Hot Topics

From Bolivia to Baghdad: Noam Chomsky on Creating Another World in a Time of War, Empire and Devastation

StoryDecember 19, 2006
Watch iconWatch Full Show

Noam Chomsky

professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, speaking last weekend at an event sponsored by Massachusetts Global Action.

World-renowned scholar and linguist Noam Chomsky spoke this weekend at an event titled "What’s Next? Creating Another World in a Time of War, Empire and Devastation." Chomsky spoke about the Iraq Study Group report, recent elections in Latin America, the current situation with Iran and much more. [includes rush transcript]

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Today, we bring you world-renowned scholar and linguist Noam Chomsky, who spoke a few days ago in an event sponsored by Massachusetts Global Action. The speech was called "What’s Next? Creating Another World in a Time of War, Empire and Devastation." It was held at the Emmanuel Church in Boston.

Chomsky is a professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He recently returned from Latin America. He talked about the recent elections in the region, which have brought leftist governments to power that are challenging U.S. foreign policy. Chomsky also talked about Iraq and Iran in the context of Latin America.

In this excerpt, he begins by analyzing the recently released Iraq Study Group report that was chaired by the former Secretary of State James Baker.

NOAM CHOMSKY: There are efforts to try to extricate the U.S. from the U.S. power — doesn’t matter much to the people, but U.S. power — from the catastrophes it’s created for itself. The most recent such effort, right on the front pages now — so I’ll keep to that one — is the Baker-Hamilton report, the Iraq Study Group report, which has some interesting features. Very interesting.

For example, one of its — it doesn’t have much in the way of proposals, but the thinking is interesting. So here’s one paragraph, refers to recent polls in Iraq. The U.S. government and polling agencies here take regular polls in Iraq. They care a lot about Iraqi opinion. And this points out that recent polling indicates that 79 percent of Iraqis have a mostly negative view of the influence that the United States has in their country, and 61 percent of Iraqis — includes Kurds — approve of attacks on U.S.-led forces. Well, that’s clearly a problem. And we have to deal with that problem by changing tactics, so they’ll understand that we really love them and we’re trying to help them and they’ll stop thinking they ought to attack us and hating us, and so on. OK, that was the proposal.

There’s something missing. The same polls that they cited have some other information, for example, that two-thirds of the people of Baghdad want U.S. troops out immediately, and about over three-quarters of the whole population, including Kurds, again, wants a firm timetable for withdrawal within a year or less. Well, that isn’t mentioned, because in our mission to bring democracy to the world, we don’t care about the opinions of people. They’re kind of irrelevant, so that isn’t mentioned. And, of course, there’s no timetable for withdrawal. That’s one of the options they rejected.

Also interesting is that the American people are treated the same way. A majority of people here are in favor of a firm timetable for withdrawal. But that’s irrelevant, too. In fact, back as far as April 2003, considerable majority of people here in the United States were in favor of keeping U.S. troops there only if they were under U.N. supervision. The U.N. ought to take responsibility for security, for economic development, reconstruction, for democratic development, and so on. But that opinion was, of course, totally ignored and, to my knowledge, not even reported.

Now, that continues, if that attitude continues, the next big problem, next to Iraq, is Iran. And the Baker-Hamilton Commission, as you know, gave a recommendation about that. It said the U.S. must somehow engage Iran, but they said that that’s going to be problematic given the state of U.S.-Iranian relationships. Well, the U.S. population has an opinion about that, too. 75 percent of the population here, including a majority of Republicans, think that the United States ought to keep to diplomatic peaceful measures in engagement with Iran, which they approve of, and not use military threats — exact opposite of the policy.

The same attitudes are true of the people of the region. They don’t like Iran, and they don’t certainly want a nuclear-armed Iran, but a majority of the population of the regional states favors a nuclear-armed Iran to any form of military intervention, just as people here do. Well, that’s kind of irrelevant, so that’s also not mentioned in the report.

