Category Archives: Cuba

Grenada: 40th Anniversary of the Revolution

Forty years ago this March, the Caribbean island nation of Grenada, population 110,000, made a revolution.

Prime Minister Eric Gairy had for years headed a neocolonial dictatorship on behalf of Grenada’s minute capitalist class and British and US interests. A private and brutal militia known as the Mongoose Gang was tasked to silence Gairy’s political opponents. Though the island was rich in agricultural resources, like nutmeg, mace, cacao and bananas, too much of its population lived in poverty.

On March 13, 1979, after years of unarmed struggle, the New Jewel Movement, under the charismatic leadership of Maurice Bishop, successfully executed a nearly bloodless coup. The new government built a mixed economy on socialist principles. With the organizational, administrative and economic planning genius of Bernard Coard, Bishop’s childhood friend, Grenada made rapid social progress. The revolution became immensely popular, with good reason.

With the new government, aided and advised by Cuba, literacy rose from 85% to 98%; the ratio of doctors to patients doubled; new labor laws brought 80% of the population into unions; unemployment plummeted from half the population to 14%; new laws criminalized the sexual victimization of women, ensured equal pay for equal work and mandated maternity leave. Free health care and secondary education were introduced, and scholarships provided free college education abroad.

In the first four years of the revolution, Grenada’s economy grew by 9%, in the midst of a worldwide recession. Agricultural diversification brought significant reductions in food imports and increased exports.

But from its birth, the revolution was menaced by the US. Though tiny, Grenada greatly troubled the US. State Department memos revealed why: Grenada’s population spoke English and was predominantly of African descent, so the revolution and its success would have special appeal to African Americans.

President Carter’s administration welcomed exiled ex-Prime Minister Gairy to the US, where he made broadcasts against the Grenadian government. The Carter administration also worked to cut US tourism to the island and denied recognition to Grenada’s ambassador.  President Reagan’s administration followed suit, blocking economic development assistance from international finance institutions.

The US invasion and takeover of the island on October 25, 1983 was plotted years in advance, rehearsed in exercises called “Amber and the Ambergines,” a transparent reference to Grenada and the nearby Grenadine islands. 100s were killed battling the invasion, including two Soviet military officers and 24 Cuban engineers.

Bishop and other leaders were killed in a tragic conflict within the government days before the invasion.  After the invasion, soldiers and surviving political leaders, including Coard, were tried for the killings on scant and dubious evidence.  The trial was paid for and managed by the US and denounced by Amnesty International. The defendants, known as the Grenada 17, spent decades in prison.  The circumstances of the killings remain mysterious, in part because of the US theft and concealment of much documentary evidence.

But for a time a tiny nation in the belly of the beast made a beautiful revolution.

The Grenadian Revolution, ¡Presente!

Cuba: “The Equilibrium of the World” and Economy of Resistance

The Forth International Conference for “The Equilibrium of the World” took place in Havana., Cuba from 28 to 31 January 2019. The Conference, organized by the José Marti Project of International Solidarity, was sponsored by UNESCO and a number of local and international organisms and NGOs. It coincided with the 60th Anniversary of the Cuban Revolution and as such was also a celebration of that successful demonstration to the world that socialism, solidarity and love for life can actually survive against all odds and, yes, Cuba, has faced more hardship than any other country in recent history, through boycotts, embargoes and all sorts of economic sanctions, heinous military infiltrations and assassination attempts, initiated by the United States and followed, largely under threats from Washington, by most of the western world.

Viva Cuba!  A celebration well deserved and in the name of José Marti, who was born 166 years ago, but whose thoughts and spiritual thinking for a new world are as valid today as they were then. They may perhaps best be summarized as love, solidarity, justice, living well for all and in peace. These principles were taken over by Fidel and Raul Castro, Che and Hugo Chávez. They transcend current generations and reach far beyond Latin America.

The conference had many highlights; brilliant speakers; a torch march was organized at the University of Havana in honor of José Marti; and the organizers offered the participants an extraordinary music and modern ballet performance at the National Theater.

From my point of view some of the important messages came from the representative of China, who talked about the New Silk Road, or the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), of building bridges and connecting countries and people, whereas the west was building walls. A Russian speaker sadly admitted that it took his government a long time and relentless trying to build alliances with the west, until they realized, relatively recently, that the west could not be trusted. Professor Adan Chavez Frias Chavez, Hugo’s brother, described an invasive history over the past 100 years by the United States of Latin America and called upon the brother nations of the Americas and the world to bond together in solidarity to resist the empire’s infringement and steady attempts to subjugate sovereign nations with a vision towards a multipolar world of equals, of sovereign nations living together in peaceful relations.

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My own presentation focused on Economy of Resistance. And what a better place than Cuba to talk about economy of resistance! Impossible. Cuba has a 60-year history of successful resistance against a massive embargo, ordered by Washington and followed by almost the entire western world, thus demonstrating that the west has been reduced to a US colony. This was true already during the Cold War, but became even clearer when the Soviet Union “fell”. Here too, the west, led by Washington, was instrumental in the collapse of the USSR – but that’s another story – and the US grabbed the opportunity to become the emperor of a unipolar world. Cuban troops also resisted and conquered the attempted US Bay of Pigs (Playa Girón) invasion launched by President Kennedy in 1961, and not least, Fidel Castro survived more than 600 CIA initiated assassination attempts.

The principles of Economy of Resistance cover a vast domain of topics with many ramifications. This presentation focused on four key areas:

  • Food, medical and education sovereignty
  • Economic and financial sovereignty
  • The Fifth Column; and,
  • Water Resources: A human right and a vital resource for survival.

On food, health and education sovereignty – Cuba is 100% autonomous, as far health and education go.

However, Cuba imports more than 70% of the food her citizens consume and that, at present, mostly from the European Union. Cuba has the capacity and agricultural potential to become not only fully self-sufficient, but to develop and process agricultural produce into an agricultural industry and become a net exporter of agricultural goods.

This process might be addressed as a priority policy issue. However, it will take some time to fully implement. Meanwhile, it may be wise to diversify imports from other parts of the world than the EU – i.e. Russia, China, Central Asia, friendly ALBA countries – because Europe is not trustworthy. They tell you today, they will always honor your purchasing contracts, but if the empire strikes down with sanctions, as they did recently for anyone doing business with Iran, Cuba may be “cooked”.

Spineless Europe will bend to the orders of Washington. They have demonstrated this time and again, not least with Iran, despite the fact that they signed the so-called Nuclear Deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, on 14 July 2015 (the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – the United States, UK, Russia, France, and China—plus Germany and the EU – and Iran), after which Obama lifted all sanctions with Iran only to have Trump break the agreement and reimpose the most draconian sanctions on Iran and on enterprises doing business with Iran. The US government, and by association Europe, does not adhere to any agreement, or any international law, for that matter, when it doesn’t suit them. There are plenty of indications – Venezuela today, to be followed by Nicaragua and Cuba. These should be valid signals for Cuba to diversify her food imports until full self-sufficiency is achieved.

Already in 2014, Mr. Putin said the ‘sanctions’ were the best thing that could have happened to Russia. It forced her to revamp her agriculture and rebuild her industrial parks with the latest technology – to become fully independent from imports. Today, sanctions are a mere propaganda tool of the west, but they have hardly an impact on Russia. Russia has become the largest wheat exporter in the world. – Cuba could do likewise. She has the agricultural potential to become fully food-autonomous.

On Economic and financial sovereignty four facets are being addressed. The first one, foreign investments, Cuba may want to focus on (i) technology; (ii) assuring that a majority of the investment shares remain Cuban; (iii) using to the extent possible Cuba’s own capital (reserves) for investments. Foreign capital is bound to certain conditionalities imposed by foreign investors, thus, it bears exchange rate and other risks, to the point where potential profits from foreign assets are usually discounted by between 10% and 20%; and (iv) last but not least, Cuba ought to decide on the sectors for foreign investors – NOT the foreign investor.

Following scenario, as propagated by opposition lawyer and economist, Pablo de Cuba, in Miami, should be avoided:

Cuba cedes a piece of her conditions of sovereignty and negotiates with foreign investors; puts a certain amount of discounted debt at the creditors’ disposal, so as to attract more investments in sectors that they, the investors choose, for the internal development of Cuba.

As the hegemony of the US dollar is used to strangle any country that refuses to bend to the empire, a progressive dedollarization is of the order, meaning, in addition to the US dollar itself, move progressively away from all currencies that are intimately linked to the US dollar; i.e., Canadian and Australian dollars, Euro, Yen, Pound Sterling and more. This is a strategy to be pursued in the short- and medium term, for the protection against more sanctions dished out by the US and its spineless allies.

Simultaneously, a rapprochement towards other monetary systems, for example, in the east, especially based on the Chinese gold-convertible Petro-Yuan, may be seriously considered. Russia and China, and, in fact, the entire SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization), have already designed a monetary transfer system circumventing the western SWIFT system, which has every transaction channeled through and controlled by a US bank. This is the key motive for economic and financial sanctions. There is no reason why Cuba could not (gradually but pointedly) join such an alternative system, to move out of the western claws of embargo. The SCO members today encompass about half of the world population and control one third of the globe’s GDP.

Drawbacks would be that the import markets would have to be revisited and diversified, unless western suppliers would accept to be paid in CUC, or Yuan through a system different from SWIFT. Moving away from the western monetary transfer system may also impact remittances from Cubans living in the US and elsewhere in the west (about US$ 3.4 billion – 2017 – less than 4% of GDP). It would mean departing from monetary transactions in the Euro and European monetary zones.

Be aware – the future is in the East. The West is committing slowly but steadily suicide.

Another crucial advice is – stay away from IMF, World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), World Trade Organization (WTO) – and the like. They are so-called international financial and trade organizations, all controlled by the US and her western “allies” and tend to enslave their clients with debt.

Case in Point, Mexico: President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), a leftist, has little margin to maneuver Mexico’s economy, inherited from his neoliberal predecessor, Enrique Peña Nieto. Mexico’s finances are shackled by the international banking system, led by the IMF, FED, WB and by association, the globalized Wall Street system. For example, AMLO intended to revive PEMEX, the petroleum state enterprise. The IMF told him that he first had to “financially sanitize” PEMEX, meaning putting PEMEX through a severe austerity program. The banking community agreed. In case AMLO wouldn’t follow their “advice”, they might strangle his country.

CUC versus the Peso, a dual monetary system (CUC 1 = CuP 25.75), has also been used by China up to the mid-80s and by Germany after WWI, to develop export / import markets. However, there comes a time when the system could divide the population between those who have access to foreign currencies (CUC-convertible), and those who have no such access.

Also, the convertibility of the CUC with the Euro, Swiss franc, Pound Sterling and Yen, make the CUC, de facto, convertible with the dollar – hence, the CUC is dollarized. This is what Washington likes, to keep Cuba’s economy, despite the embargo, in the orbit of the dollar hegemony which will be used in an attempt to gradually integrate Cuba into the western, capitalist economy.  However, Washington will not succeed. Cuba is alert and has been resisting for the last 60 years.

The Fifth Column refers to clandestine and / or overt infiltration of opposing and enemy elements into the government. They come in the form of NGOs, US-CIA trained local or foreigners to destabilize a country – and especially a country’s economy – from inside.

There are ever more countries that do not bend to the dictate of the empire and are targets for Fifth Columns – Russia, China, Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Pakistan and more – and Cuba.

The term, “Fifth Column” is attributed to General Emilio Mola, who during the Spanish civil war in 1936, informed his homologue, General Francisco Franco, that he has four columns of troops marching towards Madrid, and that they would be backed by a “fifth column”, hidden inside the city. With the support of this fifth column he expected to finish with (the legitimate) Republican government.

