There is a brazen, bipartisan push by the U.S. government for regime change in Venezuela with the Trump administration officially declaring opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the “legitimate” president. The economic sanctions imposed on Venezuela by the U.S. are aimed at starving the population into submission with notorious neoconservatives John Bolton and Elliott Abrams coordinating the campaign to overthrow the government of Nicolás Maduro. What we are witnessing right now in Latin America is a modern iteration of the same dirty tactics that the U.S. has historically used against the nations south of the U.S. border. Venezuela has the largest oil reserves in the world. The U.S. has tried since the early 2000s to overthrow its socialist government beginning with Hugo Chávez. At the same time, it poured money into right-wing movements and backed open fascists like Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil. All of this is a modern version of the era of overthrowing leftists who won at the ballot box or by ousting U.S.-friendly dictators. And all of the mass murder, the sanctions, the regime changes, the election interference, the covert support for anti-democratic forces determined to be good for so-called free markets is, today, as it was in the 1950s, sold in the name of bringing freedom and democracy.
Powerful Democrats and Republicans alike have sold the notion that economic sanctions are somehow a cleaner way of forcing change than military action. They portray sanctions as targeting the dictators, the oligarchs, the criminally corrupt. But the filthy truth is that not all sanctions are created equal. Yes, there are sanctions that go after individual criminals. But the sanctions we’re talking about on Venezuela right now are not going harm Maduro and his inner circle personally. No, these sanctions are aimed at punishing the Venezuelan people by depriving them of food, medicine, wages, and their very humanity. The strategy is to use these sanctions as a cudgel against an already suffering people in a campaign to torture them into submission.
The former U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela William Brownfield has been aggressively lobbying for more sanctions, saying “perhaps the best solution would be to accelerate the collapse.” He says this while actually openly acknowledging that sanctions will kill innocent people, increase malnutrition, and bring “fairly severe punishment” for “millions and millions” of Venezuelans. Brownfield recently admitted the following:
If we can do something that will bring that end quicker, we probably should do it, but we should do it understanding that it’s going to have an impact on millions and millions of people who are already having great difficulty finding enough to eat, getting themselves cured when they get sick, or finding clothes to put on their children before they go off to school. We don’t get to do this and pretend as though it has no impact there. We have to make the hard decision — the desired outcome justifies this fairly severe punishment.
This is the former U.S. ambassador to Venezuela speaking at a Washington D.C. think tank, publicly saying that it is worth the price of lives and health and humanity of ordinary Venezuelans in order to overthrow a government the U.S. does not like. These sanctions are going to cost Venezuela $11 billion in oil revenue in 2019 alone. That amounts to nearly 95 percent of the money that Venezuela spent on the import of food and other goods last year. This isn’t targeting Maduro. Even The Economist stated the following about the logic behind the sanctions: “Mr. Guaidó and Mr. Trump are betting that hardship will topple the regime before it starves the Venezuelan people.” That’s not Chávez speaking from the grave. That’s The Economist.
When powerful political leaders in the U.S. want to change governments, the price of killing innocent people is always worth it. It’s the American way. And this is why Trump is being embraced on his Venezuela policy. He is promoting and advancing the bipartisan politics of empire. It is the same dynamic when the so-called adults on Capitol Hill support giving Trump sweeping surveillance powers or unending funds for an already insane military spending budget. For all the screaming about Trump being a grave threat to democracy, the worst president ever, or an unhinged maniac, when he boosts the policies of imperialism, he gets to join the club of the cops of the world.
On Intercepted this week, historian and journalist Vijay Prashad joined us to discuss the state of imperialism in the world, the situation in Venezuela, the upcoming elections in India, and the recent one in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Prashad is a writing fellow and chief correspondent at Globetrotter. That’s a project of the Independent Media Institute. He is the executive director of the Tricontinental Institute for Social Research and the chief editor of LeftWord Books. Prashad is a prolific writer, authoring 25 books, including “The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World” and “The Poorer Nations: A Possible History of the Global South.” An excerpt of this conversation aired on Intercepted. What follows is the complete, unedited conversation.
This interview begins at 20:03.
Jeremy Scahill: Vijay Prashad welcome to Intercepted.
Vijay Prashad: Thank you so much.
JS: Vijay, I want to start by asking your response to the recent developments in Venezuela. Earlier this week, the New York Times did a big profile on the opposition leader Juan Guaidó who has declared himself president and the Times notes that more than 20 countries have now recognized Guaidó as the legitimate interim president of Venezuela. Among those countries: The United States, Canada, most of South America. Then on Monday several European Union countries [joined] that list, among them: France, Germany, Britain, Spain, Austria, Sweden, and Denmark. You recently wrote that what happened to Chile in 1973 — when there was a U.S. initiated coup against the democratically elected leader Salvador Allende — is precisely what the United States has attempted to do in many countries of the Global South, and you say the most recent target for the U.S. government and Western big business is Venezuela. What are the parallels that you see between the overthrow of Allende in 1973 and what we’re seeing now with the push to overthrow Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela?
VP: I’m glad we’re starting here, Jeremy, because this is really the most important issue, I think, of our period. Which is, you know, this very extravagant set of claims made by particularly the United States and its closest allies about countries in the Global South — whether it’s Iran, or Venezuela, or a host of other countries. Let’s think about the Chilean example. In 1970, when Salvador Allende was coming close to winning a very legitimate election to come to office, the United States government said, we will not tolerate it if people like Allende decide to nationalize resources. In the case of Chile, it was copper, and so they began to plan to, in a way, undermine Allende through barricading his economy long before Allende even won the election. And after he won the election they did everything possible to prevent Chile from selling copper outside its boundaries, therefore bankrupting Chile, creating distress within the country, and then winking to the military to take over. And by the way, Chile is not the beginning of this.
