Drugs and Bananas

Things are seldom what they seem in the tumultuous illegal drug world. There’s so much money that nothing stays fixed that long. Take Honduras, a small nation nestled among other small nations in Central America on a direct route for drugs coming from South America to Mexico and then to the final destination: bountiful, drug-consuming America. This requires frequent readjustment for the riches therein.

So America probably shouldn’t have been surprised when one of its favored anti-drug warriors turned out to be the opposite. Even U. S. Presidents Obama and Trump feted Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez with millions in aid as he pledged to use an “iron fist” against the drug traffickers. “The party is over for criminals,” he announced.

Former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández

Behind the scenes, he was doing something else – helping those same criminals to thrive. Famed drug lord El Chapo, who is now serving a life sentence in the U. S. for his criminal activities, was looking for a drug route through Honduras to expand the reach of his Mexican Sinaloa cartel. Ok, said Hernandez. A million will do it. El Chapo complied and handed a briefcase with a million dollars to the President’s brother. Said a pleased Hernandez: “You can stuff the drugs up the noses of the gringos.” 

Hernandez applied the usual trappings of repression to his country. The media were paid or threatened to be silent as he went about his work. Extradited to the U.S. two years ago, he is now on trial in New York City with the prospect of an El Chapo style conviction.

But Honduras is known for more than drugs. It was the first “Banana Republic,” no offense intended. Keeping a close eye on the nations to its south, the U.S. made many forays into Honduras, but the most successful was privately conducted by Sam Zemurray, who had bananas on his mind and in his vision for Honduras. He cajoled a compliant government into letting him acquire a few thousand acres to grow his favorite crop, and the rest was history: banana sales around the world led to fabulous riches for the fruit companies who added railroads and banks to the landscape. The local population was less richly rewarded.

Keeping Honduras on the map, bananas gave way to guns. Concerned by communist penetration of Central America during the Cold War, the U.S decided to conduct military operations on? – you guessed it – a banana plantation in Honduras. The target was the Soviet-aided Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Writes David Vine in his book Base Nation, “Honduras was like a stationary, unsinkable aircraft carrier strategically anchored at the center of the war-torn region.” Stationed there were U.S.-backed Contras to overthrow the Sandinistas, resulting in a major scandal of the Reagan administration when it was disclosed that proceeds from U.S. arms sales to Iran were diverted to the Contras against a congressional prohibition.

Harvesting bananas in Honduras, 1952 (Earl Leaf/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

The Cold War is over, but Honduras is still busy with another war against drug traffickers. No rest for the geopolitically useful. The outcome awaits the future. But the present is not so bad. The Honduran economy is growing, and a government crackdown seems to be curbing crime, including the fearsome homicide rate. Honduras has not turned into a drug republic. Long live the Banana Republic.

Putin in Cuba

In the midst of the controversy over Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has threatened to put troops in Cuba. Put them where? Close to the U.S. coastline? What is he thinking, or does he recall such an effort in the not too distant past – the Cuba missile crisis of 1962 in the middle of the Cold War, an event that brought the two powers – the U.S. and the Soviet Union – the closest they ever came to a direct clash, even possibly a nuclear exchange.

What a fearful memory, surely best forgotten. That Putin would raise it suggests the seriousness of the occasion, at least for the Russian ruler. He considers Ukraine the equivalent of Cuba, a neighbor that cannot be conceded to the enemy. That was also the opinion of President John Kennedy, who was alarmed and frustrated by the takeover of Cuba by the communist Fidel Castro, clearly and dangerously allied to Moscow.

Kennedy’s first response was a dismal failure. He backed an invasion of anti-Castro rebels that foundered at the Bay of Pigs, largely because a doubtful President failed to provide air cover. That emboldened Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, a reckless and ardent communist who had participated in Josef Stalin’s mass murders and then turned on the dictator after his death. Sensing an opportunity, Khrushchev began to place nuclear missiles in Cuba to prevent another U. S. attempt on his communist ally. Khrushchev still dreamed of world revolution.

Nikita Khrushchev and John F. Kennedy. Photo by: AFP.com

The U.S. was aghast at his move. By this time, Kennedy had learned from experience. He consulted all the members of the foreign policy establishment, a group of experienced and scholarly advisers that doesn’t exist today. Opinion varied in terms of what action to take, but there was no flighty talk of using nukes or demonizing Khrushchev. In fact, subsequent records reveal that both sides had a clear picture of the other, which helped in the ultimate resolution.

Kennedy and Khrushchev stayed in contact and arranged a compromise. Khrushchev would remove the Cuban missiles in return for the U.S. taking similar missiles out of Turkey. The crisis was over and in fact nothing like it occurred again up to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. At first Kennedy tried to portray the agreement as a Cold War victory for the U.S. and kept the Turkish part secret. But when that was revealed, the importance of the compromise was understood. It has gone down in history as an example of successful statecraft.

