News Brief: How US Media Helped Trump and USAID Weaponize “Aid” During 2019 Venezuela Coup Attempt

Citations Needed | May 12, 2021 | Transcript

Juan Guaidó speaks at a rally opposing Nicolás Maduro in Caracas. (Rafael Hernandez / DPA/Zuma Press)


Nima Shirazi: Welcome to a Citations Needed News Brief. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: We do these News Briefs in between our regularly scheduled Citations Needed episodes when — I don’t know — the Associated Press reveals that a new inspector general report from USAID actually admits that the humanitarian aid convoy sent to Venezuela in February of 2019 was actually part of a regime change operation. So we thought we’d talk about that, of course, I have to first say that you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, become a supporter of our work through with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. All your support through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated. But Adam, this report was published on April 29, 2021 by the Associated Press, not The Nation, not In These Times.

Adam: Well, the way they framed it though is very much, they downplayed it, but if it should be the report it’s pretty scathing. So this is the part of the show where I do a sort of extremely petty and navel-gazing I Told You So, but if you’re curious about reading my real time coverage, which now that I’m rereading it, I didn’t read it since I wrote it over two years ago, it’s like I’m pulling my fucking hair out. I wrote an article for FAIR on February 9, 2019 with the headline, “Western Media Fall in Lockstep for Cheap Trump/Rubio Venezuela Aid PR Stunt.” I wrote another piece 11 days later, for Truthdig with the headline, “The U.S.- Venezuela Aid Convoy Story Is Clearly Bogus, but No One Wants to Say It,” where I basically detail how Elliott Abrams, who was so fringe, and so right-wing he wasn’t even on the radar until Trump selected him — a discredited war criminal who ran guns to Nicaragua, helped fund the Contras who tortured, raped and skinned alive nuns and left-wing activists — this is suddenly the person whose heart bleeds for Venezuela.

Nima: Oh, yeah.

Adam: And in February of 2019, the end of January as well, there was the supposed aid convoy that Maduro was preventing from letting in the country, this official report just confirmed what we said at the time, this is what always happens with these coups, you say it at the time, people think you’re a crank, and you know, a few years later, ‘Oh, yeah, clearly.’

Nima: Yeah all it takes is 27 months and an official USAID report and I guess, you know, now we know, now we know, Adam.

Adam: Right. So the Center for Economic and Policy Research, CEPR, whose fellows and writers and researchers we’ve had on the show quite a bit, were all over this story and many others and we thought, you know, one of the things we haven’t done is we haven’t honed in on USAID specifically. Here USAID was partnering directly with the Trump administration to foment a coup in a really cynical way, again, at the time, this was rejected by the United Nations and then the American Red Cross and other aid organizations.

Nima: Aid was flown there on US military cargo planes.

Adam: Yeah, the report is quite scathing. Definitely check it out in the show notes or read it on your own. It’s pretty, there’s a lot of puff but if you actually get to the substance of it, it basically says that there was not at all an aid convoy, it was clearly a pretext for some sort of military invasion or military coup or some combination thereof to overthrow the government. And so we wanted to bring on Alexander Main from CEPR to talk about this because they were on top of this from day one and other kind of soft power attempts over the last few years in Latin America. I think there’s an impression that these things are kind of ancient history, but they’re very much still ongoing and a recent appointment by President Biden shows that it appears that Democrats, to a large extent, will continue the Trump policies of meddling and regime change with a slight variation of how aggressive and militaristic it is with more focus on these kinds of soft power machinations. So, I’m excited to talk to him and get into some of these topics for today’s News Brief.

Nima: Yeah, so without further ado we are now joined by Alexander Main, Director of International Policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research or CEPR. Alex, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.


Alexander Main: Great to be with you guys.

Adam: So you have been a longtime observer, to put it politely, of USAID and similar groups and we really wanted to talk about an internal USAID report that was written on April 16, revealed a few days later by the Associated Press, that basically laid out what we talked about on the show in real time over two years ago, which is that there was this really bizarre, Elliott Abrams-Donald Trump-run alleged humanitarian aid convoy in Venezuela in January and February of 2019. There was this bizarre media narrative where we all sort of accepted, and we talked about this in the intro, we all sort of accepted this was a thing that happened or that they really cared about humanitarian aid and it was definitely like the episode of The Twilight Zone where William Shatner sees the alien on the wing of the plane and no one believes him.

Nima: The gremlin, the gremlin.

Adam: Oh yeah. Now we’re at this position now where it’s sort of widely accepted now that oh yeah, that was clearly bullshit. Can we start off by talking about that report and that whole bizarre story — I mean, I know we could do two hours on it but we’ll do a cursory criticism of it — and what this says about some of the quote-unquote “politicization” USAID as an organization?

