U.S.’ War On Democracy
By Pablo Navarrete
& John Pilger
03 May, 2007
John Pilger is an award-winning
journalist, author and documentary filmmaker, who began his career in
1958 in his homeland, Australia, before moving to London in the 1960s.
He has been a foreign correspondent and a front-line war reporter, beginning
with the Vietnam War in 1967. He is an impassioned critic of foreign
military and economic adventures by Western governments.
"It is too easy,"
Pilger says, "for Western journalists to see humanity in terms
of its usefulness to 'our' interests and to follow government agendas
that ordain good and bad tyrants, worthy and unworthy victims and present
'our' policies as always benign when the opposite is usually true. It's
the journalist's job, first of all, to look in the mirror of his own
Pilger also believes
a journalist ought to be a guardian of the public memory and often quotes
Milan Kundera: "The struggle of people against power is the struggle
of memory against forgetting."
In a career that has
produced more than 55 television documentaries, Pilger's first major
film for the cinema, The War on Democracy, will be released in the United
Kingdom on May 11, 2007. Pilger spent several weeks filming in Venezuela
and The War on Democracy contains an exclusive interview with Venezuelan
President Hugo Chavez.
PN: Could you begin
by telling us what your new film ‘The War on Democracy’
JP: I happened to watch George
Bush’s second inauguration address in which he pledged to “bring
democracy to the world.” He mentioned the words “democracy”
and “liberty” twenty one times. It was a very important
speech because, unlike the purple prose of previous presidents (Ronald
Reagan excluded), he left no doubt that he was stripping noble concepts
like “democracy” and “liberty” of their true
meaning – government, for, by and of the people.
I wanted to make a film that
illuminated this disguised truth -- that the United States has long
waged a war on democracy behind a facade of propaganda designed to contort
the intellect and morality of Americans and the rest of us. For many
of your readers, this is known. However, for others in the West, the
propaganda that has masked Washington’s ambitions has been entrenched,
with its roots in the incessant celebration of World War Two, the “good
war”, then “victory” in the cold war. For these people,
the “goodness” of US power represents “us”.
Thanks to Bush and his cabal, and to Blair, the scales have fallen from
millions of eyes. I would like “The War on Democracy” to
contribute something to this awakening.
The film is about the power
of empire and of people. It was shot in Venezuela, Bolivia, Chile, and
the United States and is set also in Guatemala and Nicaragua. It tells
the story of “America’s backyard,” the dismissive
term given to all of Latin America. It traces the struggle of indigenous
people first against the Spanish, then against European immigrants who
reinforced the old elite. Our filming was concentrated in the barrios
where the continent’s “invisible people” live in hillside
shanties that defy gravity. It tells, above all, a very positive story:
that of the rise of popular social movements that have brought to power
governments promising to stand up to those who control national wealth
and to the imperial master. Venezuela has taken the lead, and a highlight
of the film is a rare face-to-face interview with President Hugo Chavez
whose own developing political consciousness, and sense of history (and
good humour), are evident. The film investigates the 2002 coup d’etat
against Chavez and casts it in a contemporary context. It also describes
the differences between Venezuela and Cuba, and the shift in economic
and political power since Chavez was first elected. In Bolivia, the
recent, tumultuous past is told through quite remarkable testimony from
ordinary people, including those who fought against the piracy of their
resources. In Chile, the film looks behind the mask of this apparently
modern, prosperous “model” democracy and finds powerful,
active ghosts. In the United States, the testimony of those who ran
the “backyard” echo those who run that other backyard, Iraq;
sometimes they are the same people. Chris Martin (my fellow director)
and I believe “The War on Democracy” is well timed. We hope
people will see it as another way of seeing the world: as a metaphor
for understanding a wider war on democracy and the universal struggle
of ordinary people, from Venezuela to Vietnam, Palestine to Guatemala.