The process of “infiltration” is becoming ever more sophisticated, bolder and acting with total impunity. Perhaps the most (in)famous organization to foment Fifth Columns around the world, among many others, is the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the extended arm of the CIA. It goes as a so-called NGO, or ‘foreign policy thinktank’ which receives hundreds of millions of dollars from the State Department to subvert non-obedient countries’ governments, bringing about regime change through infiltration of foreign trained, funded and armed disruptive forces, sowing social unrest and even “civil wars”. Cases in point are Ukraine, Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia, Libya – and more – and now they attempt to topple Venezuela’s legitimate, democratically elected Government of Nicolás Maduro.

They work through national and international NGOs and even universities in the countries to be ‘regime changed’. Part of this ‘Infiltration” is a massive propaganda campaign and intimidation on so-called allies, or client states. The process to reach regime change may take years and billions of dollars. In the case of Ukraine, it took at least 5 years and 5 billion dollars. In Venezuela, the process towards regime change started some 20 years ago, as soon as Hugo Chavez was elected President in 1998. It brought about a failed coup in 2002 and was followed by ever increasing economic sanctions and physical military threats. Earlier this year, Washington was able to intimidate almost all of Europe and a large proportion of Latin America into accepting a US-trained implant, a Trump puppet, Juan Guaidó, as the interim president, attempting to push the true legitimate Maduro Government aside.

To put impunity to its crest, the Trump Government blocked 12 billion dollars of Venezuela’s foreign reserves in NY bank accounts and transferred the authority of access to the money to the illegitimate self-appointed interim president, Juan Guaidó. Along the same lines, the UK refused to return 1.2 billion dollars-worth of Venezuelan gold to Caracas. All these criminal acts would not be possible without the inside help, i.e. the “Fifth Column”, the members of which are often not readily identifiable.

It is not known, how often the empire attempted ‘regime change’ in Cuba. However, none of these attempts were successful. The Cuban Revolution will not be broken.

Water resources is a Human Right and a vital component of an economy of resistance.

Water resources will be more precious in the future than petrol. The twin satellites GRACE (Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment) discovered the systematic depletion of groundwater resources throughout the world, due to over-exploitation and massive contamination from agriculture and industrial waste. Examples, among many, are the northern Punjab region in India with massive, inefficient irrigation; and in Peru the Pacific coastal region, due to inefficient irrigation, unretained runoff rain- and river water into the Pacific Ocean, and destruction of entire watersheds through mining.

Privatization of water resources, not only of drinking water and water for irrigation, but of entire aquifers, is becoming an increasing calamity for the peoples of our planet. Again, with impunity, giant water corporations, led by France, the UK and the US are gradually and quietly encroaching on the diminishing fresh water resources, by privatizing them, so as to make water a commodity to be sold at “market prices”, manipulated by the water giants, hence, depriving ready access to drinking water to an ever-growing mass of increasingly impoverished populations, victims of globalized neoliberal economies. For example, Nestlé and Coca Cola have negotiated with former Brazilian President Temer, and now with Bolsonaro, a 100-year concession over the Guaraní aquiver, the largest known, renewable freshwater underground resource, 74% of which is under Brazil. Bolsonaro has already said he would open up the Amazon area for private investors. That could mean privatization of the world’s largest pool of fresh water – the Amazon basin.

Economic Resistance means water is a human right and is part of a country’s sovereignty; water should NEVER be privatized.

For Cuba rainwater – on average about 1,300 mm / year – is the only resource of fresh water. Cuba, like most islands, is vulnerable to rainwater runoff, estimated at up to 80%. There are already water shortages during certain times of the year, resulting in droughts in specific regions. Small retention walls may help infiltrate rainwater into the ground, and at the same time regulate irrigation, provide drinking water and possibly generate electricity for local use through small hydroelectric plants.

The National Water Resources Institute (INRH – Instituto Nacional de Recursos Hidráulicos), is aware of this issue and is formulating a forward-looking water strategy and planning the construction of infrastructure works to secure a countrywide water balance.

Other challenges include the hygienic reuse and evacuation of waste water, as well as in the medium to long run an island-wide Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM).

In Conclusion, Economic Resistance might be summarized as follows:

  • Self-sufficiency in food, health services and education. Cuba has achieved the latter two and is now aiming at achieving 100% agricultural autonomy – and in the meantime is advised diversifying food import markets.
  • Economic and financial sovereignty, including progressive dedollarization, deglobalizing monetary economy and creating internal monetary harmony.
  • The “Fifth Column” – always be aware of its existence and with perseverance keep going on the path of past successes, preventing the Fifth Column’s destabilizing actions.
  • Water resources autonomy – achieving countrywide Integrated Water Resources Management, with focus on protection, conservation and efficient water use.

International Conference for Peace and “World Balance” Supports Venezuela

Close to 700 conferees from 65 countries convened in Havana, Cuba from January 28-31, for peace and “world balance.” This, the fourth such conference, was dedicated to honoring the ideals of Cuban national hero José Martí who died in 1895 at the age of 42 fighting for independence from colonial Spain. The event was organized by the José Martí Project of International Solidarity, which is sponsored by UNESCO.

An overarching theme of the conference was the urgency for international solidarity with the democratically elected Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro who is under attack by the US and its minions. Another prominent issue was the struggle to free the unjustly imprisoned former President of Brazil Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

The wide-ranging conference addressed the “most pressing issues that have an impact on humanity” from global warming, to feminism, to cyber democracy, to sustainability. Well known personalities from all over the world included Spanish intellectual Ignacio Ramonet, Brazilian liberation theologian Frei Betto, historian of Havana Eusebio Leal, and a representative of the Vatican. Aleida Guevara, daughter of Che, spoke during the panel on solidarity along with Puerto Rican fighter for independence Oscar López Rivera.

The first plenary session was attended by newly elected Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel and leading members of the Cuban government and Communist Party. They sat on the main stage without fanfare or even significant security, other than a few unarmed men in guayabera shirts standing in the background; considerably less security, say, than the average US high school student must pass to get to class.

Yuri Afonin of the Russian Federation Communist Party observed that the open colonialism of Martí’s time has been replaced by today’s neo-colonialism. With the collapse of the USSR/Eastern Europe, imperialism was given a green light. The planet has gone back to the 19th century as capitalism tries to impose its neoliberal hegemony.

Yeidckol Polevnsky of the newly triumphant MORENA Party in Mexico advocated strongly for respecting sovereignty and self-determination among nations, denouncing US interference in Venezuela and Nicaragua. Likewise, the representative of the ruling Chinese Communist Party called for non-interference. Venezuelan Minister of Culture Ernesto Villegas warned: “The US has unleashed a culture of war.”

Adán Chávez Frias of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) and brother of Hugo Chávez spoke of the 2002 US-backed coup that lasted less than three days because the people rose up against it. Today, he reported, the civic-military union is stronger than in 2002 and will defend the process towards socialism.

Rene González of the Cuban 5 and Vice President of the Martiano Program Office observed that many internationals, some of whom were at the conference, fought with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua against the US-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza and many more would now do the same if Venezuela must defend itself.

Fellow Cuban 5 hero Fernando González, who is the current President of the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples (ICAP), summed up the conference: “we must unite to defend these causes because the enemy is the same…yanqui imperialism.”

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla closed the conference saying: “We inhabit a planet that is unequal as never before. We live in a world of enormous and growing imbalances, which cause great threats to international peace and security, to justice, and to the dignity of human beings.”  He stressed that US imperialism is clinging to a unipolar order, which is historically discarded and unsustainable.

The international conference adjourned, dedicated to an inclusive multi-polar world where, in the words of José Martí, patria es humanidad (homeland is humanity).

Venezuela: What Activists Need To Know About The US-Led Coup

Photo: John Zangas, DC Media Group.

Two things stand out about the US coup in Venezuela. First, it is unusually open. Typically, the US tries to hide its coups. Second, the coup is built on a series of obvious falsehoods, yet the bi-partisans in Washington, with a few exceptions, keep repeating them.

First, we will correct the falsehoods so readers are all working from the same facts. Second, we will describe how this coup is being defeated. It will be another major embarrassment for the Trump administration and US foreign policy.

It is important to understand Venezuela has become a geopolitical conflict as Russia and China are closely allied with Venezuela. China and Russia coming into the backyard of the United States challenges the antiquated Monroe Doctrine.

Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the world and the second largest gold reserves, as well as diamonds and other minerals such as coltan (needed for electronic devices). And, Venezuela is taking over as president of OPEC and will be in a position to push for oil payments in non-dollar currencies or in cryptocurrencies, a major threat to the US dollar.

A protest outside the United States Consulate in Sydney on January 23 to demand no US intervention in Venezuela. Photo: Peter Boyle

Correcting the Record

There are a series of false statements repeated by DC officials and corporate media to justify the coup that are so obvious, it is hard to believe they are not intentional. In his two-paragraph comment on the coup, even Senator Bernie Sanders repeated them.

1. Truth: President Nicolás Maduro is the legitimate president.

President Maduro was re-elected on May 20, 2018, in response to the opposition demanding an early election. The legitimacy of the election of Maduro is so evident that it must be assumed those who say he is illegitimate are either intentionally false or ignorant. The election was scheduled consistent with the Venezuelan Constitution and in consultation with opposition parties. When it became evident that the opposition could not win the election, they decided, under pressure from the United States, to boycott the election in order to undermine its legitimacy. The facts are 9,389,056 people voted, 46% of eligible voters. Sixteen parties participated in the election with six candidates competing for the presidency.

The electoral process was observed by more than 150 election observers. This included 14 electoral commissions from eight countries among them the Council of Electoral Experts of Latin America; two technical electoral missions; and 18 journalists from different parts of the world, among others. According to the international observers, “the elections were very transparent and complied with international parameters and national legislation.”

Venezuela has one of the best electoral systems in the world. Voter fraud is not possible as identification and fingerprints are required for each voter. Voting machines are audited before and immediately after the election. Venezuela does something no other country in the world does — a public, citizen’s audit of a random sample of 53% of voting machines that is televised. All 18 parties signed the audits.

Maduro won by a wide margin, obtaining 6,248,864 votes, 67.84%; followed by Henri Falcón with 1,927,958, 20.93%; Javier Bertucci with 1,015,895, 10.82%; and Reinaldo Quijada, who obtained 36,246 votes, 0.39% of the total.

This same voting system has been used in elections that Maduro’s party has lost in governor’s and legislative elections. Venezuela is a real democracy with transparent elections. The United States could learn a good deal about real democracy from Venezuela.

2. Truth: The economic crisis is caused by outside intervention, internal sabotage and the decline in oil prices.

There is no doubt the economic situation in Venezuela is dire. The cause is the economic war conducted by the United States, the major decline in oil prices and economic sabotage by the opposition. In essence, the United States and opposition created problems in the Venezuelan economy and now say Maduro must be replaced because of problems they created.

Oil was discovered in Venezuela in the early part of the 20th Century and has dominated the economy since then. The Dutch Disease, the negative impact of an economy based on one natural resource, causes a sharp inflow of foreign currency, which raises the value of the country’s currency, making the country’s other products less price competitive. It is cheaper to import products rather than create them. This makes it more difficult for segments of the economy like agriculture and manufacturing to develop.

Chavez/Maduro sought to diversify the economy. They put in place thousands of communes and hundreds of thousands of people working in cooperatives to build agriculture and manufacturing. When the global price of oil was cut by more than half, it collapsed Venezuela’s public finances undermining these efforts. The economic war by the US made it difficult for Venezuela to borrow and trade with some countries.

Economic sanctions against Venezuela began under President Obama, and the Trump administration escalated them with financial sanctions. United States sanctions cost Venezuela some $6 billion since August, according to an October analysis. Measures against the nation’s oil industry have prohibited the Venezuelan majority-owned company, CITGO, from sending profits back to Venezuela, a $1 billion loss to the government yearly. Now, the Bank of England is refusing to return $1.2 billion in gold reserves after US officials, including Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton, lobbied them to cut Venezuela off from its overseas assets.

