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Operation Condor: The U.S. and Latin America's Dirty War

Author:

Scull has lived in different countries and taught International Business Relations and Strategies at a Panamanian and Chinese Universities.

Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet shakes hands with Henry Kissinger in 1976.

Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet shakes hands with Henry Kissinger in 1976.

Operation Condor and the 8 Countries Involved

Eight Latin American countries led by either right-wing dictators or military juntas feared being overthrown by communist insurgencies. They created a pact with each other, and with the aid of the CIA, they fought back. In this article, we will explore what happened when they did and learn about the dire consequences their actions created. These countries are:

  1. Argentina
  2. Bolivia
  3. Peru
  4. Ecuador
  5. Brazil
  6. Chile
  7. Paraguay
  8. Uruguay

How It All Started: America’s Interventionist Approach and the Banana Wars

After more than 300 years of colonial rule, Spain and other European powers began their retreat from Latin America. In 1823, President James Monroe created what we now refer to as the Monroe Doctrine as a way of opposing Europe’s encroachment into what he considered America’s backyard. While his stated purpose was to protect Latin America from European intervention, by 1900, the Monroe Doctrine had evolved into a way for the US to exert its economic, political and cultural hegemony over the region.

In February of 1895, Cuba, Spain’s last bastion of colonial power in Latin America, declared its independence. The Cuban War of Independence began in earnest almost immediately. As the Cuban cause became more popular in American newspapers and with the average citizen—who felt Cuba should either be independent of Spain or be annexed by the U.S.—a curious event occurred. On February 15, 1898, the USS Maine, a U.S. armored cruiser, exploded and sank in the Havana Harbor.

American newspapers erroneously blamed Spain for sabotaging the ship and saw the act as a declaration of war. By April 21, 1898, the Spanish-American War had begun. Lasting less than four months (until August 13, 1898), Spain saw Puerto Rico, Cuba, Guam, and the Philippines—its last possessions in the Caribbean and the Pacific—go to the US.

It was around this time that President William McKinley, emboldened by the Monroe Doctrine and his recent victory over Spain, espoused a foreign policy toward Latin America of paternalism, dominance, and supremacy. Consequently, a period known as the Banana Wars began. Known for its interventions and occupations, this period lasted until the inception of President Franklin Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy in 1934.

This was a time when American corporations viewed the U.S. military as their own private army. Companies such as United Fruit, Standard Fruit, and the Coyumen Fruit Company used US military power to gain exclusive agreements for land and cheap labor with Central American governments. However, the United States' involvement was not limited to Central America. The U.S. Marine Corps, Navy, and Army were also used in interventions and police actions in Mexico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Cuba.

Most historians describe U.S. policy and actions in the region during this time as being formally imperialistic. This term is used when a country has direct control over the economy, military, and/or political and legal institutions of another country or region. In the case of the U.S., it was a clear attempt to extend its power over areas beyond its borders through the use of gunboat diplomacy, regime change, military interventions, and the financing of preferred political factions.

U.S. Actions Taken in the Central American and Caribbean Regions

  • Panama and Colombia: In 1903, through political coercion and threats of possible military action, the U.S. forced the government of Colombia to accept the secession of Panama from its territory. This was done in order to create a separate country that would be more amicable to the building of the Panama Canal.
  • Cuba: Under military governor Major General Leonard Wood, the U.S. occupied Cuba from 1898 to 1902; 1906 to 1909; 1912; and 1917 to 1922.
  • Dominican Republic: The U.S. conducted military action in 1903, 1904, and 1914 and occupied the Dominican Republic from 1916 to 1924. In 1930, the U.S. enabled the emergence of dictator Rafael Trujillo who was later considered by many to be one of the bloodiest and most violent despots in Latin America. His control over the Dominican Republic extended until 1961 when he was assassinated.
  • Nicaragua: The U.S. occupied Nicaraguafrom 1912 to 1933.
  • Mexico: The U.S. was involved in the Border War from 1910 to 1919. Vera Cruz was occupied in 1914 and then again from 1916 to 1917. In 1916, General John Pershing sided with the Mexican government and led a nationwide search for Pancho Villa.
  • Haiti: Haiti was occupied by the U.S. from 1915 to 1934.
  • Honduras: The United Fruit Company and Standard Fruit Company dominated all banana exports. This was accomplished by multiple military insertions from 1903 to 1925.

