Anyone who was in New York two Septembers ago remembers the haunting posters that appeared throughout lower Manhattan — in subway stations and on the sides of phone booths and lampposts. “Missing,” they said, each bearing the face of someone lost in the World Trade Center rubble. They bore a chilling similarity to other posters put up by grieving relatives in far too many Latin American countries during the 1970s and ’80s. The emotional impulse was the same: We say our loved ones are missing, or disappeared, because we are not ready to admit they are dead.
Preoccupied with “American” suffering, few knew or remembered that for some, Sept. 11 had been a day of mourning for 30 years. It was the day, in 1973, when Salvador Allende’s democratically-elected government in Chile was overthrown by a right-wing military coup. The general who took over, Augusto Pinochet, proceeded to organize one of the most brutal dictatorships in Latin American history and murder 30,000 people. Three years of strikes, demonstrations, and near-revolution by Chile’s working class were brought to an abrupt halt in a bloodbath that shocked the world.
In 1973, most Americans reacted with horror to the pictures of Pinochet’s coup that appeared in the U.S. media. But National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger supported Pinochet’s decisive move, saying, “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people.”
In fact, the U.S. government had already spent $8 million on covert operations against Allende’s left-leaning government, and the CIA maintained close links with the DINA, Pinochet’s feared secret police force. With Pinochet, the U.S. killed two birds with one stone: It smashed a powerful left-wing movement that was growing among Chile’s working class and restructured Chile’s ruined economy to the benefit of U.S. corporations. The policies of “structural adjustment,” now enforced by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, were first perfected in Pinochet’s Chile.
Thirty years later, the U.S. strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan is not so terribly different: Topple an uncooperative regime, install a friendly one and raid the economy to enrich U.S. corporations. Whatever rhetoric Bush may spout on TV about spreading democracy, the truth is that democracy has always been optional in U.S. foreign policy — sometimes it’s actually a liability. As long as a dictator checks in with the State Department once in a while, it doesn’t matter how brutal he is, thus the U.S. support for Suharto, the Shah of Iran, and even Saddam Hussein in the ’80s. And we should not forget the $3 billion that the United States poured into the anti-Soviet jihad in Afghanistan, much of which went to a young Saudi named Osama bin Laden.
Sometimes, of course, there are unintended ramifications. When friends become enemies, with negative consequences for the United States – the CIA calls it “blowback.” But the horrors that America creates rarely blow back on those responsible for the decision to back the warlord or the dictator. The people who perished in the World Trade Center were secretaries, paralegals, firefighters, janitors, messengers, restaurant workers — Americans who had to pay because 20 years ago the United States wanted to get the Russians out of Afghanistan.
There is another kind of unintended consequence, one which the U.S. government would very much like to ignore. Backing one dictator after another tends to produce resistance from indigenous populations, which don’t like being ruled by an iron-fist.
Democracy makes a comeback, often despite the U.S. government’s best efforts. The people fighting back against U.S. domination — whether they are Iraqis fighting to end the occupation of their country or Korean farmers demonstrating against the World Trade Organization — are the hope for a future where no one else will have to suffer a Sept. 11.
Laura Durkay, Columbia Daily Spectator, Columbia University.