In high-school history classes, I was regularly ordered by exams and tests to 'compare and contrast', say, the French and American Revolutions, or Fauvism and Futurism, or the alcoholism, racism and occult beliefs of William Lyon Mackenzie King and the alcoholism, racism and druidic beliefs of Winston Churchill - no, wait, that last one was never on any exams; bit of projected memory there.
In any case, I thought at the time that to both compare and contrast was a bit redundant, but let's do it again anyway, just for shits and giggles, but this time between the Washington Post's editorial position towards recent events in Venezuela and Bolivia and its editorial position towards the same in Kyrgystan, shall we?
On 29 March, the Post published a largely congratulatory leader column, taking as its purpose to offer advice on how the new revolutionary administration should proceed in a neighbourhood - which includes China, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan - that isn't 'likely to welcome the creation of a genuine democracy in Central Asia'.
On the whole, there is little to complain about the advice, other than its as-ever moderate prescriptions and dependably banal suggestions of how to not piss off the Kremlin while working with the OSCE. The paper certainly welcomes the apparent transformation of the former Soviet republic from autocracy into a (bourgeois) democracy and sees it to be, rightly, kin of the revolutions in the Ukraine, Georgia and Yugoslavia of the last few years.
While we should of course welcome the toppling of another demagogue, no one will be surprised to learn of the guiding hand in the rebellion provided by the Americans. But more of that in a minute. In Latin America, however, the growing movement that pushes toward not merely genuine democracy but equality certainly is a rebellion of a purer sort and has found neither inspiration nor finance from the Gringos; Indeed, it is their opponents, as ever, that are being funded. The National Endowment for Democracy and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) have been bankrolling right-wing anti-Chavez groups in Venezuela, and, of course, backed the coup against Chavez in 2002.
At Venezuelafoia.info, you can read hundreds of documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests by Eva Golinger, a Venezuelan-American attorney based in New York, detailing the 'intricate financing scheme the U.S. government has been carrying out in Venezuela since 2001':
'[including] financing well over twenty million dollars to opposition sectors. The funding of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a quasi-governmental entity in the U.S. financed entirely by Congress and established by congressional legislation in 1983, has provided more than three million dollars since late 2001 to opposition groups, many of which were key participants in the April 2002 coup. And in June 2002, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), set up an Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) in the U.S. Embassy in Caracas, allegedly for the purposing of helping Venezuela to resolve its political crisis. The OTI in Caracas has counted on more than fifteen million dollars in funding from Congress since June 2002 and has recently requested five million more for 2005, despite the fact that it was only supposed to be a two-year endeavor. All evidence obtained to date shows that the OTI has primarily funded opposition groups and projects in Venezuela, particularly those that were focused on the August 15, 2004 recall referendum against President Chávez.'
Chavez is no socialist, his land reform strategy for example - a product of the Ley de Tierras ('Land Law'), which was passed in 2001 and taxes unused landholdings, expropriates unused private lands (with compensation), and offers inheritable, unsellable land grants to small farmers and farm collectives - may have provoked the ire of the US and even absent landholders in the UK, but has, if we are honest, more in common with the land reform of Lincoln, than that of Lenin, as Latin American specialist Seth DeLong has pointed out in the pages of Counterpunch.
However, quite objectively, there is no better government on the Earth today than that of Hugo Chavez Frias.
He has to a large extent rejected the neo-liberal consensus that even his erstwhile fellow elected leftists in Latin America - Lula da Silva of Brazil, Nestor Kirchner of Argentina, Richard Lagos of Chile and the recently elected Dr. Tabaré Vázquez of Uruguay - the first left-of-centre president the country has ever had, whose Broad Front brought an end to 170 years of political power shifting back and forth between the rural elite in the Blanco Party and the urban elite in the Colorado Party - remain to varying degrees committed to. He has introduced literacy programmes - the Mission Robinson and Mission Sucre, aimed at increasing literacy delivering basic education - and expanded education and health care with the Barrio Adentro, an initiative to provide free health care to poor and underserved areas. The Union Nacional de los Trabajadores (UNT, National Workers' Union) was established in the wake of Chavez' presidency, finally offering workers a genuinely free trade union central and not the company union that is the Confederación de Trabajadores de Venezuela (CTV). Chavez has encouraged the new union's growth, sending UNT delegates to International Labour Organisation meetings instead of the historically recognized but corrupt CTV.
