In her 1977 book “United States Penetration of Brazil“, former CIA researcher, Professor Jan K Black exposed the complex role the US had played in Brazil’s 1964 coup and its governance since.
This extremely detailed forensic investigation should be a standard reference for anyone studying the 1964 coup, the dictatorship period and relations between the countries, both then, and in the present day.
Decades later Black wrote about what she found was still relevant and this resulting epilogue was for the Brazilian Portuguese edition, published in 2009. Professor Black has been an inspiration, a great help, and tremendous source of knowledge during the creation and establishment of Brasil Wire.
We are honoured to publish her epilogue in English for the first time.
United States Penetration of Brazil – Epilogue (2009)
My love affair with Brazil began with a visit to Rio de Janeiro for Carnaval in February and March, 1964. On that trip, a vacation from Peace Corps service in Chile, I also visited the new capital, Brasilia, still a virtual ghost town as diplomats and parliamentarians resisted resettling from Rio, the most beautiful and vibrant city in the world, to what then seemed an imposing but sterile sculpture park in the dusty hinterland. President Joao (Jango) Goulart was away at the time, but his administrative assistant, whom I had met on the plane en route from Rio, offered to show me the president’s private office. There I was amazed to see, confronting each other from opposite walls, life-sized portraits of US President John F. Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. I sensed then that Goulart was a man on a tightrope. The precariousness of his position became ever more apparent over the next couple of weeks, as my Brazilian friends urged me to stick around for the coup.
The coup, which indeed got underway on March 31 of 1964, was revisited by a plenary panel on the significance of that event and the militocracy that ensued at the international conference of the Brazilian Studies Association (BRASA) in Rio de Janeiro in June of 2004. I was invited for that occasion to reflect on the undertaking that was to be my dissertation and my first single-authored book, United States Penetration of Brazil, published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 1977. It occurred to me that readers of the Portuguese edition might also be interested in the thoughts I shared then as to why and how I had written that book, what difference it had made, and, most important, what I had learned in the process that was still relevant – or relevant again – in 2004.
Why Did I Write the Book?
Back in Chile at the end of March, 1964, I received a frantic call from my new friend, Goulart’s assistant, as the coup got underway, but I never heard from him again. I hope he was able to escape unharmed. I wondered then and later why my American friends so readily discounted what my Chilean friends took for granted – that the United States was somehow complicit in that awful assault on Brazilian democracy.
When I left Chile it was with the intention of getting professional training in community development so that I might return better able to make myself useful (My undergraduate degree was in commercial art). But my Chilean friends, from the poblaciones callampas to the barrio alto, said “Forget about ‘development;’ we can handle that ourselves. Just get the U.S. government off our backs.” That plea must have registered with me, because United States Penetration of Brazil is not so much about Brazil as about what Americans, North and South, need to know in order to get the U.S. government off the backs of Latin Americans.
After the Peace Corps experience and a year of studying and teaching in a shipboard university program now called Semester-at-Sea, I settled in Washington, D.C., where I could nurse my reverse culture shock along with other returned Peace Corps Volunteers. There I worked on a Master’s Degree at American University’s School of International Service. My plans about returning to Chile were interrupted by marriage to a young lawyer-politician on the U.S. Senate staff; so I was lured back into a PhD program at American University and into a full-time position as political analyst in the university’s Foreign Area Studies Division. There I co-authored, and later edited, books on Latin America in a series known then as the Army Area Handbooks.
The Army itself turned out to be surprisingly inattentive to the tenor of our analyses, but in 1968 a beleaguered Johnson Administration put out an edict to the effect that all government foreign affairs research was to be vetted by the Department of State. Such vetting became more heavy-handed under the Nixon regime. In 1969, a couple of chapters I had prepared from unclassified sources for a book on Brazil, chapters that dealt straightforwardly with purges and executions, torture and death squads, were returned from “across the river” – code for CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia – virtually dripping red ink. My research team supervisor, a retired foreign service officer, called me into his office. Pounding his fist on the desk, he called me a hippie and a pamphleteer and threatened to fire me if I did not rewrite the chapters line by line. My simple response was, “So, fire me.” (That moment marked the beginning of a power shift in the research organization, one that allowed my experience there to be empowering; but that’s another story.)
I did not rewrite and I was not fired, but what I had learned in no uncertain terms – apart from the fact that bullies sometimes back off when you stand up to them — was that the U.S. government had a great deal to hide with respect to its dealings with Brazil. Knowing that much meant knowing also that I had to know more, and that I had to make sure others knew, too. That I was obliged to write about the Brazilian counterrevolution and the U.S role in it was reinforced by the fears I laid out in 1970 in my dissertation proposal that Chile and Uruguay were in danger of suffering a similar fate.
More surprising to me than U.S. complicity in the demise of Brazilian democracy was the discovery that the study I had in mind had not already been done, given the clues that abounded and the enormous significance of such a turn of events. The times were of course inauspicious. A heavy fog of McCarthyism still hung over the capitol. Even so, the risk I understood from the start of being forever virtually blackballed from academia – never mind government – came to seem insignificant compared to the risks assumed by my Brazilian counterparts. I had never before – and have not since – been more clear in my own mind that I was doing what I had to do. I believed at the time that if the American people only knew of the atrocities being committed in their names and with their tax dollars they surely would not allow them to go on.
Given that the dissertation topic I had chosen was generally considered both far-fetched and downright subversive, the kind of support I received from my professors at American University was remarkable. I was particularly fortunate to be able to work with Ted Couloumbis, who had examined U.S relations with Greece’s military junta, and with Brady Tyson, who had worked in Brazil on behalf of the Methodist Church and, in the period following the coup, had made himself a cherished friend of the Brazilian people and a persona non grata of the military government.
How Did I Go About Writing the Book?
At my dissertation defense, when the committee asked about my methodology, my reflexive response was, “Don’t Ask!” In fact, I had done everything but pose as the washer-woman.
