In Latin America, Barack Obama went from one country, Brazil, led by a president tortured by a US-supported military regime to another, Chile, led by a president who, as the billionaire brother of one of the infamous “Chicago Boys,” did lucrative business with a US-enabled torturer, Augusto Pinochet. And so the first question he faced from a Chilean reporter was if the United States was “willing to ask for forgiveness for what it did in those very difficult years in the ’70s in Chile?”
Obama deflected: “I think it’s very important for all of us to know our history,” he said, and obviously the history of relations between the United States and Latin America have at times been extremely rocky and have at times been difficult. I think it’s important, though, for us, even as we understand our history and gain clarity about our history, that we’re not trapped by our history.... So, I can’t speak to all of the policies of the past. I can speak certainly to the policies of the present and the future.”
Obama then hedged when pressed if the United States would release some 25,000 classified documents that could help victims of the massive human rights abuses committed under Pinochet. Last month, in anticipation of Obama’s trip to Chile, Carmen Frei, the daughter of Eduardo Frei Montalva, Chile’s president prior to Salvador Allende and believed poisoned by Pinochet in 1982, said that “precisely because there has been such a radical change in the politics of the United States that we believe in the human rights [policies] of President Obama, this is the moment—if he's coming to Chile he can receive the official requests and petitions.” And just before his arrival, Chile's entire center-left congressional cohort signed an open letter urging the US president to declassify the documents. Obama only committed to reviewing any request for information, adding that Washington wants to cooperate, “in principle.”
On this, Obama should take a cue from his Democratic predecessor, Bill Clinton, who did laudably declassify a massive amount of information to help the work of a United Nations truth commission—officially and aptly called the “Historical Clarification Commission"—charged investigating human rights violations during Guatemala’s long dirty war. The documentation was first released to the National Security Archive, a DC-based non-governmental organization, where it was reviewed and analyzed by Kate Doyle, who along with her colleagues at the NSA, including Peter Kornbluh and Carlos Osorio, over the years has worked tirelessly at exposing the dark side of US actions in Latin America. After this initial cull, the documents were passed on to Guatemala. I had the good luck of working with the commission on these documents and can say that the information obtained from them were indispensable in piecing together the architecture of terror, the mechanisms by which the Guatemalan state, with the active support of the United States, was able to carry out widespread repression.
Obama gave his trip’s keynote speech in Chile, holding up Latin America’s move away from the feverish violence of the cold war and embrace of democracy as a model for the rest of the world, with pointed reference to the Middle East.
Let’s hope he is right, for Latin America over the last decade has been a source of inspiration—not for the kind of anemic democracy the necons believe we can impose on recalcitrant states with a barrage of cruise missiles. The ongoing vitality of democracy in Latin America exists despite, not because, of US policy. It is not just rooted in constitutional proceduralism, in electoral rotations and checks on government power but in mobilized protest for a better world. And it is driven by an abiding faith in social democracy, a belief that for a society to be democratic it also has to be just—both in terms of welfare and enforcement of human rights. It is the heroic activists on the ground, from peasants in Honduras to the MST in Brazil and the Mapuches in southern Chile, who refuse to sit still as international corporations seek to turn the continent into a giant warehouse of primary material, water, gas, oil, soy, what have you, to serve the unsustainable needs of a globalized economy. It is the real human-rights activists, people like Berta Oliva, the besieged director of the Honduran Committee of the Families of the Detained and Disappeared, who refuse to keep quiet as they are lectured about letting bygones be bygones—that make the region democratic.
These are the people Obama should be standing side by side with, and a good place to start would be to listen to the Chileans and open up the US archives.
Until then, we have Wikileaks. In recent weeks, the organization has released quite a bit of new information, some of it gossipy (it turns out that the ex-president of Costa Rica, Oscar Arias, “despite his phlegmatic and lugubrious bearing...enjoys a reputation as a lady's man”) and some of it damning. In Mexico and Central America, the United States is striving to put into place a transnational intelligence system, in effect replicating steps it took in the early 1960s when it created the death squad infrastructure that ruled the region for decades. It’s hard to keep up with all the cables, but a good place to start is the excellent googlegroup on Wikileaks Latin America run by Canadian journalist Dawn Paley.