by James Weinstein
In These Times magazine, October 1999
In January 1961, almost exactly two years after Fidel Castro
marched into Havana and overthrew the Batista dictatorship, President
Dwight D. Eisenhower and Treasury Secretary Robert Anderson briefed
the incoming president, John F. Kennedy. "Large amounts of
U.S. capital," Anderson said, "[were] planned for investment
in Latin America." But the investors were holding back, "waiting
to see whether or not we can cope with the Cuban situation."
Just in case Kennedy didn't get the message, Eisenhower added:
"We cannot let the present government there go on."
Eisenhower was not just giving an opinion. He was already
experienced in overthrowing governments of sovereign nations that
threatened U.S. corporate interests. Eight years earlier in 1953,
he had ordered the CIA to topple Premier Mohammed Mossadegh of
Iran-after Mossadegh had nationalized British- and American-owned
oil companies. And in 1954, he had ordered the overthrow of Jacobo
Arbenz Guzman's democratically elected government in Guatemala-
because Arbenz had distributed United Fruit Company land to dispossessed
peasants. Eisenhower also was training more than a thousand Cuban
exiles in Guatemala to overthrow Castro. That effort, the Bay
of Pigs invasion of April 1961, failed, to Kennedy's great embarrassment.
This was an important lesson. It's OK, Kennedy reasoned, to
overthrow recognized leaders and governments of countries that
threaten the sanctity of American capital, but not in the light
of day. So after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, Kennedy-while continuing
his efforts to get rid of Castro with a series of secret assassination
attempts-pursued another path.
Kennedy and his advisers decided to train others to secretly
do our dirty work. The young president proposed in September 1961
to establish "police academies" to teach the Latins
"how to control mobs and fight guerrillas." Kennedy
wanted to increase "the intimacy between our armed forces
and the military of Latin America."
Three months later, Kennedy ordered Defense Secretary Robert
McNamara to set up the first of these secret facilities on U.S.
Army property in the Panama Canal Zone. Its task: to train South
and Central American police forces in riot control, intelligence
and interrogation techniques. "We're going to get control
of the streets away from the Communists down there," said
first brother Robert Kennedy, the most enthusiastic supporter
of the new schools.
Thus the seeds were planted for the School of the Americas,
which for the past 38 years has cultivated the intimate relations
that Kennedy desired between our armed forces and those of Latin
America and the Caribbean. The results have been no secret to
those who cared to know, but they mostly had been kept from the
public until August, when the New York Times reported on a lawsuit
in Paraguay that produced five tons of reports and photos detailing
the arrests, interrogations and disappearances of thousands of
political prisoners during Gen. Alfredo Stroessner's 35-year dictatorship
of that unhappy country.
These documents trace the activities of Operation Condor,
a secret plan of the security forces in Brazil, Argentina, Chile,
Paraguay, Uruguay and Bolivia to crush left-wing political dissent.
The plan formalized and deepened cooperation among police and
military forces in these six countries. And it tied these generals
closer to Washington, which provided much of the funding for their
operations. Among other things, Operation Condor allowed security
officers to take part in joint interrogations, pursue people across
borders and order surveillance on citizens who sought asylum in
Like the state-sponsored terrorists in Haiti, the genocidal
generals in Guatemala and the leaders of El Salvador's death squads,
most of the officers involved in Operation Condor were trained
at the School of the Americas, either in Panama or at Fort Benning
in Georgia. During the Cold War, the rationale for their training
was that the citizens they eliminated were agents of Moscow. In
fact, in almost every instance, these U.S.-trained assassins used
what the Times termed the "club of anti-communism" to
attack indigenous insurgencies and to "snuff out" any
calls for democracy or labor rights.
For a decade or so, progressive members of Congress, led by
former Rep. Joe Kennedy (D-Mass.), have tried to shut down the
School of the Americas. Support for this effort grew slowly each
year. Last month, the House voted to eliminate funding in the
$12.7 billion foreign aid bill for the training of foreign officers
at the school, effectively closing it down. This funding cut,
however is not in the Senate bill, which means the school may
survive in the conference to iron out the differences between
the two chambers.
Call your senator to help preserve this rare victory for human
of the Americas Watch