Learning what was happening then in Brazil was an agonizing experience – reading day after day about terror, torture, and dehumanization, death squads and disappearance. The extent of the national tragedy was in no way measurable by the numbers directly victimized. This was no war of attrition, of simple body counts. In Brazil as elsewhere the reign of terror, or dirty wars, targeted the young, the potential leaders, the most courageous and visionary of a generation. I understood then that human rights activism was not only about protecting the weak but also about protecting the strong – those willing to confront naked power armed only with the strength of their convictions.
Learning why this was happening – particularly the motives and consequences of the interaction of U.S. and Brazilian military and intelligence officers – was perhaps the most important aspect of this research. The process, however, was often tedious, mining mountains of manuals and journals for tidbits of insight into mindsets. But the how of much of the research – enticing the players to give away the game-plan they were trying so hard to conceal – was great fun. Interviews and other approaches in the later phases, when pieces of the puzzle were falling into place, fed my adolescent dream of being a detective.
One evening in Washington, D.C., as I was returning home from a reception sponsored by the American Institute for Free Labor Development (a CIA-cover agency) for Latin American labor leaders, I was so excited about the notes I had scribbled between conversations and stuffed into my purse that I failed to notice the approaching mugger, twice my size, until he was hovering over me, brandishing a handgun and demanding my purse. There ensued a tug-of-war for my purse. I knew better than to fight an armed man over money, but this was different; those notes were priceless. Finally, he hit me in the head with the gun and knocked me down, but I never let go of the purse.
The secrets of my success included having good instincts, good access, and good assets. A good instinct for politics—for knowing how to decode bureaucratic double-talk and how to interpret power relationships—I owed to my father, Judge Ottis J. Knippers, who had managed to have a successful career as a progressive state senator in Tennessee. From my late first husband, John D. Black, then on the U.S. Senate staff, along with ideas and legal advice (like how many years I might get in prison for some of the kinds of research that came to mind), I also gained good access to the resources of Capitol Hill. Senators J. William Fulbright, Hubert Humphrey, Edward Kennedy, Gaylord Nelson, and particularly Frank Church had important insights to offer. Senator Church had launched what was to be a very influential sequence of ad hoc committee hearings. And I was able to exchange information with Tom Daschle, then administrative assistant to Senator James Abourezk but later to become Senate Majority Leader, in his successful bid to terminate the Public Safety Assistance Program (another CIA-cover operation).
As to assets, youth and the kind of chutzpah that fades with it is often underrated. For most purposes, it would have been impossible in the late 1960s and early 1970s to underrate the utility, especially in academia or politics, of being a ditsy-looking blonde chick with a Southern accent. For the interviews on my research agenda, however, that turned out to be an ideal profile. I was utterly unthreatening, and many a general or bureaucrat well placed in the foreign affairs apparatus fell into bragging about the importance of his role in officially unacknowledged campaigns and strategies.
By far the most helpful innovation I brought to the task, however, was that of pursuing the “wrong sources.” It has always been safer in scholarship and media, never mind in diplomacy and other careers in public affairs, to have the right sources but the wrong answers than the other way around. To find out what the foxes had done in the chicken coop, I went first to the chicken coop. Until that time, the only acceptable practice was to go first to the foxes’ den. The foxes would say, “Who, us? We were nowhere near.” And that was supposed to be the final answer.
I ultimately went to the foxes’ den as well, for the “right sources;” but by that time I already had the broad outlines of the story. The foxes would be lying, of course, but not about everything and not necessarily about the same things; so it was possible then to put it all together in the manner of a mosaic, or a jigsaw puzzle. Beyond understanding the dynamics of a coup or the pattern of transnational power manipulation, there were important insights to be gained from such research. Having enthusiastically marketed Brazil’s military regime and carefully overlooked its atrocities against the young and the poor for some five years, Ambassador Lincoln Gordon, in 1969, joined some 300 other academicians in signing a letter of protest against the regime’s arbitrary “retirement” of university professors. With that, he told me, the regime had “gone too far.” For all too many, human rights abuses simply fall below the radar screen until they begin to touch people somehow like themselves.
What Difference Did the Book Make?
Not much directly, in the short term. Indirectly and in the longer term, however, I believe it made a great deal of difference. That was the case mainly because my findings and insights were built upon by others better positioned to get the story out to a larger readership. Those of us who dared then to ask the forbidden questions did irreparable damage to the protective shield of the official story in the United States. It was not until after the detention of Pinochet in London in 1998, however, that the “Pinochetazo” could be referred to routinely in U.S. major media as the “U.S.-backed coup;” and such usage has yet to appear in background reference to the Brazilian experience.
From the beginning, word about my project had generated excitement in some circles. While the dissertation was still in manuscript, I was visited by A.J. (Jack) Langguth, recently retired from the New York Times. He was investigating the life and death of Dan Mitrione and the U.S. police support and training operations in Latin America that had been Mitrione’s undoing; and we began a very useful collaboration and long-term friendship. His widely-read Hidden Terrors, published in 1978, reads like a novel, but is packed with data and insight and lessons about the awful consequences of popular ignorance and official arrogance in the United States.
The publication of U.S. Penetration of Brazil was covered surprisingly well in Brazil, given the risks involved in criticism of the regime, but it received little attention in the U.S. media until 1980, when the New York Times Book Review published a special issue for a political summer. A few of the country’s most distinguished intellectuals were asked to recommend books old or new that might be helpful to concerned readers in the run-up to a landmark election. On that list of classics, I was stunned to find my own book, recommended by Noam Chomsky. In response to my timid thank-you note, he called my attention to extensive citation of my book in his authoritative work, coauthored with Edward Herman, The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism, Volume 1 of The Political Economy of Human Rights, published in 1979. Since that beginning of our correspondence, Noam has been a good friend and an infinite source of inspiration for me.
Finally, and perhaps most important because of its extensive circulation in Brazil, was the work of Rene Armand Dreifuss. Rene, born Uruguayan of German Jewish roots, became thoroughly cosmopolitan and, at the same time, quintessentially Brazilian. In pursuing his Ph.D. at the University of Glasgow, Rene came across U.S. Penetration of Brazil and built upon it for his very influential book, 1964: A Conquista do Estado, published in 1981. A rarity in any country, his voluminous scholarly work became an all-time best-seller. Rene and I worked together over the years and became close friends. He continued to be among Brazil’s most influential scholars and committed social activists until his untimely death in 2003.