An Account Perfectly Describing the Period of the Banana Wars

U.S. Marine Corps Major General, Smedley Butler, nicknamed “Maverick Marine”, twice Medal of Honor recipient and author of the 1935 book War is a Racket, described himself as “a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers . . .a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism.”

Anti-United States Sentiment in Latin America

Anti-American sentiment in Latin America goes back to 1828, when Simon Bolivar, known as The Liberator for his fight against Spain’s colonial oppression, said: “The United States . . . seem destined by Providence to plague America with torments in the name of freedom.” A phrase, which even today is often quoted in schools and history books throughout Latin America. Since then, American expansionism, as witnessed through its Monroe Doctrine and manifest destiny, coupled with U.S. government military interventions for the sole purpose of advancing corporate interests, further alienated many of our neighbors to the south.

Porfirio Diaz, president of Mexico from 1884 to 1911, was quoted as saying following American interventions in Mexico and other Latin American countries: “Poor Mexico, so far from God, and so close to the United States”. President Diaz’s comment, points to the type of sometimes strained relationship that has existed between Mexico and the US for the last two centuries. A relationship, eloquently exhibited in the second floor of the Mexican Museum of Interventions, in which the Mexican-American War, as well as all the other U.S. invasions to seize Mexican territory, are displayed.

Many Latin American thinkers have often railed at American cultural imperialism, perceived racist attitudes, and Protestant anti-Catholicism. These perceptions and feelings that the United States has exhibited predatory and imperialistic behavior toward Latin America has greatly enabled the acceptance of Socialism by many groups in the region. In fact, it can be said that many of those who join Communist insurgencies are often more motivated by anti-Americanism, than by ideology.

This piece of Cuban propaganda was aimed at Latin America.

This piece of Cuban propaganda was aimed at Latin America.

Communist leaders both in Russia and Latin America have understood this from the very outset. Cuba’s Fidel Castro attempted to arouse deep-rooted Latin American resentment toward the United States through propaganda campaigns and by financing insurgencies throughout the region. The Bay of Pigs invasion failure, planned and aided by the U.S. government, gave Fidel Castro further opportunities to boast his ability to push back on America’s imperialism.

As U.S. interventions, coups of democratically elected governments and the aiding of suppression by despotic regimes continued to increase, anti-U.S. feelings in Latin America solidified during the Cold War.

Latin America and the Cold War

Sometime in the 1940s, the Soviet Union began to use guerrilla insurgencies to overthrow governments that were friendly to the US. Their grand strategy was simply to encircle the U.S. with Soviet friendly regimes as a countermeasure to America’s influence in Europe and other parts of the world.

In as far as Latin America, the USSR was able to exploit the discontent and resentment many people in the region felt toward the US, specially dating back to the Banana Wars as well as other abuses. Those populations that lived under dictatorial regimes that were in many cases installed by the US, were particularly vulnerable, as well as those that felt economically, socially and politically disenfranchised.

In Latin America the first breakthrough for the USSR came with Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Other successes soon followed. In Chile, Salvador Allende, a Socialist friendly to Cuba was elected president. In Nicaragua, the Sandinistas were actively fighting the Somoza’s regime, eventually coming to power in 1979.

Fidel Castro stands in front of a podium.

Fidel Castro stands in front of a podium.

Other insurgencies were flaring in different countries throughout the region. Colombia was actively battling the FARC and ELN; Peru was dealing with Guzman’s Shining Path guerrillas; Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay had nascent urban guerrillas and jungle insurgent groups beginning to form.

The Big Scare That Launched Operation Condor

On November 3,1970, Salvador Allende became president of Chile in a close three-way race. A well known democratic socialist with over 40 years of involvement in Chile’s politics and the head of the Popular Unity alliance party, had previously run for president three times unsuccessfully.

