Monthly Archives: April 2006

‘The Condor Years…’

The Condor Years: How Pinochet and his Allies Brought Terrorism to Three Continents
John Dinges.
New York: The New Press, 2004.

In offering up this new work during the present “war on terror”, Dinges sets out with the noble goal of presenting the criminal activities of South American military dictatorships, Chile’s in particular, in the context of international terrorism. It has long been argued in some corners of the left that, if the word “terrorism” is to have any utility as a descriptor of violent coercion in service of political ends, it must be applied evenly — without regard to the responsible agency or the ideological structures informing it. Put this way, the overseas acts of the Pinochet régime — in addition to those of the Argentinian junta and to a lesser extent their partners in the Condor system — are naked acts of state terrorism, up to and including the assassination of political exiles and opponents.

More challenging still, the definition of “terrorism” can usefully be applied to the internal repression that followed the toppling of Allende’s government, and Dinges takes great pains to describe the social and political climate in those early years, where he had lived and worked for some time. No matter their justifications — the discovery and elimination of threatening subversives, for one — the acts of violence carried out by the Chilean junta were carried out in full knowledge of their “educational” value: Pinochet set out on his historic “mission” to make certain that no organised leftist administration or opposition would be possible in future, and in this was energetically supported by fellow Cold Warriors from Washington to London. His ultimate failure should be evident to anyone watching recent events in Latin America, and even the relatively slender possibility of his prosecution for war crimes has sent shock waves through the international community.

But this timely and important book is marred by the author’s own ideological crimes of omission, and whilst it documents the central events in a compelling and convincing manner, it fails adequately to deal with their socio-political context. In presenting his case against the right-wing military governments, notable for their utter destruction of the leftist guerilla movements then in operation, Dinges manages — through subtle emphases and verbiage — to downplay the violent threat posed by these groups. Yet without this omnipresent threat, the overreaction of the Condor countries becomes even more irrational and inexplicable, and the horror of those years becomes, if anything, even more meaningless.

In his defence, Dinges spends a good deal of time detailing the activities and goals of several Marxist groups, including the newly-formed JCRa trans-continental co-ordinating committee hoping to open the revolutionary struggle against capitalism on multiple fronts. No matter what one may think of the respective political goals of each side in the Cold War struggle, the intent to use violence and terror — including murder, ransom kidnappings, and the targeting of civilian infrastructure as well as military bases — must be condemned in the same manner if an argument is to possess logical consistency (not to mention moral gravity). And the threat these groups posed is painted in clear, bold strokes in Dinges’s own hand:

The JCR was no mere alliance, nor was it a merger of the separate organizations… Each group would fight according to its own timetable and with its own methods… Each member organization would choose when and how to take up arms. But together they would create an infrastructure — an international apparatus to provide mutual logistical, financial, and military support. (51)

The reader should take note that the question of “when” to take up arms is left open, not “whether” to take up arms. These groups were absolutely dedicated to the violent overthrow of their respective governments, and in service of this goal they committed numerous crimes of their own. Dinges mentions several of these, such as the Exxon executive ransom that provided much of its initial operating budget, but his language is frequently conciliatory; even at times dismissive of their criminal operations.

Many of these shifts are subtle, such as references to the groups’ “common strategy to defeat the military dictatorships” [emphasis added]. (50) Or the placement of “terrorist” in quotes when applied to the leftists, highlighting the implicit hypocrisy in the American and Chilean perspectives on these groups, but in a paragraph that calls this designation into question. (93) We are encouraged by these locutions to see the leftists more as freedom fighters than terrorists, and thus willing to excuse their excesses on account of their powerful and nefarious foe.

But this problem goes beyond the sort of minor shifts that might be expected in a personalized account. Even after documenting plans set in motion by the rebels, describing some of their attacks in Argentina and Bolivia, discussing their covert funding and weapons-production capabilities, and noting the military view of their potential threat, Dinges is still eager to exculpate them, as in his commentary on an attack on a guerilla safe house. “The gun battle was used as proof of the continuing ‘terrorist threat’ Chile still faced a year after the coup. But in fact, there had been not a single armed confrontation initiated by MIR [the Chilean Marxist group] or any other opposition group since the coup.” (101) In placing the attack in such terms, we are meant to set aside the publically-announced plans of JCR to foment violent revolution throughout the region, and to dismiss their relative quiescence to that point. Never mind that the security apparatus of the Pinochet régime was working assiduously during this time to frustrate efforts at organizing attacks, and that based upon their own conversations MIR would likely have acted sooner had they been able.

No matter what one may think of the military techniques used, and without in any way slackening the criticism one should level at them and their supporters in Washington the tactics used here work to bring the reader into common cause with terrorists by virtue of a shared opposition to the military governments. The old adage “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” seems here to be implied, but this reviewer firmly rejects the idea that one can defeat an enemy by adopting his tactics. And further, if his condemnations of Kissinger-era Washington policies are to be taken at face value, Dinges shares this perspective, which makes his waffling on the matter of MIR and the JCR all the more frustrating.

