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.

Taylor of Troy

Is this the face that launched a thousand ships

And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?

Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.

Such were the immortal words of Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe as he recalled the epic Trojan war from the mist of fact and fantasy. It was a case of human beauty exerting its power for a doubtful end. Is there an equivalent beauty today that might launch ships in an opposite direction toward peace? An obvious contender is at hand: Taylor Swift, songwriter, singer, dancer, with a flair for improvisation and a following of 272 million combining concerts with social media. A recent NBC poll shows that she has a more favorable rating than just about anybody else in the public eye including all the current U.S. Presidential candidates.

For that reason she is currently embroiled in politics, especially among these less popular Presidential candidates. Since she tilts liberal, Democrats are urging her to come out in support of President Biden, while fearful Republicans are trying to prevent that from happening. Her impact is weighty indeed. Time reports that the tumult of 72,000 fans at a sold-out show in Seattle registered the equivalent of a 2.3 magnitude earthquake on the Richter scale. The economic impact is similar. Spending associated with her recent U.S. tour approximates five billion dollars. According to one admirer, “If Taylor Swift were an economy, she’d be bigger than fifty countries.” Seeing the gold that glitters in Taylor, the president of Chile, the mayor of Budapest and the Canadian prime minister have all invited her tour to their countries.

So far, despite the prompting, Taylor has not yet commented on the election. Hurry up, says Democratic California Governor Gavin Newsome, who would like be President someday himself. Your contribution would be “profoundly powerful.”  But she has hesitated, no launching of ships or making waves.  There’s no hurry at all, say wary Republicans who note that she posted a message on Instagram urging fans to register to vote on a particular website. They did, increasing registration by 35% over last year.

Taylor Swift at the 2019 American Music Awards

On Fox TV Jesse Watters said Taylor has been used in a Pentagon psyop to steer information in the right direction. “We are going to shake it off,” replied the Pentagon, referring to the popular Taylor song “Shake it off.” Sean Hannity of Fox takes comfort in the fact that she has criticized the business practices of far-left financier George Soros. Not to worry, advises close Trump ally Stephen Miller. The vast Taylor fandom is not “organic,” meaning it has been contrived by outsiders and not by the singer alone who is no superwoman.  

But as they say, image is reality and what an image. Is it ready for an antiwar campaign? So far Taylor has had nothing to say about the current incredibly destructive Israeli-Gaza war, but what if she used her immense soft power to urge a permanent ceasefire and her followers went along? The world would have to listen, politicians in particular. Songs of love betrayed by cruelty can shift to songs of humanity betrayed by war with the singer still conveying the simple joys and sorrows of everyday life, her soulfulness of song. Let all future wars beware her voice. Helen of Troy becomes Taylor of Nashville, the woman who launched a thousand ships of peace.

The Carlson Conundrum

The usual choice for a Vice President is a conventional politician sufficiently obscure not to overshadow the Presidential candidate. All the more surprising, then, that a hugely popular and highly controversial TV commentator, Tucker Carlson, is under serious consideration for the running mate of former President Trump who has a commanding lead in the polls. Does this make sense?

Not to the many critics of Trump who view Carlson as almost as objectionable. Here are two combative, combustible personalities with no respect for convention or normal rules of order, double trouble for the electoral system. But that’s just the point, insists Revolver News, which has close ties to Trump. Carlson reinforces Trump’s populist instincts and as Vice President would assure his legacy after his final four years in office. The conventional politician, shifting with the wind to suit his ambition, could not be counted on.

Tucker Carlson

That legacy doesn’t appeal to critics, even frightens them as an antidemocratic trend to something much worse. Words like fascism arise. Scare words, scoff Trump or Carlson who say they want to revive an imperiled democracy. At issue, in particular, is the formulation of U.S. foreign policy dominated by the neocons since the turning point of 9/11. Going their own way under both Democratic and Republican administrations, they have promoted a series of wars and other military interventions that have turned out badly and made a mess of the Middle East and surrounding areas. Israel would supposedly benefit, though it is now in greater danger than ever and the Arab world is enflamed.