The US economic war and sabotage of the economy by business interests has been exposed as part of the effort to remove Maduro by creating social unrest and lack of confidence in the government.  This has included hoarding of goods, storing essentials in warehouses and selling Venezuelan goods in Colombia.

In September 2018, Venezuela pointed to a false media campaign exaggerating migration from Venezuela. They highlighted   statistics from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to affirm that Venezuela has the fewest volunteer migrants in the continent. They pointed out 5.6 million Colombians have fled violence in their country and live in Venezuela. Venezuela has programs that have helped thousands of Venezuelans return home.

Socialism strengthens economies, as demonstrated in Portugal. Indeed, one criticism of Venezuela is that the Bolivarian Process is moving too slowly to put in place a socialist economy. There is a need for more sectors to be nationalized and put under democratic control of the people.

3. Truth: The opposition is violent, not the Maduro government.

Opposition protesters have been extremely violent. One tactic of the opposition was to be violent and then film the government’s response to make the government look violent. When Abby Martin was confronted by opposition protesters, they told her, “Do not film anything that we do. Just film what the government does to us.” She reported on the violence saying, “the vast majority has been caused by either indirect or direct violence by the opposition.”

Martin reports the opposition attacked hospitals, burned down the Housing Ministry, assassinated Chavistas and attacked citizen communes such as an art commune that gave free dance and music lessons to local children. Afro-Venezuelans were burned alive. Protesters pulled drivers out of buses and torched the buses. When photos and videos of opposition violence were put on social media, Martin and her colleague, Mike Prysner, became the target of a false media campaign on social media. The opposition did all they could to prevent them from reporting the truth using hundreds of death threats and threats they would be lynched.

In 2017, Venezuela Analysis reported that violent opposition protests included an attack on a maternity hospital endangering the lives of more than 50 newborn babies. Another report described the opposition using snipers to shoot government officials and civilians. Opposition newspapers urged that blunt objects be used to “neutralize” pro-government protesters, resulting in serious injuries and death.

Steve Ellner also reported that violence was coming from the opposition. He pointed to attacks at grocery stores, banks, buses, and government buildings.  Other commentators described specific incidents of violence by the opposition including killing people. Maduro ordered the arrest of a retired general who tweeted how to use wire to decapitate people on motorcycles, which happened, and how to attack armored vehicles with Molotov cocktails.

Documents show that violence was the opposition’s strategy. They sought to “Create situations of crisis in the streets that will facilitate US intervention, as well as NATO forces, with the support of the Colombian government. Whenever possible, the violence should result in deaths or injuries.”

The tales of government violence are rooted in lies. The government’s response was Maduro calling for a peace conference describing it as “a national peace conference with all the country’s political sectors … so we Venezuelans can try to neutralize violent groups.”

4. Truth: The National Assembly acted in violation of the law and is in contempt of court.

The National Assembly is not the only democratic body in Venezuela. Indeed, its actions since the opposition won a majority have violated the law and protected the violence of the opposition with an embarrassing amnesty bill.

On December 6, 2015, the opposition won a parliamentary majority in the Assembly. There were allegations of vote buying in Amazonas state that were investigated by the National Electoral Council, another branch of the government. The Supreme Court barred four legislators from Amazonas taking office, two from the opposition, one allied with the opposition and one from the ruling party. The National Assembly allowed three candidates to take office. The Assembly has been held in contempt of court since July 2016 and their decisions were nullified.

Before the court ruling, the Assembly passed an amazing amnesty law, which granted amnesty for crimes the opposition has committed since 1999 (Chavez’ election). The law is an admission of guilt and provides a well-organized catalog of crimes including felonies, crimes committed at public rallies, terrorist acts involving explosives and firearms and undermining the economy. They essentially admitted exactly what Chavez/Maduro have claimed — crimes to overthrow the government for 17 years. Venezuela’s Supreme Court ruled the amnesty law was unconstitutional. Inaccurately, the Trump administration calls the Assembly Venezuela’s only remaining democratic institution.

This January, a subsidiary of the state oil company asked the Assembly to intervene claiming the president cannot make reforms to mixed public-private oil businesses without the prior approval of the National Assembly. On January 16, the court ruled that the Assembly was still in contempt of court and could not act. This is also when the Assembly elected Juan Guaidó as their president, who would later appoint himself President of Venezuela, as part of the US-led coup. Guaidó’s election to head the legislature was illegal and nullified by the court.

The Assembly still exists but remains in a state of contempt of the judiciary. It can rectify the situation by removing the lawmakers accused of electoral fraud. The Assembly refuses to do so because their goal is to remove Maduro from office and they need a super-majority to do so.

Medea Benjamin of CODEPINK disrupts Mike Pompeo at the OAS. Press TV.

A Timeline of the US Coup in Venezuela

In “Anti-Maduro Coalition Grew from Secret Talks,” the Associated Press explains the coup was “only possible because of strong support from the Trump administration, which led a chorus of mostly conservative Latin American governments that immediately recognized Guaidó.”

Since August 2017, Donald Trump has been saying that military intervention against Venezuela was a distinct possibility. AP describes this as a “watershed moment” in the coup planning. They report Trump pressuring aides and Latin American countries to invade Venezuela. In September, the New York Times reported that the Trump administration had been meeting with coup plotters since mid-2017.

The Wall Street Journal reports Trump has long viewed Venezuela as one of his top-three foreign policy priorities, with Iran and North Korea. Trump requested a briefing on Venezuela on his second day in office, talking of the immense potential of Venezuela to become a rich nation through its oil reserves. AP reports that Trump “personally sparked” this as he brought up regime change in Venezuela in every meeting with Latin American leaders.

After Maduro was re-elected, administration plans began taking shape, driven in part by key members in the National Security Council and anti-Maduro advocates in Congress like extreme interventionist Senator Marco Rubio.

On November 1, John Bolton zeroed in on Latin America, calling Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela a “troika of tyranny.” On January 2, Bolton met with his Brazilian and Colombian counterparts to collaborate to “return Venezuela to its democratic heritage.”

On January 10, Maduro was sworn in for his second term, Pompeo spoke with opposition leader Guaidó, pledging support. Canada also played a key role, AP reports that Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland spoke to Guaidó the night before Maduro’s inauguration offering Canada’s support. This was 13 days before Guaidó announced he was president of Venezuela.

On January 12, the State Department backed Guaidó’s move to invoke his authority as president of the assembly, saying, “It is time to begin the orderly transition to a new government.” On January 15, the National Assembly declared Maduro as illegitimate. The Trump administration worked to get allies lined up to support Guaidó’. By January 18, the Venezuela Foreign Minister was describing a US coup in progress.

The night before Guaidó’s announcement on January 23, Vice President Mike Pence put out a video message encouraging Venezuelans to overthrow their government, saying, “We are with you. We stand with you, and we will stay with you.” Guaidó also received a phone call from Pence the night before he appointed himself president where he pledged that the U.S. would back Guaidó.

Guaidó declared that Maduro’s government was illegitimate and he was assuming the presidency. In a well-coordinated charade, almost instantly, Trump recognized Guaidó as the country’s rightful leader. To further demonstrate the preconceived, tightly coordinated and efficiently carried out coup, US allies, among them Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Chile, and Peru, quickly recognized the coup president.

The Trump administration is claiming Guaidó represents the lawful government and is entitled to all Venezuelan revenues. The State Department notified the Federal Reserve that Guaidó is the agent for access to Venezuelan assets in US banks.

Nearly as quickly, Maduro drew statements of support from Russia, China, Turkey, Mexico, Cuba, Bolivia, and others. The Venezuelan Supreme Court called for an investigation into the National Assembly and Guaidó, regarding the illegal usurpation of Executive power. The Venezuelan military announced it supported Maduro and Russia warned the US not to intervene militarily.

On January 25, the Organization of American States, which is traditionally a US tool, rejected a resolution to recognize Guaidó. Medea Benjamin of CODE PINK interrupted Pompeo at the OAS holding a sign that said: “a coup is not a democratic transition!” Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza thanked Benjamin, saying, “With her protest, she revealed the macabre coup plan against Venezuela, we will always prevail, thank you!” Eighteen countries defeated the proposal.

At the UN Security Council meeting on January 26, Russia’s UN Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia accused the United States of attempting “to engineer a coup d’etat.” He demanded to know whether the Trump administration “is ready to use military force” against Venezuela. European countries gave Venezuela eight days to hold an election, a suggestion Venezuela rejected. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called Venezuela an “illegitimate mafia state.” He accused Russia and China of trying “to prop up Maduro.”

Both China and Russia have told the US not to intervene in Venezuela’s internal affairs. In December, Russia sent two nuclear-capable strategic Tu-160 bombers to Venezuela along with an An-124 heavy military transport plane and an II-62 long-haul plane. As of December, Russia has one brigade in Venezuela and was discussing sending a second military brigade to Venezuela even before the coup due to the continued threat of intervention from the United States.

China has lent over $50 billion to Venezuela through oil-for-loan agreements over the past decade and has become a partner in the Venezuelan oil industry. In December, seven months since signing a financial business venture with China, Venezuela’s oil production has doubled to 130,000 barrels per day. The take-over of Venezuela’s oil would also be an attack on China. China and Venezuela signed 28 bilateral strategic cooperation agreements on September 14 in the areas of oil, mining, security, technology, finance, and health.

Demonstrating the nature of the coup president, the first acts that Guaidó took were to seek a loan from the International Monetary Fund, which would put Venezuela in debt to western bankers and under their control, and to privatize the Venezuelan oil industry, which would rob Venezuela of the funds being used to lift up the poor and working class.

The appointment by Mike Pompeo of Elliott Abrams as the person in charge of overseeing operations “to restore democracy in Venezuela” is an ominous sign. It is scandalous and demonstrates the most extreme elements of the US establishment are leading the charge. Abrams was convicted during the Iran-Contra scandal, supported US-backed death squads in Guatemala and El Salvador in the 1980s, played a key role in the Reagan administration support for the murderous Contras in Nicaragua and was the person who gave approval for the US-backed coup in Venezuela in 2002.

Analyst Vijay Prashad writes the coup violated the charters of the United Nations and of the Organisation of American States and describes efforts to call on the military to rise up against the government have failed. The Trump administration is now  threatening a total oil embargo on Venezuela and is leaving the “military option” open.

The concerted campaign by the US and Canada to install Juan Guaidó as the new ‘self-declared’ interim President of Venezuela has been met with initial failure. Unfortunately, the illegal and undemocratic attempts to destabilize the country and overthrow the democratically-elected President will continue with harmful consequences. The people of Venezuela are rising once again to defend their country against hostile foreign intervention. It is essential that we support them in this fight. Many groups are holding solidarity rallies and issuing statements of support. Find rallies and protests here and here.

While Sanders got all the facts wrong about Venezuela, he did reach the right conclusion: “The United States has a long history of inappropriately intervening in Latin American countries. We must not go down that road again.” People in the United States have an important role to play in supporting Venezuela and defeating the coup.

Jesus is the way, but we are there to collect the toll…

Frei Betto spoke with the author at the Dominican convent in São Paulo, Brazil.

In the wake of the Brazilian presidential election where reserve army captain Jair Bolsonaro was inaugurated in January to lead the largest country in South America back to the far right, returning it to the narrower US imperial orbit while strengthening ties to the global bullies in Washington and Tel Aviv.

Frei Betto (Carlos Alberto Libânio Christo) served for a short period as an advisor to the PT government. He resigned his office because he could not accept responsibility for some of the decisions taken where he was engaged.1 It is often said in Brazil that the PT lost the elections by their own actions—grossly disappointing their supporters—and turning the election this year into a protest vote, which the party governing since 2002 was bound to lose. Of course, elections themselves do not change the power structures of a state. And the manipulation of elections even to the point of usurping the lawfully elected candidates (e.g. Honduras) has a long tradition in the “backyard” of the United States. Nevertheless the demand for integrity and fairness in government is not restricted to those “white glove” regimes of the North.

Frei Betto discussed the issues made central to the election hysteria: corruption and religion.