We saw this in 1954 in Guatemala where the issue was the nationalization of the United Fruit Company and we saw this in 1953 in Iran when the issue was oil. The government of Mohammad Mossadegh nationalized the oil company. This was something seen as totally inappropriate by Western oil companies, the so-called Seven Sisters. And the United States in alliance with Great Britain conducted a coup against Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran and against Jacobo Árbenz in Guatemala. I mean, there [are] so many examples of precisely this situation.
With Venezuela, just very quickly, it’s got to be said that this is a country that has never been able to diversify its economy. About 98 percent of its external revenues comes from oil and from petroleum products. In the last few years, oil prices have collapsed by 50 percent which means that Venezuela’s external revenues have also collapsed by about 50 percent.
When Venezuela was swimming in oil money and when there were difficulties in the United States, and Britain, and other countries, the Venezuelan government provided cheap oil to poor people in Boston, in the Bronx in New York, — in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, in London, and other places. But when Venezuela went into a crisis, rather than tending to the problem — which was basically a problem of a one-commodity economy — rather than help the Venezuelans, what we begin to see is the Obama administration in 2015 declaring Venezuela a national security threat and now the Trump administration with the very close help of Mr. Trudeau from Canada [is] trying to essentially overthrow the government of Mr. Nicolas Maduro. You know, the people will concentrate and they’ll say well, you know, Maduro did this, Maduro did that, but before Maduro can do anything is the suffocation of the one commodity economy.
JS: Well, and Vijay, you have this exception in the sanctions, the latest round of sanctions that the Trump administration has imposed on Venezuela and its state oil company allowing Chevron to continue doing business as usual and also the former company of Dick Cheney, Halliburton, [is] also allowed to continue on in Venezuela.
VP: See, one of the interesting things about the Trump administration and Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton is they just don’t seem to care. I mean, they don’t have any pretense about anything that they’re doing. Whereas one saw, even with George W. Bush’s administration, we saw some measure of pretense. You know, they’d come up with theories about humanitarianism and whatever it is — there [are] weapons of mass destruction. All kinds of shifting goal posts that they used as a fig leaf for the invasion of Iraq. Even, of course, with Mr. Obama, we saw all kinds of high-minded principles. Obama was an expert at concocting high-minded principles to defend essentially naked aggression. With Trump and with Bolton, I mean, we’re at a situation where they just don’t care. Include with Trump and Bolton, Senator Rubio. They just don’t care. They come out directly and say, “we’re in this for the oil.” They come out directly and say these people can’t behave like that. I mean, of all audacious things Nicolas Maduro is a bus driver. You know, how dare he be the president of a country? You should be an oligarch, one of the old aristocracy from Venezuela. That’s the kind of person that should run things in collaboration with Chevron and Halliburton and so on. So, you know, they’re not even [trying] to pretend that this is about democracy.
JS: Briefly, Vijay, you also have many prominent Democrats including Dick Durbin of Illinois, but also members of the Democratic side of the House Foreign Relations Committee backing the Trump Administration. And over the weekend, we saw huge protests in Venezuela. The ones that were in support of Juan Guaidó were covered everywhere and the footage was shown everywhere. But the massive protests that were Venezuelans in the streets to defend Maduro, that was not shown. Or there were allegations, “Oh, they’re just doctoring the video.” So, it’s clear that we are seeing a major propaganda push, on the one hand, in the news media with glowing coverage of Juan Guaidó, and then on the other hand, Democrats who are screaming on the top of the hill that Donald Trump is the biggest threat ever to American democracy and he’s going to ruin the country. The Democrats on this issue are saying “Oh no, but we were actually with Trump on this one and Nicolas Maduro has to go.”
VP: The American political establishment makes a big deal of bipartisanship. And in a sense, the real arena where bipartisanship can be seen is when it comes to foreign policy. Particularly the behavior of the United States government against its so-called adversaries — whether it’s Iran or it’s Venezuela. You know, people get confused on Iran thinking that the Obama administration was on one side of the issue and Trump was on the other. In fact, they were both on the same side of the issue, which is that the United States has the right to intervene, to pressure Iran. To use its various controls of things like the control of the U.S. dollar, trade with Iran, to use pressure on the Europeans against the SWIFT network. That’s the network that moves currency around. Both Obama and Trump are in agreement that it’s perfectly permissible for the U.S. to use any instrument to control Iran. There was some difference in strategy. Obama wanted to use the multilateral agreement that would essentially prevent Iran from doing certain things and Trump said no, let’s go a different way. But they totally agreed in the final aim and in the attitude of the United States to other countries in foreign policy.
Much the same in Venezuela. There is no difference in attitude across the political spectrum from Democrats, to Republicans, to the New York Times. You know, utter unanimity of opinion that the United States can interfere in another country’s political matters, can come in and, in fact, anoint leaders. Here’s the irony, you have a country, the United States, which is up in arms about Russian interference in the elections. I can’t watch Rachel Maddow’s television show any longer because there she is going on and on about, you know, how the Russians are doing this, the Russians are doing that. Meanwhile, the United States is there openly, brazenly intervening in Venezuela as they do in so many other countries and these people have no problem with it. I mean, you know, Rachel Maddow, Ph.D. from I think Oxford — have some decency — at least let the goose and the gander be treated by the same standard, but that is just not going to happen. In fact, things are so bad, Jeremy, that when Medea Benjamin went in twice to intervene, to shame the Organization of American States and to shame people anointed by this Lima Group as representatives of Venezuela, CNN Spanish used footage of Medea to make the case that she was protesting on behalf of the opposition against Maduro. So, not only do they frame these issues in a way that’s quite, you know, just inconsiderate of the truth, but here they are openly lying.
