US Secretary of State: A Cautionary Tale
By Al Giordano
Eleven years ago, on December 22, 1997, paramilitary troops in earshot of a federal military base massacred 45 unarmed civilians - mostly women and children - as they prayed in a Church in the Mexican town of Acteal. The gunmen - every major human rights and media organization now agrees - sliced open the bellies of the pregnant women and shot the 45 Tzotzil-speaking farmers and their children at point blank range. The victims were members of a pacifist Catholic organization known as Las Abejas ("The Bees").
Bill Clinton was the president of the United States, Madeleine Albright his Secretary of State, and the Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere was Jeffrey Davidow, a State Department lifer with the dubious record of having been political officer at the US Embassy in Chile during the September 1973 US-backed coup d'etat there.
For more than a week prior to the massacre, non-governmental organizations in Chiapas, Mexico, had warned the US State Department of the impending atrocity. But the deal had already been struck with the Mexican regime that in exchange for its acquiescence to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the US would turn a blind eye to all matters of human rights in Mexican territory.
The story of Acteal is not an isolated incident nor aberration. I reported on it then and have reported too many hundreds of such stories since from Mexico and across this hemisphere. I would be happy to answer anybody's questions about it and the details of US complicity in a strategy of terror against peaceful social movements in Mexico and elsewhere that, I'm sure many will agree, has been the policy of the administration of the forty-third president George W. Bush but, as some will be reluctant to accept, was also the policy of the Clinton 42, Bush 41 and Reagan 40 administrations before it.
For some, whether liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, it does not matter or pinch their consciences what happens to subsistence level indigenous farmers in a small town in Mexico. (Nor do they want to look at the direct consequences to their own communities when millions of Mexicans over the past 14 years have streamed over the border to the United States to escape from the economic and political harms that have inflicted them since the enactment of NAFTA.) So let me please tell you another story that should hit anyone of the most minimal conscience a bit closer to home...
Nine years and many more atrocities after the Acteal massacre, on June 14 of 2006, in the next-door state of Oaxaca, Mexico, that state's despot governor Ulises Ruiz attacked a peaceful encampment of thousands of striking schoolteachers and their supporters. He sent 3,000 police in at dawn, as the protesters slept, with bullets, nightsticks and teargas canisters shot from the ground and dropped from a helicopter. It was only the latest incident in a violent and repressive chain. Only this time, the public, armed with nothing but sticks and stones and strength in numbers, regrouped and chased the police out of the city. They established their own government by popular assembly, set up locally-organized and volunteer-staffed barricades in each neighborhood, and the governor's security forces were unable to enter - although they had tried on multiple occasions - for five months after that. This publication published a book about those five months: The People Decide: Oaxaca's Popular Assembly, by Nancy Davies (2007, Narco News Books).
A 36-year-old Indymedia reporter by the name of Brad Will, whom I had known from my organizing days in New York, went to Oaxaca in early October 2006 to videotape the story. Responding to him via email, I had suggested that the situation had grown very dangerous - especially for any reporter not already familiar with the territory and the players on all sides - and recommended that he not go. Still, as was his prerogative, he went. On October 27, 2006, he filmed gunmen loyal to the despot governor - some of them members of police forces, but not in uniform - attacking one of the blockades and shooting their guns directly at him. He died with his camera in his hand. You can see Brad's final footage, here:
The case of Brad, a constituent from 2001 until his death of New York's Junior United States Senator Hillary Clinton (D-New York), continues to provide a lurid example of the consequences of a violent and undemocratic Mexican regime and the bipartisan US policy that protects that government at all costs as long as it tows the line on trade, drug policy, and other matters.
Brad's family and friends have sought justice now for two years, but the gunmen captured on video continue to walk free, while, in an unbelievable (except that we must believe it) perversion of justice, the state recently charged - without any evidence at all - some of the protesters Brad had befriended as a journalist sympathetic to their cause with his assassination.
Some members of the New York Congressional delegation - like US Rep. Jose Serrano (D-Bronx) - have taken up the cause of seeking justice in that case.
But multiple and sustained efforts by Friends of Brad Will in New York to convince Senator Clinton to use her international bully-pulpit to help bring justice and closure to the case have gone unanswered.
A month ago, on October 22, some of them sat in front of Senator Clinton's New York office, at 780 Third Avenue in midtown Manhattan, and fasted to appeal for her assistance to her late constituent, his family and friends.
According to one report, Senator Clinton was physically present in the office on at least one of those days, but avoided responding to or speaking with those fasting out in front, much less writing the letters and making the public statements to bring justice to the case that any authentic advocate of human rights would do, especially if it involved a constituent.
There are those who claim that Senator Clinton is a "champion" of human rights, based on a solitary speech she gave in September of 1995 to the UN Conference on Women in Beijing, China, because her most quoted soundbite from that speech was "women's rights are human rights."
Nobody - certainly not this correspondent - takes issue with that truth: Women's rights are human rights, as are men's rights, children's rights, minority rights, and everybody else's. But if a politician doesn't have a basic understanding of what human rights are to begin with, and has shrunk from the duty to defend them time and time again even when they have hit close to home, that politician is not going to be able and ready to extend them to any gender or demographic.
In Latin America, as everywhere, the doctrine of Human Rights, begun in the Carter administration but left to atrophy by all administrations since, walks hand in hand with any pro-democracy agenda. When human rights are deprived as part and parcel of state terror campaigns against peaceful dissidents, labor, environmental and other community organizers, the chilling effect on all free speech and freedom of association makes democracy impossible.
And that's a big part of the story in Mexico for as long as the living can remember. The same goes for Colombia and other lands, where Democratic and Republican presidents - beginning with Clinton and continued under Bush - chose multi-billion dollar US military intervention (known as "Plan Colombia") and pushed for pro-corporate trade agreements over defense of human rights. Such policies have only emboldened the state terror campaigns in both countries and led to human tragedy after human tragedy.
Undeterred by the abject failure of "Plan Colombia" to improve human rights and democracy in that country (but probably spurred on by how it has given that country's despot, President Alvaro Uribe, the tools to repress the peaceful dissidents and movements that oppose him), the Bush administration proposed, and Congress approved, "Plan Mexico" last year which is already funding a kind of Colombianization of the country next-door to the United States.
Those policies have also damaged Americans at home as companies have closed their factories in the United States and moved them to Mexico and elsewhere where the state terror campaigns keep unions from organizing and citizens from speaking out against the pollution they cause to the natural environment.
And you might say that, "the next Secretary of State will have to follow the policies of the next president." In an ideal world, that would be true. But so much happens, day in, day out, in so many lands... so many daily attacks on dissidents, community organizers, and others who dare speak and act to improve their lives... that no US president could possibly micro-manage the situation and take preemptive action on each pending atrocity from the Oval Office. That's what a State Department is for: to handle the constant communications that are necessary with other governments.
And if - as the mass media seems to agree right now - US President-elect Barack Obama is about to install someone as the next Secretary of State who has shown zero understanding of, much less passion and action for, human rights in Mexico, Colombia and elsewhere (except in isolated cases where the same mass media has turned a particular case into an international cause celébre), we're going to see more of the same terrible story happen over and over again.
If you can't get somebody to act to defend human rights when she's your own local elected representative, do you really believe that such a person would begin to do so if she suddenly represented the entire country before the world?
I write these words in memory of my late good friend and labor lawyer Carlos Sánchez López (1954-2003), of Juchitán, Oaxaca, assassinated on the night of his daughter's fifteenth birthday, in August of 2003, who lived and died so that someday a change might truly come.