Independent journalist and film-maker John Pilger has just released a new film, The War on Democracy. Set in Latin America and the US, the film outlines the US-led destruction of democracy in successive Latin American countries since the 1950s and the significant reversal of that tide today. The film includes an exclusive interview with Venezuela's socialist President Hugo Chavez. Green Left Weekly's Emma Murphy spoke to Pilger about the issues raised in the film.
Why do you think there is so little information about Venezuela in the mainstream media?
The reason is that the mainstream media is an extension of establishment interests, and reflects those interests. There are a number of honourable exceptions to this, but by and large that's what the media is and always has been. It's no different really in Australia to other countries that claim to have free media, and where journalists are encouraged to see the world — countries and societies — in terms of their usefulness to Western interests, to see countries and governments as worthy or unworthy, hopeful or expendable, useful or expendable.
That helps to explain why, for many years, Latin America was simply not on the media agenda. It was a place of stereotypes that had generals in dark glasses, and a lot of corruption, and yes — like all stereotypes, they were partly true. But the very notion that Latin America is also a seed bed of mass attempts to renew democracy — real democracy — has been virtually unknown, especially in Australia.
How significant is this process of change in Latin America and what impact is it having on the global political scene?
It's very significant, because what is happening in Latin America is a grassroots attempt to end poverty, to bring true democracy to a majority. This has happened before. Among the poorest in the world, in Latin America some of the most interesting and exciting movements have emerged. I think for 200 years — since [anti-colonial liberation leader] Simon Bolivar — there has been a yearning for independence in Latin America. But every time the independence movement has tried to make this a reality, they have been subverted or crushed outright by the United States, the hemispheric power.
That's happening again now, in a number of countries: Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador to some degree, Argentina, and in fact in all countries, really, there are elements of this renewal, this rising up, this emergence again of great social movements. It's only a beginning, and it mustn't be exaggerated, but it's a very important beginning.
I'm often asked "What should people do?", usually referring to Australia. Well my answer to that question is to look at what is happening in Latin America. Think about different ways of bringing political decency to a society and have a look at the way they are approaching it.
It seems that Latin America is a bit of an "axis of hope", while the Middle East is an example of all that is wrong with the US's foreign policy and its wars of aggression.
Well I think they're all connected. What you see imposed on the people of Latin America — or has been imposed in the past — is what you get in the Middle East. Yes, Latin America is a source of hope, but I would also invest that same hope in people who have been struggling for a very long time — the Palestinians. I take a very positive view, I think, of people who have been struggling against great power, and although their situation is critical, they themselves have not been defeated. In Palestine, when you see in Gaza young people going to school against all the odds, because it's effectively Israeli policy to destroy the Palestinian dream of education, when you see young people studying for exams at checkpoints and their families refusing to allow them to give up, then I think that's also a source of hope.
What sense did you get from the ordinary Venezuelans you spoke to when making the film, about the potential threat posed by the US and their ability to keep this movement alive?
I think that can be summed up in one word: confidence. People have a new confidence. If you compare the very poor of some parts of Latin America — Venezuela, Bolivia — with the very poor in other parts of the world, the difference will be that one has confidence, and believe that they can change their society. That's extremely important. That struck me when I went into the barrios in Venezuela to find that people had this belief — renewed belief — in themselves, that everything wasn't governed by a kind of nihilistic despair in which crime and corruption played a part. That exists, and is a big problem, but the political confidence that people exude is the most important change in Latin America, that makes my job of meeting and interviewing people for a film inspirational.
It was a privilege to go into people's lives and get the sense of this. One has to be careful and not romanticise it. There is a wide spectrum of problems, but the start has been made, and there is a debate. And I think it's very important that that debate is as open as possible. For example, there is a debate in the barrios between those who believe — rightly, in my view — that democracy that brings social justice can only be at ground level, and those who support the intervention of the state as such. Now both are right in a sense, that there has to be communal democracy for it to work, and the state has a role to play, but the state must not overwhelm the grassroots. And that's a very interesting discussion that is proceeding among supporters of the government.
Would it be fair to say that it was intervention by the state from such early days that has encouraged that grassroots democracy?
Yes, I think you're right in saying that. I think that has happened, because the state has led and provided the leadership for a movement of which Chavez is an authentic product. He is a product of a movement, a movement that began in 1989 with the uprising of the caracazos. He and his government have provided, undoubtedly, that leadership and that encouragement for grassroots movements to flourish, such as in the setting up of communal councils, or the original setting up of missions, and the burgeoning co-operative movement and so on.
I think one of the big challenges in Venezuela is the enduring power of the old forces, the oligarch. Chavez has actually been quite careful not to interfere radically at all with their power. Their economic power is still very considerable, and their role in the economy is very considerable. My own view is that how that resolves itself is extremely important.
Did you manage to time your trip to Sydney so that you would avoid the APEC security debacle?
I couldn't get here before this, but I was both ashamed and proud. I was ashamed at the way too many people in Sydney accepted what was effectively martial law in their streets. I was extremely proud of those people who did resist — I saw [protest organiser] Alex Bainbridge pop up on television in Britain — and I can assure those who resisted against the utterly undemocratic forces that were ranged against them that their resistance was extremely important.
Everybody is celebrating the Chaser's intervention, and it was important too. It's interesting that two-and-a-half million people watched that program the other night. But I think rather more important were the protesters who were representing all Australians, if only other Australians could understand and realise that and not accept the propaganda that is heaped upon them day after day. I think those people who stood up should be proud of their actions, otherwise they could erect a fence whenever they wanted to, about anything.