Naming and Shaming the Backyard Bully by Tom Jennings
[film review of The War On Democracy, directed by John Pilger & Chris Martin, 2007, published in Freedom, Vol. 68, No. 22, November 2007]
John Pilger’s new documentary spoils a concise exposé of US foreign policy with uncritical pandering to Latin America’s latest charismatic nationalists, finds Tom Jennings
The cinema release of veteran journalist John Pilger’s The War On Democracy (co-directed with Chris Martin) permits more wide-ranging thematics than his usual scrupulous but relatively narrow television coverage of specific historical outrages (most famously in Vietnam, Cambodia, Nicaragua and East Timor). Summarising Washington’s installation of brutal regimes in Central and South America over five decades, he wanted to analyse ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ as spun by Western governments: “revealing through vivid testimony, the story of great power behind its venerable myths … [in order] to understand the true nature of the so-called war on terror”. The replacement of social democratic formations with rule by death squad throughout the region is then contrasted with Venezeuela and Bolivia, where Presidents Chavez and Morales have recently been elected vowing to derail the rich and foreign elite gravy train in the interests of the dispossessed.
The experience in Chile – where Pinochet’s fascists seized power on 9/11 1974 with extensive CIA support – is contrasted with the 2002 right-wing coup in Caracas which failed purportedly due to street protests by the urban masses. Despite local and US media saturation denouncing Chavez’ project as evil communist insanity, ordinary Venezuelans clearly rejected the certain misery of unfettered neoliberal dictatorship – the film counterposes footage from 2002 with visits to shanty towns and a millionaire’s mansion, succinctly conveying the social bases of political polarisation in the country. Similarly, the litany of slaughter and repression under American tutelage precedes a chat with Duane Clarridge, ex-CIA chief in Chile, reiterating the continuing utter contempt for human rights. Pilger then interviews Hugo Chavez, showing his personal integrity, humility, and a warmth for the common people reciprocated in the barrios – cementing the populist appeal of promises of a basic welfare state now capturing imaginations across the continent.
Of course memories of the ravages of military regimes weigh heavily across the region. But two decades of the wholesale looting of resources by multinationals and local lapdogs (IMF and World Bank conditions for ‘democracy’ to return) – destroying subsistence economies with the concomitant growth of vast slums around cities – doubtless also inflect the motivation to vote for marginally lesser evils. Actually, a relative waning of Washington’s directly malevolent intervention (with its attention elsewhere) has coincided with very diverse developments in South American political spheres crucial to understanding what is happening now. However, framed only in terms of earlier US foreign policy, The War On Democracy ignores the crucial integration into global trade (and subsequent bankrupting) of entire nations – which that historic policy facilitated rather than caused. Thus the far-reaching political convulsions in Argentina, Brazil, Peru and Ecuador are ignored, and the significance (beyond boosting national budgets) of natural resource extraction by American coorporations – quite irrespective of Dubya’s posturing – is missed.
The rise of so-called Bolivarian social-democracy in Venezuela and comparable state-capitalist compromises elsewhere are better seen as strategic nationalist defences against emerging lower-class social movements which have threatened to coalesce in much more radical directions. For example, Evo Morales has co-opted impressive grass-roots mobilisations of shanty-neighbourhood and indigenous groups (detailed by Forrest Hylton in New Left Review, 35 & 37, 2005/6) amid large-scale industrial unrest in Bolivia into a shaky electoral alliance, appealing to the military and local and international capital that revolution can be pre-empted. In ‘Is Latin America Really Turning Left?’ (reprinted on the libcom website), James Petras explains the contortions of the new parliamentary socialists negotiating corporate demands for super-profits while retaining popular support with negligible redistributive trickle-down from oil and gas bonanzas.
Both phenomena are clear in Venezuela, which has the largest heavy crude reserves in the world and hence room to manoeuvre in buying off popular discontent. After the 1989 Caracazo uprising, unprecedented social movements mushroomed in the country, while an abortive 1992 military coup attempt saw Chavez and other junior officers involved jailed. Later in the decade his alternative, parliamentary, organisation, and carefully-designed personality cult catapulted him to the Presidency and a world record number of election victories since with manifestoes stressing health, education, housing and job-creation. Sadly the grass-roots networks have been taken over and reconstituted merely as electoral groups and self-aggrandising militarised client bureaucracies dispensing favours, while precious few welfare benefits have materialised. Dissatisfaction at unmet promises is escalating, with any opposition dismissed as ‘counter-revolutionary’ and encountering increasingly repressive policing. Most seriously, the government’s economic strategy is to sell off the whole of the natural environment for pillage by multinationals (to their great satisfaction) demanding less than the going international rent in return and with absolutely no regard for devastating consequences for the rainforest and its indigenous inhabitants or global climate ramifications. And we’re supposed to applaud a brave and honest desire to improve the lives of the poor …
Packing so much in, it’s understandable that The War On Democracy neglects historical and contemporary complexities in Venezuela. Unfortunately, the results reinforce prejudices about lower-class susceptibility to charismatic leadership while demonstrating little inkling of the real characteristics of the Bolivarian state, the prospects for its modest socialism, or the social, environmental or economic impacts of its national development programme. Just as parachuting reporters into warzones with no independent sources inevitably yields subservient conclusions, embedding perspective within the Chavista circus here obscures its real contradictions and conflicts. True, Pilger has consistently broken through the media’s role as poodle to power, permitted only sporadic fractional deviations from official dishonesty masquerading as serious journalism. But despite a welcome demystification of US machinations, this film reproduces the liberal-left’s fatal inability to transcend the us-and-them oversimplifications it derides in the mainstream. The need for simultaneous critique of imperialism and nationalism – of the interwoven structures of capitalism and the state – remains.
George Caffentzis enlarges on the wider context in ‘Apocalypse and/or Business as Usual? The Energy Debate after the 2004 Presidential Elections’, in Mute magazine, May 2007 (www.metamute.org)
Comprehensive analysis is provided by the Venezuelan affinity group Comision de Relaciones Anarquistas (CRA) in their excellent magazine El Libertario (with translations at www.nodo50/org/ellibertario/english/). See also Hanna Dahlstrom’s report on the CRA-initiated Alternative Social Forum, coinciding with the February 2006 tame corporate-liberal World Social Forum in Caracas, at www.upsidedownworld.org.
The War on Democracy will be released on DVD in 2008. Unlike Pilger’s previous work, it has not been shown on ITV.