Over the years since, many other scholars have probed the fate of Brazil and the subversive undertakings of the United States there and elsewhere in Latin America. I followed in 1986 with a more general treatment of the theme in Sentinels of Empire: The United States and Latin American Militarism. Luiz Alberto Moniz Bandeira, whose work inspired me early on, continues to track the consequences of US ambition in the Western Hemisphere. His most recent works, As Relacoes Perigosas:Brasil-Estados Unidos (2004), and Formacao do Imperio Americano (forthcoming, 2005), offer a mother-lode of information on the seamy side of U.S. “diplomacy.” The ongoing efforts of Peter Kornbluh and his colleagues at the National Security Archive, in Washington, D.C., have been highly successful in lifting the veil of secrecy from some of the most destructive of U.S. strategies and operations in Latin America.
In fact, the more material the U.S. government classifies as secret, the harder it becomes to keep secrets. But sadly, as we have learned over recent decades – and the Bush regime has just proved once again in Iraq – it is not enough that the truth be known or knowable. As Lincoln might have said had he observed the shamelessness of today’s mass marketing of deception, “You can fool all of the people some of the time and some of the people all of the time” – and that’s quite enough. Having broken the taboo against the questioning of the official story, we remain very far from having made such questioning routine or cost-free. And unfortunately the “plausible deniability” demanded by architects of the indefensible is demanded by publics as well, because before knowing the truth can set us free, it must force us to take action.
One of the questions raised by my mentors at American University on the occasion of my dissertation defense was, “Had you been in the position of Secretary of State Dean Rusk in 1964, would you not have made the same decisions?” The answer suggested by international relations theory would have been, “Yes, of course, because in such a circumstance behavior is generally determined by role rather than by individual predilection.” My answer, instead, was “Absolutely not; but that is one of many reasons I am not likely to become secretary of state.” There will always be people willing to pay the price of telling the truth and acting on principle, but will there be institutions that allow that to matter?
What Did I Learn That Is Still Relevant?
I would have to say that everything I learned in the preparation of United States Penetration of Brazil is still relevant — and never more so than right now, at the mid-point of the first decade of the twenty-first century. Certainly what I learned is more relevant for Brazil now than at any time since 1964. Whatever Leftist means now, in a post-Cold War world, Brazil now has the most Leftist leadership it has had since the counterrevolution of 1964, and the most popular since independence. Whatever their shortcomings, Lula and the Partido dos Trabalhadores spring from and aspire to represent the great mass of working and would-be-working people. That in itself sets Brazil on a collision course with the most elitist government – the most heavily beholden to mega-corporations – that has ruled the United States in more than half a century. The Bush Administration is also arguably the most ambitious and straightforwardly imperialistic that we have seen in that period, and the least fettered at home by the legislative and judicial branches of government.
Brazil is by no means alone in this challenge. Latin America as a whole is now, for good or ill, experiencing new kinds of popular mobilization and new levels of instability. Consequently, it has much to fear from an increasingly ambitious US government; but it is demonstrating in many ways a new willingness to stand its ground and generating new strategies for doing so.
Thus for much of the Third World, concerned now about the implications of a “New American Century,” ( presumably all around the world this time) Latin America has much to teach. Since the colonies of the Western Hemisphere, from Mexico south, emerged from that status to become nominally independent states, what has cast them as a region has been their vulnerability — but also their resistance — to domination and exploitation by external powers. Beginning with Mexico in the mid-nineteenth century and stretching to the Southern Cone by the mid-twentieth, the external power they have experienced as most threatening has been the United States. The lament of South America’s great Liberator, Simon Bolivar, has been echoed by nationalists across two centuries: “The United States seems destined by Providence to plague Latin America with misery in the name of liberty.”
Ahead of the learning curve is not necessarily a comfortable place to be; but most Latin Americans appear to understand well what the United States failed to learn in Latin America or in Vietnam and now resists learning in Iraq – that resistance is not quelled by occupation; it is nurtured by occupation. From the Latin American experience, I will draw some distinctions between those U.S. approaches to imperialism that are enduring and those that are subject to change; between those that are on the order of state-to-state actions and those that constitute penetration – continuous manipulation of the internal political process; and between those that are old (but still in the tool shed) and those that are new, with particular attention to electoral “democracy” as a maintenance tool of empire.
Unchanging Motives, Changing Means
What is most enduring in the U.S. approach to empire has been enduring far longer than the United States itself – that is, the nature of the power game. In the Golden Age of Greece, Thucydides expressed it in simple terms: “Of the gods we believe, and of men we know, that by a necessary law of their nature, they seek to dominate wherever they can.”
Empire does not imply the exploitation by one nation of another, but rather the exploitation by a ruling group, in the first instance, of its own nation (e.g., as taxpayers and troops), enabling the exploitation of others. Thus the empire-building and maintenance strategies and tactics and their consequences that affect subordinated states affect the population of the metropole, or core state, as well. It cannot be said, then, that the American imperial system has failed – every system works for somebody – but it has clearly failed to serve the interests of the American people.
American exceptionalism is a myth. Superpowers do not promote democracy, not at home and certainly not abroad. Democracy requires popular sovereignty – power to govern without external control – the antithesis of empire. Empire implies control, what U.S. officials often refer to as maintaining stability. Popular sovereignty means “getting out of control.” Empires do, however, promote theater – cover stories or rationales – that most often, of late, include elections, a theme to which we will return.
What, then, apart from rationale, or “spin,” is subject to change in the building and maintenance of empire? 1) tools, techniques, and tactics – the means of rape and pillage; 2) institutional roles, or career and interest profiles, of the actors; and 3) the nature of the loot – from gold and silver to land and minerals, including petroleum; markets and utilities, now including even water; interest and portfolio investment; and finally cheap and docile labor.
