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Peter Kornbluh | The Nation

Peter Kornbluh

Author Bios

Peter Kornbluh

Peter Kornbluh is a senior analyst at the National Security Archive in Washington, and co-author (with William M. LeoGrande) of the forthcoming book, Back Channel To Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana.

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Declassified documents reveal the US government's role in the Pinochet
coup.

"I am here in the hope that we can do business," Minnesota Governor
Jesse Ventura told a Cuban audience after cutting the ceremonial ribbon
with Fidel Castro to open the recent US Food and Agri

"I have concluded that we should attempt to achieve normalization of our
relations with Cuba," Jimmy Carter proclaimed in a secret Presidential
Directive shortly after taking office in 1977. With that signed order
Carter became the first and only US President to make a rapprochement
with Fidel Castro's revolutionary government an explicit goal of US
foreign policy. Although his Administration succeeded in negotiating the
creation of "interest sections" in Havana and Washington, Carter's
objective "to set in motion a process which will lead to the
reestablishment of [full] diplomatic relations" eventually fell victim
to the cold warriorism of his national security advisers.

Twenty-five years later, when Carter became the first US President to
travel to Cuba, meet Castro and address the Cuban people, he again
called for normalization of relations. His historic five-day visit, May
12-17, has dramatically renewed the national debate on US policy toward
Cuba.

What the former President described as "an opportunity to explore issues
of mutual interest" has mobilized almost every conceivable interest
group--commercial, political, humanitarian--across the ideological span
on a gamut of contentious issues relating to Washington's approach to
Havana. As the Pope did during his visit to Cuba in 1998, Carter has
astutely managed to simultaneously draw attention to the archaic nature
of the forty-year US embargo on trade and travel, to the merits of civil
dialogue, and to human rights and democracy.

Carter's trip was carefully scripted to balance competing political
interests as well as his own multifaceted personal agenda. Before he
announced his travel plans, Carter dispatched emissaries to Washington
to discuss with numerous NGO and lobbyist organizations the merits of
such a visit; he then received a comprehensive intelligence briefing
from the Bush Administration and a steady flow of delegations and
specialists at the Carter Center in Atlanta, who shared their expertise
on Cuban issues. Pro-dialogue coalitions like the Cuban American
Alliance Education Fund issued statements signed by numerous grassroots
organizations in "full support [of Carter's] initiative for dialogue."
The rabidly anti-Castro Cuban American National Foundation criticized
him for entering into "discussions with the Cuban regime, thereby giving
[it] a measure of legitimacy."

In Cuba, Carter's schedule included three meetings with Castro, two
state dinners, a baseball game and visits to Havana's most prestigious
schools, laboratories and hospitals, as well as meetings with Cuba's
leading dissident, Elizardo Sánchez, and Oswaldo Paya, the
organizer of the Varela Project--a petition drive to reform political
and economic structures. Most significant, in a live nationally
televised address to Cuban citizens from the University of Havana,
Carter carefully underscored the themes of changing both US policy and
Cuba's socialist political system. US-Cuban relations, he said, had been
"trapped in a destructive state of belligerence for forty-two years,"
and he called on Washington to "take the first step" by lifting the
embargo on trade and travel. At the same time, he called for the
"fundamental right" of free speech and association in Cuba, and for
Cubans to be allowed to "exercise this freedom to change laws peacefully
by a direct vote."

For the Cuban government, what Carter said was far less important than
the spirit of recognition and mutual respect in which he said it. As the
only one of the ten US Presidents Castro has faced over the past
forty-three years who has come to the island, Carter got the red carpet
treatment--symbolic and real. A Cuban band played "The Star-Spangled
Banner" when he arrived, and Castro made it clear that there were no
conditions on his visit. "You can express yourself freely whether or not
we agree with part of what you say or with everything you say," Castro
stated in the reception ceremony at the airport.

