FILE PHOTO - “Tianguis de Tlateloco” Mural by Diego Rivera inside Mexico’s National Palace
A Victor’s Narrative
The narratives we are given about the state of civilization in the continent later baptized America is a narrative designed to obscure the truth of one side in favor of another. Our text books refer to it as the “New World” and to the first Western European arrivals as “settlers”. These terms elicit a certain imagery in our minds of virgin lands, unperturbed by man until the “Christians” came.
The superiority of European technology and culture was such – the story goes -, that the genocide, ethnic cleansing and erasure of indigenous culture, which followed was an inevitable consequence of contact. It follows an accepted line of Western thought, which states that the “victor” always writes history. But, the concept of victory, itself, is part of the things that separate these two sides of the world.
Few dare question the narrative. Indeed, most are not even aware it is a narrative at all. It is simply assumed to be a historical fact. Should it be challenged, many will instinctively come to its defense with vitriol and utter contempt for whoever has the gall to inject even the slightest doubt into the conqueror’s tales. They will point to the brilliant scientific discoveries and technological breakthroughs, like genetic sequencing and the moon landing, as proof of their civilization’s clear primacy and advantages.
Defenders of the narrative will rally around these ahistorical claims, shrouded in racial supremacist thinking and take them as gospel. The cumulative effect of knowledge transfer over the course of millennia between multiple civilizations completely escapes them. And it is no wonder, since this too, is a feature of the narrative of so-called Western civilization.
The idea that “rational” thought and the fruits of the Enlightenment are part of an unbroken civilizational lineage, that stretches back to Ancient Greece is nothing more than part of an overarching theme of the birth of “Academia” emerging out of 19th century Germany, where the modern-day seminary-style university model was developed. Martin Bernal dispels this myth in his seminal, two-volume work, “Black Athena – The Afro-Asiatic Roots of Western Civilization”.
Another oft-repeated refrain are the radical improvements in life-expectancy and medical advancements brought forth by our White brethren. And indeed, Europeans’ life expectancy and general health did improve dramatically as a result. But, here’s the part that is ignored: It was Europe that was sick and dying, struck by the plague and chronically ill. It was their societies, which were failing and caught in a spiral of death and wars of attrition.
What they found on the other side of the Atlantic were thriving, healthy civilizations living in harmony with their environment. So healthy, that the diseases carried by the invading foreigners killed them by the millions because they had never been exposed to them. Just like the rats carrying the bubonic plague into Europe, European “settlers” brought sickness into the Amerindian societies.
Columbus and all who followed him also found copious amounts of food and agricultural technologies, that supported populations in the millions. Crops in varieties and numbers unheard of in their pastoral homelands. Vegetables, fruits and nuts in such abundance, the “Conquistadors” could barely believe their eyes.
When Hernán Cortez wrote about “El Nuevo Mundo” to his royal benefactors in Castile, he was literally describing a new world. A world that represented nothing less than a lifeline for a decaying world, rife with war, hunger and disease.
It is, perhaps, one of history’s greatest ironies, that Western Europeans would sail thousands of miles across the ocean with their horses, swords and guns under the banner of Christianity, purporting to bring salvation to a “savage” people.
Revisiting the accepted historical narrative, even superficially, reveals this to be a classic case of projection. The ones who needed saving were the Europeans themselves and it was the Native people of the American continent who saved them.
A Retelling in Time
Narratives are important. It is the stories that we tell ourselves, which determine the actions we ultimately take. As we stand on the threshold of an environmental catastrophe, we are beginning to understand that our actions are leading us down a dangerous road. It is in these moments, that we must re-examine our motives. We have to revisit the narrative and identify the points that are not congruent with our reality.
The climate disaster, which is presently unfolding on this planet is the consequence of the same unsustainable way of life that led to the near collapse of Western European civilization at the dawn of a renaissance underwritten by Native and indigenous people.
Our increasingly polluted rivers, oceans and air; the rampant deforestation and resource extraction; the unsustainable fossil fuel energy paradigm that is not only driving wars around the world, but is also causing our atmosphere to warm and threatens to extinguish life on earth as we know it. These are all manifestations of the same spirit that crossed the Atlantic 500 years ago as a self-destructive civilization survived its imminent demise by leaching off of societies working successfully to reach an equilibrium with nature.
A Call to Action
My documentary Ghost on the Water revisits the Colonial narrative in order to expose the lies we continue to tell ourselves about how we got here and where all this is leading us. If you feel this is a worthwhile endeavor, consider making a contribution so we can continue production:
We all remember the droning, repetitive ritual of indoctrination known as the Pledge of Allegiance that our school teachers forced us to recite every morning. This compulsory mantra is used in homerooms across the nation to introduce young, pliable minds to the hallowed compendium of American scripture, which include tracts like the Gettysburg address, the Federalist Papers and, of course, the U.S. Constitution.
All of them are rooted in re-imagined narratives of Calvinist-infused Christianity. Concepts such as ‘Predestination’, – man’s incontrovertible fate as determined by God at the moment of creation – or the ‘Elect’, a select group of people known only to the almighty who are to be spared eternal damnation.
Over time these ideas were re-fashioned to fit America’s political narrative. The “god-fearing” puritan ethos of the first settler communities mingled with Locke’s quasi-theological empiricism and his novel take on private property, which was broadly used to justify the theft of Native lands.
Predestination became “manifest destiny” and “land of the free” worked well as a catchy twist on the idea of “the elect”. Together with other rehashed biblical plot lines, they formed what has been referred to as Covenant ideology; less an organic, cultural construct and more a facile tool for the manipulation of the American public by unscrupulous politicians. More alarming still, is its spread to other parts of the world and a deliberate push to bring “adherents” together as a single global entity.
In the United States, specifically, the contours of this informal state doctrine have taken the shape of a cult. Since the 70’s the inexorable decline of American manufacturing and exponential rise of household debt coupled with stagnant wages has left millions of disaffected citizens ripe for radicalization. A fact no one who witnessed the 2016 U.S. presidential election and its aftermath can deny.
But, most revealing of America’s descent into ideological madness is the continued apathy and even active resistance to address the epidemic of gun violence and mass shooting events in this country.
The priests of America’s state religion preach from their pulpits in the Capitol and other state churches across the country. They quote foundational scripture to their followers who rationalize the gun massacres taking their young men, women and children in workplaces, schools and churches.
In spite of the mind-boggling frequency of mass shootings and persistence of gun-violence in poor minority communities, the gun-control debate rages on. Meanwhile, as the stone-faced deities hewn on a mountain once revered by the native people of this land continue to ask for more blood, “believers” continue to offer it.
Through the sacrament of marriage and the concomitant prohibition against its dissolution, the Catholic Church had controlled the whole of Christendom for centuries. It was the fulcrum of its power and riches. The Church’s monopoly on the family unit allowed it to dictate the socio-economic dynamics of Europe’s disparate monarchies and, in turn, dictate to the monarchs themselves.
The Reformation was the beginning of the end for this arrangement and, in many ways, for the Catholic Church, as well. The fatal blow was delivered by Henry VIII, who empowered a competing ministry by divorcing five times under the authority of the upstart Anglican Church.
What followed was a series of bloody and protracted wars across Europe and the British Isles, in particular, as an emerging class of merchants and landed aristocracies vied for control. Religious doctrine became atomized as the different regions in Europe adopted their own more culturally relevant versions of Christianity.
John Calvin’s unique re-interpretation gained popularity towards the end of the 16th century and attracted adherents from all across the continent. Among the French theologian’s most ardent students and supporters was a Scottish theologian named John Knox, who would go on to form and lead the Protestant Church in Scotland.
Knox’s reactionary and misogynist brand of Christianity would permeate the culture of Lowland Scots who would eventually immigrate across the Atlantic. The hyper-moralist Puritanism of New England’s first settler communities can be traced back to Knox, whose particular take on Calvinism colored the worldview of their direct ancestors who were part of the Plantation of Ulster, a state-executed campaign of dispossession and land theft meted out against the Irish and a virtual dress rehearsal for the colonization of North America.
After the British experiment in Northern Ireland foundered, a great many Ulster Scots chose to test their fortune in the colonies as indentured servants. The Scots-Irish, as they would call themselves, would end up representing a majority of early colonial settlers and their state militias.
Meanwhile, Cromwell’s revolution had set the stage for British preeminence in a post-Catholic Church world. New forms of economic organization were displacing older feudal methods as the seeds of capitalism were being sowed.