Allende had a close relationship with the Chilean Communist Party which had previously endorsed him as the alternative to their own candidate. He also had a secret which he held close to his vest, but well known to the CIA and Chilean military insiders; he had been courted by Cuba’s Fidel Castro and the USSR.

Almost immediately after being inaugurated, and contradicting previous commitments he had made to other political parties as well as to the legislature, he began a large scale nationalization of industries which included copper mining and banking. He expanded land and property seizures, began a program of agrarian reform, instituted some price controls, as well as began aggressive redistribution of wealth.

While the economy showed some initial signs of improvement, by 1972 it began to falter. Some claim the economy’s poor performance was due to CIA money being provided to the country’s main trucker union for them to strike. There are also claims that other money went to strategic sectors of the economy in order to buy allegiance against Allende. Whatever the causes for the economic downturn, shortages in food and other consumer products began to surface. All of these events created an extremely chaotic economic environment.

The thought of another Communist government in Latin America, especially at the height of the Cold War, was anathema to current U.S. President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger. National archives contain a CIA document which declared, “It is firm and continuing policy that Allende be overthrown by a coup.” The rest is history. The CIA quickly mobilized to make plans for a coup d’état with General Augusto Pinochet and other military leaders.

On September 11 1973 an attack on the presidential palace La Moneda took place. By that evening Allende laid dead, officially reported as an apparent suicide, however, it is widely believed he was executed.

Augusto Pinochet's Rise to Power

General Augusto Pinochet was installed as interim president and officially took over the presidency on December 17, 1974. He remained as president until March 11, 1990, at which time he resigned and allowed for free elections.

The period that followed the end of the Allende regime was one of brutal repression and political persecution. In the first few months of the new Pinochet government, thousands of people were rounded up and held in the national stadium, where many were executed. Thousands more were killed or disappeared during the period of Pinochet’s presidency.

The fact that Allende, a known hard line Socialist was able to rise to the presidency in Chile, shook the United States as well as all the other governments in the region. This could not be allowed to happen again. Perhaps, this is the point at which Operation Condor became a reality.

Fidel Castro visits Chile and gives Allende a Russian assault rifle as a gift.

Fidel Castro visits Chile and gives Allende a Russian assault rifle as a gift.

In 1971 Fidel Castro visited Chile and presented Salvador Allende with a AK-47 assault rifle as a gift. This overture was meant to be a message to the United States of America that another Communist government was being established in its back yard. However, the cast had been set a couple of years prior, when US Naval Intelligence, the CIA and the Chilean Military had agreed that Allende must be removed from power.

These are collections of photos from families whose children and grandchildren had disappeared.

These are collections of photos from families whose children and grandchildren had disappeared.

Operation Condor (1975 to 1985)

Operation Condor began to take shape in 1968, when U.S. Army General Robert W. Porter described the need for a coordinated effort between the US and internal security forces of certain Latin American countries.

In 2016, newly declassified CIA documents dated June 23, 1976, reads: “in early 1974 security officials from Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Paraguay, and Bolivia met in Buenos Aires to prepare coordinated actions against subversive targets.” Subsequently, plans were made to conduct extensive surveillance as well as plans for the disappearance and assassination of anyone deemed a subversive.

The declassified documents point to the CIA acting as intermediary during Argentinian, Uruguayan and Brazilian death squad meetings where political refugees from Operation Condor countries were targeted for disappearance or assassination. Other activities of which the CIA and the U.S. government became aware and gave tacit approval were the infamous death flights, in which a detained and tortured suspect would be drugged, loaded onto an airplane or helicopter and dropped in the River Plate or the Atlantic Ocean.

Intelligence gathered on dissidents was shared among the members of the operation. Clandestine extraditions to countries of origin of any insurgent caught in a secondary country were summarily performed. Additionally, foreign dissidents captured in secondary countries also faced execution. In various occasions Bolivian citizens were assassinated in Argentina and Chile. Conversely, Uruguayans and Chileans were abducted and disappeared in Brazil and Argentina. The level of cooperation between these countries’ intelligence agencies was unprecedented up until that time.

These are photos of disappeared people in art at Parque por la Paz at Villa Grimaldi in Santiago de Chile by Razi Sol.

