Marc Cooper, a Nation contributing editor, is an associate professor of professional practice and director of Annenberg Digital News at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.
Cooper’s career in journalism began in 1966, when he founded and edited an underground newspaper in high school in Los Angeles. After being expelled from the California State University system for his antiwar activities in 1971 by order of Governor Ronald Reagan, he signed on to work in the press office of Chilean President Salvador Allende. The 1973 military coup found Cooper working as Allende’s translator for publication, and he left Chile as a UN-protected refugee eight days after the bloody takeover.
Since then Cooper has traveled the world covering politics and culture for myriad press outlets. He reported on the Yom Kippur War, Lebanon, South Africa, Central and South America, Eastern and Western Europe and domestic American politics for dozens of publications ranging from Playboy and Rolling Stone to the Sunday magazines of the Los Angeles Times and The Times of London.
Cooper was news and public affairs director of KPFK-FM (Los Angeles) from 1980-83 and has been a correspondent for NBC, CBC and Monitor Radio. For television, he has been a reporter and a producer of news documentaries for CBS News, The Christian Science Monitor and PBS Frontline.
Cooper’s journalism awards include prizes from The Society of Professional Journalists and PEN America, and several from the California Associated Press TV and Radio Association.
An anthology of Cooper’s work, Roll Over Che Guevara: Travels of a Radical Reporter, was published by Verso in 1994. He was also a contributor to the collection Literary Las Vegas, published in 1995 by Holt.
Returning to the system from which he was expelled, Cooper has also taught in the journalism departments at the Northridge and Los Angeles campuses of California State University.
His Pinochet and Me: A Chilean Anti-Memoir (Verso), is now available in paperback.
During the two-day opera buffa that was the on-again, off-again military coup against Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice played a brief but memorable role. Throughout the long day and night that the democratically elected Chávez was sequestered and the military's handpicked provisional president, Pedro Carmona, dissolved all constitutional institutions--the National Assembly, the Supreme Court, the attorney general's office and the national electoral commission--Rice and the rest of the Administration remained approvingly silent while sending spokesman Ari Fleischer out to say in effect that it was Chávez's own fault. Only after the elected president was rightfully restored to office did Rice take to the boards to scoldingly tell Chávez that he, not the coup-makers, should "respect constitutional processes."
Although the coup was denounced by nineteen Latin American heads of state as a violation of democratic principles, the Bush Administration publicly countenanced the military takeover. Not only did Washington demonstrate a radically selective view of the rule of law; it left itself starkly isolated in a hemisphere that has been subject to endless US lecturing on democracy. As Senator Christopher Dodd has noted, "To stand silent while the illegal ouster of a government is occurring is deeply troubling and will have profound implications for hemispheric democracy."
The leading US papers of record so shamelessly parroted the White House in their initial editorials that the New York Times had to apologize. By midweek, Chávez back in power, the Times recanted: "Forcibly unseating a democratically elected leader, no matter how bad he may be, is never something to cheer."
There can be little doubt the Bushies were crestfallen that Chávez didn't get the permanent hook. Venezuela supplies the United States with nearly as much oil as Saudi Arabia. And Chávez has gleefully thumbed his nose at Americans by befriending Castro, warming to Qaddafi and Saddam and playing footsie with the Colombian guerrillas. Indeed, Chávez--a former army paratrooper--rode to power as the embodiment of open challenge to the so-called Washington Consensus of hemispheric free-market economics in 1998. And he has gone out of his way ever since to enrage both the Venezuelan economic oligarchs and the US State Department with regular blasts of red-hot populist rhetoric.
That Washington wanted to get rid of Chávez is undeniable. Prior to the attempted coup US officials met with Carmona and other leaders of the coalition that ousted Chávez; and Rogelio Pardo-Maurer, the Pentagon official responsible for Latin America, met with Gen. Lucas Rincon Romero, chief of Venezuela's military high command in December. Later, during Carmona's brief reign, according to a State Department official quoted by the Times, Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs Otto Reich phoned Carmona--ostensibly to urge him not to dissolve the National Assembly. The Organization of American States panel now investigating in Caracas should probe the precise scope of any US role in the failed coup.
