Supporting State Terror in Uruguay
and Chile and the Movement to
A Look Back
- By Peter Brogan
Well, I think it is terribly important that our government…makes clear that we stand for democracy, and that we are not supporting the kind of repression that the people of Chile have been subjected to. If there is a lesson that we can learn from other comparable situations, it is that when it is over…we don't want it to be perceived that we were part of the problem.
- Michael D. Barnes (D., MD.),
Human Rights in Argentina, House Committee on International Relations, 1976, 182 (quoted in Forysthe)
Brazil recently marked the 40th anniversary of its 1964 coup which brought to power and ushered in a wave of unique military dictatorship in the Southern Cone of South America. In this article I will discuss the other two military dictatorships in this region, Chile and Uruguay in the 1970s, focusing on the role of U.S. support, especially in the way of economic and military assistance, which I will argue played an instrumental role in sustaining these two regimes in their terrorizing of their populations. Together with a vast network of client states, these two Bureaucratic Authoritarian (BA) regimes constituted in part what Edward Herman calls the "real terror network." I am particularly concerned here with how effective the movements that opposed the brutal and systematic violations of human rights committed by these two regimes were in pressuring the United States to put a stop to these policies.
The United States would not have had to invade either Uruguay or Chile to implement a "regime change," as it has done in Iraq in 2003 - where only after the fact of not being able to find weapons of mass destruction has the US claimed that the invasion/occupation was justified on humanitarian grounds. On the contrary, I aim to show that the United States itself played a crucial part in sustaining the repressive regimes in both Uruguay and Chile, and could therefore have been just as crucial in forcing these same regimes to cease their abusive policies. Both Chile and Uruguay, as is the case throughout the Southern Cone of South America, were unique cases because they had been pluralistic societies prior to the rise of the BA regimes.
In the course of this article I will limit my analysis to the largest, and what I have found to be the most effective, human rights organizations in the United States that were concerned with Latin America and were active during this period. This is not to suggest that theirs were the only work that was important and worth discussion and analysis, but is done merely for the sake of keeping to my main concern: which is to asses the effect these organizations actually had on decision making in U.S. foreign policy. It must be noted, as I will further discuss below, that these United States human rights organizations were extremely dependent on local Uruguayan and Chilean human rights groups, as well as other groups throughout Latin America, in their work. A good example of this is the Committee for Peace in Chile, which as well as providing a great deal of information for activists in the United States also served as a model for other human rights groups in its organization and tactics.
The period of the 1970s is when the human rights movement emerged and in which the bulk of its activity "revolved around information and denunciation." The primary purpose of these human rights organizations was to provide information in order to convince "governments and international organizations to use other policy tools, such as aid cut offs, to try to limit human rights abuses," a practice that has been referred to as leveraging.2 This first period was largely a one-way flow of information on repression from South to North, which according to some observes led to strategy and agenda setting being mostly in the hands of the activists in the United States and Europe.
The BA regimes were installed in Uruguay in 1972-1973 and in Chile in 1973. These regimes differed from past military regimes largely because their goal was not to stop fighting between middle and upper class rival groups of political and economic elites or to seize power solely for the sake of personal gain, but was rather to permanently destroy a perceived threat to the existing structures of socioeconomic privilege by eliminating the political engagement of the popular classes. The origin of these regimes is thus a response to increased political participation. BA regimes depended on the eradication of all politically active citizens.3 As Lars Schoultz notes, "As active dissenters were eliminated physically, potential dissenters were intimidated into silence."4
My analysis will focus even more keenly on the role of the United States Congress, and how without the information and pressure provided by the organizations that made up the human rights movement it would not have had either the political will nor the ability to pressure the executive to take into consideration human rights in matters of economic and military aid, as well as their own role in allocating funds to these foreign aid programs. That being said, it should be noted that in the early 1970s Congress cared little for the origin of human rights abuses in Latin America or elsewhere, but rather advanced that the President conduct "foreign assistance programs in a manner which will avoid identification of the United State…with governments which deny to their people internationally recognized human rights…"5
Background on Human Rights in United States Foreign Policy
Since the creation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, which was strongly guided by the United States government, especially by Eleanor Roosevelt, human rights have supposedly been the cornerstone of American foreign policy. But on the contrary, from the inception of this declaration human rights have been almost entirely absent from American foreign policy. This is quite evident when one does a basic review of United States interventions, which have been copiously documented by Edward Herman, Noam Chomsky, William Blum, Ward Churchill, and others6. It is only in the late 1960s and 1970s that we begin to see the explicit language of human rights injected into the rhetoric of United States policy makers.
