Last December, the New York Times’ David Carr reported on Vice President Biden’s trip to China, where he “spoke plainly about the role of a free press in a democratic society.” The benighted audience was surely keen to learn about this Western institution, and “it was heartening to see the White House at the forefront of the effort to ensure an unfettered press,” Carr affirmed. No doubt. Down here on Earth, meanwhile, Washington has long been at the forefront of an effort to promote cultural devastation, targeting journalists, artists, and independent thinkers more generally. This cultural ruin is a predictable consequence of U.S. support for repressive regimes—a tradition Obama has worked hard to uphold.
Consider the June 2009 coup against Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, which four School of the Americas graduates helped orchestrate. Even the attorney responsible for giving it a legal veneer admitted the ouster was “a crime,” and in its aftermath Obama recognized Porfirio Lobo, winner of a fraudulent election marred by political violence and ballot irregularities, as the country’s new leader. Now, Honduran journalists are weathering a “deluge of threats, attacks and targeted killings,” PEN International reported recently. Honduran “economic elites have established unwritten limits as to what can be investigated by major news agencies,” and independent journalists face similar restrictions. Whoever ignores these limits pays the ultimate price.
Nahúm Palacios “opposed the 2009 coup and turned his TV station into an openly pro-opposition channel,” PEN notes. The military threatened him, but he persisted, and he and his girlfriend were murdered in March 2010. Israel Zelaya Díaz covered politics and crime, and managed a program aired on San Pedro Sula’s Radio Internacional. Assailants torched his home in May 2010, and then shot him to death three months later. A group of men stopped television producer Adán Benítez, who had put out a story on gang activity, in July 2011; they demanded his valuables, and then killed him. Medardo Flores Hernández was a volunteer reporter and finance minister for a pro-Zelaya organization when he was gunned down in September 2011. Early the following month, Obama received Honduran President Lobo at the White House, commending his “strong commitment to democracy.” Radio journalist Luz Marina Paz Villalobos, a coup critic, was murdered on December 6, 2011.
Mexican reporters are also at risk, as theirs “has become the most dangerous country in the Western Hemisphere for journalists,” Emily Edmonds-Poli wrote in a Wilson Center report last April, reviewing the situation in this “drug war” ally. In the state of Veracruz, for instance, there was a series, in the spring of 2012, of high-profile killings: a group of men invaded investigative reporter Regina Martínez’s home in Xalapa, and murdered her there. The dismembered bodies of three photojournalists pursuing stories on organized crime were discovered on the side of a highway four days later. “The fear is terrible and well founded,” an ex-reporter told the Guardian’s Jo Tuckman. “The heroes are in the cemetery.” This woman is hardly the only one to have abandoned the profession. A university official in Veracruz, quoted by Edmonds-Poli, surveyed the corpse-strewn landscape: “It’s not that they’re just killing reporters, they’re killing the drive to become one.” The destructive effects are equally far-reaching in Honduras. PEN quotes Honduran activists who “stressed that the neglect, marginalization and underfunding of cultural spaces” have gutted the nation’s creative sector, sharply delimiting the range of questions to which artists and independent researchers can safely respond.
The Honduran and Mexican governments restrict inquiry with generous U.S. assistance. Both states have strong ties to organized crime: efforts to distinguish legitimate from outlaw Honduran institutions, for example, are often meaningless, given the government’s illicit origins in the June 2009 coup. “A representative from a leading NGO in Honduras says at least four high-ranking police officials head drug trafficking organizations,” InSight Crime’s Charles Parkinson wrote on January 29, and Honduran history reveals that such activity is no obstacle to continued U.S. funding. When a Reagan-era DEA agent amassed evidence implicating the country’s top military officials in prohibited activities, for instance, the organization responded by shutting down its Honduran office in 1983. At the time, Washington’s core concern was the vital role Honduras played in the anti-Sandinista crusade. Their ally’s involvement in drug-smuggling was a non-issue, as irrelevant then as today, when the projected 2014 U.S. governmental military and police aid is over 1.75 times the 2009 figure.
Mexican institutions resemble their Honduran counterparts: ties between political elites and organized crime can be traced back at least a century, and this connection was blatantly obvious by the 1970s. That was the decade the national intelligence arm—the Dirección Federal de Seguridad (DFS)—aided by “the attorney general’s office and Federal Judicial Police,” established itself as “the country’s major criminal mafia,” Paul Kenny and Mónica Serrano point out. U.S. officials knew DFS facilitated drug trafficking’s expansion, and “continued to defend and protect the agency” because it “played a central part in Mexico’s fight against left-wing subversion, both directly and through a death squad organized under [DFS head Miguel] Nazar’s supervision, the ‘White Brigade,’” Peter Dale Scott and Jonathan Marshall write. Years later, Mexican law enforcement committed “one out of every three crimes against journalists” from 2009-2011, Edmonds-Poli reports in her Wilson Center study. That three-year span overlaps with the period—between 2008 and 2010—when Washington “allocated over $1.5 billion to Mexico” via the Mérida Initiative, and “U.S. military and police aid in each of these years marked nearly a 10-fold increase over 2007 levels,” according to Witness for Peace. Obama then extended the program—a true Nobel Peace Laureate, reminiscent of luminaries like Henry Kissinger.
In June 1976, for example, Kissinger proclaimed his support for Argentina’s military dictatorship: “We have followed events in Argentina closely,” he stated. “We wish the new government well. We wish it will succeed.” These remarks came six weeks after “military officers organized an exemplary event to combat immorality and communism,” Fernando Báez—author of A Universal History of the Destruction of Books—notes, when they burned volumes “confiscated from bookshops and libraries in the city of Córdoba,” loudly condemning Freud, Marx, Sartre and others. In August 1980, “trucks dumped 1.5 million books and pamphlets…on some vacant lots in the Sarandí neighborhood in Buenos Aires.” After a federal judge gave the command, “police agents doused the books with gasoline and set them on fire. Photos were taken because the judge was afraid people might think the books were stolen and not burned.” The situation was much the same in neighboring Chile, under Pinochet, when “thousands of books were seized and destroyed” during his dictatorship. In 1976, Kissinger met with Pinochet in Santiago, assuring him Washington was “sympathetic with what you are trying to do here.”
Washington also sympathized with South Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem, who in the late 1950s “banned works of fiction that presented the government in an unflattering light,” Joint Chiefs of Staff historian Willard J. Webb wrote. Diem thus proved himself a worthy heir to Pope John XXII, who in 1328 “ordered a book burned because it cast doubt on his omnipotence,” Báez observes, arguing that we have to look further back in time, to 1258, to comprehend the effects of the recent U.S. assault on Iraq. It was in the mid-13th century that “the troops of Hulagu, a descendant of Genghis Khan, invaded Baghdad and destroyed all its books by throwing them into the Tigris.” Hulagu’s particular form of savagery was unsurpassed until the U.S. occupation—“nation-building,” liberal commentators insist, but in reality just one case of Washington-supported cultural destruction.
Nick Alexandrov lives in Washington, DC.