“The world looks very different depending on whether you’re holding the lash or being whipped by it for hundreds of years.” – Noam Chomsky
This past Sunday marked a decade. Ten years since the attacks of 9/11 fundamentally transformed the domestic policies of the United States government. Ten years since the beginning of the war in Afghanistan. Ten years since the seeds of the PATRIOT Act, the invasion of Iraq and the Bush doctrine were sown.
We, as Americans, have been told repeatedly that we are living in a “post 9/11 world”. The singularly catastrophic events of September 11th, 2001 changed everything, it is claimed. Life in the United States, and around the world, will never be the same. Consider that over the past ten years, not a single day in nearly four thousand has passed that some variation of the word “terrorism” hasn’t been invoked on the 24-hour news channels. We’ve been asked to surrender the precious few liberties afforded us in exchange for an assurance of security from above. And all in the name of an atrocity that, we are told, is exceptional in its scale, its tragedy and its historical significance.
I live in South America, where opinions differ slightly from those often heard repeated in the States. Hugo Chavez, the much reviled Socialist President of Venezuela, has loudly questioned the U.S. government’s official story of the events surrounding 9/11, going so far as to open his own investigation into the terrorist attacks. Even in more moderate countries like Peru, the country in which I live, opinions regarding the culpability of the United States government differed greatly in the aftermath of September 11th. Many on the right of the political spectrum unequivocally supported the Bush administration’s response to the attacks, believing it to be warranted and appropriate. Those on the left of the spectrum, however, believed that although the attacks were tragic, the U.S. government may have been partly to blame due to its interventionist policies over the course of the last hundred years.
This latter opinion has persisted, and evidence of it crops up occasionally. Within the first few weeks of moving to Peru from New York, I began to notice spray painted slogans scrawled on suburban walls in support of Al Qaeda’s fight against the United States. “Viva Al Qaeda” appeared several times, as well as a crudely fashioned heart surrounding the name of the terrorist organization. As one Peruvian man I spoke with made clear, however, the graffiti should not be interpreted as evidence of support for radical Islam, or even tacit approval of the attacks of 9/11. Rather, they’re indicative of a general repudiation of the United States and its foreign policy choices.
Indeed, since 1900, the U.S. has intervened militarily (here meaning anything from armed raids on coca fields to full scale invasions) over 40 times in the affairs of the countries of Latin America, resulting in a cumulative loss of hundreds of thousands of lives. The following constitutes a brief list of some of the largest operations that the United States has conducted in Latin America over the last 100 years:
Panama 1904 -1914– U.S. assists Panama in asserting its independence from Columbia for the purpose of building and controlling the Panama canal.
Nicaragua 1912 -1933– U.S. Marines invade and occupy the country of Nicaragua in order to prevent the America-backed government from being overthrown.
Haiti 1914-1934– United States military invades and occupies Haiti in order to (among other things) satisfy the many debts that the country owed to American bankers.
Guatemala 1954– CIA directs an invasion force after the newly elected Guatemalan government nationalized the country’s resources.
Cuba 1961– CIA directs an invasion force to attempt to overthrow the fledgling Communist government of Fidel Castro. The invasion is a massive failure, and becomes known as the Bay of Pigs incident.
Chile 1973– CIA assists in the overthrow of the democratically elected Marxist leader of Chile, resulting in the 30 year dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.
Nicaragua 1981-1990– The Reagan administration conducts a decade-long covert war upon the people of Nicaragua and the Sandinista government.
The average citizen of the United States is unaware of most of the above listed actions, and many have argued that the ignorance of the people of the U.S. has indirectly contributed to the unaccountability of the American government, both domestically and throughout the world.
With this in mind, I’d like to briefly examine the last two entries on the list, beginning with the war against the Nicaraguans in the 1980s and moving backward in time to address the Chilean coup of 1973.
Our Son of a Bitch
What’s known as the Somoza family dynasty began in Nicaragua in 1936, three years after Augusto Sandino forcibly expelled the U.S. Marines who had occupied the country for 21 years. Anastasio Somoza, at that time only one of several well-known Nicaraguan politicians, together with the United States, arranged for the assassination of Sandino at a meeting in Managua. Following Sandino’s murder, Somoza was invested with the full political, military and economic support of the U.S. government. A new private army was created to serve the dictator, entirely funded, trained and armed by the USA. They were called the Guardia Nacional, or the National Guard, and they were the enforcers of United States policy in the region for close to half a century. The organization quickly became infamous throughout Nicaragua and the rest of Central America for their ruthlessness, their cruelty and their wanton disregard for human life.
