Washington’s Bullets Can’t Stamp Out the Hope of a Better World

Vijay Prashad

Marxist historian Vijay Prashad talks about his new book Washington Bullets and the history of US-backed coups, from the post–World War II period to the recent successful right-wing coup in Bolivia.

The CIA lobby seal. (Wikimedia Commons)

Interview by
Karthik Purushothaman

“Colonialism has always used the idea of progress in accordance with its parameters and its own reality,” former Bolivian president Evo Morales Ayma writes introducing journalist and historian Vijay Prashad’s Washington Bullets: A History of the CIA, Coups, and Assassinations. Prashad’s crash course on the American military state’s imperialist history is ripe for a moment in which national security operatives are openly involved in policy and discourse as members of the press and the US Congress.

A few nations have slid out of its grasp and lived to tell the tale, such as Morales’s Bolivia. Washington Bullets is ultimately a manual on how to dodge them.


KP

Since I’m a poet talking to you about the CIA, I have to begin with this — do you know about the CIA’s investment in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop?

VP

I know Frances Saunders’s book, The Cultural Cold War, about how the CIA and other branches of the US government invested in manufacturing artists and writers like the Jackson Pollocks of the world. She shows that the US government promoted abstract art over art that’s grounded in the world. So it wouldn’t surprise me if the Iowa Writers’ Workshop received funds to promote language poetry, as opposed to poets who wanted to listen to tell the stories of migrant workers.

If you take contemporary American aesthetics, you have this turn away from the world. While that is happening, Woody Guthrie was writing songs about farmworkers and migrants. Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize was totally deserved in my opinion, because he’s a poet of suffering. His poem “Hurricane,” about the stitching up of a black man for a murder he didn’t do, is a Black Lives Matter poem in the seventies. Between Billie Holiday singing “Strange Fruit” and Bob Dylan singing “Hurricane,” in a sense, the American songbook has richer and more meaningful poetry than the poets who seem to be sunk in abstraction and naturalism, which can sometimes be quite beautiful.

KP

I didn’t expect when I opened your book that it would feature a full poem by Wisława Szymborska. That poem even works as a “language poem.” Line after line hits you with surprise as she captures the stillness in the aftermath of a war, ironically, to evoke war’s perpetuity.

VP

This book is filled with poetry. It opens with a poem and closes with a poem. For me, poetry is when a human being tries to distill the immensity of experience into a few words.

The first time I met Eduardo Galeano, I was naive and asked him a question. We were in Buenos Aires, so I said, “There were terrible military juntas in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay, but you wrote these beautiful books about them. Days and Nights of Love and War is a gorgeous book, in which you describe, in middle-class neighborhoods, a center where people are being tortured so their screams are heard throughout the neighborhood to prevent others from joining revolutionary organizations.”

He said, “Look, torture is a horrible thing, but I don’t want my writing to mimic torture. What I have distilled from that experience is, how can I write about something horrible, yet convey hope.”

So, when I was writing Washington Bullets, I was thinking, it’s a depressing story. But I don’t want to write a depressing story, because that does the job of the CIA. They want to appear omnipotent. They want to break your confidence. That’s what a torturer does. How do I tell you a story of torture, yet build your confidence? It’s not in the things I say, but it’s in the form of the text.

One point in the text is basically a manual of how to do a coup d’état; we’ve just seen Thomas Sankara killed. Before he dies, he had written, “confidence reigns.” But the Soviet Union collapses, everything seems to go down, and I said to myself, I know what must come there: “After every war, someone has to clean up.” I thought of that line, which is the opening of the poem. If you see the last stanza, “In the grass that has overgrown causes and effects, someone must be stretched out, blade of grass in his mouth, gazing at the clouds.”

History doesn’t end, you know? There was a war, cameras are gone, the corpse wagons will pass, grass will grow again. And if the grass grows, somebody’s going to lay on the grass, put a piece in their mouth, and look up at the clouds, thinking about how to continue Sankara’s project.

So I thought, I must end by saying, even after the war, after the cameras, after the corpses are gone, the grass will not only grow, but will overgrow. You can’t stop that. Even if you fire napalm, eventually the grass is going to grow there.

KP

Since you bring up hope, after Bolivia’s election, you tweeted out, “Bolivia has defeated US imperialism.” As you also mentioned a little earlier, a large part of Washington Bullets is laying out a nine-step “How To Do a Coup” plan based on CIA activities. Using Bolivia as an example, can you lay out these nine steps that preceded 2019’s coup?