Whoever masterminded the ousting of Chávez badly miscalculated. The majority of Venezuelan combat unit commanders remained loyal and forced Chávez's return to power. The political alliance that spearheaded the coup--the upper and middle classes supported by the trade union movement--was also short-lived. After the military picked Carmona, a prominent leader of the business class, to run the provisional government, labor--literally overnight--withdrew its support. Within hours of taking over, Carmona found himself isolated, and his house of cards collapsed.
That said, no one should confuse Hugo Chávez with Salvador Allende, the democratically elected Chilean president overthrown thirty years ago by a similar US-supported alliance of the economic upper class and the military. Chávez has failed to produce much of the radical change he promised. He showed little of the respect that Allende did for authentic democratic institutions. Unlike Allende, whose public support increased before his overthrow, Chávez has seen his original 80 percent support drop to just over 30 percent. And Allende never turned police and armed supporters against peaceful protesters as Chávez did, provoking a shootout that injured scores and killed more than a dozen.
Allende spoke to his nation as a professor; Chávez, who staged his own failed coup in 1992, often as a thug. Chávez's undeniable charisma flirts with megalomania, his denunciations of all opposition borders on the paranoiac and his antidote to the hollower forms of democracy is often ham-fisted demagogy. Corruption within his regime, an increasingly autocratic style and an inability to make much of a dent in poverty have swollen Chávez's opposition far beyond the ranks of the pro-American economic elite.
After winning by a landslide in 1998, Chávez moved aggressively to dismantle the old system. The two traditional parties were pushed to the margins, the discredited congress was replaced by a unicameral house, corruption was exposed and punished. Vowing to lift up the two-thirds of the population earning less than $2 a day, and infuriating the economic oligarchy, Chávez issued a series of decrees increasing state intervention in the economy and beginning much-needed land reform. But Chávez's authoritarian ways and his failure to make good on deep reform suggest that consensus-winning alternatives championing social justice and authentic democracy are still works in progress.
Chávez presides over a fractured and volatile Venezuela. The military split is perilous. The class divide has been ripped wide open. Now is the time for Chávez to talk a whole lot less and do a whole lot more. When Gabriel García Márquez met with Chávez earlier in his tenure, the Colombian writer was "overwhelmed by the feeling that I had just been traveling with two opposing men. One to whom the caprices of fate had given an opportunity to save his country; the other, an illusionist who could pass into the history books as just another despot." And just as it seemed Chávez was succumbing to the latter fate, almost magically he has been granted another chance to achieve the former.
After two decades of visiting political nightmares on the state--from the infamous Prop 13 to the immigrant-bashing Prop 187--California's notorious initiative and referendum system finally promises to deliver a welcome gift this November. Enough signatures have been gathered to qualify the Election Day Voter Registration initiative (EDR) for this fall's ballot. The measure, which would allow citizens to both register and vote on Election Day, is seen by many as the most significant election reform possible at this time.
Since the 2000 presidential debacle in Florida, reformers have mostly concentrated on improving the logistics of balloting. "But that isn't the problem," says Cal Tech Professor Mike Alvarez, co-author of a new report analyzing EDR. "The problem in American elections isn't voting machines. The biggest problem is voter registration."
Voter participation both across the United States and within California has plummeted steadily over the past three decades, constantly setting new records of anemic turnout. "Worse, the higher your income and the older you are, the more likely you are one of those left voting," says former Connecticut Secretary of State Miles Rapoport, now the head of the Demos organization, which commissioned Alvarez's study.
Supporters of EDR say it's the perfect prescription for reversing the downward trend. In most states voters must register some weeks or even months in advance of actual balloting, and the process is often cumbersome and confusing. There are currently six states that have moved to EDR, and the increase in turnout has been an immediate 3-6 percent. Voting among young people and those who have moved in the previous six months runs some 15 percent higher in states that have adopted EDR. Similar reforms, like "motor voter," which allows registration at the time of driver's-license renewal, have not been as effective. Motor-voter does bring in a lot of registrations, but many of the new potential voters don't show up on Election Day.
Perhaps the most dramatic use of EDR was in Minnesota's 1998 gubernatorial election. More than 330,000 last-minute, previously unregistered voters were swept to the polls by the enthusiasm around independent candidate Jesse Ventura and were the decisive margin in his victory over the two traditional parties. EDR is also credited with boosting liberal Senator Paul Wellstone into office during his first run, in 1990.