Dr T.P. Wilkinson: One explanation given for corruption is the presence of dishonest people in the institution. The other explanation is that there is incoherence between the institution’s structures and procedures and the needs of those working with the institution.

The Reformation that began nearly 500 years ago was partly motivated by the corruption of the Church. Some argued that it was sufficient to purge the dishonest clergy while others argued that the rule of the Church itself was corrupt. They wanted another church or to completely reorganise the existing one.

The last elections have focused attention on corruption. The most publicised response was to put former president Lula in jail. What kind of corruption does Brazil have and what options are there for remedying it? Does Church history offer any lessons?

Frei Betto: Corruption has always existed in human history, including in the group of Jesus (Judas). To combat it, good intentions do not suffice nor the encouragement of the practice of virtues. It is necessary to create a political institution that inhibits and severely punishes corruption. This is the case in Cuba. The construction company Odebrecht2, responsible for corruption in almost all the Latin American countries in which it maintained works, confessed to corruption in of all of them, except Cuba. Does that mean there are no corrupt people in Cuba? Is there no corruption? There is, and I was invited to give a lecture at an important event of the General Comptroller of Cuba in May 2018. However, Cuban officials have to think long before accepting corruption. And in the work of the Port of Mariel, Odebrecht could not corrupt anyone.

Without this institutional mechanism that inhibits and punishes corruption, it tends to spread.

TPW: Fidel and religion:

Not only did Castro give you the opportunity to explain the relationship between him, the Cuban revolution and religion (especially Catholicism). The book also shows your own relationship. At least this is what I saw after reading your prison memoir.

The presidents of the largest countries in the Western hemisphere, the US and Brazil, both claim their policies have a religious foundation. Does that make the present conflict in Brazil (and the US) a religious conflict too? If yes, what are the religious issues? And how might they be resolved? If no, what does the religious rhetoric mean—for those who are religious and those who are not?

FB: Religion, like politics, serves to liberate or to oppress. That of Jesus was liberating; that of the Pharisees and Sadducees, oppressing. In the medieval period religion was used to expand the power of the Church. Dictators like Franco, in Spain; Salazar, in Portugal; and Pinochet, in Chile, used religion to justify the atrocities they practiced.3

Today, oligarchic governments, such as those of Trump, and neo-fascists, such as Bolsonaro’s, use religion to manipulate the conscience of the people.4 This is the “opium of the people” religion denounced by Marx. The religion of the gospel, liberating, is that of Pope Francisco, that of Saint Oscar Romero5, that of Dom Pedro Casaldáliga.

However, the state must be secular. Confessional politics is to yield to religious fundamentalism. As most people in the West are religious, many opportunists take advantage of this to distort the purpose of religion and make money. They announce that “Jesus is the Way” but they are there to collect the toll…

TPW: The Catholic Church in the Middle Ages was probably the great “mass media” of that epoch. Today the Mass Media- mainly owned by private corporations—plays an important role in shaping the perceptions of reality and at the same time creating reality when people act according to their perceptions.

An outside observer, following Brazilian history, cannot avoid seeing that there has always been a complaint about corruption in Brazil, in political and economic life. Yet for the past several years now the PT has been portrayed as the “most corrupt” political party in all Brazilian history. Much of the PT support seems to have been lost because people believe the PT was completely corrupt.

Is this a “perception” of corruption or a “reality”? Can you place the accusations of corruption in Brazil in historical context? The statements of many supporters of military government are based on the idea that the military is not corrupt. However, the regime that the current president supported was also accused of corruption before 1986. Is it possible that the corruption that lost the PT the election is a corruption in the Mass Media, too?

FB: Corruption has always existed in Brazilian politics. The failure of the PT was not to react vigorously when some of its leaders got into corruption. And I must stress that there is no proof that Lula has been corrupted. He is an unjustly imprisoned political prisoner.6 But other PT leaders have become corrupt. A minority that greatly damaged the Party’s image in general. And this was well exploited by PT opponents in the election campaign.

The new Brazilian government, headed by Bolsonaro, has ministers accused of corruption and under investigation.7 The president’s own son, currently Senator Flávio Bolsonaro, will have to explain how one of his assistants, named Queiroz, handled so much money when Flávio served as a state deputy in Rio de Janeiro.

Operation Lava Jato,8 which investigates corruption in Brazil, is a very important initiative, but assumed a partisan character. It sends to jail the PT politicians accused of corruption and leaves in freedom politicians of other parties evidently involved in the corruption.

TPW: When the CEBs began to proliferate in Brazil, one explanation given was that they filled the gaps left because the Catholic Church never had enough priests for the Brazilian masses.

The CEBs were both potentially democratic and potentially competition for the growing Protestant churches. For this reason even conservative clergy were willing to work with these new forms of church.

An analogy could be drawn in secular life. The size of Brazil has always been a problem for those who want to govern it. The country’s administration was concentrated in the coastal cities and the interior was left to the control of the private sector (latifundistas). This has also meant that even though Brazil is a rich country—with much natural and human potential—there has been great difficulty creating and implementing national policies that balance the great differences between the peoples and regions of Brazil.

In the 1950s and 1960s there were movements to develop the Brazil as a whole. In Europe there was a “redevelopment” after the destruction of WWII, which culminated in the European Union. Yet the difference between Germany and Portugal show that even the rich European countries are not able to balance the distribution of wealth between rich and poor regions. And now there are movements to break-up the EU. Do you think it is even realistic to make, let alone expect, successful and sustained socio-economic policies for the entirety of a country as big as Brazil—at a time when, at least in the rich parts of the West, large highly differentiated political entities appear incapable of such policies? Does this mean that all social-economic policy will be surrendered to the private sector?

FB: The economic policy of a country always derives from an ethical option. And in Brazil, except the two terms of President Lula and the first of President Dilma, economic policy was never aimed at reducing social inequality. The goal now, under the Bolsonaro administration, is to make the rich richer and preserve this huge inequality.

By 2018, Brazil was the 9th most unequal country in the world and the most unequal in Latin America. The richest 1% of the population appropriated more than 25% of the national income. And the sum of the wealth of the richest 5% was equal to the sum of the wealth of the remaining 95% of the population. 80% of the Brazilian population – 165 million people – survived with an income of less than two minimum wages per month (R $1,908). And 0.1% of the richest portion concentrates in its hands 48% of all the national wealth. And the richest 10% get 74% of the national wealth. And 50% of the population –104 million Brazilians– share 3% of the country’s wealth.

• Translation assisted by Prof Dr Francisco Topa, Universidade de Porto.

• Read Part One here

  1. Frei Betto published his reflections on this period in A Mosca Azul: Reflexão sobre o poder, São Paulo 2006.
  2. Organização Odebrecht, is one of the largest engineering and construction companies in the Americas. It was founded in Salvador, Bahia, by Norberto Odebrecht in 1944. In 2016, the group admitted to illegal payments to politicians in such countries as the US, Switzerland and Brazil, settling in one of the largest consent decrees in the world.
  3. For a discussion of this topic see Karlheinz Deschner, God and the Fascists, 2013.
  4. For a detailed history of Rockefeller overt and covert promotion of right-wing “Pentecostal” religious groups throughout Latin America, especially in Brazil, see Gerald Colby and Charlotte Dennett, Thy Will Be Done, 1995.
  5. Roman Catholic Monsignor Oscar Romero was murdered by a US-funded death squad, while saying mass in San Salvador on 24 March 1980. He was canonised in October 2018 under Pope Francis. Romero was probably the most notorious victim of the US “Phoenix” political warfare operations throughout Central America. His elevation to sainthood has been seen as at least partial vindication of liberation theology in Latin America—persecuted both politically and ecclesiastically during the previous papacies.
  6. Lula was committed to prison prior to the presidential elections (thus disqualifying him) by a judge who flagrantly disregarded the law whereby an accused is entitled to exhaust the course of appeal before a sentence is enforced.
  7. The Folha de S. Paulo reported in the third week January that the investigation of Flavio Bolsonaro was suspended last week due to his immunity as a deputy and his election to the Brazilian senate. However, new accusations have been made.
  8. “Operação Lava Jato”. This is a kind of designation for police investigations into suspicions of large-scale criminal activity, especially corruption, common to Brazil and Portugal (e.g. Operação Marquês, ongoing). Lavo Jato is a combination of investigations conducted by Brazil’s federal police into corruption, obstruction of justice, etc. that began in 2014.

Cuba: Trump Turns the Vise

January the 1st, 2019 marked the 60th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. Back in December 1958 the city of Santa Clara fell to the combined forces of Che Guevara, Cienfuegos, and Revolutionary Directorate (RD) rebels led by Comandantes Rolando Cubela, Juan (“El Mejicano”) Abrahantes, and William Alexander Morgan. Upon hearing the news of the defeat of his forces by the Fidel Castro-led revolutionaries, Batista left Cuba and flew to the Dominican Republic on 1 January 1959.

Havana (October 2018)

Since then the Cuban people have struggled to maintain their independence as allies came and went and enemies tried to reverse the revolution. In recent years President Obama attempted to normalise relations between Cuba and the United States (known as the Cuban Thaw) by reducing U.S. travel and remittances restrictions and reopening the U.S. embassy in Havana and the Cuban embassy in Washington. Obama even became the first U.S. President to visit Cuba since 1928.

However, since the election of Donald Trump many of these gains have been reversed.

Havana (October, 2018)

In November 2018 the US government reversed the positive changes brought in by Obama. The Trump government will disallow most individual visits and (as before Obama’s changes) Americans will have to travel in groups licensed for specific purposes. Most importantly Americans will be barred from staying in state-owned hotels, and frequenting state-owned restaurants and stores. The plan seems to be to starve the government of revenue while at the same time encouraging the growth of the private sector;  e.g., private accommodation and restaurants.

Havana (October, 2018)

A recent article noted:

The Trump administration is adding new names to a list of Cuban tourist attractions that Americans are barred from visiting. The 26 names range from the new five-star Iberostar Grand Packard and Paseo del Prado hotels in Old Havana to modest shopping centers in beach-side resorts far from the capital. All are barred because they are owned by Cuba’s military business conglomerate, GAESA.

Santa Clara (October, 2018) Che Guevara Mausoleum

Adding to these difficulties is the existence of two operating currencies: the Cuban peso (CUP) and the Cuban convertible peso (CUC). The CUC is pegged to the dollar and is worth 25 times more than the CUP. One Cuban convertible peso (CUC) is about one Euro. Most Cuban citizens are paid in CUP but consumer goods are priced in CUC. While it was announced a few years ago that this system was going to end, it is still going strong.

Havana (October, 2018)

Disparity

It is a system that could cause major problems for the government. While most citizens are paid in CUP — 1000-2000 pesos (40-80 Euros) per month — those working in the tourism sector can earn CUC. One can earn 30 CUC (30 Euros) driving a tourist from the airport to the centre of Old Havana or 20 CUC (20 Euros) a night in a private Airbnb room letting.  The local bars, restaurants and even supermarkets all use CUC. Cigar factory workers are paid in CUP, yet one Cohiba cigar could cost 10 CUC in the factory shop. On my recent trip there I asked the bar and restaurant staff in Havana for CUP notes (the three peso note carries a picture of Che Guevara) only to find them asking all their workmates if they had any CUP and eventually arriving back triumphantly with the requested notes and handing them to me as a gift, demonstrating the growing gap in the value of the two currencies.

Havana (October, 2018)

Is it possible that the growing disparity between those who earn CUP and those who earn CUC is creating a well-off new middle class? It is interesting to note that Trump’s Cuban policies seem to be created to ensure the exacerbation of these discrepancies. Is there a political strategy developing here? If we look at the essential elements of recent Colour Revolutions we generally find the combination of a disgruntled middle class and mobile data access to the internet.