The members of the National Guard tortured political opponents, in the words of one commentator, “almost as a sport.” Stories abound of the violence and carnage that characterized the U.S.-backed dictator’s regime. Dissidents were skinned alive with shaving razors, their eyes gouged out with spoons. They castrated prisoners, shot or stabbed protestors, and in one particularly horrifying example of man’s capacity for viciousness, they were said to have thrown political opponents out of helicopters, into the yawning maw of the Masaya volcano, about 30 miles south of Managua. The United States was fully aware of the atrocities and human rights abuses committed under the aegis of the Somoza dynasty, but felt that the needs of North America were better served with Somoza in charge nonetheless. As FDR once famously commented regarding Somoza, “That guy may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.”
The United States policy toward Somoza and the citizens of Nicaragua remained much the same throughout the 1980s during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. In 1979, the people of Nicaragua, calling themselves Sandinistas in memory of the assassinated Augusto Sandino, rose up against the Somoza family and overthrew Somoza’s son, also named Anastasio. He had embezzled upwards of a billion dollars during his reign, and even went so far as to siphon off 41 million dollars of funds intended to assist in the rebuilding of Managua after an earthquake had leveled the city in 1972. In resisting the uprising, Somoza began mercilessly bombing his own people, with the death toll from the bloody revolution eventually reaching an estimated 50,000.
The US, however, fearing that a rebellion in Nicaragua would jeopardize its interests in the region, immediately began to denounce the Sandinistas as Communist radicals, intent on turning Nicaragua into a new Cuba. This was demonstrably false, as the revolution was a popular uprising, not motivated by any political ideology, but by mass desperation and anger. The Socialist Party, the Christian Democratic Party, liberals, conservatives, and even the Catholic Church, all took part in the overthrow of Somoza. More to the point, the Sandinista government did not pursue any economic or political policies that could have been construed as Communist. After four years in power, private enterprise controlled a full 60% of the nation’s GDP. This despite crippling international debt and a crumbling infrastructure – both legacies of Somoza’s tyranny.
But the U.S. would have none of it. Reagan immediately began a devastating international campaign aimed at further debilitating the fledgling Sandinista economy. Despite tremendous success in servicing an inherited debt, and encouraging private economic development, in 1982 the World Bank and the IDB simply refused to continue lending Nicaragua any money, due to “increasing political limitations.” Meaning, of course, pressure from United States. Further, in 1985, the Reagan administration “strangled Nicaraguan trade with an embargo”, effectively financially isolating Nicaragua from the rest of the world.
The campaign against Nicaragua and its people was not limited to the economy. When Somoza was defeated, the National Guard disintegrated. The individual members, fearing reprisal for the years of continued abuse, fled the country. In many cases, they were afforded safe passage aboard United States military planes. The U.S., not willing to abandon its private regional army, reassembled the National Guard on the border of Honduras, and gave them a new name: the contras. They were trained by the CIA (some were even trained on American soil, in Florida) in the methods of guerrilla warfare and terrorism. A how-to manual entitled Psychological Operations in Guerrilla Warfare was published and distributed to the contra army by the Central Intelligence Agency. An article from TIME Magazine describes its contents:
The pamphlet, written in Spanish, recommends use of “selective violence” to “neutralize” Sandinista public officials “such as court judges, police and state security officials.” To make an example of an execution, it is “absolutely necessary to gather together the population affected, so that they will be present and take part in the act.” If “it should be necessary” to shoot a “citizen who is trying to leave town,” guerrillas should claim that he was “an enemy of the people.” Targets who fail to cooperate, the manual instructs, should be “exposed” to police “with false statements from citizens.” The finale of a successful local insurgency is a mob riot. “Professional criminals will be hired to carry out specific selective jobs” like provoking a shooting that will “cause the death of one or more people who would become martyrs for the cause.” A guerrilla commander stationed in a tower or tree should give the signal to begin the mayhem, the manual instructs. “Shock troops” armed with “knives, razors, chains, clubs and bludgeons” will “march slightly behind the innocent and gullible participants.”
