Thursday, July 24, 2014


Harry Targ

In times like these when night surrounds me
And I am weary and my heart is worn
When the songs they’re singing don’t mean nothing
Just cheap refrains play on and on
When leaders profit from deep divisions
When the tears of friends remain unsung
In times like these it’s good to remember
These times will go in times to come
I see the storm clouds rise above me
The sky is dark and the night has come
I walk alone along this highway
Where friends have gathered one by one

I know the storm will soon be over
The howling winds will cease to be
I walk with friends from every nation
On freedom’s highway in times like these.
(From Arlo Guthrie, “In Times Like These.”

In December, 2012, I wrote an essay drawing upon Arlo Guthrie’s powerful lyrics about tragic times. My thoughts have been coming back to this song over the last two weeks as dramatic events have occupied media attention.  Recent stories about the Ukraine, Gaza, and refugees at the U.S. border involve death, destruction, pain, and suffering. And to compound conflicts and human tragedy, media portraits of these latest calamities are framed by conscious lies and ignorance.

In Ukraine, events have unfolded since last fall involving public demonstrations against a corrupt but elected government, covert intervention by key United States officials to encourage the ultimate overthrow of that government, and the stimulation of domestic conflicts interconnecting legitimate demands for change in that country with fascist political organizations. Reactions to the newly created Ukraine government led to rebellion in the east of the country and increased outside involvement in the affairs of Ukraine by the United States and the European Union. Russia joined the fray on the side of rebels and residents of Crimea. And just last week, during a war between Ukraine and rebels in the country’s east, a commercial aircraft was shot down over rebel territory in southeast Ukraine killing 298 travelers. Since the air crash the United States and Great Britain have launched a crusade to blame Russia for the disaster while the Ukraine war continues in the area where the Malaysian airline crashed. 

And in occupied Gaza, Israel launched a brutal bombing campaign on July 7 and followed the bombing with an invasion of this tiny piece of territory densely housing over two million people. Since the war started, homes, schools, hospitals, and neighborhoods have been bombed. More than 700 residents of Gaza have died and thousands wounded. Water and electricity are scarce. Local residents are urged by Israeli leaflets to flee but there is no place to go (except the sea). 

Even though Israelis point to Hamas rocket attacks on targets in Israel, which have yielded minimal casualties, as the motivation for this latest war, the Israeli response has been of genocidal proportions. And the United States government, and politicians of both parties, support this Israeli policy that can only result in the extermination of the people of Gaza.

And on the southern border of the United States thousands of children who are refugees from Central America are desperately seeking relief from the poverty and violence in their home countries. But leaders of both political parties endorse policies to more efficiently return these young victims of United States policy in Central America to the countries from which they fled. The Governor of Texas has ordered the mobilization of 1,000 National Guard personnel to the Texas border to protect the state from this invasion of children.

All three of these stories are reported in the U.S. media in ways that minimize the United States role for the suffering and that identify Russia, Hamas, and Central American children as the  causes of the problems. These stories implicitly or explicitly support U.S. allies who are complicit in the crimes against people; for example, the governments of Ukraine, Israel, and Honduras. The corporate media, through biased reporting and interviews, suggest that the United States should prepare to use more force. Few stories are published or presented on television which encourage humanitarian policies.

The photo images of death and destruction in Gaza and children climbing hills and walking trails to the United States challenge the verbal messages of television commentators. As a result media consumers can get some sense of what is happening to people in these troubled places. The visual images being presented about the war in Ukraine, the downing of the civilian aircraft, and the demonic gaze of Russia’s Vladimir Putin, however, support the clear effort of the corporate media to create a Cold War climate of fear. Russia almost immediately was convicted of being behind the rebels who are assumed to have shot down the commercial aircraft. Putin is the devil. He is a wealthy oligarch. He is shifty. He has a master plan to reconquer Central Europe. His Russia is the embodiment of evil, just as was its predecessor regime in the Soviet Union.

Together, the public story of these past two weeks is about the Russian threat, the justified Israeli attacks on Palestinians, and the inevitability of war and the need to prepare for it. 

At the same time that I cry inside for the relatives of those who died in the plane crash, all Ukrainians embroiled in war, the people of Gaza, and the children walking to what they hope is a better life in the United States, I also remember history and Arlo’s last stanza:” I know the storm will soon be over, The howling winds will cease to be….”
I also experienced tears, this time of joy and hope, last Sunday watching the three hour Seegerfest concert honoring the lives and legacies of Pete and Toshi Seeger at Lincoln Center in New York. Songs and musicians captured the legacy of Pete and Toshi touching on labor, peace, and civil rights struggles and their efforts to revitalize the natural environment.  The performers representing different age and demographic groups captured the essence of the Seeger vision, his love of humanity and nature, and the possibilities of saving the planet from destruction. And while the song selection could have highlighted more fully Seeger’s commitment to political struggle, viewers could not help but be reminded of Seeger’s politics: “keep your eyes on the prize,” know “which side are you on,” “waste deep in the big muddy and the big fool says to push on,” and “bring em home.”  Arlo’s admonition still stands: “I walk with friends from every nation, On freedom’s highway in times like these.”

