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Reviewed by Matthew Clark
Noam Chomsky is among the giants of our time; he is unquestionably the most influential contemporary linguist, and one of our most perceptive political analysts. He is no stranger to controversy, and the admiration of his fans is certainly matched by the rage of his opponents. I would not claim he is always right, but I think he is always responsible, and anyone who disagrees with him had better be able to answer Chomsky's arguments. In previous work he has examined U.S. foreign policy primarily in Southeast Asia and the mid-East; in Turning the Tide he turns his attention to Central America.
An argument runs through all of Chomsky's political writings, which I think can be summarized in four points. 1) The United States government is an imperial power, and it acts as imperial powers usually act, that is to promote the interests of its own elite groups. 2) In order to promote these elite interests, the U.S. government must, and without hesitation does, violate the political and human rights of those living within the empire (including its own non-elite citizens). 3) The Cold War functions primarily as an excuse for maintaining military, economic, and political power within the imperial domain. 4) For various reasons, including self-delusion, the U.S. government, with much assistance from the news media and the educational system, claims it is not an imperial power and claims its primary foreign policy goal is promoting political and human rights around the world. (I should add that Chomsky is just as critical, and in much the same way, of the Soviet Union.) Chomsky's position will certainly seem impossibly extreme to most North American readers, but the evidence in his favor is extensive and compelling.
"No region of the world," Chomsky writes, "has been more subject to U.S. influence over a long period than Central America and the Caribbean." The Lousiana Purchase and the acquisition of Florida moved the doorstep of the U.S.A. to the Caribbean basin in the early nineteenth century. As it happened, the country expanded west rather than south (taking large parts of Mexico along the way), but several presidents seriously considered the purchase or annexation of various countries and territories in the region, and the slavocracy, in particular, dreamed of establishing a southern empire. Private citizens organized military expeditions, perhaps remembering the history of Texas and California; in the 1850s a U.S. citizen briefly took control of the government of Nicaragua.
The general pattern of U.S. expansion to non-contiguous territory, however, has been through military, political, and economic control rather than outright annexation. At the end of the nineteenth century, the U.S.A. took advantage of the decline of European power to extend its own. The Spanish-Cuban-American War ended with the U.S.A. in possession of Puerto Rico and in control of Cuba. In 1903 Theodore Roosevelt engineered the secession of Panama from Colombia so that the Canal would be under U.S. control. At various times from 1900 to 1932, U.S. military forces directly intervened in Cuba, Panama, Honduras, Nicaragua, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Some military occupations lasted for years. U.S. business interests became the dominant economic force in the region.
Franklin Roosevelt's so-called Good Neighbor policy ended direct U.S. military intervention for two decades but, as Chomsky points out, by this time repressive governments, usually military dictatorships, had been established, with U.S. support, in many countries in Central America and the Caribbean: Nicaragua (Somoza). Honduras, Cuba (Batista), the Dominican Republic (Trujillo), Guatemala, El Salvador, Haiti.
Direct intervention began again under Eisenhower and has continued ever since.In 1954, the democratically-elected government of Guatemala was overthrown by the CIA. In 1961 the CIA organized the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba, and an extensive terrorist campaign against the people and government of Cuba continued for years afterwards. In 1965, U.S. marines landed in the Dominican Republic in support of a right-wing junta. Meanwhile the U.S. government was busy promoting its own economic interests: "While Central America was expanding beef production rapidly under the Alliance for Progress, beef consumption dropped 41% in Costa Rica, 38% in El Salvador, and 13% in Guatemala and Nicaragua from 1960 to the mid-seventies." Where did the beef go? "[E]xports increased over 500% for hamburgers, hot dogs, and pet foods in the U.S."
Historical and political analysis can all too easily retreat into the realm of abstractions and statistics. One of the virtues of Chomsky's work is his insistence that it is the real lives of people which matter. His first chapter, titled "Free World Vignettes." is an extensive and explicit account of the brutal facts of life in the American Empire, where "most of the population is hungry. malnourished, and sick." And the misery of everyday life does not compare to the torture of the wars. In Nicaragua, the war has left more than 12,000 dead. In El Salvador government military forces equipped and trained by the U.S.A.. have killed tens of thousands. In Guatemala perhaps 100,000 people have been killed since 1960.
Chomsky's view of the world is very unlike the picture most commonly presented in the mainstream U.S. news media which, he claims, almost always transmit the government's version of events. "An honest inquiry will reveal that striking and systematic features of our international behavior are suppressed, ignored, or denied [by the mainstream media]."
More accurate reporting is available if one knows where to find it: "The record of horrors [in El Salvador] has been compiled in regular publications of Americas Watch . . . and generally ignored by the press, which is not interested in U.S. atrocities." As a result, "most of the U.S. population knows little more [about El Salvador] than the citizens of Moscow do about Afghanistan."
Such serious charges demand detailed support, and Chomsky provides specific examples. In May 1980 a group of thousands of peasants fleeing El Salvadoran military operations across the Rio Sumpul into Honduras were attacked by government troops. More than 600 people were killed, including many women and children; the river was contaminated by the corpses. "The massacre is not mentioned in the State Department Country Reports on Human Rights Practices produced by the Carter Administration and was suppressed by the media for over a year, and then only barely noted, though the facts had been reported shortly after the events in the foreign press and Church-based press in the U.S."
Unfortunately, such specific discussion is distributed in bits throughout the book, too often buried in footnotes and cross-references. If Chomsky's view of the media is correct, and I believe he has a good case, it deserves better treatment. He should devote an article just to this subject.
In general Chomsky tends to dilute his argument and confuse his readers through excessive digression and insufficient focus. He does better in short articles, like the ones collected in Towards a New Cold War (Pantheon, 1982), the book I'd recommend to those reading Chomsky for the first time. Turning the Tide is a difficult and disturbing book, but its importance cannot be denied, and no one interested in U.S. foreign policy in general or Latin America specifically can afford to pass it by.
Matthew Clark is a Toronto-based writer, political activist and musician.
Published in Sources, Winter 1988