Most significantly, it was the eve of the Industrial Revolution; driven not by the cotton gin, but by the evolution in the manufacturing processes of the single most important tool of the imperial model: the gun.
The Force of Lead
By the time war had broken out in New England, a proto-military industrial complex had already begun developing in the mother country. Sprawling colonial enterprises were putting pressure on London gun makers who tried to keep up with demand, while the state sourced its needs both at home and abroad. Gun makers not only had to fulfill ordnance requests from the Royal armory, but also from the chartered merchant companies stretching from subcontinental Asia to the Hudson river. Inevitably, artisanal gun making slowly gave way to more efficient modes of fabrication.
The Seven Years War in the mid-eighteenth century saw the largest conscription of British troops ever to that point, with over 100,000 men deployed throughout Europe. All of them needed guns. The Napoleonic wars further pushed firearm-manufacturing into standardization. The French, themselves, had made large strides in the area of factory-style production, while Britain relied more on a loose network of independent contractors designed to keep the cost of manufacturing low by inciting competition for state contracts.
This incipient arms industry produced innovations in iron smelting, casting and other manufacturing processes, that would prove indispensable for the realization of the Industrial Revolution. By 1776, every British soldier was carrying an identical, mass produced muzzle-loading musket known as the Brown Bess. Over 4 million were made.
As gun manufacturing was perfected, revolvers and other short guns democratized the ability to kill at a distance. By drastically reducing the skill and proximity required to exact lethal force upon others, guns allowed Locke’s theory on private property to fully manifest itself in the world. Defending the “perimeter” would now be an individual prerogative and the very foundation of our present economic paradigm – codified into law by America’s founders – became possible.
The U.S. Constitution was completed after two weeks of intense, cloistered brainstorming and foisted on a largely unsuspecting public. During the Convention, the issue of an armed citizenry didn’t even come up. The second amendment itself was only later included to address the contentious issue of standing armies, opposed by most states but favored by the Federalists.
Firearm ownership was taken for granted and its relative ubiquity was such, that certain groups, like the Quakers, had found it necessary to claim their “right” to NOT own a gun. For the better part of a century afterwards, courts would rule time and again, that the second amendment applied only to Congress in the context of militias and was irrelevant to the issue of personal gun rights.
The Abolitionist movement, westward expansion and the Union’s push towards the consolidation of a true federal structure all converged to produce a spike in gun violence and its gradual welding with patriotism, politics and religion.
Just before the Civil War, Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, an outspoken Abolitionist, organized a gun-drive from his Congregational church in Brooklyn, declaring that there was “more moral power in one [rifle],… than in a hundred bibles”. The guns, destined for free slaves in Kansas, were dubbed “Beecher’s Bibles”.
As the Union claimed victory and inaugurated the nation’s first federally-funded army, the Industrial Revolution began to hit its stride. The quality, accuracy and availability of guns all increased. In the space of less than a hundred years, the gap between the government’s weaponry capabilities and the people’s grew exponentially.
The second amendment languished in irrelevance. As a strictly Congressional matter, it was understood to have no bearing on individual gun rights. Nevertheless, the issue of personal gun rights did come up in the infamous Dred Scot decision of 1857, in which the Supreme Court recorded the young nation’s racist foundations for posterity. The court concluded that black people could never be citizens and, therefore, had no right to carry a gun. While the decision was later overturned, the underlying sentiment that made it possible in the first place would express itself after the Civil War, when so-called “Black Codes”; laws that were widely instituted across the country to disarm returning black Union soldiers.
The defeated Confederacy re-emerged as the Jim Crow South after Reconstruction. It formed the base of the Democratic party for decades, thereafter, until the second half of the 20th century when a reshuffling of political alliances took place as a result of a re-alignment of national priorities following the Allied victory in World War II.
The Big Rebrand
The National Rifle Association makes much of its longevity. But, for most of its history, the NRA was little more than a club for enthusiastic game hunters and largely supported gun-control laws. Its current incarnation as a polarizing influence in American politics began in the late 1970’s, as part of a larger, calculated conservative backlash against liberal policy momentum accrued since FDR’s New Deal.
Racial tensions caused by the Civil Rights movement were motivating millions of Southern White Democrats to abandon their party and join the Republican side of the aisle. Simultaneously, fundamentalist Evangelicals asserted their leadership over the Southern Baptist Church, spurring the rise of televangelists like Jerry Falwell and his so-called “Moral Majority”.
In 1977, a shakeup of the NRA during their annual convention known as the “Revolt in Cincinnati” replaced the group’s leadership with hardline gun-rights advocates, who transformed it into a politically active organization. The second amendment would serve as the lynchpin for the upturning of the prevailing liberal order and the creation of a new voter base, which would bring the Neocons into power years later, via Reagan.
The romanticizing of gun-culture and its amalgamation with Judeo- Christian belief systems would continue apace when Moses, himself, came down from Hollywood Hills to become president of the NRA in the late 90’s. Outspoken gun advocate, Charlton Heston, would use the platform to lead the national pro-gun conversation, leading the flock into the new millennium with an iconic performance during the contentious election of George W. Bush.
Just after the end of Bush’s second term, and on the heels of the largest transfer of wealth in the history of the United States, the Supreme Court handed down a landmark ruling, conferring Constitutional protection to individual gun-owners, based on a so-called “originalist” reading of the Second Amendment. More than a win for gun-rights advocates, it was an epic victory for the broad coalition of conservative voices, groups and think tanks behind the emergence of a fundamentalist political ideology, which has successfully radicalized millions of Americans.
The rise of the “Tea Party” and other fringe right-wing groups would follow in tow. Explosive events like the siege at Waco, the Oklahoma City bombing and, crucially, the September 11th attacks galvanized these groups, taking them further down the road of biblically-induced madness. Their cause for “freedom” at gunpoint is now a global affair, as they batten down the hatches to engage “evil-doers” and “bad hombres” in a predestined “clash of civilizations”.
The famously failed mission kicked off a decades-long enmity between the Cuban Exile Community and the Democratic Party of the United States. GOP operatives like George H.W. Bush pounced on the opportunity to create a loyal voter base, which was fostered through government handouts and preferential immigrant policies. Over the next several years, they formed a hardline Republican block in South Florida.
Not coincidentally, Cubans would rise to the top of the political pyramid in Miami during the Reagan years, when Bush was Vice President, and play a pivotal role in the hegemonic wars carried out in the name of “anti-communism”. South Florida’s cocaine economy helped funnel cash to fund covert operations around the world, including the Contras in Nicaragua.
Sixty years later, the usefulness of the Cuban exile community to the American political establishment is reaching its natural end. A new generation of exiles is being groomed to replace them as the specter of communism is once again evoked in South America.
Passing of the Torch
This year, the Bay of Pigs commemorative activities were held at the iconic Biltmore Hotel in the swankiest part of Dade-County instead of the usual venue on the equally iconic, but far lower-rent 8th Street, where a permanent flame burns atop the monument dedicated to the fallen members of Brigada 2506.
The colorful street murals and fruit stands of Little Havana didn’t quite suit the expectations of the guest list. Miami’s most privileged minority community came decked out in their best Spring attire to the Coral Gables landmark where a string quartet welcomed them to yet another political event headlined by Trump’s National Security Advisor, John Bolton.
Bolton, who was in Miami just last February, chose the anniversary of the Bay of Pigs to announce a new round of sanctions and banking restrictions on the countries of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. In addition, the Trump administration will activate a dormant law, that greenlights legal action against corporations doing business with Cuba. Title III of the Helms-Burton Act, created in 1996, has been ignored by all previous administrations over clear international opposition.
The European Union has already stated it will challenge any such law with the WTO, while other countries such as Canada, already have legislation in place blocking enforcement of Helms-Burton against companies based in their nations.
Title IV of the act, which calls for the denial of visas to those involved in “trafficking” properties confiscated by the Cuban government, is also set to come into effect, further pushing America back in time to a bygone era of communist paranoia.
Bolton’s job in Miami is to help recruit the new batch of exiles to underpin America’s re-invigorated hegemonic foreign policies in Latin America. But, the freshmen class of Venezuelan exiles isn’t turning out to be as receptive to his overtures as their Cuban counterparts were back in the 60’s.
Maduro has, so far, been able to keep the vast majority of the Venezuelan military on his side and the Guaidó operation seems to have fallen flat, despite the mainstream media’s efforts to maintain the illusion of his “presidency”.