In fact, during the 1950s and 1960s the few human rights activists in the United States were "dismissed as unrealistic (and often unreasonable) liberals, and their proposals were discarded as utopian."7 Human rights began to make a slow, albeit quiet, assent in American foreign policy in the late 1960s, with a particular emphasis on "U.S. - Third World relations."
This was accomplished through the mobilization of significant numbers of people by a number of very aggressive interests groups, mostly human rights groups, and by the creation of a State Department bureaucracy committed to increasing the consideration of human rights into foreign policy.
During the 1960s and 1970s United States government officials claimed that the human rights abuses that were occurring in the South were "endemic to Latin Americans most rudimentary political systems" and that their elites were unable to respond to U.S. efforts to curb violations. This of course is complete nonsense since at the time the U.S. hardly did anything to curb such violations of human rights and was in fact more then complicit in these abuses, and in many cases an active participant in such violations.
It was only when Carter became president in 1977 that "human rights promptly assumed an unparalleled prominence in foreign policy decision making. " But this was only true where "national security priorities were not threatened," and was largely a result of the efforts of Congress.8
U.S. Aid and Human Rights Violations: The Positive Correlation
As Chomsky and Herman have observed, the political and social conditions in Latin America and "generally throughout the Third World" have deteriorated since World War II. Accordingly, "liberal ideologists treat this as fortuitous and independent of U.S. choice and power, claiming that as a democracy we support democratic institutions abroad." For this to be true, or at least appear to be, it is necessary to "suppress and belittle the long-standing relations between the U.S. political-military elite and the military juntas and comprador elements" in such states as Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile. We must also ignore the "economic advantages of Third World fascism to U.S. economic interests and economic support for brutal dictatorships and frequent hostility to reform as well as radical change" in poor countries. Chomsky and Herman are correct when they argue that when we turn to the real relationship between the United States and these regimes, there is a systematic positive relationship between U.S. aid and human rights violations.9
This conclusion is further born out by Lars Schoultz in his study of the relationship between U.S. assistance and human rights violations in Latin America. His study was based on 33 Latin American countries in the years from 1962 to 1977, with a particular focus on the fiscal years of 1975, 1976, and 1977 - which are the same years I am concerned with here. He finds that most data contrary to United States assertions proves to have had non-developmental objectives.10 All of the data examined by Schoultz indicates that U.S. aid has tended to flow disproportionately to Latin American governments that torture their citizens. Though Schoultz comes to the same conclusions as Chomsky and Herman, he does not attempt to address the reason/s for such strong positive correlations between U.S. aid and human rights abuses, as they do, claiming that such an inquiry is beyond the scope of his current study.