A third interesting fact about the report is that it says the United States cannot achieve its goals in the Middle East — of course, taken for granted they must achieve those goals. It doesn’t mean the people of the United States, it means the government and their constituency. The United States cannot achieve its goals in the Middle East unless it deals directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict. And then goes on to say that the U.S. must encourage discussions and so on, but restricting and allowing Palestinians to participate, but only those who accept Israel’s right to exist. OK, those are the only Palestinians who can participate. What about Israelis who accept Palestine’s right to exist? Well, no point in mentioning them, because there probably aren’t any.

And, in fact, there shouldn’t be any. No state has a right to exist. It’s obvious. In fact, the whole concept, right to exist, as far as I’m aware — somebody should — it’s a good research project for someone — to my knowledge, that concept was created in the 1970s when the Arab States and the PLO accepted, formally accepted — PLO tacitly, the Arab states formally, the major ones — formally accepted Israel’s right to exist within secure and recognized borders, borrowing the wording of the major U.N. resolution, U.N. 242. So it became necessary to raise the barrier to prevent negotiations diplomacy and to allow expansion instead.

And here comes right to exist, which, of course, nobody is going to accept. It means accepting not only the fact of the expulsion of Palestinians, but also its legitimacy. No state in the world is ever going to accept that, any more than Mexico accepts the — it recognizes the United States, but it does not recognize the legitimacy of the U.S. conquest of half of Mexico — outlandish.

But even if we reduce it from the crazy notion of right to exist to just recognizing Palestine, how many — who — recognizing Israel, suppose we limit Palestinians to those who recognize Israel, which Israelis recognize Palestine? Does the United States recognize Palestine? I mean, I won’t run through the history here, but for 30 years, the U.S. and Israel have, with rare exceptions, been unilaterally preventing the establishment of a broad international consensus on a two-state settlement. I mean, they’re willing now, in the last couple of years, only the last couple of years, to accept a very truncated Palestine that’s dismembered, surrounded — no chance of viable existence. Maybe they’ll recognize that. A couple of bantustans, but not any viable state.

AMY GOODMAN: We are watching and listening to Noam Chomsky, giving an address last week in Boston. When we come back, we’ll turn to the segment of his speech where he talks about Latin America, from which he just returned. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: We return now to Noam Chomsky, who spoke a few days ago in Boston.

NOAM CHOMSKY: I’ll start with last weekend. Important city in South America, Cochabamba, with quite a history. There was a meeting last weekend in Cochabamba in Bolivia of all the South American leaders. It was a very important meeting. One index of its importance is that it was unreported, virtually unreported apart from the wire services. So every editor knew about it. Since I suspect you didn’t read that wire service report, I’ll read you a few things from it to indicate why it was so important.

In last Saturday, the South American leaders agreed to create a high-level commission to study the idea of forming a continent-wide community similar to the European Union. This is the presidents and envoys of all the nations, and there was the two-day summit of what’s called the South American Community of Nations, hosted by Evo Morales in Cochabamba, the president of Bolivia. The leaders — reading just now — agreed to form a study group to look at the possibility of creating a continent-wide union and even a South American parliament. The result, according to the — I’m reading from the AP report — the result left fiery Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, long an agitator for the region, taking a greater role on the world stage, pleased, but impatient — normal stance. They went on. It goes on to say that the discussion over South American unity will continue later this month, when MERCOSUR, South American trading bloc, has its regular meeting that will include leaders from Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, Paraguay and Uruguay.

There is one — has been one point of hostility in South America. That’s Peru, Venezuela. But it points out that Chavez and Peruvian President Alan Garcia took advantage of the summit to bury the hatchet, after having exchanged insults earlier in the year. And that was the only real conflict in South America. So that seems to have been smoothed over.

The new Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa proposed a land and river trade route linking the Brazilian Amazon Rainforest to Ecuador’s Pacific coast, suggesting that for South America, it could be kind of like an alternative to the Panama Canal.

Chavez and Morales celebrated a new joint project, the gas separation plant in Bolivia’s rich gas-rich region. It’s a joint venture with Petrovesa, the Venezuelan oil company, and the Bolivian state energy company. And it continues. Venezuela, as I’m sure you know, is the only — it which points out — is the only Latin American member of OPEC and has by far the largest proven oil reserves outside the Middle East, by some measures maybe even comparable to Saudi Arabia. Well, that’s very important in the general global context. I’ll return to a couple of words about that.