Clearly, a regime-change scenario in Venezuela is a much more complicated proposition than the one half-heartedly attempted in Cuba all those years ago. However, given the political gold mine that South Florida has proven to be for the Republican party, in particular – and precisely as a result of the failure of American policy towards Cuba – one can only question the true motivations behind these largely toothless measures now being enacted against Venezuela and the other two countries which have a large exile community in the region.
Interest or Principle
When a bank issues a loan, the principle is listed as an asset on the bank’s books. If you pay off the principle, that money disappears from the bank’s ledger. If you only pay the interest on the loan, however, the bank not only keeps the asset on its books, but it makes a profit, too.
Similarly, when a government makes a promise it will collect as much interest (votes) as it can before delivering on that promise. Just like a bank, once they deliver on the promise they can’t collect interest anymore.
Venezuelan exiles in Miami should ask themselves what the true motives of the United Sates are when it comes to intervening in their country’s affairs. They should take a long, hard look at the fate of the “martyrs” of Brigada 2506 and the community of Cuban exiles who decade after decade continue to support policies, like the embargo, which have only changed things for the worse.
They should ask themselves if they want to take out this loan. They should remember that it will show up as an asset on the political ledger of the United States, but a liability on their account.
American actor Marlon Brando (1924 - 2004) listens as an unidentified actor speaks close to one ear in a still from the film, 'The Godfather,' directed by Francis Coppola, 1972. (Photo by Paramount Pictures/Courtesy of Getty Images)
Snakes in the Grass
Jeanne Humphreys’ beautiful home at 210 Harbor Drive, Key Biscayne, Florida had a snake problem, but a recent trip to Jamaica had given her some food for thought. She learned that farmers on the island had introduced the mongoose into the local fauna to fight a snake infestation during the 1870’s. Curly Humphreys’ wife found herself thinking about the snake-killing carnivores one night at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach and innocently broached the subject with her husband’s associate and friend, Johnny Rosselli.
“What do you know about the word mongoose?” She asked Rosselli.
Shocked by the question, the gangster balked. “Are you crazy?”, Rosselli inquired before nearly spilling the beans on the CIA’s top-secret plot to kill Fidel Castro, in which he and Jeanne’s husband, were deeply involved.
“This Castro stuff is OK’d by the G [U.S. government]. We’re not supposed to talk about it”, Rosselli protested. “I can’t believe believe Curly would talk about such a thing.”
Jeanne Humphreys had no idea what Johnny was talking about and, wondered aloud what Castro had to do with the snakes in her front yard. Realizing his mistake, Rosselli asked Jeanne to keep it to herself. “Look, I just fucked up.” He said. “Please don’t tell Curly.”
The plot was the brainchild of then Vice President, Richard Nixon, who was angling for the presidency and calculated that a coup in Havana would get him there. After the scheme was hatched at a National Security Council meeting in the Spring of 1960, Nixon encouraged his military aide, General Robert Cushman, to meet with exiled Cuban militants and put a group together for its execution. Originally called Operation Pluto, the plan’s name was later changed to Operation Mongoose and it called for the invasion of Cuba and the assassination of Fidel Castro along with his top retinue of revolutionaries.
“I had been the strongest and most persistent for setting up and supporting such a program”, wrote Nixon, years later. But, the ragtag collection of exiles didn’t inspire the greatest confidence in the planners, and the decision was made to enlist the help of Johnny Rosselli, Curly Humphreys and a handful of other mobsters from the Chicago Outfit.
Murray “Curly” Humphreys was the brains of the Chicago mob, otherwise known as The Outfit. His intellectual abilities would help them outmaneuver many a legal problem. But, one particular maneuver was such a stroke of genius, it would be enshrined in the most celebrated film in American history – The Godfather.
“I refuse to answer on the grounds that it might incriminate me.”, was the phrase crafted by the brilliant, former jewel thief to repel the onslaught of questions by U.S. Senators during the United States Senate Special Committee to Investigate Crime in Interstate Commerce, known as the Kefauver Committee. Over and over, Outfit members called to testify simply repeated the mantra, to the immense frustration of the dais.
The Committee called eight hundred witnesses in fifteen cities across the country during an eleven-month-long investigation, that resulted in more than 11,500 pages of testimony and must-watch TV. First broadcast in New Orleans, the hearing’s popularity soon drew in the big markets of New York and Los Angeles, among others. The record ratings attained during the 1950 World Series a year earlier were shattered, attracting between 20 and 30 million viewers. Committee Chairman Estes Kefauver became a household name and, at one point, the front-runner for the 1952 Democratic presidential nomination.
Nevertheless, none of the nineteen legislative recommendations issued by the committee’s report were ever implemented, and Kefauver himself, was found to be an avid gambler who was constantly broke as a result. Jewish mob boss, Meyer Lansky, confronted the hypocritical Senator. “What’s so bad about gambling?, asked the infamous New York Commission boss, “You like it yourself. I know you’ve gambled a lot.” Kefauver admitted as much, but revealed his true bigoted motivations in his repsonse: “That’s right, but I don’t want you people to control it.”
Forty-six “contempt of Congress” citations were issued during the hearings over the mobsters’ repeated use of Humphreys’ legal device. Only three were upheld by the courts. An incredible victory for the man who invented ‘Taking the fifth’, immortalized in Francis Ford Coppola’s seminal film.
The Godfather movie, itself, was a tribute the mob – which controlled most of Hollywood then – made to itself. Paramount producer Bob Evans had the rights to Mario Puzo’s novel and was unceremoniously turned down by MGM president, Jim Aubrey, when he tried to accommodate Coppola’s choice for the role of Michael Corleone – an unknown actor with an “unbreakable” contract with the competing studio, named Al Pacino. Undeterred, Evans sought help from Tinsel Town’s notorious fixer, Sidney Korshak.
“He never heard of the schmuck, either.”, recounted Korshak to Evans about how he dealt with the reluctant Aubrey. “I asked him if he wanted to finish building his hotel.”, said Korshak. The thinly veiled threat was enough for MGM to release Pacino from his contract and allow him to play the part, which would establish him in as one of the biggest names in the business.
A Fucking Hoofer
The Outfit’s incursion into the entertainment industry had begun after the end of Prohibition forced them to find other rackets to grow and launder their fortunes. The movie business, with its massive budgets and licensing opportunities, was the perfect vehicle. But, before film, the mob had taken over the music industry and bankrolled many of its brightest stars. Frank Sinatra was, perhaps, the brightest of them all.
The mob not only made Frank Sinatra, but also saved his career when it was foundering in the early 1950’s. Despite his marriage to Hollywood A-lister, Ava Gardner, Frank’s bid to jump-start his career again by getting a part in Harry Cohn’s upcoming movie, “From Here to Eternity”, was falling flat with the producer, who wanted a real actor for the part. “You’re nothing but a fucking hoofer”, Cohn told the desperate crooner, who immediately appealed to his mob buddies for a helping hand.
In a scenario similar to the one, that would play out years later between Korshak and MGM’s Aubrey, Johnny Rosselli came to Frank’s rescue and made Cohn an offer he couldn’t refuse. The movie won a total of eight Oscars, with Sinatra taking home the award for Best Supporting Actor and a new professional lifeline.
Meanwhile, things were picking up over in Havana, Cuba; the very place where Sinatra’s career had been launched. Santo Trafficante, Jr. was making a killing in the revamped casino business in Havana, in league with dictator Batista, who made Trafficante’s partner, Lansky, “adviser on gambling reform”.
The Commission boss soon opened a casino inside the iconic National Hotel, designed by Igor Plevitski, who also designed The Biltmore in Coral Gables. Six years earlier, a historic meeting between the biggest mafia bosses took place at the legendary hotel. Yet another pivotal moment also dramatized in The Godfather, when the heads of all the families gathered at the National to discuss something that was left out of the classic film – their participation in a highly classified, CIA-sponsored operation. Just before the mob summit, Frank Sinatra landed in Havana with two million dollars in a suitcase for the CIA’s point-man, Lucky Luciano.
Charles “Lucky” Luciano was recruited by CIA-precursor, OSS in 1942 to ostensibly safeguard New York harbor from acts of sabotage by the enemy axis. After being convicted to 30 years in federal prison for running a prostitution ring, Luciano was approached by undercover OSS agents , the precursor organization of the CIA, and offered a deal, that would mark the beginning of a far-reaching partnership between the U.S. government and the Sicilian and Italian-American mafia.