Alexander Main

Alexander Main: Yeah, sure. Well, I think this report that you’re referring to, it’s an Inspector General Report for USAID and, you know, like a lot of these Inspector General Reports and GAO, General Accounting Office reports, they’re very useful in often legitimizing things that we were all already aware of — most of us — and making them sort of more official and so I think that’s the case here, although I don’t think this has gotten the attention it deserves. But this is USAID’s own Inspector General, you know, recognizing, basically, this was a very political maneuver of USAID’s, to say the least, you could even say it was part of the whole coup d’etat attempt that the US had started promoting really in January along with the recognition of Juan Guaidó, the self-proclaimed president of Venezuela, they were also calling on the military to rebel, of course, against the Maduro government, which they characterized as being a sort of a usurper government, rather than Guaidó being some kind of a usurper. So in this case, you know, they’d called on the armed forces of Venezuela to rebel a number of times, it hadn’t really worked, and so they settled on this strategy of trying to get aid into the country, which they weren’t offering to the Venezuelan government, the Maduro government, or really to the Venezuelan people so much as the Venezuelan military and saying, ‘Here, you’re going to be the custodians of this aid but in order to get it you have to sort of turn against Maduro.’

Adam: Right, you have to let in this shady convoy that may or may not be bringing in guns and missiles and MANPADS.

Alexander Main: Well, that’s exactly right, very shady convoy.

Adam: Because we know, for example, we know that Elliott Abrams, of course, as we mentioned, Elliott Abrams did this exact same thing —

Nima: Yeah, it’s literally the same playbook.

Adam: In 1985 and 1986 in Nicaragua, he used humanitarian aid to smuggle in arms to right-wing contras.

Alexander Main: Right. It worked back then. A lot of people went along with the narrative back then and so they expected people to do the same this time and as you pointed out that’s exactly what happened, and within a couple of weeks there were a lot of things that were revealed about this aborted aid attempt, if we can call it that, the aid ultimately didn’t make it into Venezuela, there was a whole fiasco, a part of the convoyed burned, initially they blamed the Maduro government for doing it then it turned out it was actually opposition protesters that had, you know, lit it on fire, whether that was intentional or not I don’t know but other things that came out afterwards and it was, in fact, reported by Bloomberg a couple of weeks later, was that you had this small army of Venezuelan deserters that was prepared to invade, you know, to accompany the convoy and to invade with this idea that it would just take a few hundred rebelling soldiers to sort of turn all of the Venezuelan armed forces against the government or at least a significant chunk of it, and provoke the coup d’etat that they were after. That was aborted at the last minute, apparently the Colombian government itself had sort of second thoughts about that, they were of course aware of this set of rebels that was going to invade Venezuela from their territory, they’d gone along with it up to a point and then they thought, ‘Oh, you know, maybe this is a little too much.’

Nima: Yeah.

Alexander Main: ‘It’s essentially a declaration of war against Venezuela, we’re maybe not quite there yet.’ But yeah, it could have been a lot uglier than it was, it looks like.

Adam: Well, because Maduro ultimately didn’t take the bait. I mean, they were trying to provoke an overreaction. They didn’t really do it. Even The New York Times revealed a few weeks later that the opposition lit their own trucks on fire.

Alexander Main: Yeah, that’s right. And there wasn’t a real fight with the protests, there were a large number of sort of opposition protesters that had gathered at the border, and they did their thing, and as you said, they lit it, the convoy on fire and so on and yeah, the Maduro government, as you said, didn’t fall for the bait, they didn’t, you know, go after these guys, they kind of let them do their thing and so the whole thing sort of fizzled out. It was a colossal fiasco. But yeah, as you mentioned, the media kind of ran with it and suggested that this was a horrible thing that the Maduro government was so intransigent not to accept this helpful aid. One of the things that comes out in this Inspector General Report as well is the fact that it was an aid that Venezuelans needed at all just whatever they happen to get together quickly.

Adam: Yeah, it didn’t align with any actual needs, like the packages of food for the children didn’t make any sense because the children malnutrition issue was different and so I want to read off some headlines here because I don’t think people quite know how uniform this was. CNN on February 7, 2019, “Tensions rise as Venezuela blocks border bridge in standoff over aid.” CNN same day, “Maduro blocks critical aid sent to Venezuela.” ABC News, “Aid arrives at Venezuela border as US demands Maduro let it in.” BBC, same day, “Venezuela crisis: Pompeo demands aid corridor opened.” Washington Post, the same day, “The U.S. says Maduro is blocking aid to starving people. The Venezuelan says his people aren’t beggars.” “Humanitarian Aid Arrives For Venezuela — But Maduro Blocks It,” NPR, same day.