To avail of the internet in Havana most people buy ETECSA prepaid internet cards and go to a nearby WiFi hotspot (usually the local park). However, data packages are becoming available. They are expensive if you are earning only CUP and only the relatively well-off will be able to afford them (e.g. 4GB of data for $30 – a month’s wages in CUP). But for those working in the tourist sector this should be affordable potentially creating the basis for a powerful social media in Cuba.

The growth of the private sector can be seen in the number of new private restaurants, bnb/pension type accommodation, cafes and bars in Havana. Yet many of the Cubans I met could not afford to buy even a sandwich in the cafes as they are priced in CUC. The collapse of state enterprises already under a lot of stress could lead to cheap real estate being bought up by the cash-rich and generally benefit non-supporters of Castro and left wing ideology, politically and financially.

As it is, there is increasing pressure on the government with only 1.2 percent growth in the economy and a 40 percent drop in Venezuelan oil deliveries (since 2014) in a society where state-run companies account for and control most economic activity.

Havana (October, 2018)

Embargoes

The difficulties for the Cuban people are increased by the ongoing United States-led embargo against Cuba. In October 2018 the UN General Assembly adopted its annual resolution to end the embargo. Ma Zhaoxu, China’s permanent representative to the United Nations stated that the blockade “is contrary to the principle of the United Nations Charter and cause[s] huge financial and economic damage for Cuba” and “hinders Cuba’s ability to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals”.

For the Cuban people it will be a case of ‘resist to exist’ like the Palestinian situation but in Cuba one can see frustration and determination for a better life all around. The 60th anniversary celebrations of 2019 will be a most important symbolic reminder in the discussions on the differing possible paths for Cuba’s future.

• All photos by Caoimhghin Ó Croidheáin

The Illusion of the Rich: an Island of Prosperity surrounded by Misery and Suffering

Frei Betto spoke with the author at the Dominican convent in São Paulo, Brazil.

Frei Betto (Carlos Alberto Libânio Christo) was born in 1944 in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. He began his political engagement as Catholic student and was imprisoned by the military regime that seized power in 1964 and ruled until 1985. I interviewed him first in 1986 after the publication of his book of interviews Fidel and Religion. This is the first of two interviews given in December after the election of Jair Bolsonaro as president of Brazil.1

*****

Dr. T.P. Wilkinson: When we met in 1986, the Brazilian military regime was considered at an end and elected government was to be restored. 32 years later a man has been elected who claims allegiance to the military regime. He is quoted saying the military should have tortured less and killed more. You were imprisoned under that regime. Could you briefly sketch the developments in Brazil since 1986 as you saw them? Has Brazil returned to military-style rule, if not actual dictatorship?

Frei Betto: The Brazilian military dictatorship began in 1964 and ended in 1985. The civil society of our country has made important accomplishments since then: a new constitution approved in 1988, called the “Civilian Constitution”; social movements of national scale, like the CUT (Unique Workers Central), the MST (Landless Workers Movement), the CMP (Popular Movements Central) and the MTST (Homeless Movement Workers).

We elect five and a half presidential terms, led by progressive politicians: Fernando Henrique Cardoso (two terms, 1995-1998 and 1999-2002), Lula (2003-2006 and 2007-2010) and Dilma Rousseff (2011-2014 and 2015-2016, when it was ended in a leadership coup by vice president Michel Temer). In this period, from 1995 until 2016, Brazil made significant advances in the social sphere, with a reduction of inequality and the inclusion of thousands of families that previously lived in misery and poverty. Only under the Lula government, 36 million people found social inclusion.

TPW: In the 1980s there were several prominent people in the Church who were identified with democratic ideals, peace and justice, for example, Cardinal Arns in Sao Paulo — and as whom I met later Archbishop Dennis Hurley in Durban. There were also ecumenical movements pursuing justice in Brazil and South Africa. However, it seems that once the military dictatorship was ended and the apartheid government replaced by the ANC, the Church lost its profile and many of those people associated with the struggles left the stage. Is there still an active Church-based movement in Brazil and where is it now? What challenges does it face?

FB:  It is necessary to understand that the end of the dictatorship in Brazil coincided with the election of John Paul II, followed by Benedict XVI. There were 34 years of conservative pontificates that did not support the line of the CEB (basic church communities) and the theology of liberation. This opened space for the evangelical churches with their conservative profile.

There still exists at the base a church that is alive and combative, but without prominent figures like Cardinal Arns and Dom Pedro Casaldáliga. Fortunately with Pope Francis this progressive pastoral work resumes. The canonisation of Monsignor Oscar Romero was very important for the recognition of the Church of liberation and the poor. And it is very active in Brazil and Latin America with feminist theology, indigenous theology, black theology and eco-theology.

TPW:  In 1986, there was still a Soviet Union, a GDR, and “competition” in Europe to demonstrate the “best” social-economic system for the majority of citizens. By 1990, all that was gone. Two years ago Fidel Castro died. It is putting it mildly to say the world has changed since 1986. It has been argued that the Soviet Union actually contributed little to social-economic justice in the rest of the world, despite claims to the contrary. However, since its demise there appears to be no limit to the expansion and aggressivity of the “Western” system. Unrestricted capitalism has “won”. It would appear that there is no longer a vision of what a just world could look like capable of providing orientation, especially on a global scale. You are certainly critical but not a pessimist. Where do you see the potential for social justice in future? What obstacles do you consider most important to overcome?

FB: Socialism had the merit of forcing the rich world to concede more rights to workers. Without the communist “threat”, there would have been no welfare state in Western Europe. Now, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, capitalism no longer needs rings because it does not lose its fingers… It has changed its productive phase for one of speculation and, as Piketty demonstrates, concentrates ever more profits into fewer hands.2

This gaping inequality has a limit, which is the desperation of the poor, like the waves of refugees flooding into the world of the rich and the demonstrations in France, the yellow vests. It is an illusion of the rich to think that they can have an island of prosperity surrounded by misery and suffering.

Seven centuries before Christ, the prophet Isaíah already preached that peace can only exist with the fruits of justice. And we can add today: there will never be peace as a simple balance of weapons.

TPW: Your interviews with Castro revealed a remarkable man quite different from the personality depicted or caricatured since the Cuban Revolution succeeded in 1959. Anyone who followed his writing and speeches, even after retirement, could see that your portrait was accurate and sincere. The survival of the Cuban Revolution after the fall of the Soviet Union could be seen as proof that it was not a “Soviet creation” but a genuinely Cuban phenomenon, like Castro himself. In fact, Cuba managed, despite US policy, to support social-economic change in Latin America, especially in cooperation with Chavez in Venezuela. How do you see Cuba today, especially in relation to its Latin American neighbours?

FB: Cuba resists despite all pressure from the White House. Today, all Latin American countries support Cuban sovereignty and vote in the UN, with the support of more than 170 countries, for the suspension of the blockade. For Cuba’s economy, so damaged by the isolation the country has been condemned to, relations with the progressive governments of Latin America and the world are very important. However, Venezuela faces a serious economic crisis. And Brazil—starting in January—will be governed by a fascist party allied with the US policy of preserving the blockade. Fortunately Mexico now has a progressive government that can strengthen ties of solidarity with Cuba, especially by absorbing Cuban doctors who have been expelled from Brazil.3

TPW: Venezuela has been under a kind of siege since Chavez became president that is at least as challenging as the US embargo of Cuba. Now Brazil has a president who has announced a very aggressive attitude toward the government in Caracas. Venezuela is not as radical as Cuba was. Chavez and Castro were sometimes presented as if they were a pair, both with very personalistic leadership styles. Have you formed a view of the situation in Venezuela, a direct neighbour of Brazil? Sometime around 1962 the US initiated activities that culminated in the 1964 military coup in Brazil under the pretext that Goulart would align Brazil with Cuba and the Soviet Union — something to prevent. Do you see an international context to the recent presidential election results — especially given the vitriolic statements made about Venezuela by the new president and the intense conflict between the US and both Russia and China — part of the so-called BRICS group?

FB:  I think tensions between US and both China and Russia will worsen. The Cold War is back. And Latin America is the target of this conflict. The countries of the Continent know that they cannot go on without the import of their products by China. And they fear Trump’s protectionist measures. So my assessment is that this reheating of the Cold War will be favorable to the Latin American economy.

TPW:  You are described among other places on the website of the Dominican Order in Germany as a “political activist“. One could say that the Dominican order, the OP, was founded as an “activist” order. Not everyone would agree that the order’s history of activism has been very positive — especially those familiar with the history of the Inquisition. Did your activism grow out of your vocation or do you believe your choice to become a Dominican was shaped by an at least latent desire to “preach”, to be an activist? How do you see your activism as a Dominican and the contradictions of the order’s role in history?

FB:  The Dominican Order, like our families, has its side of light and its side of darkness. There is no chemically pure institution. In 800 years of history, the Order had the sad page of the Inquisition, but is also proud to have had among its friars Thomas Aquinas, Savonarola, Giordano Bruno, Fra Angelico, Master Eckhart, Vitoria, Tomaso de Campanella, Bartolomé de las Casas and Father Lebret.

I entered the Dominicans because of my admiration for their presence in Brazil, along with the indigenous movement, the student movement and popular movements. I did not know that I am inscribed in the annals of the German Dominicans as a “political activist.” This honors me very much, because it puts me next to another political activist, Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus did not die of hepatitis in bed, but like so many political prisoners in Latin America: he was arrested, tortured, tried by two political powers and sentenced to death on the cross. I thank God for being a disciple of this political prisoner who, within Caesar’s reign, announced another possible kingdom, that of God.

  1. Translation assisted by Prof Dr Francisco Topa, Universidade de Porto.
  2. Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2013).
  3. In the wake of his election, Jair Bolsonaro demanded that several thousand Cuban physicians employed in parts of the Brazil with little or no medical care would have to leave the country if the Cuban government did not comply with his demands that full wages be paid in Brazil and that families be permitted to move to Brazil with the seconded medical personnel. The Cuban government rejected this attempt by Brazil to extract Cuban medical professionals and deprive Cuba of the income agreed under the Dilmar (PT) government in return for Cuba’s medical mission. See “Cuba to pull doctors out of Brazil after President-elect Bolsonaro comments”, The Guardian, 14 November 2018.

Multifaceted Attack Against Venezuela on Eve of Maduro Inauguration

Venezuelan President Nicholás Maduro’s inauguration for his second term on January 10 is targeted by the US, the allied Lima Group, and the hardline Venezuelan opposition.  They have demanded that Maduro refuse inauguration. A multifaceted attack aimed at regime change is underway using sanctions, military threats, and a campaign of delegitimization to replace the democratically elected president.

Since President Hugo Chávez began his first term as president in 1999, the Bolivarian Republic has promoted regional integration and independence, resisted neoliberalism, opposed “free trade” agreements that would compromise national autonomy, and supported the emergence of a multipolar world. On account of these policies, Chávez (1999-2013) and now Maduro, have faced relentless attacks by the colossus to the north. Today the Maduro administration faces the challenges of defending national sovereignty from imperial domination and overcoming crippling US sanctions that have exacerbated a severe economic crisis.

The US has brazenly announced its consideration of a “military option” against Caracas and has assembled a coalition of the willing in Colombia and Brazil to prepare for an eventual “humanitarian” intervention. Most alarming is that the US seems indifferent to the consequences of such an invasion, which could easily become a regional and global conflagration involving Colombia, Brazil, and even Russia and China.

What the US finds particularly infuriating is that Maduro had the temerity to run for re-election in May 2018 after the US demanded he resign. The US State Department had issued warnings four months prior to the election that the process “will be illegitimate” and the results “will not be recognized.” US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley insisted that Maduro abdicate and presidential elections be postponed.

The Venezuelan National Electoral Commission rejected this diktat from Washington. On May 20, 2018, the Venezuelan electorate had the audacity to re-elect Maduro by a 67.84% majority with a participation rate of 46.07% (representing 9,389,056 voters). Two opposition candidates ran for office, Henri Falcón and Javier Bertucci, despite a boycott orchestrated by opposition hardliners and the US.

