Saturday, 19 February 2011

Payback Time for Our Bastards

"He may be a bastard, but he's our bastard."
So US President FD Roosevelt famously said of the blood soaked dictator of the Dominican Republic, Rafael Trujillo. Trujillo had risen through the ranks of the army established by the USA after its invasion of the island republic in 1916 to preserve the interests of American banks in debt repayments. When in 1930 a rebellion by oppressed workers and farmers led to the overthrow of the President, Trujillo, by then army chief, deftly absorbed the demands of the rebel crowds, subverted the subsequent election (in which he polled more votes than registered voters) and instituted a personal rule that was to last for over 30 years until his assassination.

Trujillo: a bastard, but Ours.
Trujillo governed by corruption, nepotism, fear and violence - he banned all but his own political party, imprisoned opponents, bought and sold favours with American companies, and killed over 50,000 of his own people - as well as many as 30,000 Haitians massacred during an incursion into his neighbour's territory.But all through his rule, he was a favourite of America - providing Caribbean hospitality for his sponsors' richest citizens as well as a place for them to place their "offshore" investments beyond the reach and audit of any regular authorities. As revolution swept Central and South America in the 1950s, Trujillo and his family were seen as bulwarks of western interests.

And so Roosevelt's dreadful nostrum was deployed, both long before and ever since it was articulated by the great liberal hero, with nauseating regularity. America has installed and maintained dozens of rightwing regimes with violence and corruption at their rotten hearts - Pinochet's Chile being the most blatant but far from isolated case. There, a democratically elected government was overthrown by a CIA coup simply because of its left wing policies. As with so many cases, such as threatening economic ruin if voters choose the wrong way in Nicaragua in the 2007 election, to the sham elections of Mubarak's Egypt, or the weapons and financial support channelled to Saddam Hussein's Iraq during his war with Iran, democracy has never been a genuine feature of American or British foreign policy.

We have happily subsidised these most violent men to suppress the liberal and social democratic movements whose aims have been to establish precisely the same norms of elected legislatures, civic governance and rule of law we espouse in the West. We have colluded with the dictators in painting their most moderate opponents as dangerous, wild-eyed radicals and patronisingly questioned whether people in so many countries round the world are "ready" to govern themselves. Indeed, when Pakistan was passing through a crisis in 2008, former US UN Ambassador John Bolton told the BBC that "Democracy in Pakistan is not in the USA's interests." Just like in the Palestinian Authority when Hamas won the elections, people might vote the wrong way, you see.

Britain has even subsidised sales of weapons to these brutal regimes with taxpayers' money through the Defence Export Services Organisation - this lent billions of pounds of credit to some pretty odious governments in exchange for them purchasing weapons and security equipment from British companies. Consequently, we saw the tragic irony that large quantities of the weapons used against British troops by the Iraqi army in the wars of 1991 and 2003 were actually paid for by the UK taxpayer after Saddam defaulted on his payments. It is to Gordon Brown's largely unsung credit that he closed it down within weeks of becoming Prime Minister in 2007. However, Britain's arms industry continues to be one of the top five in the world, essentially selling to anyone who will pay - frequently involving itself with some palm greasing, as was allegedly the case in the dropped investigation into BAe and Saudi Arabia.

And nowhere has this been more exposed and self-evident than in the current round of rebellions sweeping the Arab world. As Obama equivocated over the crowds in Cairo calling for the resignation of the corrupt and brutal Mubarak regime, there was UK Foreign Secretary William Hague, heavily qualifying his "welcome" of the people's demands with a hope that they would give time for an "orderly transfer" of power. And again this week, Hague has been busy dissembling - reluctantly withholding export licences for supplies of tear gas to the Bahrain government on the same day that its police shot dead several peaceful protesters - but still silent on the demands for an elected parliament.

Of course, the Bahrain monarchy was put in power by the British several decades ago, and has been sustained ever since by the Americans. Indeed, the last significant riots in Bahrain - way back in 1956 - were crushed by the direct intervention of the British Army. The West has billions invested in the small state - "stability", which translates as a pro-western Sunni Muslim puppet regime suppressing the poor Shia Muslim majority, is at a premium.

For decades, we have sponsored these men to crush the legitimate will of their peoples. We have traded with them on the most favourable terms for the West, and supplied them with military muscle, training and equipment to put down any opposition. Our companies have profited from exporting leg irons made in Britain and even equipping the Saudi government with a fully functional gallows. The UK also sold large quantities of crowd control equipment, including tear gas, to Libya just last year. And most cynically of all, as people die for democracy across the Middle East this weekend, over one thousand British and other western arms manufacturers are happily congregating in Abu Dhabi for the 10th and largest ever Idex Arms Fair. Just a short distance from the butchered bodies in Manama, and fully supported by President Obama and Premier Cameron, a huge marketplace of violence is being fronted by large western companies keener than ever to profit from the paranoia of the Princes and Sheiks of suppression.

Oil and blood: the West profits from the Arab world either way.
Withdrawing a few export licences in the dying days of these kleptocracies is far too little, far too late. We may indeed be astonished by the relatively moderate demands of many of the protesters, but if we think that means we can continue to back two horses - pious calls for democracy in public while privately conniving with the dictators to keep them in power - then we are badly mistaken. It is already too late to wish, like di Lampedusa's Leopard, that by letting something change, everything else may stay the same: it is payback time for the bastards, and sooner or later for us.

The demands sweeping the Arab world today are setting an example to people all over the globe. Where it will take us on a planet of rapidly diminishing resources, no one can know. It is a tragic yet hopeful time, whatever the outcome of the dramatic events now playing out. The established regimes will fall in some places, while clinging on in others and trying to absorb and deflect the power of change.

But nothing will be the same again.


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