The Banality of Empire

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

This month freshman Rep. Ilhan Omar questioned Trump’s nominee for envoy to Venezuela, Elliot Abrams. While her interrogation was somewhat tepid in regard to American imperialism (she said “no one disputes” that the US goal has always been to support democracy and defend human rights), she did bring up the role of the US in the massacres in El Salvador in the 1980s. Massacres in which Abrams is implicated. It was also instructive in that it provided a visual to how deeply debased the American political landscape actually is. Abrams is a Presidential pardoned liar who provided cover for some of the most heinous war crimes of the 20th century. That he has reemerged again to lead a coup against the democratically elected government of yet another Latin American country is testament to the banality of American Empire and how uninterested it is in its own history or unending brutality and corruption.

The history of US imperialism in this region, like so many others around the world, is one drenched in blood. In 1954 a mercenary army hired by the United Fruit Company and assisted by the US government staged a military coup which overthrew the democratically elected, reform oriented, government of Colonel Jacobo Arbenz Guzman. Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas was installed as the new president of Guatemala and thus began a military dictatorship that would span the latter half of the 20th century. The indigenous Maya of the country had long been viewed as sub-human by the ruling, Spanish descended, elite, a supremacist stain that remains to this day. Some Mayans and others protested their oppression under this neo-fuedalistic tyranny, but all Mayans were collectively punished, culminating in a multi-stage genocide that took the lives of at least 200,000 people and created millions of refugees. It was a presage to the current migrant crisis in North America.

Israel was also complicit in the genocide, supplying arms and training mercenaries.  In fact General Rios Montt, the military general who is largely blamed for directing the genocide, gave his personal thanks to both the US and Israel for assisting him conducting the systematic rape, torture and slaughter of the country’s indigenous population. Trained at the infamous School of the Americas Montt, who died in April of last year, was an evangelical Christian minister and a personal friend of ultra-conservative televangelists Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. This is instructive since we now have Christian dominionists like Pence and Pompeo at the helm. Montt was also unquestioningly supported and praised by President Ronald Reagan. “President Ríos Montt,” Reagan said, “is a man of great personal integrity and commitment. I know he wants to improve the quality of life for all Guatemalans and to promote social justice.”

It is interesting to note that little has changed in the parlance of imperialists of both the liberal and conservative brand. Again, it is unoriginal. “Social justice” or “human rights” are used to justify “humanitarian intervention,” code words of empire for ethnic cleansing and genocide. We can hear it today and not only from Trump, but also in the corporate media and among the so-called resistance in the Democratic Party when talking about Venezuela. So it is worth re-visiting this dark page in Guatemalan history to expose what this banality provides cover for.

According to a 2004 report on the massacre by the Inter-American Court on Human rights, Montt’s forces:

“separated the children and the young women aged from about 15 to 20. Then the massacre began. First they tortured the old people, saying they were guerrillas, then they threw two grenades and fired their guns. Finally they sprayed petrol around and set fire to the house… [The next day, Buenaventura Manuel Jeronimo] emerged from his hiding place to see the destruction they had caused. Along with Eulalio Grave Ramírez and his brothers Juan, Buenaventura, and Esteban, they put out the flames that were still consuming the bodies. Those that weren’t totally charred showed signs of torture, as did the naked bodies of the youngest women.”

Another account was from a survivor:

“After having killed our wives, they brought out our children. They grabbed their feet and beat their heads against the house posts. I had six children. They all died, and my wife as well.. All my life my heart will cry because of it.”

– the only survivor of the San Francisco massacre in Huehuetenango, Guatemala

General Mott was charged with genocide, but his moneyed legal team successfully stalled due process of the trial on technicalities. He died without ever facing consequences for his monstrous crimes.

Repeat this story in El Salvador, Honduras and countless other places and a picture emerges of coordinated, US-backed and funded genocide. Stories that detail the rape of girls and young women, or the torture of children and the elderly, or the forced disappearances of boys and men, or the burning of countless villages and mass graves. But these stories get buried by the American imperial machine, especially when it involves the poor or people of color. We see that happening in the endless barrage of corporate media stories parroting State Department narratives on Venezuela. The poor, POC and the indigenous of that country who benefited greatly from Bolivarian reforms are rendered invisible. Their marches or rallies aren’t covered. Their voices silenced. But the middle to upper middle class protests are broadcast endlessly and sympathetically.

But as the American Empire attempts to build walls around its failing state to keep out the refugees its belligerent foreign and economic policies have created, it is simultaneously forging new ties with other repressive regimes or client states in an effort to secure the last remaining sources of capital left on the planet. And its interests in “human rights” are demonstrably a sham when its allies include Duterte of the Philippines who has slaughtered tens of thousands of people in his six year term, or the murderous King of medieval Saudi Arabia who ruthlessly represses his own people and is in charge of a genocidal campaign in Yemen, or Netanyahu, the openly racist prime minister of a decades long apartheid and ethnic cleansing regime, or the Hindutva nationalist Modi who presides over the merciless occupation of Kashmir, or the newly elected fascist Bolsonaro of Brazil, who has vowed to carve up the Amazon rain forest and slaughter indigenous people who stand in his way, and who is now poised to do Washington’s bidding in Venezuela. But the official narrative on these states is unsurprisingly drenched in duplicitous banality. Each is described as a either a democracy or an “ally against terrorism” or nation that “shares similar interests.”