The contras took their lessons to heart. In a contemporary report, Human Rights Watch stated that “the Contras systematically engage in violent abuses…so prevalent that these may be said to be their principal means of waging war.” The same report accused the contras of targeting health care clinics, indiscriminately torturing and executing men, women and children, raping women, burning villages, and generally targeting non-military installations for attack. The Catholic Institute for International Relations said of the contras at the time: “The record of the contras in the field, as opposed to their official professions of democratic faith, is one of consistent and bloody abuse of human rights, of murder, torture, mutilation, rape, arson, destruction and kidnapping.” The Guardian newspaper, an English publication, provided the following example of the treatment of Sandinista prisoners at the hands of the contras: “Rosa had her breasts cut off. Then they cut into her chest and took out her heart. The men had their arms broken, their testicles cut off. They were killed by slitting their throats and pulling the tongue out through the slit.”
President Ronald Reagan, however, described the contras as “our brothers” and “freedom fighters” to whom we owe our help. Reagan’s devotion to the contra cause is well-known and unquestioned. His administration went so far as to illegally sell arms to the Iranians in order to more adequately fund the contra insurgency, based in Honduras. This eventually became known as the Iran-Contra affair of the late 1980s.
Nicaragua, of course, was militarily defenseless against a U.S.-backed invasion force. So they did what any law abiding country would do. They took us to court. In 1984, they lodged an official complaint with the International Court of Justice (ICJ) at The Hague, stating that the United States had violated numerous international treaties, international law, and the sovereignty of the country of Nicaragua by “recruiting, training, arming, equipping, financing, supplying and otherwise encouraging, supporting, aiding, and directing military and paramilitary actions in and against Nicaragua.” The Hague, after hearing the arguments from both countries, ruled in favor of Nicaragua, stating that the United States was guilty of “unlawful use of force” and had encouraged human rights violations through dissemination of pamphlets such as Psychological Operations in Guerrilla Warfare. The ICJ ordered the United States to desist from hostile actions and to pay reparations to the Nicaraguan government. Whereupon, the United States “decided not to participate in any further proceedings”. The United States subsequently prevented the U.N. Security Council from enforcing the judgment of the ICJ, effectively bringing all hope of a just resolution to an end.
Finally, in 1989, only ten years after the expulsion of Somoza from Nicaragua, the people of Nicaragua capitulated to the United States, voting out the Sandinistas and electing candidates from the U.S.-backed National Opposition Union – an anti-Sandinista political party. The decade had been filled with untold incidents of cruelty, viciousness, human rights violations, assassination, and terrorism, funded and supported by the U.S.A. The average citizen could take no more. A TIME Magazine editorial praised the Reagan administration for its deft handling of the Nicaraguan problem:
Ever since the trauma of Viet Nam, the U.S. has sought a less direct and costly method to have its way. Where military force could still do the trick cost effectively, the U.S. was willing to use it…But in Nicaragua, wittingly or not, Washington stumbled on an arm’s-length policy:wreck the economy and prosecute a long and deadly proxy war until the exhausted natives overthrow the unwanted government themselves. For Americans, the cost was minimal…The contra war cost Managua tens of millions and left the country with wrecked bridges, sabotaged power stations and ruined farms. The impoverishment of the people of Nicaragua was a harrowing way to give the National Opposition Union (U.N.O.) a winning issue.
Reagan’s contras cost the lives of anywhere from 30 to 35,000 Nicaraguans. But American influence in the region had been restored. And in the end, that’s what counts. It should put the tired notion to rest, however, that terrorism is ineffective. If Nicaragua demonstrates anything quite clearly, it’s that terrorism can be quite successful, particularly when it’s state sponsored.
The First 9/11
September 11th, 2001 was, in fact, the second 9/11 of infamy. The first took place in Chile, in 1973, when a democratically elected Socialist President was overthrown by a soon-to-be military dictator with the assistance of the CIA.
Dr. Salvador Allende was a Chilean physician and politician whose career spanned nearly four decades. He was a committed Marxist, and believed strongly in the nationalization of industries and the collectivization of agriculture. He campaigned for the presidency four times, three unsuccessfully. In 1970, he was elected in a very close three-way race.