An argument can be made, that the CIA was created for the sole purpose of managing this partnership, which involved the creation of secret militias financed by world-wide heroin trafficking, called Operation Gladio.The meeting at the National Hotel in Havana was made to convince the Gambinos, Genoveses, Accardos and other top mafia families to get into the narcotics game, many of whom considered a dishonorable endeavor, and help Uncle Sam “fight communism”. The money Sinatra delivered to Luciano in Havana was part of a down payment he intended to distribute among the guests.
The Wrong Cuban
Cubans were becoming part of America’s collective consciousness, thanks in large measure to the “I Love Lucy” show, which featured the bongo-playing Ricky Ricardo, Lucile Ball’s real-life husband and the sitcom’s producer, Desi Arnaz.
Arnaz is credited with inventing the multiple-camera sitcom method, which made his production house, Desilu Studios, one of Hollywood’s most successful, at the time. In 1959, Arnaz had another hit on his hands. The Untouchables, a show about fabled law-enforcer, Elliot Ness and his mobster-chasing adventures, ran for four years on ABC and became one of television’s classic shows. But, the Italian-American community did not take well to the portrayal of their culture on the series and it drew special ire from the real crime bosses, who went after the producer.
Desi’s childhood friend had been none other than Sonny Capone, the only son of the legendary mob boss, Al Capone. It was Sonny who first complained to Arnaz about the problem he had stirred up, but Arnaz insisted he was the best person to make such a show because of his own personal connection to the subject matter. From there, the issue only escalated and Sam Giancana, nominal head of the Chicago Outfit, sent Frank Sinatra to talk some sense into the Cuban.
The conversation between Arnaz and Sinatra ended with the singer storming out and pulling all of his productions from of Desilu Studios. Outraged, Giancana dispatched two of his henchmen to remove Desi Arnaz from this earth. Al Capone’s widow, Mae, stepped in to call off the hit and Ricky Ricardo was spared.
As it turns out, the mob had been worried about the wrong Cuban. Fidel Castro was about to turn the mob’s Havana dreams into a nightmare as his revolutionary forces ousted Batista and his entrenched elite. With Eisenhower riding out the last year of his Presidency and more worried about how his legacy would be affected by starting a conflict 90 miles from the U.S. mainland, Castro caught a break.
Nevertheless, the calculation regarding Castro seems to have changed among the real policy-making circles of America, and Castro’s sudden take-over of the island was seen as more of a boon than a detriment to U.S. designs for the rest of Latin America.
Cuba, after all, had no value besides that of a playground for the rich. In terms of natural resources, for instance, it was hardly worth the trouble to invest any kind of man-power to the goal of regime-change, even if such efforts were comprised of disposable mobsters and Cuban exiles. On the other hand, having a communist boogie man they could wave around as a warning to those in the continent who dared to dream of self-determination was much more valuable.
The Snake Pit
After the fiasco in the Caribbean, the upper echelons of the mafia saw the writing on the wall and made the necessary adjustments. Trafficante, Jr. cut a deal with the new island boss and gave Castro a piece of the bolita proceeds, a street-level gambling racket up and down the U.S. east coast. In contrast, Johnny Rosselli would go down with the ship.
Rosselli, like many of his Italian-immigrant brethren, dreamed of becoming full-blooded Americans. For him and his ilk, legitimizing their fortunes and joining the ranks of the “upperworld”, or the realm of sanctioned wealth creation, was also part of that aspiration.
He considered himself a patriot and his sincere commitment to anything the “G-men” would ask of him bore this out more than once. As far as Rosselli was concerned, he had reached the dream. Narrowly escaping fire from Cuban forces and twice having to jump out of speed boats during failed CIA-missions in the Caribbean, Rosselli had the war stories to prove it.
The era of the “Goombahs”, however, was coming to a close. The new RICO laws were successfully used to dissolve the crime family model in the United States. Rudy Giuliani, future Mayor of New York and Italian-American son, was the first and most prolific prosecutor of the mafia under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, passed in 1970.
In 1976, Filippo Sacco’s decomposing body – Johnny Rosselli’s real name – was found in a 55-gallon steel drum floating near Miami, Florida after he had been called to testify before the Church Committee for a second time about who had killed Kennedy. As it turned out, Johnny Rosselli had a snake problem of his own and would have been better served by following his friend Curly’s advice all those years ago and taken “the fifth”.
The real scope and implications of what Rosselli was lending himself to, through his participation in the anti-Castro plot and other deep state operations probably escaped him and other members of the Outfit who were a part of them. Ultimately, they were pawns in a covert war that continues to this day, under different guises and with different players.
If you would have carried out a poll in early November of 1963 about who was most likely to be assassinated that month between the President of the United States and Fidel Castro, the final tally would have likely tilted toward the latter. The fact that the bearded, cigar-smoking revolutionary remained in power for another five decades should tell us something.
The Cuban exile community blames Kennedy for the failure of the Bay of Pigs. But, it is clear that a decision had been made by more powerful, invisible players to keep Castro in power. The same ones who made the decision to remove Kennedy, and his entire mob-connected family, from it.
The scramble for power between the time of JFK’s assassination and Nixon’s resignation almost a decade later, was real. America’s post-war superpower status was seriously threatened by the Arab oil embargo. The Vietnam war and other internal strife had frayed the social fabric of the country.
Concurrently, Operation Gladio was unraveling in Europe and the usefulness of the CIA’s partnership with the mafia was becoming a liability. Luciano’s Sicilian networks and their affiliation with CIA-sponsored right-wing terrorists were being exposed by Italian law enforcement and attracting unwanted international attention. The whole house of cards was starting to come down and it would have, had it not been for the operation’s success in Afghanistan, where the Soviet military was exhausting itself fighting Gladio-financed Mujahidin led by one Osama Bin Laden.
Despite teetering on the brink of collapse, “anti-communism” was still fungible currency in American political theater, which could be traded for lowering protectionist barriers and other obstacles to U.S. interests at home and abroad. Fidel Castro, as a gatekeeper for an economic embargo that destroyed the lives of the Cuban people – not to mention a clear and present “nuclear threat” to the region, represented a valuable hegemonic tool for these same interests.
Sleep with the Fishes
The mob developed Hollywood’s proof of concept and built the industry’s SOPs. Today, the CIA and the Military Industrial Complex exerts direct control and oversees the messaging of almost every theater release; especially in the superhero/comic movie genre, which is little more than war propaganda.
The Cuban Missile Crisis and Ricky Ricardo are two sides of a false dialectic. Nuclear annihilation or Merengue; starvation or dinner with Ethel and Fred. The ‘TV-fication’ of America allowed simple yes/no narratives to be delivered right to the viewers’ prefrontal cortex.
Today, the ‘Internetification’ of America is bypassing even this step in the flow of perception and taking it straight to the limbic system, where discernment is an afterthought and the need for a narrative is eliminated altogether.
PHOTO - A U.S. Marine helps a Cuban child off a refugee boat, Key West, Fla | Courtesy Wall Street Journal
Miami’s image of a multicultural melting pot of Caribbean and Latin American cultures, all co-existing together in an idyllic setting of palm trees and warm beaches hides a deeper history of Black disenfranchisement and state-sponsored population transplantation, unprecedented in American history.
The area’s first black community was settled by Bahamians in the 1880’s, well before the incorporation of the city in 1896. It was called Coconut Grove then, as it is now, and provided many of the black male registered votes used to reach the required quota for the official creation of Miami. Slave-descended Black Americans and other Afro-Caribbean groups were likewise used for the same purpose. All were subsequently stripped of their voting rights, as the region was transformed into an international metropolitan hub and Jim Crow laws spread throughout the South during the early part of the 20th century.
Black labor was the primary source of man power used to build Flagler’s pivotal railroad and to develop the earliest farming settlements, which would make South Florida the breadbasket of America. As the country emerged out of World War II, “benign tools of segregation” began to replace the violent lynch laws, and racist zoning practices started to carve out the real estate along the skin color line. Overtown, a thriving enclave of black culture in the middle of the city known as “The Harlem of the South” and with 45% of Miami’s black population, was bisected by the construction of I-95 – along with many other black and minority neighborhoods across the nation – as part of Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway system.
In order to build the massive vehicular artery, the government invoked eminent domain, seizing the land and property of black businesses and homes, displacing over 40,000 people in the 1960’s. The livelihoods of hundreds of “black doctors, lawyers, shopkeepers, entertainers and hotel owners” were destroyed, as a result.
