Time for the United States to Confront Its Coups

by Jacob G. Hornberger
May. 25, 2011

Two Latin American countries — Chile and Guatemala — are confronting coups of long ago that ousted democratically elected presidents and installed U.S.-supported unelected dictators in their stead.

In 1973 Chilean Army Gen. Augusto Pinochet ousted democratically elected Chilean President Salvador Allende from office in a violent coup. Allende died during the coup, and it has always been commonly accepted that he committed suicide. This week, however, his body is being exhumed to determine whether he really took his own life or was killed by Pinochet’s goons.

After taking power, Pinochet pursued the same types of policies that the U.S. government has employed since the 9/11 attacks — arbitrary arrests, torture, indefinite detention, and murder of prisoners. Of course, Pinochet cited the communist threat as his rationale while U.S. officials have cited the terrorist threat as their rationale.

Ever since the Chilean coup, the U.S. government has maintained that it played no role in the coup, notwithstanding the fact that it has been well-established that the U.S. government did everything it could to prevent Allende from coming to power and then encouraged his ouster from office.

What is unclear, however, is how the U.S. government can reconcile its position claiming non-involvement in the coup with the fact that the CIA played an as-yet-undefined role in the killing of a young American journalist named Charles Horman during the coup.

For decades, U.S. officials had denied any participation in Horman’s murder but finally, in 1999, the U.S. State Department released a document stating that the CIA had, in fact, played a role in Horman’s murder. The document revealing the information had been released to the Horman family 20 years previously but with the critical information about the CIA’s participation in the murder blacked out for “national security” reasons, which means, of course, that U.S. officials were intentionally covering up the CIA’s participation in Horman’s murder.

What was the CIA’s role in the murder? Did they shoot the young American journalist at point blank range? Did they stick a knife in his heart? Did they torture him to death?

We don’t know. When the document was finally released to the Hormans in 1999, it still contained blacked-out areas — national security, again.

Has Congress investigated the murder? Have they subpoenaed CIA officials to testify about what happened? Has the Justice Department ever convened a federal grand jury to look into the murder?

Of course not. This is the CIA we are talking about. No one — and especially not U.S. government officials — is likely to jack with an agency that has the power to destroy and kill people with impunity.

An article in today’s New York Times reports that the Guatemalan government is now in the process of restoring the legacy of Jacobo Arbenz, who had been elected president of Guatemala in a landslide in 1950. However, he offended some U.S. corporations with a redistributive land-reform plan that was no different, in principle, from what President Franklin Roosevelt and his successors did with their redistributive welfare-state programs.

The corporations had a lot of pull in Washington. Thus, President Eisenhower authorized the CIA to oust Arbenz from power and install an unelected army general in his stead. The operation was a success, just like the CIA’s ouster of the democratically elected prime minister of Iran, Mohammad Mossadegh, and his replacement with the brutal dictator the Shah of Iran, had been the year before.

Now, more than 50 years later the Guatemalan government has signed an agreement with Arbenz’s descendants to treat Arbenz as a historical hero, name a highway and a museum wing after him, publish his widow’s memoir, post an exhibit about him in the National History Museum, and issue a series of postage stamps in his honor.

So far, there is no statement of regret coming out of the CIA. But then again, the CIA also never showed any remorse for the hundreds of thousands of Guatemalan people killed in the 36-year civil war that erupted after Arbenz’s ouster.

Interventionists have long justified the ouster of Allende and Arbenz under the rationale that a country’s constitution is not a “suicide pact.” Since Allende and Arbenz were taking their countries down the road to destruction with their pro-communist, pro-socialist policies, the argument goes, there was nothing wrong with the Chilean military’s and the CIA’s saving the countries by ousting those rulers from office in a violent coup and replacing them with rulers who could save the country.

Ironically, that’s the same argument that researchers in President Kennedy’s assassination point to when asked about what motive the CIA, the U.S. military, and the Secret Service would have had to oust Kennedy from power in a violent coup. The researchers respond with the same argument that interventionists use to justify the Chilean and Guatemalan coups: that charged with protecting national security, U.S. military and intelligence officials considered it just as necessary to save the United States from Kennedy’s pro-communist, pro-socialist policies as the Chilean military and the CIA considered it necessary to save Chile and Guatemala from the pro-communist, pro-socialist policies of Allende and Arbenz.

Given that Chile and Guatemala are facing their past history of coups, why shouldn’t the United States do the same, especially given the roles that the CIA played in those coups? If Chile can exhume Allende and if Guatemala can honor Arbenz, why can’t the U.S. government divulge, fully and completely, the details of all the coups in which the CIA and other U.S. agencies have participated?
Jacob Hornberger is founder and president of the Future of Freedom Foundation.

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