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.