Swans Commentary » swans.com May 17, 2010  



Imperialism And The Washington Office On Latin America


by Michael Barker





"What I talk about are the liberal intellectuals, the ones who portray themselves and perceive themselves as challenging power, as courageous, as standing up for truth and justice. They are basically the guardians of the faith. They set the limits. They tell us how far we can go. ..."

"Don't take assumptions for granted. Begin by taking a skeptical attitude toward anything that is conventional wisdom. Make it justify itself. It usually can't."
—Noam Chomsky, 2010. (1)


(Swans - May 17, 2010)   Today the dominant discourse of liberal intellectuals is human rights; while at the same time the dominant discursive ideology intent on deforming life is imperialism. Yoked together these two ideologies present a formidable tool in the capitalist war chest, which critical intellectuals like Noam Chomsky rightly criticize. However, as Richard Seymour points out, this potent mixture is far from new, as: "From the very origins of socialism and social democracy as unique currents independent of liberalism, strong pro-imperialist currents existed within them, including among those who claimed to owe their politics to Marx and Engels. Like their liberal antecedents, they drew upon Enlightenment ideals of progress, social engineering and humanitarianism to legitimize, rather than criticize, empire." (2) So while influential critics, like Chomsky, have shed light on the imperialist nature of many humanitarian interventions, their scrutiny has tended to only target select parts of this discourse, like openly imperialist "Right to Protect" programs. This has meant that other "grassroots" members of the elite network promoting humanitarian imperialism, whose work is most closely aligned with securing much-needed public support, have been effectively ignored; the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) is one such group -- an organization that describes its function as promoting "human rights, democracy and social and economic justice in Latin America and the Caribbean."

Critical anthropologist Adrienne Pine is one of the few radical intellectuals who has vocalized her anger about the insidious nature of the capitalist exploitation of concern. Just last month, writing within the pages of CounterPunch, she observed that "while the U.S. role in Honduras appears to many Latin Americans to be a continuation of its imperialist policies in the region over the past century, there is one new twist in the case of Honduras: much of the State Department's behind-the-scenes work is being carried out by one of the most respected human rights NGOs in Washington: the Washington Office on Latin America." Here is not the place to paraphrase Pine's detailed criticisms of WOLA's antidemocratic activities, vis-a-vis Honduras. However, it is important to recognize that although her article focused on just one contemporary case study, Pine contextualized the example by referring to the scholarship of Dylan Rodríguez, (3) whose writings have focused on the co-option of dissenting voices by the non-profit industrial complex. With reference to this work, Pine concludes that:

The policy of coopting the radical left by funding and thus incorporating it into a legal non-profit structure has had the intentional effect of criminalizing truly oppositional movements and justifying the use of police brutality against them in the United States and elsewhere. This is true even in the case of movements that (as in the case of Honduras) are steadfastly opposed to the use of violence. In an era of neoliberal privatization tied to regressive taxation and the de-funding of government services, corporate-funded non-governmental organizations around the world have overtaken government services from education to healthcare to fighting wars, taking with them any notion of democratic accountability. WOLA -- which received [a five year grant worth] $1,757,656 from the Ford Foundation in 2009 -- is now carrying out, behind closed doors, the repressive Honduran government's work of fabricating a veneer of "democracy."

To better understand how, and why, WOLA acts in the service of imperialism it is useful to reflect upon their history. Formed in April 1974, WOLA can be seen as sitting amongst the vanguard of non-profit groups that helped institutionalize human rights within modern-day imperialism, other significant organizations being Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (founded in 1961 and 1978, respectively). "Human rights improved America's self-image, and engineered consensus where none had existed before." In this way Western human rights groups, like WOLA, "operate as the court's foot soldiers, providing it with personnel, information, resources and moral support." (4)

Much like earlier movements for social justice, religious support was key, and WOLA's origins lay in the activities of the Latin American Strategy Committee, which had been created by various churches in the late 1960s "to explore the relationship between United States foreign policy and political repression in Latin America." Indeed, WOLA was "viewed as representing the thinking of the churches more broadly," and church leaders from the Committee initially "functioned as its board and played a defining role in shaping the work of the organization." For instance, Diane La Voy, the first director of WOLA, had been active in the Latin American Strategy Committee in the early 1970s, while another Committee member, Joyce Hill (of the United Methodist Church), proposed that one of her returning missionaries from Chile, Joseph Eldridge, should become La Voy's successor. (5)

The subsequent career trajectory of Diane La Voy, who only served a brief term as WOLA's director, is indicative of WOLA's imperial mission, and La Voy went on to work for the US Agency for International Development's as one of their senior policy advisors (for "Participatory Development") and as the Chile and Argentina representative at the Inter-American Foundation -- a key democracy-manipulating organization (founded in 1969). However, given that Joseph Eldridge acted as the head of WOLA's operations from 1974 until 1986, and still remains on their board of directors, it is perhaps more enlightening to examine his life. Thus, to begin with, it is especially noteworthy that after helping form WOLA, Eldridge served as an aide to Congressman Tom Harkin (D-IA), an individual who in late 1973, along with Congressmen Donald Fraser (D-MN), organized a series of Congressional hearings on US human rights policy, which led to the legislation that institutionalized human rights in US foreign policy: a humanitarian intervention that was marked by the creation of a new human rights bureau, now known as the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. (From 2005 until 2008, the head of this bureau was David Kramer, an individual who had previously served as a senior fellow at the Project for the New American Century.)

Unsurprisingly, one can usually find politicians adopting hypocritical positions on human rights abuses, but when these involve human rights and Israel, closer attention is certainly warranted. So it is worth observing that in a 2006 interview, Jeffrey Blankfort noted how:

Congressman Tom Harkin of Iowa, who was on the Board of Directors of the Palestine Human Rights Campaign, was visited one day [in 1980] by a member of the Anti-Defamation League and [the American Israel Public Affairs Committee] AIPAC, and sent his employees home, and the next day, Harkin, soon to run for senator, is all for Israel, totally for Israel. What did they do? Did they offer him money? I doubt it. They probably found something out about Congressman Harkin. They'd given Congressman Harkin reasons why he should be pro Israel and how they would make him a US Senator, perhaps, and afterward they gave him a lot of money through campaign contributions. (6)

Here it is appropriate to return to Harkin's humanitarian colleague, Congressmen Donald Fraser, who from 1974 until 1976 acted as the president of Americans for Democratic Action, and in 1978 worked with Congressmen Dante Fascell (D-FL) to introduce a bill to help create a quasi-autonomous non-governmental organization to promote human rights abroad. While this latter bill was itself unsuccessful, Fascell, who had earlier played a lead role in establishing the Inter-American Foundation, went on, in 1979, to become a founding member of the American Political Foundation -- a group that in turn recommended the creation of what turned out to be the imperialist quasi-NGO, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). (7)

Harkin and Fraser can be more concretely connected to WOLA through the role they played in launching the Center for International Policy in 1975, of which they served as founding co-chairs: the Center's current co-chairs are Joseph Eldridge and Conrad Martin (the head of the Stewart R. Mott Charitable Trust). Additionally, the present executive director of the Center for International Policy, William Goodfellow, is a board member (and former president) of the Latin America Working Group's Education Fund, a group whose work, Adrienne Pine writes, is "closely aligned with WOLA." Not surprisingly, WOLA cofounder Joseph Eldridge until recently served as a board member of the Latin America Working Group, a group that is in turn headed by another WOLA board member, Steven Bennett, who is also the chief operating officer of the Brookings Institution. (8)

As something of a relevant aside, from 1996 until 2003, Steven Bennett was the executive director of Witness for Peace, a group whose "principled and self-sacrificing" position "represent[s] the exception rather than the rule of pacifist performance in the United States," according to Ward Churchill. (9) However, as Bennett's service at the head of Witness might indicate, problems of internal legitimacy exist for the group. For instance, in the past, former Witness staffer Ed Griffin-Nolan (who was based in Nicaragua from 1985 until 1988) documented how "more radical members bemoaned the fact that Witness, as it grew, came to focus on short-term goals." Here I should note that these criticisms do not necessarily hold true today and the bravery and dedication of their grassroots staffers is beyond doubt. Either way, Griffin-Nolan writes how during the 1980s:

The focus on legislation, effectiveness, and "respectability" had important long-range implications for Witness. It won acceptance and cost a bit of prophetic zeal. Witness gained a spot in the national debate about contra aid but had no chance to challenge the assumptions underlying foreign policy. It gained adherent in the East and lost them in the West. It truncated the nature of the dialogue occurring between U.S. and Nicaraguan people of faith by reducing many issues to a question of how they affected votes on contra aid. As the need to dialogue with and curry favour with legislators became more prominent. Witnesses found that they had to be on top of the legislators' agenda (U.S. national security), which was a world away from the agenda they heard expressed by the Nicaraguan campesinos (peace and life for them and their children). (10)

Returning to Bennett's WOLA side project, the Latin America Working Group, we find that their secretary/treasurer, Jolene Smith, is the CEO and cofounder of the controversial non-profit group called Free the Slaves. Prior to setting up this advocacy organization, Smith had worked at the Center for International Policy and at the Center of Concern. However, given the failure of progressive commentators to submit imperial democracy-manipulating organizations like the NED to radical criticism -- for a recent example see "Mother Jones and the Defence of Liberal Elites" -- it should not be too surprising that the aforementioned Center of Concern includes amongst its board members Kenneth Melley, the secretary of the core NED grantee, the National Democratic Institute. (11) Equally problematic is the fact that Vicki Gass, WOLA's senior associate for Rights and Development, came to this position in 2006 after working in Iraq for two years with the National Democratic Institute. (12)

For those readers familiar with the close ties that exist between the imperial activities of the NED and Human Rights Watch, it will be obvious why George Vickers, the former executive director of WOLA (1993-2001), should currently be represented on Human Rights Watch's Americas advisory committee. This committee also includes George Soros, and so it is fitting that Vickers should be the director of international operations for Soros's Open Society Institute. Likewise, following this lead, Vickers's predecessor at the head of WOLA, Alex Wilde (an individual who served in this position from 1987 until 1993), sits alongside Soros and Vickers on Human Rights Watch's Americas advisory committee. Since leaving WOLA in 1993 Wilde has fortified his commitment to elite social engineering by joining the Ford Foundation, first as head of the Foundation's office for the Andean Region and Southern Cone, and, since 2000, as their vice president for communications.

Other former WOLA board members who serve on Human Rights Watch's Americas advisory committee include Cecilia Munoz, the late Michael Maggio, and Michael Shifter. Munoz is vice president for the Office of Research, Advocacy and Legislation at the National Council of La Raza (a group that has historically been heavily influenced by the Ford Foundation), and Maggio formerly served as an advisor for the imperial Tahirih Justice Center. Finally, Michael Shifter is president of the imperialist Inter-American Dialogue, and he teaches Latin American politics as an adjunct professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. Before these appointments, Shifter directed the NED's Latin American and Caribbean program and, prior to that, he headed the Ford Foundation's governance and human rights program in the Andean region and Southern Cone. (It is also interesting to note that earlier in his career, Shifter was a representative in Brazil for the aforementioned Inter-American Foundation.)

As exemplified by the foregoing details, WOLA maintains intimate ties to leading imperial democracy-manipulating elites. Yet similar examples just keep coming, and another former WOLA board member, William Reese, has, since 1991, been a member of USAID's Advisory Committee on Voluntary Foreign Aid. In addition, another recent WOLA board member, Ben Davis, was "head of the [AFL-CIO's] Solidarity Center's operations in the Caribbean and Latin America during the February 2004 coup" in Haiti -- the Solidarity Center being a core grantee of the NED. Not coincidentally, in 2004, WOLA issued a press release noting that "WOLA applauds the mission to Haiti by the United States, France, Canada and the Caribbean Community to press for a political solution to the current unrest there." This is strange because for years the US mission in Haiti has been wrought with controversy, as it is a classic example of a NED-backed foreign intervention.

In 2006, in Peru this time, WOLA was courting controversy again when Jeremy Bigwood reported that "[s]omething smells funny about the recent denunciation of maverick [nationalist and anti-neoliberal] Peruvian presidential candidate Ollanta Humala for alleged human rights violations." Indeed, it turned out that the NGO's pressing these charges most strongly have been funded by USAID and the NED "on and off for more than a decade." Bigwood added that the NED-funded umbrella organization of 50 NGOs "that led the charge against Humala" is the National Coordinator for Human Rights (CNDDHH). Interestingly, Bigwood observes that the WOLA wrote the CNDDHH's official history, but neglected to mention this group's reliance on USAID and NED funding. (13) This appears to be a bit of a slip-up for an organization that professes to aim to monitor "the impact of US foreign policy on human rights, democracy and equitable development in Latin America."

Returning once again to Joseph Eldridge, who has been the University Chaplain at American University since 1997, it is more than interesting to observe that just last year his wife, María Otero, was appointed Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs. In this position, Otero -- a Bolivian-born microfinance activist, who until recently was vice-chair of the controversial U.S. Institute of Peace -- now sits atop of the US government's democracy-manipulating apparatus, and works with her husband's former colleagues, like for example, Michael Posner, the Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor. Posner, prior to taking up this position in late 2009, had been the founding executive director of the democracy-manipulating group Human Rights First (1978-2006), a group that is intimately related to Eldridge because in 1991 Eldridge established their Washington office, which he then headed for six years.

There is no doubt that the Washington Office on Latin America plays a critical role in the implementation of the US government's imperial agenda for social change. Yet, as Dylan Rodríguez suggests: "More insidious than the raw structural constraints exerted by the foundation/state/non-profit nexus is the way in which this new industry grounds an epistemology -- literally, a way of knowing social change and resistance praxis -- that is difficult to escape or rupture."

The [Non-Profit Industrial Complex] NPIC is not wholly unlike the institutional apparatus of neocolonialism, in which former and potential anticolonial revolutionaries are "professionalized" and granted opportunities within a labyrinthine state-proctored bureaucracy that ultimately reproduces the essential coherence of the neocolonial relation of power itself. The NPIC's well-funded litany of "social justice" agendas, platforms, mission statements, and campaigns offers a veritable smorgasbord of political guarantees that feeds on our cynicism and encourages a misled political faith that stridently bypasses the fundamental relations of dominance that structure our everyday existence in the United States: perhaps it is time that we formulate critical strategies that fully comprehend the NPIC as the institutionalization of a relation of dominance and attempts to disrupt and transform the fundamental structures and principles of a white supremacist US civil society, as well as the US racist state. (14)


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1.  For a useful rebuttal to the article from which these quotes are taken, see Louis Proyect, "Weimar Germany and contemporary America: any parallels?" The Unrepentant Marxist, April 20, 2010.  (back)

2.  Richard Seymour, The Liberal Defence of Murder (Verso, 2008), p.35. "The heirs of liberal imperialism can be found in the Fabian Society, a middle-class socialist organization which openly advocated a paternalistic empire, and would later influence Labour's colonial policy at the highest levels. The Fabians were largely influenced by utilitarianism in their formulation of policy, and, although there was some dissent, largely backed colonialism. They cut their teeth on colonial matters during the Second Boer War (1899-1902), a battle which reflected the sometimes delicate racial dynamics of the empire." (p.39)  (back)

3.  Dylan Rodríguez, "The Political Logic of the Non-Profit Industrial Complex," In: INCITE! Women of Color against Violence (eds.), The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex (South End Press, 2007). Rodríguez writes that while the "alleged Left frequently considers its array of incorporated, 'legitimate' organizations and institutions as the fortified bulwark of a progressive 'social justice' orientation in civil society, I am concerned with the ways in which the broad assimilation of such organizations into a non-profit industrial complex actually enables more vicious forms of state repression." (p.23)  (back)

4.  Kirsten Sellars, The Rise and Rise of Human Rights (Sutton Publishing, 2002), p.119, p.184. "The American human rights groups were new players on the political scene. Many of them emerged towards the end of the Vietnam War, when campaigns against repression in the Third World seemed to be the logical next step. But the radicalism that had permeated the sixties campaigns had dissipated by the late seventies. The Carter administration had drawn the sting of the New Left by bringing its leaders into government, and enthusiasm for Third World political ideologies such as Che-style guerrillaism and Vietnamese socialism had turned to disillusionment. The latter-day advocates believed in saving victims, not changing societies. They were humanitarians, and unlike their radical predecessors, they believed that the United States was a potential force for good in the Third World -- provided that Washington adopted the correct foreign policies." (p.139)  (back)

5.  Svenja Blanke, Civic Foreign Policy: U.S. Religious Interest Groups and Central America, 1973 - 1990, Ph.D. Dissertation, Freie Universität Berlin, May 2001, p.92. Some of Latin American Strategy Committee's founders included Joyce Hill, from the United Methodist Church, William Wipfler of the National Council of Churches, Thomas Quigley of the US Catholic Conference, Philip Wheaton of Ecumenical Program on Central America and the Caribbean, and Brady Tyson, the later aide to President Carter's UN ambassador Andrew Young. (p.92) "The Catholic missionary society Maryknoll was WOLA's largest funding agency in the 1970s"; but by the end of the decade WOLA began expanding their funding base to include secular sources as well. (p.93)

Coletta Youngers, Thirty Years of Advocacy for Human Rights, Democracy and Social Justice: The History of WOLA (WOLA, 2005). Summary version cited above, see here.  (back)

6.  For further details about Tom Harkin's apparent change of heart, see James Zogby, "Is AIPAC in Trouble? Part II: Two More Keys to AIPAC's Success: Power and Strategy," Arab-American Institute, August 16, 1993.

While Senator Harkin remains an AIPAC stalwart to this day, he remains committed to feeding the poor as he is a board member of the Christian aid outfit Bread for the World. Yet while Tom gives with one hand his wife, Ruth Harkin, has ensured that their family simultaneously profits from the poor through her service to the corporate world (at US defence contractor United Technologies, oil giant ConocoPhillips, and logging behemoth AbitibiBowater), and as the former CEO of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation.  (back)

7.  In 1998 the democracy-manipulating National Endowment for Democracy gave a grant to Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights, an advocacy group formed in 1983 whose founding member included Donald Fraser (who remained on their board of directors until recently).  (back)

8.  WOLA's executive director, Joy Olson, previously acted as the Working Group's head from 1993 until 2002.  (back)

9.  Ward Churchill, Pacifism as Pathology (AK Press, 2007), p.60.  (back)

10.  Ed Griffin-Nolan, Witness for Peace: A Story of Resistance (Westminster John Knox Press, 1991), pp.100-1. "It also kept Witness primarily within a middle-class constituency and may have been an important reason why Witness 'won' the battle against contra aid and the most important reason they 'lost' the struggle to change U.S. policy at its core."  (back)

11.  It is sad to note that former radical activist-writer, Janet Shenk, has matured to become a useful member of the "humanitarian" elite; and while her slide away from her radical roots is hardly unusual, it is notable that such a well-informed activist would link arms with liberal elites. Indeed, Shenk had joined the North American Congress on Latin America in the 1970s and spent a decade working with them, so she should be more than familiar with the critiques of the imperial nature of liberal philanthropy which NACLA had regularly published in its early years. Yet Shenk's political transformation was no doubt shaped by liberal patronage, and in the late 1980s she worked as a senior editor of Mother Jones magazine, and became head of the ARCA Foundation -- a post she held for nine years whereupon (in 1998) she went on to serve as the special assistant to John Sweeney, the president of the imperial AFL-CIO. Shenk is presently the senior program officer for the Panta Rhea Foundation -- a foundation created by a board member of Paul Hawken's Natural Capital[ist] Institute. Although Shenk no longer heads the ARCA Foundation she sits on their board of trustees alongside WOLA founder Joseph Eldridge, and Mary King, an academic advisor to the "democracy promoting" International Center on Nonviolent Conflict. Until his death in January 2010, the ARCO Foundation's president was Smith Bagley, the heir of the R.J.Reynold Tobacco Company's fortunes, and husband of Elizabeth Bagley, an individual who served as a senior advisor to Secretary of State Madeline Albright (1997-2001).  (back)

12.  WOLA's current chair, Vic Johnson, presently works for the Association of International Educators, but from 1981 until 1993, "he was staff director of the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs, where he was responsible for all significant issues of Inter-American relations." During the early 1980s Johnson was a member of the Central American Papers Project (a project that led to the creation of the elite-backed National Security Archive), where he served alongside people like the Center for International Policy president Robert White, and Aryeh Neier, the then head of Americas Watch (Human Rights Watch), and current president of the Open Society Institute.

Finally, WOLA's vice-chair, Cristina Eguizábal, formerly spent twelve years working for the Ford Foundation where she ran programs in Mexico and Central America, and since 2008, she has acted as a board member of Hispanics in Philanthropy; while WOLA's treasurer, Jay Schwartz, is the deputy director of finance at Human Rights Watch.  (back)

13.  According to a US Agency for International Develop report published in 2000, four human rights groups received USAID funding for their work in Peru, the Office of Human Rights Ombudsman, the Peruvian Institute of Education on Human Rights and Peace (IPEDEHP), the Institute for Legal Defense (Instituto De Defensa Legal), and the National Coordinating Commission for Human Rights (Coordinadora Nacional de los Derechos Humanos or CNDDHH). As the following paragraphs will illustrate, the last three of these groups have all also received support from either the NED or Rights and Democracy.

The Peruvian Network for Human Rights and Peace Education (Red Peruana de Educacion en DDHHs y la Paz) has received grants from Rights and Democracy in 1992 and 1993, and the Institute for Legal Defense received NED support in 1996, 1997, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2002 (two grants), and in 2003.

CNDDHH was "created in 1985 and works to promote human rights and public education", and in 1994 they received a NED grant to "support publication and distribution of a bulletin on human rights targeted to Peruvian youth": they then continued to receive annual NED support until 1997. In 1995, CNDDHH obtained a grant to "to publish six issues of a bulletin entitled 'Yours, Mine, Ours' as an insert in the national daily newspaper La Republica... [which was] designed to appeal to a range of social and economic strata in Peru, with special emphasis on the young." In 1996, CNDDHH received continued NED funding to publish their bulletin, and also received funding to "expand its human rights education media campaign to include radio spots, programs and public opinion editorials." The following year, they received a grant to "conduct a human rights education media campaign commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights." Finally, in 2000 CNDDHH obtained a grant from Rights and Democracy, to continue their "democratic" work in Peru.

US Agency for International Development, "Evaluation of USAID/Peru's Democracy Education Activities," (pdf) Contract No: Aep-I-00-99-00040-00, Task Order 801, Final Report, April 14, 2000, p.10  (back)

14.  Dylan Rodríguez, "The Political Logic of the Non-Profit Industrial Complex," p.31, p.39.  (back)


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Published May 17, 2010