Though Putin has a substantial nuclear arsenal, he will not put missiles in Cuba. He is not an expansionist minded communist but an autocratic national leader looking out for his country’s interests. While Khrushchev approached Cuba offensively, Putin’s tactic is defensive. He wants the U. S. to stop expanding NATO to Ukraine on the Russian border. That’s the message of his threat. 

The U.S. Is not today what it was in Kennedy’s day. Opinions and pressures are all over the place from a number of groups not always linked to the national interest. That’s the accusation against the so-called neocons who seem to have their own view of world revolution. There is similar distrust of the military-industrial complex that profits mightily from wars however misconceived. Whatever the flaws of the people advising Kennedy, their integrity was not challenged.

Since 9/11 something is lacking in U.S. foreign policy. Perhaps it’s a matter of character as well as wisdom. Communism may be gone in America, but other kinds of of ideology prevail distorting policy. A clear view of the world is essential, as George Kennan demonstrated when he charted the U.S. course in the Cold War. But is another Kennan possible today?

Trotsky in Mexico

What’s another murder amid the carnage of today’s Mexican drug cartels? But the 1940 assassination of Leon Trotsky in Mexico City still stands out. It occurred at the apex of Communist influence around the world following Stalin’s great victory over the Nazis and the consequent expansion of Soviet power. Indeed power talks and converts, and that was true of Mexico as elsewhere. Mexico City was crawling with Stalinists who were awaiting his every command.

In this environment Trotsky sought refuge. The arts were embroiled. Famed artist Diego Rivera welcomed the exile, while equally famed David Siquieros staged an unsuccessful raid on him. Trotskyites, as they were called, visited him and offered homage. As it was becoming apparent, even to loyal intellectuals, that Stalin was a boundless tyrant, Trotsky would replace him in communist affections. This was partly illusory in that Trotsky was a fierce dogmatist who believed in “permanent revolution” of a violent sort largely conducted by superior minds like his own.

Leon Trotsky

And that was his failing. He thought that Stalin had a “third rate provincial mind,” when in fact the canny strongman outmaneuvered him throughout. Trotsky dropped from being the star of the Bolshevik revolution, esteemed for his oratory and organization of the Red army, to a hapless outcast with his life in danger wherever he went. He defended himself with reams of writings denouncing Stalinism, but as Stalin noted: “Paper will put up with anything on it.”

Still, compared to Stalin Trotsky was almost humanitarian, and there was always a certain glamour to him as biographer Isaac Deutscher notes in a touching description of his last days in The Prophet Outcast. Knowing full well the end was near, he was kind to those around him and acknowledged his shortcomings while remaining steadfast to his Communist vision. “Life is beautiful,” he writes his wife Natalya. “Let the future generations cleanse it of all evil, oppression and violence and enjoy it to the full.”

Today’s drug cartels would not have botched his assassination, just a quick bullet to the head. Instead a Stalinist spent months courting a woman who gave him access to Trotsky and then smashed his skull with an ice axe. The blow was fatal but not instantaneous. Trotsky lingered in pain for close to a day. So Stalin got his revenge and then some. When the assassin was released from prison twenty years later, he returned to a hero’s welcome in Russia.

Trotsky’s legacy in today’s Mexico? Not permanent revolution but what about permanent drug warfare? Communist brutality is no longer with us, but it set a precedent for unceasing violence. If the communists can do this, the drug lords might say, why not us? It’s in the best intellectual tradition. The Stalin-Trotsky duel remains fixed in history.

Let’s Remember Stalin

Adolph Hitler has got his just deserts over and over and over. Hardly a day goes by when his evil is not recalled one way or another. Any autocrat who comes to power, however limited his domain, is dubbed “another Hitler.” Meanwhile Joseph Stalin remains a rather sinister figure lurking in the shadows as if long after his death he is still to be feared. Let’s not talk about him more than we have to.

Lies matter. Hitler, in fact, told the ugly truth. From the outset he made clear that he wanted to establish a tightly controlled racist regime from which “undesirables” like Jews would be excluded and persecuted.  He said he would reclaim German lands lost in the First World War and would push militarily eastward until he confronted his great antagonist Stalin. He was as good as his word though ultimately unsuccessful.

Stalin preferred to lie, and it served him well. People were prepared to believe him or perhaps were afraid not to. All through the massive starvation of his collectivization program and the vast purges of friends and enemies alike, he offered a benign explanation that was accepted and even applauded. The dishonesty was colossal, writes Adam Ulam in his biography Stalin. “One day, when nearly every family had yielded a victim to his terror, Stalin would address the nation:  ‘Brothers, sisters… I speak to you my friends.'”