In efforts to refute these conclusions some critics have pointed to the reduction in military aid to Chile after the coup in 1973. This reduction is misleading as Chomsky and Herman point out, "since the high rate of military aid under Allende reflected U.S. support for the right-wing military in the interests of counter-revolution - economic aid to the civil society declined precipitously under Allende." For most of the sample countries, "U.S. controlled aid has been positively related to investment climate and inversely related to the maintenance of a democratic order and human rights." (My emphasis) Michael Klare is quoted as saying that:
"Rather than standing in detached judgment over the spread of repression abroad, the United States stands at the supply end of a pipeline of repressive technology extending to many of the world's authoritarian governments. And despite everything this administration has said about human rights, there is no evidence that this pipeline is being dismantled. In fact, its relative durability suggests that the delivery of repressive technology to authoritarian regimes abroad is a consistent and intentional product of our foreign policy, rather than a peripheral or accidental one."11
"Military training and supply, the build-up and cultivation of the military and intelligence establishments, as well as CIA surveillance and destabilization," have been critical elements of support for these regimes. This training has placed a great emphasis on ideological conditioning and has "steeped young Latin officers in the early 1950s anti-Communist dogma that subversive infiltrators could be anywhere." In addition to this ideological training and the network of personal relationships built up between Latin American and United States military officers, the connection has been "further consolidated by military aid from the wealthier power as well as cooperative maneuvers and logistical planning."12
The democratic governments of Chile and Uruguay were overthrown and replaced by BA regimes in order to open their respective economies up to U.S. business interests and foster a "favorable climate of investment." This has consequently led to the systematic violation of human rights, in order to maintain a policy of containing not just revolution, but any independent mode of economic and political development that is antagonistic to the above requirements of U.S. economic interests. In other words, "this 'new order' in the U.S. colonial sphere is blatant and violent class warfare, with the combined interests of the denationalized military leadership, some local business, and multinational enterprise (with its foreign state adjuncts) literally seizing state power…clearing the deck for sub fascist economic policy and 'development'."13
As Chomsky and Herman further note, Amnesty International concluded that "the scale and intensity of repression in Uruguay is probably the highest in Latin America." Joe Eldredge of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) observes: "with nearly one out of every 500 persons in jail or in concentration camps, Uruguay holds the dubious distinction of having, on a per capita basis, the highest number of political prisoners in the world."14
Moreover, the repressive situation in Uruguay was paid scant attention in the American press, and when it was covered it was done so in a very passive and misleading manner. For instance, the Latin American correspondent for the New York Times, Juan de Onis noted on 29 June 1976 that Uruguay "was convulsed by a left-wing terrorist movement, called the Tupamaros," and that they were responsible for killing a U.S. "police advisor," Dan Mitrione. The Times failed to give, however, any social and/or historical background, or even inquire as to the origin of this "convulsion." Further, de Onis does not take it as pertinent to mention that Dan Mitrione was the chief advisor to police who had been found by Uruguayan senators to be "systematically torturing suspected Tupamaros."15
Even more representative of the press coverage of this situation was that a large body of information was simply ignored altogether. A good example of this would be the kidnapping and later murder in Argentina of Uruguayan senator Zelmar Michelinin in 1976, who in 1974 had testified before the Russell Tribunal in Rome where he estimated that the number of Uruguayans tortured was at "more than 5,000 while over 40,000 people had been held as political prisoners."16 The comparative figures for the U.S. would be about 3,200,000 political prisoners and 400,000 torture victims, according to Michelinin. The writer Eduardo Galeano citing this estimate by Michelinin pointed out that in a fertile and unpopulated land, with a low birth rate, such as in Uruguay, one fourth of the population having been in exile bears comparison to the Nazi period in Germany.
Moreover, as Chomsky and Herman observe, the Times failed to note the fact that "the systematic and sophisticated use of torture in Uruguay, as elsewhere, seems to have developed as one central component of the U.S. aid program," and further that "Victims have reported that Dan Mitrione, who was involved in the escalation of torture in Uruguay, participated directly in torture sessions."17
Since the repressive behavior and violence of these U.S. client states is antithetical to freedom, democracy, and other "Western values" the media and intellectuals in "the United States and Western Europe have been hard-pressed to rationalize state policy. The primary solution has been massive suppression, averting the eyes from the unpleasant facts concerning the extensive torture and killing…the major shift to authoritarian government and its systematic character, and the U.S. role in introducing and protecting the leadership of the client fascist empire." (p.12) The American press also place a strong emphasis on the positives of U.S. client states. For instance, a release of political prisoners, an announced election, or any signs of economic growth, "typically offered without reference to a base from which the alleged improvement started" is frequently given, as noted by Chomsky and Herman.18
Another established technique for diverting attention from the ongoing torture and bloodbaths and deteriorating social-political environment in Argentina, Brazil, Chile…is to concentrate attention on Communist abuses, real and mythical."19
The pivotal role that was played by the United States in not only supporting the Uruguayan military but also helping to create it cannot be overemphasized. Here it is worth quoting Galeano at some length when he writes:
"The military in power in Uruguay, who are now a scandal for the U.S., were good students of the Pentagon courses in the Panama Canal Zone. There they learned the techniques of repression and the art of governing; it is with American arms and advisors that they have set in motion the gearing up of crime and torture. The dictatorship has destroyed the unions and political parties, closed the newspapers and reviews, forbidden books and songs in the name of "an ideology of national security," which, in clear language, means "ideology for the security of foreign investment." Liberty for business, liberty for prices, liberty for trade: one throws the people in prisons so that business will remain free." (Author's emphasis)
Galeano further observes that on the same day that President Carter announced an end to military aid for the regime "the World Bank, controlled by the U.S., announced a new credit of $30 million for Uruguay, added to the $55 million granted in 1976," while he reports that the IMF is the principal creditor of the country and "directs its political economy so as to reduce popular consumption, lower wages, and stimulate exports."
