Above: “May the Force be With You”
A PRESIDENTIAL TRIP
It is common practice for American Presidents when they have problems at home to take an international trip. Traditionally, the reception by the dignitaries, the welcome of the crowds, and the media attention combine to boost popularity. So, our President decider (he is The Decider) to visit Latin America. Dan Quayle, another Republican, once visited the area and said, essentially, that it was so wonderful that he wished he had paid more attention to Latin when he was in school
Well, the Decider’s Trip was pretty strange. He was shaded by Hugo Chavez, the President of Venezula (whom the U.S. tried to overthrow) who got hugely more exhuberant crowds and gave much more colorful speeches. The trip illustrated clearly the damage done by this administration.
Bush also spoke some in Spanish. The Spanish-speaking interlocutors seemed very confused. I imagine his Spanish is worse than his English.
At Walter Reed, the conditions for soldiers were exposed so he had to fire the General running it. Unfortunately, that guy had only been there 6 months, not really enough time for an upper-level administrator to move from reactive to proactive mode. He was replaced by one who had been there two years and who was aware of the conditions. He was replaced also.
Of course, things are a bit of a mockery here as well. His attorney General is under attack for firing prosecutors on political grounds. Gonzlaes, who we featured recently, lied to Congress about it. Bush “sort of” defended him. He will be gone, but it is doubtful Bush can find anyone he likes that this Congress would approve as his replacement. Pace, General in Chief, said gays were immoral and that they had better shut up about it.
Below are 4 articles covering a few things in a bit more depth:
1. The translation of a full-length speech by Chavez as our media only presents snippets that make him sound weird. His sentiments are held by most of Latin America.
2. An early analysis of the trip. See whether you think the forecast turned out and decide what it implies for the future.
3. How the Church(es) view the conflict.
4. From Tomgram: A warning about the war with Iran and how it has been ignored. It will be a greater disaster than Iraq. How Semour Hersch is ignored.
1) Hugo Chavez to George W. Bush: Gringo Go Home
2) *Bush Trip to Counter Chavez is Destined to Fail*
*by Roger Burbach; March 10, 2007
3) *Hugo Chavez’s Holy War*
*by Nikolas Kozloff; March 11, 2007
4) Tomgram: The Seymour Hersh Mystery
Democracy Now! http://www.democracynow.org
Hugo Chavez to George W. Bush: Gringo Go Home
Monday, March 12th, 2007
As President Bush tours Latin America, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez
spoke before tens of thousands at an anti-imperialist rally in Argentina
of Friday. We broadcast excerpts of Chavez's stinging attack on Bush who
was in Uruguay, just thirty miles away across the River Plate. [includes
President Bush has arrived in Guatemala for the second-to-last stop of
his five-nation tour of Latin America. He is meeting with Guatemalan
President Oscar Berger for talks expected to be dominated by immigration
and free trade issues.
Bush's visit to the region has been marked by mass protests and marches.
In Brazil on Thursday, thirty thousand people took to the streets. The
next day in Uruguay, some six thousand marched in the capital of
Montevideo. In Bogota, police made one hundred twenty arrests when five
thousand protesters marched just one mile from where Bush held talks
with Colombian president Alvaro Uribe. Bush will travel to Mexico later
today for the last leg of his tour.
While many analysts agree the president's trip is part of an effort to
gain back influence in the region, the White House has sought to portray
the tour as part of a humanitarian effort to address issues of poverty.
Last week in Washington, President Bush spoke before the US Hispanic
Chamber of Commerce.
* *President Bush*
President Bush speaking in Washington last week. In addition to the mass
protests to his presence in the region, Bush has been dogged by
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez who is on a counter-tour of Latin
America at the same time. In fact, Chavez has practically shadowed Bush
since the beginning of his trip. When Bush was in Uruguay Friday, Chavez
held a massive rally in neighboring Argentina. When Bush flew to
Colombia, Chavez addressed thousands in Bolivia. While Bush is in
Guatemala, Chavez is again close by in neighboring Nicaragua.
During a mass rally in Buenos Aires on Friday, the Venezuelan president
launched a stinging attack on Bush who was in Uruguay, just thirty miles
away across the River Plate.
* *Hugo Chavez*
*AMY GOODMAN: *President Bush has arrived in Guatemala for the
second-to-last stop of his five-nation tour of Latin America. He is
meeting with Guatemalan President Oscar Berger for talks expected to be
dominated by immigration and free trade.
Bush's visit to the region has been marked by mass protest and marches.
In Brazil Thursday, 30,000 people took to the streets. The next day in
Uruguay, some 6,000 marched in the capital of Montevideo. In Bogota,
police made 120 arrests when 5,000 protesters marched just one mile from
where Bush held talks with the Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. Bush
will travel to Mexico later today for the last leg of his tour.
While many analysts agree the President's trip is part of an effort to
gain back influence in the region, the White House has sought to portray
the tour as part of a humanitarian effort to address issues of poverty.
Last week in Washington, President Bush spoke before the US Hispanic
Chamber of Commerce.
*PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: *You know, not far from the White
House, there?s a statue of the great liberator Simon Bolivar. He?s
often compared to George Washington -- Jorge W. Like Washington,
he was a general who fought for the right of his people to govern
themselves. Like Washington, he succeeded in defeating a much
stronger colonial power. And like Washington, he belongs to all of
us who love liberty. One Latin American diplomat had put it this
way: ?Neither Washington nor Bolivar was destined to have children
of their own, so that we Americans might call ourselves their
We are the sons and daughters of this struggle, and it is our
mission to complete the revolution they began on our two
continents. The millions across our hemisphere who every day
suffer the degradations of poverty and hunger have a right to be
impatient. And I'm going to make them this pledge: The goal of
this great country, the goal of a country full of generous people,
is an Americas where the dignity of every person is respected,
where all find room at the table, and where opportunity reaches
into every village and every home. By extending the blessings of
liberty to the least among us, we will fulfill the destiny of this
new world and set a shining example for others. /Que Dios les
*AMY GOODMAN: *President Bush, speaking in Washington last week. In
addition to the mass protests to his presence in the region, Bush has
been dogged by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who?s on a counter-tour
of Latin America at the same time. In fact, Chavez has practically
shadowed Bush since the beginning of his trip. When Bush was in Uruguay
on Friday, Chavez held a mass rally in neighboring Argentina. When Bush
flew to Colombia, Chavez addressed thousands in Bolivia. When Bush was
in Guatemala, Chavez is again close by in neighboring Nicaragua.
Today, we?re going to play an excerpt of one of Chavez's speeches, this
at the mass really in Buenos Aires on Friday. The Venezuelan president
launched a stinging attack on Bush, who was in Uruguay, just thirty
miles away across the River Plate.
*PRESIDENT HUGO CHAVEZ: *[translated] On the other side of the
river, that is where that little gentleman of the North must be.
Let's give him a big boo! Gringo, go home!
I am convinced that our friends in Brasilia and in Montevideo are
not going to feel offended, because we would not want to hurt any
of our brethren from Uruguay or Brazil. We recognize their
sovereignty. We recognize that those governments have the
sovereign right to invite the little gentleman of the North, if
they so choose.
But Kirchner and I don't need to plan anything to sabotage this
visit, because we are witnessing the true political cadaver. The
President of the United States is a political cadaver. He doesn't
even smell of sulfur anymore. He doesn't even smell of sulfur or
brimstone, if you will. No longer. What you smell from him now is
the stench of political death. And not long from now, he will turn
to dust and disappear. So we don't need to put forth any effort to
sabotage the visit of the President of the United States to some
countries, sisters countries of Central and South America, of
course. We don't need to do that. It's a simple coincidence, the
visit of Nestor to Venezuela and our visit here to Buenos Aires.