Simultaneously, the federal government was implementing a population transplant operation from a Caribbean nation just 90 miles away from Miami, which had been snatched away from the entrenched, mob-affiliated political class by a bearded revolutionary, who was just beginning his 5-decade tenure as America’s most iconic nemesis.
Mayflower of the Caribbean
The first wave of Cuban immigrants, that touched South Florida shores are collectively referred to as the “Golden Exiles”. Arriving between 1959 and 1962, 31% of the Cubans who came to the United States during this period were educated professionals with resources. Many already had bank accounts in the U.S. and further benefited from extensive help from the American government, unprecedented in scope and generosity.
The Cuban Refugee Program assisted the exiles with resettlement, job training, housing and education programs to the tune of US$ 1 Billion in those early years. In addition, they benefited from special business loans and accreditation of their foreign-earned degrees. The program continued for decades and US$ 3 Billion more were invested through 1996.
Policies like affirmative action also gave Cuban arrivals a leg up at the expense of Black Americans, reducing the latter community’s already shrinking employment opportunities in Miami.
After the “Golden” wave of immigrants, the second stage consisted of mostly middle-class, mostly white Cubans, who were able to take advantage of the groundwork laid by their immediate predecessors as part of a so-called “ethnic economy”. The transformation of the city’s demographics was well underway. By the 1970’s, the relentless Cuban exodus would overtake the Black population as the second largest in the city, behind White Americans.
The McDuffie Riots was a watershed moment for Miami. Sparked by the acquittal of all 7 police officers indicted in the killing of African-American accountant, Arthur McDuffie, the violence expressed a subconscious recognition of a changing of the guard, literally.
The MPD officers who were involved in the incident with McDuffie on the morning hours of December 17, 1979 were White Americans, except for one. Alex Marrero, the officer who beat Arthur McDuffie to death, was Cuban.
In the most macabre way possible, this signaled the success of the Cuban exiles’ political and economic ascent. Aided by the generous hand of the state, they had firmly established themselves among the higher rungs of the city’s pecking order and were beginning to take hold of several seats in municipal governments.
A new swell of Cuban migrants would soon flood the streets of Miami, but this group occupied a far different social stratum than their state-side cousins and looked more like Arthur McDuffie than Ricky Ricardo. Unlike their predecessors, who had come in through the customs gate at the airport after a short flight on Pan American Airlines, the latest arrivals were processed like cattle by the Coast Guard.
The Mariel Boatlift dropped tens of thousands of Cubans on South Florida shores in 1981. Many were sent to different parts of the country as the sheer number of people became unmanageable for a single city. Carter sent thousands of “Marielitos” to Arkansas, then governed by Bill Clinton, who blamed the loss in his 1982 reelection bid on the influx.
Although the Mariel Cubans also received special assistance by the federal government, it was a fraction – in dollar terms – of what the first two groups enjoyed. It was, nevertheless, a king’s ransom compared to the roughly 80,000 Haitians who had taken refuge in Miami during the same period, who instead of getting help were looked upon as a drain on public resources.
The Politics of Color
A recent study entitled “The Color of Wealth in Miami” takes a deep dive into the economic reality of the various ethnic groups, nationalities and races that comprise the residents of Miami-Dade County, revealing a stark picture of racial marginalization and an economically segregated population.
Ranking 8th among the poorest regions in the nation and 3rd least affordable metropolitan area according to HUD, Miami-Dade County presents one of the country’s biggest disparities of wealth-inequality, which the data shows is heavily skewed by skin color, irrespective of ancestral origin.
Latinos comprise 65% of the population, far and away the largest in the County. Of these, Cubans are the most numerous, representing 18.4%. The rest are broadly spread out among Colombians, Dominicans and Puerto Ricans, as well as many other Latin American nationalities in smaller groups. West Indian and Afro-Caribbean immigrants such as Haitians, Jamaicans and Trinidadians and Tobagonians add up to about 8%. African-Americans (non-Latino Blacks) in Miami-Dade County come out to roughly 7%. Non-Latino Whites in the Miami area comprise only 33%, almost half than their numbers in the state as a whole.
The median wealth gap between Whites and other ethnic groups in Miami is incredibly wide. Calculated at around US$ 107,000 on average for White households, the closest group was the Cubans, who nonetheless hold just US$ 22,000 median household wealth or about 20% of the median household wealth of Whites. Puerto Ricans, for example, report a negative US$ -3,940 median wealth position.
The study analyzes differences and relationships between income, wealth, education and race as they pertain to Miami-Dade County, and finds that people who self-report as White (Latino or otherwise), tend to show better socio-economic indicators than their Black and Latino counterparts. One of the most telling observations is how Cubans, Colombians and Dominicans who self-identified as White “did not report substantially higher rates of college educational attainment than their co-ethnic counterparts who racially identify as Black. But they did report substantially higher incomes.”
Home ownership is, likewise, one of the clearest signs of Miami’s wealth-inequality with nearly 71% of non-Latino Whites owning homes, followed by Cubans, Colombians and Dominicans who self-identify as White with approximately 53%, 49% and 47% home-ownership rates, respectively. Among black Miamians, home-ownership rates are between 40 and 60% lower, regardless of nationality.
A home, of course, is the most basic economic anchor there is. The difference between having a stable place to live and raise a family and not can determine a person’s future economic success. From education to employment opportunities, there are many variables this one factor can influence during the course of our lives. In Miami, non-white home-ownership has been under attack by speculators and irresponsible government. And climate change is about to make it worse.
The Last Wave
The 2008 crash left thousands of Miami’s most vulnerable in a very tenuous position, after foreclosure affected 1 in 14 homes by the end of 2009. Real estate developers, encouraged by local leaders, have since returned with a vengeance and are aggressively targeting low-income, minority communities who happen to live on the higher ground elevations of the County.
Sea-level rise and the constant risk posed by an ever-more active hurricane season, coupled with rampant property speculation and gentrification represents a serious threat to the already frail socio-economic fabric of Miami, which could devolve into widespread violence of the kind the city experienced almost forty years ago.
According to a report issued by The JP Morgan Chase Institute on the “financial implications of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma”, the inflow of checking accounts of both businesses and individuals in the wake of the natural disasters fell 20% below baseline. Of the two cities, Miami showed a slower rate of recovery than Houston.
The precarious financial position of the majority of Miami’s residents, with 51% of households lacking enough cash to survive more than three months in the case of an emergency, along with predatory real estate developers salivating over their land should raise all sorts of red flags.
During preparations for Hurricane Irma, tens of thousands of people from low-income communities were evacuated as part of a county-wide operation unlike any that had ever been attempted. Many weren’t even in an evacuation zone, yet were urged to flee to a number of improvised shelters throughout the county. After the storm, thousands lined up to receive D-SNAP aide, because they had no cash on hand to replenish their refrigerators.
A majority of Miami stands on the brink of financial annihilation as a result of decades of racist policies. The Pew Research Center ranked Miami 10th in the nation among economically segregated cities, close to doubling its “Residential Income Segregation Index Score” of 30 in 1980 to 49 in 2010. Only certain Latino groups have experienced some relative level of economic mobility. It’s no accident, perhaps, that these are also the same groups who play a role in the goals of American foreign policy in Latin America: Cubans, Venezuelans and Colombians.
In recent years, the mayors of four South Florida counties signed an emergency plan that contemplates mass evacuations and other crisis measures in the case of sea-level rise. Given the history, it is not beyond the realm of possibility to assume that our County and city leaders would take advantage of a climate-related crisis like this to dislodge people from their homes, counting on the fact that they couldn’t afford to come back.
Spoiler Alert – This piece is only for those who have seen Roma. If you haven’t yet experienced Alfonso Cuarón’s latest and most acclaimed motion picture, I recommend you do so in a movie theater, before you consider watching it on television. I will not get into the Netflix distribution debate in this article. There are already more than enough takesabout this issue.
A Strange Place
The film is enigmatic. Cuarón achieves visually captivating moments throughout the two hours and change he prepared for us. From painstaking recreations of 1970’s Mexico City streets, to sweeping sequences and arresting cinematic frames, that we’re sure to continue seeing years from now. But, the choice to go monochrome creates an unnecessary distance between the story and the viewer.
Color is not incidental in a place like DF (Distrito Federal); it is part and parcel of everyday life. The color is still there in the film, but one has to have already seen it to recognize it.