Despite the nature of the U.S. support and sponsorship of these regimes and the use of terror and serious human rights violations they are responsible for, the nature and importance of the 'Washington Connection' is generally ignored in the West "and the United States is regarded as a vanguard of the defense of human rights."
The Carter Administration and the Efforts of Congress
The Carter human rights campaign - which was more words than action - proved to be "relatively strong on Soviet and Cambodian violations of civil rights and weak or nonexistent on human rights in U.S. client states." Argentina, one of the premier violators of human rights according to Amnesty International, serves as a good example of the administration's human rights policy." Though Congress did terminate military assistance to Argentina on September 30, 1978, and the Carter administration denied or blocked some loans to Argentina, there is an ample amount of other evidence to suggest that this was not the maximum effort of the United States to curb human rights abuses in this country. For example, all military and training programs were not cut off, even after September 30, 1978. Also, there was no interference with normal trade, "such drastic action is reserved for serious crimes, such as Cuba's expropriation of U.S. property."20
However, after Chilean secret agents assassinated Orlando Letelier, former foreign minister to Allende, and his assistant in Washington, D.C., Jimmy Carter became president and implemented congressional restrictions on Chile. His administration then reduced further economic assistance to Chile. Though loans from the World Bank were approved for the Pinochet regime, the Carter administration voted against other multilateral loans for the country. Although human rights violations in Chile persisted under the Carter administration, the worst violations had ceased; of course this was only after all opposition and perceived opposition to the regime had been brutally eradicated.
Congress, not the Carter administration, put human rights back on the foreign policy agenda of the U.S. and it was Congress that prevented Reagan from taking human rights off the agenda, as he wanted to do in 1981. Congress began this process in 1973, when a House subcommittee began to put it on the agenda of foreign policy. This Committee (which in 1973 was called the Subcommittee on International Organizations and Movements, later to be renamed the Subcommittee on Human Rights and International Organizations of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs) grew out of growing concern amongst some in congress who thought US policy had become too "divorced from traditional American values" in associating with tortures in Latin America policies that were too brutal in South East Asia.21
This initiative on human rights was part of greater concern over foreign policy by Congress: "From 1970 to 1975, Congress ended U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, passes the War Powers Act over the president's veto, blocked CIA involvement in Angola, instigated an arms embargo against Turkey for its policies in Cyprus…and moved in other ways to legislate foreign policy in opposition to an unwilling president."22
Ostensibly, Congress tried to make human rights a major concern of the U.S. in international affairs for over a decade after human rights resurfaced as an issue in American foreign policy. It enacted more than resolutions in favor of "goodness". Some were: adopting "country-specific legislation pertaining to about twenty nations," periodically it passed specific rules requiring the president to pay detailed attention to a series of "functional human rights matters", hoping to ensure that a mandate would be carried out.23
That being said, it must be made clear that the U.S. has taken a unilateral position on human rights, in that it has not ratified some of the major treaties pertaining to their protection. Some of these treaties are: the United Nations Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the United Nations Covenant on Social, Economic, and Cultural Rights, and the Organization of American States Convention on Human Rights. This makes it difficult to specify the scope of congressional actions on human rights. "One cannot identify legislation pursuant to the major human rights treaties and say simply that this is the corpus of U.S. human rights legislation…One must look for U.S. legislation that refers to 'internationally recognized human rights' or to specific international instruments (such as the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights)" Simple Congressional statements are usually meaningless, and are politically forgotten.24
Even though some Congressional measures have produced laws, they are extremely soft. Softest of these are the hortatory statements - the "sweeping general statements by Congress that purportedly declare policy but that lead neither to executive action nor to congressional oversight." Whether or not congressional statements become policy depends "first on the good faith of the executive branch in implementing the provisions and second on the ability of Congress to compel compliance."25
Another measure of Congress is to enact more specific "hard laws", where the executive has little room to maneuver around. The executive branch, however, can still circumvent such legislation, "if congressional interest and consensus are lacking," which it usually does, because such interest and consensus is often lacking. But when it is not the executive has very frequently chosen to ignore Congress and act covertly, and in some cases illegally, as in the case of the Iran-Contra debacle.