As to spin, empire from the perspective of its architects and apologists has enduringly been about bringing God and/or civilization to the heathen, along with, for the last half-century, development and democracy. The most immediate packaging of the pursuit of empire, however – from the Crusades to White Man’s Burden to the Monroe Doctrine, Manifest Destiny, Gunboat Diplomacy, Wars-to-End-all-Wars, the Cold War, the Drug War, or the War on Terrorism — has been sensitive to targets of opportunity and to serendipity (particularly the scare potential of unanticipated events) and subject to change at the drop of an opinion poll.
There is little doubt that national leaders, generally adept at the resolution of cognitive dissonance, have been able to convince themselves of the worthiness of their intentions. What has been exceptional about the American experience, however, has been the ease with which leaders have marketed their spins and passed along to the general public a predilection to seek plausible deniability for the society at large and to excoriate any who might ask probing questions.
The Administration of George W. Bush has put a particularly clever spin on the American Empire, speaking instead of the American Century. Those of us who have been around for a few decades have had some practice in opposing empires, but how does one go about opposing a Century? Unfortunately for the Bush league, they are staking their claim a little late. While the power game doesn’t change, the powers in the play-offs do. America has already had a half-century, and that’s about all we are likely to get. Competition for imperial control of the twenty-first century comes not only from an emerging superpower – China, to which the U.S. has become deeply indebted – but also from the stateless creditor cartel, the black-hole density of corporate economic power that propels what has become known as neoliberal globalization. The appearance of coincidence between that “market power” and US political and military power does not mean that global economic power is at the service of US Empire, but rather that US power is at the service of the creditor cartel.
Imperial Actions and Penetrated States
State-to-state actions, generally reactive to perceived threats or opportunities, either domestic or in client states, and open or at least hard to camouflage, may be diplomatic in the sense of conveyed through diplomatic channels even when the action taken is quite undiplomatic, as in the case of veiled or open public threats. Such threats have been employed by the United States from time to time over the years in often vain attempts to influence the outcomes of elections or of legislative debate. US Ambassador Spruille Braden was so publicly vehement in his effort to defeat Juan Peron in Argentina’s presidential elections of 1946 that the election came to be seen as a contest between Braden and Peron. Not surprisingly, Peron won.
On several occasions since the turn of the twenty-first century, U.S. ambassadors have publicly implied or threatened that if disfavored candidates were elected, trade with and aid from the United States would be jeopardized. Such threats may have damaged the presidential candidacies of Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua and of Shafik Handel, candidate in the FMLN presidential primary in El Salvador, but more likely bolstered the prospects of indigenous leader Evo Morales, of Bolivia’s Chapare region. Other common “diplomatic” control techniques have included exercise of a veto over who might serve in presidential cabinets and whose support a US-favored candidate might accept, a major objective always being to drive a wedge between Center and Left.
The United States also uses bilateral and multilateral treaties or organizations selectively to justify its decisions, impose its will, or damage leaders or would-be leaders who do not welcome its dictates. Perhaps the most egregious such case to date was U.S. reliance in 1903 on a bilateral treaty in which the United States guaranteed Colombian control over Colombia’s then territory of Panama to justify U.S. provocation of Panamanian secession, so that the United States could set aside a zone for the construction of its canal.
The recent deceptive use of treaties and agreements on non-proliferation against Iraq is too well known – and perhaps too painful – to bear elaboration here, but the fact that the issue was even broached with the new government of Luiz Inacio da Silva (universally known as Lula) in Brazil might be expected to set off alarms around the hemisphere.
Moreover, in South America, the United States has used the “certification” provisions of the drug war agreements – threatening disruption of trade and aid to the decertified – to support or damage or otherwise have its way with Andean governments. And in 2004, after the failure of the coup attempt and the recall election against President Hugo Chavez, both of which the Bush Administration had supported, the United States decertified Venezuela for purposes of trade and aid based on alleged noncompliance with treaties designed to limit sex trafficking.
The most common U.S. use of international agreements to impose its will or punish the obstreperous is the use of conditionality agreements between debtor states and international financial institutions, particularly the International Monetary Fund (IMF), to force such states to adopt policies that may relate only remotely to debt service but that are beneficial to foreign investors. That tactic may be used episodically, and in fact it is most likely to come to public attention when debtor countries answering for the most part to US and IMF dictates experience episodes of economic meltdown, as was the case of Argentina in 2001-2. However, such use of the IMF, often in tandem with the World Bank, by US and other creditors backed by the US government has become continuous over the last couple of decades. Adoption of the proposed Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA) would multiply the levers available for enhancing corporate power vis-a-vis government power and thus promoting corporate interests over the public interest throughout the hemisphere, as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has already done with respect to Mexico, Canada, and the United States.
The state-to-state approach includes also some very undiplomatic initiatives that, though not necessarily open, are not easy to camouflage. These range from collusion in the assassination of leaders — e.g., in Latin America, Dominican President Rafael Leonidas Trujillo in 1961, Chilean “constitutionalist” General Rene Schneider in 1971, and, over the years, some 400 attempts against the life of Cuban President Fidel Castro – to outright full-scale military invasion as carried out in Panama in December 1989 by the government of Bush the Father. The episodic imposition or attempted imposition of control might also include the drafting of unenthusiastic allies into service in US wars beyond the hemisphere. Service has clearly been more willing at some times, Brazil in Italy in World War II and Colombia in the Korean War, for example, than at others. Latin Americans drawn into Iraq as members of the “coalition of the willing,” or, more realistically, based on the necessary bribes, the coalition of the billing, have recently looked more like the coalition of the bailing. Even Honduras and the Dominican Republic bailed their troops out of Iraq in 2004. Costa Rica had lent no troops or technicians, only its name. But in mid 2004, the Costa Rican Supreme Court, treating the United States like a pesky telemarketer, demanded that the country’s name be removed from the list.
These episodes indicate among other things that while Latin America is far from escaping the tentacles of US Empire, the old-fashioned, relatively open, state-to-state means of exercising control, at least in the absence of deployed armed force, have become surprisingly unreliable. This requires the empire maintenance crew to place even greater stress on the more generally surreptitious tactics in continuous use.