The movie takes place in the neighborhood my mother grew up in. My aunt lives there, in the same two-bedroom apartment, to this day. “La Roma”, as it’s more popularly known, is a place I know as if I had grown up there myself, even if reality couldn’t be further from the truth. The only permanent abode I ever knew. A bastion of stability in the otherwise centrifuge of chaos that was my life.
Only those of us who are from there can see the pinks and the greens and the blues. We can see the multi-colored tiles of the opening shot. Beyond this, we can see the real stories being told through the lens of a semi-autobiographical work by a director who emerged out of that same, colorful, primordial Mexican sap.
Through his personal story we find the story of all Mexicans. What follows is an interpretation of these stories, from my own personal perspective and perched on a precipice at the edge of the universe.
La Colonia – The Allegory of the Still Birth
The correct translation of neighborhood in Spanish is “vecindario”, but in Mexico City, the term “colonia” is an official designation representing a specific area within the huge metropolis. The relationship is similar to that between counties and cities in America. Nevertheless, the word also carries the more familiar, political definition.
The colonial theme is inevitably present throughout Cuarón’s film, whether he intended it or not. Aparicio’s character, Cleo, is an indigenous servant in a criollo (European-descended people) household. Aparicio, herself, is a real-life actor in the ongoing colonial drama that Mexico continues to live. The state of Oaxaca, where she hails from, remains one of the country’s most indigenous regions.
Classism is rampant in Mexico. The rich and upper middle classes segregate themselves both physically and culturally from the rest. The media, especially, is guilty of projecting a completely false image to the viewing public. If you were to judge the Mexican population by the people cast in its television shows, you’d likely assume most of the country is blonde and blue-eyed. The pernicious influence of the “Telenovela” genre and other cultural Trojan horses have contributed to a widespread, and largely subconscious pathology of self-hatred in the mostly dark-complexioned Mexican population.
The oft-repeated, quasi-historical myth of “La Malinche” is the archetype Cleo embodies in the film. She is a bridge between the natives and the foreigners. It is the foreigners who comfort her when her offspring is born dead. And this is the first allegory of Roma:
She tells us, herself, that she did not want the child to be born. Her destiny is to clean Borras’ shit off the garage floor. Borras is the master’s dog’s name, which loosely translates from the Spanish to “Erase”. Her people will not go on.
Children of the New World – The Allegory of the Astronaut
The astronaut theme comes up several times throughout the movie in the context of youthful imagination.
In one example, he shows us two children playing astronaut. One wears a space-man costume with all the bells and whistles, “exploring” a swampy part of his extended family’s beautiful, sprawling property somewhere in the country. The other, wandering about in a dirt-poor area on the outskirts of Mexico City as if in zero gravity, wearing an improvised space helmet fashioned out of a bucket. Just before this, we see a man shoot out of a canon and land in a net – a scene, which followed a frame of the Hollywood classic “Space Cowboys”, in something of a homage to Kubrick’s famous montage in “A Space Odyssey”.
Underneath, these instances speak to a very particular form of classist indoctrination prevalent in Mexico City’s private schools, in particular. Social status signaling is cliche among school-age kids everywhere, but in Mexico this sort of peer pressure takes on a deeper meaning, encompassing the country’s unique relationship to its only neighbor to the north.
Clothing is often at the center of these contests of social acceptance. Wearing a national brand of shoes or jeans instantly relegates you to the bottom of the social ladder. American brand names, conversely, propel you to the top. ‘Hecho en México’ is only for “nacos” – a derogatory term for the dark-skinned lower classes.
I had a front-row seat during my elementary school years as both witness and participant of this grotesque dynamic. Attending one of the city’s top private schools alongside the children of rich foreigners or high-ranking politicians, we were the kids with links to the “otro lado”. We took shopping trips across the border and had family in the United States. We wore our American brand name clothes to school and compared our American school supplies. We had Trapper Keepers and collected Garbage Pail Kids. We listened to Duran Duran and The Thompson Twins. Belting out the words to “El Rey” and other classic, truly Mexican Rancheras was only done after a few Tequilas.
The allegory of the astronaut represents the negation of self through the pursuit of the unattainable. Cuarón reveals a subconscious reality, that afflicts the upper classes in Mexico. A profound racism rooted in self-loathing and false identification with a different culture.
Bastard Machos – The Allegory of the Dead-Beat Fathers
Visiting my great aunt’s house in La Roma was, at once, entertaining and terrifying. Her son, my second cousin, had an inclination for mechanics and a bit of a prankster streak, which expressed itself in fun ways, like a pulley system he’d made to open the front door of the house from upstairs and frighten anyone who came knocking. The real hair-raiser, however, was in a room on the second floor where a life-size sculpture of Jesus Christ stood in full catholic regalia on an altar surrounded by candles. The figure had been sculpted by my great grandfather after “supposedly” having a religious epiphany on the battlefield during the Mexican Revolution.
The skepticism came directly from the women in the family, who seemed to doubt the sincerity of the man’s spiritual awakening and, rather, believed it was a momentary lapse in an otherwise steady pattern of drunkenness and adultery.
Mexican “machismo” is a world-famous stereotype, which is often accompanied by images of large hats and long mustaches. But, there is a much more mundane face to the pervasive reality behind the caricature.
On my mother’s side of the family, men were hard to find. My own grandfather had two families, simultaneously. He would only “visit” my grandmother in her two-bedroom Roma apartment every weeknight after his pediatric practice. She would make him supper and they would watch the “novela” together. Once the soap opera was over, he would wash up in her tiny bathroom and leave to spend the night with his other family. He seemed completely content with this arrangement and never appeared to have a shred of self-consciousness about it. To me, it was completely normal. I never thought to question why he was just coming in the evenings for a short while and leaving. Only later did I find out what a pathetic man my mother’s father was. My grandmother’s humiliation had become a part of her personality, so I never noticed that, either.
The absent father figure would manifest itself down the generational line in different ways. And it certainly isn’t exclusive to my family.
In the film, the chain-smoking father who abandons his family provides the inciting incident from which the rest of the story unfolds. The huge car, that barely fits in the car port, symbolizes the inflated sense of the Mexican male ego, too unwieldy to be part of a balanced family unit. When he leaves them, it is in a Volkswagen Beatle. But, his estranged wife still has to drive around in the massive vehicle, battering it as she comes to terms with her emotions and, finally, beaching the enormous four-wheeled animal.
Cleo’s love interest embodies the unfortunate archetype of the Mexican macho, as well. But, he also represents the larger context of the conversation. He tells us his story. How “martial arts” saved him from a dissolute life; a metaphor about the Mexican military and the thousands of young, disenfranchised men who make up their ranks. This is apparent when Cuarón makes him one of the plain-clothed gunmen chasing the activists through the furniture store – a scene, which makes little sense unless we consider the totality of the character’s symbolism and the actual history of state repression during those years in Mexico.
The allegory of the dead-beat fathers is the story of Mexican maleness. It is the historically ambiguous relationship with power, that stems from a 500-year old identity crisis borne out of the still unresolved trauma of colonialism.
Art, once it is completed, renounces ownership. The artist has no more say about how his or her work is seen, absorbed or interpreted than anyone else. I do not ascribe any of the above to the director’s original intentions or ideas when making his film. It is simply what I saw, as I saw it.
Italian authorities were on the trail of Roberto Calvi and the Banco Ambrosiano’s irregular activities, oblivious to the incredible chasm of corruption, blood and terrorism that lay open just behind him. Founded in 1896, the bank had cultivated a pristine reputation as a model of integrity and independent governance, thanks to its policy of restricting the total amount of stock any single entity could own in the institution to 5%. Calvi had created a web of shell companies with myriad subsidiaries to get around these limitations, and by such means attained 16% control of the bank on behalf of the Vatican.
When the scandal broke all over the Italian press, the Pope himself was implicated in a conspiracy so large and dark, that even the most audacious spy novelists would balk at the premise. A wide-ranging Masonic fraternity called P2, comprising hundreds of powerful government figures and mobsters, was exposed as a central mover in the multi-billion-dollar scandal. Even high-ranking Vatican officials were part of the fraternity – a violation of Church tenets.
Banco Ambrosiano’s long-established good name had been tarnished beyond recovery, but the Milan-based institution’s role barely scratched the surface of a far bigger and much more sinister reality emanating from the deep recesses of post-World War II America; a burgeoning superpower intent on asserting itself on the rest of the world, bleeding from the shores of the Mediterranean all the way to Latin America.
