“If something happens to me…look North.”
Cristina said, triggering another sound-bite auto-controversy when addressing the nation across all frequencies on Cadena Nacional last week. Responding to the high pantomime Islamic State threat against her life; she made it plain that fears for her own well-being do not originate in the unstable East, but rather in ‘the North’: Code for the good ol’ US of A, or I’m a Dutchman.
Was this just Cristina being her ridiculous self? Well in some sense, yes. Despite his government’s track record making high profile strikes around the globe, (Drone Strikes, Zero Dark Thirty anyone?) it seems fairly unlikely that Obama’s Pentagon would go after CFK, not least because she just doesn’t enter onto his radar to the same extent as the United States unavoidably does for all Latino governments. The White House barely responded after Cristina’s address, though a certain State Dept. representative shrugged off her words with a few cool, nonplussed sentences.
Then again, it’s (hopefully) common knowledge these days that the US government via the military, CIA etc., has been illegally intervening in Latin America ever since they were strong enough to; at least for the last 150 years that is. In the years post World War II, as the USA assumed its superpower mantel, it directly or indirectly attempted to overthrow governments in virtually every Latino nation, many of them democracies, and helped promote massive human rights abuses across the continent; all against targets it didn’t like at that particular moment in time. This was all done with a certain callous impunity too, summed up by that old warmonger Richard Nixon when he said of the whole region:
“People don’t give a shit about the place”.
Don’t just take my word for it. It’s all been documented. It happened. (If you’re late for an Asado, get up to speed with a quick list of the interventions up to 1996, though they go well beyond that year).
Cristina, of course, knows this as well as anyone. Sure, retaliating with bouts of jingoish anti-US rhetoric is easy political capital for her: ever since the Vulture Funds crisis started flaring up again it’s been a simple pointing of the finger at the foreign monsters from far away. But it raises the specter of justified fears of the US and its impact on the whole region in modern times. From the barrios of Santa Clara in Cuba to high-rises in Santiago, many have good reason to view the United States as little more than a jack-booting bully of a neighbor with a lot of blood on its hands.
What at first seemed like sheer paranoia from CFK was, then, also a barbed sting aimed at her least favorite government right now and the dark side of its foreign policy (cue Darth Vader Theme). On the receiving end of this misguided foreign policy have been many left of center governments in Latin America; they pissed off Washington just by doing what they were elected to do: Nationalize, redistribute wealth etc.
It’s hardly surprising that Cristina, and Evo Morales (Bolivia), and the late Hugo Chavez (Venezuela), and Rafael Correa (Ecuador), and everyone else glance critically North over their shoulders now and then. Her speech last Tuesday was like a logical progression: an upping of the rhetoric since she addressed the UN and criticized the Americans’ taste for military aggression in her part of the world and elsewhere, thereby following a United Nations General Assembly tradition of many Latino heads of state.
This tradition exists for a reason. But the reasons for it go back before the UN even existed. In the old (19th Century) days, there was barely a veil of political distaste from the US at all. Washington just sent in the Marines, killed who they wanted, changed what they wanted and that was that. It all started in 1823 with the Monroe Doctrine, which said no other ‘Great Power’ i.e. the Europeans were allowed to get involved in Latin America anymore. Or, in other words: ‘Hands Off, This Is Our Playground Now’. Over the next century or so, in the years before the Cold War got going, the US sent its troops and mercenaries to a whole host of Latino countries, including four invasions of Nicaragua in just seven years, and Panama every year between 1901 and 1904, staying there until 1914.
Today, incursions by US Marines, in Latin America at any rate, have largely been swapped for incursions by predatory capitalism. Just look at the Vulture Funds. But the principle of unilateralism is the same. Ever since it could, the most powerful nation in the hemisphere, and its affiliated private capital, has done whatever they want or what is ‘necessary’ for perceived national security (as if Nicaragua could physically threaten the USA or ever has!) with little regard for other nations and peoples.
In 1904 Teddy Roosevelt condescendingly established via the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine that the entire continent was ‘Our Backyard’. The term, with its implicit racism and imperial worldview, stuck through the next Roosevelt in 1945 and beyond as many, many regimes continued to be overthrown by the US or with support from Washington, now in the name of fighting communism. To be even mildly leftist in Cold War Latin America put your government in US sights on the ‘Red Menace’ pretense.
