In early February, New York University professor Greg Grandin came across a map on the Washington Post’s web page highlighting in red the 54 countries from around the world that participated in one way or another in the U.S.’s extraordinary rendition program. Grandin, a well-known historian and Latin Americanist, quickly noticed that nations from every region had collaborated in the Bush Administration’s clandestine detention and interrogation program except for… Latin America. The fact that no Latin American country lent support to the program was in itself a remarkable fact that speaks to how much the region has evolved politically over the last two or three decades.
On February 18, Grandin published an insightful analysis on Tom Dispatch that provides some historical perspective on this “Latin American Exception.” Starting in the 1950s, the U.S. worked closely with the region’s military dictatorships to render their brutal security forces and intelligence services more efficient in clamping down on – and disappearing – civilians involved in left-wing movements. The U.S. then supported efforts to synchronize and internationalize the work of these repressive regimes. As Grandin writes,
The result was state terror on a nearly continent-wide scale. In the 1970s and 1980s, Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s Operation Condor, which linked together the intelligence services of Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Chile, was the most infamous of Latin America’s transnational terror consortiums, reaching out to commit mayhem as far away as Washington D.C.,Paris, and Rome. The U.S. had earlier helped put in place similar operations elsewhere in the Southern hemisphere, especially in Central America in the 1960s.
By the time the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans had been tortured, killed, disappeared, or imprisoned without trial, thanks in significant part to U.S. organizational skills and support. Latin America was, by then, Washington’s backyard gulag. Three of the region’s current presidents -- Uruguay’s José Mujica, Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega -- were victims of this reign of terror.
But that was then. By the 1990’s most of these repressive regimes progressively gave way to democratic ones. Today, most of the governments of the region lean left and have adopted both domestic and foreign policy agendas that sharply differ from the U.S. agenda. In many ways, Latin America is today more independent of the United States than Europe is.
As Grandin explains, the U.S. also failed to win much support in the region for its “war on terrorism” following 9/11. Wikileaks’ leaked diplomatic cables reveal that Brazil rejected attempts by the U.S. to establish a sort of region-wide “Patriot Act” due to concerns about the civil liberties of Arab-Brazilians. Brazil also refused to support U.S. efforts to “contain” Chávez.
In February 2008, for example, U.S. ambassador to Brazil Clifford Sobell met with Lula’s Minister of Defense Nelson Jobin to complain about Chávez. Jobim told Sobell that Brazil shared his “concern about the possibility of Venezuela exporting instability.” But instead of “isolating Venezuela,” which might only “lead to further posturing,” Jobim instead indicated that his government “supports [the] creation of a ‘South American Defense Council’ to bring Chávez into the mainstream.”
There was only one catch here: that South American Defense Council was Chávez’s idea in the first place! It was part of his effort, in partnership with Lula, to create independent institutions parallel to those controlled by Washington. The memo concluded with the U.S. ambassador noting how curious it was that Brazil would use Chávez’s “idea for defense cooperation” as part of a “supposed containment strategy” of Chávez.
As a result of the growing independence of Latin American nations, particularly those of South America, the U.S. has “retrenched”, and developed a “ ‘perfect machine of perpetual war’ in a corridor running from Colombia through Central America to Mexico.” Through the so-called “war on drugs” the U.S. has funneled billions of dollars of military assistance to Mexico and Central America in recent years, despite widespread human rights abuses perpetrated by security forces there. The Honduran army – one of the top recipients of U.S. military assistance in the region – executed a coup d’Etat in 2009 and carried out repressive acts during the subsequent coup regime.
But, concludes Grandin, “ for now, South America has thrown a monkey wrench into the machine. Returning to that Washington Post map, it’s worth memorializing the simple fact that, in one part of the world, in this century at least, the sun never rose on U.S.-choreographed torture.”