JS: Well, let me ask you: I, of course, agree with your analysis on the U.S. intervention. But we are seeing millions of Venezuelans over the past several years fleeing the country. Yes, the opposition, some elements of the opposition to Maduro, have killed people. There has been racist action on the part of some sectors of the opposition. At the same time, Maduro controls most of the state mechanisms of organized violence: the police, the military, etcetera. And we have seen real brutality and lethal force used over, and over on the opposition. My question for you is, and I’ve been hearing this from Venezuelans who say look, we are not Trump supporters. We are not fans of any kind of a “lighter-skinned Venezuelans are the one that should be in control of the country” mentality that seems to be permeating a lot of the so-called opposition. But Maduro is running the country into the ground. Yes, we understand sanctions. Everything Vijay is saying we agree with that. At the same time, Maduro has built himself a kleptocracy. Are you saying that there is no legitimacy whatsoever to any sector of the opposition against Maduro right now?
VP: Well, look let’s put it this way. There are obvious problems. As I said, when your revenues declined to almost 50 percent you’re going to suffer great problems inside the country. You’ve got an economic stranglehold by the sanctions regime and so on. Yes, there are Venezuelans fleeing the country. But, Jeremy, there are 69 million people who have been displaced around the world. And that’s a very conservative figure, largely displaced because of the very structural policies that are disturbing countries, not only Venezuela but countries across West Africa, in Central Asia. You have wars, you have economic policies that are displacing people. So, of course, there are people moving, you know? Of course, there are people who feel that this government is not representing them, but that’s what the political process is about. I mean, are we saying that Nicolas Maduro is a dictator? Now in the last election, which the opposition only partly boycotted, he only won 67 percent of the vote. You know, if this was truly a dictatorship, let’s look at the case of our old friend, you know, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Mubarak won almost 90 percent of the votes. That’s [a] questionable election and when that election took place, the U.S. State Department said this is a new day for Egypt.
In this case, Maduro won 67 percent. The opposition is politically divided. It’s not able to come together. One section of the opposition has turned to the United States and said essentially give us a hand to use any means to overthrow this guy. Why don’t you build the opposition? On any day in Caracas, Jeremy, you open the newspapers, they’re all deeply critical of the Maduro government. If this is a dictatorship, I don’t understand what freedom, you know, in our limited sense is. He gets hammered on television. He is getting hammered [in] the newspapers. The fact is the opposition is not able to come together. And the deep residues of Chavista loyalty to the Maduro government, but also to the institutions of the missions, and so on is not to be set aside. In other words, you have this very loyal section of Chavistas who are committed to the Bolivarian Revolution. They understand the problems. They’re willing to fight to defend the government and they come out in large numbers to vote for the government. But yet their large numbers, as I said, amount to 67 percent. There is a political process. Maduro has said let’s go back. Let’s have a negotiation. Let’s think about a new election. You know, the Venezuelan government in this last election last year, asked the United Nations to send monitors. Why did the United Nations not send monitors? You know, why is the United States government attempting to cripple the political process in Venezuela to create the preconditions where you can then think there’s nothing else to be done except U.S. intervention to anoint somebody as the president? A deeply undemocratic act.
JS: Also, I wanted to point out — and you’ve been writing about this and offering analysis on it — that at this moment in Latin America, you have this rise again of overt authoritarian fascist leaders like Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil. But you also have a leftist president who came to power in Mexico, Andres Manuel López Obrador known by his initials AMLO, and you wrote about López Obrador — that he comes to the presidency as a man of the left but the space for maneuvering that he has for a left agenda is minimal. I feel like if this was 10 years ago there would have been a lot more excitement about what’s happening in Mexico with López Obrador coming to power but that has sort of been drowned out by the situation in Venezuela on the one hand. And then Trump’s inane dangerous threats about building a border wall and then also the active, ongoing threat of separating families from their children, militarizing the border patrol, ICE, which serves as a kind of storm front for enforcement of extremely racist xenophobic immigration policy. But what is your sense of what room to maneuver López Obrador has right now in Mexico?
VP: You see Mexico, like Venezuela, like any of these countries, their space for what we call fiscal creativity is almost zero. These countries are reliant upon borrowing commercial capital going to, you know, private banks to raise money. There’s been immense pressure on these countries from the IMF not to run deficits. So, that means that if you can’t raise enough money from banks to cover your basic running operation of your government, what you’re going to do is you’re going to end up cutting social services. I mean, let’s put this in some context, Jeremy. Oxfam’s recent report showed that last year, that is in the calendar year of 2018, 2,230odd billionaires increased their wealth by 2.5 billion dollars per year and meanwhile the lowest 50 percent of humanity lost eleven percent of its wealth. Why am I raising this? The top 10 people among those 2,230 odd billionaires, of them there’s only one person who’s not from North America, that is not from the United States, and from Europe, and that person is Carlos Slim of Mexico.