When Castro first issued his invitation to Carter to visit Cuba, in
October 2000, George Bush had not yet been elected. Now, with a White
House that, as the Wall Street Journal recently described it,
"sees a President whose bacon was saved in Florida in 2000 by the
Cuban-American vote," Carter's trip has taken on a whole new political
cast. Since the Administration could not find any grounds to block his
visit, it tried to undercut Carter by sending Under Secretary of State
John Bolton to the Heritage Foundation to proclaim, "Cuba's threat to
our security has been underplayed" and to allege that Castro had "a
limited offensive biological warfare research and development effort"
that Cuba was sharing with "rogue states." Carter exposed this canard,
and infuriated the Administration, by using his visit to Cuba's leading
biotech facility, on May 13, to share the results of his pre-travel US
intelligence briefing with Cuban scientists and the US press corps: He
had asked the CIA if there was any evidence that Cuba was sharing any
information that could be used for terrorism, "and the answer from our
experts on intelligence was no."

The Bush Administration clearly fears the impact of Carter's trip. In an
effort at damage control, the White House promptly scheduled a speech in
Miami on May 20, at a fundraiser for brother Jeb's re-election campaign,
in which President Bush will express his presidency's hostile policy
toward the Cuban government and, lest US citizens get ideas from the
Carter visit, outline plans to further restrict travel to Cuba.

In tact and in substance, the Carter trip stands in stark contrast to
Bush's political diatribe. His visit cannot help but contribute to the
momentum on Capitol Hill, and throughout the country, to rethink
Washington's retrograde approach to Havana. This past fall Cuba made its
first cash purchase of US foodstuffs in forty years. As trade barriers
are slipping, a bipartisan coalition in Congress--the Cuba Working
Group, led by Arizona Congressman Jeff Flake--has organized a task force
to begin breaking up the embargo piece by piece. Its first focus is on
an amendment to the Treasury appropriations bill to free travel to the
island--legislation that is likely to get a significant boost from
front-page New York Times photos of Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter
walking through charming Old Havana.

"The point is that engagement is more likely to encourage Cuba in the
direction of reforms than unrelenting confrontation," says Wayne Smith,
who served as the Carter Administration's first chief of the new US
interest section in Havana from 1977 to 1981. That point is obviously
lost on Bush. But it isn't lost on his predecessor in the Oval
Office--or on the majority of Americans, who believe that diplomatic
dialogue is far more likely to advance US interests than pandering to a
constituency in Florida to get the President's brother re-elected as
governor.

Food companies ship supplies to Cuba in the aftermath of Hurricane Michelle, in what could be the beginning of the end for the tediously long US embargo of the island country.

The current President George Bush, whose very name evokes a dark era many would prefer to forget, seems determined to resurrect the ghosts of America's scandal-ridden past. A number of his foreign policy appointments are former Iran/contra operatives who are being rehabilitated and rewarded with powerful foreign policy posts.

John Negroponte's nomination to be US ambassador to the United Nations is a case in point. Bush has named him to represent the United States at an institution built on principles that include nonintervention, international law and human rights. Qualifications for the job: Negroponte was a central player in a bloody paramilitary war that flagrantly violated those principles and was repeatedly denounced by the institution in which he would now serve. As ambassador to Honduras from 1981 to 1985, Negroponte was the acknowledged "boss" of the early covert contra operations; he also acted as a proconsul, working closely with the Honduran military commander, whose forces aided the covert war while his embassy consistently denied or misrepresented politically inconvenient evidence of atrocities and abuse.

The nomination of Otto Reich to be Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere is even more offensive to international and domestic principles. A longtime anti-Castro Cuban-American, Reich is backed by Senator Jesse Helms and the hard-line exile groups that want political payback for giving Bush his real or imagined margin of victory in Florida.

Like Negroponte, Reich was a key player in the illicit contra war. In 1983 a CIA propaganda specialist named Walter Raymond handpicked Reich to head the new and innocuous-sounding Office of Public Diplomacy. Housed in the State Department, Reich's office actually answered directly to Raymond and to Oliver North in the White House. A General Accounting Office review showed that Reich's office repeatedly provided sole source contracts to other members of North's network, including those involved in illegal fundraising for arms. More important, a Comptroller General's review concluded that Reich's office had "engaged in prohibited, covert propaganda activities designed to influence the media and the public."