New Phase in the Campaign Against Venezuela

The campaign to bring about regime change enters a new phase with the inauguration of President Maduro for a second term. With no legal standing or representation inside Venezuela, the Lima Group has now become a major protagonist of  a soft coup in Venezuela.

Just five days before the inauguration, at a meeting held in the capital of Peru, 13 out of 14 members of the Lima Group issued a declaration urging Maduro “not to assume the presidency on January 10… and to temporarily transfer the executive power to the National Assembly until a new, democratic presidential poll is held.”

The following day, Andres Pastrana, former president of Colombia, a member nation of the Lima Group, tweeted that the new president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, should “now assume the presidency of the government of transition as established in the constitution beginning the 10th of January and as requested by the Lima Group.”

In a speech delivered before the Venezuelan National Assembly on January 5, Guaidó stopped short of claiming executive power, but declared that starting January 10, Maduro ought to be considered an “usurper” and “dictator.” Guaidó also urged convening a transitional government that would hold new elections and “authorize” intervention from abroad.

Although the US is not a formal member of the Lima Group, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, participated in the meeting by teleconference. Pompeo had returned earlier in the week from a visit to Brazil and Colombia, during which, according to a senior State Department official, Maduro’s inauguration was on the agenda:

There’s a very important date that is coming up, which is the 10th of January, where Maduro will hand over power to himself based on an election that many governments in the region and globally have condemned, including the United States, . . . as illegitimate. So we will be discussing, I’m sure, our joint efforts with Colombia and with the region to address this new era beginning on the 10th of January in Venezuela.

The US Imperial Project

US policy towards Venezuela has three strategic objectives: privileged access to Venezuela’s natural resources (e.g., the world’s largest petroleum reserves and second largest gold deposits), restoration of a neoliberal regime obedient to Washington, and limitation of any movement towards regional independence.

These US objectives are conditioned by a continuing adherence to the Monroe Doctrine for Latin America and the Caribbean, the so-called “backyard” of the US empire. The contemporary mutation of the 1823 imperial doctrine entails a new Cold War against Russia and China and hostility to any regional integration independent of US hegemony.

Back in the 1980s-90s during Venezuela’s Fourth Republic, local elites afforded Washington preferential access to Venezuela’s rich natural resources and dutifully imposed a neoliberal economic model on the country. Currently, US policy appears aimed at re-establishing such a client state.

However, to bring about such a return, the US imperial project would have to change not only the Venezuelan leadership but dismantle the institutions and even the symbols of the Bolivarian revolution. The devastating US economic sanctions are designed to increase economic hardship in order to ultimately break the will of the chavista base and fracture the Venezuelan military as well as the civic-military alliance. This breakdown would presumably pave the way for installation of a provisional government.

It is time once again to give peace a chance. But Washington has opted for the collision course set by the Lima Group as well as the Secretary General of the Washington-based Organization of American States (OAS) over efforts of the Vatican and former prime minister of Spain, Luis Zapatero, to broker dialogue between the government and the opposition. The imperial project is abetted by the conservative restoration in Brazil and Argentina and the electoral victory of uribistas in Colombia.

Multifaceted War Against Venezuela and the Bolivarian Response

Washington is engaging in a multifaceted war against Venezuela by deploying economic sanctions, backing a campaign to install a transitional government, and preparing proxy military and paramilitary forces for an eventual intervention.

On August 4, 2018, a failed assassination attempt against President Maduro did not draw condemnation from either Washington or the Lima Group. On November 4, according to Venezuelan Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino, three Bolivarian National Guard were killed and ten wounded in an attack by Colombian paramilitary forces in the frontier region of Amazonas. On December 5, the Brazilian vice president-elect Hamilton Mourão declared: “there will be a coup in Venezuela . . . And the United Nations will have to intervene through a peace force . . . and there is Brazil’s role: to lead this peace force.”

On December 12, 2018, President Maduro reported that “734 members of a paramilitary  group called G8 was training [in the city of Tona, Colombia] for attacks against military units in the frontier states of Zulia, Tachira, Apure and Amazonas.” This report ought to be taken seriously given the presence of eight US military bases in Colombia,  the recent association of Bogotá with NATO, Colombia’s rejection of direct communication with Venezuelan authorities, and its participation in US-led military exercises over the past two years. Last week, US Secretary of State Pompeo visited Colombia and Brazil to shore up joint efforts to “restore of democracy” in Venezuela.

In response, Venezuela has been fortifying the civic-military alliance built up over the past two decades. The National Guard, military, and militias (now over 1,600,000 strong) have been able so far to fend off several terrorist attacks against public institutions and government leaders as well as an assassination attempt against President Maduro in August.

Caracas has also been developing close military cooperation with Russia and consolidating ties with China. With the recent visit of a pair of its TU 160 heavy bombers to Venezuela, Russia has demonstrated its ability to transport armaments more than 10,000 kilometers at supersonic speeds should the Caribbean nation come under attack by a foreign power.  China has entered into agreements for massive economic cooperation with Venezuela, partially offsetting the punishing US sanctions. Also, the visit of a Chinese navy hospital ship in September subtly signaled Chinese military support of Venezuela.

Shifting Geopolitical Environment

Although the Lima Group now backs a soft coup in Venezuela, with the inauguration of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) as President of Mexico in December, the group has lost the support of one of its key members. Mexico declined to sign on to the latest Lima Group declaration and warned against “measures that obstruct a dialogue to face the crisis in Venezuela.” Maximiliano Reyes, Mexico’s deputy foreign minister, said: “We call for reflection in the Lima Group about the consequences for Venezuelans of measures that seek to interfere in [their] internal affairs.”

The extreme partisanship of Secretary General of the OAS Luis Almagro against Venezuela has undermined his standing. In September 2018, Uruguayan President Tabaré Vázquez declared that Uruguay would not support Almagro for a second term as Secretary General of the OAS.  Almagro was finally expelled from his own political party in Uruguay, the Frente Amplio, in December 2018, largely for his statements in Colombia about the need to retain a military option against Venezuela.

In December 2018, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America  (ALBA-TCP) held its 16th meeting in Cuba, declaring its “concern for the aggression and actions against regional peace and security, especially the threats of the use of force against the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.” ALBA was founded by Venezuela and Cuba and is now comprised of ten nations.

No Other Choice but Resistance

The Venezuelan people have a long history of resistance to foreign domination and are not likely to view a US-backed “humanitarian intervention” as a liberating force. Nor are the popular sectors likely to support an unelected “transitional government” with a self-appointed Supreme Court in exile which is currently based in Bogotá, Colombia. And if the coalition of the willing includes Colombian paramilitary forces who are notorious for their role in the murder of community activists inside Colombia, their deployment in the event of a “humanitarian” mission would be abhorrent inside Venezuela.

The 1973 US-backed coup in Chile, followed by a lethal cleansing of that nation of leftists, is a cautionary lesson. Add to this the historic memory of the political repression during Venezuela’s discredited Fourth Republic and the Caracazo of 1989, in which the most marginalized and poor were the main victims, and it would be no surprise should the popular sectors have only one thing to offer a provisional government bent on inviting imperial intervention: resistance.

• Note: All translations from the Spanish to English are unofficial.

Multifaceted Attack Against Venezuela on Eve of Maduro Inauguration

Venezuelan President Nicholás Maduro’s inauguration for his second term on January 10 is targeted by the US, the allied Lima Group, and the hardline Venezuelan opposition.  They have demanded that Maduro refuse inauguration. A multifaceted attack aimed at regime change is underway using sanctions, military threats, and a campaign of delegitimization to replace the democratically elected president.

Since President Hugo Chávez began his first term as president in 1999, the Bolivarian Republic has promoted regional integration and independence, resisted neoliberalism, opposed “free trade” agreements that would compromise national autonomy, and supported the emergence of a multipolar world. On account of these policies, Chávez (1999-2013) and now Maduro, have faced relentless attacks by the colossus to the north. Today the Maduro administration faces the challenges of defending national sovereignty from imperial domination and overcoming crippling US sanctions that have exacerbated a severe economic crisis.

The US has brazenly announced its consideration of a “military option” against Caracas and has assembled a coalition of the willing in Colombia and Brazil to prepare for an eventual “humanitarian” intervention. Most alarming is that the US seems indifferent to the consequences of such an invasion, which could easily become a regional and global conflagration involving Colombia, Brazil, and even Russia and China.

What the US finds particularly infuriating is that Maduro had the temerity to run for re-election in May 2018 after the US demanded he resign. The US State Department had issued warnings four months prior to the election that the process “will be illegitimate” and the results “will not be recognized.” US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley insisted that Maduro abdicate and presidential elections be postponed.

The Venezuelan National Electoral Commission rejected this diktat from Washington. On May 20, 2018, the Venezuelan electorate had the audacity to re-elect Maduro by a 67.84% majority with a participation rate of 46.07% (representing 9,389,056 voters). Two opposition candidates ran for office, Henri Falcón and Javier Bertucci, despite a boycott orchestrated by opposition hardliners and the US.

New Phase in the Campaign Against Venezuela

The campaign to bring about regime change enters a new phase with the inauguration of President Maduro for a second term. With no legal standing or representation inside Venezuela, the Lima Group has now become a major protagonist of  a soft coup in Venezuela.

Just five days before the inauguration, at a meeting held in the capital of Peru, 13 out of 14 members of the Lima Group issued a declaration urging Maduro “not to assume the presidency on January 10… and to temporarily transfer the executive power to the National Assembly until a new, democratic presidential poll is held.”

The following day, Andres Pastrana, former president of Colombia, a member nation of the Lima Group, tweeted that the new president of Venezuela’s National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, should “now assume the presidency of the government of transition as established in the constitution beginning the 10th of January and as requested by the Lima Group.”

In a speech delivered before the Venezuelan National Assembly on January 5, Guaidó stopped short of claiming executive power, but declared that starting January 10, Maduro ought to be considered an “usurper” and “dictator.” Guaidó also urged convening a transitional government that would hold new elections and “authorize” intervention from abroad.

Although the US is not a formal member of the Lima Group, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, participated in the meeting by teleconference. Pompeo had returned earlier in the week from a visit to Brazil and Colombia, during which, according to a senior State Department official, Maduro’s inauguration was on the agenda:

There’s a very important date that is coming up, which is the 10th of January, where Maduro will hand over power to himself based on an election that many governments in the region and globally have condemned, including the United States, . . . as illegitimate. So we will be discussing, I’m sure, our joint efforts with Colombia and with the region to address this new era beginning on the 10th of January in Venezuela.

The US Imperial Project

US policy towards Venezuela has three strategic objectives: privileged access to Venezuela’s natural resources (e.g., the world’s largest petroleum reserves and second largest gold deposits), restoration of a neoliberal regime obedient to Washington, and limitation of any movement towards regional independence.

These US objectives are conditioned by a continuing adherence to the Monroe Doctrine for Latin America and the Caribbean, the so-called “backyard” of the US empire. The contemporary mutation of the 1823 imperial doctrine entails a new Cold War against Russia and China and hostility to any regional integration independent of US hegemony.

Back in the 1980s-90s during Venezuela’s Fourth Republic, local elites afforded Washington preferential access to Venezuela’s rich natural resources and dutifully imposed a neoliberal economic model on the country. Currently, US policy appears aimed at re-establishing such a client state.

However, to bring about such a return, the US imperial project would have to change not only the Venezuelan leadership but dismantle the institutions and even the symbols of the Bolivarian revolution. The devastating US economic sanctions are designed to increase economic hardship in order to ultimately break the will of the chavista base and fracture the Venezuelan military as well as the civic-military alliance. This breakdown would presumably pave the way for installation of a provisional government.

It is time once again to give peace a chance. But Washington has opted for the collision course set by the Lima Group as well as the Secretary General of the Washington-based Organization of American States (OAS) over efforts of the Vatican and former prime minister of Spain, Luis Zapatero, to broker dialogue between the government and the opposition. The imperial project is abetted by the conservative restoration in Brazil and Argentina and the electoral victory of uribistas in Colombia.

