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Washington’s Contrasting Responses to the Deaths of King Abdullah and Hugo Chavez

  • Written by Paul Street
  • Published in Opinion
U.S. President Barack Obama meets with Saudi Arabia's King Salman (R) at Erga Palace in Riyadh, January 27, 2015 | Photo: Reuters U.S. President Barack Obama meets with Saudi Arabia's King Salman (R) at Erga Palace in Riyadh, January 27, 2015 | Photo: Reuters
What is behind the difference in U.S. responses to the death of the absolutist Saudi monarch and the the democratic peoples’ president Chavez? King Abdullah: “A Man of Remarkable Character and Courage”

The United States purports to be the homeland, beacon, agent, and headquarters of modern democracy. How curious, then, to see U.S. President Barack Obama respond to the passing of Saudi Arabia’s medieval monarch King Abdullah Bin Abdul-Aziz two weeks ago by hailing the despot’s “vision” and “courage.” Obama asked “God” to “grant [Abdullah] peace” and saluted the departed despot’s commitment to the sacred “partnership” between the U.S. and the Saudi kingdom.

Abdullah’s death was followed by high-profile visits to the Saudi royal palace in Riyadh on the part of the President and First Lady. Also sent to pay tribute to the deceased royal brute: U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, CIA Director John Brennan. U.S. General Lloyd Austin (head of U.S. Central Command for the region), U.S. Senator John McCain, and leading U.S. House Democrats Nancy Pelosi and Joe Cowley. General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, announced a research and essay competition in honor of the king, who Dempsey called “a man of remarkable character and courage.” A fascinating act by a top military official in a nation that claims to have been born in popular opposition to absolute monarchy and hereditary aristocracy.

Never mind the savagely authoritarian and deeply reactionary nature of the Saudi regime. “If ‘totalitarianism’ has any meaning,” the leading Middle Eastern expertGilbert Achcar noted seven years ago, “that’s totalitarianism there [in Saudi Arabia].” As Sarah Flounders reports at Fight Back! News:

“Saudi Arabia is an absolute and brutal dictatorship. The country is named after the royal Saud family that has expropriated the country’s fabulous oil wealth, and treats it as a wholly owned family asset. Their control is maintained by massive state-organized repression. All forms of political dissent and social organization, from political parties to trade unions, are banned under pain of death.”

“Executions by decapitation in public squares are held on average once every four days. Capital crimes include adultery, homosexuality and political opposition to the regime. Public stonings are also a common form of execution. Other punishments include eye gouging, limb amputation, tooth extraction, surgical paralysis and public lashings.”

“Government departments are treated as fiefdoms … Personal and state funds are completely commingled. All family members are guaranteed astronomical monthly allowances from birth, … 60 percent of the population live[s] below the poverty line… More than 1.5 million migrant women work in domestic slavery [and]… the International Trade Union Confederation … report[s] alarming levels of child labor, discrimination and forced labor … women have no rights to employment, property or education. They cannot step out of their homes unless covered head-to-toe in a long black abaya and accompanied by a male family member.”

The U.S. “dignitaries” – one of whom (McCain) recently called peace activists “low-life scum” for having the historical decency to remind Americans that U.S. president Richard Nixon’s former National Security Adviser and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger is a war criminal – went to Riyadh to show that “democratic” America will continue to play it’s 80-year role as “Lord Protector…of the Saudi regime, which in turn is a ‘protected kingdom,’ as in medieval history” (Achcar).

Hugo Chavez: Dismissal and Disrespect

Obama and Washington had a very different response to the March 2013 death of Hugo Chavez, the democratically elected president of Venezuela who used his nation’s also remarkable oil wealth to reduce poverty and inequality in his nation. Chavez won respect and even adoration from much of his nation’s citizenry, including especially the poor, even as he offered remarkable tolerance and freedom to wealthy elites who hated him and his egalitarian agenda.