Dubbed “God’s Banker”, Calvi was in charge of laundering billions of dollars generated through world-wide heroin trade networks established years earlier by the CIA and its precursor agency, the OSS. Allen Dulles, future Director of the CIA, and his spy mentor “Wild” Bill Donovan, devised a plan at the conclusion of World War II to prevent – as claimed – a Soviet invasion of Europe. The concept revolved around recruiting Nazi officers and other extreme right wing elements to form so-called “stay-behind” units throughout the old continent, stationed clandestinely in several countries ready to act on a moment’s notice. They called the operation “Gladio”, and though the awaited red invasion never materialized, the services of the covert militias, who stashed CIA-provided armaments in thousands of secret locations, were requisitioned on multiple occasions as the need to quash left-leaning movements arose.
Calvi’s boss, Michele Sindona, had been the first to establish and manage the laundering networks for the IOR (Instituto per le Opere di Religione), the Vatican’s invisible bank, through which all drug trade, arms sales and miscellaneous illegal profits were funneled. His vast connections to the Sicilian mafia made him the perfect go-between in the early days, but Calvi’s more sophisticated knowledge and financial creativity offered Gladio the necessary expertise to scale their ever-increasing thirst for dirty money. Calvi’s stealth takeover of Banco Ambrosiano was a salient example. Sought out for its solid reputation, he would go on to open several international branches of the bank to facilitate the movement of Gladio-destined funds around the world. Among the places Calvi incorporated these brass-plate shells were Luxembourg, Nassau in the Bahamas and Managua, Nicaragua.
The Heart of Liberation
Anastasio Somoza Debayle ruled the small Central American nation of Nicaragua the way any scion of a foreign-backed, generational ruling family would. Protected by Washington from the start, Somoza had little to threaten his fiefdom. As long as his benefactors in Langley, Virginia and the U.S. State Department gave their tacit approval, there was no manner of corruption or repression he wouldn’t avail himself of to remain in power.
Agrarian movements and peasant revolts were ubiquitous in the entire region. Nicaragua was no exception. The Sandinistas had always been a thorn on the side of Somoza, but had little chance of mounting a successful revolution as long as American interests remained steadfast behind the dictator. But, the rise of left-leaning groups and political factions were a predictable consequence of the oppressive presence of U.S.-sponsored, right-wing dictatorships not only in Nicaragua, but all over Latin America. Most concerning for the Gladio intelligence clique, however, was the emergence of a grassroots religious movement, led by local Catholic bishops and clergymen called Liberation Theology.
To the immense consternation of a Vatican leadership, which was fully invested in the suppression of leftist ideologies and the imposition of conservative, right-wing governments in Italy and all over Europe, Liberation Theology began to draw a great number of advocates within dioceses all over Latin America. The concern was, of course, shared by their partners in the CIA who aided the Vatican in the subsequent persecution of priests, nuns and other members of the clergy who supported the movement through the already established, transnational spy network known as Operation Condor, centrally relayed through Southcom headquarters in Panama.
Spurred on by his superiors at the top of Gladio’s hierarchy, Roberto Calvi created a web of corporate fronts in different countries to facilitate the flow of black funds from the IOR to Latin American dictators, in order to round up, incarcerate and kill tens of thousands of dissidents. Argentina’s “dirty war” was only one of the operations of state terrorism financed by the Vatican/CIA nexus, which slaughtered, kidnaped and tortured over 30,000 people. Among Argentine dictator Videla’s informers was one Fr. Jorge Mario Bergoglio, then the Provincial General of the Jesuits, better known today as Pope Francis I.
By the Skin of their Teeth
Years later, when the noose was tightening around Calvi as Italian judge Carlo Palermo uncovered more and more of the astonishing truth, Gladio’s financial wiz wrote a letter threatening to expose the Vatican’s deep ties to the murderous state repression unleashed by the coterie of military dictators halfway around the world, revealing that he had been tasked with creating:
an effective politico-religious penetration into secular society by securing control over banking institutions. The enormous importance of what I just said induced me to incur debts in foreign currency in order to buy Banco Ambrosiano shares in sufficient quantity to guarantee IOR control over the institution… On more than one occasion, I believed that my life was at risk as I rushed from one Latin American country to another, seeking to oppose the ferment of anticlerical ideologies. I did my upmost in every sense even to the point of concerning myself with the supply of warships and other war material…
The gauntlet was about to come down. Ambrosiano’s collapse was opening leads Italian law enforcement might think twice about before following them. Carmine “Mino” Pecorelli, the Journalist who first published the P2 member list, was promptly murdered. Judge Palermo was nearly killed when a car bomb exploded just as he was arriving at the office he opened in Sicily to continue his probe, and the head of Italy’s Military Intelligence, Guiseppe Santovito – whom Palermo had arrested and was scheduled to be interrogated by Italian investigators – was killed in his holding cell. The real culprits behind Italy’s “days of lead” were being exposed as right-wing Gladio saboteurs and not communists, as was propagated by those same Gladio networks. The CIA saw the writing on the wall and started leaving its partners in the lurch. Michele Sindona was indicted in New York and convicted after a convoluted attempt at a staged kidnapping, which ended up exposing even more P2 members and widening the net for Italian prosecutors, who would eventually try and convict over 72 members of the Sicilian mafia in connection to Gladio.
As the 70’s rolled around, several other factors began to interfere with the smooth execution of the operation. The OPEC nations’ boycott following the Arab-Israeli war reverberated across the world economy and directly impacted Gladio’s cash sources, which stretched across different currency baskets.
President Jimmy Carter’s policies would also interfere with the international scheme. Carter ended support for the Somoza regime and opened the door for the Sandinista revolution, which ultimately drove the U.S.-backed dictator out of power.
Nevertheless, Gladio had managed an enormous victory as the USSR found itself hopelessly embroiled in Afghanistan, where the CIA had successfully created cells of radical Islamic militants to wage Jihad against the Russian-backed government of Afghanistan, going as far as recruiting African American Muslims through proxy organizations in the U.S. to go fight in the Gladio-created holy war.
However, the Sandinista takeover of Nicaragua and imminent collapse of the Italian Gladio networks, thrust the American deep state into damage control mode. George H.W. Bush, who along with Henry Kissinger, represented the top of the Gladio pyramid, mobilized their political machinery to take the White House. The infamous “October Surprise” was engineered through Gladio’s Turkish networks, which delivered weapon caches to the Iranian government in exchange for delaying the hostages’ release and putting the Reagan/Bush ticket in office.
Just months into the new administration, the first of two failed Gladio assassination attempts occurred when Bush family friend, Hinckley Jr. shot Ronald Reagan. Pope John Paul II, who had incurred the network’s ire by holding secret talks with the Soviets, was slated to be removed later that Fall.
Power By Any Other Name
Roberto Calvi’s body would be discovered dangling over the Thames river in London. Bricks would be found in his trousers – a Masonic signature. The Pope would miraculously survive the bullets shot at him by multiple Turkish assassins, belonging to the Grey Wolves Gladio unit and the capture of Ali Agca nearly derailed the planned cover story to blame communists for the attempted murder. Ronald Reagan survived, as well, but he was mentally weakened enough from the trauma, that Bush could operate just as well from the Vice Presidential office.
Soon after the former spokesperson for General Electric recovered from his bullet wounds, he officially declared narcotics a matter of U.S. National Security and the “War on Drugs” was launched in earnest. A few years later, the Berlin Wall came down and George H.W. Bush assumed power directly, moving Gladio into the second phase of operation in a post-Soviet world.
The War on Drugs is yet another manifestation of the original Gladio operation, designed to maintain American hegemony in Latin America, as well as subvert any attempt at self-determination by countries in the region.
Framing it as a battle between Capitalism and Communism allows factions to align themselves on either side of an ideological debate, that is in itself, false. On final analysis, this is all just a gambit of power. The ultimate goal is to consolidate resources and energy in the fewest hands. The right-left paradigm is a Hegelian dialectic, and who ever participates in it – no matter which side they fall in – simply furthers the final objective.
Imagine if 16th century Venice, which had a de facto monopoly on Gutenberg’s printing press technology, had managed to keep the world-changing invention to itself and simply cash in on surreptitious “upgrades” to the machine. We would still be in the dark ages.
Fortunately for us, the legal-corporate-intellectual property racket had yet to fully merge or even take shape in the minds of the ruling elites, and a global transformation ensued as book publishing flourished and expanded our consciousness.