Photo from a fearmongering NPR story captioned, “The Tienditas bridge connecting Colombia and Venezuela has been blocked by Venezuelan military forces, as seen here on Wednesday. Opposition leader Juan Guaidó and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are demanding that humanitarian aid be allowed to enter.” (Edinson Estupinan / AFP/Getty Images)

Nima: Yeah, PRI the same day said, you know, “Defiant Maduro blocks humanitarian aid at Colombian border.” You can find a million of these, The Guardian did it, The Times did it. This was the narrative. So in this micro way the gambit worked because it provoked the outrage in the media of this dictator who doesn’t care about quote-unquote “his people,” which is always said when there is a regime change afoot, and the media, you know, really lapped this up. So it’s this idea that locking humanitarian aid, aid can’t get through to the starving people of Venezuela who are so in need.

Adam: And none of them mentioned that both the United Nations and the International Red Cross, which are not shills of the Maduro government, they’re fairly unaligned here, both warned against this explicitly, and not a single outlet, except for one passing mention in NPR, not a single one of these outlets mentioned that actual aid experts said, ‘This is completely insane.’ Clearly, no country on Earth is going to allow an armed group of people trying to overthrow their government to come into their country with quote-unquote “aid.”

Alexander Main: Right.

Adam: I mean, of course not.

Alexander Main: Right and along with that, there’s a major piece of context that is missing from the news stories of the time that continues to be missing in most of the news stories on Venezuela, which is that the US has been sanctioning Venezuela very heavily since 2017. It’s cost billions of dollars in economic damage to the country, a country that was already in an economic crisis. So it’s been stoking the humanitarian crisis in the country, these sanctions, and so here’s the US offering a small amount of aid really $15 million, $20 million, and at the same time imposing sanctions that are causing deep damage and making the humanitarian situation much, much worse. No one’s kind of pointing out that there’s a fundamental contradiction in the supposed US policy towards Venezuela there.

Adam: Well, that’s another thing that was driving me fucking mad is that the study at your organization found that 40,000 people a year were dying from sanctions, I believe was the number?

Alexander Main: Yeah, that was a report that came out in early 2019 and so we can imagine things have gotten a lot worse since then, we need to see updated numbers, but you know, the sanctions that have been imposed are actually much harsher than they were even at the beginning of 2019. So it’s really exacerbated the situation.

Adam: And the economists even explicitly said, I think in a moment of clarity said, their goal was to starve the population and I believe those were the exact words. So again, like you said, the contradiction of were providing, and that was the thing I was like, why are we providing aid while killing tens of thousands, let’s say generously, it’s not 40,000, let’s say it’s 5,000.

Nima: Right, because the aid wasn’t really the thing, right? So obvious.

Adam: Yeah, of course.

Nima: So Alex, to bring this up to date now, more recently, we’ve heard that Biden’s now appointed a new principal advisor to the Administrator for USAID, his name is Mark Feierstein. Now, you and your colleagues at CEPR have done really great work examining why maybe the appointment of Feierstein has, who knows, possibly the same kind of soft power meddling that we have seen in the past? Can we talk about Feierstein and what he and his role now back at USAID might mean for the future?