VP

The first step is to lobby public opinion. Evo Morales and the Movement Toward Socialism with Álvaro García Linera as vice president win a mandate. As soon as they come to power, the US government sends Philip Goldberg as the ambassador. The US government very quickly says, “Evo is bad for business; the guy is Hugo Chavez in the Andes, so we’ve got to get rid of him.”

Second, you appoint the right man on the ground, which in this case was Goldberg — who Evo eventually had to expel from the country. Goldberg was trying to manufacture the opposition. If you read the WikiLeaks cables from Bolivia, you have Goldberg reporting to the State Department, saying I met this person and that person, and they’re conspiring against Morales. So, step two of how to do a coup is you appoint the right man on the ground, and Goldberg was good enough.

KP

Step three is: make sure the generals are ready.

VP

Williams Kaliman, the head of the country’s armed forces who eventually tells Morales to leave office, was trained in the United States. Plus, Morales took away enormous opportunities for bribery for the police, which is why the police mutiny happened in October 2019.

KP

Step four: make the economy scream.

VP

The United States openly said regarding Bolivia that they were going to prevent financing and put pressure when it came to credit, which is why many of the big development projects under Evo were financed by the Chinese, including the Túpac Katari satellite, an important telecommunications milestone for the Bolivians.

KP

Step five: diplomatic isolation.

VP

It was a little harder to establish than it was for Venezuela, but the United States still pressured ambassadors to not take the Bolivian government seriously in the UN. Venezuela was thrown out of the Organization of American States by the United States. Bolivia was a little more complicated, but diplomatic pressure was applied.

KP

Step six: organize mass protests.

VP

This is interesting. The history of Bolivia is important to know, which is that Nazis, who moved with the help of South America’s Catholic Church, arrived in Bolivia, including Klaus Barbie. He’s an actual Nazi who helped the Bolivian dictatorship in its early years set up the intelligence services. It’s partly under the people he trained that Che Guevara was killed in Bolivia in 1967.

There’s a trajectory of Nazism and conquistador fantasies that were embodied in the Santa Cruz Citizens Committee, led by Luis Fernando Camacho, the fascist who ran for president, got 14 percent of the vote, and was crying when he saw that MAS triumphed this time around. Camacho and company brought out their hordes of the Santa Cruz Citizens Committee onto the streets. People abroad said, “look, there are protests against Morales.” But these guys are fascists and mainly in the Department of Santa Cruz.

KP

Step seven: green-light the coup.

VP

We don’t yet know whether Washington said do it, but we know that the OAS played an important role. The moment the OAS said there had been fraud in the election, it was clear to the far-right wing — Jeanine Áñez, Camacho, Kaliman, and so on — that they can act against Morales and will be backed by the United States. The OAS preliminary report against the election saying there was fraud (when there was no fraud) was the green light from Washington, because 60 percent of OAS funding comes from the United States. Luis Almagro, the putative head of the OAS, listens to the White House. This is not an independent body.

KP

Step eight: a study of assassination.

VP

Do you know what they did to people like Patricia Arce? She was mayor of the town of Vinto. They dragged her out of office, cut her hair, threw gasoline and red paint on her, and dragged her through the town. She was almost killed on the street; her children thought she was going to be killed.

They killed a lot of people. There were two massacres. Who green-lit the massacres?

KP

Step nine: deny.

VP

Extraordinarily, even people of the Left, in the United States and in Europe, started saying this was not a coup. They started mumbling that there was fraud, mumbling that Morales was becoming a dictator.

KP

In the book, you talk about how the media has been more than willing to do the cleanup and the cover-up for the US government. They make sure that there’s either no coverage or negative coverage.

VP

Eighty-seven percent of Bolivia’s eligible voters voted in this election. Nobody says there’s any fraud. Fifty-five percent voted in the first round for MAS to come back to power. MAS won overwhelming majorities in the Senate and the lower house. Even the US government had to say, “Congratulations, and we hope to work with you on things of mutual interest.” The New York Times, the Guardian, what are they going to say at this point? They have to come and pretend they’re on the side of the angels.

But we remember what these publications did, including left-wing publications, you know, “asking questions,” “being nuanced,” and so on. Seriously, in the middle of a coup, you’re going to be nuanced? How can you not stand with the people when they are being assaulted by the full weight of fascists on the ground? Anybody who knows anything about Bolivia knows about the Santa Cruz Committee and Camacho and these thugs, upper-middle-class gangsters eager to overthrow the government with the help of US imperialism, like Juan Guaidó in Venezuela. If you prefer to stay with them rather than the people, that’s a choice you make.

KP

What did Bolivia do right this time to reverse the coup?

