Human Rights, Latin America, and the Cold War



Steve J. Stern . Reckoning with Pinochet: The Memory Question in Democratic Chile, 1989–2006. Book Three of the Trilogy: The Memory Box of Pinochet's Chile . Durham, NC : Duke University Press , 2010 . xxxiv + 548 pp. Notes, maps, illustrations, essay on sources, index. $99.95 (cloth), $29.95 (paper ).

Hal Brands . Latin America's Cold War . Cambridge, MA : Harvard University Press , 2010 . 385 pp. Notes, archives and other sources, index. $29.95 (cloth ).

The Cold War proved a gruesome time for Latin Americans. In the four decades that followed the overthrow of the constitutional government of Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán (1950–54) over 200,000 Guatemalans perished in political violence. In tiny El Salvador, a country of only five million people, over 75,000 citizens died, principally during the 1980s. Over 500,000 citizens fled the country and another 500,000 were internally displaced by the political violence. Warfare ravaged Nicaragua during the 1970s and 1980s. On a per capita basis, Nicaragua lost more citizens during its Cold War than did the United States in the Civil War and all of its international wars combined. Cruelty, death, and destruction were not limited to Central America. During la guerra sucia (“the dirty war”) of the late 1970s, the Argentine military and associated death squads massacred 30,000 Argentines. Many of the dead assumed the title of “disappeared” or desaparecido. The victims, sometimes alive, were often dumped into the frigid South Atlantic from airplanes. The forces of repression did not, however, achieve their goals. Argentine military officers boasted of plans to kill 50,000 people. General Augusto Pinochet (1973–90) and his minions did not ring up extraordinary death tolls (3,500 to 4,500) in Chile. Pinochet's acolytes specialized in incarceration and torture. Thirty-six-thousand Chileans submitted affidavits, alleging that they had been tortured, to a fact-finding commission, the Valech Commission, in 2003–04. Scholars estimate that 100,000 Chileans were tortured while in the hands of Pinochet's security forces. Another 200,000 Chileans fled the terror and went into exile. These are astonishing figures for a country of ten million. Michelle Bachelet, the popular and successful president of Chile (2006–10), endured the horror. Her father, a Chilean general, died of a heart attack after being tortured. As a young woman, Bachelet was abused by the Chilean military.

Putting a human face on this agony, telling the disturbing stories of the victims and their loved ones would take a long time. But evocative examples abound. Argentine parents had delivered to them by security forces the body of their daughter with a rat sewn inside her vagina. Rogelia Cruz Martínez, an architecture student, leftist, and former “Miss Guatemala,” suffered a similarly hideous fate in 1968. Her butchers publicly displayed Cruz's mutilated and raped, naked corpse. Ronni Moffit drowned in her own blood after her carotid artery and windpipe were severed by shrapnel. Moffit, a U.S. citizen, was accompanying Orlando Letelier, the former foreign minister of Chile, in a car in Washington, DC, in September 1976. Agents of the Chilean security force (DINA), operating under the aegis of the international terrorist network dubbed “Operation Condor,” detonated a remote-control bomb that killed Letelier and Moffit and wounded Moffit's husband. Rufina Amaya Márquez witnessed the decapitation of her husband and heard her children scream for help in the village of El Mozote in El Salvador. Her husband and four children, who included María Isabel, eight months, were among the eight hundred massacred by the El Atacatl Battalion in December 1981. Soldiers also tossed babies in the air and caught them on their bayonets. José Liborio Poblete and his wife, Gertrudis Hlaczik, were tortured and then disappeared under the direction of the notorious Argentine sergeant Julian Héctor Simón, known as “Julian the Turk” (el turco Julian). The couple was disabled, with José having lost his legs in an automobile accident. The torturers taunted José calling him “cortito” (“shorty”) and turned him into a bowling ball, rolling him down flights of stairs. Argentine security forces compounded the grief of the couple's relatives by kidnapping the couple's baby, Claudia, renaming her, and giving her to an Argentine military family. Poblete's crime of subversion had been that he had written a petition calling on Argentine companies to hire a fixed percentage of disabled workers.1