This war making is an example of the Deep State in action that escapes the notice of the public. Timely intervention is needed. In fact, a Carlson on hand could prevent such a lapse as the neocon-driven assassination of top Iranian general Soleimani. Aside from the fact that assassination is a cowardly form of warfare that seldom achieves what it intends, Soleimani was just the kind of adroit international operator with whom a Trump could do business.

Critics pounce on Trump’s seeming indifference to overseas conflicts and his talk of scuttling NATO, which was set up to deter an aggressive Stalin who no longer exists. Isolationism, they claim. But the military doesn’t have to be called on to solve everything. There are other ways to deal with competitive or adversarial nations. The U.S. can try its hand once again at diplomacy and skillful use of its prestige and economic maneuver to accomplish its ends. In his own way ambitious, anti-West President Xi of China is doing exactly that. His moves across the global chessboard may be challenging and unsettling, but they avoid the catastrophe of war.

Standing in the way of the development of a coherent foreign policy is the enormous roadblock of money. Lavishly pouring out of various lobbies, its many millions promote policies that can be irrelevant or injurious to the body politic, a society of greater economic inequality than ever before. The top one percent thrives at the expense of the remaining ninety-nine per cent. Reform is stymied because the politicians in charge are beholden to this money to win elections and keep their jobs.

That being the case, let’s speculate. It would be truly democratic as well as populist to submit any proposed war or serious military intervention to the vote of the entire American public, a national referendum. The outcome from a commonsensible population would be far better than the money-driven policies of a compromised leadership. Probably all the recent useless wars, including the one fizzling to an inglorious end in Ukraine today, would have been voted down. It’s not exactly what the Founding Fathers, far-seeing as they were, had in mind. But who could have predicted this tyranny of money?

Drug Cartel Ties to Washington

Hunter Biden’s wandering laptop seems to have an inexhaustible supply of information, much of it damaging to the user and his father President Joe. The latest revelations published by The London Daily Mail indicate prolonged business dealings with prominent super rich Mexican businessmen, notably billionaires Carlos Slim and Miguel Aleman Velasco, who made many visits to the Vice President’s office in 2014.  Hunter was continually excited by the prospect of investing with these heavies in Mexico and Latin America, not that it always worked out, leading to his heartfelt complaint: why are you so silent after all I’ve done?

On one occasion Joe flew with Hunter on Air Force 2 (at taxpayers’ expense) to meet Aleman’s son to consummate a deal considered “flippin’ gigantic.” Relations were congenial, if not in fact cozy, with rest and fun on Caribbean beaches and ample time to discuss such things as the flow of Mexican drugs to the U.S.

Former VP Joe and son Hunter Biden with Carlos Slim in 2015

President Joe and Hunter would probably indignantly deny this. The meetings were all about business. But business is not conducted in a vacuum in Mexico. Everything revolves around the drug trade of which wealthy businessmen form a part, like it or not. Along with all other Mexicans they belong to the cartels from whom they take their instructions and make a lot of money. They will not do so if they go astray, and their lives will be forfeited as well. The cartels react briskly to signs of disaffection. Consider the Mexican homicide rate and the bodies hanging along the highways.

So, the Bidens may as well shake hands with the cartels. They have put their stamp of approval – their brand – on the true enemies of the U.S., which will be used to their advantage. The cartel chiefs are reassured. Nothing to worry about from the U.S. So, it’s business as usual with the satisfaction of paying off top officials. Not that this is apparent to the American media which continues to describe the cartels as separate from the government with no-up-to-date analysis of the actual workings of the government – who’s in charge? who does what to whom? We know more about Syria or Somalia, where we are actively intervening, than about next-door Mexico, which we leave alone.