Well, we nevertheless need to thank that little gentleman that's
visiting us, because if he were not here in South America, perhaps
this event would not be so well-attended. We have organized this
event to say no to the presence of the chief of the empire here in
the heroic lands of South America.
The imperial little gentleman that's visiting Latin America today
said about seventy-two or forty-eight hours ago in one of his
speeches, when he was announcing that he was leaving for Latin
America, he compared Simon Bolivar to George Washington. In fact,
he even said the ridiculous thing -- and I can't say it's
hypocrisy, because it is simply ridiculous, the most ridiculous
thing he could say. He said, today we are all children of
Washington and Bolivar. That is, he thinks that he is a son of
Bolivar. What he is is a son of a -- but I can't say that word here.
So he has said -- he has said -- and you should listen to what he
said here -- he said that now is the time to finish the revolution
that Washington and Bolivar commenced . How's that for heresy?
That is heresy and ignorance, because we have to remember -- and I
say this with all due respect to George Washington, who is
historically one of the founding fathers of that country -- but we
must also remember the differences and how different George
Washington and Simon Bolivar were, are and will always be.
George Washington won a war to gain the independence of the North
American economic elite from the English empire, and when
Washington died, or, rather, after his independence and after
having been the president of the United States, after ordering the
massacre of the indigenous peoples of North America, after
defending slavery, he ended up being a very rich owner of slaves
and of a plantation. He was a great landowner. That was George
Simon Bolivar, however, was born with a silver spoon, and at eight
years old his parents died and he inherited a large fortune,
together with his brothers, and he inherited haciendas and slaves.
Simon Bolivar, when history led him -- and as Karl Marx said, men
can make history, but only as far as history allows us to do so --
when history took Bolivar and made him the leader of the
independence process in Venezuela, he made that process
revolutionary. Simon Bolivar turned over all of his land. He freed
all of his slaves, and he turned them into soldiers, and he
brought them here. He brought them to Peru and Carabobo, and he
worked together with the troops of San Martin to liberate this
continent. That is Simon Bolivar.
And Simon Bolivar, having been born with that silver spoon in his
mouth, when he died on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, when he
died on December 17 in 1830, he was dressed with a shirt of
someone else, because he had no clothes. Simon Bolivar is the
leader of the revolution of this land. He is the leader of the
social revolution, the people's revolution, the historical
revolution. George Washington has nothing -- nothing -- to do with
It was in 1823 that James Monroe said, "America for the
Americans." And when I say this tonight, I say it because I want
to remind you, my brothers of Argentina, of Venezuela and of
America, that the presence of the President of the United States
in South America represents all of that. He represents that Monroe
Doctrine of America for the Americans. Well, we will have to tell
him: North America for the North Americans and South America for
the South Americans. This is our America.
The President of the United States, that political cadaver -- and
when I say political cadaver, he would like to see me as a real
cadaver -- I want him to be a political cadaver, and he already is
a political cadaver. The President of the United States has the
lowest level of credibility and acceptance from his own people. He
is the current president of the United States.
It would appear that he doesn't even dare mention my name, because
he was asked in Brasilia today in a press conference -- I saw it,
I watched it at the hotel -- and the journalist asked him, ?It is
said that you are here to stop Chavez's movement in South
America.? And it looked like he almost had a heart attack when he
heard "Chavez," because he actually stuttered a couple of times,
and he actually changed the subject. He didn't answer the
question. He didn't answer the question at all. So he doesn't even
And I definitely dare to say his name. The President of the United
States of North America, George W. Bush, the little gentleman of
the North, the political cadaver that is visiting South America,
that little gentleman is the president of all the history of the
United States, and in the history of the United States, he has the
lowest level of approval in his own country. And if we add that to
the level of approval that he has in the world, I would think he's
in the red now -- negative numbers.
*AMY GOODMAN: *Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in Argentina on Friday,
speaking before a mass rally of tens of thousands of people -- an
excerpt of that address. When we come back, response to the Latin
American trip with Greg Grandin, who is author of /Empire?s Workshop/, a
professor in Latin American studies. We'll also speak with Steve Ellner,
just back from Venezuela. Stay with us.
*ZNet | Latin America*
*Bush Trip to Counter Chavez is Destined to Fail*
*by Roger Burbach; March 10, 2007*
Bush's trip to Latin America is a calculated effort to counter
Hugo Chavez's growing influence in the region and to separate
the "bad left" from the "good left", namely Uruguay and to some
extent Brazil. He hopes to add them to the dwindling bloc of
pro-US nations, including Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico which
he is visiting.
From the beginning the trip is provoking wide spread opposition.
He will be greeted by demonstrators in Montevideo, Uruguay who
are opposed to the special trade agreements being negotiated
with the government of Tabare Vasquez. Even members of his
ruling party, the Broad Front, are active in organizing the
Across the border in Argentina, which Bush will not visit,
massive demonstrations are being organized to coincide with his
stay in Uruguay. And to add insult to injury, Hugo Chavez, is
flying in to take part. While President Nestor Kirchner will not
be participating, lower level government officials are. This
comes on the heels of a series of commercial and economic
accords that Kirchner just signed with Chavez on a trip to
Caracas, including the founding of the Bank of the South, which
is seen as an alternative to US dominated institutions like the
Inter-American Development Bank.
In Colombia and Guatemala, Bush will try to prop up governments
shaken by recent political scandals. And in Mexico, his trip is
designed to assist Felipe Calderon, one of the last presidents
in Latin America to back the orthodox neoliberal free trade
policies of Washington. His narrow election victory last year is
widely perceived as fraudulent.
On the eve of Bush's trip the White House declared that he wants
to "promote peace and prosperity" and that he will dispense $75
million for a new education program for Latin Americans to study
in the United States and $385 million for programs promoting
home ownership. These are token programs at best, and will do
nothing to relieve the poverty and growing income disparity in
New blows to US policy have come in the days leading up to
Bush's trip. Panama has announced it will not sign the free
trade agreement with Washington that was being negotiated. And
in Nicaragua the new government of Daniel Ortega has just set up
a special commission with Venezuela that will oversee the
implementation of 15 economic accords, particularly in the areas
of energy, agriculture, education and health. A special
initiative aimed at alleviating hunger will receive $54 million
and $21 million will go to education and building schools.
Investments are also being planned to modernize Nicaragua's
electric plants, to construct an oil refinery, and to refurbish
Nicaragua's main international port, Puerto Cabezas.
In South America a radical axis of nations intent on
implementing profound social reforms at home and opposing US
intervention in the region appears to be taking shape, comprised
of Venezuela, Bolivia and the recently elected government of
Rafael Correa in Ecuador. Correa has rejected any free trade
agreement with the United States and has announced he is closing
down the US base on South America's Pacific Coast located at
Manta. Ostensibly set up to help monitor narco-trafficking over
the ocean and the nearby Amazon basin, it has become a major
operations center for US intelligence gathering and for
coordinating counterinsurgency efforts against the leftist
guerrillas in neighboring Colombia. Upwards of 475 military
personal are continually rotated between Manta and the US
Southern Command headquarters based in Florida.
The Ecuadorian Minister of Foreign Relations, Maria Fernanda
Espinoza, in announcing the base will be officially closed in
2009, declared: "Ecuador is a sovereign country. We don't need
foreign troops on our soil."
