If you come from Chile, Argentina, Brazil, or any other Latin American nation, one of the most striking things about Jeffrey Goldberg’s interview with Henry Kissinger is the absence in Kissinger’s account of your vast corner of the world.
This should shock no one. Since September 11, 2001, Latin America has been noticeably absent from the U.S. foreign-policy agenda. President Barack Obama acknowledged as much in a conversation with Goldberg published in The Atlantic last April, to which Kissinger is now responding. Not even the increasing presence of China, whose commerce with Latin America grew at a dizzying 31.2 percent per year from 2000 to 2011, managed to draw U.S. attention to the continent, once considered “America’s backyard.” Not that this seemingly diminutive moniker gives much cause for resentment. During this decade, the region enjoyed unprecedented prosperity, with annual GDP growing at about double the pace of the previous one, and poverty plunging from 44 percent in 2003 to 29 percent in 2015, in part thanks to the new partnership with China.
And yet, it’s not the present-day Latin America, nor the region’s future, that should compel an appearance in Kissinger’s view of the contemporary world, but, rather, the past.
As part of America’s chess game with the Soviets during the Cold War, Kissinger, as secretary of state and national security advisor to Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, became an unflinching supporter and, at least in the case of Chile, co-conspirator, of the coups d’etat and military dictatorships that spread throughout South America in the 1970s. Tens of thousands of people were tortured and killed in clandestine camps, their bodies dumped from planes into rivers, their children stolen and given away under false identities. In his book The Trial of Henry Kissinger, Christopher Hitchens argued convincingly that Kissinger deserved prosecution “for war crimes, for crimes against humanity, and for offenses against common or customary or international law, including conspiracy to commit murder, kidnap, and torture.” Kissinger also disagrees with Obama that America should ever have to justify its actions, as he suggests in the Goldberg interview.
While Latin America largely took a back seat to the rest of the world through the Obama years, some of his administration’s most monumental late additions to his legacy occurred in the region. Obama decided to bring the Cold War to a formal (and long overdue) end this year. He re-established diplomatic relationships with Cuba and visited the island; he sent an official envoy to Havana to back the peace negotiations between Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). As part of the same attempt at closure, in March, on the 42nd anniversary of the military coup that gave birth to the cruelest of the several dictatorships Argentina suffered through in the 20th century, Obama visited a memorial to the “disappeared,” the thousands kidnapped, tortured, and killed by the military in Buenos Aires during the 1976-1983 dictatorship, which seized power thanks, in part, to the support of the United States. “Democracies have to have the courage to acknowledge when we don’t live up to the ideals that we stand for,” he said, falling short of a full apology. “And we’ve been slow to speak out for human rights, and that was the case here.”
Days before Obama’s trip, his administration announced the declassification of U.S. diplomatic, intelligence, and defense documents containing information about Argentina’s years under military dictatorship. Last August, Secretary of State John Kerry handed over the first batch during a meeting with President Mauricio Macri. The documents were, in fact, part of the Carter Library’s collection, and contained few revelations—the intelligence and defense documents which might, or might not, offer new insight about the U.S. role in the coup are still under declassification review. However, three of the diplomatic cables provided by Kerry brought Kissinger’s role back to the fore.
In a memo from 1976, we learned of a meeting only two days after the coup, in which Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America William Rogers warned then-Secretary of State Kissinger “to expect a fair amount of repression, probably a good deal of blood, in Argentina before too long.” The new dictatorship of Jorge Rafael Videla, Rogers warned, would “have to come down very hard not only on the terrorists but on the dissidents of trade unions and their parties.” Kissinger replied, “Whatever chance they have, they will need a little encouragement ... because I do want to encourage them. I don't want to give the sense that [the dictatorship is being] harassed by the United States.” The next day, the International Monetary Fund released $127 million in credit for Argentina’s new government. Gerald Ford, under whom Kissinger would also serve, also approved $49 million in security aid for the new government. In another document from June of that year, Kissinger urged the junta to act faster to establish government authority, before U.S. opposition to its human rights violations gained momentum. “If there are things that have to be done, you should do them quickly,” he advised.
Even after he left the U.S. government, Kissinger’s shadow loomed over Argentina. In one cable from 1978, Raúl Castro, the U.S. ambassador to Argentina, wrote, “My only concern is that Kissinger’s repeated high praise for Argentina’s action in wiping out terrorism may have gone to some considerable extent to this hosts’ heads.” Kissinger, as a private citizen, was in Argentina as a guest of Videla’s for the World Cup. Members of the Carter administration were putting pressure on the junta to cease with the disappearances of tens of thousands of dissidents. Castro, horrified by the bloodbath taking place in Argentina, worried that “Kissinger’s laudatory statements” might be used (as they were) by the military junta as “justification for hardening their human rights stance.”
We don’t know if it is Chile, Argentina, or Vietnam that Kissinger has in mind when, in an answer to Goldberg about the usefulness of mea culpas about “past American behavior,” Kissinger asks, “Should every American public servant have to be worried about how his views will sound 40 years later in the hands of foreign governments? Is every foreign government entitled to a file verified by the U.S. government decades after an event?”
I wonder if the question here should, in fact, have been what happens when a public servant has no fear of being held accountable for his or her views and actions in the future? In Kissinger’s view, ethics and morality are desirable only as long as they don’t become a nuisance. “When the charge of war criminal becomes an accepted form of discourse,” he laments, “the prospects of national cohesion disintegrate. Diplomacy loses its flexibility and strategy its force.”
Putting any moral considerations aside, if that is even possible, Kissinger seems to dismiss what is usually referred to as “international public opinion,” which the Obama administration has always appeared so eager to engage. “Foreign countries don’t judge us by the propensity of our president to traduce his own country on their soil,” Kissinger lectures Obama in the interview. “They assess such visits on the basis of the fulfillment of expectations more than the recasting of the past.”
In that, after all, he might be right. Today, with China’s, and its own, economy faltering, Latin America finds itself as divided and polarized as the United States about what to do and whom to blame. One faction looks at its Northern neighbor with mistrust, rancor, even hostility; the other, admiring and sympathetic, longs for its approval and protection.
To their common chagrin, they both encounter the same American indifference.