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Prashad’s Washington Bullets details the global economic and military interventions of the US, showing why anti-imperialist movements are vital, argues Jamal Elaheebocus

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Vijay Prashad, Washington Bullets: A History of the CIA, Coups, and Assassinations (Monthly Review Press 2020), 162pp.

The last seventy years have seen the era of the US as a world dominating imperialist force, during which time it has destroyed several radical socialist governments and movements, who attempted to challenge the capitalist status quo and redistribute wealth and power to the majority.

Washington Bullets is a clear, succinct outline of the way in which the US state, through the CIA, has undermined and overthrown these left-wing governments across the world. The author Vijay Prashad is the Executive Director of Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research and is chief correspondent at Globetrotter, which covers Africa, Asia and Latin America.

Prashad draws on his wealth of knowledge to give an impression of the immense power of the US State, which took over from the old colonial powers Britain and France in the aftermath of the Second World War. Prashad outlines the way in which multilateral organisations like the United Nations and International Monetary Fund have generally reflected US interests, and the comprehensive and violent way in which left-wing governments were and are undermined and destroyed.

However, there is also a sense of hope which emerges, whether from the stories of resistance and victory for the Vietnamese communists, or the heroic struggles of individuals like Thomas Sankara, who dared to stand up to the IMF’s austerity regime and nationalise industries across Burkina Faso. The book is a stark reminder of the challenges we face as socialists but also a source of inspiration in the fight against capitalism and imperialism.

While at times the larger message is obscured by the sheer number of stories and examples, overall it is thoroughly informative and accessible.

US Control

One of the things that stands out from the book is the power and control the US has garnered post-World War Two. The imperialist powers in Europe saw their empires shrink in the face of independence movements and struggled to rebuild after the devastation.

However, the US emerged relatively unscathed and, on the back of this, took control. The formation of the UN gave immense power to the US as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Various administrations attempted to use this position to justify its invasions of South Korea and Vietnam, and would have done so successfully had the USSR not acted as ‘an umbrella against the fully lawless usage of these UN loopholes’ (p.37).

The US also took control of Europe very quickly and the ramifications of this are still felt today. They pledged $12 billion to Europe to rebuild the continent and coerced Western European powers to join NATO. This organisation has since been responsible for the ruinous invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the ramping up of tensions with Russia and China.

Arguably the most devastating impact of US hegemony has been their dominant influence over the IMF and World Bank. The IMF went into countries across the world, taking control over Central Banks and Ministries of Finance, forcing them to implement austerity measures. One of the clearest examples given of this is in Zaire (Congo), where the IMF told the government to devalue the currency by 42%, which resulted in a five-fold increase in consumer prices, and then took control of the Central Bank and Ministry of Finance.

Endless Coups

Prashad shows the way this control over the globe was utilised to prevent any remotely left-wing movement from getting into power. He meticulously outlines the stages of regime change, which begins by lobbying public opinion both in the US and in the country which is to be the victim of the coup. This happened in Chile, where the CIA paid millions to ‘rent crowds’ for mass demonstrations against Allende and to subsidise strikes (p.78).

After that, the government would be overthrown, leaders were usually assassinated and often thousands of their supporters were brutally murdered. The most appalling example given by Prashad is the coup in Indonesia in 1965, where the Indonesian Army, who were given lists of Communists to be assassinated by the US, killed at least a million people who supported the Sukarno government.

The US did not limit itself to violent coups, as Prashad clearly shows. The use of the IMF was key in overthrowing governments throughout Latin America, where the IMF came in and forced governments to impose brutal austerity programmes. These plunged people into poverty and used the excuse of relieving countries of their debt, which was owed to the US and other Western States.

Coups involving lawfare were also used, with the case of Lula being a pertinent example of this. The right in Brazil launched a case against Lula, inventing false claims of corruption for which they had no proof. They won the case anyway, clearing the path for Bolsonaro to take charge, now overseeing one of the worst death rates in the world from Covid-19.

The myth of the ‘free world’ and altering history

Prashad outlines how the US works to shift the narrative and change public opinion. The term ‘free world’ was weaponised by Truman to tie Western liberalism to ‘freedom’ and to attempt to put communism and fascism in the same ‘unfree’ category (p.50). The irony of this is that while Truman referred to the communist states as unfree, the West carried on looting and terrorising the countries they had colonised.

The purpose of this was to justify the abuse of democracy that occurred as a result of Western imperialism. This was not only a major part of the anti-communist propaganda in the US throughout the Cold War, but it also remained a technique used throughout the so-called ‘War on Terror’. As soon as the USSR collapsed, the US started labelling all states which were potential challengers to capitalist interests as ‘rogue states’. This was the label given to Iraq in the 90s, before the US invaded again in 2003 and started a war which led to the death of one million civilians.

The problems with this were outlined surprisingly well by the liberal Arthur M. Cox, who wrote in 1953:

‘No amount of horror stories demonstrating the crimes of the Kremlin will convince millions of people in the free world that Soviet-inspired Communism is their main problem because they know that it is not’ (p.38).

The US had to use propaganda as a desperate attempt to convince ordinary people in the US that the true enemy and the true threat to freedom was communism (or even moderate left-wing governments) or the fabricated Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq. They did this to hide the real enemy: the transnational corporations and the capitalist and imperialist states, which hoarded wealth for the minority.

Importance of Struggle

There are several important lessons to note from Washington Bullets. The first is the importance of collective struggle in breaking free from capitalism. The liberation of colonised countries was not achieved because the colonisers decided it was the right thing to do, it was achieved through a long struggle, which forced the United Nations to recognise ‘the process of liberation’ as ‘irresistible and irreversible’ (p.57).

International law offered no support to the brutally oppressed in the colonised countries. The Geneva Convention did not consider wars of independence as official wars until 1976, effectively granting license to colonisers to bomb and terrorise innocent people. This happened in Libya in 1911 and in Britain’s ‘genocidal war’ in Kenya in the 1950s (p.33). It was only with the spread of liberation movements and the formation of the Non-Aligned Movement, consisting of recently liberated countries, that change came about.

The other lesson is the lengths to which the capitalist state is willing to go in order to destroy the chances of socialism and a radical redistribution of wealth and power. The US followed through with CIA director Richard Helms’ pledge to ‘make the economy scream’ in Chile when Allende came to power. It vetoed almost every loan to Chile from the Inter-American Development Bank and ensured the World Bank made no new loans to Chile from 1970-3. When economic strangulation failed, ruthless violence ensued, from Vietnam to Iraq, Indonesia to Bolivia.

This extreme action is required because ideas of redistribution of wealth and the reorganisation of society for the many gain popularity quickly. Socialist movements provide hope to the millions who are brutally oppressed by offering an alternative, free of inequality, discrimination and violent repression. When this hope arises, it spreads and so the bourgeoisie must go to extreme lengths to destroy that hope.

Washington Bullets also reinforces the importance of our campaigning around issues of war and foreign policy. Ever since the US became the leading world power, Britain has backed their violent and oppressive coups and wars reliably. From Wilson’s support of the Vietnam War to Blair’s undying loyalty to Bush’s bloody mission in Iraq, Britain has backed American imperialism every step of the way.

Anti-war and anti-imperialist campaigners have been on the streets on every occasion, demanding that the people of those countries are allowed to decide their own future, without interference from the West. As the sanctions against Iran and Venezuela continue, the brutal bombing of Yemen and Syria continues and tensions between the US and China remain high, our campaigning around war and foreign policy remains as important as ever to prevent the atrocities which the book documents.

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