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International Socialist Review Issue 41, May–June 2005

An Interview with Edward S. Herman: “Freedom is not on the March”

Edward S. Herman is an economist and media analyst, Professor Emeritus of Finance at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. He has authored many books, including Corporate Control, Corporate Power; Triumph of the Market; The Real Terror Network; as well as The Political Economy of Human Rights and Manufacturing Consent, both co-authored with Noam Chomsky. He has a monthly Fog Watch column in Z Magazine.

Edward S. Herman is perhaps best know for the book he co-wrote with Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing Consent. His lesser-known 1984 book, Demonstration Elections, detailed how the U.S. engineered elections in various countries it occupied or controlled to create the illusion of popular sovereignty. The recent elections in Iraq, and talk of “spreading democracy” throughout the Middle East, from Lebanon to Iran, has given Herman’s book fresh relevance. He was interviewed by ISR associate editor Paul D’Amato.

YOUR 1984 (fitting year) book, Demonstration Elections, talked about U.S.-staged elections held in the Dominican Republic in 1966, in Vietnam in 1967, and in El Salvador in 1982. What did you mean by “demonstration elections”? Can you say a little bit about those three elections and the role the U.S. played in them?

I COINED the phrase “demonstration election” (DE) back in 1968, in a humorous-serious book entitled The Great Society Dictionary, where I defined a DE as “a circus performed in a client state to reassure the populace of the intervening country that their intrusion is well received. The outcome is guaranteed in writing by the authorities of the client and dominant power.” That definition is still a good one and has had wide application during the past half century. The United States is a quasi-democratic country, so public opinion has to be managed by the dominant interests, and there was substantial public opposition to U.S. actions in the Dominican Republic in 1965–66, Vietnam from 1965 through 1975, and El Salvador in the 1980s. The demonstration elections held in these countries did their job nicely in helping keep “the great beast” under control. All of them were organized by the United States, not by any indigenous parties.

The Johnson administration invaded the Dominican Republic in 1965 to prevent the return to power of Juan Bosch, the democratically elected president of that country who had been overthrown, with U.S. connivance, in 1963, and who would have resumed office in an indigenous revolt that precipitated the U.S. invasion. Though a liberal anticommunist, Bosch had been too decent, failed to serve the oligarchy as it demanded, refused to arrest the communists when they posed no threat, and generally failed to take [U.S.] orders. The U.S. invasion in April 1965 was blatantly anti-democratic, but consistent with the connivance of Bosch’s overthrow. There were some harsh criticisms of this invasion and its conspicuously anti-democratic aim, which was unwelcome to the administration especially as it was in the midst of escalating the Vietnam War.

Holding an election was seen as a useful answer to these criticisms, proving U.S. dedication to democracy despite the evidence of its hostility by the facts of its Dominican Republic policies. The election was held sixteen months after the invasion, under an occupation that had reestablished a repressive police force, killed several hundred Bosch support leaders and other dissidents, created a pervasive climate of fear, and made the election a farce. The U.S.-anointed new leader Juan Balaguer won easily and reestablished a sad Trujillo-lite regime with a pathetic formal democratic façade. An observer team that included Socialist Party leader Norman Thomas found the election admirable, as did the mainstream U.S. media, demonstrating once again their almost unlimited capacity to swallow and disseminate propaganda serviceable to the demands of the empire. [For an account of this electoral farce, the observers and media role, see Demonstration Elections, 34–53.]

The same kind of farce characterized the Vietnam elections of 1966 and 1967, carried out in the midst of a huge and violent U.S. aggression, with the NLF [National Liberation Front] of course not participating, the Buddhists, the second most important political force in the southern part of Vietnam having been attacked and forcibly repressed by U.S. and internal mercenary forces, and two major possibly competitive establishment figures barred from running. In this circus election, the generals put in place by the U.S. invader, who repeatedly admitted that they -couldn’t compete with the NLF on a purely political basis, won easily. And once again observers and the U.S. media were impressed with those peasants turning out to vote despite the opposition of the NLF! Only when enemy states get large turnouts do the media raise questions about the role of coercion and the meaning of votes. With demonstration elections sponsored by their government they never fail to cooperate in the propaganda exercise, no matter how ludicrous, and the Vietnam case was truly ludicrous. [For an extensive discussion of the Vietnam election, see Demonstration Elections, 68–92).