During the run up to the 1970 election, the CIA was already working against him. According to documents released by the CIA in 2000, the agency was engaged in a vigorous propaganda campaign to discredit Allende, along with numerous other Marxist politicians and sympathizers. Despite this, Allende achieved 36.2% of the popular vote, compared to his challengers’ 34.9% and 27.8%, respectively. According to the Chilean Constitution at the time, when none of the candidates received a clear majority of the popular vote, the Chilean Congress was to break the deadlock by electing the candidate with the most popular votes. Accordingly, the CIA adopted a “two track” strategy to get rid of Allende.
In Track I, as it was called, the CIA intended to use money, influence and political pressure to force the Chilean Congress to vote for a candidate other than Salvador Allende. When this failed, the CIA moved on to Track II. The Track II plan, known as Project FUBELT, was to encourage members of the Chilean armed forces to carry out a coup against the President. Track II, however, failed. The CIA employed three groups of right-wing militants to attempt the coup in 1970. Each group agreed that it was necessary to kidnap Army Commander Rene Schneider if the coup was to be a success. Schneider was a firm constitutionalist, who believed that the role of the military was to safeguard the people, not to participate in the political process. Clearly, he was an obstacle. On October 22nd, 1970, Schneider was attacked and fatally wounded during the attempted kidnapping by one of the three groups working on behalf of the CIA. The agency put the plan on hold.
Throughout the first three years of 1970, the CIA worked tirelessly to dismantle the Chilean economy, much as Reagan did in Nicaragua in the 1980s. President Richard Nixon and his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, wrote the CIA a kind of blank check, ordering them to undermine the Chilean economy in any way possible, to “make the economy scream” in Nixon’s words.
The CIA further approved the “redirection of Track I operations that…funneled millions of dollars to strengthen opposition political parties. CIA also provided assistance to militant right-wing groups to undermine the President and create a tense environment.” This tense environment culminated in the coup led by General Augusto Pinochet, which overthrew the democratically elected Allende government on September 11th, 1973. If the CIA is to be believed, the agency was fully aware of the military plot to overthrow the President, but was not involved directly:
Although CIA did not instigate the coup that ended Allende’s government on 11 September 1973, it was aware of coup-plotting by the military, had ongoing intelligence collection relationships with some plotters, and – because CIA did not discourage the takeover and had sought to instigate a coup in 1970 – probably appeared to condone it. There was no way that anyone, including CIA, could have known that Allende would refuse the putschists’ offer of safe passage out of the country and that instead – with La Moneda Palace under bombardment from tanks and airplanes and in flames – would take his own life.
This last statement, however, is suspect, and may call the agency’s claim of non-culpability into question. Audio recordings of General Pinochet and Vice Admiral P. Carvajal have been released, in which they discuss the supposed “offer of safe passage”. The conversation follows:
CARVAJAL: The President has a machine gun, with 30 rounds, and the last one he’ll use to shoot himself in the head.
PINOCHET: Those aren’t bullets…This asshole won’t even shoot a rubber bullet…Unconditional surrender. No negotiation. Unconditional surrender!
CARVAJAL: Agreed. So the offer to get him out of the country still stands?
PINOCHET: The offer to get him out of the country still stands. But the plane drops out of the air with him in it.
That the CIA would be blissfully unaware of Pinochet’s true intentions is difficult to believe, given the intimate knowledge that the agency, by its own admission, had of the coup.
As the bombs rained down upon La Moneda palace, Salvador Allende refused to be moved. He stated that he would not resign the office that he had been appointed to by the people of Chile. In his final address to the nation from inside the besieged palace, he offered the following words of consolation and hope to a nation that was about to endure 30 years of oppression, imprisonment and torture:
Workers of my country, I have faith in Chile and its destiny. Other men will overcome this dark and bitter moment when treason seeks to prevail. Keep in mind that, much sooner than later, the great avenues will again be opened through which will pass free men to construct a better society. Long live Chile! Long live the people! Long live the workers!
Shortly after delivering this final radio address, Salvador Allende shot himself in the head in his private office within the palace, rather than be captured by those who he considered traitors to the country of Chile.
