Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Imaginary Cuban Troops in Syria

Fair-and-balanced Fox News reported on Wednesday that "Cuban military operatives reportedly have been spotted in Syria, where sources believe they are advising President Bashar al-Assad's soldiers and may be preparing to man Russian-made tanks to aid Damascus in fighting rebel forces backed by the U.S." Fox's claim of an imaginary enemy alliance relies on two sources: the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies and an anonymous U.S. official.

The source at the Miami Institute indicated that "An Arab military officer at the Damascus airport reportedly witnessed two Russian planes arrive there with Cuban military personnel on board. When the officer questioned the Cubans, they told him they were there to assist Assad because they are experts at operating Russian tanks."

It is unclear what nationality the "Arab" officer was. Perhaps, said Arab determined the people aboard the Russian plane were Cubans because he saw them smoking cigars and drinking mojitos. The Cuban soldiers then volunteered - supposedly - they were "there to assist Assad" because of their expertise manning Russian tanks. However improbable this may seem to an unbiased observer, the source from the Miami Institute said that "it doesn't surprise me."

The supposed U.S. official - who Fox grants anonymity to without giving a reason why - related "evidence" from "intelligence reports" that Cuban troops "may" have trained in Russia and "may have" come to Syria in Russian planes. Sounds legit.

Despite the thinness of the report's sourcing and the improbability of its content, other news organizations were quick to parrot its claims. Spanish newspaper ABC noted the next day that media from Germany to Argentina to the Middle East had echoed the Fox News report, while ABC did the same themselves.

By Friday, the story had gained enough traction that it was raised at a White House briefing. In a response that should have been enough to put the story to rest, the White House Press Secretary said "we've seen no evidence to indicate that those reports are true."

But a few hours later, the Daily Beast had definitively declared in a headline that: "Cuba Is Intervening in Syria to Help Russia. It's Not the First Time Havana's Assisted Moscow."

Progressive concern troll James Bloodworth turned Fox's rumors into fact and wrote that "Not for the first time Cuban forces are doing Russia's dirty work, this time in Syria... Obama has been holding his hand out in a gesture of goodwill to America's adversaries only for them to blow him a raspberry back in his face - while standing atop a pile of Syrian corpses."

In reality, Obama's "gesture of goodwill" is little more than behaving less overtly hostile after decades of American aggression against Cuba and Iran. If you are choking someone unprovoked and you loosen you're grip, it is far from a gesture of goodwill.

Bloodworth also tries to make a historical argument that Cuba's (imaginary) military actions in Syria are consistent with their "bloody" interventions elsewhere. He decries "Cuban terror in Ethiopia" that resulted in hundreds of thousands of people being killed. "The tragedy was largely a consequence of the policies pursued by the Communist dictatorship that ruled Ethiopia at the time - a regime propped up by Cuba and the Soviet Union."

In 1977, Somalia had invaded Ethiopia in an attack that "had been encouraged by ambivalent signals from Washington," according to historian Piero Gleijeses in his book Visions of Freedom. [1] Initially reluctant to become involved, Fidel Castro finally agreed to Ethiopian requests to send troops to repel the Somali invasion.

Gleijeses found in his extensive review of formerly classified military documents that Cuba's motives in aiding Ethiopia were sincere:
With hindsight, we know that Mengistu's policies resulted in disaster, but this was not clear in 1977: though the process was undeniably bloody, the Ethiopian junta had decreed a radical agrarian reform and taken unprecedented steps to foster the cultural rights of the non-Amhara population... The evidence indicates that the Cubans intervened because they believed, as Cuban intelligence stated in March 1977, that 'the social and economic measures adopted by Ethiopia's leadership are the most progressive we have seen in any underdeveloped country since the triumph of the Cuban revolution.' [2]
In addition to correcting the record on Ethiopia, Gleijeses' study also serves to set the record straight on Cuba's historical modus operandi in its military interventions abroad. Cuba did maintain a large military presence in Angola for nearly 15 years, starting in 1975.