As you say, Latin
America has often been described as the U.S.’ backyard. How important
is Latin America for the U.S. in the global context?
Latin America’s strategic
importance is often dismissed. That’s because it is so important.
Read Greg Grandin’s recent, excellent history (I interview him
in the film) in which he makes the case that Latin America has been
Washington’s “workshop” for developing and honing
and rewarding its imperial impulses elsewhere. For example, when the
US “retreated” from Southeast Asia, where did its “democracy
builders” go to reclaim their “vision”? Latin America.
The result was the murderous assaults on Nicaragua, El Salvador and
Guatemala, and the darkness of “Operation Condor” in the
southern cone. This was Ronald Reagan’s “war on terror”,
which of course was a war of terror that provided basic training for
those now running the Bush/Cheney “long war” in the Middle
East and elsewhere.
Noam Chomsky recently
said that after five centuries of European conquests, Latin America
was reasserting its independence. Do you agree with this?
Yes, I agree. It’s
humbling for someone coming from prosperous Europe to witness the poorest
taking charge of their lives, with people rarely asking, as we in the
West often ask, “What can I do?” They know what to do. In
Cochabamba, Bolivia, the population barricaded their city until they
began to take control of their water. In El Alto, perhaps the poorest
city on the continent, people stood against a repressive regime until
it fell. This is not to suggest that complete independence has been
won. Venezuela’s economy, for example, is still very much a “neo-liberal”
economy that continues to reward those with capital. The changes made
under Chavez are extraordinary – in grassroots democracy, health
care, education and the sheer uplifting of people’s lives –
but true equity and social justice and freedom from corruption remain
distant goals. Venezuela’s well-off complain endlessly that their
economic power has been diminished; it hasn’t; economic growth
has never been higher, business has never been better. What the rich
no longer own is the government. And when the majority own the economy,
true independence will be in sight. That’s true everywhere.
U.S. Deputy Secretary
of State, John Negroponte, recently called Venezuelan President Hugo
Chavez “a threat to democracy” in Latin America. What are
you views on this?
This is Orwellian, like “war
is peace.” Negroponte, whose record of overseeing Washington’s
terrorism in Central America is infamous, is right about Hugo Chavez
in one respect. Chavez is a “threat” – he’s
the threat of an example to others that independence from Washington
is actually possible.
talks about building "socialism of the 21st Century" in Venezuela.
To what extent do you think this project is different to the socialist
experiences in the twentieth century?
In the time I spent with
Chavez, what struck me was how unselfconsciously he demonstrated his
own developing political awareness. I was intrigued to watch a man who
is as much an educator as a leader. He will arrive at a school or a
water project where local people are gathered and under his arm will
be half a dozen books – Orwell, Chomsky, Dickens, Victor Hugo.
He’ll proceed to quote from them and relate them to the condition
of his audience. What he’s clearly doing is building ordinary
people’s confidence in themselves. At the same, he’s building
his own political confidence and his understanding of the exercise of
power. I doubt that he began as a socialist when he won power in 1998
– which makes his political journey all the more interesting.
Clearly, he was always a reformer who paid respect to his impoverished
roots. Certainly, the Venezuelan economy today is not socialist; perhaps
it’s on the way to becoming something like the social economy
of Britain under the reforming Attlee Labour government. He is probably
what Europeans used to be proud to call themselves: a social democrat.
Look, this game of labels is pretty pointless; he is an original and
he inspires; so let’s see where the Bolivarian project goes. True
power for enduring change can only be sustained at the grassroots, and
Chavez’s strength is that he has inspired ordinary people to believe
in alternatives to the old venal order. We have nothing like this spirit
in Britain, where more and more people can’t be bothered to vote
any more. It’s a lesson of hope, at the very least.
'The War on Democracy' is
to be released in UK cinemas on Friday 15th June. There will be a special
preview in London on Friday 11th May. The film is released in Australia
in September 2007. For more info visit: www.johnpilger.com
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