Multifaceted War Against Venezuela and the Bolivarian Response

Washington is engaging in a multifaceted war against Venezuela by deploying economic sanctions, backing a campaign to install a transitional government, and preparing proxy military and paramilitary forces for an eventual intervention.

On August 4, 2018, a failed assassination attempt against President Maduro did not draw condemnation from either Washington or the Lima Group. On November 4, according to Venezuelan Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino, three Bolivarian National Guard were killed and ten wounded in an attack by Colombian paramilitary forces in the frontier region of Amazonas. On December 5, the Brazilian vice president-elect Hamilton Mourão declared: “there will be a coup in Venezuela . . . And the United Nations will have to intervene through a peace force . . . and there is Brazil’s role: to lead this peace force.”

On December 12, 2018, President Maduro reported that “734 members of a paramilitary  group called G8 was training [in the city of Tona, Colombia] for attacks against military units in the frontier states of Zulia, Tachira, Apure and Amazonas.” This report ought to be taken seriously given the presence of eight US military bases in Colombia,  the recent association of Bogotá with NATO, Colombia’s rejection of direct communication with Venezuelan authorities, and its participation in US-led military exercises over the past two years. Last week, US Secretary of State Pompeo visited Colombia and Brazil to shore up joint efforts to “restore of democracy” in Venezuela.

In response, Venezuela has been fortifying the civic-military alliance built up over the past two decades. The National Guard, military, and militias (now over 1,600,000 strong) have been able so far to fend off several terrorist attacks against public institutions and government leaders as well as an assassination attempt against President Maduro in August.

Caracas has also been developing close military cooperation with Russia and consolidating ties with China. With the recent visit of a pair of its TU 160 heavy bombers to Venezuela, Russia has demonstrated its ability to transport armaments more than 10,000 kilometers at supersonic speeds should the Caribbean nation come under attack by a foreign power.  China has entered into agreements for massive economic cooperation with Venezuela, partially offsetting the punishing US sanctions. Also, the visit of a Chinese navy hospital ship in September subtly signaled Chinese military support of Venezuela.

Shifting Geopolitical Environment

Although the Lima Group now backs a soft coup in Venezuela, with the inauguration of Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) as President of Mexico in December, the group has lost the support of one of its key members. Mexico declined to sign on to the latest Lima Group declaration and warned against “measures that obstruct a dialogue to face the crisis in Venezuela.” Maximiliano Reyes, Mexico’s deputy foreign minister, said: “We call for reflection in the Lima Group about the consequences for Venezuelans of measures that seek to interfere in [their] internal affairs.”

The extreme partisanship of Secretary General of the OAS Luis Almagro against Venezuela has undermined his standing. In September 2018, Uruguayan President Tabaré Vázquez declared that Uruguay would not support Almagro for a second term as Secretary General of the OAS.  Almagro was finally expelled from his own political party in Uruguay, the Frente Amplio, in December 2018, largely for his statements in Colombia about the need to retain a military option against Venezuela.

In December 2018, the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America  (ALBA-TCP) held its 16th meeting in Cuba, declaring its “concern for the aggression and actions against regional peace and security, especially the threats of the use of force against the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela.” ALBA was founded by Venezuela and Cuba and is now comprised of ten nations.

No Other Choice but Resistance

The Venezuelan people have a long history of resistance to foreign domination and are not likely to view a US-backed “humanitarian intervention” as a liberating force. Nor are the popular sectors likely to support an unelected “transitional government” with a self-appointed Supreme Court in exile which is currently based in Bogotá, Colombia. And if the coalition of the willing includes Colombian paramilitary forces who are notorious for their role in the murder of community activists inside Colombia, their deployment in the event of a “humanitarian” mission would be abhorrent inside Venezuela.

The 1973 US-backed coup in Chile, followed by a lethal cleansing of that nation of leftists, is a cautionary lesson. Add to this the historic memory of the political repression during Venezuela’s discredited Fourth Republic and the Caracazo of 1989, in which the most marginalized and poor were the main victims, and it would be no surprise should the popular sectors have only one thing to offer a provisional government bent on inviting imperial intervention: resistance.

• Note: All translations from the Spanish to English are unofficial.

Cuba’s First Military Doctors (Part 2)

[Part 1 of this article addressed the need for Cuba’s participation in conflicts in Zaire, the Congo and Guinea-Bissau during the 1960s to remain concealed for over three decades. It covered the background to the struggles, what Cubans found in Africa, the role of race relations in Cuba’s campaigns, and the recruitment of doctors. Part 2 explores the working conditions of revolutionary military doctors, physical and emotional consequences on participating physicians, interactions with African civilians, Cuba’s first large medical scholarship program, the first mass vaccination effort in Africa, and how Cuba’s military and medical efforts affected Africa.]

Military Doctors at Work

Physicians found working conditions to be quite different from Cuban polyclinics.  It was very clear to Virgilio Camacho that “although I was a doctor, I was armed because at any moment I might have to participate in combat.”1 The Cuban doctors practiced in small groups.  In the Congo, the group of Rodrigo Álvarez included a surgeon, an orthopedic, and two pediatricians.  Later, they were joined by an anesthesiologist nurse and dentists.2 In 1966, Domingo Díaz traveled toward Guinea-Bissau as 1 of 9 physicians.  Once there, he was assigned to Saará in the northern region where there were “the only three doctors and there were no Cuban nurses.”  They worked closely with several young Guineans and trained them as nurses.3

Since the Cuban staff rotated and PAIGC policy was to understate the extent of their involvement, some writers are not aware of the more than 40 Cuban doctors who served in Guinea-Bissau between 1966 and 1974 as historian Piero Gleijeses carefully documents.4

The physicians were forced to minimize their use of modest resources.  When Amado Alfonso Delgado reached his assigned eastern front in Guinea-Bissau he found the hospital grounds consisted of “four huts: one for the wounded; one was a kitchen; one for supplies; and one, a little further away, for the doctor.”5

Juan Antonio Sánchez “was in Tanzania for a military mission from 1969 to 1970.  I was a medical internist at Pemba Island.  Cuba had permission from Tanzanian government as long as their presence was secret.  There were no Cuban troops, only three doctors.”  Their “operating room had been a garage.”6

The priority for Cuban doctors was always the health of combatants.  They were treated for bullet wounds, fractures and health issues such as hernias and tropical diseases.  There were many surgeries including the one in which Héctor Vera participated:

Four men who had been injured by a grenade arrived.  The one who was seriously injured was operated on at night and survived.  We put him on a table; Che held a lantern; Oliva gave him anesthesia; Tabito operated; Lagomasino worked as an assistant; and I observed.7

Virgilio Camacho was in the southern front of Guinea-Bissau where the Portuguese frequently ambushed civilians who helped supply the military.  Several Cubans died or were injured in these attacks.8 Amado Alfonso Delgado illustrates the difficulties of surgery during combat:

We operated whenever there were battles. Small reconnaissance planes passed overhead frequently, and when they returned multiple times we moved the camp because an attack was almost certain to follow.  The hospital was burned four times.  Every time a plane flew overhead two times they attacked us … We were between two rivers.  Planes and boats kept coming by and destroyed almost all the canoes we could use to flee … Most of the time we operated in places where we could set up a tiny hospital.  They brought us people who had stepped on a mine or were wounded in an ambush.  Almost always the wounded arrived at night and we had to operate by the light of bundles of grass.  I did about 50 operations like this including several amputations.  We cut dry grass, folded it over, and tied it with straw, and used it as a candle.  Sometimes we couldn’t see what we were operating on, even with 8 or 10 wicks like this.9

Other than Military Medicine

Cubans felt obligated to treat civilians injured in attacks which meant that there was an overlap between military and non-military medicine.  Amado Alfonso Delgado became acutely aware that a lack of specialists had its costs.  He describes an event in Guinea-Bissau:

…a bomb fell very close to a woman and injured her in the abdomen.  Since I didn’t have my assistant with me, I had to read from a booklet to find out how to apply anesthesia.  I had to open her abdomen to see if she had peritonitis.  I gave her a local anesthetic, and just as I was about to give the general, a plane dropped a bomb very close to us.  The woman jumped up with her wound half open and ran away.  I never saw her again.  Later I learned that she had been found dead four kilometers from the tiny hospital.10

Domingo Díaz had a more positive experience in the northern front:

One day in Saará they brought us a boy about four years old named Kumba who had a large wound in his left leg.  His good spirit impressed us; he didn’t have a tear or expression of pain.  A few hours before the Portuguese attacked a nearby village that had no combatants and no protection.  Luckily, they were able to bring this little boy to our small rural hospital.  We cleaned the very dirty wound and partially sutured it because we didn’t want future complications such as gangrene.   During all the treatment without anesthesia, Kumba continued as before, without a tear or expression of pain.11

Cuban officials knew that the behavior of doctors toward civilians was as important for diplomatic relationships as troop discipline was for military advances.  When Cuban physicians first went to Algeria in 1963, Raúl Castro issued a strict code of conduct that included a prohibition of alcohol and intimate relations with women, and demanded absolute respect for Algerian traditions.  Che spoke to physicians in Zaire of the moral aspect of their mission: “I don’t want any scandal.  Anyone who is undisciplined will have to be counseled or sent back to Cuba.”  A couple of years later, the Cuban command in Guinea-Bissau replaced a doctor accused of not showing respect for local customs.12

The importance of this respect grew as contact between Cubans and Africans became closer.  Unlike Catholic and Protestant missionary doctors who stayed at fixed locations and required Africans to come to them, Cubans went on long walks to isolated villages to provide care.  As Zaireans learned of the arrival of Cuban doctors, “peasants from the surrounding area flocked in.”  Before the Cubans arrived, only nine doctors had provided care for 850,000 Congolese.  Hugo Spadafora, a Panamanian who was the only foreign doctor with the PAIGC, wrote that when the Cuban physicians arrived with medicine and equipment, “the quality of the hospital’s care increase exponentially.”13

The guidelines laid out by Raúl and Che served Cuban efforts well.  While their military allies in Zaire were often accused of mistreating local people, there were “no reports of the Cubans perpetrating any crimes or acts of violence against the population.”14

Instead, the Cubans won people’s trust by doing countless simple procedures.  These included tooth extractions, operations for hernias and cataracts, and treatments for high fever, diarrhea, confusion and stomach and shoulder pain.  In Tanzania, Justo Piñero recalled that “most patients were civilian and a few were military.  The most frequent problems were malnutrition, malaria, pneumonia and parasites.”15

Amado Alfonso Delgado learned to treat parasitic diseases he had never seen in Cuba:

I saw whole villages with trachoma, an infection of the eyes and eyelids that leaves people blind.  I visited villages where almost everyone was blind.  I saw people with advanced leprosy without fingers. There was a sickness, miasis, produced by a fly bite that causes an abscess from which worms grow.  Another produces boils on the body, called oncocerciasis, that is a type of filaria.  This disease has a special treatment.  There is a worm that gets under the skin and the Guineans use a little stick to which they fasten a palm thread and put it in the boil and roll it around until they pull out an enormous worm called ‘the worm of Guinea.’  There are many parasites and harmful insects such as the jigger flea (nigua), that gets under people’s skin in dry weather and causes a boil.  You have to extract the parasite, which looks like a tick.16

Perhaps the most unexpected tragedy was a Cuban soldier dying from eating a strawberry.  They had no idea of how acidic the fruit could be and he had a perforated ulcer.  “By the time he reached me” Domingo Díaz remembers, “he was in agony.  We did all we could to stop the bleeding, and since we didn’t have surgical instruments, we tried to move him to the small hospital in Boké.  But he died on the road.”17