Castro first sent troops in November 1975 after Angolan President Agostinho Neto warned of a South African invasion of the country already underway which would inevitably topple the nascent government without outside support. Cuba agreed to send soldiers to Angola right away. Several months later, they would repel the apartheid army back to Pretoria. They remained in Angola at Neto's bequest to prevent further incursions from the racist South African army into the country's sovereign territory.

At the same time, there was an ongoing civil war between Neto's MPLA, the largest and most popular of the guerilla groups, and the South African and American-backed UNITA guerillas led by former Portuguese collaborator Jonas Savimbi.

Castro was adamant that Cuban troops would be responsible for preventing a South African invasion, while Angolan troops should deal with their own internal conflict. In meetings with Neto, Castro "kept hammering away on the need to fight the bandits ... He explained to us that the fight against the bandits was necessarily and without question the responsibility of the Angolans, that we could not wage this war, that it was their war." [3]

Cuba's position during the Angolan conflict is consistent with the diplomatic approach they have repeatedly espoused in Syria, that the Syrian conflict is a domestic problem for the Syrian people and government to resolve themselves, while the international community works to achieve a peaceful solution.

"Cuba reiterates that international cooperation, based on the principles of objectivity, impartiality and non-selectivity, is the only way to effectively promote and protect all human rights," Cuban representative to the UN Human Rights Council Rodolfo Reyes said at a meeting in Switzerland. He added that "Cuba is confident of the capacity of the Syrian people and government to solve their domestic problems without foreign interference."

Unreliable Sources

That the Fox News could cause such a stir is a testament to the refusal of mainstream news organizations to verify sources. In all of the iterations of the "Cuban troops in Syria" fantasy, there are no new sources cited. The original Fox News report cites one anonymous U.S. official who may, or may not, even exist. The only source on record with their incredulous claims is someone from the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies (ICCAS) at the University of Miami.

ICCAS is notorious for its reactionary, anti-Communist politics revered among the fanatically right-wing Cuban and Cuban-American population in Miami. Their academic research includes a conspiracy theory that appears to implicate Fidel Castro in the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Another ICCAS report claims "the often-repeated view in many countries that the United States is an evil power, guilty for much of the problems and sufferings of the developing world, is owed in great part to the propaganda efforts of Fidel Castro" - not, rather, to decades of direct U.S. military intervention; profligate support to fascist military dictatorships; and predatory, neo-colonial lending policies that demand neoliberal structural adjustment programs which funnel public assets and resources to creditor interests, at the expense of the employment, health and well-being of the vast majority of local populations.

ICCAS is also home to the Cuba Transition Project whose mission is "to study and make recommendations for the reconstruction of Cuba once the post-Castro transition begins in earnest." CTP acknowledges on its Web site that "the project was established in 2002 and supported by grants from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) until 2010." It's funding indicates it is at least indirectly an arm of the U.S. government's destabilization and subversion efforts dedicated to regime change of the politically and economically independent Cuban government.

Cuban Prensa Latina reporter in Syria Miguel Fernández noted that ICCAS has reported six or seven times since 2006 that Fidel Castro has died. He suggested reports such as those originating with ICCAS about Cuban troops in Syria were part of the campaigns of reactionary groups opposed to normalization to tarnish the new relations between Cuba and the United States.

The Cuban Embassy in Damascus reportedly "laughed" at the report of Cuban troops in Syria, and told Sputnik News: "It's pure lunacy. It is as if they were claiming that Russia had sent its troops to Madagascar to protect lemurs."

Despite claims of Cuban troops in Syria contradicting Cuba's stated policy and historical modus operandi, and the fact that now four days have passed without a single piece of corroborating evidence to the laughable Fox News report, the imaginary Cuban troops in Syria are likely to morph into more outrageous fantasies of media who have shown themselves primarily interested in fabricating tales of intrigue about America's evil enemies rather than reporting actual verifiable facts.

References

[1] Gleijeses, Piero. Visions of Freedom: Havana, Washington, Pretoria, and the Struggle for Southern Africa, 1976-1991. The University of North Carolina Press, 2013. Kindle edition.

[2] Ibid.

