Suharto’s Exit: End of an Era?

June 01, 1998

Mark Weisbrot
Knight-Ridder/Tribune Media Services, June 1998

With the departure of Indonesia’s Suharto, one of the world’s longest-reigning dictators, many observers see another sign of the end of an era of U.S. foreign policy. During the Cold War, it is now acknowledged, the United States supported dictators and military governments that committed horrific atrocities. Suharto himself presided over the killing of more than half a million Indonesians in the mid-sixties, one of the worst political massacres in the last half-century. In this he received the full support of the United States, which included the CIA supplying lists of political opponents who were subsequently killed.

All this was justified in the name of fighting Communism, though in many cases there were few Communists to be fought. The overthrow of democracy in Chile in 1973, or in Guatemala in 1954, for example, were sponsored by the United States under the pretext of the Cold War. But everyone now acknowledges that these actions had nothing to do with the Soviet Union or Communism.

In a culture that has the historical memory of a fish, these events appear as ancient history. So it is easy to relegate these crimes to “another era,” and write them off as “excesses of the Cold War.” But if we follow the story a little further, we find a lot more continuity than change.

In the 1980s, our government spent billions of dollars trying to overthrow the government of Nicaragua. For this purpose, the State Department created and armed a paramilitary force that mainly attacked civilians, killing thousands. The fact that the Nicaraguan government was democratically elected in 1984 did not change US strategy. Meanwhile, in neighboring El Salvador and Guatemala, the US spent even more money supporting governments that maintained power through death squads, and murdered political opponents by the tens of thousands.

Again the justification was the fight against Communism, although most historians would see these movements as struggling for much more modest goals, such as land reform and other programs for the poor.

By the nineties the Cold War was over, and many thought that America would finally support democracy in the rest of the world. And indeed we did, but only when the people voted for US-approved candidates. In 1990 the people of Haiti chose a populist priest named Jean-Bertrand Aristide as president, in their first democratic election ever. The US State Department was unhappy with that choice. After seven months in office, Aristide was overthrown by military and police officers later discovered to be on the CIA payroll. The CIA then hired a man named Emmanuel Constant and helped him establish a death squad organization that killed several thousand pro-democracy activists over the next three years.

The US role in the destruction of Haitian democracy has received less publicity than the other cases, but it is well known among scholars and specialists in the area. Ironically, most Americans know only of the subsequent events, in which US troops were deployed to restore the government that we had previously helped to overthrow.

What can we say, then, about US foreign policy in the post-Cold War era? How has it changed? Here we must distinguish between official and unofficial policy. In Indonesia, for example, the official policy of the Clinton Administration is to support democracy. This support is half-hearted at best– just two weeks ago, as Suharto tottered on the brink of collapse, the President was careful not to call for democratic elections. And the Administration has consistently refused to condition economic aid on even the most fundamental human rights, such as the release of Indonesia’s thousands of political prisoners, or an end to its illegal occupation of East Timor.

But our unofficial policy is even worse. The award-winning journalist Alan Nairn has now shown that US military and intelligence services maintain close ties and training relationships with the Indonesian military units responsible for the “disappearance” and torture of political opponents. Although Congress has moved to ban some of this activity, it will be difficult to stop the executive branch from continuing to support the repressive apparatus that it has nurtured for all these years. “Suhartoism without Suharto” will remain our unofficial policy until it is defeated, either here or in Indonesia.

In short, the end of the Cold War has removed the primary ideological justification for our government’s support of repression in other countries. It has therefore created an important opening for those who support democracy and human rights to challenge our foreign policy, at both the official and unofficial levels. But so far this opportunity has been largely unrealized, and our foreign policy retains its anti-democratic character.

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