I am not a man who believes in Great Men, but Chavez is, nonetheless, a great man.
And the workers, Indians, coca growers, farmers and poor of Bolivia are in the middle of an ongoing revolt, already, as in Argentina, forcing the resignation of President Sánchez de Lozada in October of 2003, and now, perhaps, we hope, completing the revolt, striking and blocking roads. Lozada's replacement, Carlos Mesa, is not long for government.
The left may yet have its chance in Mexico after so many years, with Andres Manuel López Obrador, Mexico’s left-leaning PRD (Party of the Democratic Revolution), leading in opinion polls for the upcoming presidential election. Attempts by Vincente Fox to bar the massively popular mayor of Mexico City from running have only increased Obrador's popularity. Now, the PRD, like every other social democratic party in the world, has offered the workers its share of betrayals and crumbs of social service expansion, but to have even a social democratic government installed on the very border of the United States is enough to cause Washington to have kittens.
However contradictory and frustrated the advance of the left in Latin America may be, the palaces of the continent have yet been shaken.
And thus the Washington Post, itself sufficiently shaken, has taken the occasion of the latest Bolivian revolt to issue an editorial warning that Latin American democracy is under threat from the nine-times electorally supported 'demagogue' in Caracas and the 'mob' in La Paz:
'Another Latin American democracy is on the verge of crumbling under pressure from leftist populism. The trouble comes this time in Bolivia, where a democratic president and Congress face a paralyzing mix of strikes and road blockades by a radical movement opposed to foreign investment and free-market capitalism.'
So, where the crowd in Kyrgystan (and formerly, in the Ukraine, Georgia and Yugoslavia) are cheered on as the people, the democratic vanguard, in Bolivia, they are a 'radical movement', opposed to capitalism. (Alack, but that they were!)
The Post continues with still more property-owning dread:
'The insurgents, who claim to represent the country's indigenous population, drove one democratically elected president from office 18 months ago; now they are working on his successor, Carlos Mesa, who has searched valiantly but unsuccessfully for compromise. The populists ride a leftist wave of momentum in Latin America and have the rhetorical, and possibly material, support of the region's self-styled "Bolivarian" revolutionary, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. The democrats could use some outside help, from their neighbors [sic] and the United States.'
So, parsing the Post's Potomac panic, we find that the Indians aren't really Indians, though the US-financed crowds in Kiev, Tblisi, Belgrade and now Bishkek are the Real Thing; and Carlos Mesa is 'valiant' while Kyrgystan's Askar Akayev is a demagogue deserving of his fate. Further, the Post, one of America's two newspapers of record, has called for the US government and Bolivia's neighbours to intervene in defence of Bolivia's 'democrats.
'Mr. Mesa, polls show, has the support of two-thirds of his compatriots, while the party leading the protests, the Movement Toward Socialism, has never received more than 21 percent of the vote in an election.'
Not that Latin American comprador-sponsored polls can be entirely trusted, but, even accepting the figure, the MAS is but one organisation within a broad collection of groups engaged in the rebellion.
But then the Post shifts from rhetorical sleight of hand to outright terminological inexactitude:
'Nor is it the case that Bolivia's experiment with free-market policies in the 1990s failed to help the poor. Per capita incomes rose by 20 percent in the second half of the decade. Thanks to private foreign investment, significantly more Bolivians gained access to water, sewage systems and electricity.'
The editorialist is on crack here. It is the very failure of the Washington Consensus to lift Latin America out of poverty and its, frankly, planned resultant greater impoverishment that has given birth to this left bouleversement on the continent. And I really have to tip my hat at the daring presentment of so unadorned a porkie pie as the statement that privatisation and foreign investment has expanded access to water. It was the 1999 privatisation of water - via a contract with - oh, I think we know these fellas - the Bechtel Corporation, which turned over control of the Cochabamba regions water to Aguas del Tunari, a private monopoly dominated by Bechtel - and near doubling of the cost of water access that was the catalyst in Bolivia for the latest round of rebellions, now running off and on for five years.