You see what we have to remember is the very top people, these 2,000 odd billionaires and their families, no longer pay tax. You know, they are essentially bloating tax havens. They are hiding their money in banks. They’re just not paying tax anymore. They have gone on, what I consider, a tax strike. Because these elites like Carlos Slim of Mexico have gone on a tax strike the governments of countries like Mexico have a very difficult time raising, financing to do anything on the humane side of government policy. So, they’ve been cutting health care, they’ve been cutting education, they’ve been slicing everything that produces civilization. So, for, you know, for López Obrador, the government he’s inherited is basically a government which doesn’t have any ability to provide the good parts of life for people, which is why he was very eager to take back control of PEMEX — which is the Mexican petroleum company — take back control of it, put some money to invest in it to revive PEMEX. The moment he made those comments after he won the election, he was told directly by banks, by the IMF, and by international oil companies that don’t you dare do that. Don’t you dare try to use public financing to revive PEMEX. The only thing we’re going to allow you to do is to basically sell more parts of PEMEX off to international privately-held, you know, energy companies.
So what’s happening to Venezuela is just a much more vulgar and dangerous, kind of, portfolio of events than what is happening to Mexico where things are not yet at a boiling point. But basically, López Obrador has been told there is no exit for Mexico. No way for you to raise finances to basically enrich the population and therefore you’re going to see people continue to move towards the border. You’re going to see people continue to move, put pressure on the United States to build these walls, and to create essentially a military force that stands there the border and shoots at people.
JS: Now, let’s jump to the other side of the globe for a moment. One of the major areas of focus of the Trump administration that, I think, has the potential to be the most dangerous is the obsession with Iran and the fact that the Trump administration is littered with people including notorious neocons who have always wanted regime change in Iran. You have the situation in Yemen, which the Trump administration has used as, really, a proxy war against Iran and, of course, there’s a lot of issues with facts in this administration and certainly, that’s been the case in Yemen. But you do have Yemen being used as a proxy war. You have this network of allies that’s emerged where you have the Saudis, Israel, The United States, and then some lesser states that really seem to be pushing in that direction. The U.S. has been quietly negotiating with the Iraqi government to have hundreds of Special Operations forces, troops from the United States deployed inside of Iraq with the purpose of potentially striking against Iran. How do you see the fact that Trump is saying that he’s going to take U.S. troops out of Syria, take U.S. troops out of Afghanistan, but now re-deploy some of the most elite hunter-killer teams in the U.S. arsenal in Iraq with the explicit purpose of, number one, confronting Iran and then, secondarily, dealing with ISIS?
VP: Well, Trump made a comment to CBS News where he said that we have American troops in Iraq to monitor Iran. The word he used was monitor. And within hours, the Iraqi Prime Minister made a comment saying, you know, this is inappropriate, that the United States’ presence in Iraq is to combat terrorism. Not to, essentially, rattle the cage with Iran, because we, that is the Iraqi government, have a relationship both with the Iranians and the United States. So, again Trump, no ability to hold back, just says things openly and the contradictions then emerge on the world stage. I think the United States is going to have a very difficult time using Iraq as a lily pad. Using any of the neighboring states apart from those that you mentioned. That is Saudi Arabia, the UAE. These states would be quite happy to help. But remember, Saudi Arabia cannot have American troops located there. So, I don’t know what kind of practical support — the Turks are not going to allow troops to come in. So, it’s going to be very difficult for the United States practically to take on Iran apart from, you know, occasional bombing runs maybe and one or two special forces people going in to do sabotage operations.
You know, when Nicolas Maduro was under immense pressure he made a little video where he warned the American [saying] don’t come and invade us, we’ll make this another Vietnam. I want you to consider, Jeremy, that the population of Iraq is just about 40 percent of the population of Iran. The Iranian population is highly motivated. If the United States decided to do any kind of military action against Iran it would, I think, be a great mistake. I mean Maduro evokes Vietnam. I would also evoke Vietnam at a different scale for the for the Iranian situation. I think that they are trying to intimidate the Iranian government and they’re trying to do something which — this is why the playbook between Iran and Venezuela is the same — they’re trying to produce so much, you know, economic hardship in the country that you’re going to have millions of people get disaffected with the government. You will have immense propaganda saying that it is this government’s fault and not these other external policies and you will try to create some kind of internal uprising which then gets cracked down upon by the government because it naturally doesn’t want to have some internal uprising, you know, just continue and [the] moment that crackdown takes place, the United States is going to say to the Europeans “look they are authoritarian, they’re a dictatorship, they’re crushing their people, let’s go in.” And NATO is going to say yes, and they go in, you know, all guns blazing.
It’s an incredibly similar playbook that they are following in all these countries which is why these countries are all sort of, you know, in a similar way, concerned. I think it’s silly how people talk about the axis of resistance, and so on. I don’t think anything like that exists. These countries have very different approaches to foreign policy. But at the same time, since they’re all under the same kind of playbook, there’s a kind of sympathy in these capitals for what’s happening in each place. And I think this is also why the Russians are very keen to be involved in each of these places to provide a shield. I think the question of a Russian shield over Iran is already there. The issue of a Russian Shield over Venezuela is also there. And I would say, Jeremy, this is exactly the reason why the United States has withdrawn from the missile treaty. This is why the United States is going to try directly to undermine Russian military power in the next few months.
JS: Well, but in fairness, Russia has its own imperial agenda as well. It’s not like Russia is only acting in the human interest of the world. I mean, Russia clearly is facing down NATO encroachment on the part of the United States. The U.S. moving further and further to the east. You have the potential, and it’s been there for some time, to have an all-out hot war between U.S. and Russian forces in Syria. Certainly, that would be the case if the U.S. did escalate even a little bit in Iran. But, let’s be clear here, though. I mean, Russia is not an ideological actor trying to stand up for the Global South. They’re also acting on their own imperial interests that occasionally aligned with the agenda that you’re describing there.
