When you gaze at the square-jawed, brycreemed glisten of Mitt Romney, you do not immediately picture the kidnapping of a democratically elected president, nor the installation of a tyrant who slaughtered at least half a million people. Yet that is what this man has presented as a model for the future of US foreign policy, although almost nobody seems to have noticed. He has been criticized by many liberals for liquidating businesses when he was a venture capitalist, but it's time we looked also at his willingness to liquidate democracies -- and why.
In his rather bland book No Apologies, Romney doesn't get angry -- except on one occasion. It is about what happened in the small Central American nation of Honduras in 2009. President Manuel Zelaya had been chosen by his people in a wholly free and fair election. He was hardly a radical. As the veteran Latin America expert Richard Gott has written: "A wealthy landowner with timber and cattle interests, he was the candidate of the Liberal party, one of the two traditional parties of the Honduras oligarchy." But in the second poorest country in the hemisphere, he did try to deliver substantial improvements for the majority of the population, as he had promised to during the election campaign. He increased the minimum wage by 60 percent and invested in the kind of Lula-style social programs for the poor that have helped transform Brazil.
This was enough to infuriate the right. They started to denounce him as a demagogue and an incipient dictator -- a new caudillo. When Zelaya proposed to hold a referendum to see if the Honduran people wanted to reform the constitution drawn up by the military in the 1980s, they claimed, absurdly, that this amounted to a coup d'etat. And so Zelaya and his little daughter were woken up in their pyjamas in the Presidential Palace by men with machine guns.
Zelaya later explained to the US news show Democracy Now: "They threatened me, that they were going to shoot. And I said to them: 'If you have orders to shoot, then shoot me. But know that you are shooting the president of the republic.'" They took him to a US military base and then dumped him on the tarmac in Costa Rica and told him never to return. Back home, the radios and cellphones were locked down, and Amnesty International has documented that "human rights abuses spiraled," with "mass arrests, beatings and torture" and "grave human rights violations." There has been a wave of murders of journalists trying to expose this, many with what appear to be signs of summary execution, while the Resistance Front say two hundred of their members have been hunted down and murdered since the coup. The new government held a forum for international businessmen bragging: "Honduras Is Open For Business."
And Mitt Romney is angry. Very angry. The source of his fury is not that a democracy was liquidated. No. It is that the United States government was -- for once -- not initially on the side of throwing out an elected center-left leader in Latin America. He told a press conference with disgust: "When Honduras wanted to toss out their pro-Marxist president, our president stood with him." In his book, he calls Zelaya a "corrupt autocrat... who was lawfully removed from office by the Honduran Supreme Court." He adds: "It is stunning to think that the president of the United States would force Honduras to act contrary to its own laws in order to restore a repressive, anti-American leader to power."
Thanks to WikiLeaks, we know that nobody outside the Honduran far right believed this. The internal memos of the US diplomats on the ground stated that "there is no doubt" that it "constituted an illegal and unconstitutional coup", with, at its heart, "an abduction" and "kidnapping" of the elected President.
Yet this is part of a pattern for Romney of how he thinks foreign policy should work. In the CNN-Heritage Foundation debate last November, Romney held up one historical period in particular as a good example of how US foreign policy should proceed. He said that when it comes to Pakistan and, by implication, the wider world, the US needs to replicate "what happened in Indonesia back in the 1960s, where we helped Indonesia move toward modernity with new leadership."
That's one way of putting what the US government did in Indonesia in the 1960s. The other way of putting it is in the words of a leaked CIA memo, where they said the US helped install into total power a man who "rank[s] as one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century."
So what was this policy that Romney admires so much? Indonesia mattered because, as a British Foreign Office memo put it in 1964, it was "a major producer of essential commodities. The region produces nearly 85% of the world's natural rubber, over 45% of the tin, 65% of the copra and 23% of the chromium ore." Through the 1950s and early 1960s, it had a somewhat autocratic leader -- Sukarno -- who rejected both US imperialism and Soviet imperialism and sought an independent path and for the country to control its own resources. This displeased US corporations. Clearly, when Romney praises what happened in Indonesia in the 1960s, he is clearly not talking about Sukarno.