Alexander Main: Sure, yeah and a shout out to my colleague, Brett Heinz, who, as you mentioned, published a really good post on Air America’s blog that people should check out that covers Feierstein and also the very shady company K Street firm that he was working for until recently, CLS Strategies. That’s part of the story here. So Feierstein is a classic example of revolving doors in Washington going in and out of administrations and cashing in on his connections, you know, during the years when his people aren’t in power, and he’s been very involved, really since the late ’80s, in various forms of US political intervention in the region, both from the US government and from positions in the US government, and sort of para governmental institutions like National Democratic Institute and also from private sector organizations like Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, and so he’s been involved in all sorts of things. There are a lot of things that we don’t know about what he’s been doing, but what we do know should certainly raise a lot of eyebrows. He was first with NDI, National Democratic Institute in the late ’80s, early ’90s. He was their Director for Latin America and the Caribbean and for your listeners that aren’t aware of what the National Democratic Institute is, it’s part of this national endowment for democracy system, democracy promotion system that’s funded by the US government, you know, that essentially engages in a lot of sort of internal political intervention and in all sorts of places around the world kind of, you know, using their banner is always democracy and peace and security and human rights and so on. But the record has shown that they’ve often been involved in simply helping the US’ friends and helping undermine, if not, you know, remove from power the sorts of people that the US doesn’t want to see in power and in the case of Latin America tends to be the left-wing governments all over Latin America. So that was Feierstein’s kind of early experience and then he was in the Department of State, he was with USAID working as a senior advisor for elections and this is a part of USAID that people aren’t as aware of, those that are you aware of USAID know that it’s sort of a development focused agency, but it does a lot of sort of political work frankly. It has a center there that’s focused on democracy promotion and governance and so on, and it gets very involved in all sorts of different forms of political intervention. We could go into those if there’s time, but they’ve been very involved in Latin America over the years and certainly when Fierstein was there, and you know, later on he worked for Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, when he was there he was working, among others, he worked for a right-wing candidate in Bolivia, who was running against Evo Morales, they helped him win back in 2002. There’s a great little documentary about their involvement in that campaign, Greenberg Quinlan Rosner’s involvement in that campaign, Our Brand Is Crisis. Then there was a movie afterwards, there was a sort of a fictionalized thing that came out afterwards. But yeah, basically, they employed all sorts of very base sort of tactics, instilling fear in the Bolivian population of Evo Morales and kind of misrepresenting him as this terrible threat to, you know, the stability and security of Bolivia and so on and they were successful and they got their guy elected: Goni. Goni was later involved in a massacre during protests against some of his policies, his policy to privatize gas in Bolivia, and there were massive protests, they were very violently repressed, he ended up fleeing the country, there’s been an extradition order for him from Bolivia ever since to bring him to justice for, you know, the many victims of the massacre and he’s remained cozily in the United States, he’s in actually the suburbs of Washington, DC and, you know, this is someone who subsequently Feierstein referred to as his friend and has been supportive of and so on. So it gives you sort of a taste of where he’s at, very much aligned, I would say, with a lot of the US agenda in the region and so then he went back, he ended up, and this is also very typical within the revolving door, he got involved in fundraising for the Obama campaign and then he, you know, landed some nice jobs at USAID, where it was this Assistant Administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean, something that Bolivia wasn’t too happy to see.

Mark Feierstein (second from left) in the Obama White House.

Nima: Right.

Alexander Main: And then he was at the National Security Council for a little while as Senior Director for Western Hemisphere and a Special Assistant to the President and then when, you know, Obama left office, he went back into the private sector and got involved in a bunch of different firms. I mean, he went all out, various K Street firms, and strategic consultancy firms, like the Albright Stonebridge Group, GBAO Strategies and then CLS Strategies, which I mentioned earlier, which, you know, got caught red-handed in sort of promoting fake news and bots and so on, getting involved in some really dirty social media campaigns in Venezuela, in Bolivia and in Mexico in recent years, and they were outed by Facebook, actually, they were outed in August 2020.

Nima: It was that bad.

Alexander Main: It was that bad.

Adam: It’s very rare that exposes psychological operations by pro-US institutions.

Alexander Main: Well, there you go, this was too much and so Facebook put it out there. So this CLS Strategies, nearly $4 million was pumped into these social media campaigns, keeping in mind that in these countries, they don’t have exponential numbers usually in political campaigns so anything that’s above $100,000 has a massive impact. And so this was happening in Venezuela and so they were actually involved in a social media campaign to support Guaidó as he self declared as President, they were all set up and they started promoting Guaidó and obviously also pushing for a coup, pushing for the military to rebel against Maduro. This was part of the social media campaign. In Mexico, they opposed, you know, the left-wing candidate there Lopez Obrador. And in Bolivia, you know, they worked for the coup government following the 2019 coup there. I think that’s something you probably covered.

Adam: They didn’t even fake like they were social Democrats like Guaidó, they were straight up fascist. So yes, go ahead.

Alexander Main: Oh, right out in the open.

Adam: They didn’t even bother with the fake, ‘We’re actually just like the DSA,’ and it’s like, okay.

Alexander Main: They worked with the coup government and promoted all sorts of fake news to help support the coup government while it was there, and just after it had committed some massacres, and so keep in mind that Fierstein was at CLS Strategies during this time, it seems rather improbable that he wasn’t aware of some of this stuff, and particularly, as you know, he would be a very valuable expert on sort of politics in these countries, particularly in Bolivia. But you know, we don’t know it’s all sort of in a black box, we don’t know what he was doing, who he was working for exactly at CLS Strategies. There’s nothing that’s come out about that.

Nima: But now he’s back. But now he’s back, baby.

Alexander Main: Now he’s back.

Nima: Principal Adviser to the Administrator and when I say the Administrator, of course, I mean, Samantha Power, who is now the administrator of USAID.