Alvarez thinks that if EDR is adopted in California--where the electorate has been disproportionately white, suburban and elderly--an increase of up to 9 percent in turnout can be anticipated. "That's something like 1.9 million additional voters in a presidential election," he says. And that increase would contribute to greater ethnic, class and age equity. Increases in voters aged 18-25 would increase by a projected 12 percent, Latino voters by 11 percent and African-American voters by 7 percent. A 10 percent increase could be expected from those with a grade-school education or less, an equal increase from those who have lived at their address for less than six months and a 12 percent increase from new-citizen voters.
The measure is endorsed by a plethora of nonprofit activist groups and has also gotten support from top moderate Republicans, including former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan and former US Representative Tom Campbell. No organized opposition to EDR has yet emerged, though nativist groups are expected to charge that it opens the door to fraudulent voting by undocumented aliens.
But backers of the measure are taking no chances. The gathering of about 700,000 signatures was financed with $1 million from California businessman and philanthropist Rob McKay, whose McKay Foundation has an established track record in backing social justice issues. And plans are to spend another $7 million to see the initiative through to victory in November. During the 2001-02 legislative session, a dozen other states are expected to take up EDR-like proposals.
"We have to lower the barriers to voting every way we can," says McKay. "We are no longer dealing with just voter apathy. Now we are dealing with outright voter alienation. With this measure we are trying to draw the line in the sand."
I arrived here in Chile May 8 as a material witness in a criminal complaint against former dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet for the murder of an American friend just days after the 1973 coup. But by the time the week was over, I found myself giving face-to-face testimony against one of the former top officials of the US Embassy in Chile and--in effect--against former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
The last time I had seen former US Consul General Fred Purdy was on the morning of September 17, 1973, when I and a handful of other young Americans living here at the time stood nervously outside his office and pleaded with him for some sort of US protection. Six days earlier General Pinochet's military had seized power, declared a state of internal war and unleashed a ferocious and bloody spasm of terror and murder. But a gruff, impatient and profane Purdy snubbed our plea and literally pushed us back into the chaotic streets, telling us we had nothing to fear from the new military regime--and that the US embassy could and would do nothing for us.
We would soon learn that at about the same hour we were begging Purdy for help, a truckload of Chilean troops had kidnapped our fellow American Charlie Horman from his home a few miles away. Within forty-eight hours Horman was summarily and secretly executed. As memorialized in the 1982 Costa-Gavras film Missing, his body wasn't found for another month, and his killers were never identified. Within days of Horman's execution, another young American friend, Frank Teruggi, was also seized and murdered by Chilean forces. And Chile was plunged into the seventeen-year nightmare of Pinochet's military dictatorship that stamped out at least 3,000 other lives and sent nearly a million into exile.
Purdy has never admitted he was wrong, and it's likely he still believes he never made a mistake. US policy-makers from Henry Kissinger in the 1970s to Otto Reich, George W. Bush's top man on Latin America, have always been quicker to praise Pinochet for his fealty to American-style free-market economics than to condemn him for his butchery.
Now, however, Judge Juan Guzmán Tapia--the courageous Chilean magistrate who last year indicted Pinochet on kidnapping and murder charges--is helping set the historical record straight. At the behest of Charlie Horman's widow, Joyce, Judge Guzmán opened a formal criminal probe into the circumstances of Horman's death, including any US role. As a witness in Judge Guzmán's chambers for three days, I was asked to confirm under oath that in the wake of the military takeover, Purdy and the embassy turned their back on Americans in need--especially Americans thought to have been sympathetic to Socialist President Salvador Allende, deposed in the coup.
Under Chile's arcane Napoleonic legal system, Purdy, who now lives in Santiago, was subpoenaed for a careo--forced to be personally confronted by me in the presence of the judge. Purdy, now 73, may be visibly aged but he is the same truculent functionary I remember from that morning twenty-nine years ago. His objections to my testimony were loud enough to be heard by others in the waiting room outside the judge's chambers. He vociferously argued that he had done everything possible to save American lives in the aftermath of the coup and that Horman could not be rescued, primarily because he had never sought the help of the embassy. In recent declarations to the Chilean press, Purdy had claimed--with no substantiation--that Horman might have been picked up because he was friendly with an armed ultraleft group. So here we were, back to 1973. According to Purdy, honest people had nothing to fear from the Chilean military.