Though the Cubans tried to attend to civilian medical needs, operations had to be authorized by the PAIGC zone director due to shortage of materials.  This required creative searches for alternative materials, such as using coconut water (which is sterile) in intravenous fluids.  On multiple occasions, Dr. Camacho “had to suture patients with domestic sewing thread,” which led to deal-making with local thread vendors.18

Truly International Medicine

The riches of Africa were being drained out as its people lay crippled or dying from totally curable diseases which did not peak the interest of wealthy Western investors.  This was the case with polio.  When Rodrigo Álvarez arrived in the Congo, he saw that:

Many suffered from polio.  I visited an asylum attended by a single nun which was full of children with this disease.  The children were crawling across the floor in very bare surroundings.  The nun didn’t have supplies or staff to deal with them.  I operated on dozens of these children … The French had left nothing of the infrastructure; there were no lawyers or engineers; and only two native doctors.2

Rodolfo Puente was the manager and one of the principle advocates for a polio vaccination campaign.  He ran into two Soviet medical staff who were vaccinating as one of their duties.  He asked for 5000 doses, which they happily gave him, and made arrangements with the mayor to vaccinate students.   Realizing the seriousness of the situation and knowing that Cuba had recently conducted its own polio vaccination campaign, Dr. Puente called MINSAP in Havana for permission to take on a similar endeavor.  MINSAP director Machado approved and assigned Dr. Helenio Ferrer, Cuba’s Director of Epidemiology, to fly to Moscow for the vaccines.  The Soviets agreed to provide 200,000 doses to the Congo for about $4000.  Following appeals by the Cubans, they agreed to donate the vaccines, which arrived in June 1966.19

There were too few doctors and nurses to administer the vaccines; but, since they were in a caramel, it was possible to train others to distribute them.  In cooperation with the Congolese government, its militia, the Federation of Women, and Cuban troops, Dr. Ferrer coordinated the vaccination of over 61,000 children in the first such campaign in Africa.20

However, the attempted coup of June 27 blocked administration of the second dose.  Since accounts tend to be vague regarding whether this would prevent the first dose from being effective, I asked that question directly to Dr. Justo Piñero, who was in the Congo from September 1966 to November 1967.  He explained that, “as a result of not getting the second dose, there would be the same rate of polio.”  He returned to the Congo in May 1969 and witnessed the Congolese Ministry of Public Health administering both doses, which were provided by the Soviets.  He strongly believed that the earlier joint experience with the Cubans was critical in making the 1969 effort successful.21

In Guinea-Bissau, Domingo Díaz’ group found themselves with no Cuban nurses, so they trained several local youth.  They were so impressed with the work of the Guineans that they obtained permission from Cabral to bring four back to attend Cuban nursing school, from which they graduated.3

A much larger venture happened earlier in the Congo when Cuban doctors noticed dedicated young people studying at night under street lights.  They asked the Congolese government about sending some of them to Cuba to study.  It agreed, and, on January 24, 1966, 254 youth boarded a ship for Havana.  This was the first time a significant number of foreign scholarship students went to Cuba.  Nevertheless, there were problems.  Rather than choosing students strictly on the basis of academic performance, many were selected according to personal connections or bribes.  By late 1967 more than 100 had returned home, at the request of themselves or Cuba.  Despite this, by 1978, 25 had Cuban medical degrees and others graduated as lab technicians or engineers.22

Cuban authorities soon decided that its military forces would leave Africa.  Yet medical personnel would continue with replacement teams of “pediatricians, orthopedics, surgeons, and ear-nose-throat specialists who would be civilians rather than military doctors.”23

Physicians, Heal Each Other

Cuban doctors provided preventive care and treatment not only to troops and civilians but also to themselves.  The most famous example was Che.  With him in Zaire, Rafaél Zerquera remembered the day Che’s malaria was complicated by an asthma attack.  Zerquera worried “How can I tell Fidel that I let Che die here?”  Che was not an exception.  Amado Alfonso Delgado, for example, treated himself three times for malaria.24

Virgilio Camacho spoke about how, soon after his arrival, acute jaundice caused another doctor, Jesús Pérez, to return to Cuba, leaving him with only one other doctor at their medical post.  A year later he was transferred to head the military hospital in Guinea-Bissau’s southern front because a doctor there was ill.25

The long walks and physical exhaustion of battlefield medicine took their toll.  When Domingo Díaz arrived in Guinea-Bissau he weighed 180 pounds.  He left 20 months later weighing 100 pounds.  He had experienced the unusual danger of disappearing shoes.

I returned to the base after it was completely destroyed, and I could not find any of my belongings, not even my tennis shoes.  This type of footwear was the best in the circumstances, since we had to cross many rivers, and they dried out much more rapidly than boots and were a lot lighter … during the first long walks, I lost all of my toenails…my feet were constantly wet and the hiking was forever…and in Cuba I had the habit of walking five kilometers every day.26

Some of their most unpleasant surprises awaited doctors upon completion of their African assignment.  Amado Alfonso Delgado recounted

The year that we returned almost all of us tested positive for filaria in the blood.  In the subtype Loa loa, it goes from vital organs to the eyes, leaving the person blind.  This was precisely the type we had.  Reading about it scared me a bit because it was said at that time, that there was not a guaranteed cure.  We were treated in a hospital for two months.27

Virgilio Camacho was also more than a little nervous:

I had filaria, which doesn’t exist in Cuba, and I had no idea until passing through the check point.  It required a double treatment: both for the adult and larva of the parasite.  They didn’t have the medicine in Conakry and had to look elsewhere.  Finally, I had both the intravenous injections and pills…We arrived in Cuba in January 1968.28

Impact, Reflection, Unanswered

By the end of the 1960s, when the Cuban revolutionary government had been in power for only 10 years, doctors had been through four different scenarios in Africa:

  1. In Algeria, they treated only civilians.
  2. In Zaire, the rebels showed little enthusiasm for victory.
  3. In the Congo, the militancy of the government proved to be empty rhetoric.
  4. In Guinea-Bissau, there was a successful military uprising with a strong commander and dedicated troops.

Cuba knew that US could invade at any time.  As a result of African expeditions and experience gained by military doctors, a new generation of physicians would be trained by those who had been through war and could teach others how to treat combat victims.

Perhaps the most lamentable irony of Cuba’s forays into Africa was that its most capable leader, Che Guevara, led guerrillas into the least promising front, Zaire.  Since no Cuban leader had been to sub-Saharan Africa for more than one day, the strategy of going to Zaire was based on misinformation, solidarity with Cuba’s own black population, and the defense of its revolution.  When Che ventured into his last battleground of Bolivia the following year, it was because he and Fidel agreed that Latin America must again occupy the foreground of Cuba’s participation in armed struggles.29

There had been very little connection between upheavals in the approach to medicine practiced on the island and what its doctors did overseas.30 Experiences of the polio campaign in Cuba were adopted in the campaign in the Congo.  The exposure to medical problems in Africa was invaluable for developing Cuban understanding of tropical and infectious diseases.  Nevertheless, nothing like Cuban polyclinics appeared in the battle conditions of Africa, where the necessity to provide emergency care was all-encompassing.

Cuban engagements in Africa left profound impacts, both on the host countries and on the Cubans who went.  Cuba learned that if students were to travel to the island for education, they must be screened for academic potential.  The Congo became prepared to complete its own vaccination campaign.  Guinea-Bissau recognized its debt to Cubans for its successful struggle for independence. “Many of our comrades are alive today only because of the Cuban medical assistance,” noted PAIGC official Francisco Pereira. “The Cuban doctors really performed a miracle.  I am eternally grateful to them: not only did they save lives, but they put their own lives at risk.  They were truly selfless.”31

White doctors who experienced the stressful conditions and parasitic diseases of Africa witnessed even greater sacrifice by black troops.  One reason that so many volunteered to serve in Africa was a feeling of urgency to spread the revolution.  Later, Olvaldo Cárdenas told Piero Gleijeses:

… we believed that at any moment they [the US] were going to strike us … and for us it was better to wage war abroad than in our own country.  This was the strategy of ‘Two or Three Vietnams;’ that is, distracting and dividing the enemy’s forces.  I never imagined then that I would be sitting here [in a living room in Havana] talking about it now—we all assumed that we were going to die young.32

When the volunteers returned to Cuba, they did not march in parades or receive any type of public praise.  There were no medals, decorations or material rewards.  Bound to secrecy, decades passed before they could share their stories.33 Yet the insights obtained by what they endured were essential for designing Cuban strategy, which is why Fidel grilled so many upon their quiet homecomings.

Before 1959, dedication to revolutionary medicine was expressed by students and doctors demanding full treatment for Cubans in poor urban and rural areas.  This became the foundation for doctors volunteering for international missions during the 1960s.  With the dawning of the 1970s, the question remained: Would sacrifices by the first doctors going to Africa come to fruition by medical staff playing a key role in toppling a major racist government on that continent?

A version of this article first appeared in Monthly Review.  The author thanks Rebecca Fitz for interview translation and John Kirk, Linda M. Whiteford and Steve Brouwer for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of the article.

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  1. Hedelberto López’ interview with Dr. Virgilio Camacho Duverger, Historias Secretas, 158.
  2. López’ interview with Dr. Rodrigo Álvarez Cambras, 78.
  3. López’ interview with Dr. Domingo Díaz Delgado, 123.
  4. Gleijeses, (2002), 202.
  5. Hedelberto López’ interview with Dr. Amado Alfonso Delgado, Historias Secretas, 142.
  6. Author’s interview with Dr. Juan Antonio Sánchez, Havana, Cuba, February 9, 2016.
  7. López’ interview with Dr. Héctor Vera Acosta, 52.
  8. López’ interview with Dr. Virgilio Camacho Duverger, 161.
  9. Hedelberto López’ interview with Dr. Amado Alfonso Delgado, Historias Secretas, 142-148.
  10. Ibid, 148.
  11. López’ interview with Dr. Domingo Díaz Delgado, 127.
  12. Gleijeses, (2002), 44, 201; López’ interview with Dr. Rafaél Zerquera Palacios, 29.
  13. López’ interview with Dr. Héctor Vera Acosta, 48; Gleijeses, (2002), 44, 168, 201.
  14. Gleijeses, (2002), 151.
  15. López’ interview with Dr. Domingo Díaz Delgado, 123; López’ interview with Dr. Julián Álvarez Blanco, 90; Author’s interview with Dr. Justo Piñero Fernández,
  16. Hedelberto López’ interview with Dr. Amado Alfonso Delgado, Historias Secretas, 149-150.
  17. López’ interview with Dr. Domingo Díaz Delgado, 131-132.
  18. López’ interview with Dr. Virgilio Camacho Duverger, 160.
  19. López’ interview with Dr. Rodolfo Puente Ferro, 99. 102-103. 105; Gleijeses, (2002), 168.
  20. Gleijeses, (2002), 169; López’ interview with Dr. Rodrigo Álvarez Cambras, 84.
  21. López’ interview with Dr. Rodrigo Álvarez Cambras, 84; Author’s interview with Dr. Justo Piñero Fernández.
  22. Gleijeses, (2002), 168, López’ interview with Dr. Rodolfo Puente Ferro, 104-105.
  23. Hedelberto López’ interview with Dr. Julián Álvarez Blanco, Historias Secretas, 93.
  24. López’ interview with Dr. Rafaél Zerquera Palacios, 33-34; Hedelberto López’ interview with Dr. Amado Alfonso Delgado, Historias Secretas, 150.
  25. López’ interview with Dr. Virgilio Camacho Duverger, 158.
  26. López’ interview with Dr. Domingo Díaz Delgado, 130-133.
  27. López’ interview with Dr. Amado Alfonso Delgado, 150.
  28. López’ interview with Dr. Virgilio Camacho Duverger, 162.
  29. Gleijeses, (2002), 216.
  30. Don Fitz, “The Birth of Cuban Polyclinics,” Monthly Review, in press.
  31. Gleijeses, (2002), 203.
  32. Gleijeses, (2002), 203.
  33. Ibid.