The Americas

excerpted from the book


by John Pilger

South End Press, 2001 (and 1986), paper

Occupying two floors of the Sheraton were teams from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the American Institute for Free Labour Development (AIFLD). Both organisations were instruments of US foreign policy and had played important parts in the invasion of Vietnam. In El Salvador, as in Vietnam, USAID had provided the means of sustaining an economic structure on the American model. At the same time its Office of Public Safety trained local police in methods of 'combating subversion' i.e. torture. AIFLD, which had worked closely with the CIA in Vietnam, established the Salvadorean Communal Union in 1968. In the guise of promoting 'land reform' the American-led UCS infiltrated and sought to control (sometimes successfully) genuine peasant organisations and trade unions and to stifle 'social unrest'.

According to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, between January 1980 and April 1981 20,000 civilians were murdered by 'death squads' related to or part of the 'security forces' of El Salvador. The death of people 'in industrial quantities', as one American reporter wrote, was therefore well known, yet the Reagan administration in its first year increased its initial $25 million in military aid to the El Salvador regime to $523 million without congressional approval and after 'laundering' it through the international banks. To give one example of this 'back-door' aid: the Inter-American Development Bank in 1981 gave the El Salvador regime $45 million out of a 'special operations fund' in which Washington held 62 per cent of the capital. The West Germans, Canadians and Danes strongly objected to the loan on the grounds that it violated the Bank's charter, because it could not be implemented properly. The Americans said it was for 'land reform'. The Europeans suspected it was for 'counter insurgency equipment'. 'We are giving away blood money,' a European representative at the Bank told me.

'Under the constitution of the United States,' said the chief security officer at the American embassy, 'the Stars and Stripes must be lowered every day at sunset. Only one place on this earth is excluded: our embassy right here in El Salvador. And that's by the executive order of President Reagan himself.'

The embassy has electronically-controlled doors every few yards, as m a maximum security prison, and US marines bunkered on the roof, as well as troops of the El Salvador National Guard in the courtyard and at roadblocks within a mile radius, and groups of thugs in reflecting glasses and running shoes and 'Rolls-Royce' T-shirts circling it. The thugs are called Operation Shark.

Howard Lane, the press attaché, sat in a windowless paneled office, the Stars and Stripes behind him, Ronald Reagan on the wall and a magnum in an open drawer. A grey, rumpled man in his forties, he spoke at first the Official Optimism. 'The guys in the bush', he said, 'have no more than 5,000 human assets and a comparative support structure.' Translated, that meant that there were only 5,000 guerrillas and 5,000 civilian supporters. But, surely, the previous year there had been more than 300,000 people crowding the centre of San Salvador in support of the opposition groups? That left 295,000 'support structure' unaccounted for, minus the twenty-one who died when the forces of law and order opened fire on the crowd.

The press attaché described himself as a leftover from the Carter administration's diplomatic appointments and said that he had been proud to serve the previous American Ambassador to El Salvador, Robert White, who had taken the courageous step that January of going before a congressional hearing to say that 'the chief killers of Salvadoreans are the government security forces. They are the ones responsible for the deaths of thousands upon thousands of young people who have been executed merely on the suspicion that they are leftists'. For saying that, White paid with his career. .

When President Reagan assumed office in 1981 nationalists fighting United States-sponsored tyrannies throughout Central America were described variously as Marxist-Leninists, communists,- leftists and terrorists. In El Salvador, where the American assault had been concentrated, the Frente Democratico Revolucionario, formed in April 1981, sprang entirely from popular resistance organisations which date back to the nineteenth century. It unites peasants, trade unionists, priests, teachers, students, businessmen, Christian Democrats, social democrats, socialists, Jesuits and communists. It includes groups such as the Union of Slum Dwellers and the Christian Peasants' Association. Only the Union Democratica Nacionalista, one of the smallest coalitions, is of communist inspiration. As in Vietnam, the aim of American propaganda is to cast El Salvador into the wider arena of the cold war and so deny the true nature of the resistance movement.

