“A riot is the language of the unheard.” -Martin Luther King 1966
Civil unrest is often the only tool available for people without voices. From the United States, to Berlin, to India to Moscow, popular movements have arisen and taken to the streets for a cause. Sometimes they topple empires. More often, they are stomped into the footnotes of history.
Lately, as totalitarian states repress such movements with increasing brutality, dictators and yellow journalists are using an old narrative to silence dissent- “Anti-Imperialism.”
In the theater of the street protest, how a movement is perceived is critical to its success. The people clamor for freedom, or against unjust rule and the State survives by painting them as agitators, thugs or treasonous foreign agents. The tactic is as old as tyranny, and has been used the world over.
Within three contemporary struggles in particular, the slogan has become a buzzword for totalitarian governments that employ draconian counter-revolutionary tactics.
Venezuela is rocked by internal protests and a political struggle that has dragged on since January. The president, Nicolas Maduro finds himself increasingly isolated as well as increasingly dependent upon military and Venezuelan militia to cling to his office.
“Julia” was arrested in Caracas in September of 2017. Her crime? Sheltering fleeing protesters in her apartment during a brutal crackdown by Venezuelan security forces in which dozens were killed, and 4,500 arrested and tortured.
She spent two months in a Venezuelan prison witnessing rapes and physical violence committed by the guards as torture or simply for the enjoyment. Eventually her family raised enough money for the bribes to free her. She was never charged with a crime.
The Venezuelan struggle for freedom continues in spite of government death-squads that have murdered almost 7,000 dissidents, widespread torture of political prisoners, media censorship, ongoing blackouts and rampant corruption.
On the 16th of June in Hong Kong, 2 million people took to the streets in pro-democracy demonstrations against the extradition laws enforced by an increasingly aggressive mainland Chinese government. They are the largest protests China has seen since Tienanmen Square. And the regime response is becoming increasingly violent. On July 21st, a group of white-clad gangsters attacked students returning from a protest with pipes and bamboo canes. Terrified residents fled in panic as men suspected of being Triads hired by mainland China mercilessly beat protesters and bystanders alike.
It was a solemn reminder to Hong Kongers how protests are often quashed in the mainland. Threatened by a government known for strict censorship, obsessively controlling all aspects of social life and widespread repression against dissidents- the protesters returned the next day in force.
Since 2018, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega has been battling his own ongoing protests. Between 300 and 600 protesters have been killed by security forces and 80,000 people have fled the country, mostly to Costa Rica.
Protesters who have been detained describe systematic torture, forced starvation and punitive rapes at the hands of their captors. One recently released political prisoner told the Guardian that he endured extended torture sessions and over a year of solitary confinement. Others described acid baths, electric shocks and asphyxiation with plastic bags.
Ortega has outlawed public demonstrations and regularly uses infiltrators to seek out and detain protest movements from within, usually under a nebulous law that makes speaking out against his rule an “act of terrorism”.
The common thread
All three of these struggles against authoritarian government share a trait aside from the bloodshed and repression. All three refuse to admit that the uprisings against their authoritarian systems are legitimate. All try to paint themselves as victims, blaming foreign interference as the true culprit.
Their favorite phrase when they do so?
It’s worth taking a moment to examine the origins of that phrase. John A. Hobson described “Imperialism” as the inevitable result of a capitalist society that needed to continuously expand, creating exploitative colonies as it did so.
Hobson’s ideas were a critical influence on Lenin and Marx, who believed that this desire for growth was an inevitable corruption within any capitalist society. Lenin’s Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism was a manual on addressing inequality and oppression.
These ideas were carried into the Soviet Union, which often used the phrase “Anti-Imperialist”.
When the Soviet Union used the term however, they usually did so in support of revolutions in third-world countries with the aim of defeating capitalist and democratic societies. Ironically, this became a sort of economic colonization itself. They cultivated satellite vassals to expand their sphere of influence.
The USSR expanded into a totalitarian empire that both Hobson and Marx would likely have denounced. Stalin executed over a million Russian citizens, condemned millions more to labor camps where prisoners were effectively slaves, and oversaw a famine that killed roughly 5 million people.
During this period, Mao Tse-Tung was consolidating power in China. On Oct 1, 1949, he founded the People’s Republic of China. His totalitarian reign is estimated to have caused more than 40 million deaths, due to starvation, prison labor and mass executions.
In the Americas, the phrase “Imperialism” was popularized by Che Guevara more than Marx, who wrote:
Imperialism is a world system, the last stage of capitalism — and it must be defeated in a world confrontation. The strategic end of this struggle should be the destruction of imperialism. Our share, the responsibility of the exploited and underdeveloped of the world, is to eliminate the foundations of imperialism: our oppressed nations.