[3] as quoted in Gleijeses, 2013

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Misrepresentation of the Colombian Conflict

A week and a half ago news emerged from Havana that the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) and the Colombian government had reached a framework for a final peace agreement to be signed within six months. This was hailed as a breakthrough in the half-century-old conflict and an opportunity to bring peace to the people of Colombia. But by adopting the government's narrative, mainstream media have failed to recognize the primary cause of the violence and the inevitability that it will continue in the future.

The decades-long policy of the Colombian government has been a national security strategy of counterinsurgency, developed in the late 1950s under the sponsorship of the US military. The goal of the US government was to maintain a business-friendly political system that would implement economic policies amenable to multinational corporations and foreign capital. Resistance to such policies was deemed subversion, and people who sympathized with such resistance were branded as internal enemies to be eliminated or neutralized by military means.

The narrative of the national security doctrine holds that if the insurgent threat is eliminated, then peace will be restored. The implicit assumption is that the FARC rebels have always been the side standing in the way of peace. According to this interpretation, when the FARC initiated their military operations the state was acting for the benefit of the nation as a whole by organizing a counter response.

But this narrative is historically inaccurate. The Colombian conflict is not a battle of society at large against a group of guerillas, but a battle of a small group of elites controlling the state apparatus against the majority of the population.

"As in many other Latin American countries, we can find the seeds of present-day social inequality and strife in the concentration of Colombia's land and resources under the control of a tiny minority, matched by the progressive dispossession of the majority of people, which originated with colonialism in the sixteenth century," explains Jasmin Hristov in her book Blood and Capital: The Paramilitarization of Colombia. [1]

After the FARC developed as the armed wing of the Communist Party in Colombia, the counterinsurgency doctrine - developed by the US military and codified in manuals distributed as early as the 1960s - taught the US's Colombian counterparts to view any advocacy for social justice or democratic reform as a form of Communist insurgency. In addition to armed rebels, clergy, academics, labor leaders, human rights workers, and other members of civil society became potential insurgent targets.

To further extend their reach into Colombian society, the government legally authorized paramilitarism in 1965 with Plan Lazlo to form "civilian defense forces" armed and incorporated into the Colombian military system. [2] These forces serve the government's goal of preserving the status quo by carrying out their dirty work through the use of death squads, assassinations, torture, intimidation and disappearances while providing cover and the appearance of distance from the state itself.

The Colombian conflict cannot be understood without recognizing the true nature of the actors involved and the interests they represent. "The paramilitary has never been, and is even less so now, a third actor (the state and the guerillas being the other two), as portrayed in mainstream security discourses," writes Hristov. [3]

Writing in the New York Times after the peace agreement was announced, Ernesto Londoño declared the "three-way fight among guerilla factions, government forces and right-wing paramilitary bands that often acted as proxies for the state had killed more than 220,000 people and displaced an estimated 5.7 million."

Dan Kovalik, Professor of International Human Rights at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, disputes the notion that paramilitaries merely occasionally serve as proxies: “It is impossible to talk about the paramilitaries as separate from the Colombian state, for the Colombian state helped create the paramilitaries, and human rights groups have concluded year after year that the state has provided them with weapons, logistical support and has carried out joint operations with them, Even federal courts confronted with this questions under the Alien Tort Claims Act have concluded that the paramilitaries are sufficiently integrated with the state that their misdeeds constitute state action."

Aside from inaccurately describing the fighting, Londoño's statement uses statistics about the cumulative violence without describing who holds responsibility for the deaths and displacements. Later in his editorial, Londoño implicitly blames the FARC for the majority of the violence: "Dozens of victims traveled to Havana to speak about abuses they endured at the hands of the guerilla leaders. Some implicated government forces in brutal acts... The special war tribunals the government intends to start adjudicating crimes will be dismissed as kangaroo courts by those who would have favored a military defeat of the FARC."

If one accepts the national security narrative that most violence by the government amounts to collateral damage as a result of reaction to insurgent aggression, then guerillas would be responsible for the majority of deaths and injuries. But this is hardly the case.

Kovalik notes that "human rights groups have consistently concluded that the Colombian state and its paramilitary allies commit the lion’s share of the human rights violations in that country - in the worst years, at least 80% of the abuses can be attributed to these forces.”