There were also contributions, constructive, interesting contributions by Lula da Silva, Brazil’s president, Bachelet of Chile, and others. All of this is extremely important.

This is the first time since the Spanish conquests, 500 years, that there has been real moves towards integration in South America. The countries have been very separated from one another. And integration is going to be a prerequisite for authentic independence. I mean, there have been — I’m sure you know — attempts at independence, but they’ve been crushed, often very violently, partly because of lack of regional support, because there was very little regional cooperation, so you can pick them off one by one.

That’s what happened since the 1960s. The Kennedy administration orchestrated a coup in Brazil, the first of which happened right after the assassination was already planned. It was the first of a series of falling dominoes. Neo-Nazi-style national security states spread across the hemisphere. Chile was one of them, but only one finally ended up with reaching Central America, with Reagan’s terrorist wars in the 1980s, which devastated Central America, similar things happening in the Caribbean. But that was sort of a one-by-one operation of destroying one country after another. And it had the expected domino effect. It’s the worst plague of repression in the history of Latin America since the original conquests, which were horrendous. It’s only beginning to be understood how horrendous they were.

But integration does lay the basis for potential independence, and that’s of extreme significance. The colonial history — Spain, Europe, the United States — not only divided countries from one another, but it also left a sharp internal division within the countries, every one, between a very wealthy small elite and a huge mass of impoverished people. The correlation to race is fairly close. Typically, the rich elite was white, European, Westernized; and the poor mass of the population was indigenous, Indian, black, intermingled, and so on. It’s a fairly close correlation, and it continues right ’til the present.

The white, mostly white, elites were not — who ran the countries — were not integrated with — had very few interrelations with the other countries of the region. They were Western-oriented. You can see that in all sorts of ways. That’s where the capital was exported. That’s where the second homes were, where the children went to the universities, where their cultural connections were, and so on. And they had very little responsibility in their own societies. So there’s very sharp division.

They were also very support— you can see it, for example, in imports. Imports are mostly luxury goods, overwhelmingly. Development, such as it was, was mostly foreign. It was much more open, Latin America, much more open to foreign investment than, say, East Asia. It’s part of the reason for their different paths of development in the past — radically different paths of development in the last couple of decades.

And, of course, the elite elements were very strongly sympathetic to the neoliberal programs of the last 25 years, which enriched them — destroyed the countries, but enriched them. Latin America, more than any region in the world, outside of southern Africa, adhered rigorously to the so-called Washington Consensus, what’s called outside the United States the neoliberal programs of roughly the past 25, 30 years. And everywhere where they were rigorously applied, they led to disaster. There’s scarcely an exception. Very striking correlation. Sharp reduction in rates of growth, other macroeconomic indices, all the social effects that go along with that.

Actually, the comparison to East Asia is very striking. Latin America is a much — potentially much richer area. I mean, a century ago, it was taken for granted that Brazil would be what was called the "Colossus of the South," comparable to the Colossus of the North. Haiti, now one of the poorest countries in the world, was the richest colony in the world, a source of much of France’s wealth, now devastated, first by France, then by the United States. And Venezuela — enormous wealth — was taken over by the United States around 1920, right at the beginning of the oil age, had been a British dependency, but Woodrow Wilson kicked the British out, recognizing that control of oil was going to be important, and supported a vicious dictator. And then, more or less, it goes on until the present. So the resources and the potential were always there. Very rich.

In contrast, East Asia had almost no resources, but they followed a different developmental path. In Latin America, imports were luxury goods for the rich. In East Asia, it’s capital goods for development. They had state-coordinated development programs. They disregarded the Washington Consensus almost totally. Capital controls, controls on export of capital, harsh punishments for it, pretty egalitarian societies, a lot of — authoritarian, sometimes, pretty harsh — but educational programs, health programs, and so on. In fact, they followed pretty much the developmental paths of the currently wealthy countries, which are radically different from the rules that are being imposed on the South.

And that goes way back in history. You go back to the 17th century, the commercial and industrial centers of the world were China and India. Life expectancy in Japan was greater than in Europe. Europe was kind of like a barbarian outpost, but it had advantages, mainly in savagery, conquered the world, imposed something like the neoliberal rules on the conquered regions, and itself, very high protectionism, a lot of state intervention and so on. So Europe developed.