It often appears that, at least with respect to U.S. operations in Latin America, the more dramatic episodes of imposing or demonstrating imperial control, i.e. sending in the Marines, amount to the deployment of weapons of mass distraction. They are undertaken more likely for their effect on the domestic power game – elections, opinion polls, or impending legislation — than for effect on the target country or region. The most effective tactics for empire-maintenance are played out day-by-day, year-by-year, almost automatically, below the radar screen. They have become so nearly routine as to be scarcely recognized for what they are either by those who carry them out or by those who are targeted.
The Nature of Penetration
Such continuous operations are intended either to tilt or to maintain power balances within client states. They serve to inject the representatives or interests of the hegemon directly into the power games and prospects of every politically-articulated, or relevant, group in the target society, an array of groups or social categories that changes over time. Tools and tactics for influencing and for nurturing or suppressing also change over time, but those employed for nurturing would generally include funding and coalition-building among existing organizations and institutions. Groups or organizations to be suppressed or co-opted would be infiltrated and perhaps replicated. That is, new and better funded organizations might be generated to operate parallel to previously existing ones, so as to provoke schisms and to weaken by siphoning off funds and personnel and generally sowing confusion. Societies in which popular leaders are already discredited by the economic straitjacket of debt and credit conditionality are particularly vulnerable to such manipulation.
The strategy in broad outline is designed to continuously: 1) Unite and strengthen the Right (the economic elite and its guardians and apologists); 2) Divide and weaken the Left (the poor, peasants and wage-dependent workers, their service providers and intellectual defenders); and 3) Scare the bejeebers out of the middle class (professionals, salaried workers and small business owners, less poor but highly insecure). Co-optation or underwriting of local media and ad agencies plays a major role in meeting this objective.
Much of the effort involved in this approach has been undertaken by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operating under cover of the Agency for International Development (AID). The task of keeping labor politically divided and economically ineffective, for example, was carried out in part in the 1960s and 1970s by the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD), and suppression of political protest and intimidation of potentially effective political groups and individuals was assigned to the Public Safety Assistance Program (PSAP). Funding for both AIFLD and PSAP was funneled through AID. After the U.S. Congress in 1974 terminated the PSAP, many of its functions were transferred to the Drug Enforcement Agency.* Other operations for tilting power balances, particularly for directly influencing electoral outcomes, previously carried out by the CIA under relatively deep cover are now undertaken almost openly through the National Endowment for Democracy and its two partisan offspring organizations. It appears that some members of Congress in the 1980s, tired of feigning ignorance of operations with botched covers, decided to take some of those operations out from under the table and plant them boldly on top – in the name of promoting democracy.
Old Objectives and New Tools
The means, or maintenance tools, of empire tend to be cumulative. Empires are not good at discarding things. Any tool or tactic that ever worked, and many that did not, are likely still to be found in the tool shed. Any tool –a law, a treaty, an election, even a value or principle, like human rights — can become a weapon. Any weapon can be expected to fall into the wrong hands. And any weapon is likely to serve best the player with the biggest armory, at least in the short term.
As President Bush just proved once again with the invasion of Iraq, you can fool some of the people all the time and all the people some of the time – and that’s quite enough. In combination with misleading information and misuse of treaties, even straightforward colonialism, complete with military occupation and torture, are not out of date.
Whatever Works? One can readily see in Latin America that the full range of imperial options employed over more than a century is still in play, for example:
Full-scale military invasion, as employed complete with a coalition of the billing in the Dominican Republic in 1965 and Grenada in 1983 (to secure the strategic nutmeg?) and unilaterally in Panama in 1989.
Exile invasion, an old faithful in Central America and the Caribbean. Among the best known deployments have been those in Guatemala in l954, at Cuba’s Bay of Pigs in 1961, and, in Nicaragua, continual incursions of the “Contras” throughout the 1980s. The most recent deployment was that leading to the “facilitated departure” of President Aristide from Haiti early in 2004. Aristide was removed at that time by the same coterie of U.S.-backed thugs who had removed him in 1991 and ruled so brutally as to unleash a flood of refugees to unwelcoming U.S. shores. That, along with pressure from the US Congressional Black Caucus allowed President Clinton, with an at-the-ready non-invasion, to return Aristide to a diminished presidential role in 1994.
Low-Intensity Conflict. Known in Central America and the Caribbean during the first three decades of the twentieth century as “small wars,” this plague, complete with scorched earth, free-fire zones and strategic hamlets – tactics since refined in Vietnam – returned to Central America in the 1980s. It was employed with some modifications as the War on Drugs in the Andes in the 1980s and 1990s; and it has intensified greatly in Colombia and the Amazon in the early twenty-first century as the War on Drugs morphed into the War on Terrorism.
Regime change by military coup. Dozens of cases – one or two in most any year – might be identified in this category. The most ambitious and perhaps most damaging, in that each unleashed more than a decade of brutalizing military counterrevolution, were those in Brazil in 1964 and Chile in 1973 (9-11-73, the original 9-11). The most recent use of the tactic (to my knowledge), in 2002 against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, turned out to be abortive.
“Diplomatic” carrots and sticks. The largest outlays of carrots usually turn out to be in accompaniment (e.g., as Economic Support Funds) of much larger outlays of sticks, for use by Latin American governments against their own people. Colombia, where tens of thousands of civilians have been killed and more than a million peasants displaced in recent years, has become the recipient of the world’s largest package of U.S. assistance, after only Israel and Egypt. Sticks might be said to include the previously mentioned ambassadorial threats against electorates, threats of disruption of aid and trade if the wrong candidates are chosen. Such threats have been remarkably open of late and, at times, remarkably counterproductive.
Economic sanctions. This tactic is best represented, of course, by the sanctions against Cuba, in place now for 42 years and counting. It has been spectacularly unsuccessful in its stated purpose of bringing down the government of Fidel Castro; Castro has stood down 10 US presidents and is now the world’s longest serving head of government. The embargo has actually been seriously eroded since the turn of the twenty-first century, as US grain behemoths like Arthur Daniels Midland have earned more than $200 million since that time in cash sales to Cuba. The sanctions and accompanying hostilities have served the more immediate and more genuine domestic partisan purpose, however, of cultivating Miami’s anti-Castro Cuban exiles and thus of tilting electoral college votes in a populous swing state. Elsewhere, informal and limited sanctions have been common and more effective in influencing specific policy outcomes in target states.
