“For the first time in 500 years, Latin America has begun to free itself of imperial control”
I arrive at Noam Chomsky’s office at MIT, a few minutes before our scheduled appointment. While I wait outside, two young men from New Zealand turn up. “Are you also here to interview him?” I enquired. “No”, one of them replied, waving a copy of Media Control. The Spectacular Achievements of Propaganda. “We’re traveling for a few weeks in the US and I wanted to get this book signed”. After a few minutes of nervous shuffling, Chomsky’s assistant summons them in.
While Chomsky signs the book and poses for the mandatory selfie, his assistant tells me to take a seat in his office. As I walked past his assistants’ desks, a figurine engraved with the words “Gnome Chomsky” catch my eye.
In his office, at the top of one of his bookshelves, I spot a picture of Salvadoran bishop Óscar Romero, who was murdered by counterinsurgency forces in 1980, with the following quote: “To educate is to create a critical spirit and not just transfer knowledge” and a message from Crispaz, a faith-based Salvadoran organization, thanking him for his continued support for the Salvadoran movement to seek justice for the atrocities committed during the civil war.
Chomsky’s theories have revolutionized the field of linguistics, a scientific background that he used to develop his propaganda model of media criticism. His vocal opposition to the Vietnam War in 1967 marked the beginning of a personal history of political activism and during the 1980s, he strongly opposed the US interventions in support of military dictatorships in Central America.
But at the age of 86, Chomsky appears relaxed, affable and totally unfazed by his celebrity status. After the young New Zealanders leave, with beaming smiles, he walks in and shakes my hand and we begin the interview. Our conversation focuses on US foreign policy towards Latin America, post-war violence in Central America and the popular resistance movements that are shifting the balance of power across the continent.
Has US foreign policy towards Latin America significantly changed since you wrote Turning the Tide: US Intervention in Central America and the Struggle for Peace?
There’s a shift but it’s because of the increasing independence of Latin America – mainly South America because Central America is less independent due to its weakness and proximity to the US - which, is a very striking phenomenon. During the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena (in 2012), the US and Canada were separated from the rest of the hemisphere on issues that were under contention, one being Cuba and the other being the decriminalization of drugs. That wouldn’t have happened a number of years ago. Also, the US is not capable of intervening directly in the manner that it did before and the earlier interventions were sufficiently successful so that popular movements have been somewhat subdued. In the past, the US successfully suppressed virtually every attempt at independence, social justice and democratic impulse. It’s a matter of less capacity (to intervene), less need, and more independence in the region.
The US strongly supported the genocide trial of Guatemala’s former dictator Efrain Rios Montt...
I think “strongly supported” is an overstatement…
The US embassy in Guatemala expressed an interest in having the trial come to a conclusion…
A quick conclusion that would not implicate the United States and its allies. After all, Rios Montt wasn’t acting in isolation. He was acting with support from the Reagan administration and when Congress blocked Reagan from direct participation in the genocidal crimes, Reagan called in his international terrorist army, Israel, to train Guatemalan officers and provide the weapons, essentially as a surrogate for the United States. The US embassy made sure that none of that was going to be brought up.
What were America’s real motivations for supporting the Rios Montt trial? Was it concern over the possibility of having a failed state in its back yard?
There were undoubtedly people in the US embassy that were interested in pursuing it but as far as government policy is concerned it seems to me it was tolerated as long as the US and its allies were excluded; that was always crucial. The US has no real objection to crimes being prosecuted locally as long as the international aspect doesn’t enter. It happens all over the place. Take Saddam Hussein, for example. He was tried and executed for crimes committed in 1982 that were actually among the least of his crimes. There were much worse crimes the following year, such as the Halabja massacre and the attacks on the Kurds but those were not brought up because they were supported by the US. That was the year in which Iraq was removed from the terrorist list so that the US could start providing him with aid. That was the year of his famous handshake with Donald Rumsfeld but none of that was brought up.
Should the US regard the unaccompanied Central American minors’ crisis on the southern border as blowback for its interventionist policies in the region and the way in which they have increased violence and poverty in those countries?
The majority of the children are from Honduras. It’s not pure accident. Honduras was bad enough before, but after the coup it turned into a real horror story. So the children are coming in response to a hideous internal situation that the US supported. Here, around Boston, there happens to be a fairly large Mayan community and this includes people fleeing from the Mayan highlands in Guatemala. The young people don’t know it but they’re fleeing from the wreckage of the atrocities in the early 80s that the US strongly supported. We’re turning back at the border the victims of our crimes.
The US supports the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) but on the other hand, a study published in 2013 by the Wilson Center shows that most of the firearms used by criminal organizations in Central America come from the US. Do you regard that as contradictory?