Adam: Who is the High Priestess of meddling under the auspices of human rights, which is, which is what I wanted to ask about, which is, now we have the bleeding heart human rights meddling crowd mixed with someone who’s not quite Elliott Abrams, but is definitely not unfamiliar with the dark arts of anticommunism especially the NED in the ’80s, when it literally just transferred power from the CIA to the NED when they realized they had a branding problem after the Church Committee in the subsequent reforms of the ’70s. I want to talk about what you view that as looking like. The Biden administration has said very hostile words towards Cuba of late, there was all these sanctions, really gross punitive sanctions leveled against both Iran and Venezuela under Trump that liberals cried about and said, these are these are extraordinary, you know, sanctions, the Pod Save bros were like this is actually way worse than it should be. Biden has been in the White House for over 100 days now and those sanctions are still in place.

Alexander Main: Yeah. Yeah.

Adam: Has not gotten rid of them and so I want to ask you, what is your, I mean, at a certain point you’re sort of running out of countries to coup, although I think they’ll try Venezuela again, what is your perspective here now that someone with a history of meddling in Latin America is in place and Samantha Power, who again supported regime change in Libya, supported various other places, definitely supporting Venezuela, what is your view? What is your prognosis about what we should, what’s the coup watch looking like if I had a betting pool — not to be glib about it — but what vectors of covert and soft power influence are you worried about?

Alexander Main: Well, I think it is going to be more about soft power. I mean, that’s generally true of Democratic administrations as opposed to Republican administrations. Republicans are more overt about what they’re doing and, you know, they’re not going to be threatening military intervention necessarily, like Trump did, but they’re certainly going to be involved in trying to achieve regime change in Venezuela. We were hoping that there might be a little bit of a change of policy, given that it hasn’t worked, the regime change policy in Venezuela, which, you know, really was initiated in 2001, 2002, when the Bush administration supported a coup there and ever since then, through all sorts of just a huge variety of different strategies, they’ve been trying to remove the government, the Chavistas from power and clearly haven’t succeeded. Even, you know, after piling on with all these sanctions, it’s simply not working. Their guy, Guaidó, is one of the least popular politicians in Venezuela. Maduro is not very popular at the moment, but I think Guaidó is very, very unpopular and so despite all the PR that went into the whole campaign for Guaidó and so on, everyone’s sort of given up on him around the world, in Venezuela, but not in the US. The Biden administration still recognizes Guaidó. So, we’re seeing much of the same, the Cuba policy is exactly the same as under Trump and there’s no sign that they’re going to be better on countries like Bolivia where the left came back into power, thanks to elections that eventually happened and you have a return of Morales’ party MAS there. They’ve already been sort of very aggressive towards the new government there when the authorities there jailed the former leader of the coup for her involvement in the massacres that took place there that had been widely documented. There’s a report that came out, that provides more documentation about those massacres that took place in the wake of the 2019 coup, slaughtering, you know, indigenous people that were protesting against the coup. So they’re being brought to justice and while the US government didn’t say anything about, you know, the massacres and the horrible human rights crimes, the repression that was taking place under the coup government in Bolivia, now they’re expressing deep, deep concern about the fact that Áñez is being jailed and being brought to justice, you know, something that has been, obviously the demand of the victims of these massacres for the last year or so. So all in all, we’re not seeing any kind of significant shift. It seems to be that Latin American policy continuing as always but, as you mentioned, it’s going to take kind of a different form now, and certainly with Samantha Power at the head of USAID, I think she is, if anything, really going to expand the political interventionism that we’ve seen at USAID. To get a sense of this, if folks remember those Wikileaks cables, State Department cables, the trove that was released some years ago, there’s an enormous amount of information in there about how USAID gets involved in politics in these countries by, you know, providing direct help to the US’s friends, generally, you know, right-wing political forces in the countries by undermining, you know, in any way, every way possible, really, you know, left-wing movements in these countries. There’s a cable, for instance, so USAID has this program called Office of Transition Initiatives.

Samantha Power. (AFP)

Nima: Ah. That doesn’t sound sinister at all.

Adam: That sounds very menacing.

Alexander Main: Well, yes, it’s all about political transitions, right? Whether the country wants it or not, they’re in there to try to ensure some kind of transition. So they were there, they set up a program in Venezuela shortly after the 2002 coup and you have a leaked cable, for instance, that talks about how that particular program was designed with the clear objectives, and this was coming from the ambassador at the time, Brownfield —

Adam: And just to clarify there was a 2002 coup in Venezuela that removed Hugo Chávez from power, even though he won the election with like —

Alexander Main: Oh, yeah.

Adam: Again, he’s more popular than pancakes but it didn’t matter. He won the election, we removed them in a totally illegitimate coup, for a few days, brought him back. So I just want to clarify that.

