Empire: Unchanging motives, changing means

Originally published October 2015

“American exceptionalism is a myth. Superpowers do not promote democracy, not at home and certainly not abroad. Democracy requires popular sovereignty — power to govern without external control — the antithesis of empire.”
— Jan K. Black PhD.

In the recently released ‘The WikiLeaks Files: The World According to US Empire’ (Verso Books), the first large scale & comprehensive analysis of the State Department diplomatic cables leaked by Chelsea Manning is made available to the public, illuminating the machinations of an Empire accustomed to denial of its own existence.

At the time of Cablegate’s original release in November 2010 there was a massive counter campaign by the State Department & expanded state (i.e. allied establishment media) to minimise impact of the material. We saw deliberate focus placed on certain comic & trivial stories, or alternatively promotion of cables which could actually advance U.S. interests.

The disingenuous assertions that the enormous leak contained “nothing we didn’t already already know”, or that it simply “demonstrated US officials doing their jobs.” were deployed frequently and deliberately in order to close down public debate on its actual content. This did succeed in convincing many that the trove of 250,000 files was not worth searching at all.

Finally the daunting work of making sense of these documents has been carried out by a team of geopolitical experts, in a significant publication which demonstrates once and for all that the establishment response to the leak was a falsehood, and that Cablegate remains an unprecedented and invaluable public & journalistic resource.

Bolivia: A thwarted Coup

“The United States seems destined by Providence to plague Latin America with misery in the name of liberty.”
— Simon Bolivar

In South America, amongst the biggest revelations has been the evidence of plans to overthrow Bolivian president Evo Morales, involving U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) which appear to have also included a “Plan B” of the leader’s death, as detailed in this piece.

A USAID report from 2007 stated that its Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) ‘had approved 101 grants for $4,066,131 to help departmental governments operate more strategically.’ Funds also went to local indigenous groups that were ‘opposed to Evo Morales’ vision for indigenous communities.’

This reflects a long-game strategy of 4G war or ‘War by other means’, namely using financial support to foment splits between local administrations — dividing regions, social groups, movements and/or classes sympathetic to the target government.

The Office of Transition Initiatives by its own PR-friendly definition “supports U.S. foreign policy objectives by helping local partners advance peace and democracy. OTI provides fast, flexible, short-term assistance targeted at key political transition and stabilization needs. Strategically designed for each unique situation, OTI has laid the foundation for long-term development by promoting reconciliation, jumpstarting local economies, supporting emerging independent media, and fostering peace and democracy through innovative programming. In countries transitioning from authoritarianism to democracy, from violence to peace, or following a fragile peace, OTI’s programs serve as catalysts for positive political change.” More information on the activities of OTI can be found in this article — “The Office of Transition Initiatives and the Subversion of Societies”.

Juan Ramon Quintana, Bolivia’s minister of the presidency, emphasized the U.S. Embassy in Bolivia’s direct role in the plot according to teleSUR: “In 2007 the embassy of the United States installed a Center of Operations in order to execute a civil-prefectural coup to apply plan A, which was the coup, and plan B, which was the assassination.”

Heading USAID in Bolivia at this time was current U.S. Ambassador to Brasil, Liliana Ayalde. She, along with then Ambassador to Bolivia Philip Goldberg were expelled from the country upon revelation of this attempt to overthrow the democratically elected Morales.

Morales also expelled U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents from Bolivia, accusing the DEA of inciting the autonomy-seeking opposition in eastern provinces.

“Latin America as a whole is now, for good or ill, experiencing new kinds of popular mobilization and new levels of instability. Consequently, it has much to fear from an increasingly ambitious US government; but it is demonstrating in many ways a new willingness to stand its ground and generating new strategies for doing so. “
— Jan K. Black PhD

The Role of USAID

USAID has had some unusual strategies exposed in recent years, and its relationship with U.S. intelligence requires no further detailing here.

Associated Press published in 2014 a story called “U.S. Secretly Created ‘Cuban Twitter’ to Stir Unrest.” It detailed how USAID created a fake “Twitter” to undermine the Cuban government. The communications network was called “ZunZuneo” — slang for a Cuban hummingbird’s tweet. It was reportedly built with secret shell companies financed through foreign banks. According to AP, the United States planned to use the platform to spread political content that might trigger a Cuban Spring, or, as one USAID document put it, “renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society.”

Those present in Brasil at the time could be forgiven for seeing parallels to what occurred on social media in the months prior to the June 2013 protests.

Another USAID programme sought to infiltrate the Cuban hip-hop scene in order to encourage discontent amongst youth.

Beyond these instances, the agency was also found to have set up a covert operation which recruited other Latin Americans to provoke political change in Cuba under the cover of a HIV prevention programme.

One Brasil-based journalist lamented these disclosures, fearing they might give credence to ‘conspiracy theories’ about the U.S. behaviour elsewhere in Latin America. This cable openly discussing USAID/OTI regime change strategies in a neighbouring country makes a mockery of that position. Meanwhile another commentator derided literal accusations from supporters of Rousseff that foreign journalists “all work for the CIA”. This was a straw-man, as they do frequently and openly moonlight for NGOs & are involved/aligned with press associations, foundations & programmes which are supported directly or indirectly by USAID, if not actually working for the State Department itself.