'All of this is good news for Mr. Chavez, who along with Cuba's Fidel Castro, dreams of a new bloc of Latin "socialist" (i.e., undemocratic) regimes that will join with like-minded states such as Iran, Libya and China to oppose the United States. Bolivia's neighbors [sic], including Brazil, Argentina and Chile, ought to be alarmed by this trend; but though their own leftist governments have expressed support for Mr. Mesa they have refrained from more concerted action - such as demanding that Mr. Chavez cease his meddling.'
Well, I don't think I need to offer an appraisal of the Cold War fantasy that Chavez, the Bolivian rebels and any other Latin lefties the Post is indisposed towards are planning some grand anti-American united front with the thoroughly anti-democratic regimes of Iran, Libya and China, falling as it does at the first hurdle of realistic assessment. No, the element that, again, exquisitely illustrates the Post's hypocrisy, is the bald-faced demand that Chavez stop his (nowhere proven in the article) 'meddling' in Bolivia. In one editorial, the Post supports the rebels and even calls for further US involvement - via the OSCE (sorry - you're saying that the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe is not an American organisation? Don't make me larf) - in such activities, and in another, not days apart, describes the same activities - again, unproven - of a genuine democrat, Chavez, as 'meddling'.
If Chavez has in fact done anything to materially support the anti-privatisation democrats of Bolivia, it will have been out of solidarity with those fighting for social justice and not, as the US cynically is doing in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, to tighten the noose on its historical imperial rival, Russia. But, again, where is the proof that Chavez is doing anything of the sort?
Not that I would have a drip of a sliver of a gleaning of a hint of a morsel of a crumb of a smidge of a grain of an iota of a mite of a modicum of a speck of a molecule of a tittle of a problem with it if he were.
But, of course, the double standards of the Washington Post are to be expected. This is all as deeply unsurprising as the plot of any movie Robin Williams has been in in the last decade.
What intrigues is the discourse of intervention.
John Laughland - a character so shady that if I were to describe him as being as shady as the shadiest shadow in a dark bit hiding under a large rock beneath a music store hosting an Eminem album signing session (he supports Putin, amongst other things), I would be letting him off lightly - writing in the Guardian and looking at the recent omnibus of democratic revolutions in Eastern Europe, describes the events in Kyrgystan as signifying that 'the post-Soviet space now resembles Central America in the 1970s and 1980s, when a series of US-backed coups consolidated that country's control over the western hemisphere.'
This is patently ridiculous. As I wrote at Christmas on the occasion of the Ukraine revolution, the rebellions in Georgia, the Ukraine and Yugoslavia - and now Kyrgystan - are the genuine expression of peoples fighting the crush of the boot, however much funding individual groups have received from the local US consulate. Posed another way, if we agree that the regimes in these countries are repressive - and it's far from clear that Laughland would, then we must recognise that their populations, like all repressed peoples, will resist the repression at some point. That groups involved in the organising of resistance have taken the king's shilling, or in this case, are operating on the Yankee dime, diminishes not the repression of the given regime.
A coup, by definition, does not involve mass demonstrations, the mass action of hundreds of thousands of people storming government buildings and vacillations of the military over which side to support as the rank and file fraternise with protesters. Coups are organised by very small groups of people - often linked to the military leadership. This is not what has happened in Eastern Europe.
Nonetheless, in his article on Kyrgystan, he uncovers the work of American actors that will seem not unfamiliar to those who have followed the chain of cookie-cutter uprisings across the European periphery these last few years:
'The US ambassador in Bishkek, Stephen Young, has spent recent months strenuously denying government claims that the US was interfering in Kyrgyzstan's internal affairs. But with anti-Akayev demonstrators telling western journalists that they want Kyrgyzstan to become "the 51st state", this official line is wearing a little thin.
'Even Young admits that Kyrgyzstan is the largest recipient of US aid in central Asia: the US has spent $746m there since 1992, in a country with fewer than 5 million inhabitants, and $31m was pumped in in 2004 alone under the terms of the Freedom Support Act. As a result, the place is crawling with what the ambassador rightly calls "American-sponsored NGOs".
