September 11, July 4 and Systematic Torture

Having been asked to comment on the US and the meaning of its power in Latin America, I begin with a triptych of historical references. When John F. Kennedy, Jr., was assassinated more than forty years ago, Malcolm X saw it as a case of chickens coming home to roost. If I understand him, he meant that the US government could not systematically promote, employ, and/or condone violence against African Americans at home and colored peoples abroad, and expect to remain immune from its effects. Speaking at a press conference the year after Martin Luther King, Jr., had been assassinated, H. Rap Brown, a spokesperson for “the sons [and daughters] of Malcolm X,” the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, said, “Violence is as American as cherry pie.” The foundational facts of US history– the genocide of Native Americans and the enslavement and terrorizing of Africans and their descendents –preceded the subjugation of the Philippines and the Caribbean by more than two centuries. Hence, as Rap Brown implied, US imperial violence needs to be viewed in proper historical context. The final reference points not to words, but deeds. As tanks rattled through Santiago streets and people were herded into stadiums by the thousands, on September 11, 1973, Salvador Allende committed suicide in the presidential palace, having refused to renounce his democratic socialist principles. Thus began what later became a worldwide transition to neoliberal capitalism under US imperial auspices.

When the World Trade Centers fell on the morning of September 11, 2001, my initial thought was that chickens had come home to roost with greater vengeance and destruction than anyone had expected. After watching images of people jumping from collapsing, burning buildings on TV, from my rooftop, I gazed at the endless clouds of smoke billowing over Brooklyn, in shock. Even for most of us living in Manhattan at the time, only Hollywood disaster movies– many of them little more than allegories of late imperial anxiety –offered a set of referents with which to interpret what had happened. One suspects that a majority of US residents, far from the material sites of destruction, experienced the events of September 11 with the same immediacy as a combination Hollywood disaster movie/Reality TV show. After hearing a young African American woman blame the attacks on Palestinians, I thought, “It doesn’t matter who did it. Sharon will use this as a way to implement his plan for a Greater Middle East, and may try to drive the Palestinians out of the West Bank altogether, while the bulldogs of the Bush administration will get their war with Iraq. In Colombia, Uribe will convince the Bush administration that he is the hemisphere’s firmest ally in the fight against ‘terrorism’ and will help shift the phony focus on the ‘war against drugs’ to ‘the war against drugs and terror.'” I wish I had been wrong. However, like Rumsfeld and the neoconservatives (Feith, Wolfowitz) to whom Sharon is so close politically, Sharon has encountered difficulties on the road to realizing his insane goals. Uribe has been much more successful.

Excepting Venezuela, Latin America has all but dropped off the radar screen of the US media and policy debate (such as it is) since September 11. Since no one appears to be watching, Uribe has a free hand in dealing with social protest in Colombia, which has been even more thoroughly criminalized, and linked– with or without evidence –to “terrorism.” Mass detentions are now the norm, particularly in Arauca, where most of US Special Forces troops are deployed to train an elite battalion to protect a petroleum pipeline that belongs in part to Occidental Petroleum. Paramilitary activity has taken off exponentially alongside Colombian and US army presence in Arauca, and though the military-controlled and run zones of “rehabilitation and consolidation” (ZRCs) were declared unconstitutional last April, they continue to operate as before, along the pipeline’s route to the Caribbean. At the other end of the pipeline, and similar to the rest of the Atlantic coast, Coveñas is a paramilitary paradise. No need for US Special Forces there: the zone has been (and continues to be) “cleaned” of “subversives” and “terrorists” in order to save “democracy.” Perhaps that explains the recent massacre, in which children were burnt alive, of the Wayúu in the upper Guajira?

In Colombia, unlike Turkey, the cleansing is not ethnic/national, although ethnic and racial minorities, like women and children, suffer a disproportionate amount of the violence. The “cleaning” is political and economic, and designed to a) rid the country of communities that stand in the way of proposed highways, canals, dams, and natural resource extraction; and b) criminalize a broad spectrum of thought and action so that the population will accept the institutionalization of impunity, the deepening of the neoliberal model, and the tightening authoritarian discipline of the government and its paramilitary allies. Never before have trade unionists (especially in the public sector), indigenous and Afro-Colombian movements, human rights activists, students and teachers, neighborhood organizations, and peasant communities come under such sustained assault, and proposed anti-terrorism legislation will make things worse– in a country where the military already exercises police powers.

With firm US backing, however, Uribe will seek a second term in 2006 (constitutional niceties aside). The “peace process” with AUC paramilitaries– which, along with the “bandit extermination” campaign, forms the centerpiece of Uribe’s administration — appears to have stalled for the time being, though some reports (, suggest that war criminal Carlos Castaño, former leader of the AUC, is in Israel. He may have been aided in his escape by the US government, even though Colin Powell declared the AUC a terrorist organization on September 10, 2001, and in spite of the fact that Castaño is wanted for extradition to the US on charges of cocaine trafficking.