Gueverra’s personal evolution represents rather succinctly the evolution of the term “Anti-Imperialism”. As a young revolutionary, he described himself as fighting to free oppressed villagers, whom he wrote were “enslaved as if they were animals” by greedy capitalist systems.
Not long after his revolution in Cuba was successful however, he found himself in the position of executioner.
“The executions by firing squads are not only a necessity for the people of Cuba, but also an imposition of the people,” he said. He had no qualms about killing those he viewed as threats, prisoners or not.
To some ears in South America, which has a bloody past with American neo-colonization, CIA meddling, and rampant exploitation of natural resources , the term “Anti-Imperialist” carries cultural connotations that conjure a spirit of rebellion against oppressors.
But the meaning of the phrase has evolved. Much like for Mao, or Stalin, or Che in the later stages of his life: It is often be used to justify the actions of bloody and authoritarian governments. These governments are built around a cult of personality more than any ideology, though they still wrap themselves in the garments of revolution.
When they speak of struggling against “Imperialism” they are not speaking of liberating the proletariat. In Venezuela, Nicaragua and China the government is much more interested in controlling and oppressing the poor than in liberating them. No, rather they invoke the term to blame the United States for their internal failings.
The Revolutionary turned counter-revolutionary
“Viva la Revolution! Just not this one!”
All three of these States employ similar tactics to discredit the resistence, and all use violence to silence them. China has tried desperately to paint the uprising in Hong Kong as organized by the CIA.
Maduro regularly speaks of the “Glorious Bolivarian struggle against the Empire”. He appropriates the image of the South American leader Simon Bolivar to back up his lies, who broke the chains of Spanish colonization in South America.
Ortega, in Nicaragua, claims with predictable frequency that the uprisings ,which have been going on for over a year, are merely “interventionists for the Empire” who deserved to be jailed as traitors.
These three countries not only regularly promote bizarre conspiracy theories (such as “Capitalism killed life on Mars” and “A Parrot attack caused the blackouts in Venezuela”) to explain their failings, they have developed a global network of propagandists parading as journalists who support their ridiculous assertions.
Sowing the seeds of doubt
Russia Today, the state-owned propaganda machine of Vladamir Putin, has been heavily criticized globally as a prime-disseminator of anti-US and European conspiracy theories. It re-branded itself as “RT” in English and Spanish in it’s mission to support the governments it chooses, and incriminate those it does not.
RT is supported in this endeavor by a number of yellow-journalists who present themselves as leftists throughout the Americas- particularly Max Blumenthal of Greyzone and the online “leftist” Mintpress; which parrot RT propaganda, and regularly directly promote content from the Russian news organization.
These journalists, who bill themselves as “independent alternatives to corporate news” also reprint claims from state-owned newspapers in Venezuela, Nicaragua and China.
In February for example, Greyzone reported that a grocery store in a rich neighborhood in Caracas was proof that there was no hunger in Venezuela. At the time, I was talking to hundreds of immigrants on the border who told a different story.
Mintpress and Greyzone both regularly carry claims made in Russian media as well, such as the demonstrations in China are the result of American NGO’s, the CIA was delivering weapon shipments to Venezuela, or that the United states is actively trying to foment a coupe in Nicaragua. There is no proof for any of these claims.
Their coverage of other protests in the world is particularly telling. In Honduras for example, coverage of the protesters was very flattering. The reason? The Honduran government is supported by the United States.
Apparently the protests in Venezuela, Nicaragua, Moscow and China deserved to be stamped out bloodily - but the anti-US ones are worthy of support.
One could infer, since the list of countries that Russia supports is identical to the list of countries that receive favorable and even apologist coverage from this news coalition, that these journalists have an agenda.
That inference would be correct.
They are re-branding totalitarian governments as Davids’ versus the Goliath of a tyrannical America and NATO allies. And they refuse to let facts get in the way of that of that narrative.
Despite their claims, their decisions aren’t made from a position on the political spectrum of left or right. Russia would currently be described as very conservative. Rather, it is based solely on whom Russia supports in the world. Their coverage is reliably pro Assad in Syria, pro China in the West, and pro Russia under all circumstances.
They do a great disservice to the global community by providing cover to leaders who are guilty of horrific human rights violations, and their dishonest reporting is a stain on journalists the world over.
When you see their “Anti-Imperialist” claims, keep in mind that what they are in fact doing is white-washing the bloody deeds of tyrants by wrapping the oppressors in the language of the oppressed.
Joshua Collins is a freelance reporter covering the Venezuelan immigration from the border in Cucuta, Colombia. He is also the editor of Muros Invisibles.