VP: Well, I would say stronger than that. I wouldn’t use the word imperial. I would say Russia is entirely a defensive power. Why do I say that? You know, it’s interesting when you look at military bases, particularly naval bases. The United States has a hundred and some-odd naval bases around the world. In fact, has the ability to encircle the planet. Years ago I was talking to a senior U.N. official — this is in March of 2011 when the Security Council was debating U.N. resolution 1973, that was the resolution that allowed the war in Libya — and I asked the U.N. official I said, you know, it’s so funny you guys, you produce these resolutions which say any member state can act under chapter seven, which means any member state can use armed forces to defend, you know, to help this resolution along and, of course, that means the United States because who else has bases all over the world? You know, the Indians can’t intervene in Libya, and so on. Well, the Russians had only, not a hundred naval bases around the world, but they had two warm water bases and I think it’s important to underline this.
One warm water base was in Sevastopol in the Crimea and the second warm water base is in Latakia in Syria. It’s no secret, therefore, that from 2013-14 the Russians were terrified about losing the Sevastopol naval base and the intervention into Ukraine, particularly into Crimea. I think this is the reason for the intervention to Crimea. They were defending that warm water base. And secondly, in2015, in September when Russian planes entered Damascus and they intervened militarily to prevent an American bombing run on the city. It was to defend their naval base in Latakia. So what I would say is that it’s an entirely defensive power. It’s much weaker than the United States but it’s basically using military force and using, you know, its ability as limited as possible to secure these alliances. It’s not out there to defend the south. I totally agree with that, but it has its own agenda and these agendas contradict those of the United States. At present, what’s interesting about this agenda that the Russians have is that, from let’s say the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989 to the attempted overthrow of the Syrian government in 2012-13, I think in that space there was no check on U.S. power. And when the Russian planes entered Syria in 2015, that was the first time in about, you know, almost 25 years that somebody had come in to check U.S. power. And it’s my feeling that this current tussle over missile defense over space, overall these kinds of new tensions around military hardware, the presence of the military, etcetera between the United States and Russia is to, once again, weaken the Russian ability to provide these shields. These shields are not there for humanitarian purposes. But nonetheless, these are shields.
JS: Now, you mentioned India there and I want to remind people that India is a massive country not just in land mass, but in population — upwards of 1.3 billion people like what, you know, we’re talking about like one in every six people in the world is from India. And India has very, very important elections that will be coming up in the spring, scheduled for May. Right now India is under the control of a far-right extremist. The BJP won the majority in India’s Parliament. I want to ask you about the resistance to Narendra Modi in a second and what your analysis is of the upcoming elections there and there [have] been huge protests and you’ve been tweeting about that and showing pictures and videos. But first, explain for people the impact that the far-right BJP government has had on India.
VP: Well, Jeremy, in 2013 when the last parliamentary elections took place, the far-right won 31 percent of the vote. But because of the nature of the Indian parliamentary system, they got a majority in Parliament. But I want to start there because people should understand that they are essentially a minority government in terms of the votes they were able to get. Even though Mr. Modi rules India as if he had won a major majority of the population’s favor. You know, 60 percent plus of the public did not vote for the BJP or its allies. I think that’s very important to remember. Nonetheless, Mr. Modi didn’t govern as if he represented India. He governed from the agenda of his political party. He attempted to push the fascistic agenda of the BJP. In terms of what does it mean to be an Indian? No longer does the BJP want India to be composite plural country. As you say 1.3, 1.4 billion people, you know with — let me say, you know, a hundred, tens of hundreds of different kinds of cultural worlds, over a hundred different kinds of languages, highly diverse population, yet more they wanted to govern it in a very narrow, suffocating, cultural way.
He also attempted certain dramatic economic, you know, let’s call them gimmicks. Demonetization, which meant that suddenly one day you wake up and two of your main currency bills have been withdrawn from circulation. This was supposedly to go after black money. You know that is money hoarded by the rich. Of course, the rich, no longer keep their hoarded money in bank accounts under their beds. They keep it in tax havens, in shelters all around the world. So this was a big gimmick, which backfired, created a lot of distress for people and so on. So Modi attempted to push the country in a rightward direction. But right from the beginning, there was immense resistance against him and, interestingly, even on foreign policy.
When Modi tried to move into, basically, the American camp, he was prevented. He was the first Indian Prime Minister to go to Israel but he was forced by the political class and by the Indian foreign ministry to also have continued relations with the Palestinians — which he wanted to break. Modi was very eager to join in the American project to isolate Iran. That was prevented, not only by the foreign ministry and by the other political parties, but also, of course, by the needs of India which is entirely reliant on import of oil and imports quite a large amount of Iranian oil.
In the case of Venezuela, there was pressure on Mr. Modi to join with some of these European countries and the Lima Group to isolate the government of Maduro, but, the political class just wouldn’t have it. And India had to put out a quite a strong statement saying that “no foreign intervention is permitted and the sovereignty of Venezuela must be respected.” So, I want to just say at the same time as Modi is quite a ruthless, nasty piece of work, he was not able to capture fully the institutions of Indian government and the imagination of the Indian people and it’s quite likely, Jeremy, that he is going to lose this election quite badly.
JS: Well, that’s interesting. I want to ask you more about that. I also want to just draw people’s attention to the fact that just last month in January there were upwards of 200 million workers in India that took part in a two-day strike protesting the government’s labor policies. And then at the same time, over the weekend, you tweeted a photo of a sea of people in red and you wrote the following “My home city of Kolkata bristled today with the energy of the Left Front with our comrades thronging the Brigade Ground. There are many photographs of our comrades as they interact with each other, dance with each other from the bus stands and the train stations to the maidan.” What is the Left Front and how are they challenging the BJP?
