A History of Hypocrisy: The US and Operation Condor

Photograph: Pexels
Photograph: Pexels

Pressure is growing on the United States Government to put the final nail in the coffin of Guantanamo Bay. At the beginning of last year, President Barack Obama promised to push through measures to close the controversial prisoner camp, a promise that was part of his 2008 campaign manifesto. But his administration has faced constant congressional hurdles in its attempts to follow through on the pledge. The camp has become a symbol of the moral decline of the US in its pursuit of terrorists around the globe. Now home to around 130 detainees, it held more than 800 during President George W. Bush’s reign. Subjected to torture and denied their human rights, prisoners continue to be denied the right to a trial at the hands of the US Government.

It is perhaps unsurprising that the closure of Guantanamo Bay has proven difficult. The US Government has always placed its foreign policy aims above those of its human rights values despite rhetoric to the contrary. We need only look back on the first War on Terror to uncover the US Administration´s hypocrisy in fighting for liberty and justice while exercising no restraint in the pursuit of the national interest.

Long before 9/11, terrorism was being fought in what was known as the ‘Third World War’, a phrase coined by Juan Carlos Blanco, foreign minister of Uruguay from 1972 to 1976. Blanco oversaw a period in history during which he claimed the governments of South America were in the midst of a war against left-wing terrorists. The 1970s in South America was a period of intense turmoil.Military dictatorships, such as that of Augusto Pinochet in Chile, perceived that the threat they faced was organised and global in scale.

Chile was instrumental in the creation of the framework that would perpetrate the ‘Third World War’. Pinochet’s own rise to power in 1973 was in part facilitated by tacit US support; the CIA had previously taken part in a botched coup to remove the dangerous Socialist government of Salvador Allende. In the aftermath of the successful coup, and in a response to the perceived global threat of communist and socialist networks, the Chilean secret service spearheaded a cross-continental organisation codenamed ‘Operation Condor’ in order to hunt down and eliminate potential political targets. It was in effect a mopping up operation in Chile with hundreds of individuals rounded up and executed in the months after the coup. The Condor system developed out of necessity as many of its own targets had fled into exile in neighbouring states.

According to John Dinges, an authority on Operation Condor and author of ‘The Condor Years: How Pinochet and his allies brought terrorism to three continents’, Condor was separated into three phases. Phase one involved the basic sharing of data and information on suspected terrorist’s presence and movements within the member countries which included Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and later Bolivia, Brazil, Peru and Ecuador. Phase Two involved the targeting and elimination of individuals connected with left-wing organisations within South America. This systematic undertaking was vital to the deconstruction of the left as an opposition force during the period. Suspects were detained and transported across borders to be tortured; once all information was obtained they were often executed. Phase three was merely the expansion of phase two – it widened the network of targets to countries outside of South America. In pursuing its objectives it was highly successful. Dinges states that ‘the high profile Condor victims include(d) a former president, a dissident military chief and moderate political leaders with impeccable democratic credentials.’

The roll call of victims included an audacious attack on US soil. Orlando Letelier, foreign minister under the socialist government of Salvador Allende, was an avid campaigner against the regime of Pinochet. He lobbied in the US and Europe for countries to sever all ties with his country’s dictatorial government. For his success he was designated a top target of the fledgling Condor system. On 21st September 1976, while travelling along his usual route to work a bomb planted underneath Letelier’s car explode, killing him instantly.

In his summary on the incident , Dinges notes that ‘the bombing on Sheridan circle in 1976 was the most egregious act of foreign-inspired terrorism ever committed in the US capital. The crime was aggravated by the fact it was organised and carried out not by an enemy of the United States, but by a government that was a firm ally, and by a security force trained and with intimate ties to the US military and to the CIA.’

Throughout the period in question the CIA provided material support in the form of intelligence, weapons and computer systems to the intelligence services in the Condor countries. However, perhaps more importantly they provided support in the presence of intense public and congressional opposition for regimes that were responsible for gross acts of violence against their own citizens, including the setting up of political concentration camps, frequent clandestine executions and horrific torture methods.

The example of support for Pinochet’s regime has already been mentioned. Across the border in Argentina the US also acted questionably. The cables uncovered by Dinges investigation of Robert Hill, US Ambassador to Argentina, illustrate the low priority given to human rights by the Washington administration in the 1970s. Hill stated that ‘Guzetti (Argentine Foreign Minister Admiral Ausgusto Guzetti), went to the US fully expecting to hear some strong, firm, direct warning on his Govt’s human rights practices. Rather than that, he has returned in a state of jubilation, convinced that there is no real problem with the US.’ A military dictatorship had recently overthrown the government of ‘Isabelita’ Peron, beginning a brutal regime of terror that was responsible for the disappearance of thousands, some say as many as 30,000.

In pursuit of its warped world view, the US sought to promote democracy and human rights on the public stage, while simultaneously enacting its foreign policy in private by giving support to military dictators such as Pinochet and the military junta in Argentina. This is true from the period of Operation Condor until now; the US has frequently turned a blind eye to the atrocious actions of its allies in order to maintain good relations. Democratisation and human rights have almost always been subsumed in preference to US foreign policy.

Take as a recent example the case of Bahrain. In 2011 Arab nations were facing unrest in the aftermath of the ‘Arab Spring’, echoing the threat faced by the Condor countries. The response was repression. Multiple atrocities were committed against its own people in an attempt to quell the protests. Human Rights Watch reported that the US and its allies were ignoring the situation ‘because of diplomatic convenience and deference to Saudi Arabia.’

The report continued that ‘there appears to be almost total impunity for serious human rights violations, such as extrajudicial killings and torture.’ In order to maintain good relations with a key allies in the region key moral values were cast aside. Then as now, the actions of the US can be framed in a wider context. During the Condor years the Cold War mentality reigned supreme and the global fight against socialism trumped all other issues. Aversion to human rights and democratic values can be seen in the light of the Truman Doctrine. If one of the South American nations were to collapse and be ruled by a leftist government it would create a domino effect unleashing socialism through out the continent. Socialism would not be allowed a foot hold in America’s own backyard. The Bahrain example follows the same logic as Saudi Arabia remains a key oil rich ally in the Middle East in the wider context of the War on Terror.

In consequence the US provided support to Condor countries ‘Third World War’, whether it was through back channels or private communication, the support was there. It is significant that the war against the left was framed as a ‘war’ and its enemies labelled as ‘terrorists’. In doing so the military governments were justifying actions that were out with the norms of legal action and measures which dehumanised its victims. Labelling enemies of the state as terrorists provoked the chimerical notion of state security that is often trumpeted in response to any perceived threat that has moral implications. It was a tactic also employed by the Bush government in the pursuit of Islamic terrorists in the wake of 9/11, and during the Nixon administration’s ‘War on Drugs’. In response to threats of terror and in the pursuit of national security, all measures can be placed on the table.

Now, in the case of Guantanamo Bay and the recently released US Senate report on CIA torture, the US can be seen to be the inheritor of its own hypocrisy. The US routinely transgresses the democratic values which it professes to advocate. It continues to detain individuals without trial, using methods of torture that belong in the medieval ages and carries out its own systematic targeted assassinations across the world.

The only subtle difference is that we now see drone strikes being used instead of car bombs.In pursuing terrorists at home and abroad, the US has itself become a perpetrator and supporter of terrorism, just like the Condor countries before it.

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Sean Mowbray 9 Articles
Sean is a History & International Relations graduate from the University of Dundee. He blogs on a number of political issues and writes short stories in his spare time. A lover of travel, he is always counting down the days until the next adventure begins.

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