I don’t see any contradiction. The US is perfectly happy to indict and punish criminals who are getting their guns from stores in Arizona and Texas. They’ll ignore the US participation.
The FMLN was re-elected in El Salvador and Salvador Sánchez Cerén has become the first former guerrilla combatant in El Salvador to come to power. The Sandinistas hold onto power in Nicaragua and center-left Guillermo Solis was recently elected in Costa Rica. Meanwhile, Guatemala is ruled by a right wing retired general and Honduras is also governed by a conservative government. Are we witnessing an ideological split in CA with Guatemala and Honduras remaining a bastion of conservatism?
I think it’s a little more complex than that. Take Costa Rica. It’s the one country that has not had direct US intervention and it’s the one country in the region that functions. On the other hand, the poorest countries in the region are the countries that have had US intervention, like Haiti, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. Does that suggest something?
Can we really talk about democracy in Central America in the context of huge levels of social inequality? Can you talk about it in the United States when you’ve got such inequality? The question that is raised is: “To what extent do people’s attitudes affect policy?” Around 70% of the population has no impact on policy because their elected representatives pay no attention to them. As you move up the scale you get more and more influence. The more unequal it is, the less democratic it is. The United States is basically a plutocracy with a kind of formal democracy. And this is even more the case in weaker countries.
You mentioned that the Cartagena Summit showed a rift between the US and Canada and the rest of the hemisphere on the issue of the decriminalization of drugs. Could this reduce levels of violence in Central America?
No doubt. It doesn’t mean you have to legalize it, just decriminalize it. What most of the continent is in favor of – including Guatemala – is a reduction of the criminalization. The so-called drug war has practically nothing to do with drugs. When you carry out the same policies for decades and they have no effect on the announced goal you have to ask: “Does the announced goal have anything to do with the real goal? Probably not. The drug problem is in the United States. That’s the main source of demand. The drug war is pretty much racist. It’s designed to criminalize large parts of the African American population, largely male, and Hispanics, to some extent. This is pure racism and it goes back 500 years in American history. And in Latin America the victims are the general population.
On the subject of the suffering that Latin America has endured as a result of the drug war, how do you interpret the US’ indifference over the crisis that Mexico is currently experiencing as a result of the massacre of 43 students in Ayotzinapa by a drug cartel connected to state actors?
It was a pretty horrible story. It was not just these 43 students but also mass graves and the brutality of the Mexican federal forces, which are notoriously connected with the drug trade. But Mexico is an ally. It’s a neoliberal government supported by the US and they don’t want to say anything that implicates them in their crimes.
Out of the corner of my eye, I spot a chocolate colored cocker spaniel that has silently wandered into the office and is sniffing the carpet. Chomsky’s assistant hovers in the doorway, reminding me that the half hour that we agreed on for the interview is up…Mexican civil society has reacted indignantly to the Ayotzinapa massacre and at the beginning of this interview you mentioned that Latin American countries are increasingly defying US hegemony. To what extent has that resistance been spearheaded by indigenous movements? Can these movements become a force for change?
What’s happened in Latin America over the past 15 years is historically significant and gives a pretty strong indication that popular movements can make a difference. For the first time in 500 years, since the time when the Conquistadors arrived, Latin America has begun to free itself of imperial control. These peasant movements are significant and countries with large indigenous populations, like Bolivia and Ecuador, have done interesting things and are leading the world in dealing with the number one problem today: the environmental crisis.
Indigenous movements have strongly opposed free trade agreements and this year, a “Law to Protect Plant Varieties” that was approved in Guatemala in compliance with CAFTA, was repealed as a result of widespread resistance from indigenous and peasant groups. What impact have free trade agreements had in Latin America?
That (law) is certainly not supportive of trade, quite the opposite. It’s great for Monsanto but not for farmers. These are not free trade agreements; they’re a mixture between liberalization and protectionism. These are investor rights agreements and the population suffers from it. It’s more than coincidental that when (Bill) Clinton began ramming through NAFTA he also began militarizing the border because it didn’t take a genius to figure out that Mexican campesinos were not going to be able to compete with subsidized US agribusiness and Mexican businesses are not going to compete with US multinationals so it will probably lead to a flood of people leaving.
After I turn my recorder off, Chomsky tells me that his daughter is a lawyer and works with Guatemalan immigrants. The assistant reappears at the doorway. Before leaving I ask him if I can talk a photograph of him sitting at his desk, which is largely taken up by huge piles of books. He smiles and obliges. I would have liked to ask him about his daughter, about the chocolate colored spaniel, about his hobbies, and about how he regards his own legacy. But that’s a whole different conversation…
Louisa Reynolds is the 2014-15 Elizabeth Neuffer Journalism Fellow