VP: Well, you know, it’s let’s begin with the major labor protest. I was driving up and down the length of Kerala during those two days of the strike in January —
JS: I mean, that’s just for people to understand! I mean 200 million workers – I mean that’s like two-thirds of the population of the United States in, you know, in the streets on strike.
VP: That’s quite right and these are workers from not only where you’d expect them, rail workers, people closed down the trains in different parts of the country, but also Anganwadi workers. These are workers who are child care workers, ASHA workers. These are health care workers went out on strike. We saw IT workers. The internet workers in Bangalore in some IT companies go on strike. It was a range of workers to add up to 200 million and these workers were on strike not for wages. I think that’s very important to recognize. But they were angry with the direction of economic policy. They were angry with the kind of political culture in the country. It’s a very broad set of demands and quite a very powerful strike.
But before that, last year there was an immense wave of agrarian struggles. People may not know that in the past 18 years almost 300,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide. They’ve committed suicide largely because there is a deep agrarian crisis with no exit that has struck India. You’ve had — because of the commercialization of agriculture — you’ve had input prices rise, prices of fertilizer, prices of pesticide, prices of seeds. And you’ve had the government cut support prices to buy the goods. That means that the input prices [have] risen and the buying price has dropped which has left farmers in immense debt. And what you’ve seen, which is so tragic, is many of these farmers commit suicide by drinking pesticide, the very thing that has bankrupted them. Well over the course of these 15 odd years, the Kisan Sabha which is the Farmers’ movement in India has been struggling very hard to build the political confidence of farmers. And you saw in Bombay last year, you know, hundreds of thousands of farmers, march for over two weeks into the city of Bombay and force the right-wing state government to accede to the demands. So, what I’m saying is that we move from suicide to the politicization of the agrarian crisis. This had an enormous impact in three state elections last year in the states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh.
And it’s because of this farmer’s protest which has been, you know, organized by the left, by the communists, by the socialists, and other constituents of the Left Front. Because of these farmer’s protest you’ve seen a shift in the political needle away from the BJP in these key states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh. And in the very large, the largest state in India, the state of Uttar Pradesh, where there are 80 members of parliament — you know, the parliament in India has about 500 members, 80 of them come from Uttar Pradesh. In the 2013 election, Modi’s party won 70 of those seats but this year the two, I mean, so-called socialist parties, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, have united. They are going to fight the elections together. And it’s actually a marriage that is made in heaven, as they say, because in 31 seats in the 2013 election, in 31 of those seats the Samajwadi party, the socialist party came second, and in 34 seats the Bahujan Samaj Party, which is the party of oppressed castes, came second. So, that means they don’t actually compete with each other in 65 of the seats where the BJP won.
So, what we are anticipating is that this alliance is going to win about 50 to 60 seats out of 80 Uttar Pradesh. Because the BJP cannot win seats in South India because it’s going to have a hard time in those agrarian states of Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh and because it’s going to lose in this very large state of Uttar Pradesh to this new alliance of socialists and oppressed caste parties. Because of that, there is no way BJP is going to get a plurality in the Parliament and I think, in fact, it will it will not be able to form a government in April and May of this coming, this year.
JS: What are the chances that a new Indian government would be legitimately leftist or anti-imperialist?
VP: No, no, no. I mean, Jeremy, that’s not the –
JS: I’m asking you, brother!
VP:[Laughter] You see the issue is — this is the situation that we are going to face for a generation. Which is that again in these three state elections, it was really immense work done by the left among, you know rural communities, farmers, landless workers, and so on to build a political momentum that defeated the BJP governments. But of course, the left doesn’t have the kind of political structure needed to win elections. You know, whether this is in Brazil or it’s in India, we have to recognize that democracy has been completely shattered as an institutional form. It requires so much money to run in elections. There are so many crooked things that have happened to the democratic process. You know, in Brazil Jair Bolsonaro’s friends were sending WhatsApp messages, to WhatsApp groups that number, you know, hundreds and thousands of people. These WhatsApp messages, that were very cruel, they were suggesting that the Workers’ Party in Brazil, you know, was going to force their children into sex education and so on, you know, as if that’s a problem. I mean children deserve sex education but they were doing it in an extremely nasty way and delegitimizing the Workers’ Party in Brazil. We see the same thing in India. In other words, you know, lots of money being put by corporations into BJP deniable groups that are creating these WhatsApp networks and you know, inking essentially the political process by, you know, saying things about other candidates that are not true where it’s very difficult for the candidate who doesn’t have money to come out there and say look that’s just not true and let me show you how. So, you know to capitalize on the kind of mass mobilizations, on the struggles and so on into this democratic sphere is becoming increasingly difficult which is why I think that you know, we need to very seriously consider reconsider what democratic institutions are and what has become, what has happened to them.
JS: Last month was the anniversary of the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the independence leader in Congo who was the first prime minister of the independent Democratic Republic of Congo. He was assassinated and the United States, we know for a fact, had previously plotted to assassinate him. Just recently there were elections in Congo and you had the election of Felix Tshisekedi. He is now Congo’s fifth president taking over from Joseph Kabila. You recently, with Kambale Musavuli wrote a piece about the legacy of the crisis in Congo and how Patrice Lumumba-inspired-youth are trying to break the culture of plunder and corruption that has been foisted upon the political system in Congo. Explain today’s crisis, how it began in Congo, the significance of this new election, and the fact that the so-called opposition in Congo right now is headed by a former ExxonMobil executive.