VP

MAS won the election in 2019. A few days before the coup, I got a phone call from some of our comrades saying that they were going to carry out a coup against Morales and the MAS government. Noam Chomsky and I released a statement in which we said, “Rally being this government, because there’s going to be a coup.” Two days later, you had a police mutiny. The military joined with the fascists, and the fascists went to the streets. Sections of the people’s movement, some trade union forces also came on the street against the government. That’s to be expected; no government is going to be perfect, where 100 percent of the people’s organizations agree.

But there’s a big difference between critics of the government and these coup-makers, and I think the critics misunderstood what they were doing on the street. They didn’t realize that Camacho and company are basically marionettes of US imperialism. How does one tackle the police? How does one go on the street and defend your government? In Cuba, they organized a committee for the Defense of the Revolution, where almost every Cuban is organized into a defensive unit. These are lessons to learn.

What did they do right? MAS just won the election again. They didn’t do anything different. It’s just that the majority of the Bolivian people are with the MAS project. That hasn’t changed.

It’s not over in Bolivia, though. Already there are press reports of formal military officials threatening the government. And of course, there are ongoing attempts to overthrow governments.

The hybrid war against Venezuela continues and is deepening. The United States has deepened its pressure on Iran’s petroleum sector. The sixty-plus-year war against Cuba continues. The United States is trying to overthrow the Communist Party of China. That’s insane, but, you know, that’s part of its hybrid war on China.

KP

In the book, from the earliest days of the American project through the Monroe Doctrine, then Panama, and to World War I and II, now post-WWII, you show a continuum between the United States growing geographically prior to the wars and its present-day imperialist expansion. Do you think after the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States reached a point of something like, “Alexander wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer,” and therefore directed its CIA coup manual on its own people?

VP

The US ruling elite and the government have always brought things home, through the FBI, through the dirty tricks against politicians and so on. And it’s not fully the case that “Alexander wept” because there’s nowhere else to go, because, well, the great battle against China is an existential struggle for American high tech. Those companies don’t want to lose against Chinese high tech, which has advanced rapidly and might be one or two generations ahead of US firms in robotics or GPS technology. Some of that has to do with the deregulation of the American high-tech sector through the Telecommunications Act in 1996. There has been no national investment in high tech in the way the Chinese have invested.

Now, there’s a Space Force. The United States wants to colonize space. Alexander’s problem was that he didn’t have the technology. He was constrained by horses and mules and so on, but now you have the ability to go to another planet.

So I don’t think the United States is facing Alexander’s problem. We are now in a position where there are significant challenges to US imperialism around the planet, and those challenges are not trying to supplant the United States as first among equals, but they are trying to create a situation of multipolarity. At the heart of this is the emergence of China and Russia as important political and economic players on the world stage — Russia much more politically and to some extent militarily; China, economically and militarily. Neither is a military threat to the United States, but unlike other countries, both can defend their borders. The United States cannot invade China. The Chinese have developed a missile, the Dongfeng, which if American warships come in a threatening way toward the mainland, they will be taken out. So they have a defensive capacity. Iraq didn’t. Panama didn’t. Libya didn’t. That changes the balance of things.

KP

It’s been strange to watch the United States double-talk about China and Russia, where the government, as well as both political parties, seem to want to have their cake and eat it, too, talking about better relations, yet being hawkish by cooking up excuses such as that these two players are undermining American democracy through cyber warfare. What is the actual relationship with these countries?

VP

In these past few years, of course, there has been the Russian interference in US elections story. Newsweek ran a crazy story about Chinese interference. Firstly, there’s no evidence for any of this. Secondly, why would they interfere in the election? From China’s standpoint, it doesn’t matter who is president. Both Trump and Biden have taken a hawkish, anti-China position.

There’s no obvious person that you’d want to support in this race. If there’s no obvious person to support, why would you interfere in the election? Why would China interfere in the US election when the outcome is irrelevant? Both candidates will prosecute the same kind of policy against China.

Saying China is interfering in US elections is just a part of information warfare. The United States wants to overthrow the government in China. China has not said we want to overthrow the US government.

KP

“Communism” is a big boogeyman in the United States. Any politician associated with the word drops like a fly. That even happened with Bernie Sanders, after he dared to say something accurate about Fidel Castro.

VP

If capitalism could solve the problems that it creates, then you wouldn’t need communism. Does capitalism produce hunger? It certainly does. People don’t have the ability to eat unless they have the money. Every report from the UN says that there is enough food in the world. What stops the almost now 2.5 billion hungry people from getting the food? How is money the barrier between a hungry person and food? That’s capitalism.

