A New Cold War Comes to Latin America

Mexico City.

In the old sepia photo my sister sent me last month, friends and family are gathered around the old couple, Dr. Milton Leof and his wife Jenny, on the occasion of their 50th wedding anniversary. The living room of the apartment on Riverside Drive is crowded with lefties honoring one of their own – Dr. Leof lived through the Russian revolution and still believed in it. Sometimes when I visited, he would tell me stories of bloodthirsty Cossacks and six foot-deep snow drifts and how socialism would be victorious in the end.

In the photo, my drop-dead gorgeous mom is seated with Jean Boudin – they had gone to summer camp together in the 1920s. Leonard Boudin, Paul Robeson’s lawyer who, with his partner the late Victor Rabinowitz, defended many notable commies, pinkos, and fellow travelers, is also sprawled on the couch, his arm thrown around button-eyed little Kathy for whom I sometimes baby-sat. My sister thinks that I.F. Stone is lurking in the back row – Izzie was the retiring type.

The photo was taken sometime between 1950 and 1952 at the height of the Cold War and terrible things were happening to these people and their friends. Comrades had been jailed, blacklisted, fled into exile, chose suicide over imprisonment, recanted. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg would soon be executed by the U.S. government for treason. Why then is every one smiling?

One could chalk the smiles up to camaraderie. All those present were leftists and Jews and golden wedding anniversaries are a time to smile even in the darkest of ages. I have an alternative theory though: in 1950, the Soviet Union had startled the world by testing its first Atomic bomb. Nuclear parity with the United States was suddenly a fact and Washington no longer had a monopoly on terrorizing the citizens of Planet Earth.

Maybe the Rosenbergs had helped to bring about this new balance, maybe they hadn’t – (my junior high school classmate, the execrable Ronald Radosh, has spent a life time trying to prove they were spies) but the truth of the matter was that the United States was no longer the king of a uni-polar world.

I grew up on the wrong side of the old Cold War. When Harry Truman declared the Cold War in March 1947 before a joint session of the U.S. Congress focused on Soviet mischief in Greece, Americans were offered a choice – we could either stand with the “Free World” or those commie bums behind the Iron Curtain. We stood with the commies.

The Russians had been our allies against Hitler, the exterminator of the Jews, and had suffered grievously for it. We lived vicariously with the Red Army through 200 days of the Siege of Stalingrad. Uncle Joe Stalin was still a good guy back then and it was a privilege to be a member of the Soviet-American Friendship Society. Books extolling the accomplishments of the Soviet Union were in demand at our school libraries – Elizabeth Irwin, Little Red, and Downtown Community. The Stanley Theater in Times Square showed all Soviet films all the time – flying folk dancers with their flashing scimitars and the heroic Red Army Chorus hailing the Fatherland were forever streaming across the Stanley’s screen.

My mom left the Party right around the time the photo was taken. The witch hunters were probing Red influences on Broadway and she was spooked. As much as HUAC, the emerging revelations of Stalin’s atrocities drove American Communists into the closet.

Us Red diaper babies grew up. Some became beatniks or joined the civil rights movement and went to Mississippi, signed up with service organizations to fight the War on Poverty or settled in the country and learned how to be organic farmers. Others were changed into capitalist swine. Still others stayed on the Left.

But it was a different Left than the ones our fathers and mothers knew. We faulted our parents for having hidden their politics during the Red Scare. Our differences were as much generational and Oedipal as they were ideological. I helped to found a Maoist party, Progressive Labor, many of whose members had also been swaddled in Red diapers. Little button-eyed Kathy Boudin disappeared into the Weather Underground and paid a terrible price for her defiance of capitalist savagery.

By 1989, the Wall had come down and the Soviet Union disintegrated – the Stanley Theatre had gone belly up years before. Washington ruled a uni-polar world all over again and did just what it wanted – there was no countervailing force. Mutual deterrence was not the best of all possible worlds but at least it constrained American arrogance.

Now the U.S. invaded sovereign nations at will, twice declared war on Iraq and murdered a million of its citizens, blockaded Cuba, blackmailed and browbeat and flexed its nuclear muscles at those who balked at obeying the rules of the Pax Americana.

In Latin America where I work, the fall-out from the Soviet abdication was toxic – the Salvadoran revolution folded up and the Sandanistas succumbed. Cuba went hungry. When bribery failed, genocide was on the White House agenda – no one could stop it. A handful of us would protest at the Yanqui embassy here or on the streets of San Francisco and New York but we were hardly a countervailing force.