But Judge Guzmán was clear. "I have to tell you, Mr. Purdy," he said calmly, "there are indications you were involved in a cover-up and that you have not been fully forthcoming with the investigation." Judge Guzmán then officially declared Purdy inculpado--a "suspect"--in his investigation.
Thus Purdy becomes the first former US official to face possible criminal penalties in a case arising from the 1973 Chilean coup.
Infuriated by the judge's ruling, Purdy stomped from the chambers and angrily confronted a waiting claque of courthouse reporters. With TV cameras rolling, Purdy--pressed to explain his behavior in 1973--grabbed a reporter by the arm and shouted in an odd Spanish-English mix, "Momen-fucking-tito!" Purdy's indignation, featured prominently in Chilean newscasts, takes us to the moral center of this story. Purdy was shocked that a US official might actually be held responsible in a foreign court for crimes perpetrated by US policy. The obscure Purdy is now an important symbol in the quest for international justice. If the "Pinochet principle" established that former heads of state lack immunity from human rights violations, then so do ex-consuls general.
Purdy was caught in Guzmán's net only because he retired here and could not escape a Chilean subpoena. But Guzmán's bigger targets are sixteen other former US officials, including US Ambassador to Chile Nathaniel Davis and Kissinger. More than a year ago, Guzmán requested that Washington make these officials available. Only by questioning them can anyone begin to answer key questions like what the US government did or did not know about the murder of its own citizens and to what degree functionaries like Purdy were following a State Department line of cover-up for the Pinochet junta. So far Washington hasn't responded to Guzmán's request. Kissinger told a British audience in late April that while "it is quite possible mistakes were made," a certain number of errors are inevitable and "the issue is whether, thirty years after the event, the courts are the appropriate means by which determination is made."
Some pieces of the Horman puzzle that have emerged from thousands of pages of recently declassified documents indeed point to some level of US involvement. "There is some circumstantial evidence to suggest US intelligence may have played an unfortunate part in Horman's death," reads one State Department memo, obtained by the National Security Archive. "At best it was limited to providing or confirming information that helped motivate his murder by the GOC [government of Chile]. At worst, US intelligence was aware that GOC saw Horman in a rather serious light and US officials did nothing to discourage the logical outcome of GOC paranoia."
The Chileans might have been paranoid, but Washington was coldly calculating. The Nixon Administration found it more compelling to support Pinochet's regime than to fully investigate and solve the murder of its own citizens. In early 1974, shortly after Horman and Teruggi's bodies had been found and Pinochet's blood orgy was rising to fever pitch, the State Department official in charge of Latin America, Jack Kubisch, had a private meeting with then-Chilean Foreign Minister Adm. Ismael Huerta. A confidential US Embassy cable to the State Department reports that in that meeting "Kubisch raised this subject [of Horman's murder] in the context of the need to be careful to keep relatively small issues in our relationship from making our cooperation more difficult."
The multilingual Judge Guzmán exudes erudite refinement. The son of a well-known poet, bearded and partial to blazers and regimental ties, Guzmán seems more the country squire than crusading magistrate. But his patience and polish, his deliberate even-temperedness, have led not only to indictments of the once-untouchable Pinochet but also of fifty-five other Chilean officers. As he ushered me into his chambers, he stopped first to shake the hands of several suspect former and active police officials he had cited who were waiting in an adjacent room. "Sometimes it is very difficult to have to treat these men you know are criminals and murderers as gentlemen," he said. "But that's why we have laws to punish them."
In accord with those laws, Guzmán says that if the United States doesn't act soon on his request to gather testimony from Kissinger and other US officials, he'll have no choice but to file for their extradition to Chile. Kissinger could satisfy Guzmán's request by testifying before a US judge, who would ask the questions Guzmán wants answered. Guzmán doesn't want to indict Kissinger; he only wants to hear his testimony on these supposedly "relatively small issues." But there's a better way: Kissinger should get on a plane to Santiago and spend a few hours with the judge to help clear up these crimes. And he can be sure that Judge Guzmán will, at all times, treat him strictly as a gentleman.