The United States, as a typical case, had the highest tariffs in the world, most protectionist country in the world during the period of its great development. In fact, as late as 1950, when the United States literally had half the world’s wealth, its tariffs were higher than the Latin American countries today, which are being ordered to reduce them.

Massive state intervention in the economy. Economists don’t talk about it much, but the current economy in the United States relies very heavily on the state sector. That’s where you get your computers and the Internet and your airplane traffic and transit of goods, container ships and so on, almost entirely comes out of the state sector, including pharmaceuticals, management techniques, and so on. I won’t go on into that, but it’s a strong correlation right through history. Those are the methods of development.

The neoliberal methods created a Third World, and in the past 30 years, they have led to disasters in Latin America and southern Africa, the places that most rigorously adhered to them. But whereas there was growth and development in East Asia, which disregarded them, following the rules, following pretty much the model of the currently rich countries.

Well, there’s a chance that that will begin to change. There are finally efforts inside South America — unfortunately not in Central America, which has just been pretty much devastated by the terror of the last — of the '80s particularly. But in South America, from Venezuela to Argentina, it's, I think, the most exciting place in the world. There’s reactions to this. After 500 years, there’s a beginning of efforts to overcome these overwhelming problems. The integration that’s taking place, that I just read about, is one example.

There’s efforts of the Indian population. The indigenous population is, for the first time in hundreds of years, taking a — really beginning in some of the countries, take a very active role in their own affairs. In Bolivia, they succeeded in taking over the country, controlling their resources. Bolivia — and it’s also leading to significant democratization, real democracy, in which the population participates. So it takes a Bolivia — it’s the poorest country in the hemisphere in South America — Haiti is poorer — it had a real democratic election last year, of a kind that you can’t imagine in the United States, or in Europe, for that matter. There was mass popular participation, and people knew what the issues were. The issues were crystal clear and very important. And people didn’t just participate on election day. These are the things they had been struggling about for years. Actually, Cochabamba is a symbol of it. I’ll come back to that. So, clear issues, popular participation, ongoing efforts, elected someone from their own ranks. I won’t bother to compare it to the United States. You can work it out for yourselves, but that’s a real democratic election of the kind we can’t imagine.

In fact, in our elections, the issues are unknown. There’s careful efforts to make sure that the issues are unknown to the public, for good reasons. There’s a tremendous gap between public opinion and public policy. So you have to keep away from issues and concentrate on imagery and delusions and so on. The elections are run by the same industries that sell toothpaste on television. You don’t expect to get information from a television ad. You don’t expect to get information about a candidate from debates, advertisements and the other paraphernalia that goes along with what are called elections here.

There’s a lot of fuss on the left about election irregularities, like, you know, the voting machines were tampered with, they didn’t count the votes right, and so on. That’s all accurate and of some importance, but of far more importance is the fact that elections just don’t take place, not in any meaningful sense of the term "election." And so, it doesn’t matter all that much, if there was some tampering. I suspect that’s why the population doesn’t get much exercised over it. The concern over stolen elections and vote tampering, and so on, is mostly an elite affair. Most of the country didn’t seem to care very much. "OK, so the election was stolen." I mean, if you’re flipping a coin to select a king or something, it doesn’t matter much if the coin is biased. That seems to be the way most people feel about it. And there’s some justification.

In fact, the attitude of the public here towards the political system is very dramatic. I mean, about a third of the population in the United States, according to recent polls, believes that the Bush administration was responsible for 9/11. But they don’t think it’s a problem, like they don’t think that’s anything to worry about it. Yeah, of course, they’re all crooks and gangsters and murderers, tell us something new, you know. It doesn’t have much to do with us. That’s a shocking commentary on the state of American democracy.

There’s a lot of talk here about, you know, we have a divided country. We have to unify. We need a unifier, somebody who will bring it back together. Red and blue, and so on. That’s pretty marginal. It is a divided country. It’s divided between public opinion and public policy. A very sharp divide. And on issue after issue, the whole political system is well to the right of the public and public attitudes. And we know a lot about these, because it’s a very well studied topic in the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ll continue with Professor Noam Chomsky’s address after break.