All three countries are raising the banner of socialism. In
Venezuela Hugo Chavez is intent on leading the country to a "new
socialism for the twenty-first century." In Bolivia Evo Morales
governing party is called Movement Towards Socialism, a "party
of a new type" comprised largely of social movements. And in
Ecuador, Rafael Correa in his inaugural address in January
called for an opening to the "new socialism for the twenty-first
century" and declared that Ecuador has to end "the perverse
system that has destroyed our democracy, our economy and our
When Bush returns and finds out that his trip has done little to
alter the growing leftist trend of Latin America, the iron fist
of the new Deputy Secretary of State, John Negroponte, will take
control of US policy. Negroponte as ambassador to Honduras
helped run the contra war in Nicaragua in the 1980's, which
murdered thousands of innocent civilians in Honduras as well as
Nicaragua, and he is known to believe that more aggressive
measures have to be taken against Chavez and the gathering storm
in Latin America. He comes to his new post after serving as
Director of National Intelligence, and prior to that ambassador
in Bagdhad. Given that Condoleezza Rice has little expertise in
Latin America, Negroponte will set policy for the region,
overriding the few remaining moderates in the State Department's
office of Hemispheric Affairs.
With Negroponte we can expect a marked increase in US covert
operations, aimed not only at Chavez in Venezuela, but also at
the other governments and the popular movements in the region
that are leading the charge against the historic US domination
of Latin America and are bent on constructing more equitable
Roger Burbach is director of the Center for the Study of the
Americas (CENSA) and a Visiting Scholar at the Institute of
International Studies, University of California, Berkeley. He is
co-author with Jim Tarbell of " Imperial Overstretch: George W.
Bush and the Hubris of Empire," His latest book is: " The
Pinochet Affair: State Terrorism and Global Justice."
*ZNet | Venezuela*
*Hugo Chavez’s Holy War*
*by Nikolas Kozloff; March 11, 2007*
When Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez recently took his oath of
office for a second term, he swore it in the name of Jesús
Christ, who he called “the greatest socialist of history.” It’s
hardly an accident that Chavez would hark on Christianity in
addressing his people. For years, Venezuela has been a
religious battleground, with Chavez pursuing a combative
relationship with the Catholic Church.
In Venezuela, Catholics have a potent political voice and make
up about 70% of the country’s population. Ever since taking
office in 1999, Chavez has repeatedly clashed with the clergy.
The President frequently chastised Venezuelan bishops, accusing
them of complicity with corrupt administrations that preceded
To a certain extent, a clash was inevitable. Unlike some other
Latin American countries which were characterized by so-called
liberation theology, the Venezuelan Church has never had a
leftist tendency. According to observers, as few as one in 10
priests identify with the left and out of more than 50 bishops
only a handful are sympathetic to Chavez.
*The Venezuelan Church: A Bastion of Conservatism*
Despite the conservative nature of the Church, relations between
the clergy and the Chavez government got off to a reasonably
good start. After he was first elected in 1998, Chavez
proclaimed his devotion to the Church and Catholic social
doctrine. Venezuelan bishops in turn supported the social
programs that Chavez had outlined during his presidential
campaign. Bishops welcomed Chavez’s calls to end corruption, to
foster a more equitable distribution of wealth, transparent
voting, and an end to the ruling class’ special privileges.
Thing went awry, however, in July, 1999 when Chavez personally
met with Monsignor Baltazar Porras at the headquarters of the
Episcopal Conference. Porras, the Archbishop of the Andean city
of Merida and chairman of the Episcopal Conference, met with
Chavez for two hours.
Emerging from the meeting, Porras declared that the Venezuelan
government had opted to cut its traditional subsidies to the
Church by up to 80%. The new rules, Porras said, would oblige
clerical authorities to adjust to “the new realities of the
country, and to figure out how to search for self financing.”
Porras became a vocal critic of the regime; in Caracas he
received the backing of the Papal Nuncio, Monsignor André Dupuy.
Another point of friction was Chavez’s calls for a new
Constitution. Church leaders feared that Chavez’s secret agenda
in calling for the new constitution was the imposition of a
Cuban-style communist regime. Porras declared that Chavez was
fomenting "fear and hate" and dividing Venezuelans in his
campaign to draft a constitution.
*Traveling to Merida*
Recently I was in Caracas to give a talk and decided to take a
night bus to Merida, a city located about seven hundred
kilometers south-west of the capital. I was eager to learn more
about the Church in Venezuela, and how its relations had
deteriorated so dramatically with Chavez.
I drifted off to sleep in the bus. Climbing up and down through
the mountains, the landscape was dotted with cacti. By the next
day, exhausted from the trip, I made my way to a /posada/ or inn
near the Central Square. Five years earlier, I’d stayed in the
same place while pursuing research for my dissertation on the
foreign oil industry in Venezuela.
Merida is a favored tourist destination and feels like a
Venezuelan version of Switzerland with hotels, cyber cafes and
vegetarian restaurants appealing to foreigners. In the main
square of the city, Venezuelan hippies in their twenties play
guitar and sell artisan work. Despite its traditional religious
outlook, Merida also has a university which has had a long
tradition of leftist politics.
A few days after recuperating from my long trip, I headed to the
Cathedral in Merida’s central square. There, I spoke with
Monsignor Alfredo Torres, General Vicar of the local
Archdiocese. A long time fixture of the local church
establishment, Torres went into the seminary when he was fifteen
When I asked Torres how relations had deteriorated so badly
between Chavez and Porras, the local clergyman explained, “The
militarist, socialistic bent of the government was always a
critical point for the Archbishop.”
*Church-Military Relations Break Down*
By 2000, the role of the military had certainly become a
controversial political issue. During his first year in power,
Chavez, himself a former paratrooper, faced a very unenviable
political environment. Congress and the Supreme Court were in
the hands of the opposition, as were the majority of mayoral
districts and governorships. Meanwhile, oil stood at only $7 a
In desperation, Chavez called on the armed forces to carry out
ambitious public works projects---the so-called Plan Bolivar
2000. The plan proved reportedly divisive within the military,
with some soldiers feeling uncomfortable in their new social role.
The Church missed no opportunity to criticize Chavez’s military
policy. Caracas Archbishop Ignacio Velasco remarked publicly
that “something is making the armed forces nervous.” Velasco
recommended that the armed forces should meet to decide whether
soldiers should have the right to express themselves openly.
Furthermore, Velasco remarked sarcastically, the Minister of
Defense, Ismael Hurtado Soucre, always tried to smooth over
problems and make believe that nothing was wrong within the
military ranks. That elicited a sarcastic rejoinder in turn
from Hurtado, who remarked that the Church certainly had its own
share of problems.
*Chavez vs. Castillo Lara*
Chavez did not assuage the Church’s fears when he declared
famously that several bishops and the Vatican’s former
representative in Venezuela, Cardinal Rosalio Castillo Lara, had
allied with the country’s “rancid oligarchy.”
“It would appear,” said Chavez, “that a very small group of
bishops has something personal against the President.”
Even more inflammatory still, Chavez suggested that priests such
as Castillo ought to subject themselves to an exorcism because
“the devil has snuck into their clerical robes."
In a personal riposte, Chavez sought to link Castillo with
earlier corrupt administrations. “Where were you when the
bankers robbed more than $7,000,000,000 under the government of
Rafael Caldera, your personal friend, during the financial
crisis of 1994? Did you say anything when the police massacred
the people on the 27^th of February [during the Caracazo,
massive urban riots in Caracas in 1989]?”
Incensed, Castillo compared Chavez to Italian dictator Benito
Meanwhile, the Church grew increasingly more concerned about the
Constitution, which failed to guarantee the protection of life
beginning at conception.
*War of Words Escalates: Vargas Tragedy*
In the midst of the escalating battle over the Constitution,
disaster struck when rains hit the state of Vargas, on the coast
near Caracas. I had the occasion to visit the area over this
past summer, and what one is immediately struck by is the
precarious housing built on steep hillsides. When the rains
hit, they created massive landslides that swept away
everything. A catastrophe of epic proportions, the Vargas rains
led to the deaths of between 10 and 20,000 people.
In Vargas, I spoke with people who were still, seven years
later, waiting to be evacuated. Living in dilapidated housing
and mired in poverty, their plight was certainly depressing.
