President Barack Obama declared Venezuela an “extraordinary threat to national security” March 9 on the basis of alleged human rights abuses and political corruption.
This is part of an ongoing U.S. campaign of aggression toward Venezuela, which includes actively supporting right-wing Venezuelan opposition forces in fomenting chaos and instability in attempts to execute a coup against President Nicolas Maduro.
But while the most recent statements are consistent with the U.S. position on Venezuela, they are nevertheless hypocritical in the larger context of U.S. relations in Latin America. Human rights, democracy, and anti-corruption are supposedly core values of U.S. foreign policy, yet these buzzwords are reduced to little more than rhetorical tools for the U.S. in crafting its own narrative about the countries in the region to suit its own political and economic agenda.
“The U.S. puts itself in the position of arbiter and judge of human rights in Latin America. But it doesn’t hold itself accountable to the same standards,” said Miguel Tinker Salas, Professor of Latin American History at Pomona College.
For example, human rights is never portrayed as a serious issue for U.S. allies like Mexico and Honduras, both of which have high rates of murder, femicide, human rights abuses, and political repression.
A few case studies in hypocrisy demonstrate that the U.S. interest in portraying itself as the global champion of democracy and human rights is highly selective and politically strategic.
The Mexico Model
On January 6, Obama met with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto at the White House. Prior to the meeting, a senior administration official said Obama was looking to partner with Mexico to encourage “positive change in Cuba and reinforce democratic principles.”
Peña Nieto had been lauded by political and media elites in the United States. For example, the 47-year-old photogenic Mexican president adorned the cover of the February 24, 2014, edition Time Magazine with a gushing, accompanying story entitled “Saving Mexico”—a story that was much derided as a puff piece.
Seven months later Peña Nieto and his “new” Mexico would be unmasked. On Sept. 26, 43 students from the Ayotzinapa teacher training college were disappeared and six others killed in the Mexican State of Guerrero. This horrifying event sparked outrage across the country. Protests mushroomed across Mexico, not only to demand the safe return of and justice for the students, but for the indignation of the Mexican state’s involvement and complicity in this case and scores of others like it.
“U.S. militarization of Mexico creates extrajudicial processes, or legitimizes those, which deteriorate human rights. The people are disempowered and do not believe that the state can protect them or will do anything to actually follow through on investigations,” said Suyapa Portillo Villeda, Professor of Chicano/a-Latino/a Transnational Studies at Pitzer College. “The Ayotzinapa case is a blatant example of the collusion between state, local and national, engaging in extrajudicial processes that hurt people.”
The Peña Nieto administration’s lackluster, if not deliberately useless attempt to investigate the Ayotzinapa disappearances, which was apparently part of a plan between a local mayor and his wife and a local drug cartel, also serves as an example of the institutionalized impunity in Mexico.
“The grave case of the 43 students subjected to enforced disappearance in September 2014 in the state of Guerrero illustrates the serious challenges Mexico is facing in terms of the prevention, investigation and punishment for enforced disappearances and searching for the disappeared,” said the U.N. Committee on Enforced Disappearances last month.
This militarization of Mexico and the surge in state-violence over the last seven years is largely a result of the Merida Initiative, a U.S. policy modeled after Plan Colombia that militarized the drug war, and subsequently Mexican society.
“The drug war served to exacerbate what was already a human rights crisis in Mexico,” said Tinker Salas. “By promoting the drug war and helping to finance this bloody conflict, the U.S. becomes complicit in the violence and human rights crisis in Mexico.”
Since 2008, when Pena Nieto’s predecessor Felipe Calderon executed Plan Mexico, there have been over 42,000 people disappeared in the country, according to a 2013 report by Mexico’s National Human Rights Commision. In addition, the drug war has killed well over 100,000 Mexicans.
Between 2003 and 2013 Mexico has also seen a 600 percent increase in the incidences of torture, a September 2014 Amnesty International report revealed. One torture survivor told Amnesty, “Torture is out of control in Mexico and it doesn’t only affect the person suffering it, it hurts society as a whole.”
The United Nations sent its Special Rapporteur on Torture to Mexico last year on a 12-day fact finding mission to investigate allegations of torture. The U.N.’s Juan Mendez’s findings, published the same day as President Obama’s executive order declaring Venezuela a national security threat, revealed that torture in Mexico is not only common, but institutionalized.
People in Mexico are picked up and detained by authorities without any due process. Once in custody, authorities apply torture as punishment or to extract confessions or evidence. According to the report, people are subject to: “punches, kicks and beatings with sticks; electric shocks through the application of electrical devices such as cattle prods to their bodies, usually their genitals; asphyxiation with plastic bags; waterboarding; forced nudity; suspension by their limbs; threats and insults.”