In further difficult criticism from the left, the prominent part played by the Marxist groups in bringing to power the military governments of the southern cone must not be understated. Dinges does an admirable job of describing the chaotic political conditions engulfing the weakening Isabelita Perón administration, which was in 1975 succumbing to “the worst of all possible scenarios: a serious guerilla campaign in the mountains of Tucamán province, isolated but unchecked armed actions by ERP and Montoneros all over the country, and — on the part of the Peronist government — and ineffective but bloody death squad campaign targeting public figures identified with the left.” Calls for the military to take over and restore order were heard increasingly through the year leading to the eventual coup. (111) The actions of the rebels do not in any way excuse or mitigate the brutal military régimes and their repressive behaviour, but it does help to explain their existence, and the close anti-subversive co-ordination established with Washington, in ways that are generally lost outside of the Cold War political context.

Yet it is within that context that some of Dinges’s most trenchant criticism is most effective, such as his treatment of the “red-light, green-light” messages of the Kissinger State Department (a matter addressed particularly well in Christopher Hitchens’s book The Trial of Henry Kissinger). And it is from this close context that the relevance to our present circumstances can best be appreciated. The neo-conservative fascination with Islamic terror and the Near East bears a striking resemblance to the ideologically-driven anti-Communist hysteria of the 1960s and ’70s, and had his book’s argument about terrorism been more consistently constructed — and the parallels between Marxist fanatics and Muslim jihadists made explicit — Dinges could have made a more useful and important contribution to the wider debate on terror to-day.

Clearly aware of and inspired by this consideration, Dinges hints at this potential in several places, and we will mention two of them briefly. The first involves exchange of intelligence with “friendly” or allied nations known to be making use of torture. The newspapers have been filled with stories in the past year of CIA flights transferring prisoners to facilities in states known to use and/or condone the use of torture, and it is with this in mind that we could examine US contact and co-operation with the Condor nations. Dinges describes the use of “a short, crude whip… made of heavy cable and pieces of metal wrapped in leather”, of “electric shock and submersion in water” (96-97), and far worse: the conversion of men “into sobbing, broken, and submissive puppets under the control of the interrogator masters.”

Humiliation was total. Manacled on a metal bed frame, naked and spread-eagled, with electric current delivered to their most intimate and sensitive body parts, victims lost all physical control. Sphincters released, muscles cramped in spasms. The entire body quivered and shook in waves of violent seizures. Hangings, dunkings, asphyxiations, beatings, rapes, and mock executions were variations on the basic routine. Some prisoners were run over with trucks. This was real-life horror with sweat and smells and screams, cracking bones and the gushing of every manner of human effluent. (99)

It is with scenes like this in mind that we should review both the theoretical — such as Dershowitz’s comments on the potential utility of torture — and the practical applications of such techniques in the “war on terror”. One need not look much beyond the prison-abuse scandals caused directly by US troops to imagine far worse being carried out indirectly, through “don’t ask, don’t tell” policies with allied nations or by independent military contractors.

The second draws our attention to the danger of mixed messages. Dinges castigates commentators

who believe — out of ideology or cynicism — that there was no sincere effort by many U.S. diplomats to encourage respect for human rights during this time of terror do so in defiance of the obvious and abundant record now available to us. Such simple condemnation misses the deeper story, with much most disturbing significance for ongoing U.S. policy in contemporary wars on terrorism. (199-200)

The use of double-standards and public-private contradictions did not end with the Cold War, and continues to dominate US dealings with much of the world. Here we could cite everything from rejection of the International Criminal Court, to the relative practical treatment of North Korean and Iranian nuclear ambitions, to the continuing sanctions against tiny Cuba whilst egregious Chinese human rights violations go unpunished. It is quite plain that Realpolitik has never left the Washington culture, but the astonishing revival of some of its most unsavoury elements has a great deal to do with the extreme views held by neo-conservative élites, who are just as willing as their Cold War predecessors to overlook the sins of our allies in their zeal to punish ideological foes.

As a work of history, Dinges’s book provides a wealth of information but relatively few footnotes. Much material is drawn from personal interviews, and this can be taken “on faith”, but where government documents — from Washington and South American states — should have been cited directly. Granted that much of the relevant material is now available on government Web sites or published in Kornbluh’s The Pinochet File, but the book limits its audience by failing to provide citations in several key places. Additionally, it is one of the most poorly-edited hardcovers on the market in recent years, with a massive array of spelling and typographical errors scattered throughout. Both of these harm the book, but not nearly so much as its author’s mistaken emphases and inability to draw clear connexions and conclusions that would have made his central thesis more forceful. The failures of the Condor system to reduce popular support for leftist politics in South America, which was the American justification for supporting it, has broad applications to the continuing support of repressive policies worldwide — proving them not only immoral, but logically and historically indefensible.