In El Salvador in the early 1980s, once again the U.S. had a PR problem, supporting a truly murderous government under whose auspices four U.S. religious women were raped and murdered; Archbishop Romero was murdered; and in the lead-up to the March 1982 election an average of 800 civilians a month were being killed, with mutilated bodies often left on display as part of the regime’s system of public education. Obviously an election was needed to show that we were good, bringing democracy to this benighted land. This election was also a complete farce. None of the basic conditions of a free election were met—no free speech or assembly, no free press, liberal and left candidates were not able to run, and there was an overriding climate of fear under the system of severe state terrorism. Although voting was legally required and not voting posed a security risk, the mainstream U.S. media were enthused, and that great liberal Dan Rather raved about the size of the turnout: “A triumph! A million people to the polls!”

My two favorite stories are these: although all the potential left and liberal candidates were on a 138-person army death list, the New York Times never mentioned this list in 1982—it would have made it clear that liberal-left candidates couldn’t run. But in 1989, at a time when the Left was able to make a tentative foray into the electoral arena in El Salvador, the Times mentioned that old death list, as it helped show in 1989 that things were on the up-and-up. A beautiful illustration of Orwell’s 1984 notion of how, under Big Brother, facts can be kept under the rug until they serve a political purpose.

The other story is how the security forces were treated in the El Salvador election. The New York Times’ Warren Hoge explained that “Members of the military are not allowed to vote, and the armed forces has pledged to protect voters from violence and to respect the outcome of the election.” So the killer forces in El Salvador protect elections; security and occupation forces only threaten their integrity when they are held in hostile states. Totalitarian state propaganda systems couldn’t surpass this kind of propaganda service to their leaders.

HAVE YOU tracked similar behavior by the U.S. in the years after writing the book? The U.S. appears to have a double standard when it comes to elections—promoting them in some places (at least in appearance), and undermining them in other places (for example in Venezuela today), but you also talk about the same phenomenon in Vietnam, where the U.S. first refused to hold elections after the Geneva Accords, and then later held elections in South Vietnam. What guides this contradictory policy?

I HAVE followed U.S. policy toward elections since that 1984 book, and an update may be read in both Manufacturing Consent [see the revised edition of 2002] and in the chapter “Legitimation by Fraudulent Elections” in my book The Myth of the Liberal Media [Peter Lang, 1999]. I’ve also written an article on the recent Iraqi election, putting it into demonstration election context (“The Election In Iraq,” available online).
The classic tactic of undermining unwanted elections involved the Nicaraguan election of 1984 organized by the Sandinistas. I’ve always loved this case because, in conjunction with the treatment of the Salvador elections, it offers a beautiful illustration of the media’s capacity to follow a double standard serviceable to state policy in comparable cases (in terms of time and location) and where the facts were incompatible with their biased findings. The Reaganites were hostile to the Sandinistas and the 1984 election promised to legitimize them, so the official focus was not on turnout but freedom of the press and whether all candidates could freely run. These issues were off the agenda for El Salvador, but dominant for Nicaragua. So although the Nicaraguan election was a model of fairness in comparison with El Salvador, the New York Times and its associates (including Dan Rather), found the Salvador election a promising step toward democracy, the Nicaragua election a “sham” (NYT). Orwellian, but a perfect propaganda service.
Elections in South Africa in 1989, Uruguay in 1984, and Mexico in 1988 were badly flawed, but supported by the State Department, hence treated kindly by the media. Perhaps most interesting was the Russian election of 1996, where Yeltsin was able to win with the aid of a frenzied and unified state-private media campaign of derogation of the opposition and hysteria, plus a great deal of Western aid as the West was delighted with his destruction of the Soviet state, privatization, and other policies rapidly reducing Russia to Third World status. Western officials liking all this, the U.S. media found the Russian election credible.