General Augusto Pinochet was shortly thereafter declared the leader of the military junta that was to rule Chile with an iron fist until 1990. The CIA immediately began an intensive propaganda campaign aimed at fostering a positive image of the dictatorship, as well as rationalizing the overthrow of the Allende government:
After the coup in September 1973, CIA suspended new covert action funding but continued some ongoing propaganda projects, including support for news media committed to creating a positive image for the military Junta. Chilean individuals who had collaborated with the CIA but were not acting at CIA direction assisted in the preparation of the “White Book,” a document intended to justify overthrowing Allende. It contained an allegation that leftists had a secret “Plan Z” to murder the high command in the months before the coup, which CIA believed was probably disinformation by the Junta.
Meanwhile, known supporters of Allende were rounded up by the military and herded into the national stadium. Two thousand people eventually ended up in the stadium, which was essentially transformed into a concentration camp aimed at eradicating the most ardent supporters of the Allende administration. Many never emerged. The tortures began almost immediately. According to one man who was lucky enough to leave the facility alive, the military would beat the prisoners around the genitals with rubber truncheons, until the prisoners passed out from the sheer pain. They would then be returned to the bathrooms, broom closets and changing rooms that served as makeshift holding cells, and left to sleep without pillows or blankets until the following day, when the process would begin again.
One prominent Allende supporter was named Victor Jarra. He was a well-known Chilean singer/songwriter, as well as a poet and a theatre director. He was also a political activist and a member of the Chilean Communist Party. He spent two days in the stadium, during which time he would sing and compose poems to keep the spirits of his fellow inmates up. At the end of two days, he was shot 44 times with a sub-machine gun before his body was dumped in a poor barrio of Santiago. In the last poem smuggled out of the stadium before his death, he wrote: “How hard it is to sing when I must sing of horror, in which silence and screams are the end of my song.”
The human rights violations under Pinochet were widespread, systematic, and brutal. In a wealthy suburb of Santiago, a house dedicated entirely to the torture and execution of political opponents was established. The place was called Villa Grimaldi, and was surrendered to the military by its owners in exchange for the release of their daughter from prison. Untold suffering took place behind the walls of this sprawling compound, many times in one of several austere, wooden towers erected on the property, designed specifically as places of punishment and death. It was maintained and run by agents of the DINA, the Chilean intelligence service, and Pinochet’s version of the SS. A typical day, as described by a former inmate of Villa Grimaldi, went something like this:
The day begins with a breakfast of boiling tea in a small metal container and half a bread. Lunch is at midday, soup with potato skins floating around in it and pieces of carrots. Sometimes we eat the agents’ leftovers, with olive pits, bits of fish and fishbones mixed in with it. Almost impossible to swallow. The screams and moans take your appetite away. But we’re forced to do it. Meanwhile, they never stop calling people to the “parrilla” (the “grill” torture method), to endless interrogations… It is a world of contrasts. Guards play the guitar to the sound of the wailing…
Sara De Witt, imprisoned at Grimaldi in April of 1975, stated that she was stripped naked and tied to a large rack. Electric wires were wrapped around her body, twisted around her breasts and inserted into her vagina. She states that DINA agents would continually pump electricity through her until she blacked out from the pain, and then it would start again. De Witt, despite the unbelievable cruelty that she endured, is one of the lucky ones. Most brought to Villa Grimaldi never left.
The Valech Report, an independent report on human rights abuses under Pinochet, released in 2004, states that between 1973 and 1990, nearly 40,000 people were imprisoned and tortured for political reasons in Chile. The Rettig Report, commissioned in 1991 by the President of Chile, after Pinochet had left office, states that at least 2,300 people were murdered in Chile for political reasons during Pinochet’s reign. Some outside estimates, however, range as high as 3,100 people killed or disappeared during the three decade dictatorship.
The CIA was acutely aware of Pinochet’s abuses, but, as in Nicaragua, the United States government found it more profitable to continue supporting a dictator than to address his violation of human rights. Perhaps this is because, by the CIA’s own admission, its agents took an active part in the commission of said violations. This from documents released by the CIA in 2000: “Many of Pinochet’s officers were involved in systematic and widespread human rights abuses following Allende’s ouster. Some of these were contacts or agents of the CIA or US military.”