Nevertheless, it should be said that the government carried out
a Herculean job, evacuating 190,000 people. I visited one
recently built housing complex, Ciudad Miranda, which housed
many of the refugees.
At a moment of crisis, the Church insinuated itself into the
Vargas crisis by making critical public statements. In a
reference to Chavez, Archbishop Velasco remarked that the Vargas
tragedy was the “wrath of God,” because “the sin of pride is
serious and nature itself reminds us that we don’t have all the
power or abilities.”
*Chavez’s Papal Gambit*
As prominent Church figures such as Castillo and Velasco became
more combative, Chavez sought to override local opposition by
traveling personally to Rome where he met with Pope John Paul
II. Venezuela has attached much importance to its relationship
to the Vatican and has an Ambassador there.
Chavez took advantage of his Papal interview to confess. “It
was extraordinary for me, a practicing Catholic,” Chavez
remarked, “…to have words with the Pope.”
Chavez, who discussed controversial issues with the Pope such as
abortion, also sought to court the Pontiff by emphasizing common
concerns such as the “savage” neo-liberal economic order, “which
had brought people to misery, especially in the Third World.”
A month after his trip to Rome, the Papal Nuncio in Caracas,
Leonardo Sandri, brought Chavez a verbal message from the Pope
regarding the constitutional process in Venezuela. According to
Sandri, the Sacred See expressed its concerns about guaranteeing
life from its original conception within Venezuela’s new
constitution. Later, Chavez met with Archbishop Velasco, who
also expressed his concerns about the right to life.
*Church-State Relations Break Down in Merida*
Back in Merida, I query Torres about the breakdown in relations.
“Here in the archdiocese,” Torres remarked, “we got into a very
precarious financial situation. We receive money from the
parishes, cultural and academic activities and the well
organized Archdiocese museum. We get financing from private
companies and banks, but the government doesn’t help.”
Torres said that the government had withdrawn funding from the
archdiocese and seminary. He claimed, moreover, that the Church
had experienced some financial turmoil. The Church, he said,
had media enterprises in Merida including print, radio, and TV.
However, he declared that recently /El Vigilante/, a Church
newspaper, had been forced to close for economic reasons.
Meanwhile, the TV and radio station had very few financial
resources to continue their work.
There were other disputes early on which set the course for
future conflict. For example, a quarrel over the Sor Juana Ines
de la Cruz Hospital Foundation, which had been managed by the
Merida clergy since the mid 1990s, turned nasty.
“The Church managed the local hospital,” Torres explained. “The
government provided the money for the staff. The archbishop
sought equipment abroad. But, the government disregarded our
contract after Chavez assumed power.”
*In Merida: Porras vs. Chavez*
According to the government, Porras was corrupt. The Merida
State Governor, Florencio Porras [a long time Chavista, retired
Captain and active participant in Chavez’s aborted 1992 coup
against then President Carlos Andres Perez], declared that
public funding as well as private donations which were supposed
to go towards the maintenance of the hospital had disappeared
and Baltazar Porras was responsible.
Baltazar Porras shot back that there was a “witch hunt” against
him. Chavez was personally apprised of the matter and the
Attorney General proceeded with an investigation into Porras’
Dramatically, the police as well as the Directorate of
Intelligence and Prevention Services, a special police and
intelligence force [known by its Spanish acronym Disip] moved
into the hospital and confiscated the facility’s records. The
action was coordinated by federal authorities including the
office of the national Comptroller General.
In a further move which antagonized the Church, state
authorities actually took over the management of the Hospital
Foundation. Torres bristles when discussing the incident.
Porras, he says, was accused of being a thief when in actuality
it was the state which had behaved crookedly. The authorities,
he said, confiscated the hospital’s equipment.
Even as the government moved to clamp down on the Church in
Merida, Chavez himself was heating up the rhetoric. The
President accused Porras of being an “adeco [members of the
discredited and corrupt political party Accion Democratica,
which had ruled the country for years prior to Chavez’s
election] with a cassock.” Adding fuel to the fire, Chavez
remarked that the Church was “an accomplice in corruption.”
Chavez’s holy war threatened to spill over and destabilize
relations with the Vatican. In late 2000, John Paul II remarked
that “a democracy without values becomes authoritarianism.” The
Pope made his remarks during an accreditation ceremony for the
Venezuelan Ambassador to the Vatican, Ignacio Quintana.
In Venezuela, politicians tried to make sense of the Pope’s
comments. Jose Vicente Rangel, the Minister of External
Relations, declared that he agreed with John Paul’s statement.
“In that sense I am more Popish than the Pope,” Rangel said.
In speaking with the press, Quintana assured journalists that
the Pope “respected” the Bolivarian Revolution. The new
ambassador claimed, furthermore, that high authorities within
the Vatican sympathized with Chavez and the social changes
taking place in Venezuela.
Lurking in the background however, Porras added his own spin to
John Paul’s address. When the Pope said “a democracy without
values,” Porras said, the Pontiff was clearly referring to
While it’s unclear what the Pope exactly meant, the Vatican
sought to appease conservatives by giving the nod to Ignacio
Velasco. In early 2001 the Archbishop of Caracas was named a
Cardinal by the Pope. As such, he represented a dangerous
potential enemy for Chavez.
In a gesture of congratulations for his new position, Quintana,
the Venezuelan Ambassador to the Vatican, gave the Caracas
Archbishop a pectoral cross made out of gold.
Chavez himself traveled back to the Vatican shortly after the
9-11 attacks to meet with the Pope. In an effort to smooth
relations and emphasize common ground, Chavez remarked, “The
Pope has declared in the last few days something that we have
also said: that we do not support war…The war is against
hunger…The Pope has said that one cannot respond to violence
with more war. I also say the same, for that reason I came to
seek his guidance.”
*Lead up to coup*
In late 2001, Chavez was confronting an angry opposition led by
old guard labor, business and oil executives at the state run
oil company, PdVSA. The Church seemed to be moving towards the
opposition camp. In January, 2002 Andre Dupuy, the Papal
Nuncio, told Chavez that he was worried about a possible
“radicalization” of the internal conflict in Venezuela.
Chavez in turn shot back that Dupuy was interfering in the
country’s political affairs. In another address the same month,
Chavez characterized the Church as a “tumor” on society. A few
days later, perhaps recanting that he had gone too far, Chavez
invited Venezuelan bishops to participate in a dialogue, an
offer the clergy rejected.
From there it was all downhill. The Church joined forces with
the CTV, a large labor union, and Fedecamaras, the business
federation. The outspoken Porras declared that, “governments
that are democratically elected which do not comply with their
promises become illegitimate.”
The President of the Episcopal Conference added that
anti-government strikes and protests, which had intensified,
were not part of a conspiracy but the consequence of Chavez’s
own dogged behavior.
Chavez responded with more hyperbolic rhetoric of his own,
suggesting that archbishop Velasco “pray a little” and “look
into his conscience.” Speaking during his radio and TV show,
/Alo, Presidente!/, Chavez criticized Velasco’s interference in
the political arena. Chavez praised the Pope, while criticizing
what he called “a small group of clergy that doesn’t amount to
more than five people.”
*The Chavez/Porras Interview*
It wasn’t long, however, before the “small group” actively moved
into the camp of those seeking to overturn Chavez’s government.
During the April 2002 coup, prominent Catholics such as Velasco
sided with the opposition against the president. Velasco, who
had earlier met with Chavez during the constitutional
controversy, even offered his residence as a meeting place for
the coup plotters.
What is more, he signed the “Carmona decree” that swept away
Venezuela’s democratic institutions. Senior Catholic bishops
themselves attended the inauguration ceremony for Pedro Carmona,
In an ironic twist, Chavez personally called Porras from the
presidential palace, Miraflores, and the Archbishop agreed to
act as the President’s personal custodian and guarantor in the
midst of the coup. On April 12, Chavez was brought to Tiuna
Fort, a military facility in Caracas.