Surely, then, the president of the world’s self-proclaimed greatest democracy, the United States, reacted to Chavez’s death with words of sympathy and respect that went beyond the reverence and compassion he expressed for the deceased king of an absolutist, arch-repressive, and ultra-reactionary dictatorship, right? Hardly. The White House responded with the following dismissive and disrespectful statement: “At Venezuela begins a new chapter in its history, the United States remains committed to policies that promote democratic principles, the rule of law, and respect for human rights” – a commitment that finds curious expression in Washington’s longstanding support for the Saudi dictatorship.

Since Chavez’s death as before, Washington has helped spark, fund, and otherwise advance social, economic, and political instability and violence in Venezuela. The Obama administration has worked to undermine the government of Chavez’ successor, the democratically elected Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro, who is determined to carry on his predecessor’s populist policies. The White House has signed off on economic sanctions against Maduro and other top Venezuelan officials to punish them for supposedly violating the civil rights of those engaged in U.S.-sponsored protest against the Venezuelan state.

The Problem with Real Democracies

Why this starkly Orwellian contrast between the “democratic” United States’ response to the death of the absolutist monarch King Abdullah and its earlier reaction to the death of the democratic peoples’ president Chavez? In the real world beneath the doctrinal fairy tale long spun by U.S. propagandists, the United States is an Empire whose policymakers value democracy abroad only when and where it serves their ambition of ruling the world in accord with the interests of reigning U.S. economic elites.

Since no popular majorities in any nation abroad wish to be dominated and exploited by U.S. elites, Uncle Sam is no friend of democracy abroad – or for that matter in its ever more abjectly plutocratic “homeland”(a wonderfully imperial term). As the leading historian and critic of U.S. imperialism Noam Chomsky once observed, “We’ve consistently opposed democracy if its results can’t be controlled. The problem with real democracies is that they’re likely to fall prey to the heresy that governments should respond to the needs of their own population, instead of those of U.S. investors.” Thus it was that the aforementioned Kissinger said the following about the democratically elected Chilean presidency of the moderate democratic socialist Salvador Allende in 1970: “I don't see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people. The issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves.”

Nixon and Kissinger responded to Allende’s election in Chile by ordering the CIA and the State Department to “make the [Chilean] economy scream.” The idea was to provoke social unrest that would create an opening for the U.S.-backed Chilean military to overthrow the unwanted Left leader – a standard part of the US CIA playbook within the beyond Latin America. On September 11th, 1973 (Latin America’s 9/11), Allende was killed in a U.S.-sponsored military coup that installed a fascist-style dictatorship that tortured, murdered, disappeared and forced into exile tens of thousands.

The Strategic Prize

Real democracy and national independence are seen as particularly undesirable by U.S. policy elites in nations that possess large-scale oil reserves. The control of planetary oil supplies has long been identified by U.S. planners as an imperial necessity. Thus is was that the U.S. State Department in 1945 called Saudi Arabia’s unmatched oil reserves “a stupendous source of strategic power, and one of the greatest material prizes in history.” That “prize” has long been understood by U.S. planners to be “a lever of ‘unilateral world domination,’” giving its controller de facto “veto power” over other industrial states while also “funneling enormous wealth to the U.S. in numerous ways” (Chomsky).

For more than seven decades now, the Saudi kingdom, which sits atop the largest proven oil reserves on the planet, has almost always played along with U.S. goals. Formal full Saudi ownership of its oil reserves (achieved by Riyadh by the early 1980s) cloaks reality: Western and U.S. oil companies possess billions of dollars in investments and joint venture linking them to the grand strategic and financial prize that is Saudi crude. ExxonMobil, Chevron, and Conoco Phillips are all giant investors in Saudi Arabia, with billions of dollars poured into highly profitable exploration, drilling, pumping, transport and the building of pipelines, and ports and terminals. “While the Saud family can take immense wealth for themselves,” Flounders notes, “the vast majority of these funds must be held in U.S. banks or be used to purchase U.S. materials.”

