US President Barack Obama just took a huge step towards righting the wrongs of past US interference in Latin America – at least that’s what we’re supposed to think. During a visit to Argentina last month, Obama announced the declassification of a series of US military and intelligence files dating back to the days of that country’s military regime.
The files include details of US knowledge of human rights abuses committed by the ruthless military junta that ruled Argentina from 1976 to 1983.
Referring to Washington’s role in backing the regime, Obama noted on Thursday, “There’s been controversy about the policies of the United States early in those dark days.”
“The United States, when it reflects on what happened here has to reflect on its own past … When we’re slow to speak out on human rights, which was the case here,” he said.
However, during the 1970s, the US wasn’t “slow to speak out on human rights” at all. Rather, at the time Washington was very quick to act indeed; not to defend human rights, but to encourage the Argentine regime to turn on its own people.
In October, 1976, then US president Henry Kissinger assured the regime it would enjoy unequivocal US support, no matter how much blood was spilled in its efforts to crush domestic political dissent.
“The quicker you succeed the better … The human rights problem is a growing one … We want a stable situation. We won’t cause you unnecessary difficulties,” Kissinger told a visiting Argentine official on October 7, according to a previously classified document released by the US Department of State in 2003.
While dismissing reports of gross human rights abuses as lacking “context,” during that same conversation Kissinger called on the Argentine government to solidify its grip on power as quickly as possible, and seemingly at any cost.
“I have an old-fashioned view that friends ought to be supported,” Kissinger told the official.
Kissinger’s “friends” in the regime went on to massacre as many as 30,000 people, in what is today known as Argentina’s Dirty War. The war saw the Argentine regime try to beat resistance out of the population with a campaign of terror. Dissidents were tortured, disappeared and murdered.
By claiming the US was simply slow to condemn the Dirty War, Obama effectively ignored the fact that his predecessors bore responsibility for the regime’s abuses. If Kissinger hadn’t given the junta a blank cheque to massacre its own people in 1976, then thousands of lives may have been saved.
In effect, Obama sought to soften the horrific reality of US involvement in the junta’s crimes.
The fact that Obama believed this level of misdirection could be acceptable is a clear sign that nothing has fundamentally changed in US policy: Washington still sees Latin America as a subservient plaything, undeserving of justice. Notions of reparations for past US abuses in the region remain laughably distant, and we’re not just talking about Argentina.
Before visiting Argentina, Obama visited Cuba. The visit was part of efforts to bolster ties between the two countries, including fresh vows to end the blockade. Of course, the US will never pay reparations for crippling Cuba’s economy for decades. Moreover, during his visit, Obama couldn’t help but take a few jabs at the government in Havana. In one news conference, he lambasted the Cuban government for holding political prisoners. The move may have come off as awkward or hypocritical, but luckily nobody mentioned Chelsea Manning.
Obama’s broader approach to Latin America isn’t so different to Washington’s traditional cynicism. While again vowing to end the Cuban blockade, earlier in March Obama quietly renewed sanctions on Venezuela. It’s hard to not suspect that the restoration of ties with Cuba has been part of a game to isolate Venezuela, and maybe even an attempt to erode the relationship between Havana and Caracas. The sanctions are widely unpopular in Latin America – but when has that ever mattered?
Indeed, from Argentina to Cuba and Venezuela, US policy remains in a time warp. Obama is happy to throw a bone to right-wing, free market stooges like Argentina’s new president Mauricio Macri, while engaging in endless Machiavellian maneuvering against leftist governments like that of Cuba and Venezuela. So it’s time to be honest, and admit that Obama doesn’t represent a seachange for US policy on Latin America. For Obama, the region remains his backyard.