Why this reluctance to face the reality of the cartels? Qui bono? Mexican drug sales in the U.S. may amount to as much as 100 billion dollars a year. No one knows for sure. While most is laundered back to Mexico – easily done – enough remains in the U.S. to fill obliging pockets. It can be said that the Bidens’ dealings are done openly compared to far greater behind-the-scenes operations.

These carry grave risks, the cartels are poisoning more Americans than ever with their drugs, especially lethal fentanyl. They are also spreading what can only be called armed camps by the tens of thousands around the U.S. These are illegal marijuana farms complete with an armed guard or two to keep neighbors at a distance. Put them all together and if properly coordinated, they constitute a veritable army. Colonel Douglas MacGregor told Tucker Carlson that we will eventually be fighting them here in the U.S. May the best man win.

But have no fear. The drug cartels have made it known they favor peace. Notes Mexican President Lopez Obrador, as he anticipates the upcoming talks on the Ukraine war in Saudi Arabia: “We don’t want the Russia-Ukraine war to continue. It’s very irrational. The only thing that benefits from it is the war industry.” Mexico will stick to its kind of war.

Who Can Master Central Asia?

Tasked by Voice of America with looking into newly independent Central Asia after the collapse of the Soviet Union, I wanted to get an idea of the civil war roiling the small but spectacularly beautiful nation of Kyrgyzstan, called by its admirers the “Switzerland of Central Asia.”

My driver for the occasion said he had a master’s degree in political science, but that did not improve his driving skills. Unaware, he sped from the government side across the battlefield into the Islamist opposition camp whose defenders, rifles at the ready, didn’t seem happy to see us. “This is interesting,” said my unflappable ex-KGB guide with no escape in mind. Then, providentially, a tank appeared – Russia to the rescue. The Islamists switched their attention to the appraching enemy, and we were spared from whatever they had in store for us.

Central Asia

This is the irony: a decade earlier, we – the U.S. – had been championing the Islamists in neighboring Afghanistan against the Russian occupiers. Now it was the reverse. We counted on Russia to help contain the Islamist threat. Such a turnabout, to be sure, is familiar to Central Asia, where contending forces, internal and external, are always disturbing the peace and seeking control. But who can master an area that accepts no master?

The five off-beat nations are sometimes hard to keep straight: Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan along with Kyrgyzstan, a series of “stans” with makeshift borders designed by Stalin to sow confusion. They are are often considered a global backwater but nonetheless prized for their prime location, major resources and vigorous people.

The “Stans”

After gaining independence from Communist Russia, they were expected to take a democratic turn. They didn’t and continued autocratic rule, though Kygyzstan has some democratic trimmings – elections, a robust parliament, a press that is less fettered than that of the other stans. Still politics is rough and tumble – three revolutions and assorted uprisings. A year and a half ago, a president was forced into hiding by rock-throwing protestors over a questionable election. A convicted kidnapper was let out of jail to take his place. This was not unusual since each successive government is in the habit of jailing members of the previous one.

Russian President Putin would like the stans to be calm as he goes about trying to reconstitute a Soviet Union whose collapse he considers a “catastrophe.” He doesn’t employ lethal Stalinist measures but more subtle pressures as in the case of the U.S. military base in Kyrgyzstan. First, he constructed a competing Russian base, then made his desires clear to the Krygyz who depend in many ways on Moscow’s generosity and forbearance. The U.S base is gone.

Not quite as entrenched in Central Asia, China is investing heavily in the region, including high tech apparatus to monitor the activities of the suppressed Uighur population on the border with the stans. More dramatically and long term, it is engaged with Russia on an ambitious modernized land route that will cross the stans and unite east and west in a Greater Eurasia with geopolitical as well as economic implications. It is current U.S. policy to denounce and sanction both of the powers in contrast to the successful Cold War policy of dividing them. Time to think again.

The Putin Problem

In an interview President Biden called Russian leader Vladimir Putin a “killer.” What does that mean exactly? Does Putin randomly kill people the way, say, the Mexican cartels do south of the U.S. border? Has he killed more people abroad than the U.S. has in its numerous wars since 9/11? Or is Biden speaking in a more metaphorical way about killing hopes amd dreams? In that case the President is rather imprecise, a risky behavior among heads of state with control of nuclear weapons that can end the world.