Meanwhile, the human rights abuses that were committed by the Pinochet regime were not limited to Chile. On November 25th, 1975, Manuel Contreras who was then head of DINA, the Chilean secret police, as well as a paid asset of the United States CIA, met with his Argentinian, Bolivian, Paraguayan and Uruguayan counterparts, as well as with numerous CIA operatives in Santiago, Chile. They were there to discuss the implementation of a wide-reaching system of political oppression and terror that would become known as Operation Condor.
The stated goal of Condor was to eradicate “Marxist subversion and terrorist activities” in South America. What it developed into was unrestrained murder, torture and assassination, both within South America and abroad. In 1976, Orlando Letelier, ex-minister in Allende’s government, and his secretary, Ronnie Moffi, were killed in an explosion in Washington D.C., by men believed to be working on behalf of Operation Condor. General Carlos Prats, the military chief of staff of Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity Government, was killed along with his wife in Buenos Aires. The ex-president of Bolivia, Juan Jose Torres, was also murdered in Buenos Aires by men working on behalf of Condor. Uruguayan ex-parliamentarians, Zelmar Michelini and Héctor Gutiérrez both met their end in the Argentinian capital, again at the hands of Condor agents. And these are only the high-profile figures.
In 1992, Dr. Martin Almada discovered, in the back of a police station in Paraguay, what have come to be known as the Archives of Terror. The archives consist of a massive amount of records detailing the fate of thousands upon thousands of Latin Americans, arrested, tortured, disappeared and killed under Operation Condor. In all, the archives record the murder of 50,000 people, the disappearance of 30,000, and the arrest and imprisonment of roughly 400,000 between 1973 and 1990. The history of Condor, only slowly coming to light, is a history of violent oppression, abuse and death.
The CIA, of course, was fully aware of (and, according to many, an active participant in) Condor from its inception. On its own website, the agency states that:
Within a year after the [Chilean] coup, the CIA and other US Government agencies were aware of bilateral cooperation among regional intelligence services to track the activities of and, in at least a few cases, kill political opponents. This was the precursor to Operation Condor, an intelligence-sharing arrangement among Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay established in 1975.
The phrase “in at least a few cases” is clearly an understatement, as the Archives of Terror graphically demonstrate.
In light of our involvement in the coup of September 11th, 1973, political commentator Noam Chomsky, wrote in a recent article commemorating the ten year anniversary of 9/11/2001, that:
It is useful to bear in mind that the crimes [of 9/11] could have been even worse. Suppose, for example, that the attack had gone as far as bombing the White House, killing the president, imposing a brutal military dictatorship that killed thousands and tortured tens of thousands while establishing an international terror centre that helped impose similar torture-and-terror states elsewhere and carried out an international assassination campaign… That, plainly, would have been a lot worse than 9/11.
The Most Ignorant People in the World
As I previously stated, the general population of the United States is not typically aware of any of these human rights violations, or the devastation wrought by their country in the region of Latin America. It’s not a topic often found in most American textbooks. A Catholic priest, Father Miguel D’Escoto, who served as Foreign Minister to the Sandinista government of Nicaragua during the 1980s, recently referred to average Americans as some of the “most ignorant people around the world about what the United States does abroad.”
The actions of the United States are not lost on the citizens of Latin American countries, on the families of the victims and the dead, on the survivors. They do not easily forget a death toll of hundreds of thousands, the faces of the disappeared, the mass graves in the countryside. With all of this in mind, I decided to talk to the people of Peru, to see if their feelings on 9/11 had been influenced by the knowledge of America’s past aggression in the region. An impartial observer would be hard-pressed to differentiate between the kind of terrorism that America experienced on the morning of September 11th, 2001, and the terror, torture and murder inflicted upon the people of Latin America, under the aegis of the United States government, over the past century. Indeed, in volume 35 of the NACLA report on Latin America, author Ricardo Stevens referred to the 1989 invasion of Panama (dubbed Operation Just Cause by Ronald Reagan), in which El Chorrillo, a poor suburb of Panama City, was burned to the ground, resulting in an untold number of civilian casualties. In all, the invasion of Panama (a country with a population at that time one quarter of the size of that of New York City) cost roughly 3,500 Panamian lives. The United States lost 18 servicemen. Said Stevens:
…how much alike [the victims of 9/11] are to the boys and girls, to those who were unable to be born that December 20  that they imposed on us in Chorrillo; how much alike they seem to the mothers, the grandfathers and the little old grandmothers, all of them also innocent and anonymous deaths, whose terror was called Just Cause and the terrorist called liberator.
