Washington's war on democracy (and its discontents)

September 21, 2007

The War on Democracy

Directed by John Pilger & Chris Martin

96 minutes

In limited release nationally


Around the world, increasing numbers of people are opening their eyes to the grassroots struggles being waged in Latin America, in particular the revolutionary process unfolding in Venezuela. Unfortunately the corporate media's reporting of the anti-neoliberal rebellion in Latin America is dominated by the perspective of the rich and powerful. However, renowned dissident journalist John Pilger's latest documentary, The War on Democracy — his first produced for cinema release — helps provide the opposite perspective, that of the oppressed and the partisans of resistance.

Opening in cinemas across Australia, the film features an exclusive interview with Venezuela's radical president, Hugo Chavez, and helps provide an overview of US interventions into Latin America — the US empire's so-called "backyard". Pilger constructs a damning expose of the hypocritical pretensions of US President George Bush's second inauguration address, in which Bush pledged to "bring democracy to the world". This is done through interviews with the survivors of atrocities committed and supported by US administrations.

A US nun, Dianna Ortiz, recounts how she was tortured and gang-raped in Guatemala in the late '80s by a gang led by a US man clearly linked to the US-backed regime that was in power. Men and women speak of their torture during the reign of Augusto Pinochet in Chile, another US-backed tyrant. Their distressing recollections are sharply contrasted with an interview with a wealthy Chilean woman who says: "I don't believe there's any torturing done in Chile. Why torture someone when you can shoot them?"

With his trademark black humour, Pilger interviews senior US officials who talk very earnestly of liberty while justifying brutal atrocities. One example is a discussion with Duane Clarridge, who ran the CIA in Latin America in the 1980s. Clarridge applauds the US role in the region, stating that those opposed to Washington's intervention can simply "like it or lump it".

It is impossible to watch this film without drawing comparisons to the "war on terror" being waged today. Pilger refers to the justifications made for US interventions in the mid-20th Century as "orchestrated paranoia … that became a super-cult known as anti-communism".

In an interview with Pablo Navarrete, published on Venezuelanalysis.com in April, Pilger explain that he and his fellow director, Chris Martin, believe the film is timely: "We hope people will see it as another way of seeing the world: as a metaphor for understanding a wider war on democracy and the universal struggle of ordinary people, from Venezuela to Vietnam, Palestine to Guatemala."

The film does not simply document oppression, but also resistance. It includes the inspiring stories of Bolivian peasants fighting against corporations seeking to claim ownership over their natural resources. The struggle of residents in Cochabamba against US-based corporation Bechtel's attempts to privatise their water supplies (even rainwater), and other examples, shows that the balance of forces is not all in favour of the world's largest military machine and the corporate rich that direct it. Pilger notes, "If the rich and powerful of Latin America had a nightmare — this was it".

The snapshot of Venezuela provided in The War on Democracy is an exciting one: in the barrios of Caracas, Pilger speaks to people learning to read in order to participate in land councils, and visits free medical clinics and the government-subsidised supermarket chain Mercal, which prints articles of the constitution on the back of sugar and rice packets.

Pilger makes the point that Chavez and his supporters have faced 11 elections in 10 years, and his popularity (as well as that of the Bolivarian revolution) has grown exponentially. In the most recent elections, held in December 2006, three-quarters of the eligible population voted and massively endorsed Chavez.

Overall, the film is fantastic, providing a coherent overview of Washington's war on democracy in Latin America, as well as providing some inspiring examples of people fighting back. Pilger identifies the real reason why the US elite is so scared of what is going on in their "backyard" — "People who can free themselves against all the odds, are sure to inspire others".

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