There, at 3:40 PM Chavez was received at the doors by Porras
himself as well as José Luis Azuaje, the Secretary General of
the Episcopal Conference. According to Porras, who was later
interviewed by the Spanish newspaper /El Pais/, the two spoke
for hours in the midst of the tense political situation.
“He [Chavez] was serene,” Porras explained, “very serene, and
spoke to us in an intimate, confessional tone…We wanted to give
him strength and energy to examine the present and to be able to
look towards the future.”
Porras added, “Chavez asked me for forgiveness for the way he
had treated me.” According to the Archbishop, Chavez moreover
expressed sorrow that he had not been able to achieve a more
amicable relationship with the Church.
*Poisonous Relations Return*
After his interview with Porras, Chavez was taken to the remote
island of Orchila. Cardinal Velasco later confirmed that he too
went to Orchila, where he spoke with the Venezuelan President.
According to Velasco, Chavez forgave himself and the two
reportedly even prayed together.
Shortly thereafter Chavez was triumphantly restored to power.
Later, he clutched a crucifix when giving evidence to a
televised parliamentary commission investigating the deaths of
17 marchers who participated in an anti-government demonstration
and later coup attempt.
Meanwhile, the Episcopal Conference drafted a statement
condemning the “tragic occurrences” of April, 2002. Bishops
stated, however, that “in the current moment of uncertainty and
tension it is necessary for the government and society to open a
space for real dialogue.” Porras added that the goodwill of the
president should be demonstrated with concrete deeds.
In an effort to appease the Church, Chavez later requested that
the Church help to mediate in the ongoing conflict with the
political opposition, which heated up later that year during an
oil lock out. Bizarrely, the opposition called on the Church to
exorcise Chavez in an effort to counter possession by demons.
Velasco, who apparently thought the request went too far, ruled
out the possibility but was still critical of the government.
In the midst of the escalating war of words, John Paul II called
for peace and reconciliation.
Whatever goodwill had existed following the coup quickly
dissipated. Chavez later stated that "there are bishops from
the Catholic Church who knew a coup was on the way, and they
used church installations to bring coup plotters together ...
those clerics are immoral and spokesmen for the opposition."
Meanwhile, a government commission recommended that the Attorney
General’s office open an investigation into Cardinal Velasco and
Baltazar Porras for presumed participation in the April coup.
Velasco claimed to have received death threats. When the
Cardinal died about a year after the coup, removing one of the
key opposition figures in the Church, riot police had to
disperse crowds with rubber bullets at the funeral.
As the funeral procession proceeded, Chavez supporters shouted
insults such as “Justice has been done---he was a coup
plotter!”, and “The rats bury their rat!” Reportedly,
pro-government demonstrators also stormed the cathedral where
Velasco lay in state.
*Merida: an Embattled City*
During the tumultuous days after the coup, Porras found himself
besieged even within his home town of Merida. A manifesto soon
appeared in the city, published by the “Revolutionary Justice,
Truth and Dignity Movement.”
In the pamphlet, the group declared that Porras was persona non
grata, a traitor and a political fanatic. The manifesto claimed
that Porras was “a destructive, disruptive, agitating,
subversive element” for society. The group also attacked
Velasco, who was referred to as “Judas.”
In late 2002, Porras was verbally insulted by Chavez followers
in the Merida State Legislature. Porras had been invited to
speak on the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Merida
Cardinal Jose Humberto Quintero. Chavez officials from the
State Legislature held banners and interrupted the proceedings
I have always been struck by the religious tone in the city of
Merida. When I was first there as a graduate student, in 2001,
I observed many shops selling religious artifacts and candles.
Over this past summer, when I returned, I saw the main church
full of people during Sunday mass. Speaking with local
residents in Merida, I learned that the city had been touched by
The woman who managed the posada where I was staying remarked
that social programs initiated after the coup had made a modest
difference in the lives of /meridenos/. Her children, for
example, were now attending some of the new Bolivarian schools
(she complained, however, that parents had to shell out money of
their own to maintain the school).
Poor people, she said, were now receiving food at the local
government sponsored soup kitchens. Near to the posada on a
side street, I saw a cooperatively run restaurant sponsored by
the government’s /vuelvan caras/ or “turning lives around” program.
To get more information about changes in Merida society, I
headed to a government building on the main square, near the
Cathedral. Peering around inside, I noticed that the offices
were plastered with posters of Chavez, Che Guevara and Simon
Upstairs, I spoke with Ruben Aguila Cerati, Director of
Electoral Politics for Chavez’s MVR party in the State of
Merida, and a former member of the Venezuelan Communist Party.
Cerati, a colorful, jolly man who had been a guerrilla fighter
himself, explained to me that gender relations had changed
“Today we have 153,000 meridenos registered in the MVR [Chavez’s
political party]. Fifty three percent of these people are
women. In the political assemblies, women are the dominant
force. I can’t say there is no machismo here in Merida, but
women have been liberated.”
*Merida Church and Social Reforms*
Not everyone has embraced the social changes in the city,
however. Back in the main cathedral, Torres spoke of chronic
poverty in Merida’s /barrios/, remarking that “change for the
better has not reached the people, who continue to search for a
means of survival.”
Torres, echoing the criticisms of the opposition, also touched
on the issue of insecurity. “There’s been an increase in
criminal activity,” he said. “Merida used to be a very safe
“That’s the government’s fault?” I asked.
“The government hasn’t acted to adopt the necessary measures to
stop crime,” he replied. “People are afraid to go out at night.
You didn’t notice this before, there wasn’t so much violence.”
I asked Torres about the controversial role of Cuban doctors who
had come to Venezuela to provide medical assistance for poor
“We think that…this assistance has not resolved the health
problem amongst the people,” Torres answered. He criticized
conditions in a local hospital, remarking that “the service is
horrible; people need to buy sheets, medicine and other
“Would you prefer that the Cuban doctors leave the country?” I
“The doctors have helped,” Torres conceded. “However, the
overall health situation hasn’t changed.”
I turned the discussion towards education, a historically
contentious issue between the Church and Chavez authorities.
Torres admitted that the Bolivarian schools had set up new
cafeterias, a positive development. In an echo of what the
Senora had said in the posada, however, he criticized the
government for not providing necessary assistance to local schools.
“A sign of this phenomenon,” Torres exclaimed, “is that if you
want a place in a Catholic school they are all filled up.
Everyone wants to get a spot.”
*Government and Church Spar Over Land*
Another controversial measure pushed by Chavez has been land
reform. I had wanted to tour the countryside but unfortunately
fell sick with an acute case of bronchitis and had to curtail my
trip. I did, however, query Torres about the issue.
The clergyman voiced serious reservations. In the wake of the
land reform, he said, the campesinos had become radicalized and
this had led to a serious confrontation “and an invasion of
farms which brings problems and puts a break on development.”
I wanted to get Torres’ views on land reform as well. Before
conducting my interview with the local priest, I had read an
article in /La Frontera/, a local opposition paper, arguing that
local cattle ranchers had been obliged to hire hit men to defend
themselves, ostensibly against kidnapping.
The Minister of Interior accused the ranchers of inflating the
kidnapping figures in an effort to justify the hiring of hit
men, who had in turn killed campesinos [the secretary of the
campesino federation has said that his colleagues have been
killed by the hit men “as a result of the campesino struggle for
Torres conceded that violence had escalated in the countryside.
However, he said the government was responsible for encouraging
an overall climate of delinquent behavior which did not help the
“I think all of this government rhetoric starts to generate
violence,” he said.
Across the square I spoke with Cerati about the rural
situation. He began first by extolling Chavez’s various
“mission” programs which had transformed the countryside.