No. He is talking about how the CIA aided the rise of Suharto, a far more autocratic and brutal military general who staged a coup in 1965. He is the "new leadership" Romney is praising. The CIA had been building up and arming the army as a rival source of power for years, and once their preferred institution was in charge, they handed over a list of 5000 names of suspected communists, including members of women's and youth movements. According to Joseph Lazarsky, CIA station chief at the time, this was used as a "shooting list." It was part of a wider mass killing of suspected or supposed communists that slaughtered half a million people, most of them landless peasants. Suharto later went on to invade East Timor and slaughter a third of the population there.
What was it like to live through this? The journalist John Pilger, who reported from there, describes one story from the ground. "As we [Pilger, and one of the survivors, named Roy] sat in an empty classroom, he recalled the day in October 1965 when he watched a gang burst in, drag the headmaster into the playground, and beat him to death. "He was a wonderful man: gentle and kind," Roy said. "He would sing to the class, and read to me. He was the person that I, as a boy, looked up to . . . I can hear his screams now, but for a long time, years in fact, all I could remember was running from the classroom, and running and running through the streets, not stopping. When they found me that evening, I was dumbstruck. For a whole year I couldn't speak." The headmaster was suspected of being a communist, and his murder that day was typical of the systematic executions of teachers, students, civil servants, peasant farmers."
It worked. From Romney's perspective, Indonesia became more free - because now it was cracked open for corporations to be free to use as they please, with the ability of the people to resist crushed at gunpoint. Suharto staged a conference for multinational corporations and handed them the rights to exploit great swathes of the country. It became known as an investors' paradise.
So what does this reveal about how Romney would rule? It is clear he doesn't only think that corporations are people; he thinks that corporations are the people who deserve to be free above all else -- even if it's the freedom to topple democracies and empower tyrants.
It shouldn't surprise us that Romney sees the world exclusively through the prism of extracting profit, because there is evidence he even sees the most intimate parts of human life in this way. The New York Times has reported that a few years after graduating from Harvard Business School, he returned to give a useful lecture. He told the students "they [as individuals] were like multinational corporations." The Times explains: "He drew a chart called a growth-share matrix with little circles to represent various pursuits: work, family, church. Investing time in work delivered tangible returns like raises and profits. 'Your children don't pay any evidence of achievement for twenty years,' Mr Romney said. But if students failed to invest sufficient time and energy in their spouses and children, their family could become 'dogs' -- consultant-speak for drags on the rest of the company." They later note that the business students were delighted because "Romney had proved the value of family time based not on emotion but on yield."
If you believe that your own children need to be assessed "based not on emotion but on yield," is it any surprise that you would assess backing murderous tyrants in the same way? The half a million peasants killed by Suharto produced no "yield" for the US -- indeed, they may have been "dogs" -- while Suharto did: he handed its companies profit. So it would be illogical, in this value system, to side with the former over the latter. Corporations are structured to do one thing and one thing only: maximize profit. Romney applies this value to all human institutions, from being a parent to being a President. To him, you are a multinational corporation. The US government is a multinational corporation. Corporations are people, my friend.
These same impulses drive Romney's domestic policies. The only time he gets angry about anything at home in 'No Regrets' is when he discusses the tiny waning flicker of power that trade unions still hold in the US -- which he says is far too great. His central complaint is that "some union CEOS" spend their time worrying about "how many of their union's jobs they can protect, how much more they can increase wages, and how they can impose even more favorable work rules" -- a reality that infuriates him. He says in the US today "union CEOs have become the 800 pound gorillas" and "the political power of organized labor has gone beyond the bounds of responsible management."
This is all part of Romney's consistent vision of how freedom works. He wants rich people to be able to band together in organizations called "corporations" to defend their interests -- and if anybody else tries to restrict corporate freedom by banding together to defend their own interests, they must be stopped. That's true whether they are a democratically elected government in Honduras, or a democratically constituted trade union in Wisconsin. They are obstacles to the "freedom" of people like Bain Capital, so they have to be dismantled.
Far from being ideologically empty, Romney is a hardline ideologue, and like all ideologues, he seems able to screen out the suffering his ideology causes with ease. Just as Stalinists didn't hear the starvation-screams from the Ukraine -- a process they too said was bringing "modernity under new leadership" -- Romney doesn't hear the slash and thud from murdered dissidents in Honduras or headmasters beaten to death in Indonesia.
So when you gaze upon Mitt Romney, don't think Leave It To Beaver. Think Leave It To Business -- at gunpoint if necessary.
For updates on this issue and others, follow Johann on Twitter at www.twitter.com/johannhari101. You can email the author at johann [at] johannhari.com