I decided to take advantage of my position as an English instructor to ask my students what their opinions were on the events of 9/11. I was particularly interested to know whether the events of that day were connected in their minds with the interventionist policies of the United States throughout not only Latin America, but the entire world. Did they see the attacks as a brand of justice? Did they view it as a manifestation (however misplaced) of reasonable anger? Or did they agree with the opinion of those in the Bush administration, that the terrorists simply “hate our freedoms”, and that the attacks were motivated by a kind of juvenile envy, and more generally, evil?
The responses were surprising.
9/11 in Peru
Universally and unequivocally, every Peruvian with whom I spoke expressed their profound sympathy and sadness for those who had lost their lives on September 11th. They all spoke of being glued to their televisions, as were most Americans. They recalled the horror of the events, the tragedy and sorrow as they watched the towers burn. One man spoke of being so overwhelmed by emotion that he actually shed tears for the victims. The capacity for empathy on the part of the Peruvian people, most of whom were in no way connected to the event themselves, who were simply witnessing the terror unfold thousands of miles away, deeply impressed me.
Their sympathy, however, extended only as far as the people of the United States. The government was another story. In the minds of the men and women that I talked to, the division between the government’s culpability and the people’s innocence was clear and firm. When I asked them whether or not the United States “deserved to be attacked,” as some throughout the world have maintained, the majority of responders stated that yes, perhaps the U.S. government deserved to be violently resisted, but that the men and women who lost their lives on 9/11 were in no way responsible for the actions of their government, and that they were killed unjustly. In the words of one Peruvian man, “I could never support anyone who kills people.”
I found this response interesting, particularly in light of the fierce pride that the majority of Americans have in their “representative democracy,” which logically would make the average citizen as culpable as the government that ostensibly represents him or her. But rather than press the point, I chose to move on.
I asked numerous people what they thought of a theory that’s been recently gaining quite a bit of ground in the States and abroad. Did the United States government take an active part in the September 11th atrocities? Fully one third of Americans believe that 9/11 was a government conspiracy of some kind. Several respondents felt that it was quite possible that the U.S. had perpetrated 9/11 as an excuse to enter Iraq and Afghanistan. Many felt that at the very least, the government must have had foreknowledge of the attacks. Most felt, however, that regardless of the truth, there was simply no way of being certain. “The people at the top, they know the story,” said one man, “but people like you and me will never know for sure.”
My final question to the men and women with whom I spoke was whether or not they felt that there existed a philosophical link between the terrorism of September 11th and U.S. foreign policy over the course of the last century. Was there a connection, in their minds, between the horror of 9/11 and the horrors of Operation Condor, of Pinochet, of Nicaragua, of the countless and bloody coups that the United States instigated, of the democratically elected leaders assassinated, of the political dissidents silenced? Was there an ideological connection between the attacks in the States and, more recently, the mass killings and sterilizations carried out under Alberto Fujimori, the criminal dictator of Peru who left office in 2000? He was supported in full by the U.S. government, and USAID assisted him in the forced sterilization of 300,000 indigenous Peruvians.
Many felt uncomfortable answering the question, knowing that I’m an American. One man, however, a self-described moderate, provided me with his honest assessment. After a moment of reflection, he said that he felt the difference between the attacks of September 11th and the actions of the United States in Latin America is that the United States, more often than not, does not openly attack Latin American countries. As in the case of Nicaragua or Operation Condor, the U.S. moves behind the scenes and facilitates the attacks of paid henchmen on the ground. America traffics in deception and subterfuge, funds radical groups, works with the military to assist in undemocratic coups, kidnaps influential people, etc… But a direct attack is more rare, largely because the bean counters in Washington have determined that the costs of a full-scale attack often outweigh the benefits reaped. America, he said, moves behind the scenes.
After a further moment of consideration, he continued. He said that just as America operates beneath the surface in Latin America, so too must the U.S. operate in the Middle East. His next statement was candid and unflinching. “The difference,” he said, “between us South Americans and the people of the Middle East, is that they’ve responded and we haven’t.”