“The campesinos now know how to read and write,” he exclaimed
enthusiastically. “Here there is no longer any illiteracy: that
The discussion then turned to health matters, and I queried
Cerati about the Cuban doctors. “Campesinos,” he noted, “who
had never seen a doctor now have them right at their side. The
Cuban doctors have incorporated themselves into the peasantry.
The campesinos are not suspicious of communism.”
Unlike Torres, who blamed the government for rural violence,
Cerati pointed the finger at powerful interests. “Campesinos,”
he said, “have been killed and assassinated by these landlords.
This has happened in the south of Lake Maracaibo, in Barinas,
and in Yaracuy. The land belongs to the campesinos, the
“Merida has traditionally been very conservative and dominated
by the Church,” I remarked. “How do you see the situation in
the countryside, is it the Church supporting the landlords, and
the government supporting the campesinos?”
“The clergy has always been right wing,” Cerati answered. “It’s
always represented the oligarchies, the bourgeoisie. But, now
the majority of the lower tier clergy are with the Bolivarian
process. There’s an incredible difference between the clergy
here in the city of Merida and the priests out in the
*Castillo Lara Turns Up the Pressure*
Porras meanwhile backed efforts to recall Chavez as president.
In 2003 he remarked that Chavez had abused his power and his
regime was a profound “social failure.” Chavez shot back that
Porras had become a spokesperson for the opposition and should
take off his cassock because he was not a dignified man of
Christ. “God is with the Bolivarian Revolution,” Chavez said,
“and here there are people with cassocks who oppose the
political changes that we are carrying out.”
In his own retort, Porras responded that in Venezuela peace and
goodwill had deteriorated, while poverty, unemployment,
corruption, violence, homicides and kidnapping had increased.
Porras warned about the rise of cults inspired by 20^th century
fascist leaders, and went so far as to equate Chavismo with
Franco, Nazism, and fascism. Porras’ frontal offensive was
echoed by other Church leaders such as Cardinal Rosalio Castillo
Lara, who called for civil disobedience against the Chavez
With Velasco now gone, high Church officials looked isolated
within the new political environment, characterized by a
fractured opposition and ascendant Chavez. Porras, though,
denied any significant political division within Church ranks.
The archbishop met personally with John Paul II, who was
reportedly very worried about political conflict in Venezuela
and sought a peaceful solution to the polarization.
*Pope Benedict: A New Direction?*
After John Paul II died in April, 2005 Chavez again went to
Rome, this time to meet with the new Pope Benedict XVI.
According to Father Pedro Freites, who heads the Venezuelan
School in Rome and had formerly been the head of Vatican radio
for Latin America and the Caribbean, Castillo Lara did not
represent the Church when he called for civil disobedience in
However, in an interview with the Venezuelan newspaper /El
Nacional/ he remarked that Benedict was “aware of the situation
in Venezuela and of the serious danger posed to democracy."
Castillo Lara, he added, had ties with all cardinals and had
been the governor of the Vatican State. He had submitted
reports, and the Pope was concerned that a dictatorship might be
imposed in Venezuela. Ratzinger himself, Freites remarked, was
close to Castillo Lara and had also spoken with Porras.
During his meeting with the Venezuelan leader, Benedict handed
Chavez a letter outlining the Church’s concerns. In the note,
the Pope raised fears that religious education was being
squeezed out of some Venezuelan schools. He also touched upon
Venezuela’s public health programs, expressing concern that the
right to life be maintained “from its inception.”
Chavez reportedly sought to overcome his government’s
differences with the Church. At the end of their meeting,
Chavez presented the Pope with a portrait of Simon Bolivar, the
mythical Venezuelan independence leader who Chavez idolizes.
The picture bore an inscription from Bolivar’s will, saying that
he remained, at long last, a Catholic.
Following the meeting, Chavez declared that the crisis between
his government and the Church had its “limits in time, space,
and personalities.” The conflict that had existed, Chavez
continued, had to do with a very small group of people.
Moreover, he was committed to “turn the page” and start over,
owing to his “sense of responsibility” towards Venezuela and the
doctrine of Christ.
*Church Hardliners Isolated*
Indeed, Chavez had just reason to feel relieved. Already, the
Church had seemed to adopt a more conciliatory stance when it
replaced the hard line French conservative Papal nuncio,
Monsignor André Dupuy, with the Italian Giacinto Berlocco.
Reportedly, the new nuncio was instructed to seek a less
confrontational policy towards Chavez.
When Castillo Lara said that Venezuelans should “deny
recognition” to the Chavez government, Berlocco stated that the
Venezuelan Cardinal did not reflect the position of the Catholic
Church in Venezuela. Chavez praised Berlocco for carrying out
what he called “quiet and patient work.”
What’s more, after his visit with the new Pope Chavez also
expressed pleasure with other new Church appointments such as
Cardinal Jorge Urosa Savino, who in his first address called on
the Church to work for unity and understanding in Venezuela, and
Ubaldo Santana, the new president of the Venezuelan Episcopal
In the political reshuffle, conservatives had been sidelined.
In the race to pick a new cardinal for Venezuela, Savino, the
bishop of Maracaibo, had edged out his more outspoken
competitor, Porras. According to the Venezuelan newspaper /El
Universal/, some bishops opposed Porras for taking such a
radical anti-Chavez stance which had imperiled relations with
In early 2006, Castillo Lara once more attacked Chavez but his
influence seemed to be much reduced. Speaking in the west of
the country before thousands of worshippers participating in a
pilgrimage to the Virgin Mary, the Cardinal said the country was
undoubtedly becoming a dictatorship. When Chavez claimed there
was a conspiracy in Rome to damage his government, Archbishop
Urosa quickly grew concerned and condemned Castillo Lara’s
*Moving To the Future*
On my recent trip, I traveled with a peace delegation to
Charallave, a town outside of Caracas. Sitting in a Mennonite
church, we spoke with Jorge Martin, president of a local group
“Chavez,” he told us, “has said that Church work should
complement government efforts. We recognize that the church
needs to do social work and that the church has a role in this
Indeed, even as Chavez has sparred with the Church, Protestants
have become a key pillar of the president’s political support.
Back in Caracas, in fact, our delegation had observed a
Protestant church which prepared government provided food for
the poor. Martin called Pat Robertson’s calls to assassinate
Chavez “unfortunate.” He said that in Venezuela, Protestants of
all denominations had rejected the minister’s comments.
Over the last few years, Chavez has done his utmost to cultivate
the support of Protestants, which make up 29% of the
population. He even declared that he was no longer a Catholic
but a member of the Christian Evangelical Council.
In his speeches, Chavez hardly flees from religious themes and
frequently quotes from the Bible. Bizarrely, he also tells his
supporters in speeches that Christ was an anti-imperialist.
Chavez’s rhetoric, not surprisingly, has alarmed the Catholic
clergy. Freites believes that Chavez’s long-term goal is to
“create a parallel Church…that identifies with the revolutionary
While such views may be exaggerated, it is impossible to
overlook religious overtones in everyday Venezuelan politics.
During my visit to a government housing project in Ciudad
Miranda outside Caracas, I spotted banners on the street
reading, “With Chavez, Christian Socialism.”
Nikolas Kozloff is the author of /_Hugo Chavez: Oil, Politics,
and the Challenge to the U.S._/
(St. Martin’s, 2006). He is currently working on another book,
South America’s New Direction, about the political realignment
in South America (also to be released by St. Martin’s in 2008).
Tomgram: The Seymour Hersh Mystery
This post can be found at http://www.tomdispatch.com/index.mhtml?pid=174764
A Journalist Writing Bloody Murder?