VP: You know, it’s a great tragedy and I’d like to just back up for a minute. It’s not just a situation of the Congo. You have to look at this belt that runs through the center of Africa including Zambia, you know, including any country in the center of Africa and the many of them that are rich in rare earth minerals, in various raw materials from cobalt, which is an essential ingredient in electric batteries, to coltan which is essential for you know, the smartphones, the iPhone and so on. So, these countries —
JS: Oh many, many people are probably listening to you right now, Vijay, on devices that contain some natural resources from Congo or this belt that you’re describing.
VP: Well, they will definitely have devices that have cobalt and coltan which mainly come from this belt of countries. And it’s very important to say that however much there is, kind of, this dismay about the Chinese intervention in Africa, that actually most of the companies that are able to work to mine these goods are actually not Chinese. Many of them are Canadian. We, in fact, are doing a study about these Canadian firms like Barrick and so on which dominate the mining in these parts of the world. And what you’ve seen is that these mining companies essentially misprice what they’re doing. They pay these countries revenues based on a very deflated price for the goods. These goods as soon as they cross the border from the Congo, say they go to Mwanza port in Tanzania. As soon as they cross the border into Tanzania or into Uganda, the prices of these goods rise by miracle because within the Congo they keep the price low. So they say to the government we’ll give you 20 percent per ton of coltan’s price but the price is, you know, only so many hundred dollars. As soon as it crosses the border the price increases. This is what we call mispricing.
So places like the Congo have essentially been plundered and stolen from for over a hundred years. They haven’t been able to build up any kind of public finances. They haven’t been able to build up proper institutions to take care of the people of the Congo or of Zambia, wherever. And what you see in the Congo is, I mean you cannot imagine what corruption looks like. It’s the corruption of these big Canadian and other mining companies, resource companies, Australian companies and so on. Then it’s the corruption of the political class. At this moment, the kind of tentacles of Joseph Kabila who governed, you know, almost entirely since democracy came to Congo.
I mean democracy, again that word, you know, what does it mean for places like the Congo where you know, you strong arm people you have elections which means so little and, bizarrely, elections which means so little but in the case of a place like the Congo because it’s pliant, because it allows its raw materials and rare earth materials to leave the country at low cost, every time there is an election the State Department and, you know, all the Europeans, everybody says, well, you know, they’re moving towards democracy. I mean, if you are a pliant government, then your stolen election is validated. If you are not a pliant government, this is coming back to Venezuela, then you’re going to be told your election was fraudulent. So, they have had fraudulent election after elections and it got to such a point that Joseph Kabila simply refused to have an election. You know, his term ended in 2016. He just refused to allow an election to take place and nobody said peep. There was no statement about moving American troops into Tanzania. I mean nothing. Why? Because essentially all the minerals are being looted from that country so that we can have iPhones which cost — Okay, the huge price of $999 dollars, but if you actually priced the minerals inside the iPhone, the price may go up to $30,000 per iPhone. Some people have estimated $100,000 per iPhone. Imagine that. Walking into the Apple store and saying I’ll take three of those. I mean, who can afford that?
So, as long as you have a pliant government, and Kabila was pliant, they allowed him to keep going even though his mandate ended in 2016. You had these massive protest — yes, Lumumba inspired youth but also, you know, some of them are devout Christian groups and so on — out on the street demanding change. The pressure was too high. They allowed an election. They thought that Kabila’s, you know, his successor would come in. And here’s the whole trick of it, you know, again what is a democracy? Who can afford to build a political party? Necessarily you get people from the elite who build the opposition. And here? Yes, of course, it’s an ExxonMobil, you know, executive who becomes the face of the opposition. I mean, there is no real opposition in a country like Congo until it’s built from the grassroots. From these young people and so on.
And that is why, Jeremy, I’m sorry to say that, for at least a generation, places like the Congo will not be able to have, you know, robust political movements. Movements that will have any kind of impact in the electoral domain. In Zambia, a socialist party is being built up particularly in the copper belt. They are going to run for presidential elections. The candidate is going to be Fredman Membe. Fred used to run a newspaper in Zambia. He has been arrested several times by this government. His newspaper has been confiscated. The press was confiscated. The men’s pressure against the Socialist Party of Zambia and I can bet you that 99 percent of the people listening to this have never heard of the Socialist Party of Zambia or of Fred, you know, because of course, these are people who will not be pliant when it comes to mining companies, if they ever come to power.
JS: Well, and I also want to remind people, just briefly, of the history that you’re talking about here of the Congo, which was under the brutal reign of Belgian colonialism. And then you had the CIA-backed government of Mobutu Sese Seko and he himself was an actual CIA asset who ran that country with extreme brutality and kept it open for U.S. president after U.S. president.
You also had Dwight Eisenhower authorizing the CIA to develop a chemical poison that was made to look like toothpaste that they wanted to try to assassinate Patrice Lumumba with. We’ve seen so many of these independence movements or nationalist movements in Africa and Asia, around the Global South just be completely obliterated or severely damaged in the ensuing decades of imperialist encroachment around the world.