Joseph Stalin

Yet Stalin was powerfully assisted by the doctrine he espoused; namely communism. At the time it had a global following, often fanatical. It held out the promise of a better world to be achieved almost overnight by revolutionary thought and action. Turn the tables on the predators currently in charge and all would be well. Stalin saw an opening and lunged.

Like other true believers, fun loving New York editor Max Eastman was thoroughly taken in by the foment over revolution as he describes in his book Love and Revolution. which eloquently captures the atmosphere of the time. He equated love of revolution with his passion for the woman of his life, Russian born Eliena Krylenko. With the Bolshevik takeover of Russia in 1917, “we had unbounded hopes of a new world coming to birth.” Visiting Moscow on this joyous occasion, he became a close friend of Bolshevik mastermind Leon Trotsky, later assassinated by Stalin. Indeed he missed seeing Stalin who was operating as usual behind the scenes and would not have been interested in Eastman, though he later called him a “gangster of the pen” when he renounced the dictator.

Eastman recalls that “all his thoughts then took place in a rather opaque cloud of optimistic emotion. I was unaware of the beastlike struggle for power that was in progress behind the scenes. I was unaware of the existence of Stalin,” who turned out to have a long reach. After Eastman disavowed communism, its adherents in New York joined Stalin in denouncing him as a traitor. They made sure he and others sharing his views didn’t get printed or published in “an astute and unremitting infiltration of centers of communications.”

When he was later able to publish a book, he titled a chapter “Stalin Beats Hitler Twenty Ways.” But such was the climate of opinion that nobody in high office in Washington paid any attention, thus helping Stalin make his territorial grabs at the end of the Second World War. His lies had paid off handsomely. So today he  deserves to have at least one local tyrant dubbed “another Stalin.”

World’s Worst Journalist

Walter Duranty was a glib, fun-loving playboy who regularly smoked opium for the “novelty of vision” it provided. He said his chief aim in life was to write consequential fiction, and that he achieved through journalism as Moscow bureau chief for the New York Times. He witnessed and privately acknowledged Stalin’s state-induced famine of the 1930’s with people dying from starvation – a particularly hideous form of death – at the rate of 25 thousand a day. But he reported in the Times there was only some “malnutrition” in the region.

There followed the massive purge of Stalin’s fellow communists and others who had obstructed his quest for absolute power. Duranty attended the contrived show trials with the obviously coerced confessions of the ragged prisoners in the dock. But he insisted they were all true. How could you not believe the Great Father? He airily dismissed any accounts that contradicted him as the work of unseasoned amateurs, definitely beneath him. To prove the point, he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for what can only be called a decade of lies.

Walter Duranty (left) and Josef Stalin (right)

Yet Duranty was not a spy or a communist or even an ideologue. He could have easily passed a security screening or even a polygraph. He captivated people with his endless, witty chatter, occasionally with a flourish of his wooden leg, resulting from a train accident. He was always the center of attention in Moscow and elsewhere – just like Stalin. He ruled in a small pond while the man he most admired was master of a vast one. Stalin was sheer brute force, he explained, but that was needed to overcome the benighted “Russian soul,” immersed in ignorance. When commands don’t work, whips will do. He liked to say, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.” These words serve as a finale for a new film about Duranty and a reporter who got the story right, “Mr. Jones.”

There was, to be sure, an element of society that welcomed his words. Communism had a much better press than Nazism, and when Stalin and Hitler split Poland to start the Second World War, most animosity was directed at Hitler. But it was one thing to welcome Stalin as an ally whose Russia eventually did the most and suffered the most to win the war; it was quite another to overlook his menacing ambitions. At the end of the war his troops overran and took control of the rest of Poland, all of Eastern Europe and a large chunk of Germany until the West came to its senses and called a halt, commencing the Cold War.

“Any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda,” Walter Duranty

Duranty never seemed to regret his errors even when they had been clearly exposed. After all, he had achieved his goal becoming the most celebrated journalist of his time. No denying that. The New York Times eventually offered an apology for his work, as it did subsequently for its unstinting support of the false premises leading to the 2003 U.S war in Iraq. Walter Duranty remains an enduring lesson for journalists.

Beware the Nukes

In the Cold War, U.S. Presidents were not soft on communism, to put it mildly. At the same time, they were well aware – intensely aware – of the danger of nuclear weapons to the planet and did their best to control them. Not so today. There’s a strange nonchalance about nukes in the White House, the Congress, and the media as if somehow they don’t matter so much. What’s going on? Continue reading “Beware the Nukes”

Our Spy in Mexico

At the height of the Cold War in the 1960s, Mexico City was teeming with intrigue. Agents of the United States, the Soviet Union and Cuba jostled one another for information and influence. Writes Gus Russo in his book “Live By The Sword”: “This megalopolis had become the most spy infested in the Western Hemisphere, if not the world.” Continue reading “Our Spy in Mexico”