These are photos of disappeared people in art at Parque por la Paz at Villa Grimaldi in Santiago de Chile by Razi Sol.

The Argentine Anticommunist Alliance (Triple A or AAA as it was known), founded by Isabel Peron in 1976 conducted planned assassinations in a particularly dispassionate manner. The members operated in a bureaucratic fashion in which a list of those possibly targeted for assassination and disappearance would be created. Each target would be discussed and if the final determination to go ahead with a final action was reached, the method for liquidation would also be discussed and determined.

Various degrees of support to the “Condor” countries was provided by the U.S. Some of the support ranged from training on harsh counterinsurgency techniques, to information that eventually was used to detain, torture and kill dissidents some of which were even found to be American citizens. Two known cases were Charles Horman, 31, a filmmaker and Frank Teruggi, 24 a student and antiwar activist who were arrested and executed on a tip provided by American naval office, Ray E. Davis.

Former President Pinochet as Commander-in-Chief and President Aylwin met with U.S. President George H. W. Bush in 1990.

Former President Pinochet as Commander-in-Chief and President Aylwin met with U.S. President George H. W. Bush in 1990.

What Can We Learn From This?

In the United States, news cycles and information in general move at lightning speed. Shortly after the American people experience a tragedy or news-worthy event of national or global importance, we typically consume the information, digest it and move on to the next event. Rarely, Americans make one event the defining moment in their lives.

Certainly, we have experienced events, such as September 11, the Iraq War and other momentous occurrences, in ways that have colored and impacted our opinion and outlook on the world. However, for the most part, Americans have a great capability to move on. The reasons for this is our culture is fluid, fast moving and generationally in constant flux.

This is not the case with other countries and cultures. Think of the hatred many Iranians feel toward the US due to the CIA’s actions in 1953 of deposing democratically elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. The Iranians, just as many other nations in the world do not easily forget.

In September of 2019, the new ambassador to Mexico Christopher Landau said in a Tweeter message regarding Mexican great Frida Khalo: “What I do not understand is her obvious passion for Marxism.” Landau went on to say: “I admire her free and bohemian spirit, and she rightly became an icon of Mexico around the whole world.” He continued directing his next words, perhaps to the ghost of Frida: “Didn’t you know about the horrors committed in the name of that ideology?”

This amazing display of national and political self-righteousness coupled with a complete lack of historical context did not go unnoticed. Many Tweeter users from Latin America were quick to respond, condemning his myopic and one-sided view of history. Others also mentioned US abuses in Latin America and condemned his Trump-like ignorant statements.

One Tweeter user quickly responded: “In the name of fighting that ideology, the US killed children in Vietnam by bombing entire villages and supporting dictatorships throughout Latin America,” The reference to the support given to dictators in Latin America by the US, continues to be a point of contention for many in this region. However, the important point to remember is that, while we often forget or are willfully ignorant of America’s past abuses, people from other countries do not.

Our attitudes and behaviors toward Latin America since the end of the 19th century have been abhorrent. Understandably, a substantial percentage of the population in this region never forgot this. When Communism presented itself as an alternative ideology to the one the United States embraced, many accepted what the USSR had to offer. They felt anything was better to what American Capitalism proposed. And as previously stated, the Soviets recognized this and used it to their advantage, by promoting and creating insurgencies that challenged American dominance in the region.

Actions have consequences.

The Number of Dead and Disappeared

The number of dead, disappeared and tortured are terrifying. The estimate of people missing or killed, as per Brazilian journalist Nilson Mariano is nothing less than atrocious. They are estimated at a minimum as follows:

  • Paraguay: 2,000
  • Chile: 10,000 or more
  • Uruguay: 297
  • Brazil: 1000 or more
  • Argentina: 30,000–60,000
  • Bolivia: 600 or more
  • Total Disappeared: 30,000
  • Total Arrested and Imprisoned: 400,000

Resources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Comments

JC Scull (author) from Gainesville, Florida on August 24, 2020:

Thank you for commenting MG.

MG Singh emge from Singapore on August 24, 2020:

An excellent article with a lot of information. Times have changed and the Monroe Doctrine is dead as the Dodo but communism is itself dead as well.