The Afghan, El Salvador, and Iraq
U.S. managed elections, with the
threat of violence,
are called "democratic"
by Edward S. Herman
Z magazine, December 2004
During the October 5 vice presidential
debate, in lauding the Afghan election, Vice President Dick Cheney
stated, "Twenty years ago we had a similar situation in El
Salvador. We had hal guerrilla insurgency [that] controlled roughly
a third of the country, 75,000 people dead, and we held free elections.
I was there as an observer on behalf of the Congress. The human
drive for freedom, the determination of these people to vote,
was unbelievable. The terrorists would come in and shoot up polling
places; as soon as they left, the voters would come back and get
in line and would not be denied the right to vote."
Cheney failed to mention that the postwar
UN-sponsored Salvadoran Truth Commission found that over 90 percent
of those 75,000 dead were civilians killed by the U.S.-sponsored
army and paramilitaries, as was Archbishop Oscar Romero and the
six U.S. religious women in 1980, and the six distinguished Jesuit
intellectuals (and their housekeeper and her daughter) in 1989.
The people apparently voted eagerly for the leaders of these murderers
Cheney also neglects mentioning that the
"determination of these people to vote" was helped along
by voting being legally required, with the public repeatedly warned
of this requirement, and the fulfillment of this legal requirement
recorded on ID cards that could be demanded by the police. There
were also transparent plastic voting boxes used in the Salvadoran
elections through which a ballot's content could be observed.
Given the security forces' willingness to kill and their regular
placement of mutilated bodies for public educational display,
the public's eagerness to vote was quite believable. Cheney also
failed to note that when asked why they voted, people in voting
lines said that their main objective was to obtain peace-but no
peace candidates were on the ballot and the effect of the Salvadoran
elections in both 1982 and 1984 was to clear the ground for further
war. (This was also true in Vietnam, where U.S.-sponsored elections
in 1966 and 1967 were also designed to clear the ground for war
with an assured election victory for a U.S.-imposed military junta,
but where voters expressed primary interest in bringing about
It was the central thrust of the official
propaganda barrage that the people in El Salvador (and Vietnam)
were eager to vote and that, with the leftist opposition hostile
to this supposedly democratic exercise and allegedly trying to
disrupt it, a heavy turnout and large vote could be interpreted
as a victory for the ruling military juntas (and U.S. policy support
of these leaders). Cheney regurgitates this formula, including
the claim that "terrorists" strove to "shoot up
polling places." This is straightforward disinformation,
as there was no shooting up of polling places in either El Salvador
or Vietnam during these elections.
In speaking of the "free elections"
held in El Salvador, Cheney does not mention that the left did
not offer candidates and couldn't do so because all their leaders
who had not been murdered were on a 138 person army death list.
He also failed to mention that the two dissident newspapers in
El Salvador had been eliminated by threats, physical destruction
of facilities, and outright murder; that intermediate organizations
like unions and independent political groupings had been dismantled;
that there was no freedom of assembly or speech; and that state
terror was rampant and had traumatized the population. In short,
not one of the conditions of a free election was met in El Salvador's
Note Cheney's acknowledgment that "we"
held those free elections, not the Salvadorans. This, plus the
fact that they were not "free" but stacked to assure
a victory of the war party, suggests a not very hidden purpose
in running them-namely, to mobilize support back home for the
intervention in favor of a military solution and a "death
squad democracy." This was a perfect illustration of a "demonstration
Cheney's recent repetition of lies and
misrepresentations on the Salvadoran election has not been corrected
or criticized by the mainstream media, in large measure because
they followed the same propaganda line during the election periods
in El Salvador, and during the farces in Vietnam as well, where
the military juntas regularly acknowledged that they couldn't
compete with the National Liberation Front (NLF) "on a purely
political basis" (NYT, Oct. 24, 1966). The media consistently
focused on turnout, without mentioning the associated coercion
package and they essentially ignored the fact that the left and
any peace candidates were unable to run and that state terror
was rampant. Whereas, in dealing with the Sandinista election
of 1984 that threatened to legitimize a government under U.S.
attack, little or no attention was paid to turnout and a great
deal of attention and indignation focused on the voluntary withdrawal
from the election of an opposition candidate, who happened to
be on the CIA payroll. Adhering closely to their real societal
function of supporting establishment initiatives, the papers found
the Salvadoran elections "steps toward democracy" whereas
the far more honest Sandinista election was declared a "farce"
(NYT). Nowhere was it suggested that the Salvadoran and Vietnam
elec- tions were purely public relations efforts designed to clear
the ground for war.