But the ruling class understands that capitalism has become indefensible to anyone except the terminally deluded. This is especially true in the US where inequality is soaring, GoFundMe sites are set up to meet bankrupting healthcare and education costs, and more and more people are having to work more than one job that pays less, and live further from their work in order to afford housing. They understand the pressure is mounting against capitalist policies that favor the wealthy and corporations. Trump’s recent paranoid ramblings against socialism underscore the terror in their hearts. In a recent speech about Venezuela before some of his feckless and fawning fans he said:

“Tyrannical socialist government nationalized private industries and took over private businesses. They engaged in massive wealth confiscation, shut down free markets, suppressed free speech, and set up a relentless propaganda machine, rigged elections, used the government to persecute their political opponents, and destroyed the impartial rule of law. In other words, the socialists have done in Venezuela all of the same things that socialists, communists, totalitarians have done everywhere that they’ve had a chance to rule. The results have been catastrophic.”

Of course capitalist governments have perpetrated such crimes via legalization of corporate monopolies which devastate small business owners. “Wealth confiscation” are code words for the wealthy avoiding taxation and the free market is a meaningless canard that obscures the power of a small moneyed elite’s control over the conditions of that market. Indeed, Trump’s disconnect with reality defies facts on the ground. About a year ago that United Nation’s special rapporteur, Philip Alston, issued a report on the dire state of the American republic. It revealed that upwards of 40 million Americans live in poverty.

But Trump’s remarks on the suppression of free speech, propaganda, persecution of political opponents and the rule of law are simply delusional. Each one of those repressive tactics have been employed by the US government in service to corporate interests, and especially by his administration.

He went on to say:

“Socialism, by its very nature, does not respect borders. It does not respect boundaries or the sovereign rights of its citizens or its neighbors. It’s always seeking to expand, to encroach, and to subjugate others to its will.The twilight hour of socialism has arrived in our hemisphere — and, frankly, in many, many places around the world. The days of socialism and communism are numbered not only in Venezuela, but in Nicaragua and in Cuba as well.”

Of course to anyone who has even a basic education in imperialism understands this is preposterous given the fact that the US has nearly 900 military bases around the world and has invaded dozens of countries covertly and overtly in the name of freedom. Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba have invaded none. But his fans loved it. Duplicitous banality goes far with that crowd. What was bizarre and telling is that his fears challenge the very dogma of capitalism that has been sacrosanct following the fall of the USSR. That was supposed to be an end to the “red menace.” But Trump has revealed that capitalism wasn’t as victorious as we had been told.

Reagan told Gorbachev to “tear down this wall” erroneously signalling the moral dominance of capitalism and American Empire over the besieged USSR. Now Trump is feverishly building it up again because that same Empire has created a refugee crisis in regions it sought to control. But the specters of the Cold War are apparently hiding out in Venezuela, North Korea and Iran, nations that are coincidentally fossil fuel and mineral rich. What is equally telling is that so many American liberals have lined up with the man they have so enjoyed calling a racist, white supremacist and Nazi sympathizer these past few years. It is apparent that their true allegiance is to American imperialism above all else.

The American Empire may be in its final stage. Imperiled like everyone else by climate change chaos and an endangered biosphere, it is also facing the silent global abandonment of the US dollar and internal socioeconomic strife brought on by neoliberal policies which have stripped the rights of workers and the citizenry in favor of corporations and the police/surveillance state. But this only means that it will become more belligerent and delusional as it spirals downward. Its defense of capital, always its only raison d’etre, is no longer being hidden by lofty platitudes either. After all, its leaders are drunk on a hubris that accompanies a bloated military, the most expensive in the world. It is why they hypnotically repeat the line “all options are on the table” as if any rational person would think any other option other than militarism is seriously being considered. An example of this was when war monger extraordinaire John Bolton was recorded on a Fox News segment saying how he has been in touch with various fossil fuel companies who are gleefully awaiting a Venezuelan oil sector they can freely exploit. His risible “troika of terror” comment harkens back to GWB’s “axis of evil.” But there is little to laugh at when one considers the true cost of American imperialism. One paid for with the blood of the poor, the indigenous, the innocent, and the living earth itself.

We should not be surprised when men like Elliot Abrams resurface from the dark pages of history to provide cover for the crimes of empire. After all, imperialism is murderous, immoral and cruel, but it is unoriginal. And it is this banality that makes all of it so damned insidious.


More articles by:

Kenn Orphan is an artist, sociologist, radical nature lover and weary, but committed activist. He can be reached at kennorphan.com.

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