The Legal Aid Service, the Socorro Juridico, was established in 1977 by a group of lawyers as a means of defending the poor in the courts. Carrying their files they move constantly; I found them in a shed at the end of a vegetable allotment between the American embassy and the morgue. On the wall was a photograph of Maria Henriquez, director of the Human Rights Commission, who was kidnapped on October 3,1980, and tortured to death with razor blades. The administrator, Ramon Valledares, was taken three weeks later and nothing has been heard of him since. 'We have noticed,' a young woman said, 'since Reagan's election and the increase in US aid, new methods of torture have been introduced; previously people were simply shot.'

From 1980 to 1986 the United States sent more than $2 billion to;;: Salvador as 'aid'. Eighty-five per cent of this has paid for arms, planes, helicopters, incendiary bombs, oxygen-reduction bombs, phosphorous bombs, Napalm bombs, cluster bombs, 'anti-personnel' weapons and munitions, electrified wire, surveillance equipment, more conscripted troops, more black helmets, more black boots and 'the continued involvement', wrote Amnesty International in 1984, 'of all branches of the security and military forces in a systematic and widespread program of torture, mutilation, "disappearance" and the individual and mass extrajudicial execution of men, women and children from all sectors of Salvadorean society . . .'

During his presidency, Ronald Reagan more than once 'certified' that the El Salvador regime had satisfied the 'human rights criteria' required by the Congress for American military shipments to continue. In 1985 a report by the Congressional Arms Control and Foreign Policy Caucus said that a four-month investigation had shown that the Reagan administration had misled and lied to Congress about the situation in El Salvador, even claiming that most of the US 'aid' money had gone to improve social conditions when, in fact, it had gone to the military. The United States, the report concluded, was becoming more deeply involved in El Salvador, in a manner what was 'reminiscent of Vietnam'.

In 1989 Arena, the 'party of the death squads', took power in El Salvador and the number of random murders rose sharply. A State Department spokeswoman expressed 'horror' at these developments but said that US policy remained unchanged and US arms shipments would continue.

Only when disaster strikes does attention focus on ordinary people invariably of a short-lived kind, from which they emerge as victims, accepting passively their predicament as a precondition for Western charity. The Western perspective on the Ethiopian famine, that of people denied fundamental control over their lives, complied with the stereotype, and the 'consensus' was to give surplus food and cash to them. Their need was deemed 'above politics'. That their predicament had political causes, many of which were rooted in the 'developed' world, was not widely considered a central issue. Since 1979, against historically impossible odds, the Nicaraguans have smashed the stereotype.

The depth of what has happened in Nicaragua and its wider implications, in particular the very real threat posed to the United States and its global system of 'development', struck me when I stayed in a frontier community, El Regadio, in the far north of the country. Like everywhere in Nicaragua, it is very poor, and its isolation has made change all the more difficult. However, since the Sandinistas threw out the dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979 a 'well baby clinic' has been established, including a rehydration unit which prevents infants dying from diarrhoea, the most virulent third world killer. When I was there no baby had died for a year, which was unprecedented. More than 90 per cent of the children have been vaccinated against polio and measles, with the result that polio has been wiped out. The production and consumption of basic foods has risen by as much as 100 per cent, which means that serious malnutrition has disappeared ...

Nicaragua, minuscule, impoverished and facing an invasion by the \ most powerful and richest nation, is indeed a threat. It is a threat to American foreign policy, not because its people and their leaders want to create 'another Cuba', isolated and with the Russians ensconced. It is a threat for the opposite reason: that Nicaragua offers an alternative model of development to anything the Soviet Union would want to impose. This is why American policy and propaganda are aimed at severing Nicaragua's ties with its neighbours and 'pushing' it towards the only available benefactor, Moscow. It is the same policy and propaganda employed against Cuba in 1960 and 1961 and against Vietnam since May 1975.