It is an enlightening microcosm of how
a propaganda system works that in 1982 the New York Times never
mentioned the 138-person army death list, which made it so very
clear that the left could not participate in that election, but
the Times did refer to that list in 1989 when the left made a
tentative electoral entry, where the mention would put the El
Salvador regime in a more favorable light (Lindsey Gruson, "A
Fingerhold for Dissent in El Salvador," NIT, March 17, 1989)-a
pretty illustration of Orwell's notion of Big Brother's media's
ability "To forget whatever it was necessary to forget, then
to draw it back into memory again at the moment it was needed."
The Afghan election has its own special
features, as does the prospective January 2005 election in Iraq,
but they both have basic public-relations and demonstration-for-the-home-market
characteristics and neither can properly be called "free
elections." The mainstream media have openly acknowledged
that the timing of both has been geared to the needs of the Bush
election campaign, neither being postponable for reasons of the
detrimental effect on that campaign, as each election will demonstrate
democracy in action and "liberation" of the formerly
oppressed people. The fact that the United States is able to fix
the timing of these elections to meet the political demands of
its leaders doesn't strike the media as compromising or suggestive
of deeper limits to the meaning of these exercises.
What makes these elections unfree is not
so much the technical failures and fraud in the use of the electoral
machinery, sometimes substantial, as the fact that each election
is being imposed from without by a party with an axe to grind
and does not come from indigenous sources. Its source is the needs
of a superpower that occupies these countries militarily and uses
that military as well as economic leverage now, as it has in the
past, to shape the electoral process in accord with its interests
and agenda. Its shaping is sometimes extremely crude. In the case
of Vietnam in 1966 and 1967, the United States was fighting the
NLF, which was admitted by U.S. officials to be the only mass-based
party in South Vietnam, so its exclusion was obvious and essential
for U.S. purposes, but clearly made the election meaningless.
The United States also warred against and seriously weakened the
Buddhist church movement, the second largest constituency organization
in the South. Under U.S. direction two dissidents who might have
drawn substantial votes were excluded from candidacy, assuring
that the military leaders of U.S. choice would win the election.
These gross violations of the basics of a free election-and there
were others-did not cause the New York Times (etc.) to call the
election a sham. The media were impressed by the eagerness of
the Vietnamese peasants to cast their vote for the U. S. -chosen
In El Salvador, the election winner was
U.S.-approved and received U.S. financial as well as military
support. In Nicaragua, the Sandinistas eventually lost an election
in 1990 with the crucial help of the United States, which had
carried out a crushing war of terrorism against them, along with
a boycott that extended to preventing any World Bank or other
aid; helped the opposition parties financially and strategically,
got them to coalesce behind one candidate; and openly threatened
that if the U.S. -supported candidate did not win the election
the war and boycott would continue. The "free" press
never noticed that this was straight-forward blackmail as well
as crude interventionism in other respects.
There seems to be no limit to what the
media will swallow, both in approving U.S. -staged elections that
are laughably fraudulent and assailing elections by U.S. targets
that might interfere with U.S. destabilization efforts.
In evaluating the Afghan election, we
must start here also with the fact of an imported and imposed
election project, a military occupation and financial dependency,
and of a Kabul leadership hand-picked by the United States, headed
by President Hamid Karzai, a former employee of a U.S. oil company.
He won the current election because he had U.S. resources behind
him and Afghanis know that this assured his victory. He also had
the UN and "international community" cooperating in
this enterprise, with the UN participating in a Joint Electoral
Management Body overseeing the process, and Kofi Annan congratulating
the Afghanis on their "patience, resilience and civic maturity,"
and their determination "to take charge of the affairs of
their country" ("Hailing Afghans' patience, civic maturity,
Annan says poll probe will bring gains," UN News Center,
Oct. 12, 2004). How they will "take charge of the affairs"
of Afghanistan by approving the U.S. choice of leader he failed
to explain. Kofi Annan continues to be a near-perfect spokesperson
for the U.S. projection of power abroad by violence, even with
his occasional whimperings at "illegal" actions, whose
results he continues to accept and protect. This is why he has
lasted so long when less cooperative and more principled people
like Boutros-Boutros Ghali and Mary Robinson were ousted.