When women are detained the torture becomes sexualized. Women detainees are subject to “forced nudity, insults and verbal humiliation, groping of breasts and genitals, insertion of objects in the genitals and repeated rape by multiple individuals.”
Mendez’s report says there is a climate of impunity that afflicts Mexico. In addition to ministerial and federal police and military involvement in torture, doctors, lawyers, and judges are at best indifferent, at worst complicit, in Mexico’s torture regime. This precludes the likelihood of torture victims ever seeing justice. In fact, as Amnesty International pointed out, between 2006 and 2013, Mexico’s Federal Attorney General office had a conviction rate of 0.006 percent, while impunity is remarkably even worse at the state level.
“There is a real human rights crisis in Mexico, one which the U.S. fails to acknowledge and one which it participates in,” said Tinker Salas.
The fact that Obama would hold Mexico up as a model for Cuba and turn to Peña Nieto for assistance in shaping Cuba’s politics, is just another testament to the rank hypocrisy of U.S. foreign policy.
Honduran Human Rights Nightmare Makes for U.S. Ally
In June 2009, a U.S.-backed coup ousted Honduras’ democratically-elected President Manuel Zelaya. Amid popular cries of unconstitutionality in Honduras and throughout the region, coup perpetrators, including four generals trained at the U.S.-based School of the Americas, installed a de facto coup regime that committed widespread human rights violations, after Zelaya was whisked out of the country.
Latin American leaders and regional bodies were quick to denounce the coup and demand the return to democracy. However, the Obama administration did not ask for Zelaya’s reinstatement and refused to label the crisis a military coup. Zelaya’s modest shift to the left, including raising the minimum wage, buying oil from Venezuela, and joining ALBA, ruffled right-wing feathers and gave fodder for framing Zelaya as “another Chavez” to justify his ouster.
In her memoir “Hard Choices,” former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton outlines the U.S. support for the coup and the need to “legitimize” the de facto regime as soon as possible in order to resolve the “dilemma” of Zelaya’s exile. Clinton wrote that along with her Mexican counterpart and others, “We strategized on a plan to restore order in Honduras and ensure that free and fair elections could be held quickly and legitimately, which would render the question of Zelaya moot.”
The subsequent elections could hardly be considered “free and fair” given the dictatorial, repressive conditions that preceded and accompanied them. In the immediate aftermath of the coup, grave human rights abuses, including arbitrary detentions, political repression, torture, and assassinations sharply escalated. The human rights situation has since continued to deteriorate, as reported by Rights Action, the International Federation of Human Rights, PEN International, Honduras’ COFADEH, and other organizations.
Since the coup, Honduras has notoriously become known as the “murder capital of the world.” Violence has indeed soared, but it’s not a coincidence. Rather, it is a consequence of police corruption, increased militarization (including the introduction of a controversial hybrid military-police force), extrajudicial killings, impunity, and extreme neoliberal politics that – with the helping hand of the U.S. – exacerbate inequalities while harshly criminalizing dissent.
According to Professor of Anthropology at American University Adrienne Pine, “The biggest way the United States directly contributes to state violence is by funding and training police and military … definitively shown to be carrying out death squad killings.”
All the while, Honduras has continued to enjoy U.S. support in the form of increased military and police funding, development aid, U.S-supported World Bank financing, positive U.S. media coverage, and political endorsement of two right-wing post-coup regimes largely viewed both domestically and internationally as illegitimate.
Now, Washington’s new Alliance for Prosperity plan for Central America paves the way for further militarization and new investment projects in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, likely to exacerbate the underlying problems of social and economic inequality. It’s a plan that rewards the dismal human rights record of Honduras and Guatemala by providing their political and economic elites with new economic opportunities, while it will continue to oppress the poor majority it claims it will help.
Pine, author of “Working Hard, Drinking Hard: On Violence and Survival in Honduras,” predicts that the Alliance for Prosperity will enhance this militarization agenda as part of the so-called “stabilization” of the region for foreign investment.
“Every solution proposed by the U.S. to address violence actually increases violence,” said Pine. “Until structural violence, impunity, and the violence caused by neoliberal capitalism are addressed, there will be no end to the violence in Honduras.”
Portillo Villeda explains that while the U.S. dumps funding into Honduras purportedly to address the high rate of child migration and other issues, “Sending money to countries with such a degree of corruption is throwing money away into right-wing candidates and campaigns that will reproduce the same kind of people (and problems).”