Among those activities, as revealed in declassified records, were "white propaganda" operations--having contractors plant articles in the press or influence print and TV coverage while hiding their government connection--and using US military psychological warfare personnel to engage in, as Reich put it, "persuasive communications" intended to influence public opinion.

Reich himself engaged in a crude form of "persuasive communications," personally berating media executives and harassing reporters if news coverage was not favorable to the Reagan Administration's position. When NPR's All Things Considered ran the first major investigative report on contra human rights atrocities, Reich demanded a meeting with its editors, producers and reporters, at which he informed them that his office was "monitoring" all their programs and that he considered NPR to be biased against the contras and US policy. A Washington Post stringer remembers that after a contentious briefing from Reich in Managua in which the stringer and a reporter from Newsweek questioned the truthfulness of the Administration's assertions, an article appeared in a right-wing newsletter put out by Accuracy in Media calling him a "johnny sandinista" and falsely asserting that the Nicaraguan government was providing the two reporters with prostitutes. Reich's office, the then-US Ambassador to Managua told the Post reporter, was responsible for the rumors.

Reich's role as a revolving-door lobbyist is also likely to be a factor in his nomination hearings. As a partner in the Brock Group, a lobbying firm that according to Justice Department records represented the anti-Castro liquor giant Bacardi, Reich advised Jesse Helms's office on the drafting of the Helms-Burton legislation, which tightens the embargo against Cuba. Since passage of the law in 1996, Reich's own lobbying firm, RMA International, has received $600,000 in payments from Bacardi. Another Reich organization, the US-Cuba Business Council, has received more than $520,000 in US Agency for International Development money for anti-Castro work supporting the goals of the Helms-Burton law. If he's confirmed, Reich would become the key policy-maker interpreting and implementing legislation on Cuba, which he was handsomely paid to promote--a clear conflict of interest.

Reich's only diplomatic credential is his 1986 posting as Ambassador to Venezuela, to which officials in Caracas repeatedly objected. While there, Reich became responsible for the case of notorious terrorist Orlando Bosch, jailed in Caracas on charges of masterminding the bombing of an Air Cubana flight that killed seventy-three people in 1976. In September 1987 Bosch wrote a letter in which he thanked the ambassador as "compatriot Otto Reich" for support--a letter that, after it became public, Reich described in a cable to Washington as "a case of Cuban-Soviet disinformation." When a Venezuelan court ruled that Bosch should be released in late 1987, Reich sent a short "Clearance Response" cable to the State Department's visa office--apparently a request for Bosch to enter the United States. Bosch subsequently entered the United States illegally and was detained on parole violation charges related to terrorism and threatened with deportation because, according to the Justice Department, he had "repeatedly expressed and demonstrated a willingness to cause indiscriminate injury and death." Reich's nomination hearings will provide the first public forum for him to explain the purpose of his "clearance" cable and what role, if any, he played in the first Bush Administration's clearly political decision to drop charges against Bosch and allow him to stay in Florida.

Negroponte has already survived confirmation hearings for two ambassadorships since the Iran/contra scandal and is unlikely to face significant opposition, but Democrats say they are drawing the line at Reich. Senators John Kerry and Christopher Dodd are leading the opposition to Reich on the grounds of his "questionable history." According to Senate aides, opponents plan to put a "hold" on the nomination--a tactic perfected by Helms against Clinton appointments--which will provide time for an investigation, access to classified records and organization of support from farm belt Republicans who understand that Reich's hard-line policy on the trade embargo against Cuba will hurt agricultural interests in their states. The political effort to line up votes against Reich and to seek full disclosure of documents on his public diplomacy operations, ambassadorship and corporate lobbying will begin in earnest after the Senate returns from Easter recess.

In a campaign reminiscent of the successful effort twenty years ago to block Reagan's anti-human rights appointee Ernest Lefever to be Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs, the Center for International Policy, the Institute for Policy Studies and the Washington Office on Latin America, among others, are mobilizing to stop the nomination and are confident they can win. "With so much muck connected to his name and his past," suggests CIP director William Goodfellow, "Reich is an inviting target to show that the Democrats are not dead."