So this contradictory policy is extremely simple: Elections that benefit politicians serving Western interests are looked upon with favor in the West, their deficiencies regularly overlooked; elections that might serve to legitimize elements hostile to Western interests are always seen as of dubious quality. The lapdog media can be counted on to follow the party line fixed by this principle of evaluation.

PART OF the whole propaganda campaign around demonstration elections seems to be to establish, or reinforce, the U.S.’s “natural right to intervene and set things straight,” as you say in your book. Can you elaborate on this idea?

IT IS more to reinforce than establish that right to intervene. That right is tacit for the establishment media—we are good, maybe even God-ordained as policeman and crusaders, so almost any excuse will do—Nicaragua or even Grenada can be alleged to threaten our national security and the media don’t laugh this off the stage. And we can commit a massive aggression in violation of the UN Charter, based on clear lies, and that also doesn’t cause the mainstream media (or liberals like George Packer, Paul Berman, Michael Tomasky, and The American Prospect crowd) to say we have no right to be there and set things straight. Sponsoring an election is to give some moral justification for the intervention for those that need this sort of thing. It can even convince some of the locals that they are running the show. And it sets up a mechanism through which the intervening country can exercise control in the future.

IN YOUR recent article on Znet (“The Election In Iraq”), you wrote that demonstration elections “were mainly designed to placate (and mislead) the home population of the United States, rather than to decide anything important in the countries in which the election was held. In each of the earlier cases the election did help consolidate the power of the U.S.-chosen leaders, but its most important function was to demonstrate to the U.S. public that we were on the right track in the occupied countries, helping them on the road to democracy.” How do the Iraqi elections, in your opinion, fit this pattern?

THE IRAQ election fits the pattern well. It was a spectacular propaganda triumph at home, with the consensus of the establishment and liberals being that, despite all the problems the Iraqi welcome to the election shows that the Iraqis in the end have accepted our invasion-occupation and continued presence. This is a fallacy that rests on two big mistakes: one is the assumption that voting means acceptance rather than the hope that the vote will expedite a U.S. exodus; the second is the failure to see that al-Sistani was using the election as a means of obtaining power under the U.S. military umbrella, possibly misleading his grassroots supporters in the process. But getting out the vote was a big U.S. PR success at home, just as it was in the earlier demonstration elections. It will help the Bush gang fight on with limited Democratic opposition, even disarming some on the Left.

The Iraq election also did consolidate U.S. power in Iraq, first, by splintering off the Shiites from the Sunnis and making a full-scale civil war likely; second, by getting the participants to accept a transitional law that gives the elected assembly no authority to govern and by requiring super-majority votes for their selections and actions, thereby assuring a stalemate. A stalemate means that the U.S. and its puppet government will continue to rule, that the U.S. military can continue to wipe out dissidents and their base, and that the United States will have an important role in bargaining among the disputing factions.

THE IRAQI election had a very specific purpose, but it also fits into a broader ideological picture that goes under the name of “spreading democracy.” On January 30, the day of the Iraqi elections, Bush said: “Today the people of Iraq have spoken to the world, and the world is hearing the voice of freedom from the center of the Middle East.” Can you comment?

THIS WAS a voice of a people under military occupation by a government explicitly trying to project power in the Middle East. What the Iraqis were saying is unclear, but part of their message is surely that they wish to be free of the U.S. occupation, a point made clear even in polls taken by the occupation authorities. Voting under occupation is inherently corrupt as the occupying authority decides that there will be an election, determines its timing, controls the dominant media, limits the candidate list directly and indirectly, and interferes in other ways. So this is not a “voice of freedom,” it is an ambiguous voice of a people under siege and occupation by an aggressor.

The idea that the United States is contributing to any spread of democracy is straight out of George Orwell’s 1984. Bush is doing his best to produce a client state in Iraq that might even have a nominal, but not substantive, democracy. The Palestinians want to be free of their occupation and ongoing ultra-ethnic cleansing, but Bush has given full support to the ruthless ethnic-cleansing state. Freedom is not on the march, the U.S. armed forces are on the march, as is the neoliberal regime that they are imposing globally, by violence, bribery, subversion, and economic coercion.

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