'The case of Freedom House is particularly arresting. Chaired by the former CIA director James Woolsey, Freedom House was a major sponsor of the orange revolution in Ukraine. It set up a printing press in Bishkek in November 2003, which prints 60 opposition journals. Although it is described as an "independent" press, the body that officially owns it is chaired by the bellicose Republican senator John McCain, while the former national security adviser Anthony Lake sits on the board. The US also supports opposition radio and TV.
'Many of the recipients of this aid are open about their political aims: the head of the US-funded Coalition for Democracy and Civil Society, Edil Baisalov, told the New York Times that the overthrow of Akayev would have been "absolutely impossible" without American help. In Kyrgyzstan as in Ukraine, a key element in regime change was played by the elements in the local secret services, whose loyalty is easily bought.'
The US (and, in some circumstances, interestingly - and this demands further investigation - Germany), its consulates and many of the aforementioned pseudo-NGOs active in Venezuela have plainly been active in financing the Eastern European opposition groups and, more pro-actively, in press relations, marketing and branding training, and cadre development. It's no mystery as to why. The US does not have any interest in the promotion of democracy, it wants grateful client states on Russia's periphery. It is as happy with Stalinoid dictators who boil people alive - as in Uzbekistan - as it is with bourgeois democrats such as the Ukraine's Yushenko - it doesn't matter which form of government, so long as it suits its needs.
The democratic movements in these countries all pre-existed the States' financing of them. What is interesting is that the US has clearly decided that the moderate bourgeois democratic revolution is a model that they are willing to exploit against their old rival. They have attempted to use the same template in Venezuela, but have been grossly unsuccessful as the majority of the people are with the government in this case, robustly so. The model was also applied in Haiti, against a popular and left-wing leader, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, but the US, with the abettance of Canada (and later some of the very supposed left-of-centre leaders mentioned earlier, such as Lula) very quickly slipped back into its old modus operandi tried and tested in the Western Hemisphere dating back to Chile 1973 or Guatemala 1953 or further, and just went ahead with an old-fashioned bloody coup.
Nonetheless, at least in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, the US has decided to exploit the strategy of popular 'revolution'. They would not be able to if the land were not fertile for the planting of such geopolitical seeds in the first place. They have used this tool because the tool was there to be picked up.
But the Yanks are playing with fire (Seeds, tools, fire? Mixed metaphor, you blusteringly ejaculate? But wait, hold on to your fork, there's more where that came from).
When I was a kid, I thought it grossly unfair that my Dad was allowed to have the Nine McNuggets box while my brother and I could only ever have the Six McNuggets box, so when I was old enough, I went to McDonalds and bought for myself not merely the Nine McNuggets box, but the Twenty McNuggets box, which not even my Dad was ever allowed. The box of twenty McNuggets is always a mistake. Not only do you feel bloated from all the deep-fried reconstituted chicken parts (did you know that one of the McNugget 'shapes' is a near-perfect representation of the province of Alberta? Fact.), but after so many of them, your mouth feels coated with this greasy, oleaginous, faux-chickeny pastey goop. No matter how much root beer you guzzle, the coating just will not wash down. While after eating twenty McNuggets there is initially a deeply happy sensation derived from all the fat, there also follows this entirely unintended suety aftertaste that just won't go away.
The Americans' McRevolutions are in this way very similar to McNuggets. There is a great likelihood that there will be an entirely unintended revolutionary aftertaste that just won't go away.
Because revolutions have a tendency to be terribly inspirational.
The Yugoslav democratic revolutionaries, Optor, were inspired by Seattle and the anti-globalisation movement to a great degree. Georgia's Kmara was inspired by Otpor, the Ukraine's Pora by Kmara and Kyrgystan's democrats in their turn have been similarly inspired. The Yanks think they have it all under control, but revolution is not a tool like a hammer or a Black and Decker 360-Degree Tripod Auto Laser Level, it's much more like The One Ring Of Power in the Lord of the Rings, really, but in a good way - a tool that consumes those who think they wield it. The US may think they are orchestrating some grand string of rebellions in an arc that stretches from Central Asia through Eastern Europe to Latin America, but there will be and already are forces opposed to the American Empire and the Washington Consensus who are just as inspired by Otpor, Pora, and Kmara as Kyrgystan is, but who are more inclined to burn down the American consulate than to ask it for tactical advice and money to buy orange scarves.