Maintenance of such professional pretence is at the root of much that is wrong with Northern coverage of Brasil & Latin America as a whole, and indeed mainstream Anglophone media must demonstrate its contemporary worth, credibility & independence by properly scrutinising the geopolitics & hegemony at play in the region.

In the updated epilogue of her book ‘United States penetration of Brasil’ in a section entitled Unchanging motives, changing means — Academic Jan K. Black PhD takes a look at the evolving strategies of Empire in Latin America. In it she explains “Competition for imperial control of the twenty-first century comes not only from an emerging superpower — China, to which the U.S. has become deeply indebted — but also from the stateless creditor cartel, the black-hole density of corporate economic power that propels what has become known as neoliberal globalization. The appearance of coincidence between that “market power” and US political and military power does not mean that global economic power is at the service of US Empire, but rather that US power is at the service of the creditor cartel.”

Lawfare

Barack Obama, a constitutional lawyer, has been proud to call the United States ‘A Nation of Laws’. In recent times the export of its proprietary Rule of Law has been more pronounced than ever, from DEA extraditions & the ‘Foreign Corrupt Practices Act’ all the way through to the propaganda coup that was extra-territorial prosecution of unpopular FIFA officials. The USDOJ joining a perceived “international fight against corruption” has joined the “weaponisation of human rights” in the playbook of contemporary U.S. statecraft. This long arm of the law reached Brasil, where the DOJ is collaborating on Operation Lava Jato (Car Wash) — a massive anti-corruption case which some suggest could dismantle the political party system.

Paraguay: A Judicial/Parliamentary Coup

Following expulsion from Paraguay, Liliana Ayalde crossed the border, promoted to position of U.S. Ambassador to Paraguay, amidst another Coup plot, already brewing.

After a protracted constitutional battle, Leftist president Fernando Lugo was eventually removed from office in June 2012 by the opposition-controlled Senate which accused him of encouraging land seizures and “failing to maintain social harmony”.

Federico Franco, a former ally turned critic, was sworn in as the country’s new president, later to be replaced by the elected Horacio Cartes of the right-wing Colorado Party, which ruled Paraguay for 61 years prior to the election of Lugo.

The impeachment motion accused Lugo of mistakes over a forced land eviction in which seven police officers and at least nine landless peasant farmers were killed. The farmers were part of a group occupying land owned by a politician from the Colorado Party who claimed the occupiers were armed and trained by leftist groups aided by Lugo, without evidence.

Adrienne Pine, a professor of anthropology at the American University and a Latin American specialist observed to AJI: “It is clear that this was modelled after the Honduran coup in 2009; the same kind of rhetoric is being used and the same kind of powerful oligarchic figures are behind it …. It’s a very shady justification and one that shows that allowing the Honduran coup to stand has paved the way for other similar procedural coups.”

Taken from this period this cable from Ambassador Ayalde conveys insider perspective on the then imminent impeachment of Fernando Lugo, a script which may seem alarmingly familiar to Brasil observers.

Yet the language is more often than not overtly sympathetic to Lugo’s plight.

One of the hypotheses behind possible outside motivation for taking down Lugo, seen as allied with Venezuela’s then president Chavez & Bolivia’s Morales, was that a potential Paraguay veto of Venezuela’s ascension to full Mercosur/Unasur membership was considered the easiest route to prevent further consolidation of the bodies, which were/are perceived as a threat to U.S. interests in the region, outflanking the OAS.

This earlier cable from former secretary of state Condoleeza Rice concerns ‘reporting & collection needs’ in Paraguay ahead of Lugo’s election, and indicates the importance placed upon the small South American nation. It requests amongst other things, financial information, Iris scans & DNA for Fernando Lugo and the other candidates.

This later cable from Rice’s eventual replacement, Hillary Clinton discusses the deployment of U.S. Special Forces in Paraguay, on the premise of a training programme for its Military Police.

Brasil: A Coup in Progress

Ayalde arrived in Brasil in August 2013, replacing Thomas Shannon, who moved to the position of Counselor of the United States Department of State, having prior to Brasil been Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs. Against the tail end of widely reported unrest, as new Ambassador she published an article in newspaper Folha de Sao Paulo urging a new era of cooperation between the two countries. In it she acknowledged the difficult moment in relations between them following revelations by Edward Snowden that Brasil was being surveilled in a manner suggesting adversary, not ally.

We all know what has happened since; a narrower election result, an opposition refusing to accept defeat, using their allies to pursue every desperate avenue to power they can find, and at this moment Dilma Rousseff, like Fernando Lugo before her, faces the threat of impeachment despite there being no genuine legal basis for it. Her enemies at home and abroad must hope that a sustained mediatic campaign stretching back years has created the impression of a fait-accompli where she is forced to resign with or without proof of any wrongdoing on her part — something not even mainstream opponents accuse her of. Given her insistent portrayal in foreign media as a ‘Former Marxist Guerilla’ associated with corruption, there’ll surely be little objection from the ‘international community’.