I’m seized by the idea that we need to end hunger. It’s abysmal that children, anybody, goes to sleep at night hungry. It is a prime human rights violation.

If capitalism can end hunger, then we don’t need anything else. But because we know — through its empirical history, and because of the nature of the way money works — that people are dispossessed and there’s food and they can’t buy it. It’s that which produces communism, which is to say, “we will now take the food and feed the people.”

KP

How do we organize in an ecosystem where “work” and “worker” are terms whose meaning is systematically being erased?

VP

Firstly, if you go back and read Marx’s Capital, you’ll see that it’s not true to say work is now becoming meaningless. When artisanal activity and small farmers and so on were brought under the yoke of wage labor, when people were pushed into factories, when they worked in plantations — enslaved or indentured or as agricultural laborers — work was already made into something ruthless and barbaric. Marx writes that the limit of the working day is twenty-four hours. Capital would want you to work forever, and slice and dice your work so that it becomes meaningless, and that’s what you think of as alienated labor. You’re putting energy into something, you don’t see the final product, you don’t see the whole picture. It’s when sections of the service economy became like manufacturing and farm labor that the middle class is now getting outraged that “our work is getting meaningless.”

What you’re seeing in recent times is that work is being made more and more meaningless for white-collar workers. It has been meaningless for 150 years for blue-collar and farm labor. And it’s always difficult to understand and know how to organize labor. People have been killed trying to organize trade unions, which has forever been an act of courage. It’s not like it was easy in the nineteenth century to organize rail workers and factory workers — it was difficult to organize people into trade unions. You were attacked by bosses, by military forces. People were killed routinely, defamed, the Pinkertons would operate against you. It’s not more or less difficult now. The problems are just different.

KP

What do you broadly see as programs that unite the Left worldwide?

VP

The reservoirs of left strength have been depleted over the last several decades. Trade unions have suffered from globalization. Agricultural workers’ unions need to be rebuilt. Anywhere you go, people are struggling to build the strength of the Left, but there’s no real common agenda. Which is good in a way — different places have different things they are struggling with. Building up left organizations, and the capacity of the working class globally, to act together to defend its rights and so on, is the big struggle.

Look at India, where 180 million people go on strike every year. It has no impact on the country’s politics as such, but it has great impact on hundreds of millions of workers. They keep building up their confidence, gaining more and more experiences. And you never know what happens in a flash. Half of India’s population is poor and relatively hungry. A reasonable Indian government should seek a way to answer the questions of the pandemic, which is out of control in India, and hunger, which is also out of control.

The US economy is in great decline and has not shown itself to be interested at all in the plight of people around the world over issues like hunger. India is a direct neighbor of China. Look at Indian foreign policy, under this right-wing government. I’m not arguing for a pro-Chinese orientation, necessarily, but why not have an old-fashioned nonaligned position? Hold the countries in the balance. Trade more with China. China can help set an agenda that will start reversing some of this enormous problem of poverty. They brought seven to eight hundred million people out of poverty. India can barely bring anybody out of poverty.

So when we think about an agenda, in whatever country, these foreign policy issues have an impact on people’s daily lives. Making a military agreement with the United States means people will not be able to get out of hunger in India.

KP

Let’s get to India specifically. In addition to challenging the right-wing government, what programs are the Communist Party of India (Marxist), in its centennial year, engaged in to directly address the problems of hunger, poverty, and homelessness?

VP

I don’t speak for the communist movement. I’m just a party member. But the Left in India has been building up the reservoirs of the working class and the peasantry, joining with the agricultural workers, joining with the health care workers, giving as much support as possible to workers to organize their own unions and so on. That’s what I see the left parties doing all around India.

In the state of Kerala, for instance, the Left is in power. There, the Left has driven a total alternative agenda. It has tried to break the infection, mobilize public action, tried to use whatever’s available in the public sector, and it has offered an alternative. Pinarayi Vijayan, the head of the state of Kerala, is an exact counterpoint to Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister.

KP

Lastly, I liked the section on liberation theology in this book, and how the CIA killed priests in South America because they were becoming radical organizers. Do you think India has a future in that direction?

VP

I’m a Marxist. I’m a person of the Left. I’m not interested in reforming religion. If people who are religious and upset about what is happening with Hindutva want to engage a kind of socialism inside their communities, it’s up to them. Communists, socialists, and Cuban revolutionaries didn’t create liberation theology. It came out of the church, where priests were influenced by the poverty and suffering of people, and they created an intellectual and political tradition. If Hindu clerics are incapable of worrying about the suffering and inhumanities of the world, that means Hinduism isn’t capable of generating a liberal trajectory.