Tuesday, July 15, 2014


Harry Targ

I was thinking about an old Robin Hood song written by Woody Guthrie in the 1930s about an Oklahoma legend, Pretty Boy Floyd. According to Woody’s rendition, Pretty Boy Floyd got into a fight with a deputy sheriff and killed him. Floyd was forced to flee and allegedly took up a life of crime. At least authorities and journalists blamed Floyd for every robbery or killing that occurred in the state of Oklahoma. “Every crime in Oklahoma was added to his name.”

But in true Robin Hood fashion Pretty Boy Floyd stole from the rich and gave to the poor. Floyd, the outlaw, paid the mortgage for a starving farmer. Another time when Floyd begged for and received a meal in a rural household, he placed a thousand dollar bill under his napkin when he finished dinner. One Christmas Day Floyd left a carload of groceries for starving families on relief in Oklahoma City.

And in these days of massive unemployment, mortgage foreclosures, criminal wealth, and staggering poverty, through the voice of Pretty Boy Floyd, Woody Guthrie tells the wrenching story of capitalism that today is not too much different from during his time.

“Yes, as through this world I’ve wandered
I’ve seen lots of funny men;
Some will rob you with a six-gun,
And some with a fountain pen.

And as through your life you travel,
Yes, as through your life you roam,
You won’t never see an outlaw
Drive a family from their home.”

Thursday, July 10, 2014


Harry Targ

A Military Coup in Honduras

Sunday, June 28, 2009 the Honduran military carried out a Coup ousting duly elected President Manuel Zelaya from power. Almost immediately leaders of Western Hemisphere nations condemned the actions taken in Tegucigalpa, the capital city. For example, former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (Lula) asserted that the days of military coups as a mechanism of the transfer of power were over in Latin America.

President Obama said on the following day that "it would be a terrible precedent if we start moving backwards into the era in which we are seeing military coups as a means of political transition rather than democratic elections…. The region has made enormous progress over the last 20 years in establishing democratic traditions in Central America and Latin America. We don't want to go back to a dark past."

On June 30, the United Nations General Assembly passed by acclamation a non-binding resolution condemning the military action and demanding that Zelaya be returned to office. Political opposites from former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Fidel Castro, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, to Barack Obama took the same position on the events in Honduras, although Chavez articulated the view that the United States had a role in the Coup.

The New York Times reported on the Coup and the mass mobilizations in Honduras protesting it. The story did editorialize by pointing out that Zelaya, who was elected in 2006, was closely allied with Hugo Chavez and had linked Honduras to the Chavez led “leftist alliance, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas.” The Times further reported that there were large scale protests in the capital of Honduras in support of the Coup. And they claimed that Zelaya would have had no world significance if it were not for the Coup which made him famous.

Subsequent to the worldwide condemnations, including from the Obama administration, two elections were held ignoring the Coup, one later in 2009 and another in 2013. In other words, former President Manuel Zelaya, who was ousted was never allowed to return to office.

Journalist John Perry wrote three years after the Coup that Honduras had distinguished itself by its escalating violence. “…the murder rate is four times that of Mexico and it has become the world’s most dangerous country for journalists with 23 having been assassinated over the last three years.” Perry pointed out that in the Northeast of the country big landowners struggled against small farmers who sought to keep control of their land and the area has become a transit point for drug smuggling (John Perry, “Honduras--Three Years After the Coup,” June 27, 2012.) 

The Relevance of Central American History for Today

The horrific migrations of the young and their families from the Central American war zones in 2014 (and earlier) are explained by media and politicians as caused by the quest of migrants for an improved standard of living to be found in the United States, or flight from homegrown drug gangs, or loose talk from President Obama about asylum for refugees, or failures of the Congress to pass meaningful immigration reform legislation. These common narratives ignore the history of United States imperialism in the Western Hemisphere and particularly the grotesque U.S. inspired violence against the Central American peoples launched by the Reagan administration in the 1980s. Also, they do not address the economic devastation in the region caused by neo-liberal economic policies imposed by the debt and trade systems. Any serious discussion of the current refugee crisis of thousands of young people fleeing poverty and violence should include the following:

First, the Western Hemisphere has experienced hundreds of years of shifting external interference, mass murder and economic exploitation of natural resources, agricultural lands, cheap labor, and sweat shop workers. The Spanish, the British, and the United States figured most prominently in this unhappy story, referred to by Eduardo Galeano as “five centuries of the pillage of a continent.”