*And No One Notices*
By Tom Engelhardt
Let me see if I've got this straight. Perhaps two years ago, an
"informal" meeting of "veterans" of the 1980s Iran-Contra scandal --
holding positions in the Bush administration -- was convened by Deputy
National Security Advisor Elliott Abrams
"lessons learned" from that labyrinthine, secret, and illegal
arms-for-money-for-arms deal involving the Israelis, the Iranians, the
Saudis, and the Contras of Nicaragua, among others -- and meant to evade
the Boland Amendment, a congressionally passed attempt to outlaw Reagan
administration assistance to the anti-communist Contras. In terms of
getting around Congress, the Iran-Contra vets concluded, the complex
operation had been a success -- and would have worked far better if the
CIA and the military had been kept out of the loop and the whole thing
had been run out of the Vice President's office.
Subsequently, some of those conspirators, once again with the financial
support and help of the Saudis (and probably the Israelis and the
Brits), began running a similar operation, aimed at avoiding
congressional scrutiny or public accountability of any sort, out of Vice
President Cheney's office. They dipped into "black pools of money,"
possibly stolen from the billions of Iraqi oil dollars that have never
been accounted for
American occupation began. Some of these funds, as well as Saudi ones,
were evidently funneled through the embattled, Sunni-dominated Lebanese
government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora to the sort of Sunni /jihadi/
groups ("some sympathetic to al-Qaeda") whose members might normally
fear ending up in Guantanamo and to a group, or groups, associated with
the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood.
All of this was being done as part of a "sea change" in the Bush
administration's Middle Eastern policies aimed at rallying friendly
Sunni regimes against Shiite Iran, as well as Hezbollah, Hamas, and the
Syrian government -- and launching secret operations to undermine, roll
back, or destroy all of the above. Despite the fact that the Bush
administration is officially at war with Sunni extremism in Iraq (and in
the more general Global War on Terror), despite its support for the
largely Shiite government, allied to Iran, that it has brought to power
in Iraq, and despite its dislike for the Sunni-Shiite civil war in that
country, some of its top officials may be covertly encouraging a far
greater Sunni-Shiite rift in the region.
Imagine. All this and much more (including news of U.S. military
border-crossings into Iran, new preparations that would allow George W.
Bush to order a massive air attack on that land with only 24-hours
notice, and a brief window this spring when the staggering power of four
U.S. aircraft-carrier battle groups might be available to the President
in the Persian Gulf) was revealed, often in remarkable detail, just over
a week ago in "The Redirection,"
a Seymour Hersh piece in the /New Yorker/. Hersh, the man who first
broke the My Lai story in the Vietnam era, has never been off his game
since. In recent years, from the Abu Ghraib scandal
consistently released explosive news about the plans and acts of the
Imagine, in addition, that Hersh went on /Democracy Now!
Matthews/, and /CNN Late Edition/
Blitzer/ and actually elaborated on these claims and revelations, some
of which, on the face of it, seem like potentially illegal and
impeachable offenses, if they do indeed reach up to the Vice President
Now imagine the response: Front-page headlines; editorials nationwide
calling for answers, Congressional hearings, or even the appointment of
a special prosecutor to look into some of the claims; a raft of op-ed
page pieces by the nation's leading columnists asking questions,
demanding answers, reminding us of the history of Iran-Contra; bold
reporters from a recently freed media standing up in White House and
Defense Department press briefings to demand more information on Hersh's
various charges; calls in Congress for hearings and investigations into
why the people's representatives were left so totally out of this loop.
All I can say is: If any of this happened, I haven't been able to
discover it. As far as I can tell, no one in the mainstream even blinked
on the Iran-Contra angle or the possibility that a vast, secret Middle
Eastern operation is being run, possibly illegally and based on stolen
funds and Saudi money, out of the Vice President's office. You can
certainly find a few pieces
or reports about, "The Redirection" -- all focused only on the possible
build-up to a war with Iran -- and the odd wire-service mention
nothing Earth-shaking or eye-popping; not, in fact, a single obvious
editorial or op-ed piece in the mainstream; no journalistic questions
publicly asked of the administration; no Congressional cries of horror;
no calls anywhere for investigations or hearings on any of Hersh's
revelations, not even an expression of fear somewhere that we might be
seeing Iran-Contra, the sequel, in our own moment.
This, it seems to me, adds up to a remarkable non-response to claims
that, if true, should gravely concern Congress, the media, and the
nation. Let's grant that Hersh's /New Yorker/ pieces generally arrive
unsourced and filled with anonymuous officials ("a former senior
intelligence official," "a U.S. government consultant with close ties to
Israel"). Nonetheless, Hersh has long mined his sources in the
Intelligence Community and the military to striking effect. Undoubtedly,
the lack of sourcing makes it harder for other reporters to follow-up,
though when it comes to papers like the /Washington Post/ and the /New
York Times/, you would think that they might have Washington sources of
their own to query on Hersh's claims. And, of course, editorial pages,
columnists, op-ed editors, Congressional representatives, and reporters
at administration news briefings don't need to do any footwork at all to
raise these subjects. (Consider, for instance, the White House press
April 10, 2006, where a reporter did indeed ask a question based on an
earlier Hersh /New Yorker/ piece.) As far as I can tell, there haven't
even been denunciations of Hersh's report or suggestions anywhere that
it was inaccurate or off-base. Just the equivalent of a giant,
collective shrug of the media's rather scrawny shoulders.
Since the response to Hersh's remarkable piece has been so tepid in
places where it should count, let me take up just a few of the many
issues his report raises.
*"Meddling" in Iran*
For at least a month now, our press and TV news have been full to the
brim with mile-high headlines and top-of-the-news stories recounting
(and, more rarely, disputing) Bush administration claims of Iranian
"interference" or "meddling" in Iraq (where U.S. military spokesmen
regularly refer to the Iraqi insurgents they are fighting as "anti-Iraq
forces"). Since Hersh published "Plan B"
in the /New Yorker/ in June 2004 in which he claimed that the Israelis
were "running covert operations inside Kurdish areas of Iran and Syria,"
he has been on the other side of this story.
In "The Coming Wars"
of 2005, he first reported that the Bush administration, like the
Israelis, had been "conducting secret reconnaissance missions inside
Iran at least since" the summer of 2004. In April of 2006 in "The Iran
he reported that the Bush administration was eager to put the "nuclear
option" on the table in any future air assault on Iranian nuclear
facilities (and that some in the Pentagon, fiercely opposed, had at
least temporarily thwarted planning for the possible use of nuclear
bunker-busters in Iran). He also reported that American combat units
were "on the ground" in Iran, marking targets for any future air attack,
and quoted an unnamed source as claiming that they were also "working
with minority groups in Iran, including the Azeris, in the north, the
Baluchis, in the southeast, and the Kurds, in the northeast. The troops
?are studying the terrain, and giving away walking-around money to
ethnic tribes, and recruiting scouts from local tribes and shepherds,'
the consultant said. One goal is to get ?eyes on the ground'? The
broader aim, the consultant said, is to ?encourage ethnic tensions' and
undermine the regime."
In "The Redirection," he now claims that, in search of Iranian rollback
and possible regime change, "American military and special-operations
teams have escalated their activities in Iran to gather intelligence
and, according to a Pentagon consultant on terrorism and the former
senior intelligence official, have also crossed the [Iranian] border in
pursuit of Iranian operatives from Iraq." In his /Democracy Now!/ radio
interview, he added: "[W]e have been deeply involved with Azeris and
Baluchis and Iranian Kurds in terror activities inside the country? and,
of course, the Israelis have been involved in a lot of that through
Kurdistan? Iran has been having sort of a series of backdoor fights, the
Iranian government, because? they have a significant minority
population. Not everybody there is a Persian. If you add up the Azeris
and Baluchis and Kurds, you're really 30-some [%], maybe even 40% of the
In addition, he reported that "a special planning group has been
established in the offices of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, charged with
creating a contingency bombing plan for Iran that can be implemented,
upon orders from the President, within twenty-four hours," and that its
"new assignment" was to identify not just nuclear facilities and
possible regime-change targets, but "targets in Iran that may be
involved in supplying or aiding militants in Iraq."
