Last week, Argentina ticked off another victory and first for humanitarian and international law in a world kind of short on that sort of thing right now.
Just like when Congress voted overwhelmingly to revoke the amnesty laws in 2003 and the trials of former repressors from the last military dictatorship were re-opened, the sentencing of 15 ex-military officials involved in Operation Condor last week was praised as a significant milestone for human rights in the region and beyond. Of the 15 repressors sentences, 13 were Argentine.
The New York Times ran an editorial on the issue, summing up how important this victory is and what it means:
The cases, which involved Cold War allies of the United States, should serve as a warning to today’s despots and offer hope to the legion of victims of human rights abuses around the world who are still waiting for their day in court. While it often takes decades and seismic geopolitical changes, determined victims can succeed in jailing the men who once assumed they could kill and jail citizens arbitrarily with impunity.
Both the revoking of the amnesty laws during the Kirchner administrations and the Operation Condor trials, which began in 2013, set precedents for the rule of law by enforcing it in order to protect what we consider to be inalienable human rights; rights that are shared by all people around the world.
The trials were necessary because these rights were abused systematically and on a very large scale by states across Latin America during the latter stages of the Cold War — mostly the ’70s and ’80s — when fascist military regimes toppled democratically elected governments throughout the region and set about kidnapping, torturing and killing people they didn’t like.
Each repressive regime had its own domestic origins and particular horrors, but they shared many things in common.
Operation Condor was the nickname the military regimes gave to helping each other abduct, torture and kill each other’s political enemies. Fascism in Cold War Latin America was a team game.
We know this largely thanks to the governmental documents that have since been released, decades after the military regimes fell.
The documents tell us how each regime shared a set of common traits with the others. One was the brutality they inflicted on their own peoples. An affiliation for terrorism was shared by the generals and their subordinate thugs from Augusto Pinochet (Chile) to Rafael Videla (Argentina), from Emílio Garrastazú Médici (Brazil) to Alfredo Stroessner (Paraguay), as many victims’ testimonies, such as Roberto Navarrete’s, later described.
Another was their affinity to the new age market fundamentalism, what came to be known as neoliberalism.
Dispelling forests’ worth of economic literature which came before and after Operation Condor and argued, quite falsely, that capitalism and liberal democracy always go together, the military regimes mostly embraced US-preferred free markets and free trade on the continent — often in reaction to the welfare state platforms of their predecessors.
This was in part a reaction to the third and perhaps most important aspect the military regimes shared with each other — a deep hatred of left-wing and progressive politics. More than anything else this unified the fascist dictators together, who had for the most part claimed they were seizing power to end the “Red Menace” of any politics deemed left of center in the Americas.
Because at that time, the global Cold War context dominated domestic politics too, and it is impossible to ignore when we’re looking at Operation Condor. The Cold War offers us another crucial reason why Operation Condor happened — it was approved by the US government.
During the Cold War, the US and its allies staged a half-century-long thermonuclear game of chicken with the Soviet Union, with each superpower bloc attempting to combat and stamp out the other’s economic and ideological influence and power in the world in a game underwritten by the threat of nuclear war.
The very real possibility of global nuclear annihilation was, as we know, avoided between 1945 and 1989, but the conflicts that raged across the planet under the influence of either of the two great superpowers were anything but cold.
In Latin America, the proxy wars often took the role of left-wing guerilla insurgencies battling authoritarian or fascist regimes — Cuba being a case in point. The 1959 Cuban Revolution had a profound impact on the continent, and perhaps an even more profound one on the US government.
After a left-wing group, backed by popular support, had toppled an allied dictator so close to home, the US government and military went into overdrive in its attempts to stamp out left-wing politics in what many on Capitol Hill and the Pentagon still referred to as “our backyard,” quoting former President Theodore Roosevelt’s racist soundbite about Latin America.
We need not go into the very long list of illegal interventions and invasions and assassinations the US promoted in Latin America as a result of this policy (remind yourself here) ahead of Operation Condor getting the greenlight from Washington. Suffice to say US government’s approval of the military regimes’ program was a logical progression of its already existing foreign policy during the Cold War (not withstanding some very important exceptions that we looked at last week).
