[Scroll down for transcription of interview.]
Longtime activist and author Edward S. Herman was interviewed in Philadelphia on December 26, 2008. In this interview, Herman discusses the history of US influence in Latin America, and contextualizes this with what he says is an anti-democratic US policy throughout the Global South, designed to create a favorable investment climate for US corporations. He is asked how things are changing today with the popular election of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, and many other recently-elected leftist presidents in Latin America. Is the US losing power and influence? What will this mean for the future?
A longtime critic of US foreign policy in Latin America, Herman is a Professor Emeritus of Finance at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, and a contributor to Z Magazine since its founding in 1988. He is the author of numerous books, including his 1979 book, co-authored with Noam Chomsky, The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism: The Political Economy of Human Rights: Volume I, and Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media.
The Washington Connection has an interesting history. When Chomsky and Herman wrote its precursor, they found their analysis of U.S. foreign policy unwelcome by the corporate media establishment. Warner Modular Publications (at that time a subsidiary member of the Warner communications and entertainment conglomerate) was set to release it, but when the parent company learned about the book in the fall of 1973, it condemned its "unpatriotic" scholarship. William Sarnoff, a high officer of the parent company, explained why the book upset him so much, citing the book's "unpatriotic" argument that "the leadership in the United States, as a result of its dominant position and wide-ranging counter-revolutionary efforts, has been the most important single instigator, administrator, and moral and material sustainer of serious bloodbaths in the years that followed World War II."
As a result, Chomsky and Herman explain in The Washington Connection's introduction that:
Although 20,000 copies of the monograph were printed, and one (and the last) ad was placed in the New York Review of Books, Warner Publishing refused to allow distribution of the monograph at its scheduled publication date. Media advertising for the volume was cancelled and printed flyers that listed the monographs as one of the titles were destroyed. The officers of Warner Modular were warned that distribution of the document would result in their immediate dismissal.
Following this, Warner backed down a little, and formally agreed to not suppress the book: reaching a compromise with the lower-level publisher (who struggled for distribution of the monograph). However, before the compromise could be enacted the publishing house was shut down, with Warner selling the house's "stocks of publications and contracts to a small and quite unknown company" effectively killing the book.
Taking a closer look at the book's content, Chomsky and Herman argue that the "ideological pretense
that the United States is dedicated to furthering the cause of democracy and human rights throughout the world, though it may occasionally err in the pursuit of this objective" has been constructed to mask: "the basic fact
that the United States has organized under its sponsorship and protection a neo-colonial system of client states ruled mainly by terror and serving the interests of a small local and foreign business and military elite."
Focusing largely on US support for the Latin American "National Security States," Chomsky and Herman argue that U.S. corporations purposefully support (and in many instances create) fascist terror states in order to create a favorable investment climate. In exchange for a cut of the action, local military police-states brutally repress their population when it attempts to assert basic human rights. They write:
The proof of the pudding is that U.S. bankers and industrialists have consistently welcomed the "stability" of the new client fascist order, whose governments, while savage in their treatment of dissidents, priests, labor leaders, peasant organizers or others who threaten "order," and at best indifferent to the mass of the population, have been accommodating to large external interests. In an important sense, therefore, the torturers in the client state are functionaries of IBM, Citibank, Allis Chalmers and the U.S. government, playing their assigned roles in a system that has worked according to choice and plan.
Chomsky and Herman cite official statements by State Department planner George Kennan, to illustrate the mindset behind US policy in Latin America and around the world. In 1948, Kennan wrote Policy Planning Study 23, stating that if the U.S. wanted to maintain (and expand) its position of world dominance, it could not truly respect human rights and democracy abroad. The document said:
We have about 50 percent of the world's wealth, but only about 6 percent of its population
In this situation we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships that will permit us to maintain this disparity
To do so we will have to dispense with sentimentality and daydreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives
We should cease to talk about vague and
unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of living standards and democratization."
Kennan elaborated on this concept in a 1950 briefing of U.S. ambassadors to Latin American countries. Of prime importance was to prevent the spreading of the idea "that governments are responsible for the well being of their people." To combat the proliferation of this idea, Kennan argued that "we should not hesitate before police repression by the local government
It is better to have a strong regime in power than a liberal one if it is indulgent and relaxed and penetrated by Communist."