Economic manipulation has been continuous, widespread, multifaceted, and generally effective, particularly in the form of, or as a threat of, a US credit freeze backed by other public and private creditors and coordinated by the IMF. Such freezes have often led to bouts of devastating hyperinflation. But the levers that were available to a single superpower in decades past have been superseded and dwarfed by those available to the private money movers, or “market forces,” of the globalized twenty-first century; they will be addressed as “new tools” in the next section.
Democratization, or electoral manipulation, has been employed at least since the early decades of the twentieth century when US Marines, occupying Central American and Caribbean countries, presided over “Free and Fair” elections. (The quotation marks are not mine. “Free and Fair” elections are addressed that way in the Small Wars Manuals of the epoch). Means of influencing electoral outcomes, however, have been finely honed since that time, as we shall see in the next section.
Enhanced Powers and Ambitions
Innovations in the business of empire expansion in the early twenty-first century derive in large part from the extreme concentration of wealth that followed the implosion of the Soviet Union and its alternate market system. The market monopolization now known as neoliberal globalization has led to the monetization and commercialization of almost everything from breathable air to body parts and presidencies and to the apparent conviction on the part of those at the high end of the income gap that the prospects for continuing concentration are limitless. Money movers are thus inclined and able to invest more than ever before in means of controlling the power game.
A particularly consequential area of this concentration, for purposes of empire maintenance and expansion, is that of control – both national and global – of media. In addition, technological and bureaucratic innovations, from electronic funds transfer to electronic voting machines to the data mining capabilities of the internet, multiply the levers available to those having imperial ambitions. Some such innovations, fortunately, also expand levers available to those who would resist.
Corporate cannibalism is among the most important developments of recent years, one that cuts right to the core of the national and global power game. It has blurred the edges between national and international capital and between the functions of force and legitimation in maintaining power equilibrium. Scarcely more than a decade ago it was still possible in the United States to identify a military-industrial complex as a category apart, a complex of companies that clearly stood to gain from war or at least from fear of enemies. The advantage of war is that there is no need for effective consumer demand – just fear — so that even in times of economic decline taxpayers tolerate the diversion of revenues from essential services to weapons.
The interests of this corporate complex were in direct conflict with those of the major players in international, or global, capitalism, who were dependent upon expanding effective consumer demand for goods and services, expansion certain to be disrupted and damaged by war. The conglomeration that has accompanied the globalization of neoliberal norms, including deregulation and the abandonment of anti-trust enforcement, has served to blur that distinction. Companies like General Electric, for example, are deeply entrenched in both kinds of markets.
Moreover, like many other mega-corporations, GE not only manufactures weapons along with its kitchen appliances; it also manufactures and markets news. And the companies that make kitchen appliances and weapons and news are the same companies whose campaign contributions elect leaders and shape policies. It is in the nature of the power game that the economic elite is dependent upon popular acceptance, or legitimacy, supplied in centuries past primarily by religious institutions and today primarily by the media. To the extent that the governing elite begins to lose that legitimation, or to find it too costly, it becomes more dependent for the security of its position on the wielders of force – i.e., military, paramilitary, and police. Becoming heavily dependent on armed protectors, however, implies a risk of having to share wealth and power with them.
The need, then, for legitimation, generally offers some potential for a polity, or civil society, to constrain the actions of governing elites. If the same conglomerates, however,
that underwrite government and sell kitchen appliances – more recently, even medical insurance — also make weapons and news, it becomes much easier for those who stand to profit from war to build a case and a constituency for it and thus to keep war-makers in power. In short, it means an absence of checks, or counter-forces, from either public or private sectors of society.
The challenge posed by creditor conditionalities has been noted above. Desperate debtor nation governments, highly dependent on imports and dangerously short on foreign exchange, routinely relinquish – in effect, outsource – the central role of independent government, economic decision-making, in exchange for new lines of credit. Since the demise of the Soviet-dominated alternative market, creditors have operated in the manner of a cartel, acting together or in tandem in accordance with rules enforced by the international financial institutions. These institutions, particularly the IMF, play the role of a credit bureau, passing on each country’s creditworthiness and negotiating with countries individually on behalf of creditors collectively.
Mobile money means immobilized leadership. The immobilization experienced by national leaders threatened with a credit freeze is compounded by the contingent but more general vulnerability to capital flight. Technology is not an independent force of nature, though it is often discussed or shrugged off as if it were. Technologies such as electronic funds transfer come into being and into use as a consequence of individual, institutional, and corporate interests and decisions. New technologies along with new categories of corporate organization have made it possible to strip a country of its capital as if by thieves in the night.
During Brazil’s presidential election of 2002, the private credit-rating enterprise Standard and Poor operated a “Lula Meter.” When Lula moved up in opinion polls, the interest rate Brazil was forced to pay on its loans rose accordingly. Even so, Lula won an impressive victory; but creditors have since sought to keep him on a short leash. Leaders suspected of being serious about following through on a popular mandate begin to pay a kind of insurance premium to the creditors – in the currency of their freedom of speech and of action – even before they are elected to office.
In most Latin American countries, the commander-in-chief of the armed forces, who, as the real connection to power until the 1980s, had appeared as the gray eminence behind the president, has since been replaced by the minister of finance. Most governments can be controlled now simply by the threat of “market jitters,” and the threat falls continuously on any leader who might be tempted to tax or regulate foreign capital or – Heaven forbid – defer debt service in order to deal with the needs of the desperate. In fact, the more service the electorate expects, the tighter the leash will be pulled by foreign creditors. Thus the greatest threat to a truly popular government is that of losing credibility with its own constituency and, in turn, seeing that constituency lose all faith in government and in “democracy.”
