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The War on DemocracyAmerica’s dirty wars

John Pilger’s The War on Democracy is a refreshing political history lesson

Review by Peter Arkell & Nicole Curie

John Pilger, in his first feature film for the cinema, takes a look at the long history of intervention by the US in South America as the people of these countries struggle to free themselves from economic, cultural and military domination by their powerful neighbour to the north.

Pilger, one of the world’s best-known media warriors against oppression, highlights the fact that empire building is about conquest and theft, rather than the “spreading of democracy”. The War on Democracy also challenges the prevailing view of the poor as simply onlookers of their own fate by giving them an intelligent, articulate voice which most people think only experts, academics and specialists are capable of.

The War on Democracy is the latest of a number of documentaries, including Taking Liberties and An Inconvenient Truth to find their way onto the large screen, as TV retreats from its old role of making powerful documentaries into a morass of so-called “reality shows”.

Pilger is a great and tenacious journalist, a life-long campaigner against injustice and the abuse of power, and in most, if not all of his exposés, he reveals powerful big business interests and governments as the source of the abuse. His quiet controlled narrative points to the duplicity of governments that, while pretending  to be civilised and humane, carry out the most barbaric acts, often in the name of national security.

He has made over 50 film documentaries in addition to his numerous articles and books. In the film Paying the Price—Killing the children of Iraq, he showed how the sanctions and the bombings carried out by the West in the run-up to the second war in Iraq caused the deaths of 500,000 children. 

In another of his famous documentaries, Stealing a Nation, he tells the story of how Britain, at the behest of the US, expelled all 2,000 Chagos islanders, from Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, in order for the Americans to build a huge air base (from which they later bombed Iraq and Afghanistan).

One of his greatest virtues as a journalist is that he never lets go. He returns to the story, maybe 10 years later, to see what has happened. He followed the fate of the Chagos Islanders, for example, after they had been tricked into leaving and then brutally re-located by the British into a life of poverty. They, no doubt partly as a result of the exposure of this conspiracy,  pursued their case through the High Court, which recently produced a judgement describing the actions of the British Government as “repugnant, illegal and irrational”. The islanders are now theoretically free to return to their homeland. We shall see.

It is typical of his direct style that at the beginning of The War on Democracy he quotes Bush as saying: “America will not impose our own style of government on the unwilling. Our goal instead is to help others find their own voice.” Then Pilger tells the story of how the US has done and is doing the exact opposite of this in Venezuela, Chile, Guatemala, Cuba, Bolivia and elsewhere.

Pilger takes us through the attempted coup in Venezuela, the actual coup in Chile, the resistance of the people in Bolivia to their country being asset-stripped by the corporations (symbolised by the privatisation of water by Bechtel), the killings by the army, the huge demonstrations at La Paz and the eventual election of Evo Morales, an ally of Chavez, in a landslide. And he describes the US de-stabilisation of Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador.

En route, he interviews Hugo Chavez who says he decided to dedicate his life to the people after the two-day coup had itself been overthrown by the action of the people. And we get a glimpse of the two Venezuelas, the barrios or shanty towns “that defy gravity and torrential rain and emerge at night like fireflies in the fog” and on the other side the American-style villas that house the rich, who, of course, supported the US-backed attempted coup of 2002.

We see the new Venezuela where education is free, where the poorest housewives are paid as workers, where there is now 100% literacy and even a 95-year-old great grandmother can learn to read and write, where articles of the constitution are printed on the labels of food packets and where there is virtually no censorship. And strangely enough, this is also where capitalism has never had it better, even though the rich themselves are not very happy, having, according to Pilger, lost their political power.

A number of the victims in the different countries, who survived the US-backed repression, are also interviewed, but perhaps the most illuminating people to appear in the film are the CIA agents. Duane Clarridge, who was CIA chief, South America, comes across as a caricature of a typical CIA man. He asserts the right of the US to do whatever it likes in its backyard, in its national interests, “like it or lump it”.  He does not “give a hoot for democracy” and thinks that sometimes things have to be changed in a “rather ugly way”. And Philip Agee, who turned against the CIA after leaving it in the 1970s, also says of the US government in the film that “democracy did not mean a thing”.

Pilger is obviously very impressed with the new mood in South America. He quotes Victor Hugo to highlight “the power of an idea whose time has come”, and he says of Chavez and  Morales: “If these new leaders succumb, the main danger may not be from Washington but from the peoples of the hillside.” He talks about the people rising and suggests they are “unbeatable”. Given the experiences in Chile when General Pinochet, appointed by the elected Allende government, led a brutal coup, amounts to political complacency

It is this kind of perspective that is worrying. Pilger himself earlier in the film makes the point that capitalism is thriving in Venezuela, even if the capitalists themselves are not happy. The wealth of Venezuela comes mainly from their oil which is sold to the US. And the economy remains in all senses a capitalist one.

In the final analysis, the ruling class is still in place, as are the forces of the state including the police and the army, even if, at least for the present, Chavez and his government control them. The danger of a coup is still there and will always be there until these forces have been challenged and broken.

The US government may well be surprised and disturbed by the new reality in its own backyard, but the last thing it will do is to give up its interests there. The continued subjugation of the economies and people of South America is tied up with the survival of capitalism in the US itself. The new globalised economy cannot but continue to increase the exploitation of these countries. Washington hoped the coup attempt in 2002 would succeed in the same way as it succeeded in Chile in 1973, but they will learn from its failure and try a new approach. In other words, they will be back.

Pilger admitted as much himself in the film, when he described the change in thinking in the US with the setting up of the National Endowment for Democracy in 1989, which signalled a new approach from the old “Empire” towards South America. He goes on to describe present-day Chile as Washington’s “ideal democracy” and a model for other countries.

It would seem impossible to impose, now, such an “ideal democracy” on to Venezuela or Bolivia without a bloodbath similar to or worse than what happened in Chile under General Pinochet. But if that is what is necessary, the US will try to create the conditions and find a “Hero of Freedom” to carry out just that, rather than lose control.

Pilger’s film brings out the bias of the established media in facilitating what the US has done. And he successfully links the events in the film to present day human rights violations, such as Guantanamo Bay. But The War on Democracy does not really explain who the 'US' is and why they want to control people and resources .

There is a lot of talk about empire, without questioning today’s motives for empire in the undemocratic economic control of natural ‘resources’ through global corporations. There is also a tendency to slip into idolising leaders like Chavez, though this is briefly balanced out by woman from the barrios saying “this is not Chavez’s struggle, this is other people's struggle”. That said, The War on Democracy is a refreshing political history lesson from someone who deeply cares about people, and wants others to understand.

Watch the trailer

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