Indeed, failure to block Reich could open the door to ever more noxious foreign policy appointees. Senator Helms's top aide, Roger Noriega, is Bush's lead candidate to be ambassador to the Organization of American States. And at least one conservative religious group is touting pardoned Iran/contra criminal Elliott Abrams as a nominee for a human rights post--ambassador at large for international religious freedom.

"Actions approved by the U.S. government aggravated political polarization and affected Chile's long tradition of democratic elections and respect for constitutional order and the rule of law," reads a White House press release that accompanied the November 13 declassification of 16,000 secret government documents on Chile. That statement, contorted bureaucratese for admitting a US contribution to undermining Chilean democracy and backing a brutal dictatorship, falls far short of accepting US accountability for the national and human horror experienced in Chile--an acknowledgment necessary for Chileans and Americans to reach closure on this shameful history.

The release marks the final installment of the Clinton Administration's special Chile Declassification Project. "One goal of the project," according to the White House statement--issued by the press secretary rather than in the name of the President--"is to put original documents before the public so that it may judge for itself the extent to which US actions undercut the cause of democracy and human rights in Chile." Among the 24,000 documents declassified over the past two years are secret cables, memorandums and reports making that judgment perfectly clear.

The new documents dramatically record the imperial spectacle of high-level US efforts to destroy Chilean democracy in order to prevent an elected socialist, Salvador Allende, from governing. In a declassified transcript of a November 6, 1970, National Security Council meeting, President Nixon and selected Cabinet members casually discuss the need to "do everything we can to hurt [Allende] and bring him down." There, in bald terms, the historical record reveals the callous willingness to promote upheaval and bloodshed to achieve this goal. "You have asked us to provoke chaos in Chile," the CIA station chief in Santiago cabled headquarters in October 1970 during covert efforts to foment a coup; "we provide you with [a] formula for chaos." The CIA Chilean coup-plotters predicted at least 10,000 casualties if the military coup went forward. "Carnage could be considerable and prolonged i.e. civil war."

The CIA knew a year before the coup that Pinochet was prone to ruthlessness. An intriguing intelligence report records Pinochet as saying in September 1972 that "Allende must be forced to step down or be eliminated." A Chilean informant, who apparently accompanied Pinochet on a trip to Panama to purchase US tanks for the Chilean military, told the CIA that US Army personnel based at the Southern Command had assured them, "US will support coup against Allende 'with whatever means necessary,' when time comes."

In the United States, revelations of covert operations to destabilize the Allende government caused a major scandal in the mid-1970s. In Chile, where even the pro-Pinochet media have been forced to report on the declassified US records, this history is only now having a major impact on the national psyche. Throughout the country, there is outrage at this dramatic evidence of US intervention in Chile's internal affairs. A group of prominent senators has demanded that the Chilean government formally protest US "violations of our sovereignty and dignity" and have summoned the foreign minister to explain what action the government of Ricardo Lagos intends to take toward Washington. Privately, Chilean government officials have requested that the United States clearly acknowledge actions that helped change the course of Chilean history.

The Clinton White House considered such an acknowledgment to accompany the final documents' release--but in the end decided against it. Some officials fear that Washington could be held liable for covert war crimes in Chile--that the long arm of international justice that nabbed Augusto Pinochet could someday reach US officials. Although President Clinton did apologize to Guatemala for Washington's cold war policy of aiding and abetting repression--"support for military forces or intelligence units which engaged in violent and widespread repression," the President stated in Guatemala City last year, "was wrong, and the United States will not repeat that mistake"--no similar statement on Chile will be forthcoming. With the declassified documents, we now have a fuller accounting of the US role in Chile--but with no accountability.

"Covert action," the late Senator Frank Church concluded in 1976 after his long inquiry into CIA operations in Chile and elsewhere, is a "semantic disguise for murder, coercion, blackmail, bribery, the spreading of lies...." Had the CIA been fully forthcoming with Church's committee about its ties to Augusto Pinochet's regime, he would have included "and consorting with known torturers and international terrorists."