Hans Bennett /
Upside Down World: Please give some background on your 1979
book, co-authored with Noam Chomsky: The Washington Connection and
Third World Fascism: The Political Economy of Human Rights: Volume I.
Herman: There was an outfit called Warner Modular that
was a division of the early Warner Publishing House. We had a
little document called "Blood Baths in Reality and in Myth,"
and it was mostly about Indochina, the Vietnam War and Indonesia. Our
argument was that the really big blood bath was the one that we
brought to Vietnam, which killed maybe 4 or 5 million people. And of
course in Indonesia we supported Suharto taking over at the cost of
maybe a million people being killed.
But the media of course
have never called these "blood baths," so we wanted to
write a little book telling people about the real blood bath and the
people responsible for it.
But the owners, the Warner people
up top got wind of this thing, and before the thing actually could be
published they seized it, destroyed it, and they made it impossible
to publish it. And actually Warner Modular, the little affiliate, was
closed down very quickly. So it was a beautiful case of suppression
by a big media corporation.
Then Chomsky and I, after a few
years, decided to enlarge it. We actually enlarged it to about 5-10
times the original, and put out this book, The Washington
Connection - which had a partner volume on Indochina alone called
"After the Cataclysm."
mainstream media presents the idea that the US is trying to help the
third world, particularly to fight poverty and promote democracy.
idea that the United States in the third world is sort of a
charitable or benevolent operation is straight out of Orwell or maybe
out of Kafka, because we're not do-gooders in the third world. Our
foreign policy is dictated by the demands of the powerful actors who
are really the transnational corporations and the banks. What they
want is a favorable environment of investment.
for them is that after the second world war, a lot of the colonial
areas--like Indonesia and Indochina--were freed of colonial
oppression. But [their new governments] were led by nationalists and
people who were concerned about their own people, and that wasn't
what we wanted. We wanted them to have an open door, to let our
investors in and to take care of them--not to help trade unions
engage in welfare programs that would be very expensive.
wanted those societies to be oriented to serve us, which means a
favorable climate of investment. A favorable climate of investment
means weak or no trade unions. It means weak or no social welfare
expenditures. It means an open door to private investment, and to get
that is not very easy where you have nationalist regimes.
So what did we do? We
supported military regimes. We supported Suharto's overthrew of a
relatively democratic regime. And of course a very important case was
in Iran, where in 1953 we organized the overthrow of a democratic
government and put in the Shah of Iran as a dictator. And then of
course in Vietnam we could not tolerate the idea of Ho Chi Minh
ruling. He was a Vietnamese nationalist and even a communist. So we
intervened heavily. And of course in South Vietnam, we imported a man
from the US to run the place. He was a dictator!
In Latin America in the
70s and 80s we supported a huge array of dictatorships. It was a form
called the "national security state". And in Latin America,
10 different national security states were organized in the 60s, 70s,
and 80s, and we supported every one of them. Probably the most
important was Brazil, where a democratic government was overthrown
and a military regime, a torture regime, was imposed starting in
1964. And of course we supported Pinochet overthrowing the
democratically elected government [of Salvador Allende]. I mean it's
all over the place.
Another key incident was in Guatemala. We
had supported a dictator before the second world war. For YEARS we
supported this dictator! And then the Guatemalan people threw him out
and brought in a democratic government that lasted for 10 years.
Within those 10 years, that government passed laws permitting labor
union organization. In fact one famous book argues it was at that
point when this government allowed labor unions, that the US became
hostile to the government. Then they tried land reform and that was
it. The United Fruit Company was upset at this, and they had a lot of
influence in the US government. For 10 years there was a democratic
government in Guatemala and we couldn't stomach it! So we then helped
overthrow it and imposed a national security state in Guatemala.