Elections as a Maintenance Tool
Whatever the US may appear to be doing abroad, the storyline in Latin America, as elsewhere, is that what we are really doing is promoting democracy; thus the most visible tool must be the election. Over the last fifteen years, I have monitored several benchmark elections in Latin America, serving on multinational teams. In such cases I have often found to my surprise that the performance standards Americans brought to the task seemed lax compared to those of other nationalities. It occurred to me then that perhaps we have been inured to fraud by the frequency of it in our own system.
Most countries now call themselves democracies, but those democracies and the elections that define them call for a mouthful of adjectives. Some of the categories of elections I have observed are listed and elaborated below. Whether their peculiarities originated in Latin America or in the United States, each category has been observed on both sides of the border. The impact of empire does not start at the Mexican border but at the Washington Beltway; and those South of the border seem better prepared to deal with it.
Exclusion can take many forms and have many targets, sometimes legitimate and straightforward, but more often false pretenses erected for partisan or otherwise indefensible purposes. Literacy requirements, in the United States and in the Andean countries, have been used to exclude racial and ethnic minorities. Exclusion of non-citizens is the norm in most of the world, but denial of citizenship is all too often intended to maintain a defenseless workforce; and withdrawal of civil rights, as in the case of U.S. former felons, as a means of bleaching the electorate would be reprehensible even if lists were not selectively purged and padded.
In the United States as elsewhere in the Hemisphere, along with get-out-the-vote campaigns, we now see campaigns to throw-out-the-vote (as in shredding Democratic registrations cards in Nevada and Oregon in 2004, disqualifying new registrants on petty technicalities, as in Ohio, and losing 58,000 absentee ballots in Broward County, Fla.); keep-out-the-vote ( as in “caging,” challenging and intimidating voters inside polling stations and thus stalling the process and generating long lines, observed in Ohio and elsewhere); turn-back-the vote (police checkpoints causing traffic jams and traffic barriers blocking off the polls (observed in Paraguay as well as the U.S.); keep-home-the-vote (rerouting buses, as seen in Brazil, threats to whole communities, common in Central America in the 1980s, or security agent visits to Muslim and other vulnerable U.S. communities in 2004; and get-out-the-vote-on-the-wrong–day-or-in-the-wrong-place (dirty tricks on the elderly in Florida in 2000, and “urnas con patas,” or ballot boxes with feet, in Paraguay, ’93).
Today’s “dirty tricks” are not just college frat pranks or CIA cloak-and dagger stunts. Since the heyday of the Nixon Administration’s clumsy “plumbers,” such tricks have been honed and systematized and precision-targeted with computerized databases. Such data-mining has been carried out by the US Dept of Justice in Latin America as well as in the United States through a long-term contracts with affiliates of the same company, ChoicePoint, that in 2000 overhauled Florida’s voter registration records so as to disenfranchise thousands of Black voters in a presidential election decided by 537 votes. The Mexican government, to its credit, has opened an investigation into such extensive and intrusive collection of data on its citizens.
Reversible Elections are not over until they are settled by battles of wills or weapons. The U.S. attitude about elections in Latin America was best expressed by Kissinger. With reference to the 1970 election of Socialist Salvador Allende to the presidency in Chile, he reportedly said, “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go Communist because of the irresponsibility of its own people.”
In times past, the usual means of reversal has been the military coup. That tool is still in the shed, but now it is unlikely to be either the beginning or the end of the process. In the case of Hugo Chavez, a military populist elected president of Venezuela in 1998, the United States has supported law suits, demonstrations, strikes, lock-outs, an abortive coup, and most recently, a recall election – all to no avail. The same party engineered a successful recall in California and, previously, an impeachment in Washington.
Subcategories might include anticipatory reversal – a coup, for example, to head off an election, as seen in Guatemala in 1963, or a timely indictment of the candidate leading in the polls, as in Mexico in 2005, and postponed elections, an idea floated by the Bush Administration in the summer of 2004. Such postponement would presumably have been until the threat of terrorism, or of a Democratic victory, subsided.
In the early 1990s, Mexican president Carlos Salinas de Gortari invited a dozen or so corporate high-rollers to lunch. After they had eaten well, he asked each of them for a million dollar contribution. Talk about no free lunch!
A few decades ago, in the U.S as elsewhere, buying votes was common. Unfortunately, perhaps, since there are few other means now of redistributing income, that practice is passé; it has been replaced by buying candidates, which is legal, apart from easily skirted restrictions, and a very good investment – as arms and pharmaceutical industries, for example, are finding.
Though acceptance of campaign contributions from foreigners has long been prohibited by U.S. law, the United States cries foul when Latin American countries try to block the overt infusion of dollars – for example, through the National Endowment for Democracy — into their elections. Covert funding, of course, is even harder to block. The infusion, however, of the U.S. model – of auctioning off the government to the highest bidding campaign contributors – is even more damaging.
In Latin America, as in the United States, the commercialization of the electoral process has been accompanied by the professionalization and privatization of politics: that is, party programs and activists are being drowned out and sidelined by slogans and spinmeisters, who sell candidates as they might sell soap. Little wonder then that publics treat elections like soap operas.
At what point does the extent of exclusion or intimidation or the sheer weight of sham signal that an electoral process is not to be taken seriously, that the exercise has simply been a show in that the incumbent government or dominant power was prepared to celebrate victory but not to accept defeat?
Sometimes the parameters are clear, as in under-the-gun elections staged by military occupation forces or other dictatorships. These might include ritual elections of continuation or transition. In Haiti in 1971 a dying Papa Doc called a referendum on passing the presidency-for-life on to his son, Baby Doc. The announced results were two million votes for and one against. I always imagined that the one contrarian was Baby Doc himself, a 17-year-old playboy who probably didn’t need the hassle.
Also in this category is the exit-strategy election, as in Iraq, offering the bull a graceful exit from a thoroughly smashed-up china shop. The exit-strategy rationale turned inside out sanctions invasion-strategy elections. It was argued by US occupation forces in Iraq that invasion was necessary to prepare Fallujah for elections.