Some Afghans believe that because Karzai
is the choice of the dominant external power in a process validated
by the U.S.' s international community collaborators, he represents
the best practical hope of peace and development. The United States
has the power to crush the warlords and pacify the country and
it has the resources and know-how to contribute to development.
Voting for the U.S. candidate thus represents for some an expression
of hope and a recognition of the reality of U.S. political control
and perhaps a fear of how the United States might react to a vote
of rejection. Whether any hopes will be realized is doubtful,
given the U.S. record of hit-and-run, unwillingness to spend externally
except to kill and facilitate killing, as well as the special
difficulties faced in Afghanistan. But this can hardly be said
to constitute a free election, given the lack of public information
and national debate on the major issues and candidates, the absence
of meaningful electoral options, the continuing power of the warlords,
and the overwhelming fact of military occupation and control.
It represents instead ratification of conquest and the new client
and dependency status of Afghanistan.
As in the past, and with great reliability,
the mainstream media have found the conquest-ratifying-election
sponsored by their own leaders a gratifying "step toward
democracy." Once again the media are touched by the large
turnout, the long lines of eager voters, their courage in the
face of intimidation, "offering their faith in a democratic
future" (editorial, "Afghanistan Votes," NYT, Oct.
12, 2004). As usual, there was that "violence threatened
by the Taliban," that failed to stop the enthusiastic voters
(Carlotta Gall and David Rohde, "Assessing the Afghan Election,"
NIT, Oct. 20). That they may have voted out of fear and intimidation
by local elites or loyalty to local leaders, or out of recognition
of inevitable rule by a foreign proxy with no other options available
are not entertainable thoughts in a well-working propaganda system.
(Large turnouts and long voter lines in Nicaragua in 1984 were,
by the inverted propaganda demand of the state, neither courageous
nor an expression of "faith in a democratic future,"
but a "sham" based on deception, coercion, and other
ills; and the large turnout for Hugo Chavez in Venezuela in the
2004 referendum was also never seen in the media as an "expression
of faith in a democratic future.")
The election in Iraq, if actually held
in January 2005, will also not be a free election in any meaningful
sense. A truly free election would result in the ouster of U.S.
forces and bases and a repudiation of the numerous contracts with
friends of the Bush administration, as well as the string of de
facto laws ("Orders") and rules imposed by the U.S.
like tax policies, open-door rights to foreign companies, and
exemptions of foreigners from the rule of law that serve U.S.,
but not Iraqi interests. But the occupation forces will prevent
this, unless they are driven out of the country or the costs of
pacification are so great that, as in Vietnam, there is a voluntary
exit based on compelling political pressures and/or a negative
calculus of the costs and benefits to the occupying power.
The Bush administration clearly did not
invade and occupy Iraq to give the Iraqis free choice and a free
election that would do that was never in the running. From the
outset, the Bush administration made Iraq an "appointocracy,"
with first a U.S. handpicked Coalition Provisional Authority,
devoid of authority, then an Interim Government, headed by former
CIA asset Ayad Allawi, again powerless and a front for U.S. policy
and actions during the leadup to the supposed "free election."
The Administration needed lots of time to put in place "reforms"
that would restructure the Iraqi economy via privatization, deregulation,
open door policies on trade and investment, and other institutional
changes, so it needed purely nominal Iraqi governments during
that period (see Greg Palast's "Moving the Iraqi Economy
from Recovery to Growth," www.gregpalast.com).
Thus, the January 2005 election, if it
takes place, cannot be free, given Bush administration ends, the
structure of power in an Iraq under military occupation, the rules
already put in place and other changes that "99 percent of
the Iraqi people wouldn't vote for," the control of the media,
the almost certain manipulation of election processes-Bremer's
Orders 91 and 97 already exclude members of "illegal militias"
from public office and rule out participation in the election
by any parties that "preach hatred" or support "terrorism,"
all to be determined by a U.S. -organized electoral commission-and
the ongoing death-dealing and pacification policies of the occupying
As in past U.S. election interventions,
it is now reported that U.S. officials are also attempting to
get their client candidates to present a single slate (Ashrat
Khalil and Paul Richter, "U.S. Is Said to Urge Its Iraqi
Allies to Unite for Election," Los Angeles Times, Oct. 26,
2004) and we can be sure money is flowing into the campaigns of
The insistence of the United States that
their own man Allawi be nominal head of state in the run-up to
the January election, overruling UN representative Lakhdar Brahmini'
s choice and therefore precluding any but a purely nominal UN
role, was a giveaway as to U.S. intentions. So was the desperate
U.S. struggle to avoid a popular vote for the interim government.
So was the U.S. refusal to accept the introduction of UN-controlled
military forces, which might have made more difficult whatever
level of violence the U.S. chooses to carry out to assure a proper
election outcome. Allawi can be counted on to approve anything,
as he is a puppet as amenable as Generals Ky and Thieu in South
Vietnam, who were quite prepared for the United States to ravage
their country with Agent Orange, napalm, cluster bombs, endless
B-52 raids on "suspected Vietcong villages," etc., in
a virtual genocidal process.
The prospect for the January election
is that it will be held, if at all, following still further intensified
pacification efforts by the United States. This will be important
for Bush's future imperial plans to win this victory, at no matter
what cost to Iraq's civil society and future welfare. To keep
U.S. casualties acceptably low, the emphasis will continue to
be on bombing raids and helicopter attacks and the seizure and
killing of dissidents, along with the usual and built-in massive
"collateral damage." (On the imminent assault on Fallujah,
see Patrick Graham's "Falluja In Their Sights Again: As soon
as British troops are redeployed, the US will again turn the city
into a bloodbath," The Guardian, Oct. 23, 2004; also, George
Galloway, "Free Iraq: Troops Out Now," www. uruknet.
The Vietnam elections of 1966 and 1967
demonstrated that you can hold elections under conditions of extreme
violence and massacre. Those elections also demonstrated that
the media will swallow them as legitimate even under the most
grotesque conditions. In Iraq, under grotesque conditions of occupation
following plain aggression that even Kofi Annan has plaintively
identified as "illegal"-he could never use a word like
aggression in regard to his masters-with the occupying power quickly
installing a regime of torture, completely failing to carry out
its responsibilities as an occupying power, creating a series
of puppet governments as fronts, its failures plus indiscriminate
violence helping produce a country-wide insurgency, it now proposes
to hold a Bush-convenient election under managed conditions, with
the UN once again cooperating and providing a moral cover for
this travesty, and the media taking it very seriously.
The New York Times has had an ambivalent
position on dealing with the insurgency in the run-up to the election.
It has claimed that the main condition for "progress toward
democratic government and the only hope of meaningful elections
depends on greater progress in quelling the insurgency" (editorial,
"Iraq's Disappearing Election," Sept. 26, 2004). That
is just what the Bush team wants to hear: the premise is that
holding this U.S. -organized and controlled election is a positive
step, and may lead to democracy and that stepped up military violence
("quelling") is the proper route.
On the other hand, in a followup, while
standing by their view of the positive role of the election, the
editors attacked the view that the planned "all-out assault
on Fallujah" was a proper approach, arguing for a "middle
path" between an urban war and letting the insurgency control
cities ("Flattening the Vote in Fallujah," October 27).
This calls for selective killing and a new round of negotiations
and a greater role for the UN.
The notion that aggression is not acceptable,
that the aggression and occupation produced the insurgency, which
is a legitimate and understandable response to aggression and
an extremely abusive occupation, and that the aggressor has no
legal or moral right to further manage Iraq's affairs-now by escalated
further massacre-is outside the orbit of thought for an establishment
The prospect, then, is that the United
States will create a desert, hold a staged election in the rubble,
and call it a creditable "step toward democracy." The
media, who have no shame, will agree, while regretting the "collateral
Edward S. Herman is a media critic and
author of numerous books and articles.
Edward S. Herman page