Today, there is
essentially no longer a national security state in Guatemala, but the
remnants of that national security state are there. It's still a
state of fear and oppression. During the national security state
years, there were hundred of thousands killed, there was really a
genocidal policy carried out against the Mayan Indians. It was our
baby! We were supporting this gangster monstrous government! In fact
Amnesty International in 1980 put out a report titled "Government
by Political Murder," about Guatemala, which was really being
supported by us.
I'm just really starting to scratch the
surface, but we almost never supported a democratic government. We
overthrew many, and supported many gangster regimes because they
would always help us with investment rights. In fact, I wrote a book
in 1982 titled The Real Terror Network, and I argued that
really what we did in Latin America was have a joint venture system.
Our joint venture partners were these military governments, and many
of their officers where trained at The School of the Americas. They
would go back, and they would help overthrow the democratic
We would have a joint venture with them. We would
supply them with military equipment, would treat them nicely, and
make them feel important. [In Exchange] they would destroy labor
unions and create a friendly environment for investment.
surprisingly, in the 60s and 70s, one of their enemies was the
Catholic Church, which in Latin America became quite progressive. The
Church put out a series of documents that were crushing attacks on
the process of atomization of the people. The documents were called
"The Marginalization of the People" by the Catholic Church
in Latin America. That was really quite amazing.
So, our role
in creating a favorable climate in investment was truly sinister and
Recently we've been carrying out a claimed program of
"democracy promotion." We're promoting democracy!? Of
course the hypocrisy here is mind boggling even today because we
support Saudi Arabia's dictatorship and of course we support Mubarak
in Egypt who is a real tyrant. And, of course, for years in Pakistan
we mainly supported little military dictators who would do our
But there are governments that we wish to overthrow that
are democratic, but they are weakly democratic, like Milosevic. He
actually was relatively democratic compared to Saudi Arabia. But what
we could do is pretend to be really worried about non-democracy in
Yugoslavia, or the Ukraine, or any of these states bordering on the
Some of them are autocracies and some are
semi-democratic, but we can always play that we're supporting
democracy as we pour money in to support one faction that will
overthrow the existing government that maybe isn't working as clearly
as we want for our interest. What we want is for them to have an open
door, but also to become our clients in the military sense: let us
have bases, and [get them to] enter the North Atlantic Treaty
So we're fighting to get our own client state.
We "promote democracy", but at the same time we're
promoting dictatorships all over the place. And most of these so
called democracies that we're supporting, like the government of
Serbia now, is really a subservient government. The Kosovo government
is not going to be democratic at all!
The most democratic
government in Latin America, where we want to "promote
democracy," is Venezuela. Chavez has had election after
election. You have a press that has much more dissent than you find
in the United States of America. He has mass support, and the people
there are much more conscious of the political issues than in a
brainwashed country like the US.
But [Chavez] is hostile
towards US operations in Latin America. Therefore you have Joe Biden
calling him a dictator, although it's probably the most democratic
state in Latin America. And of course, compared to Saudi Arabia or
Egypt it's the model of democracy. In fact, it's much more democratic
in most important respects than the United States. But it's on our
democracy hit-list, and we have democracy promotions going on inside
Venezuela! What we need is democracy promotions in the US!
Given the election of Chavez and other leftist presidents, is
the United States losing power in Latin America?
Its power has certainly been weakened. Just the Chavez government
alone is a bad thorn in the flesh of the United States. Then you have
the governments of Bolivia, Ecuador and Argentina, even Paraguay and
Brazil, that are somewhat out of our influence, but not completely.
We still have this
enormous amount of military power, and we control a lot of the media
through groups friendly to the United States. Even in Venezuela the
mainstream media is very hostile toward Chavez, and very pro US and
imperialism. But, we've taken some hits partly because of our
preoccupation with Iraq and Afghanistan. We've somewhat neglected our
"responsibilities" toward Latin America, of keeping the
climate of investment really suitable to the needs of our
But the US is still important
there, and our military power is still tremendous. Most of these
countries are somewhat now out of our control, but they're still
somewhat respectful. Several of them are trying to maintain good
relationships with the US.
But they're still vulnerable. There
could be coups there. The old military that we sponsored for years
back still exists in these countries, and under some conditions they
could come back. God knows what we're going do with our huge
military. We might use it down there some day again.