Of course, the gravest threat posed by Nicaragua to the United States is that it offers to those nations suffering under American-sponsored tyrannies, such as El Salvador and Guatemala, a clear demonstration of regional nationalism at last succeeding in the struggle against hunger, sickness, illiteracy and pobreterria. And when the Reagan administration and its 'New Right' supporters say that the United States is in danger of 'losing' Central America, they are right. It is no coincidence that since the Sandinistas came to power the nationalist guerrillas in Guatemala have enjoyed a dramatic increase in support among people in at least nineteen of the country's twenty-two provinces. The same is true of the resistance in El Salvador, which has grown in strength not because of some imaginary Ho Chi Minh Trail of arms supply masterminded by Russians and Cubans, but because one 'good example' in the region has survived against all odds. As Noam Chomsky has pointed out, 'The weaker the country, the greater the threat [to US policy], because the greater the adversity under which success is reached, the more significant the result." Unlike Vietnam, Nicaragua is neither isolated from its neighbours, nor has it felt obliged to embrace the Eastern bloc; more than 75 per cent of its foreign trade is with Western and nonaligned countries and only 11 per cent with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

For five years Nicaragua has fought an invasion directed by United States military officers and government officials in Honduras, where the full panoply of American 'small war' technology has been installed. In addition, Nicaraguan airspace is invaded almost every night by United States AC-130 attack aircraft, based in Panama, and every week by AWACS surveillance aircraft based in Oklahoma. American Naval task forces are on permanent station off both the Caribbean and Pacific coasts of Nicaragua. In 1983 the CIA mined Nicaragua's harbours and blew up its main oil storage depot at Puerot Corinto.

In the same year the United States successfully brought pressure on the Inter-American Development Bank to stop a loan of $34 million to Nicaragua. The loan, already agreed, would have revitalised the Nicaraguan fishing industry and provided a substantial and cheap source of nutrition. In 1985, just as the same international bank seemed ready to approve $58 million in agricultural credits to Nicaragua, the United States Secretary of State, George Schultz, warned the Bank's president that the loan risked complete withdrawal of American contributions. Despite its non-political charter, the Bank set aside the loan. A total American embargo now operates against everything Nicaraguan, denying its raw materials their most important market. The old Aeronica Boeing is no longer allowed to land in Miami.

Against this is ranged what President Reagan has called the Nicaraguan 'war machine' which, at the last count, centred upon forty-five old T-54 and T-55 Soviet-built tanks, designed for use on the North German plain and not in dense tropical terrain. In addition there are a few anti-aircraft batteries and the Nicaraguan Air Force's 'strike command', which consists of three American Korean war vintage T-28s, two of them flown by the same dapper Chilean pilot with a honed sense of humour. 'I am ready', he informed me at a party in Managua, 'to take on the entire US Air Force. Let us say I am the pigeon attacking the buckshot!' (The Sandinista revolution has its own Woody Allens. Tomas Borge, the only original Sandinista to survive, told Playboy magazine that the leadership had been seriously trying to get copies of Bedtime for Bonzo. 'The movie deals with a monkey', said Borge, 'and the monkey's master is Reagan. So this is a wonderful allegory . . . almost a premonition!'

The lines of Bertholt Brecht slip into mind in Nicaragua: 'By chance I was spared. If my luck leaves me I am lost.' What has happened in Nicaragua all seems so tenuous. How did they slip the leash and 'triumph', as they say, on July 19,1979, when the Sandinistas swept into Managua after Somoza had fled to Miami? For a brief moment American foreign policy had paused; Jimmy Carter's consuming obsession was the American hostages in Iran. And for once Washington found it difficult to contrive an intervention on behalf of a dynasty of banana Napoleons so outrageous their sponsors knew they could be relied upon to surpass their monstrous reputation and 'embarrass' a president who had sought to build his reputation as the guardian of 'human rights'.