With Cablegate covering only until mid 2010, we lack the same level of insight into recent events in Brasil, but we get a hint or two of foreign policy direction from cables in and around the 2010 election.

In 2010, the soon to be defeated opposition candidate Jose Serra was enthusiastically received in this cable for his perceived opposition to leftist governments in the region. Serra warned U.S. officials of the “radicalism” of Dilma Rousseff, and promised a foreign policy more in tune with the United States.

He also made various commitments to further reduce state Oil company Petrobras’s control of Pre-Salt exploitation, moves which were seen as potentially favouring U.S. producers. This was discussed in a previous cable — Can the Oil Industry beat back the Pre-Salt law?

Elsewhere Chevron officials pleaded for PMDB to be given their own Oil Company, something which may amuse Brazilians and observers alike.

Further back — prior to the Lula/Dilma era — the 1997 re-election of Fernando Henrique Cardoso was surrounded by some fascinating circumstances, with evidence suggesting interference in the election, documented here and here.

Ascension of Hillary Clinton to Secretary of State coincided with the declaration which concluded the 2009 inaugural BRICS summit in Yekaterinburg, bringing Brasil further into the Sino-Russian sphere of influence and paving the way for a new development bank to rival the IMF and World Bank, part of what has been coined “The De-Dollarisation” of the world.

This August 2009 Cable, a scene-setter for National Security Adviser General James Jones’ visit discusses these topics as well as acknowledging some of the then (Pre-Snowden) most popular Anti-U.S. sentiments found amongst Brazilians:

“A small segment of the Brazilian public, including the elite, accepts the notion that the United States has a campaign to subjugate Brazil economically, undermine it culturally, and militarily occupy the Amazon. Such attitudes and beliefs have influenced Brazilian reporting and commentary on issues such as the reestablishment of the U.S. Navy’s Fourth Fleet (which has been characterized as a threat to Brazil’s offshore pre-salt finds) and U.S. activities in the Amazon.”
— State Department Cable.

This passage indicates the supreme importance placed on control of message. Observers on social media can see for themselves the massaging of the public narrative, a mantra-like repetition often between nodding North American commentators that there is absolutely no U.S. involvement in South American affairs — a casual repetition of State Department’s official line. And to be fair, querying this publicly could well mean a seat on the next plane home.

In an infamous 2006 BBC interview, journalist Andrew Marr challenged linguist & political scientist Noam Chomsky to explain how he can know that Marr is self-censoring, to which Chomsky responds, “I’m sure you believe everything you’re saying, but if you believed something different you wouldn’t be sitting where you’re sitting.”

However, Brasil-based media operators are occasionally candid about awareness of United States foreign policy objectives in the region:

“There’s an unwritten understanding amongst Foreign Correspondents that the U.S. wants PSDB in power.”
— Foreign Correspondent, São Paulo, 22/6/2013.

And the question of “foreign” involvement gets more complicated with entry onto the scene of private U.S. foundations, some of which receive donations via USAID/NDI/NED or proxies. These mostly conservative think-tanks have been found, amongst other activities, to be funding the high profile right-wing protest groups calling for Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment this year, through their associated organisations in South America.

A trope within this continent-wide “Libertarian” propaganda campaign is the framing of anti-imperialism as naivety, an excuse for failure, or evidence of a Latin American victim complex.

As seen in Bolivia, foreign ‘support’ for social movements often means their bureaucratisation as a route to their division where expedient & Brasil is no stranger to this, but conversely when those movements represent an apparent threat rather than bulwark for the government, they also enjoy the most support. Being counter-intuitive, foreign support for left groups is far harder to detect.

Despite a chilling statement by Army Commander Gen. Eduardo Villas Boas regarding the Military’s concern about a potential ‘Social Crisis’, Coup d’etat’s have long ceased to be predicated on tanks rolling down the street, and an essential part of the modern coup is in extinguishing every indication of a state or non-state actor’s involvement using media assets & an aligned and/or patriotic commentariat. This happened in Paraguay, where the ongoing story was obfuscated quite successfully in English right up until Lugo was gone.

But Brasil is not Paraguay, it’s approximately 30 times the size & population, with exponentially more information. Dilma Rousseff herself joked, during a recent high profile diplomatic effort aimed at resetting relations with the United States, that they didn’t need foreign-led coups as they had enough ‘Golpistas’ of their own. This was a particularly self-depreciating remark from someone tortured for fighting the U.S. supported dictatorship in the early 1970s.

Foreign connivance with local elites is how Latin American coups invariably work, and support comes in a variety of forms — control of information being one of them. Pointing towards existing local plots should not be allowed to distract from the hemispheric & regional picture.

As for the current (now outgoing) U.S. Ambassador, whatever their involvement or personal view, they must surely be aware that three successive coups on your watch is not a good look.