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'Argentina’s stance in legal battle with holdouts is correct'

Professor Noam Chomsky talks to the Herald yesterday.
Professor Noam Chomsky talks to the Herald yesterday.
Professor Noam Chomsky talks to the Herald yesterday.
By Fermín Koop & Tomás Brockenshire
Herald Staff

Noam Chomsky says Argentina ‘has taken the lead in Latin America on human rights’

An intellectual with a rock star following, Noam Chomsky has taken time out from a speaking tour to return to Argentina after a 25-year absence, prompting barely-concealed enthusiasm from students, academics, political activists and fellow intellectuals.

Speaking to the Herald before he gave his keynote address at the International Forum for Emancipation and Equality yesterday, Chomsky recognized Argentina’s regional leadership on human rights but questioned the lack of progress in the investigation into the bombings of the AMIA Jewish community centre in 1994 and the Israeli Embassy in 1992.

No stranger to international affairs — with writings on US foreign policy that have earned him both admiration and backlash across the board — the MIT Professor Emeritus of linguistics supported Argentina’s stance in its legal battle with holdout funds, chalked up Washington’s overtures to Havana as motivated by commercial interests and called this week’s US sanctions against Venezuela as “attempt to make difficulties,” but he stressed that Caracas’ problems are more internal than they are external.

Argentina has experienced many changes since you last visited 25 years ago, with several years of economic growth and social improvements. What are the main differences you’ve found evident?

It’s not just Argentina — it’s all of Latin America. Over the last 500 years Latin America has been under the control and domination of external powers — in the last century and a half mostly from the United States. That’s half a millennium of domination. But there are also other factors. Latin American countries were separated from one another. Communications were not internal, they were to the outside. A typical Latin American country was under the control of a very small, extremely rich, mostly white elite and massive poverty and suffering. That has been the model for 500 years but over the last 20 years that has been crumbling.

How did that crumbling begin?

It began in Argentina in the 1980s with the overcoming of the dictatorship. Of all the miserable and brutal dictatorships in Latin America since the 1960s, Argentina experienced the worst. The country has taken the most steps, although still partial, toward trying to undermine the impunity of the gangsters who terrorized not the country but also other countries. When Reagan was prevented by Congress from sending forces to Guatemala to take part in the genocide of the Mayan Indians, he could call on Argentine neo-nazis to do it for him until the dictatorship collapsed. There has been a major change throughout the continent. Not just separating from imperial control but also steps toward integration like UNASUR. There have also been steps toward overcoming Latin America’s internal problems, which are extraordinary.

Why extraordinary?

Latin American economies have been compared to East Asian economies over the last 50 years. If you look at imports and exports, East Asia has none of the capacity for development that Latin America has such as territory and natural resources. But East Asia has leaped ahead and Latin America stayed behind, partly because Latin American elites accepted structural adjustment neoliberal programmes that were extremely harmful for the economy but beneficial to them. A typical import to East Asia was capital imports controlled by the government so that investment was directed and there was technology transfer. Typical imports for Latin America were luxury goods for the very rich. Capital flight out of Latin America was enormous as the rich put their money in Zurich or wherever they wanted. Now it’s beginning to change. There’s been economic growth in Latin America but it’s not sustainable as it’s a commodity based economy and that must change.

Argentina has sent several former military officers to court. How do you assess this development?

I think Argentina has taken the lead in Latin America regarding human rights. There was repression that spread over the hemisphere, which began in 1962 with the Kennedy administration. They shifted the mission of the Latin American militaries, which the US controlled, from hemispheric defence to internal security. That means war against the population. Argentina has been in the lead to trying to react to this by taking away impunity from the main torturers.

And what about more recent developments in the country?

There are big problems. One of the main ones is the failure to carry out a serious investigation of the anti-Semitic attacks in the early 1990s. That’s a stain that must be overcome. There are now calls for an independent commission to look at that.

What would an independent commission look like?

We should discover what happened. What happened is still unclear. And the government has been incapable of investigating it. I don’t think the judiciary is capable of doing it. Somehow some independent study should be carried out to bring out the truth.

Do you mean a domestic or an international commission?