AMY GOODMAN: We return to the address of Noam Chomsky, professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, speaking last Thursday in Boston.

NOAM CHOMSKY: Just to give one last illustration, I was driving home from work the other day and torturing myself by listening to NPR, and — I have kind of a masochistic streak I can’t get over. Actually, some day I’m going to sue them. Sometime — once they got me so angry that I started speeding. I lost control of what I was doing, and I was stopped by a cop, and I was going like 60 miles an hour in a 30 mile zone. Maybe a basis for a civil suit, if there are any lawyers around here. But they had a section on Barack Obama, the great new hope. And it was very exuberant: What a fantastic personality he is and a great candidate, thousands of people coming out. And it went on for about 15 minutes of excited rhetoric. There’s only one thing missing. They didn’t say a word about what his policies were on anything. It’s kind of not — doesn’t matter, you know. He’s a unifier. He looks at you when he talks to you. He’s a really decent guy. Great background. OK, that’s an election.

Bolivia was radically different, and that’s a very striking comparison, and it in fact generalizes. Well, there is — one of the things that’s happened in Latin America in the past several decades is there has been a wave of authentic democratization. Despite U.S. efforts to impede it, it’s taken place. However, an unfortunate side effect of it is that as the wave of democratization increased, while support for democracy remained strong in Latin America, support for the elected governments has been declining, steadily declining.

There’s a reasonable explanation for that that was given by an Argentine political scientist, Atilio Boron. He pointed out that the wave of democratization correlated with the neoliberal programs, which are designed to undermine democracy. I don’t have time to talk about it, but every element of them is specifically designed to undermine democracy, to restrict the public arena and participation and so on. So he concludes — I think plausibly — that it’s not surprising that while a desire to have democracies remains very high, support for the elected government declines, insofar as they follow the programs that are undermining democracy.

Now, there are a few exceptions. The leading exception — again, Latin American opinion is also pretty carefully polled and studied, so we know a lot about it — the leading exception is Venezuela. From 1998 to the present, support for the elected government has increased sharply, in pretty dramatic contrast to almost all of Latin America. There are some increases elsewhere. And, in fact, Venezuela leads the continent in support for the elected government. That’s probably why it’s called anti-democratic and authoritarian and, you know, dictator, and so on and so forth.

The rhetoric here is kind of interesting. There are authoritarian tendencies, undoubtedly, but the picture of Chavez as a tin-pot dictator — has destroyed freedom of press and so on — that’s the standard line also in the right-wing press in South America, and believed, in fact, completely inconsistent with the facts.

I mean, take, say, freedom of the press. As you know, there was a coup in Venezuela in the year 2002, supported by the United States. The government was overthrown. It was taken over by Pedro Carmona, a rich businessman, who immediately dissolved Parliament, destroyed the Supreme Court, got rid of the Attorney General’s Office, the public defender. Every vestige of democracy was instantly demolished.

U.S. strongly supported it. The Venezuelan private press, the press, strongly supported it. One of the people who supported the coup was the opposition candidate in the last election. Just another — other supporters of the coup were a group called Sumate, the group that the U.S. provides aid to for what’s called "democracy building." So the coup was supported by a substantial part of the elite in the society that was backed by the United States, destroyed the democratic system.

It was quickly overthrown by a popular uprising. U.S. had to back off. But what’s striking is that the newspapers continue to publish, still continue to attack the government. Rosales, who supported the coup, ran in the election. Sumate, which supported the coup, is functioning, the main recipient of U.S. democracy promotion funds.

Just imagine that that had happened in the United States. Suppose there was a coup that overthrew the government, supported by the leading press, you know, by political figures and so on. Would the press continue to function? I mean, would the supporter of the coup be the opposition candidate in the next election. I mean, it’s unimaginable. They’d all be lined up in front of firing squads. But this is the tin-pot dictator who’s destroying freedom of press, not the first time. But these are quite important developments.

