“There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen.”
– Vladimir Lenin
Between 1973 and 1990 scores of people were disappeared by the US supported fascist regime of Augusto Pinochet in Chile. They were incarcerated, tortured and thousands were murdered. In fact, the official total of those killed by the regime is just over 40,000. But some critics suggest it was much higher. Pinochet was able to do all of this with the blessing of the CIA who assisted him in the coup against the elected President, Salvador Allende, and in his reign of terror afterward in Chile. The painful lessons of the Pinochet years have often been obscured under neoliberal historical revisionism, but with what is currently unfolding in cities like Portland, Oregon, it is urgent to revisit them.
When Donald Trump’s federal agents rolled into Portland last week, they began to employ classic police state tactics of intimidation. Tear gas was employed, “non-lethal” munitions, and the psychological terror of unmarked vans snatching protesters, and even those simply standing by, off the streets without arrest warrants and whisked off to undisclosed locations. The use of forced disappearance should not be underestimated because it is, perhaps, the most effective tactic at crushing dissent and eliminating political rivals.
Under the fist of General Pinochet, the state became a ruthless force of terror. In September of 1973, at least 10,000 people, many of them students, activists and political dissidents, were rounded up by the military shortly after he took the office of the presidency by a US supported and orchestrated coup.They were taken to the National Soccer Stadium in Santiago where they were subjected to torture or were massacred outright. Thousands of bodies were buried in mass graves. Thousands were never recovered as they were discarded in rivers and even in the Pacific Ocean. Even today, families await justice and the chance to bury their loved ones.
Forced disappearances are a crime against humanity according to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. And there is no statute of limitations on this crime. But, as we have seen over the past few decades, the US government and military cares little for the international rule of law. Indeed, it has enjoyed impunity for its atrocities while those who violate these statutes in the Global South are often brought to trial and punished severely. The US invasion of Iraq, along with the occupation and atrocities are clear examples of this. And under Trump, the American Empire has divorced itself even more from international bodies that seek at least some regulation of state excesses or the management of crises. His withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change and his recent withdrawal from the World Health Organization during a global pandemic point to a brazen disinterest in engaging with the international community.
Pinochet’s Chile was not alone in its use of forced disappearances. During the Dirty War in Argentina at least 30,000 people were disappeared and murdered by the US backed, rightwing military junta. In fact, under the US implemented and CIA backed and assisted “Operation Condor,” which targeted leftist or socialist political activists, student organizers, and academicians, the entire South American continent became a killing field from the 1970s well into the 1980s. Unsurprisingly, the genocidaire Henry Kissinger was deeply involved in these atrocities in much the same way as he was in Southeast Asia and on the African continent. And he assisted in marrying federal agencies, surveillance and state police, and paramilitary mercenaries and death squads to one another in order to carry out the crimes successfully.
It is not hyperbolic for there to be great alarm over Trump’s use of forced disappearances. Although there have been no deaths because of it, his flouting of the rule of law and use of this tactic of terror is not an accident. And the people under him have proven time and time again that they are ever willing to carry out his orders. As the election looms in November, we should not underestimate the timing of this either. Across the nation protests have arisen to confront the long legacy and continuing ruthlessness of racist, police state violence. The rage has been simmering for a long time, and the murder of George Floyd ignited and galvanized millions to take a stand. To Trump, who is one of the most overtly racist presidents to have taken office since Woodrow Wilson or Teddy Roosevelt, this represents the greatest threat to his legitimacy.
The US is now leading the world in cases of Covid-19 with over 140,000 deaths. Indeed, the pandemic is currently wreaking havoc on an American healthcare system which was already suffering from disorganization and beholden to the whims and will of merciless capitalist predation. When Trump came in, he literally threw out the handbook on how to deal with global pandemics, so the ongoing protests to police brutality provide him a perfect distraction from his colossal blundering and incompetence.
And, of course, there are other ingredients to this recipe for disaster. Trump faces a weak candidate in Joe Biden, who cannot seem to form a coherent opposition to his blatant fascist impulses. If there is no meaningful alternative that represents real change in ordinary people’s lives then, like it or not, the people will not bother to vote. There is also the precarious economic situation, the elephant in the room that few wish to acknowledge. With millions unemployed and facing eviction or foreclosure, the elements of fascism may be coalesced even further. God help us if a climate change fueled catastrophe comes this summer or in the fall, because it will be the perfect storm for him to pull whatever levels necessary for him to quell dissent and remain in power. He has such mechanisms at his disposal thanks to the Patriot Act and the NDAA. He can detain any US citizen indefinitely by merely labelling them a terrorist, thanks to legislation designed and endorsed by George W. Bush and Barack Obama. And he has already begun branding anyone who opposes his tyranny, like Antifa and Black Lives Matter, with that spurious charge.
The uprisings taking place across the US are the stirrings of a global mass movement that shows great promise. That they are taking place in the most wealthy and powerful empire on the planet is an indication that this empire itself is beginning to unravel under the weight of its hubris and a long legacy of cruelty, racism and brutality. But no one should underestimate the tremendous pain a wounded giant can inflict as it falls. Its violence is unoriginal, but it will use the only tactics it knows. And we should remember that it is quite familiar with atrocities because it has visited them frequently on the Global South for decades. Portland is a portent. And, as Lenin inferred in the quote above, things can happen rapidly and in a short span of time. We would be wise to heed these urgent lessons before it is too late.