Alexander Main: Yeah, that’s right, there was actually a popular uprising and so that reversed the coup. But at any rate, their agenda with this Office of Transition Initiatives program was, and I quote, “To penetrate Chávez’s political base to divide Chavismos, isolate Chávez internationally.” So you know, these are very overt political things. I don’t think most people are aware that USAID is doing this kind of stuff and other countries, right? Doing things that are so ostensibly political, and in this case, really accompanying the whole regime change campaign that the US has been supporting from a variety of agencies, including the Department of State and USAID and others. So USAID is an integral part of this soft power political interventionism that’s been going on, I mean, it’s really for years and years. I mean, back in the ’60s they had the Office of Public Safety, which was involved in training Latin American police forces that were involved in the repression of left movements, you know, in the dictatorships of Argentina and Uruguay and Chile and elsewhere, and they have these training programs for activists, for politicians, for journalists, where they train their people, they kind of create a cadre of people aligned with the US and, you know, they’re very involved as well and always seeking the unity of their people, right? Who often tend to bicker between each other so they have to work hard to bring them together and to unify them. This is all documented very explicitly, in a huge number of these cables that were released by WikiLeaks. So it still makes for really interesting, enlightening reading that should be taken into account now that you have someone like Samantha Power, who’s a great humanitarian interventionist and under Obama was a big promoter of regime change and US military intervention. So now, she’s not going to be on this military intervention side of things as much as the USAID softer political interventionism.

Nima: Yeah, totally. I remember there was a recruitment commercial for the Marines back in 2012, which now just seems like ancient history, but, so during the Obama administration, that had all these shots, it was like this Apocalypse Now style helicopters swooping down on this beach and there were all these shots of soldiers but right next to them were all these boxes labeled simply “aid” with like a US flag, you know, marked on it —

Adam: Just the humanitarian organization with guns, man.

Alexander Main: If it’s aid it’s got to be good, right? Whatever’s in those boxes it’s aid.

Adam: This totally reminds me by the way, if any, if our listeners want us to do a review of the Netflix film Operation Christmas Drop, let us know, that movie has one big love letter to the idea that the US Army is a humanitarian organization.

Nima: It’s really just a UPS messenger service for aid. But Alex, you had mentioned Bolivia and I kind of want to get us back there. A recent report was published in The Intercept by Ken Klippenstein and Ryan Grim about how the Trump Department of Justice attempted to threaten MIT researchers who had challenged, they had published a report, challenging the widespread US government and media and certainly the OAS narrative of election fraud in Bolivia, the idea that Morales needed to be removed because the election that he had won was illegitimate, he then was forced to flee Bolivia, we had talked about on Citations I think CEPR was certainly on this —

Adam: Well CEPR did the original report debunking the fraud claims.

Alexander Main: Right.

Adam: Before it was cool.

Alexander Main: Way before.

Nima: (Laughs) Right. You were on it.

Alexander Main: Before the coup took place we did it. If people had listened, then, you know, there might not have been a coup.

Adam: That’s true. You did it in October.

Nima: That’s right, that’s right. So yeah, Alex, if you could just talk to us about what we saw there, not only with the coup under the narrative of election fraud, which I think we see all the time, but also, this recent report about the intimidation and threats to the researchers in Cambridge, who saw this in their studies and actually dared say it out loud.

Adam: Somehow got into The Washington Post by accident.

Alexander Main: Yeah, well, you know, I mean, these are serious guys, right? They’re MIT Elections Lab, and they were following the elections in Bolivia, they’d seen our work, I think they may have felt the same frustration that we felt when we debunked the early claims that were made by the OAS of fraud and it was a rather simple operation, actually, to do that and no one was listening, right? The OAS had said this, they were the ultimate authority and sort of all the media just went along with that and they didn’t even, you know, they could think to themselves, ‘Oh, you know, CEPR they’re a left leaning think tank, we’re not going to listen to them whatever,’ they can have whatever excuse they have, but they could have at least gone to find a second opinion from some statistician, like anybody that has some understanding of statistics could have done this debunking. We didn’t do anything masterful but, you know, we were the only ones who actually published something after these claims were made. But no, nobody in the media did this until months and months later. So first, you had, we actually contracted these guys from MIT, they did their own independent study, which we had nothing to do with but we were fairly certain that they would come to the same conclusions that we did — and in fact, they did — and then they subsequently wrote a piece in The Washington Post, which got an enormous amount of attention, much more than, you know, our report had gotten.

Adam: They were fucking hot that day man. The 104th Anthropology nuance brigade and the fucking spook show think tanks were just having a fucking meltdown that day. I remember that day because it was The Washington Post.

Alexander Main: Yeah.