On the eve of George W. Bush's recent tour of Latin America, Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes equated the advantages of a global free market with the peaks of the Himalayas, characterizing them as summits so inaccessible that the poor cannot even see them, let alone scale them. Fifteen years of US-prescribed free markets and trade liberalization in Latin America have generated an average annual growth rate of only 1.5 percent, far short of the 4 percent needed to make a serious dent in poverty levels. Add to that the Mexican peso meltdown of 1994, economic stagnation in Central America, the Brazilian currency crisis of three years ago, the political and economic collapse of Peru, endless war in Colombia, coup jitters in Venezuela and the staggering crash in Argentina, and one can understand Fuentes's pessimism.
"Trade means jobs," Bush said as he met with regional leaders and promised a harvest of benefits from his proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA)--a thirty-two-nation pact Washington hopes to implement by 2005. But for all Bush's talk of a prosperous hemispheric future, his policy initiatives are mired in a cold war past. The Administration has just anointed a former Oliver North networker and interventionist hawk, Otto Reich, to head the State Department's Latin America section. And much as in the days of the Reagan wars in Central America that Reich helped promote, the Bushies seem to believe that the region's ills are better solved by guns than butter. No sooner had Washington signed off on the sale of a new fleet of F-16s to Chile (ending a two-decade ban on sophisticated-weapons sales to Latin America) than the Administration began asking Congress to increase military aid to Colombia and to lift all restrictions on its use. Those critics who argued that the $1.3 billion antidrug "Plan Colombia" would suffer mission creep and inevitably morph into a prolonged counterinsurgency war are now seeing their darkest fears confirmed.
On the economic front, Bush offered little more than warmed-over trickle-down Reaganomics to a continent in desperate need of a lift from the bottom up (the three countries he visited--Mexico, Peru and El Salvador--all suffer poverty rates of 50 percent or more). Certainly not lost on his Latin American audiences was the one-sided nature of the free trade offered by Bush. For nearly two decades now, Latin Americans have been told that by adhering to the "Washington Consensus" of market liberalization they will be able to partake of the rich American pie. But the cold fact is that the US market has remained closed to a cornucopia of Latin American goods.
Some remedy was found in the past decade's Andean Trade Preference Act, designed to lure impoverished Latin Americans away from local drug economies by allowing them to freely export a list of 4,000 goods into the United States. But since ATPA expired last year, the Senate and the White House have balked at its reauthorization because of protectionist pressure from conservative, primarily Southern, textile and agriculture interests. Its reinstatement could shift 100,000 farmers in Peru alone from coca to cotton cultivation.
Washington's refusal to depart from such unequal and inflexible models has--unwittingly--provoked some positive alternative stirrings. The use of armored cars and tear gas barrages in downtown Lima during the US-Peruvian presidential meeting was an official acknowledgment of the growing restlessness with the status quo. Newly elected President Alejandro Toledo has seen his popularity plummet to 25 percent as he has failed to offer economic alternatives. In Brazil center-left candidate Luiz Ignacio "Lula" Da Silva leads in this fall's presidential polls and vows to block the FTAA if elected. Even the incumbent, more conservative, President Enrique Cardoso has begun to steer Brazil toward more independence from Washington. It's still too early to predict how the developing debacle in Argentina will play out.
Finally, El Salvador, where Bush ended his Latin American tour, couldn't have provided a more fitting showcase for the current disjuncture between Washington and its southern neighbors. During the 1980s the United States was willing to spend billions to fight a war against leftist insurgents and promised a bright, democratic future. That conflict was settled ten years ago with a pact that opened up the political system but did nothing to address the social ills that provoked the war in the first place. And once the guerrillas were disarmed, Washington lost interest; in the past decade US aid has been reduced to a paltry $25 million a year. Today El Salvador languishes with vast unemployment, radical economic disparities and a murder rate forty times higher than that of the United States.
Democrats like California Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa are probably right when they claim that Bush's trip was aimed more at luring the domestic Latino vote than at building bridges to the South. During his 2000 campaign, Bush excoriated Bill Clinton for squandering a chance to improve relations with Latin America. But now Bush seems to be following in that same sorry tradition.