So what did Operation Condor actually do?
Above all it was an intelligence-sharing exercise. One key facet that allows fascist and military dictatorships to hold on to power is the way they engage in unmitigated spying on their own populations to root out and destroy real or imagined threats to their power, plus any other people they don’t like (these two things get blurred a lot, in fact).
This was true of Nazi Germany, of Franco’s Spain and of all the dictatorships which ruled in Latin America during the ’70s and ’80s.
Following people, bugging homes and work places and a network of informants were some of the ways the military regimes used to spy on their populace and “disappear” anyone they thought needed disappearing.
Under Operation Condor, the military regimes in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Boilivia, Paraguay and Uruguay shared all this intelligence with each other and created a dictatorial Interpol service that blacklisted anyone they found who might oppose or just dislike the atrocities they were each committing.
We know that another very crucial way that dictatorships usually grip onto power is through generous doses of state terrorism — the most historically destructive form of terrorism that exists.
In Latin America, Operation Condor was a synthesis of these two things. By pooling the resources of their Gestapo-esque intelligence agencies — I borrow the phrase from US military observers involved in Operation Condor — together, and then using said information to launch and maintain a barbaric state terror, the military regimes all worked together to root out dissent.
Enemies were then “disappeared,” often by military-sponsored death squads or “paramilitaries,” a recurrent horror in 20th Century Latin America.
One way the US was involved in this was the way its agencies facilitated and sped up the process: For example, the intelligence agencies of each regime used the US telex system to communicate with each other, which was based in Panama.
Operation Condor really was fascism without — or at least, ‘cross — borders.
Sharing their information on who to hunt down, the regimes started doing just that. One of the most frightening aspects of the Plan Condor as it is still known in this part of the world was the way the dictatorships worked together across borders to find and capture those who people who had fled their home countries after the local military dictatorship was established.
Political exiles like Orlando Letelier believed correctly that their lives and those of their families might be in danger in the brave new world of military rule. His story is a good example of what Operation Condor meant for the people affected by it.
A socialist and ardent critic of Pinochet‘s barbaric regime, Letelier was a former foreign minister under Salvador Allende, the democratically elected president Pinochet’s US-backed coup overthrew on September 11, 1973.
After the coup, Letelier was arrested by the military. He was sent to two different concentration camps set up by the dictatorship and tortured repeatedly during the following 12 months.
Eventually, the military released him, perhaps under pressure from the international contacts Letelier had garnered during his time as foreign minister.
He fled with his wife and four children to Caracas in Venezuela, then to Washington DC in 1975, where he worked as an academic and continued to condemn Pinochet’s dictatorship.
In September 1976, he was assassinated by a car bomb explosion while driving passed the Sheridan Circle in DC, a murder carried out by Chilean agents working for Pinochet.
It was one of the most tragic ironies that Letelier was murdered, alongside his co-worker Ronni Moffitt — a US citizen — in the capital of the most powerful state in the world, by one of that state’s allies. And, further, that this happened in the context of intelligence-sharing activities promoted by Washington and the double team of then-President Gerald Ford and then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
Released US documents proved that Pinochet himself — installed with the help of Kissinger and Ford’s predecessor Richard Nixon — ordered the assassination directly, though he died in 2006 having successfully slithered away from justice after the end of his regime.
Letelier’s story was symbolic of the horrors created by Operation Condor. Last week’s trial condemned 15 former repressors and represented among the most positive responses to have emerged since the dictatorships crumbled, one by one, during the course of the 1980s.
It was important not only by ensuring that a number of those responsible for the atrocities which Operation Condor enabled faced justice for their involvement, but also in its symbolism.
The Condor trial was another step on the long road towards fully realized international and humanitarian law — some of the pillars that uphold human rights around the world. This special set of laws transcend borders, just like Operation Condor’s affiliates did, though for altogether different reasons. As long as these types of trials keep happening and people remember the reasons why that’s necessary, this form of internationalism will continue to outlive its fascist alter ego of the ’70s and ’80s in the region. That’s something worth celebrating.