To the rogues' gallery of world-class criminals the CIA has directly supported--among them Panama's Manuel Noriega, Emmanuel Constant of the FRAPH in Haiti, Nicolas Carranza, former head of the treasury police in El Salvador, Guatemala's Col. Julio Alpírez and, many believe, ousted intelligence chieftain Vladimiro Montesinos, who recently fled Peru--can now be added Gen. Manuel Contreras of Chile. In a declassified report provided to Congress on September 18, titled "CIA Activities in Chile," the agency confirms what so many have long suspected: At the height of the Pinochet regime's repression, the head of Chile's infamous secret police, the DINA, was put on the CIA payroll.

Contreras ran the torture centers in Chile; he ordered the murder and disappearances of hundreds of Chileans. But unlike so many other infamous CIA assets who viciously violated the human rights of their countrymen while their covert handlers looked the other way, Contreras took his dirty war beyond Chilean borders, dispatching his agents throughout the world to commit acts of international terrorism. He is currently in prison outside Santiago for the most brazen terrorist attack ever to take place in the capital of the United States--the September 21, 1976, car bombing that killed former Chilean ambassador Orlando Letelier and a 25-year-old American associate, Ronni Karpen Moffitt.

Having covered up its relationship to Contreras and the DINA for all these years, including initially keeping it secret from federal prosecutors investigating the Letelier-Moffitt murders, the CIA now admits that it knew in 1974 that the DINA was involved in "bilateral cooperation...to track the activities of and...kill political opponents" abroad. Yet in 1975, shortly after the CIA's own intelligence reporting documented that Contreras was "the principal obstacle" to improving human rights in Chile, CIA officials "recommended establishing a paid relationship with Contreras," and a "one-time payment was given." Cozying up to the DINA, the report makes clear, was done "in the interest of maintaining good relations with Pinochet" and to "accomplish the CIA's mission," presumably to gather intelligence to safeguard US security.

The report, however, does not address how the CIA failed to avert a planned terrorist attack in Washington directed by its own asset. Only after the Letelier-Moffitt assassination, the report concedes, did the CIA approach Contreras to discuss Operation Condor--the network of Southern Cone intelligence services he led, which, the CIA already knew, was engaged in acts of murder abroad. "Contreras confirmed Condor's existence as an intelligence-sharing network but denied that it had a role in extrajudicial killings," states the report. Could his gullible handlers have believed this lie? On October 11, 1976, based on a leak, Newsweek reported that "the CIA has concluded that the Chilean secret police were not involved in the death of Orlando Letelier."

Either the CIA was criminally negligent in failing to detect and deter the Letelier-Moffitt assassination, or it was complicitous. Even if the covert operatives running Contreras were not aware of his plans to send a hit team to Washington, their close relations with him, despite his atrocities inside and outside Chile, may well have emboldened him to believe he could get away with this act of terrorism within a few blocks of the White House.

Advancing the US ability to protect itself from international terrorism is reason enough for Congress to hold hearings on how the CIA's covert associations in Chile compromised US security and cost the lives of two human beings. But the larger issue of the US role in Pinochet's horrors must also be addressed. Even the most cynical political observers cannot help but be profoundly disgusted by the CIA's callous debasement of US principles in Chile.

A full accounting will require release of the documents from which "CIA Activities in Chile" was written, as well as the hundreds of other records covering the history of US covert operations there. Despite a presidential directive to declassify the record of its contribution to political violence, terrorism and human rights abuses in Chile, to date the CIA has refused to release a single document on its clandestine actions that helped the Pinochet regime seize and consolidate power. The White House has delayed a final declassification of US records in order to press the CIA to be more forthcoming.

The Chileans have shown great courage by moving to hold Pinochet accountable for his crimes against humanity. But what Chile's human rights investigators have called "the cleansing power of the truth" in confronting their past applies equally to the United States. The CIA can no longer be allowed to hold this history hostage. A full accounting is required for Washington to begin to wash the blood from its hands.

In mid-October 1996, two months after the publication of Gary Webb's series "Dark Alliance" in the San Jose Mercury News, an extraordinary town meeting took place in Compton, California, o

On September 28, 1973, seventeen days after the bloody coup that brought Gen.