That’s not to say Venice didn’t take advantage of the short time movable type was almost exclusively in their hands. In fact, they used this novel ability for mass publishing to literally bring down their mortal enemy, the Catholic Church.
The Reformation Op
Certain parts of history are forever kept from the eyes of the world, no matter how important or relevant to our own times. The story of Venice’s feud with Catholic Europe is one of those.
Venice, itself, is largely ignored in our text books. A tiny maritime republic on the Adriatic with an elected government, which thrived for over a thousand years in the midst of chaotic, monarchic European fiefdoms, was a veritable world power for most of its existence. Only the Western remnants of the Roman Empire, a.k.a. The Holy Roman Empire, was any sort of rival for the well-established and politically savvy Venetians.
For centuries, Venice held its own and the Church comfortably at bay. Their undisputed control of the Adriatic, the most important shipping corridor of the time, provided them both power and riches. It wasn’t until the beginning of the 16th century, that the Catholic Church was able to form a viable military alliance among its subject nations against Venice. Known as the War of the League of Cambrai, Pope Julius II – The Warrior Pope – led an anti-Venetian axis with Spain, Germany and Italian city states in a major European conflict. Although Venice is recorded as the victor, the war forced the majority of the Venetian elites and their fortunes into exile, migrating to the Low Countries and England.
The transition would take several decades, but the Venetian nobility had a long term plan to defeat their nemesis in Rome and establish what would eventually become the British Empire.
A rebel priest in Germany was identified by the Venetian operators; one of many disparate voices within the Catholic territories propounding alternate takes on the religion, more aligned to their own cultural proclivities. Martin Luther and his “disputations” were plucked out from the Teuton forests and given a platform by Venetian printers, spreading his message to virtually every corner of the realm. Without Venice, nobody would have ever heard of Martin Luther nor would have Henry VIII divorced Catherine of Aragon and his four subsequent wives (on the advice of his Venetian counselors), touching off the biggest religious schism in human history.
Marriage, the centerpiece of Catholicism’s social, political and economic power, was successfully subverted by Venice in what was the first case of information warfare, made possible by the latter’s control of the printing press in its early days.
This history is the key to understanding our current socio-political paradigm, as the United States is the direct inheritor and beneficiary of this episode in our not-so-distant past. It’s no accident that divorce plays an integral part of America’s legal system, nor that its foundational mythology revolves around religious “liberty”.
The Means of Information
Silicon Valley can be seen as a latter-day Venetian nobility, using their current monopoly on information technology to further agendas that favor them and their class.
Given the advanced state of corporate organization and its tight-knit relationship with the legal code, their capacity to maintain a monopolistic grip on the “means of information” is much greater now than ever. It’s also vital to their survival.
As I covered in an earlier piece, nothing strikes more fear in the hearts of our ruling classes than the ability of Joe Blowto report anything that comes to his (or her) attention. Hence, the relentless campaign against “fake news” and the concerted effort to get public opinion to support blatant censorship of anti-establishment voices.
In yet another, more recent piece, I delve into what their actual intentions for the Internet and social media platforms are. But, that doesn’t change the fact that we – the people – have an immensely powerful tool at our fingertips. One that rivals, and likely surpasses the power of the printing press.
Everybody on Twitter (Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and every other app out there peddling user-generated content) is a journalist.
While this might offend some J-school graduates, assorted press-badge holders and newsroom editors, this is an undeniable reality and one which is at the center of the next transformation in journalism.
There was a time when to write a book, you had to belong to a monastery and take a vow of celibacy. Even then, you could rarely do anything but copy someone else’s work. Maybe years from now we’ll remember when to be a journalist, meant you had to sell your soul to the devil and report what your advertisers told you.
If you were dropped in the middle of Mexico City, Buenos Aires or Bogotá and tried to find a Latin American, you would never come across a single person who described themselves as such. No matter how deep into Rio’s favelas or the most recondite parts of the Nicaraguan jungle you looked, such a creature would be more elusive than the Loch Ness monster.
Although coined by the French during their Napoleonic bid for a world empire the term has seeped, naturally, into the lexicon of the current and far more powerful global hegemon, the United States of America. Its purpose then was much the same as it is now: to homogenize a plurality and subsume separate and distinct peoples under a singular socio-political paradigm, based on etymology. Never mind that millions of the region’s inhabitants – the original ones, in fact – spoke and speak their own native languages, which are completely unrelated to the romance varieties imported from Europe.
Latin Americans, Latinos and the more recently concocted Latinx are all things, that only exist here in the house McDonald’s built; an expedient way to identify television market share, with no real social value. Second and third generation immigrants might adopt the format in public. But, behind closed doors, at family reunions and when they go back to visit grandma in the old country, nobody claims to belong to a contrived pan-lat-am diaspora. They are loyal to their own vocabularies and songs, unique to the places they come from.
The American penchant for lumping people from different backgrounds and cultures together is not new, of course. Their infamously bad grasp of geography is often on display and hardly draws any shame. On the contrary, they seem to relish it; as if not knowing where Peru is on a map is a sort of humblebrag display of domination.
Just yesterday, none other than the éminence grise of American broadcast journalism, Tom Brokaw, revealed his own cultural chauvinism when he tried to backtrack from comments he had made about Hispanics on a TV show. The comment itself calling on “Hispanics” work harder on assimilation, while reeking of MAGA-esque intolerance, was not particularly noteworthy or unexpected. It was his clumsy Twitterpology (yes, I made it up), that perfectly encapsulates my argument.
i feel terrible a part of my comments on Hispanics offended some members of that proud culture
Historians typically frame Simon Bolivar’s attempt to bring every nation of the Americas under one flag in a noble light. But, it was just another imperialist doing what imperialists do. I didn’t work then and no amount of Latin Grammy award shows will make it work now.
Borderline was born from an article in Proceso magazine, one of Mexico’s top publications for investigative journalism, about the incredible conditions inside the CERESO de Piedras Negras where the Zetas cartel had been running operations since the early 2000’s. The piece was based on a report by the Colegio de Mexico, and was also included as a downloadable pdf. More tan intrigued, I immediately printed the 70+ page pdf document. Only a fraction of what I read in there actually made it into part one of Borderline, and if you can read Spanish I recommend reading it in its entirety.
At first, I considered making the series about the Zeta-controlled prison exclusively. There was certainly more than enough material to justify it, but given the current political climate in the United States I was afraid that producing a portrait of such a place without the larger context would prove counterproductive,
As soon as I began my research, I came upon Ginger Thompson’s fantastic investigation for Pro Publica about a bungled DEA operation, that resulted in the death or disappearance of more than 300 people in the region of northern Coahuila as the Zetas exacted revenge after the American law enforcement agency “carelessly” revealed the cartel bosses’ private cell phone numbers to Mexican authorities. As it turned out, it was Thompson’s article which spurred the subsequent investigation by Colegio de Mexico scholars into the prison, where many of the killers unleashed on the hapless residents of Piedras Negras and surrounding areas by the Zetas came from.
I quickly realized that I had the perfect story from which to launch a broader examination about the war on drugs. Here was this horrific incident taking place less than 5 miles from the border between Mexico and the United States after more than four decades of a relentless “drug war”. How was this possible? More than forty years engaged in a battle against narcotics and not only are the most violent cartels to date doing business steps from the U.S. border, but the illicit drug market in America has ballooned to an all-time high, raking in $150 billion dollars a year?
Clearly, something else is going on. The truth about America’s war on drugs is out there and has been for quite a while, but mainstream sources of information rarely take on these stories and in most cases work to suppress them. The case of Gary Webb is among the most salient, though not the only one. The facts themselves are the best proof that the so-called war on drugs is a cover for hegemonic foreign policy directives originating in Washington.
In Borderline, I try to lay out some of the facts and provide a broad historical perspective for those who may otherwise not know the full story and find themselves being manipulated by dishonest political discourse. It is not an exhaustive presentation, by any means, but I have tried to cover a large enough swath of events – spanning centuries – to give those who seek a better understanding a solid foundation for further research. In that same spirit, I have made all the sources used in Borderline available here.
The series starts and ends with the story that is closest to us, both in time and space. But, in between, the root causes of the humanitarian crisis currently expressing itself at the U.S.-Mexico border are finally given the context that is missing from other accounts about the war on drugs and the fictionalized dramas, like Narcos, which have found so much recent success.