Latin America Has a Few Lessons for the US On Torture

By Andrew Self, La Trobe University

The world quietly celebrated Human Rights Day (December 10) earlier this month. That week, two big, interrelated human rights events occurred.

The first was the well-publicised revelations that America’s CIA ran and participated in a global torture program which, more than anything, produced vast ambivalence – especially from the top.

The US Senate report recounted, in at times excruciating detail, the CIA’s program after September 11. The program detained – often incorrectly – and tortured those suspected of terrorism. This report not so much provided a watershed moment in America’s self-understanding, but rather revealed how much further it has to go. The report did not lay to rest the public debate on torture: former vice president Dick Cheney said he had “no problem” with detaining innocents.

The second was not so well-publicised, but equally as significant. In Brazil, the National Truth Commission submitted its final report. It was the first time that the Brazilian state began to account for its human rights violations and atrocities during the military regime of 1964-85. This forced a public discussion on a regime that Brazil had previously buried in the past.

As history can strangely often do, these serendipitous events provide a snapshot of where countries are in their national reckoning.

US torture schools

For many, the reports’ revelations do not come as a surprise. Many in Latin America and human rights groups have known for years that the US has been practising, and teaching the world, torture. These techniques and shared intelligence with the US were widespread through Latin America as part of what was known as Operation Condor.

Operation Condor was a secret intelligence system in the 1970s through which South American military states shared intelligence and seized, tortured and executed political opponents in one another’s territory, under the United States’ watch and instruction.

In J. Patrice McSherry’s book Predatory States: Operation Condor and Covert War in Latin America, she concluded that “US forces laid the groundwork for Operation Condor” by working:

… behind the scenes with the Latin American military and intelligence forces that comprised the Condor Group, providing resources, administrative assistance, intelligence, and financing.

The result was state run-terror across nearly the entire continent. Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was the most well-known head of state responsible for torture. In this time, hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans were tortured, killed, disappeared or imprisoned without trial, with the help of Washington.

The training of Latin American security forces for Operation Condor, as well as other human rights violations, occurred at the now-infamous School of the Americas, now known as the Hemisphere Institute for Security Co-operation.

At this “school”, they explicitly taught unlawful and brutal interrogations and the targeting of civilians to instil fear. However, no-one has been prosecuted for the creation of this school, nor for the “torture manuals” which were distributed to governments all over the continent.

Brazil’s search for truth

The National Truth Commission report not only revealed what the Brazilian dictatorship did, but how US military officials spent years teaching torture techniques to Brazilian forces.

Importantly, the Brazilian report had much more scope and power than that of the United States. It named officials and recommended a revision to the 1979 Amnesty Law so that perpetrators can be prosecuted. It called on the military to take responsibility for its “grave violations” and noted that problems still exist within the armed forces.

Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, herself a victim of torture, said through tears that:

Brazil deserves the truth, the truth means above everything the opportunity to reconcile ourselves and our history.

Compare this to US President Barack Obama’s reaction:

These techniques did significant damage to America’s standing in the world and made it harder to pursue our interests with allies and partners.

Latin America’s struggle for memory

The battle that is going on in Latin America is not one like in the US where standing is important. It is a struggle for recovering the nations’ collective memory and facing dark truths as well as justice.

Just as revealing in Latin America’s commitment to not reliving its awful past is this map, which shows the full extend of Washington’s torture program. Only one region has escaped the shame of being linked to the program: Latin America. This is somewhat surprising considering it was not that long ago that it was the United States’ “backyard”.

Given this recent history, how did Latin America free itself of this nightmare, even after then-US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld claimed that the United States and Latin America shared “common values”?

Soon after Rumsfeld’s comment, the so-called “pink tide” of leftist governments hit Latin America. As part of their platform, these governments had a commitment to remembering and prosecuting human rights violators across the continent. Hugo Chávez was already president of Venezuela; Luiz da Silva (popularly known as Lula) became Brazilian president soon after, followed by Nestor Kirchner in Argentina.

The leaders not only ended joint US military exercises, but committed to institutional reform rather than just paying lip service to help create a true path to change. For example, a US State Department cable from May 2005 revealed that Lula refused to do Washington’s bidding in taking Guantanamo prisoners.

Also, through the decades of struggle by social movements, amnesty laws for participants in torture have been overturned and dictators such as Jorge Videla, Alberto Fujimori and Juan Maria Bordaberry have been tried and jailed. Laws on impunity, which had been a strong impediment in the past, have also been removed.

It has not all been perfect. Pinochet escaped conviction before he died. There have been other cases of impunity, and Guatemalan dictator Rios Montt walked free. There is much more work to do, and for many the Brazil torture report is only a starting point – but so far it is a strong step in the right direction.

Latin America has shown that it is not only possible to investigate and prosecute human rights abuses, but also to change the face of a nation only decades after widespread torture. The nations and their collective identity are all the better for it – and it is something the US could learn from.

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