As a close observer of these events concluded, 'The case of economic aid to Chile demonstrates that an administration with a will can find a way to circumvent congressional limitations in foreign assistance legislation. By the time Congress became aware of and closed the loopholes, the Pinochet regime had exterminated its opposition and no longer required the support of the United States economic aid program."26
Human Rights Movements: Activities and Strategies
Prior to the 1970s, lobbying efforts by businesses and Latin American governments to influence U.S. foreign policy went virtually uncontested, especially regarding human rights issues. Most efforts to promote human rights in foreign policy came from a handful of congressman, most notably Edward Kennedy and Donald Fraser.
As Schoultz observes: "By 1977, the combined interests groups concerned with the repression of human rights in Latin America had become one of the largest, most active, and most viable foreign policy lobbying forces in Washington."27
This growth was due to numerous factors, large amongst which was the end of the Vietnam War and the believe of many activists in the United States that human rights was a "logical extension of the civil rights movement." By the end of the 1970s there was approximately seventy to eight voluntary human rights centered groups in the United States, focusing in on the violations in the so-called Third World. Around fifteen of these organizations were specifically concerned with Latin America.
In 1976 antiwar and civil rights activist Jaqui Chagron helped form a discussion group, which later became the Human Rights Working Group (HRWG) of the Coalition for a New Foreign and Military Policy. The HRWG played a vital role in uniting a "broad range of religious, peace, human rights, research, professional and social action organizations." 28
The primary task of the group was to coordinate the human rights community in Washington, although a lot of the staff's energy was dedicated to encouraging grassroots activity by its membership. The HRWG created and maintained a forum where a large array of groups could engage one another on their differing "ideological and tactical perspectives," and thus coordinate with one another more efficiently.
The two members of the HRWG that warrant special mention for their excellent work on providing information and analysis, as well as effectively lobbying Congress on behalf of human rights in Latin America, are the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA). Since 1975, WOLA has been working behind the scenes and writing some of the first major legislation conditioning U.S. military aid abroad on human rights practices, WOLA has played a critical role in all major Washington policy debates over human rights in Latin America.
During this period WOLA played an invaluable role of acting as an informal bridge between Latin American citizens and the Washington policy bureaucracy. Other major activities include monitoring United States policy towards Latin America, and giving testimony before Congressional committees, as well as collaborating with other Non Governmental Organizations (NGO's) interested in human rights but lacking expertise on Latin America.
It needs to be stressed that church and church related organizations have also played a critical role as advocates for human rights in Latin American. To illustrate this point we should note that in 1978 nearly half of the members of the Coalition for a New Foreign and Military Policy were church related, and/or church funded.
The feature that was dominant amongst all interest groups that attempted to influence U.S. policy on Latin America was their reliance on Congress. This dependence on Congress stemmed from the fact that its members were most open to influence and were seen as the best way of effecting policy decisions.29
The above highlighted human rights organizations were incredibly influential in raising public awareness on these issues in the 1970s. Of course, one should not overplay how well they did this, since much of the important information and analysis they produced in this period was largely ignored by the mainstream media in the United States, as Chomsky and Herman have documented so well. This meant that a majority of the U.S. population remained in the dark on many of these issues, as remains the case today. They were also not successful in substantially changing the foreign policy of America regarding its support and complicity in the brutal repression in Uruguay and Chile.
