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Venezuela has announced that it is ending efforts to improve ties with the United States after the Obama administration’s nominee for the role of ambassador to the United Nations labelled the country “repressive.” Samantha Power, who is widely known for her strong stance on human rights, vowed to contest “the crackdown on civil society being carried out in countries like Cuba, Iran, Russia and Venezuela.”
For obvious reasons, Power is selective in who she choses to criticise. The likes of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates, all of whom have presided over major crackdowns on dissent in recent years, warrant no mention, which is not surprising given the US government’s staunch support for the regimes in question. Regarding Saudi Arabia, Washington’s attitude towards democracy is best expressed by William M. Daley, Obama’s chief of staff during the Arab uprisings, who said that “the possibility of anything (like the revolution in Egypt) happening in Saudi Arabia was one that couldn’t become a reality.” Daley explained that “for the global economy, this couldn’t happen”, referring of course to the importance of Saudi oil, which was described by the Council on Foreign Relations in 2003 as the primary reason for US support for the monarchy. An unsurprising claim, in light of the US State Department’s description in 1945 of the Gulf’s oil reserves as “a stupendous source of strategic power and one of the greatest material prizes in world history.”
Returning to Latin America, the hypocrisy is again breathtaking. Condemning Venezuela as “repressive”, Power neglects to mention that the “most dramatic setback”, according to Americas Watch, for human rights in Venezuela came in 2002 when a coup d’etat, allegedly supported tacitly by the United States, removed Chavez from office and “dissolved the country’s democratic institutions.” It is also worth noting that the US supported enthusiastically the Caldera and Perez administrations which preceded Chavez’s Bolivarian Revolution, both of which were vastly more repressive than the current ‘revolutionary’ government.
Also strikingly absent from Power’s remarks was any mention of Colombia, the United States’ closest ally in the region, which according to Americas Watch, “presents the worst human rights and humanitarian crisis in the Western Hemisphere.” This year’s annual report claims that “over the past decade, the Colombian army committed an alarming number of extrajudicial killings of civilians”, carried out in “a systematic fashion”, during which time the army was the highest recipient of US military aid in Latin America. Most of the killings occurred under the presidency of Alvaro Uribe, whom President Bush described in 2006 as “a personal friend” and “a strong believer in democracy and human rights.” Under Obama, Colombia has continued to receive more military aid than any other country in the hemisphere, with Mexico, whose well-documented record of “extrajudicial killings, disappearances” and “widespread torture” is not much better, coming second.
This practice- of giving military aid to the Hemisphere’s worst human rights abusers- runs throughout history. A 1979 study into Amnesty International’s reports on torture revealed that 25 of the world’s 36 most prolific torturers between 1945 and 1975 received military aid and training from the United States, with Latin American regimes accounting for “more than 80%” of the most urgent appeals for victims of torture at the time.
The military aid policy continued through the 1980s with the Reagan administration’s backing of the Contras in Nicaragua. According to a 1985 report by Reed Brody, who later became a spokesperson for Human Rights Watch, “the contras used American advice and dollars to terrorize the population of Nicaragua and hardly a word about it was printed in the United States.” Thousands of civilians were “assassinated, raped, tortured and mutilated” by forces who, in the words of President Reagan, were “the moral equivalent of our founding fathers.”
In 1984, the World Court found the United States guilty of the “illegal use of force” against Nicaragua, and demanded that the government cease their sponsorship of the Contras and “pay Nicaragua reparations.” The US rejected the verdict and continued as before. In his Address to the Nation two years later, Reagan justified his administration’s ongoing support for the Contras by condemning the Nicaraguan government, without irony, as “a command post for international terror” which sought to “subvert and topple its democratic neighbours.”
The “democratic” neighbours referred to were the military regimes in El Salvador and Guatemala, both closely allied to the United States. Their records are not pretty. Under Reagan, and then Bush, the Salvadoran army was the biggest recipient of US military aid in the Hemisphere, killing tens of thousands of people during the country’s thirteen-year internal conflict. According to the New York Times’ top reporter in the country, some of the “worst massacres of civilians” were carried out by battalions trained by the United States, indicating “a whiff of secondary American responsibility.”
In Guatemala, the American-backed military massacred nearly 200,000 people during a civil war instigated, at least in part, by a CIA-sponsored coup in 1954. Atrocities peaked in the early 1980s under the rule of General Rios Montt, “a man of great personal integrity” according to President Reagan, whose conviction for genocide was overturned on a technicality earlier this year.
An Americas Watch report in 1985 said that the Reagan Administration “shares in the responsibility for the gross abuses of human rights” perpetrated in the country, an accurate perception in light of the US government’s provision of millions of dollars of military aid to Guatemala during “one of the bloodiest periods of the conflict.”
Investigate journalist Allan Nairn reports that “the Guatemalan military would pursue (villagers) using US-supplied helicopters and planes. They would drop US 50-kilogram bombs on them, and they would machine gun them using US-supplied heavy-caliber machine guns.” Asked if he should face trial, Rios Montt is alleged to have replied “if you’re going to be put me on trial, you have to try the Americans first.”
Today, Latin America is politically freer, but the horrors of the past, and more specifically the American role in them, have not been forgotten, as we have seen during the recent protests in Guatemala and Chile. Many Latin Americans will thus consider Samantha Power’s comments about Venezuela’s “crackdown on civil society” ideologically driven and hypocritical, in light of the American record in the region. This is with justification, as her narrow choice of “repressive” govts, limited solely to unfriendly regimes, indicates. Latin Americans understand this hypocrisy better than anyone. Their know their own history too well to fall for it again.
Daniel Wickham is an assistant at the Campaign Against Arms Trade.