Last week, at Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting, Adam Johnson and Jim Naureckas had a great piece on Duane Clarridge, Ben Carson’s foreign-policy adviser. Clarridge is an Iran/Contra veteran, in charge of Reagan’s CIA in Latin America during the 1980s when the United States was involved neck-deep with murderous dealings with drug runners, death squads, torturers, and fascists. Having, among other things, brokered money from South Africa to the Contras and came up with the lethal idea of mining Nicaragua’s harbor, Clarridge is part of that cohort of transnational spooks that ran operations in Cuba, Chile, Panama, southern Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East. After the Cold War, some, like Clarridge, went private, creating corporate security and intelligence firms that profited on war in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf. Others, like Clarridge’s “close friend,” Ollie North, went on to Fox News.
It makes sense that Clarridge would be advising Carson. Iran/Contra was a galvanizing event for the New Right (as I tried to describe in Empire’s Workshop), creating a dense set of alliances that have endured to this day.
But beyond Iran/Contra, look closely enough at any prominent US politician and inevitably you will find some shady dealing involving Latin America. Each decade has its paradigmatic intrigue–a set of relationships that, taken collectively, capture the broader contours of US history since the 1960s, as it moved from Cold War Keynesianism to neoliberal dispossession, from Clarridge to a new global political economy that Bill and Hillary Clinton helped put into place.
In the 1960s, after the Cuban Revolution, CIA and FBI agents often coordinated their activities with anti-Castro Cuban exiles. The Cuban Revolution had the effect of dispersing throughout Latin America and Florida criminal activity (especially narcotics) that had previously been concentrated on the island, creating a transnational logistical infrastructure that could be activated as needed (most famously during Iran/Contra, when narcos both donated large sums of money to support the Contras and used their supply lines to arm the Reagan-backed anti-communist rebels).
As the 1960s shaded into the 70s, Richard Nixon and his associate Bebe Rebozo cultivated “extensive and close ties to the anti-Castro Cuban exile community in Miami,” including with a number of dicey real-estate developers (including one who brokered Nixon’s purchase of his Key Biscayne house). Among them were Bernard Barker and Eugenio Martínez, two of the Plumbers who would break into the Watergate Hotel. All told, four Cuban-Americans were convicted for that break-in; all four were employees of the CIA and all were involved in the earlier Bay of Pigs invasion.
In the 1980s, even as Clarridge was running covert operations in Nicaragua, Mitt Romney was tapping “rich Latin Americans, including powerful Salvadoran families living in Miami during their country’s brutal civil war” to capitalize Bain. “At the time,” writes the Los Angeles Times, “U.S. officials were publicly accusing some exiles in Miami of funding right-wing death squads in El Salvador. Some family members of the first Bain Capital investors were later linked to groups responsible for killings.” Bain was set up in 1984, at a moment when the Reagan administration was simultaneously executing its bloody war in Central America and beginning to dismantle the New Deal at home. Romney’s Bain played a key role in both: gutting domestic industry and channeling the rewards to oligarch families in Salvador funding the deaths squads. During Bain’s first decade–roughly overlapping with Salvador’s Civil War–the company paid out “a stunning 173% in average annual returns.”