It is my contention that this is by and large a result of relying too narrowly on lobbying and legislation, as opposed to putting more emphasis on grass roots mobilization and tactics of engaging in more militant direct action and disruptive tactics, as well as having too narrow of an agenda, particularly as regarded their conception of human rights.
Having come to the conclusion that the human rights movements were not all that successful in bringing an end to the support and participation of the U.S. in the brutality inflicted on the peoples of Uruguay and Chile in the 1970s, it must be made clear that without the valiant work of the organizations that made up this movement human rights would not even be on the table of U.S. foreign policy decision makers.
Furthermore, while these groups were not all that successful in pushing U.S. policy on Latin America in a more humane direction during this period, they have done a tremendous amount in raising awareness of these issues amongst the U.S. public and electoral representatives, despite the abhorrent treatment their work and issues have received in the mainstream media. So successful have they been, in fact, that their language has been repeatedly co-opted in order to justify violent acts of aggression, such as the most recent Anglo-American invasion of Iraq.
And while it is no doubt true that this movement has led to the empowerment of its participants, it may also be true that its co-option has led to disempowerment and an ultimate demobilization of activists.
By co-option, I mean here not only that of elites in their rhetoric, but also by large NGOs that have been known to suck the life out of genuinely grass roots movements. For as Judith Adler Hellman observes, "this kind of disempowerment may occur when a movement is co-opted or repressed. But it may also occur when participants grow discouraged and disillusioned with the dynamics of group participation, the behavior of their co-activists who rise to leadership positions, or the bossiness of foreign or middle and upper-class NGO workers -to cite but a few negative possibilities"30 Furthermore, she very aptly points out that, "small-scale victories of social movements can be seen for what they are: the culmination of the courageous, energetic drive of powerless people to gain more control over their lives and immediate circumstances.
As long as they limit their efforts to the struggle for relatively narrow, concrete goals, they are easier to get off the ground and easier to sustain. As such, however, they risk political insignificance," This is an analysis I am in full agreement with.
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Peter Brogan is a student in New York City. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
1. Herman, Edward S. The Real Terror Network: Terrorism in Fact and Propaganda. (Boston: South End Press, 1982).
2 Sikkink, Kathryn. "The Emergence, Evolution, and Effectiveness of the Latin American Human Rights Network," 64.
3 O'Donnell, Guillermo. "Reflections on the Patterns of Change in the Bureaucratic Authoritarian State,"
4 Schoultz, Lars. Human Rights and the United States policy towards Latin America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981).
5 Schoultz, Lars. "U.S. Foreign Policy and Human Rights Violations in Latin America: A Comparative Analysis of Foreign Aid Distributions, 155).
6 See generally: Chomsky, Noam and Herman, Edward S., The Political Economy of Human Rights, Volumes I and II (Boston: South End Press, 1979); Blum, William, Killing Hope (Boston: Common Courage Press, 1995); and Churchill, Ward On the Justice of Roosting Chickens (San Francisco: AK Press, 2004).
7 Schoultz, Lars, Human Rights and United States Policy Towards Latin America,
8 ibid, 7
9 Chomsky, Noam and Herman, Edward S. The Political Economy of Human Rights: Volume I (Boston: South End Press, 1979, 42-46).
10 Schoultz, U.S. Foreign Policy and Human Rights Violations in Latin America, 154.
11 As quoted in Chomsky and Herman, 46. See in particular end note 8 for this page.
12 Ibid, 47.
14 As quoted by Chomsky and Herman, 270.
15 Ibid, 271.
16 Ibid, 271-272
17 Ibid, 272
18 ibid, 12-13
19 ibid, 273
20 ibid, 35
21 Forsythe, David P. Human Rights and U.S. Foreign Policy: Congress Reconsidered (Gainesville, Fl: University of Florida Press, 1989.)
22 ibid, 2
23 ibid, 2-3
25 ibid, 21
26 Forsythe, 102
27 Schoultz, U.S. Foreign Policy and Human Rights Violations, 75.
28 Ibid, 76
29 ibid, 93
30 Hellman, Judith A. "Movements: Reform, Revolution, and Reaction" NACLA