Putin laughed it off by challenging Biden to a debate. The American media was more serious and seemed to back the President. This contrasts with the media of the Stalinist years which tended to lavish praise on one of the world’s worst mass murderers during the 1930’s and wartime ’40’s. Acclaimed leftwing writer Max Eastman couldn’t get published anywhere because he supported Communist leader Leon Trotsky over Stalin – the cancel culture of the time.

In comparison to Stalin Putin is a minor impediment to U.S. and indeed global interests. Shorn of Stalin’s acquisitions in Eastern Europe and elsewhere, he seems intent on preserving what’s left in a reinvigorated Russia. That means he is a familiar figure, a nationalist leader both autocratic and skillful. U. S. policy can be tailored to that situation. Unlike Stalin, and some would say the U.S. today, he has not embarked on expansion, just holding his own.

He has some grounds for complaint. As the Soviet Union dissolved in 1989, then U.S. Secretary of State James Baker made a trade with Russian leader Mikhail Gorbachev: Russia would surrender control of East Gernany to a reunited Germany in exchange for a U.S pledge not to extend the NATO alliance eastward toward Russia. That was violated during the Clinton Presidency, and ever since NATO has been expanding and contemplates adding still more small countries on Russia’s border.

At the height of the Cold War the fervently anticommunist Reagan Administration made sure economic sanctions affecting the Soviet Uinion were limited and carefully targeted because of international opposition. In today’s more permissive environment, the U.S. has freely resorted to their routine use. President Trump, in particular, made them a substitute for an outright war he pledged not to start. In fact, by crippling an economy, they are injurious to the people, not to the leadership who rarely change their policies. It’s really a feel-good effort on the part of the sanctioners.

There’s no doubt the other two great nuclear powers – China and Russia – will continue to compete with the U.S. and look for advantages where they can. For this the U.S. must stay geopolitically alert with minds up to the job, but military action should be a last resort and threats issued with care. There has been one helpful change. Today the U.S rivals are rational exercisers of power with their own interests clearly in view, not the feverish unpredictable ideologues that wrecked the world in the last century.

Trump’s Parting Sanctions

All the tumult over a disputed election and the protest march on the Capitol obscure a possibly greater danger overseas. The Trump White House with a foreign policy under the control of the war-fixated neocons has imposed a stream of crippling sanctions on Iran that could lead to a possible military clash before the Democrats take charge.

The White House understandably fears that President Biden will restore the agreement that President Obama made with Iran: a suppression of its nuclear activities in return for a lifting of U.S. sanctions. It was by no means perfect but a way of reducing tensions with Iran, a Middle East power, much the way Trump eased hostilities with nuclear-armed North Korea. As Bob Woodward writes in his none too favorable account of Trump in his book Rage, “…it was not by the Establishment playbook, but as Trump says repeatedly, we had no war. That was an achievement. Diplomacy should always be worth a try.”

But Trump has done the opposite with Iran without apparently noting the contradiction. He has applied sanctions not only to Iran but to companies doing business with Iran. These have been added weekly since November, perhaps a record in economic punishment short of war. Secretary of State Pompeo adds that Iran has joined al-Qaeda as “partners in terrorism,” which is reminiscent of the charge that Iraq was allied with al-Qaeda, a fiction that helped lead to the disastrous U.S. Iraq war.

Iran is of little danger to the U.S. It vies with Israel for power and influence in the Middle East. Israel has nuclear weapons, but Iran does not, and Israel wants it to stay that way. Like other countries – the U.S., Israel, China, Russia, whatever – Iran pursues its national interests. While these can be unsettling, they are not the menace of the fanatical, death-dealing ideologies that imperiled the world for close to a century. We’re dealing with practicalities of statecraft today even if nuclear weapons hover in the background. Containment worked before. It can work again.