VP: Well, it is a very great tragedy. I mean, again, the playbook is similar. You look for the most charismatic person, assassinate that person, and then squeeze the rest of the political forces into exceeding to your demands. I mean, you take the case of any of these countries when they attempted to do something, put forward an alternative project. Suddenly, there’s an assassination: whether it’s Patrice Lumumba in the Congo in 1961, or it’s AmílcarCabral, or it’s the coup against Kwame Nkrumah. I mean, none of them was allowed to have a tenure where they were able to develop independent economies. And, of course for my generation, the assassination of Thomas Sankara in May of 1987, the very charismatic and important political leader in Burkina Faso which used to be known as Upper Volta but then when Sankara came to power he changed the name of his country. [He] said, “why should we be called Upper Volta? Why should we be defined by colonialism? We are Burkina Faso, the land of upright people.” And he pushed an agenda to revive the agriculture of Burkina Faso. He pushed an agenda for the sovereignty of the country. It’s such an interesting agenda that he pushed that he set for instance, by government fiat, by law, on Wednesday, men must do childcare. He said I would like to have half the week be for men to do childcare and domestic — take care of the house, clean things, cook food, but I’m going to start only with Wednesday. I mean, this was a man who understood that political power is not about the parliament. It’s not even about the boardroom of companies — it’s the kitchen, the house.
You know, it’s the old saying Jeremy that it’s not enough to be Che Guevara on the street and Pinochet in the kitchen. You have to be [a] liberated person from you know, your house out onto the streets and Sankara pushed a great agenda for his country, Burkina Faso, and he was assassinated. You know, just seven years later the hope of South Africa, Chris Hani, you know, the leader of [the South African Communist Party], the leader of the urban poor in South Africa. Just as South Africa was coming out of Apartheid, before the elections, Chris Hani was shot to death. I mean, every time you look at an African country when a young leader is produced that comes up with an agenda that is not blind to mining companies, not pliant to the Western capitals, that person is killed almost immediately and I think people need to really reflect on that, reflect on the assassinations of Houari Boumédièneat the north of the country in Algeria all the way down to Chris Hani at the South.
JS: You know, as we wrap up Vijay, I wanted to get your big picture take on the ascent of Donald Trump to the chamber of ultimate power in the United States at the White House. Taking into account this history that you and I are discussing of populist movements, leftist movements, socialist movements, and the kind of expansion of the imperialism of the United States. Set Donald Trump’s rise to power in the context of all of this history that you and I have been discussing.
VP: Well, you know it brings us back to this tax strike that began about 40 years ago. About 40 years ago when basically government policy allowed the big elites to no longer pay taxes, corporate tax rates began to fall. You saw government budgets desiccate. You saw municipal budgets basically devolve to nothing. At this point, the kind of liberal consensus, the liberal agenda, was to move in a direction [of] what we call neoliberalism. They produced a policy framework called neoliberalism which basically accepted the fact that the rich were not going to pay taxes. And they tried to raise public financing, whether it’s the budgets of governments or municipalities, they wanted to raise funds by selling off hard-won public assets, whether it’s concessions to water delivery, or it’s, in fact, education institutions, and so on. They privatized, they opened up parts of human existence that had not been for money and commodified them.
So again, water is a great example. You had water utilities which basically ran things as a not-for-profit entity. You start privatizing water, making water into a commodity. This was the way in which the liberals tried to finance this crisis of government budgets because the rich were not paying taxes. And they were not going to challenge the rich. In fact, they said that’s good. It creates entrepreneurialism. You see jobs trickle down. Essentially, this is the agenda of Tony Blair, of Bill Clinton, and you know, around the world they have their cognates. But by the financial crisis of 2007, the liberals with the neoliberal policies were essentially totally delegitimized.
I mean, nobody took seriously, after the financial crisis, the idea that you should just go out there and become an entrepreneur as if it’s so easy. I mean, as if it’s so easy to go out there and just start a business. Have an idea and somebody will finance it. Who? Who is going to finance it? Which bank is going to give me money for my idea when banks are basically hoarding wealth on behalf of the wealthy, not lending for business purposes at the rates at which they should, and so on? So, when these neoliberals are delegitimized, from the right appears characters, people like Donald Trump. But again, this is not a specific American story. This is a global story. The delegitimization of the liberals, whether it’s the Congress party in India, or it’s to some extent, the Workers Party in Brazil, the Democratic party in the United States, these far-right people show up and they make strong claims saying that “we’re going to come, we’re going to grab the economy by the throat, we’re going to make it cough out jobs.” And then they make [an] even more dramatic statement saying that “the reason you don’t have a job has nothing to do with the fact that you’re not an entrepreneur or that you’re not a get-up-and-go person. The reason you don’t have a job is because the migrants, because these migrants come in and take your jobs.” I mean, it’s a classic bait and switch.
On the one hand, they quite correctly attack the neoliberals saying that “you’ve basically hollowed out the economy.” They attack them saying that “you’re not able to provide well-being for the population.” Well, that’s true. But then the bait and switch is they turn around and they say “the reason why this is happening is because of the migrants.” They, in other words, the Trumps of the world, just like the Clintons of the world, don’t point their fingers at those 2,000 billionaires and so on who are just not paying taxes. Who are sucking up social wealth and not providing any return to public finances to improve health to improve education. And, by the way, to create public institutions that prevent people from desperation like universal health care. If you had publicly funded universal health care, individual families wouldn’t have to scramble to pay premiums and struggle to get health insurance and so on. This is what public financing should have been. But because the left is weak now, the liberals have been delegitimized. The field is open to the right and not only to the right but [to] these very vicious strongmen. So, my sense is that for some time now, we’re going to have to tolerate this right-wing political presence until we build up the forces of the left to produce a robust critique of the way in which the wealthy have not been contributing at all.
I mean, I don’t really want philanthropy. I want them to pay taxes.
JS: Well on that note, we’re going to leave it there. Vijay Prashad, thank you so much for joining us.
VP: Thanks a lot.
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