Adam: I believe they really, really tried to lean on them to retract it but they said no.

Alexander Main: So became a real threat that the OAS would be sort of unmasked and everyone would see what a total sham their observation in Bolivia was. But there was that, and then afterwards, The New York Times eventually did do kind of the logical thing and they commissioned some outside experts to do their own study and lo and behold they came to the same conclusion that we did about those claims. And so that was published many months later, was eight months after the coup. So a little bit late guys, it would have been good to have done a little bit earlier but, you know, it finally got out there. However, to this day, I think on most news reports that you see of Bolivia they still just include, you know, a throwaway line about there were there was a suspected fraud during the elections without bringing up what happened in the fact that these fraud claims were in fact thoroughly debunked multiple times and in various media.

Adam: Yeah, The Washington Post editorial board did that a few weeks ago, they just asserted there was election fraud, and even though their own paper had debunked it it didn’t matter because it has to be true, right?

Alexander Main: Yeah. So the narrative is still there. It’s still there despite everything. I’m not sure, you know, what it takes exactly. It’s, you know, we hammered really as hard as we could, we still are hammering on this point and hopefully, you know, one day the history books will get it right but we’re not quite there yet.

Adam: Well, I mean, it can’t not be true, because these editorial boards and the newsrooms themselves in real time supported all these claims. In fact, many of the reasons why protests were stoked is because people legitimately believed that their election was stolen. And again, the parallels between this and the right-wing coup attempt — albeit very, not remotely the same, because it was never going to succeed but — in the United States, are quite interesting and I think very profound because it’s the same thing. You Stoke your followers, you say there’s a coup, you spread actual fake news saying there was fraud and if you think there’s fraud, it’s logical you would want to coup, right? I mean, you can’t steal elections and it’s logical you’d want to storm in the capital if you actually believe that Trump had the election stolen by alien whatever the pillow guy tells them, you know, and like the utter hypocrisy of The Washington Post, as we talked about a few weeks ago, where they were so just, they were so devastated by the capital attack. They treated like it’s fucking 9/11 times Pearl Harbor to the power of fucking Independence Day and meanwhile they support an actual coup that actually killed hundreds of people, an actual fascist coup and then oh, as if it was fraud handwave it away. So they can’t, they sort of can’t ever concede that point, they can’t because that would existentially call into question their judgment, right? You can’t ask a fish not to swim.

Alexander Main: I mean, you could always hope that with the new administration they’d be like, ‘Well, yeah, you know, the Trump administration did a lot of really harmful things and we’re not necessarily going to go along with all that.’ But somehow, when it comes to Latin America they are going along with it and that’s to be expected as long as Florida politics is the end all of national elections for the Democrats and they’re completely focused on winning over sort of the more extreme elements of the Cuban American diaspora there, you know, by going after the left in all its shapes and forms in Latin America. We’re, I think, going to be stuck with the situation, you know, whether it’s a Democratic or Republican administration.

Adam: I think I have a more craven view. I don’t think it’s the votes. I think it’s just what the fuckin’ State Department does.

Alexander Main: Yeah.

Adam: I think if Florida was vaporized tomorrow it really wouldn’t change it at all.

Alexander Main: It might give them less of an excuse to go along with.

Adam: Exactly.

Alexander Main: I think at least internally, they have that excuse.

Adam: Yes, I agree with that. But the one thing I did want to do before you go is I want to, I want to sort of ask a very naive question, because I think some people listening to this, what we’ve done I think today is we’ve detailed, and your work’s detailed and CEPR continues to detail in real time that these coup attempts and meddling attempts are not ancient history. This isn’t, you know, everyone likes to talk about the black-and-white days and Henry Kissinger and Operation Condor and everyone sort of, ‘ Oh but we don’t do that today.’ We’re constantly told, right? This is ancient history, this Cold War stuff, we don’t do it anymore, it’s our shameful past. But we had an open, outright attempted a military coup in Venezuela just two years ago. A few months later, we had an open outright OAS, who the fuck knows what the CIA was doing — I’m sure it’ll reveal itself in some book 20 years from now — but if you make any assertions or inferences today, you’re a wild conspiracy theorist. But we had a coup in Bolivia that we know the US has fingerprints all over just a couple years ago. So this is real time stuff. It’s really, really happening now. And so what I want to ask is like, people say, ‘Oh, well, US needs to give aid.’ Like that’s part of what we should do. My naive question to you is, is there any system at all, where the US could give aid and help countries where it isn’t turning into this spooky, because it’s a fine line, right? I mean, it’s never quite clear where that line is. Sort of like with FEMA, it’s like, ‘Oh, we need to help people during hurricanes,’ and then you read some of the foundational docs of FEMA in the ’70s and it’s quite ominous in terms of domestic suppression and such, right? There’s a very fine line by design. Is it naive to think that we could ever sort of give aid without all this meddling bullshit or is it like asking a barbecue restaurant to serve a vegan burger? Is it sort of existential?