The Somozas were handed Nicaragua in 1933 by the US marines who had occupied the country for twenty-one straight years. In 1934 Cesar Augusto Sandino, whose guerrilla army had forced the marines out, was invited to Managua for 'peace talks' with Anastasio Somoza, whom the Americans had put in command of their creation, the National Guard. When Sandino arrived in Managua he was murdered on Somoza's orders. Two years later Somoza appointed himself president for life. The Somozas went on to run Nicaragua like a family business. During the 1940s a calypso popular in American nightclubs began:

A guy asked the dictator if he had any farms. The dictator said he had only one . . . It was Nicaragua.

The Somozas owned almost half the arable land. They controlled the coffee, sugar and beef industries. They owned the national airline outright. If you bought a Mercedes car you bought it from a Somoza company. If you imported or exported, you did so through Somoza 'kickback' agencies. The first Somoza had begun his career as a sewerage inspector and went on to own the sewers of Managua, right up to the manhole covers. Even the paving stones in the street were made by a Somoza cement factory which got the contract from a ministry run by a Somoza and of course the profits ended up with El Presidente.

Nothing was overlooked; most Nicaraguans recall the 'House of Dracula', which was the name they gave to a blood plasma factory in Managua called Plasmaferesia. The poor would go to this place to sell their blood for as little as a dollar a litre and the company would export it to the United States for ten times that amount. In January 1978 the editor of the newspaper La Prensa, Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, was murdered while he was conducting a campaign against the blood traffic. The company was registered in the name of a Miami-based Cuban exile, but evidence published by La Prensa suggested that this was merely a front for Somoza. Certainly, most Nicaraguans would have been surprised had El Presidente not been selling his people's blood. During the anti-Somoza demonstrations which followed Chamorro's death, the 'House of Dracula' was burned to the ground.

The National Guard was Somoza's private 'death squad'. Paid and armed as part of America's 'aid' programme, the dreaded Guardia was the instrument of American policy in Nicaragua for almost half a century. Senior officers were trained at the 'School of the Americas' in the US-run Canal Zone in Panama (known throughout the Americas as 'escuela de golpes', the school of coups), where they were taught to equate social unrest with communist subversion. They were above the law. They could murder at will. Somoza called them 'his boys' and, if repetitive reports by human rights organisations are an indication, they tortured almost as a sport. For example, one of the delights of Somoza's 'boys' was to drop his political opponents from helicopters into the Masaya volcano. Said President Roosevelt of the first Somoza, 'That guy may be a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch.' Said President Nixon of the second Somoza: 'Now that's the kind of anti-communist we like to see down there.'

In 1972 an earthquake struck Nicaragua, destroying Managua and killing an estimated 10,000 people. Officers and troops of the National Guard went on a looting spree, and one senior officer tried to blow up the national bank. When relief supplies arrived from all over the world, a National Emergency Committee was set up under Somoza's control and run by the National Guard. This, wrote Dianna Melrose in her book on Nicaragua for Oxfam, 'institutionalised the misappropriation of emergency relief':

. . . Realising that relief supplies were being syphoned off and sold by the National Guard, Oxfam's Field Director talked Mrs. Somoza into giving permission to bypass the official distribution system. This meant waiting in the air traffic control tower for the right plane to be spotted, then careering onto the tarmac to get the trucks loaded before the National Guard arrived on the scene.

Following the earthquake, the United States gave $57 million in emergency aid to Nicaragua; but the Nicaraguan Treasury reported receiving only $16 million. By April 1979, with Somoza near the end of his reign and now bombing his own people, he received a loan of S40 million from the International Monetary Fund. There were no binding conditions. A few weeks later the IMF, urged on by the Carter administration, gave him a further $25 million. After Somoza had fled to Miami, the Sandinistas found less than $2 million in the national treasury.

In 1984 Nicaragua held the first democratic elections in its history, and international observers agreed that the voting process and count were scrupulously honest. The Sandinistas won 66.7 per cent of the vote and 61 seats in the 96 seat National Assembly. On the right, the Democratic Conservatives, the Independent Liberal Party and the Popular Social Christian Party took 29.3 per cent of the vote and 29 seats, while the three left-wing parties won 4 per cent and 6 seats.

The Reagan administration, having campaigned to ensure that a coalition of three right-wing parties did not participate in the election, denounced the election as a farce. (The 75 per cent turnout of registered voters contrasted with the 1980 United States presidential election in which more than 48 per cent of the voters abstained and fewer than 27 per cent voted for the winning candidate, Ronald Reagan.) The US Ambassador, Harry Berghold, personally visited two opposition party leaders, one of whom later accused an embassy official of offering his campaign manager a bribe. Two days after the election the US administration accused the Sandinistas of importing MiG fighter aircraft from the Soviet Union. This had the effect of diminishing news and discussion of the election in the media. As journalists in Nicaragua soon discovered, the story of the Soviet planes was false.

Indeed, not since the Vietnam war has disinformation, or black propaganda, been used as a principal weapon, and perhaps no modern president has assumed outright the role of propagandist as has Reagan.

President Reagan has described the Contras as 'our brothers' and 'the moral equal of our Founding Fathers'. Documentation shows that between 1982 and 1985 Contra death squads have murdered 3,346 children and teenagers and killed one or both the parents of 6,236 children. During one year, 1984, the Contras caused an average of more than four deaths every day. At President Reagan's tireless urging - Nicaragua is said to be 'his' issue - the US Congress in October 1986 approved 100 million dollars in military aid to the Contras. Allegations emerging from the 'Irangate' scandal estimate that a further 30 million dollars were illegally diverted to the Contras from the sale of arms to Iran. With this money, US officials hope to persuade the Contras, reported Time magazine,

. . . to switch from the pressure-triggered mines they have been using to explosives that have to be detonated by remote control, thereby giving the rebels control over specific targets. 'Pressure mines kill too indiscriminately', says one. 'Pictures of dead children don't go down well in the US'.

When Reagan commands headlines around the world by describing Nicaragua as 'the new version of Murder Incorporated', a country which gives a 'haven to the IRA' and whose 'acts of war against the United States' justify US military action to defend itself, some may feel an uncomfortable urge to laugh at such apparent disingenuousness. But that would be to miss the point. 'So obsessed is the Reagan administration', wrote Charles Maechling from Washington,

. . . that it has not hesitated to twist through redefinition the meaning of human rights in order to downgrade the most basic right of all, the right of life. Its acquiescence in patterns of torture, murder and other forms of state terrorism . . . comes close to condoning the kind of crimes against humanity condemned at the Nuremberg war crimes trials.

British film director Ken Loach

Working people are allowed on television so long as they fit the stereotype that producers have of them. Workers can appear pathetic in their ignorance and poverty, apathetic to parliamentary politics, or aggressive on the picket line. But let them make a serious political analysis based on their own experiences and in their own language, then keep them off the air. That's the job of professional pundits, MPs and General Secretaries. They understand the rules of the game.

Television in Britain may still enjoy more credibility among the public than television in other countries. This is probably because in other countries bias in broadcasting is understood, if not always acknowledged. In Eastern Europe many people regard the bias of the state as implicit in all its media and a conscious or unconscious adjustment is made by the viewing (and reading) public. This is not so in Britain where the bias of the state operates through a 'consensus view' that is broadly acceptable to the established order. Perhaps in no other country has broadcasting held such a privileged position as an opinion leader. Possessing highly professional talent and the illusion of impartiality, as well as occasionally dissenting programmes, 'public service broadcasting' has become a finely crafted instrument of state propaganda.

British film director Ken Loach wrote in the Guardian

Censorship is not achieved by an outright ban, but by bureaucratic manoeuvres. No one has formally banned any one of the films. Yet, they remain unseen. [The films] touched the most sensitive nerve in the current political arena. [The government's strategy] means allowing unemployment to rise, legislating against trades unions and relying on union leaders to prevent any serious challenge to the government...

Margaret Thatcher government's Home Office study of subscription television.

Economic analysis ... tends to view broadcasting as an economic commodity - a service from which consumers derive satisfaction much as they might from a kitchen appliance. and whose value tends to view broadcasting as an economic society should be assessed accordingly.


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