US Government Intervention and Plan Colombia

Londoño also credits US policy with providing the impetus to achieving peace: "Washington's forceful intervention in the war, an intervention that began in the late 1990s, enabled the Colombian government to weaken the FARC and ultimately set the stage for peace negotiations."

Washington's counterinsurgency policy is seen not only as an instrument for peace, but as the primary factor enabling its achievement. This is stunning historical revisionism that portrays the instigator and sponsor of massive violence that has lasted decades as an honest broker for ending this violence. 

In reality, Washington's intervention began 40 years earlier than Londoño claims, and it created the war that has raged ever since. By any objective measure, US policy in Colombia has been an abject failure. Under US direction, funding and training, the Colombian state has had one of the worst human rights records in the hemisphere. Many human rights organizations attest to this, and have demanded an end to US military aid to Colombia.

"Year after year US policy has ignored the evidence and the cries of the United Nations, Colombian and international non-governmental organizations and the people of Colombia. Plan Colombia is a failure in every respect and human rights in Colombia will not improve until there is a fundamental shift in US foreign policy," writes Amnesty International USA

A Human Rights Watch report declared that: “all international security assistance should be conditioned on explicit actions by the Colombian Government to sever links, at all levels, between the Colombian military and paramilitary groups. Abuses directly attributed to members of the Colombian military have decreased in recent years, but over the same period the number and scale of abuses attributed to paramilitary groups operating with the military’s acquiescence or open support have skyrocketed.”

Bogotá professor and historian Renán Vega Cantor, in a study of U.S. involvement in Colombia, writes that: "State terrorism that has been perpetual in Colombia since the end of the 1940s feeds off the military support and financing of the United States, as much as the interests of the dominant Creole classes, to preserve their wealth and power and deny the fulfillment of elemental economic and social reforms that are redistributive." 

What the New York Times and the mainstream media miss in their analysis is that the current neoliberal Colombian sociopolitical system necessitates the continuance of violence to accommodate capital. 

"The guerilla was not the cause of the Colombian conflict but rather one of its symptoms, and simultaneously became a contributing factor in the sense that its very existence has provided the ideological substance for the pretext and justification behind state-sanctioned violence and militarization, Thus unfortunately the presence of the guerilla has been used by the powerful to legitimate the onslaught on social forces that challenge the power of the dominant classes," writes Hristov in her latest book, Paramilitarism and Neoliberalism: Violent Systems of Capital Accumulation in Colombia and Beyond. [4]

Hristov says that in order for the government to meet FARC's demands, they would have to invest in social programs at the expense of the military-security apparatus currently in place. But since these systems serve the neoliberal economic restructuring that funnels land and resources from the masses to the tiny elite minority, it would be naive to assume this will happen.

"Even in a post-FARC era the state would always have a pretext, such as BACRIM [criminal bands with roots in nominally disarmed paramilitary groups] or the existence of other guerilla groups, to maintain its high level of militarization," Hristov writes. [5]

The portrayal of the Colombian conflict in the New York Times and other mainstream media replicates state propaganda, in the form of the national security doctrine, while failing to account for the inherent violence of the economic system in Colombia that has driven the perpetual militarism and coercion in the country. 

While any agreement offering the prospect of decreased bloodshed is encouraging, the fact that the Colombian state continues to abide by the Washington Consensus and its neoliberal socioeconomic model sadly signifies that the country is inevitably headed for continued violence, dispossession, and suffering by the vast majority of the population. 

When the Colombian government and the western media recognize that Washington intervention exacerbates the violence, rather than helps minimize it, then possibly Colombia can begin to extricate itself and pursue a course that will enable the Colombian people to achieve lasting peace and social justice. 

References

[1] Hristov, Jasmin. Blood and Capital: The Paramilitarization of Colombia. Ohio University Press; 1 edition, 2009. Kindle edition.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Hristov, Jasmin. Paramilitarism and Neoliberalism: Violent Systems of Capital Accumulation in Colombia and Beyond. London: Pluto Press, 2014.  (pg. 153)

[5] Hristov, 2014 (pg. 157)