R. Savage / USAID

Alexander Main: That’s a really, yeah, it’s a really good question and the thing is there’s this idea out there that aid, foreign assistance, you know, certainly among a lot of liberals in this country, foreign assistance is a good thing and we do it out of generosity, it’s a really generous thing, we care about the rest of the world, this is based on a humanistic agenda, right? And when you kind of look through the legislation on USAID and look at, you know, statements that you can find within USAID, it’s clear that it’s actually about advancing US foreign policy. That’s the core mission of USAID. It’s, you know, advancing the foreign policy, and then there can be a debate around what is and what isn’t in the US interest, I would argue that a lot of what USAID has done is not actually in the interest of the US in the long run, it’s actually kind of fomented stability and instability and, you know, to a certain extent, helped maintain a certain amount of under development in the world. But ideally, you want foreign assistance to be assistance that, you know, doesn’t come with conditions, that doesn’t come with required policy measures, because that’s often the case with the US, they say, ‘Okay, you need to, you know, enact these reforms,’ so they get involved in sort of internal policy reforms in order to get the assistance there. They then also deliver the assistance to NGOs primarily, NGOs that tend to be, you know, mostly aligned with sort of the elites of the countries, the economic elites of the countries, are not really part of a sort of a broader popular agenda in those countries to help, you know, the people, the poor of the country and so on. You see it most starkly I think in Haiti, and yet Haitians themselves often refer to Haiti as becoming a republic of NGOs and this is precisely because of the the sort of the form of assistance and the fact that it generally bypasses government institutions, and instead of trying to help bolster, you know, public services, education and health within the public institutions that are there to serve the people, they prefer to go to NGOs, to contractors, beltway contractors, that then channel a lot of the funding to overhead, you know, in charging very, very high priced consultants and so on and generally just leaving no really long term and enduring results on the ground, and again, you can see that very, very starkly in Haiti, where after the earthquake, you had billions of dollars that poured into the place, including from the US, and there’s kind of nothing there that’s tangible from all of that and meanwhile, you know, you have a country that’s, yeah, institutionally, almost collapsed, and certainly, you know, the institutions that are there to help the people are incredibly weak, there is hardly any kind of education ministry or education budget to speak of, same thing with healthcare. So yeah, the way that assistance is channeled to these countries is generally not helpful for their kind of long term success and then there’s the other part of it, which is what we’ve been discussing and this sort of political intervention that the USAID is is involved in in these countries in a very undemocratic and untransparent way. Untransparent, you know, to the people in these countries, and also to US taxpayers. Generally, we don’t know what’s going on. USAID hires contractors, companies like Chemonics or Development Alternatives, Inc., who get involved in everything from water infrastructure projects, to regime change projects and we don’t know how that money is used and there’s also very little record of, you know, what kind of results are achieved with all of that. So it’s a functional system for advancing certain interests of, I would say, the US power elite, but it’s not functional in terms of its ostensible purpose of kind of helping countries develop economically. We’re just not seeing that happen.

Nima: You know, Alex, I really thought that you were gonna end on a super optimistic note there based on the question, but no, that was really great. I think, actually, that’s a really great place to leave it, this fraught question of whether there’s any such thing as non agenda driven US foreign policy.

Adam: Frankly, it’s an almost offensively naive question on my part, I’m a little embarrassed I asked it, but the reason I did is I sort of, I think it gets to the existential nature of like, what it means to have aid and it’s such a gradient, it’s something we talk about in the show a lot, but it’s a gradient between the liberal state that we can sort of think is good versus the shady shit where we sort of pick winners and losers in the Global South, decide who the goodies and baddies are, and we have the moral authority to undermine the latter and support the former without any kind of authority to do so. So we really appreciate you parsing all that out.

Nima: Yeah, we’ve been speaking with Alex Main, Director of International Policy at the Center for Economic Policy Research. Alex, thank you again so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Alexander Main: Thank you. It’s been great to be with you guys.


Nima: And that will do it for this Citations Needed News Brief. Thanks again to our guest Alex Main. We will be back with another full length episode of Citations Needed very soon. In the meantime, of course, you can check us out on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, become a supporter of our work through with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. We’re 100 percent listener funded so all your support through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated. Thanks for joining us for this Citations Needed News Brief. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again, everyone. We’ll catch you next time.


This Citations Needed News Brief was released on Wednesday, May 12, 2021.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.

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