All of the above explains why last week (September 10th) a broad smile spread across my sunken cheeks when I read that two Russian bombers, TU-160s, had landed at Palos Negros Venezuela for forthcoming joint military exercises with Hugo Chavez’s Bolivarian armed forces. The Tupolievs are strategic bombers, sometimes called Blackjacks, and quite capable of carrying nuclear missiles. The Mexico City left daily La Jornada’s man in Moscow Juan Pablo Duch claims they are the most powerful warplanes on earth.

The TU-160s will participate in exercises in the Caribbean along with three Russian warships, including the nuclear-powered destroyer Peter the Great set for November 10th-14th, just days after the U.S. presidential elections.

Hugo Chavez explains that the war games are being held in response to Washington’s reactivation of its 4th Fleet, a Cold War appendage that has been mothballed since the Wall came down. The upcoming exercises are indeed a stinging slap to the face of U.S. uni-polar domination of the western hemisphere, once encapsulated by the much-dissed Monroe Doctrine.

The corporate press gabbles on about the New Cold War. The immediate spark for this new round of U.S.-Russian hostilities was Washington’s flawed Georgian adventure. On the eve of the Olympics, with both Bush and Putin in Beijing ostensibly to cheer on their athletes, Mijael Saakashvili, the U.S, proxy in Stalin’s old homeland, launched an ad hoc attack on the breakaway enclaves of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, both of which border the former Soviet Union and are firmly embedded in Russia’s sphere of influence. When Russia responded reflexively and its tanks advanced on Tbilisi, the corporate press’s knee-jerk media blitz kicked in and dubbed this east-west head knocking as the “New Cold War.”

Now Russian war ships patrol the Black Sea in plain sight of a NATO flotilla and U.S. destroyers equipped with nuclear capacity deliver “humanitarian” aid to Saakashvili. Bush’s presumptive successor John McCain, whose chief advisor was a paid lobbyist for the Georgian straw man, is up to his neck in this flimflam.

Actually, the New Cold War has been heating up ever since Bill Clinton and Wesley Clark tried to bomb Serbia back into the Stone Age. The carpet-bombing of Kosovo wounded Russian sensibilities and NATO’s Bush-driven recognition of Kosovo as a sovereign state earlier this summer ripped open those wounds. Russian recognition of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as equally sovereign states is reminiscent of old Cold War tit-for-tat.

NATO’s recruitment of once-upon-a-time Warsaw pact allies – the Ukraine and Georgia are on deck – encircles and aggravates Russia. Bush’s emplacement of an anti-missile shield in both the Czech Republic and Poland, mendaciously sold to Europe as a defense against non-existent Iranian nuclear missiles, unnerves Vladimir Putin. General Nicolai Solovtsov, commander of Russia’s missile capabilities, notes that the so-called “shield” makes the Poles and the Czechs likely targets in the event of an attack on Russia. The verbal exchange between Moscow and Washington is peppered with such Cold War rhetoric.

Now the New Cold War in playing the Americas. The Venezuelan-Russian war games are the next chapter in this global chess match. Putin has proposed similar exercises with its former client state Cuba in addition to offering millions of dollars in aid to that hurricane-ravished island (Washington offered crumbs) but thus far, the Cubans, perhaps mindful of the 1962 missile “crisis” that turned that “free territory of the Americas” into a pawn in the old Cold War, have been less than receptive to Russian advances.

The New Cold War is distinct from the old one in significant ways. This conflict is not about Communism vs. Capitalism, the Red Hand creeping across the planet spreading a godless Dictatorship of the Proletariat into Norman Rockwell’s America. Communism as we know it is dead and both the U.S. and the former Soviet Union espouse savage capitalism. Indeed, the New Cold War is mostly about who is more savage.

In keeping with this sea change, the logo for the New Cold War is no longer the Red Hand and the Hammers & Sickles but rather the time-tested Russian bear that the former free world thinks it is obligated to tame.

The New Cold War, like all wars that will be contested in the 21st Century, is a resource war. It has much more to do with fossil fuels than nuclear one-upmanship. Venezuela and Russia are petroleum potentates and oilocracies. The trouble in Georgia has exploded because the Black Sea is the crossing point for Central Asian oil, the new bonanza.

And as with all wars fought over fossil fuels, the subtext of the New Cold War is global warming. Even as Washington and Moscow butt heads in the Caribbean and the Caucasus, polar bears (Russian? USA?) are swimming 600 miles in open sea in a desperate effort to find refuge on the nearest ice flows. In fact, the New Cold War could be parsed as a war on the cold.

JOHN ROSS is in Mexico City going mano a mano with “The Left-Hand of The Monstruo”, the working title of his latest literary travesty to be published by Nation Books in 2009. If you have further info write johnross@igc.org


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JOHN ROSS’s El Monstruo – Dread & Redemption in Mexico City is now available at your local independent bookseller. Ross is plotting a monster book tour in 2010 – readers should direct possible venues to johnross@igc.org