Were there nothing else in Hersh's most recent piece, all of this would
still have been significant news -- if we didn't happen to live on a
one-way imperial planet in which Iranian "interference" in (American)
Iraq is an outrage, but secret U.S. operations in, and military plans to
devastate, Iran are your basic ho-hum issue. Our mainstream news
purveyors don't generally consider the issue of our "interference" in
Iran worthy of a great deal of reporting, nor do our pundits consider it
a topic worthy of speculation or consideration; nor, in a Congress where
leading Democrats have regularly outflanked the Bush administration in
hawkish positions on Iran, is this likely to be much of an issue.
You can read abroad
American operations out of Pakistan and Afghanistan aimed at unsettling
Iranian minorities like the Baluchis and about possible operations
among Arab minorities in southern Iran near the Iraqi border -- the
Iranians seem to blame the British, whose troops are in southern Iraq,
for some of this (a charge vociferously denied
embassy in Tehran) -- but it's not a topic of great interest here.
In recent months, in fact, several bombs
minority regions of Iran. These explosions have been reported here, but
you would be hard-pressed to find out what the Iranians had to say about
them, and the possibility that any of these might prove part of a U.S.
(or Anglo-American) covert campaign to destabilize the Iranian
fundamentalist regime basically doesn't concern the news mind here, even
though past history says it should. After all, many of our present
Middle Eastern problems can be indirectly traced back to the
Anglo-American ur-moment in the Middle East, the successful
CIA-British-intelligence plot in 1953 to oust
Mohammad Mossadegh (who had nationalized the Iranian oil industry) and
install the young Shah in power.
After all, in the 1980s, in the anti-Soviet war in Afghanistan, the CIA
(with the eager connivance of the Pakistanis and the Saudis) helped
organize, arm, and fund the Islamic extremists who would someday turn on
us for terror campaigns on a major scale. As Steve Coll
superb book /Ghost Wars/, for instance, "Under ISI [Pakistani
intelligence] direction, the /mujahedin/ received training and malleable
explosives to mount car-bomb and even camel-bomb attacks in
Soviet-occupied cities, usually designed to kill Soviet soldiers and
commanders. [CIA Director William] Casey endorsed these despite the
qualms of some CIA career officers."
early 1990s, the Iraq National Accord, an organization run by the CIA's
Iraqi exile of choice, Iyad Allawi, evidently planted, under the
Agency's direction, car bombs and explosive devices in Baghdad
(including in a movie theater) in a fruitless attempt to destabilize
Saddam Hussein's regime. The New York Times
its front page in June 2004 (to no effect whatsoever), when Allawi was
the Prime Minister of American-occupied Iraq.
Who knows where the funding, training, and equipment for the bombings in
Iran are coming from -- but, at a moment when charges that the Iranians
are sending into Iraq advanced IEDs, or the means to produce them, are
the rage, it seems a germane subject.
In this country, it's a no-brainer that the Iranians have no right
whatsoever to put their people, overtly or covertly, into neighboring
Iraq, a country which, back in the 1980s, invaded Iran and fought a
bitter eight-year war with it, resulting in perhaps a million
casualties; but it's just normal behavior for the Pentagon to have
traveled halfway across the planet to dominate the Iraqi military,
garrison Iraq with a string of vast permanent bases, build the largest
embassy on the planet in Baghdad's Green Zone, and send
special-operations teams (and undoubtedly CIA teams as well) across the
Iranian border, or to insert them in Iran to do "reconnaissance" or even
to foment unrest among its minorities. This is the definition of an
Let's leave Iran now and briefly take up a couple of other matters
highlighted in "The Redirection" that certainly should have raised the
odd red flag and pushed the odd alarm button here at home far more than
his Iranian news (which did at least get some attention):
it raise no eyebrows that, under the leadership of Elliot Abrams (who in
the Iran-Contra period pleaded guilty to two counts of unlawfully
withholding information from Congress and was later pardoned), such a
meeting was held? Does no one want to confirm that this happened? Does
no one want to know who attended? Iran-Contra alumni in the Bush
administration at one time or another included former Reagan National
Security Advisor John Poindexter
recently left his post as Director of National Intelligence in order to
avoid the twenty-first century version of Iran-Contra -- "No way. I'm
not going down that road again, with the N.S.C. [National Security
Council] running operations off the books, with no [presidential]
finding."), Roger Noriega
and Robert Gates. Did the Vice President or President sit in? Was either
of them informed about the "lessons drawn"? Were the Vice President's
right-hand men, I. Lewis Libby and/or David Addington in any way
involved? Who knows? In the Iran-Contra affair, the Reagan
administration drew together the seediest collection of freelance arms
dealers, intelligence agents, allies, and -- in the case of Ayatollah
Khomeini's Iranian regime -- sworn enemies in what can only be called
"amateur hour" at the White House. Now, it looks like the Bush
administration is heading down a similar path and, given its previous
"amateur hour" reputation in foreign policy, imagine what this is likely
2. /Jihadis as Proxies:/ Using /jihadis/ as American proxies
struggle to rollback Iran -- with the help of the Saudis -- should have
rung a few bells somewhere in American memory as another been-there,
done-that moment. In the 1980s -- on the theory that my enemy's enemy is
my friend -- the fundamentalist Catholic CIA Director William Casey came
to believe that Islamic fundamentalists could prove tight and
trustworthy allies in rolling back the Soviet Union. In Afghanistan, as
a result, the CIA, backed by the Saudis royals, who themselves
represented an extremist form of Sunni Islam, regularly favored and
funded the most extreme of the /mujahedeen/ ready to fight the Soviets.
Who can forget the results? Today, according to Hersh, the Saudis are
reassuring key figures in the administration that this time they have
the /jihadis/ to whom funds are flowing under control. No problem. If
you believe that, you'll believe anything.
3. /Congress in the Dark/: Hersh claims that, with the help of Saudi
National Security Adviser Prince Bandar bin Sultan (buddy to the Bushes
and Dick Cheney's close comrade-in-arms), the people running the
black-ops programs out of Cheney's office have managed to run circles
around any possibility of Congressional oversight, leaving the
institution completely "in the dark," which is undoubtedly exactly where
Congress wanted to be for the last six years. Is this still true? The
non-reaction to the Hersh piece isn't exactly encouraging.
To summarize, if Hersh is to be believed -- and as a major journalistic
figure for the last near-40 years he certainly deserves to be taken
seriously -- the Bush administration seems to be repeating the worst
mistakes of the Reagan administration /and/ of the anti-Soviet war in
Afghanistan, which led inexorably to the greatest acts of blowback in
our history. Given what we already know about the Bush administration,
Americans should be up nights worrying about what all this means now as
well as down the line. For Congress, the media, and Americans in
general, this report should have been not just a wake-up call, but a
shout for an all-nighter with NoDoz.
In my childhood, one of the Philadelphia papers regularly ran cartoon
ads for itself in which some poor soul in a perilous situation -- say,
clinging to the ledge of a tall building -- would be screaming for help,
while passersby were so engrossed in the paper that they didn't even
look up. Now, we have the opposite situation. A journalist essentially
writing bloody murder in a giant media and governmental crowd. In this
case, no one in the mainstream evidently cares -? not yet anyway -- to
pay the slightest attention. It seems that there's a crime going on and
no one gives a damn. Think Kitty Genovese
on a giant scale.
/Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a
regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the
American Empire Project
most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch
Interviews with American Iconoclasts and Dissenters
(Nation Books), the first collection of Tomdispatch interviews./
Copyright 2007 Tom Engelhardt
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