What it should be I don’t know but something that has some credibility. Maybe something like the Russell Tribunal or something like that. There are plenty of serious problems in the region but there’s also some significant progress and that’s happening throughout the continent. Huge problems but historical and significant changes. It’s shifting a pattern of more than 500 years and for the US that’s astonishing.

Why is that?

The US used to regard Latin America as its backyard, meaning we don’t have to worry about the region. Now the US is practically excluded from the hemisphere. If you look at a group like CELAC it doesn’t even include the US and that’s something that would have been unimaginable not many years ago. The OAS is probably going to become marginal because it’s under too much US influence.

How do you interpret the decision by US President Barack Obama to impose sanctions on Venezuelan officials while it engages in a thaw in its relations with Cuba?

Cuba is an interesting case, where private capital in the US — which usually controls policy — has been in favour of normalizing relations. The public has been in favour of normalizing relations for years. The public is usually disregarded but to disregard the agribusiness, pharmaceuticals, the energy corporations, that’s unusual. It shows a real policy of state power. The reasons go back to the 1960s and were what was called Cuba’s successful defiance of US policies going back to the Monroe Doctrine. Now the US has backed off slightly and is beginning to try to move back toward ending the isolation in the hemisphere also under the pressure of major industries in the US that want to open us up.

And with Venezuela?

Venezuela is the same story. The US cannot tolerate Venezuelan independence and has been trying to undermine it. But it cannot do what it used to do. It hasn’t been able to carry out a terrorist war against Venezuela, there isn’t a major economic embargo. If you read the Latin American press now there is a lot discussion of Obama’s declaration of a national emergency, but that is misleading as it’s a pure technicality. US law the way it’s set up now, you can’t impose sanctions without declaring a national emergency and it’s so ridiculous it doesn’t even get reported. What national emergency? It’s embarrassing in fact, but I wouldn’t pay much attention to that. But the sanctions are significant, and they’re not a coup attempt, but I think that they are an attempt to make it difficult for Venezuela. Venezuela has plenty of internal problems and if those can be increased by US pressure, the US government will do it.

Is there not an awkward triangle now between Havana, Washington and Caracas? Given the thaw in relations between the US and Cuba does this effort against Venezuela not come as a surprise?

I don’t think so. The US government will want to do what it can to undermine the government of Cuba and it’s going to use this limited opening — mind you the embargo is still there — to do so in some way. It’s kind of interesting to look at US official documents. What they say is that “our efforts to bring about human rights and democracy in Cuba have so far failed so we have to turn to other methods.”

But you have to translate that from newspeak to ordinary language. Our efforts to overthrow the government by violence, terror and economic strangulation have failed so we have to turn to other methods. When they say that we want to bring Cuba into the world what they mean is that they want to bring the United States into the world and meanwhile undermine the Cuban government in some fashion. And the same with Venezuela, which is harder.

Unfortunately Venezuela has significant enough internal problems so that may be the breaking point.

Do you mean the economic situation or the political context?

The economy. The failure to diversify the economy from petroleum-based exports. The corruption, the incompetence. There’s an opposition but they’ve not presented any credible programmes. It could turn pretty ugly and the US of course is trying to press in that direction but it’s not the major force.

What is your position on Argentina’s legal battle with the holdout funds?

Technically Argentina’s stance is correct. This is not a legitimate debt. There is a phenomenon that I am sure you are familiar called “odious debt” which was invented by the United States. When the US took over Cuba, it didn’t want to pay Cuba’s debt to Spain so it declared it odious, which was correct, it was a debt that was imposed on the people of Cuba without their consent so why should they pay for it?

The same is true in Argentina. Vulture funds are powerful because of the neoliberal reconstruction of the economy. Since the early 1970s the financial institutions have grown enormously and they don’t contribute to the economy, they are predatory. And among them are the worst of the vulture funds and they are extremely powerful. The vulture funds are powerful because the concentration of capital makes them powerful. And Argentina is now in the grips of this radically anti-capitalist international economic system which imposes debts on people who never incurred the debts and pays off the rich.

@ferminkoop, @tbrockenshire

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