Second, twentieth century Central America was dramatically shaped by over thirty U.S. military incursions and occupations in Central America and the Caribbean between 1898 and the 1930s. For example, U.S. troops were sent to Honduras in 1903, 1907, 1911, 1912, 1919, and 1924-25.

Third, economic ruling classes in the Hemisphere and their foreign partners increasingly were forced to rely on strong military forces to crush domestic opposition to elite rule and devastating poverty and exploitation. Particularly in Central America, the military as an institution became a material force, sometimes independent of the economic ruling class. From the early 1930s until the end of World War II military dictatorships ruled each of the five Central American countries. Later, in the height of the Cold War in the 1970s, 2/3 of the land mass and population of Latin America was ruled by brutal military dictatorship: Argentina, Brazil, and Chile being the most prominent.

Fourth, in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan brought the struggle against “international communism” to Central America. He launched and supported brutal wars against the Salvadoran and Nicaraguan people and looked the other way as the Guatemalan generals engaged in genocide against the majority indigenous population of that country. An estimated 400,000 Central America peoples died in these U.S. supported wars.

Honduras, before 1980, was a country with less violent military rule and only received modest amounts of U.S. military aid. However, as a result of Reagan’s wars in Central America, Honduras became the military base for U.S. operations in the region; training the contra rebels fighting against the Nicaraguan government and providing training and military support operations for Salvadoran troops fighting against FMLN rebels. Honduras received more military aid from the United States in the mid-1980s, than it did during the prior thirty years. Thousands of U.S. troops, numerous air strips, and field exercises for summer National Guard troops made Honduras a U.S. armed camp.

Fifth, parallel to the war on communism in the Western Hemisphere, the Reagan administration forced on the countries of the region the neo-liberal economic policies of downsizing government, deregulation, privatization, free trade, and shifts to export-oriented production. In the 1980s, the economic consequences of these policies were referred to by Latin American scholars as “the lost decade.”

While the economies of Central American countries have improved since the 1980s, they remain poor and dependent. Honduras is the poorest of the five countries in the region. In 2003 its per capita Gross Domestic Product was $803 (the regional figure was $1,405). A little over 9 percent of its earnings came from overseas remittances. Honduran debt constituted 66 percent of total GDP. And life expectancy was 66 years.

This brief review of some of the Latin American experience was part of the story of the 2009 coup, the escalation of domestic violence that ensued in the country since then, and the refugee crisis today. The histories of Guatemala and El Salvador have been similar. Even though elections in El Salvador brought former guerrilla members to power, U.S. and domestic elite opposition to radical reforms in that country have stifled the fundamental changes needed to transform the lives of the people there.

The Refugees as Victims of Imperialism

In general, we first should remember that whenever the interests of foreign investors (particularly from the United States), domestic ruling classes and/or military elites were threatened by international political forces and/or domestic mobilization of workers and peasants, the military moved in to reverse the forces of history.

Second, the United States has played a direct role in such interventions and has provided military assistance and training for military officers of all Latin American militaries ever since the end of World War II. (The training facility used to be called The School of the Americas and now is officially The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation).

Third, military interventionism and covert operations have been paralleled by economic intervention through the debt system, foreign investment, trade agreements, and quotas and embargoes of goods from Latin American countries.

Fourth, the winds of change that were initiated in the 1960s in the region were first stifled and isolated, then spread in the 1980s and beyond. Most recently, countries as varied as Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Uruguay, and Venezuela have begun to step in a new direction; away from the neo-liberal economic model, away from deference to traditional great powers, and in resistance to the United States. (Honduras had begun to move in this direction as well before the Coup).

Most importantly, these countries, and other countries from the Global South in Asia and Africa, have been constructing new economic and political institutions that might transform an international economic and political system based on 500 years of North Atlantic rule. The fact that 192 countries in the United Nations condemned the Honduran Coup in 2009 suggested that this battle has gone beyond the simplistic New York Times frame that the Honduran battle was merely about competing special interests.

President Obama evidenced a sense of the history of U.S. imperialism in the Western Hemisphere and the role that regional domestic economic and military elites played in Central American countries when he criticized the 2009 coup in Honduras. However, his subsequent support of those who carried out the Coup and who refused to allow the ousted President to return, signaled that he would be returning to the traditional U.S. approach to the region. And the traditional United States policy supporting the consolidation of foreign investments and domestic wealth in Central America and  profit derived from the drug wars is connected to the  pain and suffering of Central American peoples.

Of course, a serious effort to address the refugee problem today would have to include a U.S. shift to support popular forces in the region, rejection of draconian neo-liberal policies, regional  allocation of economic assistance to stimulate grassroots economic institutions with people producing for domestic consumption, and radical disarmament of Central American militaries, police, and drug gangs. It would be a tall order but a worthy one for solidarity activists in the United States and the rest of the Hemisphere to support.

Finally, in the short-term, progressives should demand that the children entering the United States be treated as refugees and provided safety and security.