U.S. military support of Honduras under these circumstances is in fact illegal under its own policy. The Leahy Law, introduced in 1997, legally prohibits the U.S. from providing military aid to countries whose forces violate human rights with impunity.
But it seems to be easy to make exceptions when it is politically convenient to do so. Even when the Honduran police chief Juan Carlos “El Tigre” Bonilla was linked to death squad killings, as widely reported in international media, the U.S. refused to cut funding to the Honduran police and military forces.
The targets of criminalization, death threats, violence, and assassination have been many, but politically systematic: Indigenous, campesino, LGBT, women’s rights, and human rights activists; opposition party leaders; journalists; and progressive lawyers have all been regular victims.
In the Aguán Valley in Northern Honduras alone, over 100 people were murdered between 2010 and 2013 as part of an ongoing land conflict in mostly targeted killings linked to the U.S.-backed military.
According to Wikileaks cables, the U.S. has long known that the Aguán Valley’s murderous large landowner, palm oil magnate, and coup-backer Miguel Facusse is also a prominent drug dealer. Cables documenting U.S. officials’ meetings with Facusse, including once ten weeks into the coup government.
As Pine said, U.S. foreign policy, based on a double standard of human rights, has already enabled an untold number of murders in Honduras.
The U.S. is not only complicit in, but actively enabling these structural problems by legitimizing a repressive, fraudulent regime and turning a blind eye on human rights abuses when it is politically convenient to do so. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the region where the American empire is challenged, the U.S. crafts a very different narrative of human rights and democracy.
U.S. policy toward Mexico and Honduras highlights the hypocritical and manipulative nature of Obama’s aggressive statements and sanctions against Venezuela.
The U.S. was quick to congratulate Peña Nieto and two consecutive Honduran presidents, Pepe Lobo Sosa and Juan Orlando Hernandez, on their wins, despite those elections taking place under dubious circumstances with calls of electoral fraud. On the other hand, the U.S. initially refused to recognize the Maduro government unless there was a complete audit, despite former U.S. President Jimmy Carter saying “the election process in Venezuela is the best in the world.” This attempt to undermine Venezuelan electoral process is part of a multi-faceted policy to destabilize democracy in Venezuela.
But taken together, this is all part of a larger – and longstanding – plan for the region predicated on backing right-wing forces and militarization, like in Mexico and Honduras, to serve the U.S. economic interests of free trade and resource exploitation. On the flip side, this plan includes destabilizing left-wing democracies that pose too much of a threat to U.S. dominance in the region by offering political and economic alternatives.
And the consequences are clear. While NAFTA and CAFTA have only exacerbated poverty and misery in Mexico and Central America, Venezuela has cut poverty in half and seen a fall in the extreme poverty rate from 21 percent in 1998 to a record low of 5.4 percent in 2015. The socialist government aims to eliminate extreme poverty entirely in the next 4 years, and other left-wing governments in the region, including Ecuador and Bolivia, are following the example by implementing their own anti-neoliberal policies that are successfully tackling inequality.
As Pine explained, the recent U.S. aggression toward Venezuela is significant for this reason: “It is a huge threat to all Latin America because Venezuela has been a leader in this whole part of the hemisphere south of the U.S. border … in finally standing up to imperial, militarist policy of the United States.”
But Latin America isn’t going to turn back to the U.S. “backyard” without a fight. “The Latin American governments, but especially the Latin American people, stand with Venezuela,” she added.
Regional bodies initiated by Chavez also play a part, building on his legacy of anti-imperialism, sovereignty, and Latin American unity.
“The fact that Latin America now has multipolar regional institutions like Unasur, Celac and Alba diminishes the U.S.’s ability to impose its will or attempt to isolate countries that it targets.” said Tinker Salas, author of “Venezuela: What Everyone Needs to Know,” set to be published in April.
Portillo Villeda agreed Latin America will continue to resist the U.S. hegemony, expressing confidence in the Venezuelan, Honduran, and Mexican people to determine their own sovereign paths. “I say this in light of the past 100 year history of US involvement in Latin America – which has lead to over 200,000 murders in Guatemala, 80,000 in El Salvador, and those which continue today in Mexico and Honduras,” she said.
Obama’s statements on Venezuela expose the way that the rhetoric of human rights and democracy is selectively applied as a tool to promote and advance U.S. political and economic hegemony. Unfortunately, liberal Democrat Obama shows that when it comes to foreign policy in Latin America, continued hypocrisy and imperialism are the norm.
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