For Castaño, exile in Israel would represent a return to the source: following a brief stint in the Colombian army, Castaño received training in Israel in 1983, the year after Ariel Sharon’s most notorious massacres in Lebanon. Carlos Castaño’s “disappearance,” like his older brother Fidel’s, may only heighten the power of the paramilitaries– led by Salvatore Mancuso, José Vicente Castaño, and ‘Don Berna’ –to “negotiate” their insertion into a state against which they have never struggled. There has been much infighting among paramilitary factions of late, which is to be expected, as they are immersed in, and emerged from, the enormously powerful criminal underworld (one of many perverse fruits of US anti-drug policy that have ripened since the days when then Vice-President George H.W. Bush’s principal occupation was prosecuting the drug war). The FARC and ELN guerrillas, meanwhile, who number at least 25,000, are more isolated from the urban majority than ever, but have suffered few major military defeats, having chosen a tactical retreat in the face of government offensives, which have been successful in terms of media representation, but not on the ground. News of paramilitary atrocities has disappeared, but in Arauca, the Guajira, and across the country, massacres, assassinations, and disappearances continue, and would remain unknown to the world except for the work of courageous journalists and human rights activists. In contrast, when the FARC massacred more than thirty coca workers on a paramilitary plantation, it made headlines worldwide. The disparity of media coverage is even more striking than the brutality of the massacres, 70% of which are committed by paramilitaries, and 27% by guerrilla insurgents (almost exclusively FARC).

As Alexander Cockburn pointed out, with respect to Venezuela, it’s the same guys with the same plan: Reagan redux. Roger Noriega and Otto Reich are inveterate conspirators closely connected to anti-Castro Cubans. If a democratically elected government– Allende in 1973 in Chile; the Sandinistas after 1984 in Nicaragua; Chávez after 1998; Aristide in 2004 in Haiti –responsive in any way to the demands of its most exploited and disenfranchised citizens, comes to power in the Western Hemisphere, it must be overthrown “by any means necessary” to prevent the threat of a bad example. If a country begins to overcome the legacy of centuries of racism, poverty, and colonial/neocolonial inequality by regaining some measure of national sovereignty in the US’s “backyard,” the peoples of the hemisphere could get the wrong idea about democracy. They might interpret the concept as meaning direct popular participation in the taking of decisions that affect their daily lives, and they, rather than US or European multinationals, might decide to exercise control over territory and natural resource extraction, processing, and marketing. (Just look at Bolivians.) From the perspective of US imperial planners, this must never be allowed to happen again, especially because between them, Latin American countries (Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador) supply more oil to US markets than the Middle Eastern countries combined. Only the threat of a bad example explains the longevity of the US stranglehold of Cuba. Judging from John Kerry’s public declarations, counter-insurgent visions for Latin America and the Caribbean will not change if George W. Bush loses November’s presidential election.

Along a border which may be militarized with forty-six new tanks that former president of Spain, José María Aznar, donated to Uribe, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez Frías faces the most rightwing, pro-US regime in South America, and if there’s another coup before or after the August recall referendum, do not be surprised if Colombia sends troops at US insistence, possibly alongside US marines or Special Forces, or if AUC units, replete with Colombian soldiers, are deployed. After all, AUC troops were recently discovered on the ranch of a prominent anti-Castro Cuban in Venezuela; an incident which has yet to be clarified, but suggests a possible Miami connection between the rightwing Venezuelans, Colombians, and anti-Castro Cubans.

While resisting the overall thrust of US trade policy– designed to monopolize Latin American resources and markets through free trade agreements –Lula, the last great hope of parliamentary Leftists and anti-globalizers worldwide, agreed to share high-tech border surveillance equipment with Uribe in 2003 and again in 2004. Unlike Chávez, Lula also signed the “Declaración de Asunción” on July 15, 2003, pledging allegiance to the imperial agenda of the “war on drugs and terror.” So far, Lula has shown no signs of having an independent foreign, as opposed to trade, policy. In spite of Chávez’s efforts and the struggles of vibrant people’s movements from Patagonia to Panamá, Latin America remains firmly in the grip of US imperial control, though the consensus in Washington is that Venezuela and the Andean countries have become “trouble spots” where “democracy” is in danger of giving way to “terrorism”? Plan Colombia and its successor, the Andean Regional Initiative, are clear signs of how Washington intends to bring its southern neighbors into line. Compared to the Alliance for Progress, which converted Latin American militaries from “hemispheric defense” to “national security” and emphasized “civic action,” current policy is all iron fist and leather glove.

To close with torture: in contrast to some parts of the world, I suspect that most Latin Americans were not shocked by the revelations from Abu Ghraib. To a greater extent than elsewhere, in Latin America and the Caribbean, successive US administrations helped institutionalize torture, along with “disappearance,” as preferred methods of dealing with dissent during the Cold War. The CIA torture manuals from the 1970s-an era of criminal military dictatorships purportedly designed to fight “communism”-are widely remembered in Bolivia, where people were never disappeared and tortured on the scale of Argentina, Uruguay, or Chile. The only surprise about the images from Abu Ghraib was that they made it into the media. Though influenced in some measure by Israeli policy in the occupied territories, the worldwide gulag system established in Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantánamo, and the oceans of the world, was pioneered in Latin American “National Security States” during the Cold War. Here, US-sanctioned torture is old news. What stands out about US foreign policy when viewed from La Paz (and, I imagine, other parts of Latin America and the Caribbean) is not the changes since September 11, but the remarkable continuity of imperial domination since World War II. Until that continuity is broken, and until the semantic distinction between “democracy” and “dictatorship” can plausibly be upheld, the 4th of July will provide no cause for celebration in the Americas.

FORREST HYLTON is conducting doctoral research in history in Bolivia. He can be reached at

Forrest Hylton is visiting professor of history at the graduate school at the Universidade Federal da Bahia. He taught for four years at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia in Medellín as well as three years at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá. He is the author of Evil Hour in Colombia (Verso, 2006), and has written about Colombia for New Left Review, Nueva Sociedad (Buenos Aires), London Review of Books, Historical Materialism, Against the Current, Nacla Report on the Americas – and, last but certainly not least, CounterPunch.