The purchases include massive military acquisitions required to keep its own subject populace and its regional rivals – Iran above all – at bay. As Flounders adds, the Saudi elite “relies on five U.S. military bases, Western arms and military training for its protection and survival. The U.S. Fifth Fleet, based in nearby Bahrain, defends the status quo ….In return, the Saudi royal family pays protection money to U.S. military industries like Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics and Boeing. Billions also go to British, French and German military corporations… Saudi spending on weapons comes to 9.3 percent of its gross national product, the highest in the world.” The Saudis also understand that their protection depends on respecting U.S. wishes with regard to how it handles the “great material prize” under its soil.

Things have been different for U.S. Big Oil and Empire in Venezuela, home to the second largest proven oil reserves in the world. Eight years ago, Chavez gave foreign oil companies an ultimatum: surrender majority control of their Venezuelan operations to the state-owned company Petroleos de Venezuela S.A. (PdVSA) or risk having assets seized. ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillips (the third-most valuable U.S. crude producers after Exxon and Chevron) rejected Venezuela’s terms and left. Both claim to have lost billions of dollars in confiscated assets and have sought compensation from international courts. ExxonMobil and ConocoPhillps abandoned the country, unwilling to hazard the risks of operating in a nation whose avowedly socialist leaders privilege national independence and domestic poverty reduction over the profits of foreign investors.

Neither firm has joined Chevron in responding positively to Venezuela’s efforts since 2010 to attract foreign investment to help develop the nation’s abundant heavy oil deposits in its northern Orinoco Belt. Meanwhile, Chavez and Maduro’s “Bolivarian Revolution,” funded largely by PdVSA revenues, has slashed poverty rates from 42 percent in 1999 to 27 percent in 2013 – a very significant reduction. Venezuela has also used its wealth and influence to encourage other nations within and beyond Latin American to follow Cuba and its example by rejecting and resisting U.S. control of their economic and political development.

To Make Venezuela Scream

There are some interesting connections between the U.S.-Saud love affair and U.S. opposition to independent left nationalism and populism in Latin America. During the 1980s, Saudi Arabia opened up its bank accounts to U.S. counter-insurgency in Central America, committing millions of petrodollars to the CIA-coordinated Contra war on the popular-revolutionary Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Currently, the Obama administration and major U.S. media are engaged in an escalated campaign against the Maduro government and the Venezuelan citizenry. They are engaged in what left analyst Eva Golinger rightly calls “a covert war on a people whose only crime is being gatekeeper to the largest pot of black gold in the world.” By flooding the world with U.S. oil (the U.S. has re-emerged as the world’s leading oil exporter thanks to its eco-cidal fracking revolution), “it doesn’t need” (Glen Ford), Washington hopes to make the economies of Venezuela and other perceived U.S. geopolitical and economic rivals – Russia and Iran – “scream,” something meant to bring about regime change in Caracas and elsewhere.

Never mind that the Venezuelan government is democratically elected and working on behalf of the nation’s poor and working class majority. That is precisely the problem in the minds of Washington planners, for whom petro-imperial objectives and global profit calculations trump any concern for real democracy at home or abroad. As far as the Empire is concerned, absolute monarchs and viciously repressive, arch-reactionary dictatorships are beloved “friends of the West” and “freedom” when they serve Uncle Sam’s global dominance agenda.

The Saudi regime is cooperating with the global oil price-slashing project, which it hopes will crush its regional arch-rival Iran, and punish Russia for backing Saudi’s enemy Syria. The Saudis are waging oil price war in cooperation with the United States, against their mutual enemies Russia and Iran. For the U.S., the negative consequences for Venezuela are more than just fortuitous collateral damage. They are part of Washington’s longstanding opposition to national independence and populist, social-democratic policy in Latin America and elsewhere.

Paul Street is a writer in Iowa City Iowa. His latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy