The shocking story of how wealthy Latin American regime-change hitmen exploited immigrant rights, international food, and a pliant DC media to rebrand as social justice heroes in the age of Trump.
By Alex Rubinstein
Immigrant Food, a new restaurant located just blocks from the White House, has been the recipient of glowing media coverage that celebrates it as a defiantly pro-immigrant statement of resistance against President Donald Trump. Left unmentioned in all the puffery has been the uncomfortable fact that the restaurant’s co-owner, Peter Schechter, earned a fortune as a registered lobbyist for right-wing Latin American politicians including the Honduran junta that is responsible for fueling one of the worst migration crises in modern times.
Schechter’s former lobbying firm is now representing another brutally repressive right-wing junta, this time in Bolivia, where a coup in November 2019 forced the country’s elected president, Evo Morales, into exile.
His business partner at the restaurant Immigrant Food, Ezequiel Vasquez-Ger, is also a regime-change operative who has dedicated much of his career to undermining socialist movements in Latin America on behalf of multinational corporate clients.
What’s more, Schechter has owned a winery in Israel located directly atop a historically Palestinian village ethnically cleansed by the Israeli army in 1948. The residents of the former village were displaced and turned into refugees.
The Immigrant Food PR campaign
Following its launch in November 2019, reporters popped in and out of Immigrant Food to peruse the gleaming new establishment. The restaurant was a uniquely conceived fast-casual downtown DC eatery catering to the lunchtime crowd of transplants hoping to rise through the ranks in the nation’s capital.
The glowing coverage has not abated. The Washington Post has published three pieces on the restaurant, and Now This promoted it as well, racking up more than 100,000 views in several days with a viral video hit.
Immigrant Food is co-owned by celebrated Venezuelan chef Enrique Limardo, Argentine entrepreneur Ezequiel Vázquez-Ger, and a powerful public relations baron named Peter Schechter, who lists himself as a “a long-time investor in [celebrity chef] Jose Andres’ restaurant group.”
Restaurant critics and local reporters have hailed Immigrant Food for its “cause-casual” approach to cuisine and the feel-food advocacy behind it. The establishment describes itself as a “for-profit social enterprise” that is working closely with five NGOs that support local immigrants. As the DCist reported after speaking with the owners, “They envision their lunch spot as a place for advocacy and community partnerships with immigration NGOs as well as dishes that crisscross cultures.”
According to the Washington Post, the restaurant’s owners “reject such labels as an ‘anti-Trump organization” and deny accusations that the launch is a “one-time initiative to take advantage of the political moment.”
But it is hard to conceive of a restaurant more deliberately tailored to the sensibility of the so-called “resistance” that mobilized after the election of President Donald Trump. The establishment has it all, from multicultural fare and aesthetics, to a special loft where young NGO workers can meet, to progressive messaging advocating safe spaces for immigrants and those that support them.
But much like the Democratic Party and “resistance” it spawned, Immigrant Foods has a seamy side lurking behind the rainbow veneer of social justice concern. Its co-owner, Peter Schechter, has earned a fortune as a lobbyist for repressive right-wing Latin American leaders who have partnered with Washington to ravage their countries’ most vulnerable populations and transform millions of them into migrants – thus fueling the crisis that Immigrant Food has capitalized on.
The true story of Immigrant Food is anything but the fuzzy feel-good narrative spun out in corporate media. In reality, it is the tale of a pair of wealthy regime-change hitmen manipulating pliant reporters to rebrand themselves as social justice heroes in the age of Trump, while untold millions of Latin Americans bear the brunt of their clients’ neoliberal rule.
Inside an exhibition of “gastro-advocacy”
When this reporter visited Immigrant Food in November 2019, Schechter, the self-proclaimed “intellectual author” and financier behind its brand, was not present. Nor was his business partner, Vazquez-Ger.
A panel on the overhead menu above the counter was dedicated to NGOs, offering to help facilitate donations and direct potential volunteers to their offices. This section was dubbed the “engagement menu.” On its website, Immigrant Food describes its partnership with immigrant rights NGO’s as “gastroadvocacy.”
Every level of the dining experience was intentional, aimed at reinforcing the importance of immigrants to US society. Schechter told the DCist that “options for seating that are meant to mirror how a variety of cultures traditionally eat… low tables for sitting cross-legged, high-top tables, benches for more communal meals.”
The menu contains “fusion” dishes with ingredients from across the world. A wall-size map offers new customers the perfect background for an Instagram selfie. The restaurant even offers visitors a chance to have their selfies custom-framed with a message that reads, “We’re all immigrants.”
One thing the menu did not appear designed for, however, are working-class immigrants in the District, who often work multiple jobs in order to send remittances home. The two cheapest meals on the menu were $12.
During a visit to the restaurant on November 22, the cashier told this reporter that the place has been busy since it opened on the November 12 to media, family, and friends. She said it was “doing well,” and alluded to the peak hour lunchtime crowds as a major source of revenue.
Schechter’s success in restaurant investments was the subject of a 2003 New York Times article entitled, “How to spot a hot investment: Putting your money where your mouth is.” Schechter had struck gold with future celebrity chef Jose Andres and a restaurant called Jaleo. The Times noted that his investment in the new hot spot generated “payments add[ing] up to an annual rate of return of close to 40 percent — something almost unheard of in the restaurant industry.”
Alongside two other investors at the time, Schechter was at the core of the soon-to-be television personality’s inner circle. He invested $100,000 in another one of Andres’ ventures in DC, helping make the chef a household name among upscale denizens of the nation’s capital.
Andres burnished his celebrity status when he pulled out of a contract with the Trump Organization in protest of the then-candidate Donald Trump’s comments about “murderers” and “rapists” coming into the United States from Mexico. These days, when he’s not innovating at the “ThinkFoodLab” in DC or minding one of his restaurants, the celebrity chef can be found on Twitter racking up retweets for calling out Trump.
When a DC ballot initiative threatened Andres’ bottom line, however, he lined up with a consultancy firm that worked for Donald Trump to kill it. The proposal would have incrementally raised the minimum wage for tipped workers in the District to $15 by the year 2025, prompting outrage by restaurant owners who feared paying their workers more would cut into their profits. Andres and ThinkFoodGroup repeatedly spoke out against the living wage initiative.
Earlier this year, Andres was sued for wage theft at a restaurant in New York. The chef announced on Twitter that a software glitch was responsible for the “systematic” issue of employees failing to receive a minimum wage, and promised to pay them back.
However, one former employee of a ThinkFoodGroup restaurant told The Grayzone that they personally witnessed wage theft while working there, among other problems endemic to the restaurant industry such as poor communication, persistent cuts to hours, false promises of a promotion, and management sleeping with low-level staff.
While Schechter’s support for Andres earns ink in the nation’s most influential papers, he has managed to keep his business with right-wing coup leaders south of the border almost entirely below the media’s radar.
Corporate regime-change hitmen rebrand as social justice activists
In local lifestyle publications DCist and the Washingtonian, Immigrant Food co-owner Peter Schechter was referred to merely as a “global affairs specialist.” According to CNN, he is a “seasoned political consultant and veteran of Washington’s think tank scene.”
These outlets and many others gave Schechter uncritical leeway to bloviate about immigrants and his view of American values. The Washington Post didn’t bother saying anything about his professional background until the bottom of the story, where it characterizes his career as “almost read[ing] like a prelude to Immigrant Food.”
“At this moment, in which immigration is such a controversial and divisive issue in our country, I keep thinking of my parents,” he told DCist. “They walked off the boat with nothing. We believe celebrating immigration is something that is profoundly American.”
If this seems like a slick operation, that’s probably because the person telling Immigrant Food’s story has spent his professional life spinning the media. The glaring omission by reporters of Schechter’s lobbying for right-wing Latin American politicians is, in fact, a testament to his public relations skills, as well as US media’s subservience to power.
Immigrant Food co-owner Ezequiel Vázquez-Ger has earned a living in the same field as Schechter. His bio on LinkedIn boasts that, “Until 2017, Ezequiel lead his own Public Affairs firm, focusing in Latin America. He represented a wide range of clients from the U.S. and Latin America. Clients ranged from big media conglomerates to human rights defenders.”
In 2013, The Grayzone editor-in-chief Max Blumenthal exposed Vazquez-Ger as a regime-change hitman determined to topple the leftist government of Ecuador’s elected President Rafael Correa.
At the time, Vazquez-Ger worked for the lobbying firm of Otto Reich, a Cuban exile Iran-Contra figure who also served as the assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs under the second Bush administration. Together, they represented corporate clients like Lockheed Martin, Exxon Mobil, and Bacardi International, the rum company whose lawyers drafted much of the 1996 Helms-Burton Act restricting vital medicines to Cuba. (“We should rejoice,” Reich declared after learning of the successful military coup in Honduras in 2009.)
Before he was hired by Reich, Vazquez-Ger was a Latin American fellow at the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, a corporate-funded libertarian think tank that promotes climate change denialism and sweeping deregulation policies.
Vazquez-Ger’s bio is no less disturbing than that of his business partner, Schechter.
In 1993, Schechter helped found the PR firm Chlopak, Leondard, Schechter & Associates, which has since rebranded as “CLS Strategies.” Quickly, the firm became among the top influence brokers in Washington.
While Schechter is no longer with CLS, the firm continues to conduct work on behalf of repressive clients. On December 11, CLS filed a FARA form with the Department of Justice stating its intention to work for the unelected coup government of Bolivia, which has granted impunity to the armed forces as it cracks down on the country’s indigenous majority.
For a total of $90,000, CLS agreed to “provide strategic communications counsel” to the far-right unelected government of Jeanine Anez on electoral and other matters. “This includes creating and distributing communications materials, interfacing with the media, and providing communications services,” the filing states.
While at CLS, Schechter counseled international financial institutions such as the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank, and corporate clients like Hunt Oil, whom CLS Strategies has helped assist with its Camisea gas project in Peru, a controversial and notoriously leaky oil project fought tooth-and-nail by indigenous communities.
Schechter has also worked with a dizzying array of US-aligned governments, including those of Peru, Colombia, Congo, Ecuador, Egypt, Kenya, Spain, Georgia, Portugal, Brazil, and Serbia.
At least six Latin American presidents have also worked with Schechter, including Mexico’s notorious former President Enrique Peña Nieto. Peña Nieto was a neoliberal pet project who moved to privatize the state oil company, attempted to privatize his country’s schools, presided over a cover-up of the notorious Ayotzinapa massacre of 43 students in rural Guerrero state, and was even accused of taking a $100 million bribe from drug kingpin El Chapo.
Schecter also represented the right-wing Colombian demagogue Alvaro Uribe. As The Grayzone reported, Uribe was placed on a 1991 US Drug Enforcement Agency list of “important Colombian narco-traffickers,” in part due to his role in helping drug lord Pablo Escobar’s obtain licenses for landing strips in the country. As president, Uribe ordered sprayed by military forces of toxic chemicals across the Colombian countryside, poisoning the crops of impoverished farmers and displacing millions.
Uribe’s military also engaged in systematic massacres of his leftist adversaries, culminating the so-called “false positives” scandal in 2008. The incident began when army officers lured 22 rural laborers to a far-away location, massacred them, and then dressed them in uniforms of the leftist FARC guerrillas.
In 2009, Schechter snapped up a contract with the Honduran former interim Roberto Micheletti, just a few months after a US-backed coup d’etat ousted the country’s elected president, Manuel Zelaya, amid a process of reform, including the establishment of a minimum wage.
When ‘pro-immigrant’ means legitimizing conditions that force people to become them
In the poverty-stricken Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa, the destructive legacy of Micheletti and the coup he presided over is still present. Graffiti calling out police brutality against anti-coup protesters is visible on walls around the city. And the skyrocketing poverty that has swept the country as a direct result of the staggering corruption and neoliberal policies of successive right-wing governments is everywhere to see.
Today, Honduras is controlled by an heir to Micheletti’s coup named Juan Orlando Hernandez. For over a year, Hernandez, or “JOH” as he is popularly known, has fought to contain a nationwide rebellion that has seen citizens set fire to the US embassy while demanding his ouster.
The Honduran president’s brother, Tony Hernandez, was arrested in Miami and convicted in a federal US court for conspiring to import cocaine into the United States. In his indictment, President Hernandez was named as a co-conspirator. In the past weeks, key witnesses who helped secure the conviction of Tony Hernandez have been brutally murdered.
These conditions have made life unbearable for the ranks of the poor across Honduras. Some have stayed to fight, but many more traveled north in a tragic mass exodus that has included highly publicized caravans of desperate migrants marching to the US-Mexico border.
The second & largest group of the #migrantcaravan left this morning on foot. Some say the 2020 caravan bigger than the first caravan, involving over 10,000 people but hard to get an estimate. #Honduras pic.twitter.com/2OCczPFZ3H
— Honduras Solidarity (@hondurassol) January 15, 2020
Schechter, according to a document filed with the Department of Justice in accordance with the Foreign Agents Registration Act, was contracted by Micheletti for the purpose of “Rendering the Services in the Field of Public Relations specializing in Management of Political Crisis.” The filing is dated September 18. This was just 10 days prior to Micheletti’s public request for “forgiveness from the Honduran people” after his security forces cracked down on protests and shut down media outlets.
The objective of the contract was “implementing a strategic communications plan to achieve a better positioning of the Government before the international public opinion, pursuing, at all times, higher levels of coordination and dissemination of objective messages about the activity of the Government headed by the President Roberto Micheletti.”
It also outlined strategic goals including the training of government spokespeople, media outreach and analysis, and a “persuasion campaign effective at an international level,” but also targeting both bodies of the US Congress, the UN, and the Central American Integration System.
For these kinds of services, Schechter’s firm was paid more than $292,000 by the interim government, according to the DOJ filing.
Schechter has also worked with Venezuelan presidential hopeful and businessman Henrique Capriles, an opposition figure hailing from Venezuela’s right-wing oligarchy. Capriles got his start in politics alongside the country’s most famous coup leader, Leopold Lopez, joining an ultra-nationalist group called “Tradition, Family, and Property.” In an interview with The Nation, Venezuelan writer Luis Britto García recalled how the group “used to stand out on street corners of urban neighborhoods with large Superman-style red capes, berets, things like that.”
Capriles and Lopez would go on to form the right-wing Primero Justicia party together. In 2002, they were at the forefront of the coup that briefly ousted Venezuela’s popular President Hugo Chavez, and have participated in a long string of destabilization activities since, climaxing with Lopez’s badly bungled coup attempt in April 2019.
Schechter’s ties to Venezuela don’t end there. Besides spending some of his youth in the country, he was a founding director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center and listed as senior vice president for strategic initiatives at the think tank.
With funding from Western governments, NATO, Gulf monarchies, the arms industry and major petrochemical companies, the Atlantic Council offers an array of pay-for-play arrangements that marry policy prescriptions with the priorities of big donors. Naturally, this think tank functioned as major platform for marketing last year’s US-backed coup attempt in Venezuela to official Washington and the media.
Schechter publishes neocon pulp novel and grows wine in Israel
Besides working on behalf of some of the most corrupt, repressive politicians in recent Latin American history, Peter Schechter is the author of a 2006 pulp fiction novel that appears to hype up the same xenophobic hysteria that Trump and other nativists have exploited.
Entitled “Point of Entry,” Schechter’s book weaves a paranoid narrative about drug cartels smuggling materials for weapons of mass destruction into the United States through Mexico on behalf of the Syrian government.
The fantastical plot is described as follows by the Washington Post:
“The United States is still bogged down in Iraq, but the new menace is Syria, which harbors terrorists and seeks nuclear weapons. [President] Stockman is considering military action; the Syrians, learning this, plan to smuggle 30 pounds of enriched uranium into the United States, where it can be used to discourage further American mischief in the Middle East… The Syrian terrorists, facing the challenge of smuggling 30 pounds of uranium into the United States at a time of heightened border security, devise a fiendish scheme: They will call on Colombian drug lords who smuggle huge amounts of contraband in every day.”
It is a tale that seems perfectly designed to titillate Never Trump neoconservatives and pro-Trump nativists alike.
Schechter’s interest in the Middle East was not limited to Syria scaremongering. He has also been the co-proprietor of a boutique winery in Israel located on a cooperative farm. The winery is called Agur, named for the farm and village on which it was founded in 1999. Its co-founder, Shuki Yashuv, has touted the product he sells as “Zionism in a bottle.”
Back on July 23, 1948, a military assault by the Israeli army drove most of the Palestinian inhabitants of Ajjur off their ancestral land. By October, the Israeli army had totally occupied the town. It was ultimately razed, its residents were driven into exile, and was renamed Agur. Jewish colonists from Turkey and Yemen were soon trucked in to the village and settled there to prevent the Palestinian refugees from returning.
This village house, photographed in June 1987, is one of three houses that remained in the village of ‘Ajjur after it was occupied and depopulated by Zionist forces in 1948. 'Ajjur was one of 16 villages that were depopulated in the District of #Hebron. pic.twitter.com/GHZtUngREo
— Institute for Palestine Studies (@PalStudies) April 30, 2018
Contacted by The Grayzone for comment on Shechter and Vazquez-Ger’s sordid history of lobbying for right-wing putchists and repressive leaders, Immigrant Food replied by email with a piece of corporate boilerplate signed by a company spokesperson calling themself “Tea.” It read:
“Over centuries, immigrants have come to America for varied reasons, and they bring cultural diversity and a strong work ethic. Immigrant Food celebrates the contributions of America’s immigrants through the fusion of immigrant gastronomies. At a time of deep national division, when somehow it’s become normal to disparage immigrants, Immigrant Food’s mission reminds all Americans of the centuries of contributions and vibrancy immigrants have brought – and will continue to bring – to this country.”
For a couple of upper-class regime-change hitmen who have spent decades shilling for corporate clients and coup leaders, Immigrant Food is the perfect greenwashing tool. Behind its rainbow veneer, they are serving up bowls of fusion fare to hard-working yuppies and loads of corporate spin to reporters.