Peter Kornbluh directs the Cuba Documentation Project and the Chile Documentation Project at the National Security Archive (www.nsarchive.org), a public interest research center located at George Washington University (Washington, DC). He is co-author of The Iran-Contra Scandal: The Declassified History (New Press), author of The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability (New Press) and co-author of a forthcoming book on the untold history of dialogue between the United States and Cuba.
During the week of December 17, US freighters are expected to dock in Cuban ports and begin offloading a historic shipment of foodstuffs. In a deal worth up to $30 million, the Castro government has purchased wheat, corn, soybeans, rice and flour and is currently negotiating with Perdue and Tyson to buy chicken in order to replenish supplies destroyed by Hurricane Michelle. Paid for with cash, the sale marks the first major commercial transaction between the United States and Cuba since the Kennedy Administration imposed the US trade embargo forty years ago.
Few people know that President Kennedy exempted food from the original US trade blockade. The Johnson Administration added foodstuffs to the embargo in February 1964 after the conservative senator from New York, Kenneth Keating, complained that Cuban efforts to purchase $2 million worth of lard--yes, lard--would have "a significant impact upon the foreign policy and international interests of the United States." According to declassified White House documents, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy's office asked the Department of Agriculture to provide an analysis of the "uses of lard" in hopes that some ominous strategic purpose could explain US actions. "Cuba could be expected to use 100 percent of any lard it gets for edible purposes," an aide reported back. "It would probably not be credible to take the line that we have decided to stop shipments of lard because it is not solely a food."
Since the end of the cold war, the embargo has proved a serious embarrassment for Washington. Instituted as part of a broad set of punitive measures designed to isolate the Castro regime, the trade sanctions have succeeded only in isolating the United States. Every year for the past decade the United Nations has voted overwhelmingly to condemn the US blockade; the last vote, on November 27, was a 167-to-3 defeat for the United States, with only the Marshall Islands and Israel supporting Washington and all fifteen members of the European Union voting against the United States. Our Western allies have been antagonized by the Helms-Burton bill, which tightened the embargo by penalizing friendly nations that freely trade with Cuba. Indeed, as Cuba has opened its economy to foreign investment and international trade, US corporations and agricultural interests have watched from the sidelines as competitors from Canada, Europe and Asia have built profitable business and commercial partnerships on the island.
US corporate interests, led by giant food conglomerates and rice, soy and wheat growers, have emerged as the principal lobbyists for lifting, at least partially, trade restrictions against Cuba. Once an executive order, the embargo was codified into law by the Helms-Burton bill. But legislators from agricultural states like Missouri, Iowa and Louisiana have progressively plowed into the political turf of the hard-line anti-Castro representatives from Florida; majorities in the Senate and House are moving closer to dispensing with this ineffective, counterproductive anachronism of the cold war.
Last year, on an amendment sponsored by Republican Representative George Nethercutt of Washington, Congress took the first substantive step to rescind the embargo, voting to lift the ban on commercial transactions with Cuba involving food and medicine. But a last-minute provision, inserted by the Republican leadership at the behest of a handful of Miami legislators, prohibited private financing of Cuban purchases. Angry at the punitive credit restrictions, the Castro government stated that it would "not spend a nickel" in the United States until the law was changed.
Cuba's deft decision to alter its rhetorical position and ask the Bush Administration to expedite this $30 million cold cash transaction in the wake of Hurricane Michelle may well contribute to reconsideration of those financing restrictions and indeed the embargo itself. Already, the Senate Agriculture Committee, chaired by Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, has voted to allow private bank and corporate financing. Analysts predict that US economic interests that want to continue such sales will eventually turn their attention to lifting restrictions on travel to the island, since American tourist dollars could provide Cuba with substantial currency to purchase US goods. "This creates momentum," according to Philip Peters, a Republican economic analyst at the Lexington Institute, who will lead a Congressional delegation to Cuba in January. "This re-energizes people who want to trade with Cuba."
"We have always been rather proud of the fact that 'we weren't trying to starve the Cuban people,'" an aide argued to McGeorge Bundy in an abortive effort to keep food from being added to the embargo. After thirty-seven years of trying, and failing, to do just that, restoring food sales has created the first major crack in the embargo. As the current of commerce begins to flow, that crack is likely to widen until the embargo collapses from its own outdated weight.
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.
Henry Kissinger, realpolitiker nonpareil, never gave a damn about human rights.
"Did you hear? Clinton is beginning to lift the embargo. It's on the news," a fellow traveler to Cuba exclaimed in Havana's José Martí International Airport.