then proceed to break down democratic institutions in their countries. He used as an example Daniel Ortega’s winning of a ruling by the Nicaraguan Supreme Court that the constitutional provision against running for a consecutive term was void. However, the strategy Ortega used to permit him to run again is precisely the same as that used by Nobel Peace Prize winner Oscar Arias in Costa Rica which allowed him to serve run and win a second term. No one on the right uttered a breath of criticism when Colombian President Alvaro Uribe amended the constitution to run a second time. Uribe tried, and failed, to amend it again so he could run for a third term.
In the ALBA countries, Hirst said, “no one else can be elected because the current elected leaders have changed the laws.” This is an absurd statement. In these countries no one else has yet to be elected because the poverty reduction programs and economic and political democracy they’ve implemented have made the current leaders the most popular candidates in their countries. Venezuela has the most fraud-proof election mechanisms in the world – much more so than the U.S. Its electronic voting, complete with paper trail, thumbprint verification and large sample recount system leaves little room for manipulation. There is no legitimate way that anyone can claim election fraud in Venezuela.
On Capitol Hill special interest groups hold “congressional briefings” virtually every day. Most are little noted nor long remembered. The “Legitimacy Lost” briefing is worthy of note only because Ros-Lehtinen and Mack hold powerful positions in the U.S. foreign policy arena. The hearing was attended by a significant number of media representatives. The message conveyed is bound to be repeated over and over and to soon enter the mainstream press as “conventional wisdom.” That is the trajectory of the “Big Lie” propaganda campaign. It is up to people who care about true democracy and economic justice to counter the propaganda using all the communications means at our disposal.
Chuck Kaufman is a national coordinator of the Alliance for Global Justice. He can be reached at [email protected]