More common now are the faith-based elections, conducted on riggable voting machines with no paper trails, which most often are also structurally-secured elections, characterized by wriggle rules and partisan supervision. Many Mexicans took pride in the fact that after 70 years of one-party rule, their presidential elections of 2000, newly under nonpartisan supervision, enjoyed considerably greater credibility than did those of the United States of the same year. Noting then that Florida’s Secretary of State was also Vice Chair of the Republican presidential campaign, former President Jimmy Carter said he would have declined to monitor an election anywhere in the world under those conditions. In 2004, he commented that the basic requirements of a fair election were still missing. In fact, the practice of assigning supervision of the electoral process to partisan campaign officials had spread to other swing states – most critically Ohio.
The elections in Paraguay in 1993, crucial with respect to the prospect of democratic transition, presented a more nuanced situation. Observers from the World Council of Churches spoke of “fraude ambiental,” a climate of fraude. While the final vote count in the presidential election was not seriously challenged, a smorgasbord of corrupt practices raised another question: should an election be considered legitimate if the incumbent actually wins the most votes, even when it has been clear that the levers of power were not actually put at risk? Fraudulence is less about outcome than about intent.
All broadly-based Latin American parties or political movements have at some point faced the dilemma of whether to stage an open-ended challenge – risking further polarization and perhaps even a violent crackdown on the opposition – or simply to concede. Unqualified concession, however, also carries risks; it means risking irrelevance, not only of the party but of the electoral process. The risk is not merely one of slipping into a permanent position of minority, sort-of-opposition party. If partisans of democracy are not prepared to challenge and to demand standards, the sum total of their efforts does not amount to nothing; rather, it amounts to the legitimation of a fraud-ridden system.
Learning Together in the Western Hemisphere
From the foregoing one might conclude that the United States had largely succeeded in exporting to Latin America its own brand of democracy – one that values form over substance; that shuns the messy pursuit of economic democracy in favor of stability; that ignores “dirty tricks” and worse and settles for “Free and Fair” elections of the best governments money can buy.
Even much of what is left of the Left in Latin America appears to be alive and well and living in the Center. State-centered social Revolution has no prospect in an economically globalized world, and the currently underperforming system of parties and elections and parliaments is unlikely to be traded in for a return to authoritarian rule. Few other than would-be autocrats see promise now in autocracy. And only those having very short memories could fail to appreciate relief, at least for the middle class, from the open and straightforward violation of human and civil rights.
Even so, while progressive theorists, pundits, and policy wonks may have retreated to their ivory towers, the disadvantaged people for whom they proposed to speak have taken to the streets; and momentum with respect to social and political change has shifted to the street-level world of social activists and social movements. Economists’ number-crunching in the early twenty-first century captured the tide of globalized free market successes but failed to record the gathering of a powerful undertow of anger and desperation. As before, in the 1960s and 1970s, the illusion of democracy heightened frustration and opened crevices in carefully crafted control systems, giving rise to agitation for the real thing.
The turn-of-the-century undertow of nationalism and populism, deriving from new deprivations and expressed in new forms of organization and of street theater or direct action, has unseated more or less elected governments in Peru, Ecuador, Argentina, and Bolivia. The same kinds of organizations, lacking the ambitions of revolutionary movements and the elaborated ideologies or programs of political parties, but strong in numbers, in solidarity, and in determination, have also underpinned populist governments in Venezuela, Argentina, and Brazil.
Throughout the Hemisphere in recent years, from Mexico to Argentina, those whose resources, livelihoods, and safety nets have been usurped by faceless foreign corporate and institutional predators have found new means of making themselves heard. The Zapatistas of the Mexican state of Chiapas garnered support from around the world as their “virtual” revolution was played out in poetry on the internet. In Colombia, “peace communities” put up unarmed resistance to guerrillas and government-supported paramilitaries alike. In Ecuador and Bolivia, indigenous communities coalesced to protect their resources and brought down elite-based governments. In Argentina, barter clubs, co-op factories, and neighborhood support groups overcame anarchy when government collapsed. And in Brazil, more than a million organized landless peasants and homeless urban workers helped to propel the leader of a genuine workers’ party into the presidency.
At the World Trade Organization Forum in Cancun in 2003, a new threshold was crossed when NGOs from around the Western Hemisphere and the world moved up from the street to work directly with delegations of Third World governments. Under Brazilian leadership, a coalition including China and India as well as Argentina and several other Latin American countries blocked the next round of the WTO’s proposed reforms and derailed, at least temporarily, the proposed Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, a pet project of the U.S. government for more than a decade.
Democratic leaders in the more developed Latin American states have increasingly expressed unease about U.S. ambitions in other parts of the world as well as, in Latin America, about the enhanced leverage available to those who would squelch any move toward expanded participation and enhanced accountability through promoting market jitters and capital flight. They have also shown concern about new U.S. funding vehicles for political operations, new technological exports, like voting machines of dubious security, and new means of information gathering, or data-mining. The Mexican government has opened an investigation into the collection of extensive and intrusive data on its citizens by the U.S. Department of Justice. This data-mining was being carried out in Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America through a long-term contract with the same company, Choice Point, which in 2000 overhauled Florida’s voter registration records so as to disenfranchise thousands of Black voters in a presidential election decided by a few hundred votes.
With respect to constraining the ambitions and depredations of Empire, the learning curve weaknesses in the Western Hemisphere are more readily apparent in the North than in the South. How unfortunate it is that, when confronted by demands from Latin America’s disadvantaged masses for greater participation, U.S. leaders who speak fervently of promoting democracy in Latin America pull ever tighter the leash of hemispheric hegemony. In so doing, those U.S. leaders make it ever more clear to Latin Americans that achieving democracy must mean “getting out of control,” that there can be no democracy in the absence of genuine, effective national sovereignty.
Jan Knippers Black, Professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California, has published many books, including “United States Penetration of Brazil” (1977); in Portuguese translation, “A penetração dos Estados Unidos no Brasil” Editora Massangana (2009)
*From records of a secret meeting in 1970 of the “40 Committee,” cited by Seymour Hersh, “Censored Matter in Book on CIA,” The New York Times, September 11, 1974.
Further analyses of these and other elections monitored by the author are found in J. Black, Inequity in the Global Village: Recycled Rhetoric and Disposable People, West Hartford, Con: Kumarian Press, 1999.