And what they illustrate is a decline in the — first of all, a move towards integration, independence and authentic democracy with mass popular movements and participation and so on, all extremely important, but also along with it goes a decline in the methods of domination and control. I mean, the U.S. has dominated the region for a long time with two major methods: one of them, violence, and the other, economic strangulation, economic controls. And both of those methods are declining in efficacy.

2002 was the last effort of the United States to overthrow a government. In earlier years, it was routine. And in fact, the governments that the U.S. is now supporting — say, Lula — probably would have been overthrown 40 years ago. There’s not that much difference between Lula and Goulart, the Brazilian president who was overthrown by the Kennedy-instigated coup. There is a notable decline in the efficacy of violence for control.

And the same is true of economic controls. The main economic controls in recent years have been the IMF, which is virtually a branch of the U.S. Treasury Department. But the countries are freeing themselves of its controls. Argentina basically told the — Argentina was the poster boy of the IMF. It was a great success story, except that it led to a total complete crash, a terrible crash. Argentina did recover, but by violating IMF rules, refusing to pay its debts, buying up what remained of the debt and "ridding ourselves of the IMF," as the president put it. They were able to do that, partly with the help of Venezuela, which bought up about a third of the debt, another form of cooperation. Brazil, in its own way, moved in the same direction, freeing itself from the IMF.

Bolivia is now doing it. Bolivia had been, again, a rigorous obedient student of the IMF for about 25 years. It ended up with per capita income lower than when it started. Well, now they’re getting rid of the IMF, too, again with Venezuelan support. And as this proceeds through the — in fact, the IMF itself is in serious trouble. If you look at the business pages, you’ll notice that its viability is in question, because it’s not getting the kinds of funds it used to get from the role it played in what one — the U.S. executive director of the IMF once called it the credit community’s enforcer. It’s like the Mafia. They’re the goons who were sent in to get the payments, the default, and so on. But they’re not getting it anymore, and their own funds are running low. They may not survive.

Well, all of this is just one aspect of the weakening of the economic controls, alongside the weakening of the controls of violence, and that’s going hand in hand with the steps towards integration and independence.

The U.S. has had to have a policy change. There’s still a distinction between the good guys and the bad guys. The good guys happen to be governments the U.S. probably would have overthrown 40 years ago, like Lula’s Brazil That’s one of the good guys. Morales and Chavez, they’re the bad guys. Well, that’s the party line. You’ve read it over and over.

In order to maintain it, it’s necessary to finesse some of the facts, like, for example, the fact that when Lula was re-elected in October — the good guy — his first act was to fly to Caracas to support Chavez’s electoral campaign — that’s the bad guy. Now, that wasn’t reported in the United States, too remote from the party line. Also, Lula dedicated a Brazilian project in Venezuela, a bridge over the Orinoco River, new development projects, and so on. That’s all the wrong story.

And as I mentioned, as the AP reported, Venezuela has been in the lead of trying to move towards regional integration. That’s what Chavez’s [Bolivarian] Alternatives for the America is all about — is supposed to be about, that involves efforts to develop institutions for an integrated South America. Petroamerica is kind of an integrated plan for an integrated energy system of the kind that China is trying to initiate in Asia, also very worrisome to the United States. Telesur is an effort to break through the closely guarded Western media monopoly. It’s a big story in itself. The University of the South, if it takes off, would be an academic center for the Americas, and so on.

Well, the U.S. is kind of losing control. It’s not that U.S. policy is changing. The policy has to be adjusted. The U.S. has not given up on means of violence and economic control, but they’re taking new forms. So the training of Latin American officers has, by the U.S., has gone way up, very sharply in the last few years. And they’re being trained differently. The training is being shifted. It’s being shifted from the State Department to the Pentagon. That’s of some significance. When training of Latin American officers is under State Department controls, there’s at least theoretically congressional supervision of human rights violations and so on. Not very many teeth in it, but at least it’s sort of there.

AMY GOODMAN: MIT linguist and political analyst, Noam Chomsky, speaking in Boston several days ago.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

Next story from this daily show

John Mohawk, Iroquois Leader and Scholar, Dead at 61

Non-commercial news needs your support

We rely on contributions from our viewers and listeners to do our work.
Please do your part today.

Make a donation