Take the notorious example of President Jacobo Arbenz in 1950s Guatemala, for example. When he proposed mild land reform in an attempt to modernize the nation’s antiquated farming economy and help out its peasants, the Bostonian United Fruit Company (that owned vast swathes of ‘Banana Land’ as it bragged in advertising) went bananas with rage itself and so did Washington. Arbenz’s New Deal style reform was labeled a communist conspiracy (it wasn’t one), and President Eisenhower unleashed the CIA. Here’s what former CIA chief Howard Hunt had to say about that:
“What we wanted to do was have a terror campaign, to terrify Arbenz particularly, to terrify his troops; much as the Nazi German Stuka bombers terrified the populations of Holland, Belgium and Poland at the onset of World War II, and just render everybody paralyzed.”
It worked. Amid the panic and terror attacks, the Arbenz government fell and he was forced to flee with his wife and thousands of other Guatemalans and sympathizers. A lot of those who stayed were rounded up as Communists, tortured and shot by the brutal new Armas regime.
All this started with a low-level intelligence operation that spread fear in the small nation, including a bunch of diplomatic cables released by the State Department. Yes, the warning message the US Embassy released last week was standard practice and Cristina probably overstepped the line labeling it as ‘provocation’ pure and simple. But her view isn’t without its historical merit either. In Guatemala, it was the info-war that came first.
What happened to the small Central American republic was repeated in various ways across the whole continent during the Cold War. Virtually no Latino country was passed over. Least of all Cuba. It’s an amazing irony that one of the people who fled Guatemala during the CIA terror campaign and was radicalized by it was an Argentine doctor called Ernesto Guevara. With a group of other idealists he helped bring down one of Latin America’s many Washington-sponsored fascist dictators and set up the Cuban Revolution with Fidel at its head. In this sense, the CIA accidentally helped create Che Guevara.
If Cristina’s assassination sound bite evoked memories from Latino history, tough, it’s Che’s old buddy Fidel Castro. Cuba was never forgiven for having a revolution by the US; which blockaded (still), invaded (JFK- Bay of Pigs) and undermined it (more CIA terror fun) any which way it could under the moniker of ‘Operation Mongoose’. This included the list of infamous plots to whack Castro, who’s had at least 638 documented attempts on his life, many coming straight from the CIA. The stories read like a compilation of rejected James Bond scripts: Poisoned scuba suits, femme fatale assassins, cigars of the explosive and poisonous types (even his hallowed beard was targeted for poison. Nice and absorbent presumably).
So yes, the US government has a legacy of going after lefty Latino leaders it doesn’t like, and Cristina goaded them about it with her speech. As usual though, her primary target last Tuesday was the Vulture Funds. These are the embodiment of US business and capital interests screwing Latin American economies for profit. And that has a history too, linked in some cases very directly to the CIA’s involvement in offing presidents and governments it just can’t abide, while installing ones it knows will put down any politics deemed ‘anti-business’.
Chile in 1973 is the most notorious and maybe most heartbreaking of lot. Like Arbenz in 1950s Guatemala, the left of center Salvador Allende was democratically elected with aim of reforming the economy in favor of state ownership and redistributing wealth to the poorest. This was the antichrist for the US government and business, which screamed communist daemon with the usual zeal. Nixon, Kissinger and the CIA plotted with the Chilean armed forces to overthrow Allende after a destabilization campaign, which they managed in 1973.
September 11th means a whole different thing for Chileans, though it’s terrorism all the same. On that date, Allende’s government and Chile’s democracy was overthrown (he shot himself during the bombing of the Presidential palace), all thanks to American help. The White House preferred fascism and neoliberalism in the form of General Pinochet.
Afterwards, when Pinochet had set up a concentration camp system with more than a hint of Final Solution about it and used this to torture and murder thousands of innocents, he worked in blissful harmony with US-trained economists led by Milton Friedman; the so-called Chicago boys. They imposed a ‘shock doctrine’ of fast and extreme privatization that simultaneously got rid of the high inflation, the ‘anti-business’ vibe and the myth that democracy and liberal capitalism always go hand in hand.
Coups, invasions, death squads…the list of US interventions and crimes in Latin America goes on and on and fortunately is the subject of far more comprehensive studies than this article and its author are capable of.
The point is that the hullabaloo Cristina generated last Tuesday wasn’t just her doing what she does best and creating another media storm in a teacup.
She did what most other center-left governments of late have felt compelled to do- directly challenge US unilateralism in the region. But Cristina did it clumsily and for political gain. We all know the CIA aren’t about to poison her cigars or plan the bombing of the Casa Rosada. But the wounds run deep. Reminding the USA just how badly it has behaved, is behaving and will probably keep behaving in the region is, from where I’m sitting, fighting the good fight and refreshingly daring. Yep, Cristina’s got some balls.