How to explain the “radical evil,” to use Kant's words, that darkened Latin America during the Cold War is the subject of the two books under review. Steve J. Stern of the University of Wisconsin easily ranks as one of the most gifted historians in the world. Beyond being prolific, Stern has ranged widely in his choice of subjects, having written influential books on pre-Columbian indigenous societies and Latin America in both the colonial and national periods, and has analyzed such disparate topics as political economy and gender relations. His latest book, the last of a trilogy, is the fulfillment of a fifteen-year commitment to explore the evolving, contested memory of Chileans toward the nightmare that was the dictatorship of General Pinochet. As Stern observes, memory “is the meaning we attach to experience” (p. 10). During his years in Chile, he conducted exhaustive research in archives, media resources, photographs, printed and electronic material—the traditional stuff of historical inquiry. Stern carried out ninety-eight extensive interviews with Chileans, including members of the military and police. He interviewed Manuel Rivas Díaz, an infamous former DINA agent, known for torturing victims with electric shock on metal cots (la parilla or “the grill”) and sexually assaulting women at a house nicknamed “La Venda Sexy” (p. 235). Stern also observed five focus group–style discussions on memories of the Pinochet era.

Stern brought unique attributes to his work. Married to a Chilean, he gained the confidence of his interviewees, because of the value Latin Americans place on family. He is also a second-generation Holocaust survivor. Stern's Hungarian family, including his mother, experienced Auschwitz and Buchenwald. As he notes, Chile is Latin America's example of the “German problem.” How could a country of refinement and achievement sink into barbarism? Chileans prided themselves on living in a country that took art, literature, and political philosophy seriously, and produced the Nobel Laureates Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda. Chileans traditionally followed la vía Chilena (the Chilean way), eschewing violent political confrontations. General Pinochet did not pursue genocide. But, as in Stern's view, he practiced “policide” or political genocide, systematically destroying the political class of both the Chilean Left (Communists and Socialists) and Center (Christian Democrats) (pp. 99–105). Secret police agents actually gave a mother a Nazi-like “Sophie's Choice,” demanding that she turn over one child for slaughter to spare the lives of others (p. 102). Stern does not analyze U.S.-Chilean relations but takes as a given that the United States intensified political conflict in Chile, destabilized President Salvador Allende (1970–73), and bolstered the Pinochet regime. Nonetheless, historians of U.S. foreign relations can learn from Stern's commitment to scholarship, his methodology, and his findings.

After Pinochet relinquished the presidency in 1990, Chileans had to proceed cautiously, for Pinochet commanded the military until 1998, and he and his close followers claimed lifetime seats in the Chilean Senate. Pinochet had also decreed, in 1978, an amnesty for himself and his loyalists and, in 1989, ordered security forces not to turn over records to the National Archives. In President Patricio Aylwin's (1990–94) haunting words, Chile would pursue “justice to the extent possible” (p. 54). Over the next two decades, individual and group acts and events gradually undermined Pinochet's memory myth that he had “saved” Chile and Western Civilization from totalitarianism. Stern labels these happenings “memory knots,” acts and events that demanded attention to memory (p. 4). The Rettig and Valech Commissions' reports, television and film documentaries, exhumation of bodies, the declassification of U.S. records on Chile ordered by President Bill Clinton in late 1998, and “outings” of torturers called “Funas” provided evidence to undermine Pinochet's lies. The arrest of Pinochet in London in 1998 on orders of a Spanish judge and the revelation in 2004 that the old dictator had stashed millions of dollars away in foreign banks further exposed what Pinochet was—a murderer and a thief. The “memory of salvation” had been supplanted by the “memory of state terror.”

The Rettig Commission established that security forces were responsible for 96 percent of the deaths by political violence in Chile. That finding was consistent with what investigatory bodies in Argentina, Brazil, El Salvador, Guatemala, and elsewhere in Latin America discovered.2 Right-wing governments, security forces, and associated “death squads” perpetrated virtually all acts of political violence in Latin America during the Cold War. Stern rejects the “war thesis” that Pinochet acted because “they were going to kill us all” (p. 92). The golpe de estado that overthrew Allende on Chile's “9/11” was an attack on a constitutional government that practiced democratic, parliamentary politics. Chilean citizens did not die in a cross fire between the Chilean military and a militant, armed Left. They were murdered or tortured while in the hands of security agents in a premeditated crusade to eradicate civil society in Chile.

The “war thesis” lies at the heart of Latin America's Cold War by Hal Brands, a recent student of John L. Gaddis at Yale University and now an assistant professor at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. Brands's work can be readily compared to Stern's achievement both in terms of depth of research and findings. Brands's bibliography dazzles, with forty-two archives in thirteen countries cited. He cites a document or two from most archives. Youthful energy is to be admired. Archival research requires a scholar to mine the archive thoroughly. Exhaustive research in multiple archives would take most scholars years, perhaps decades to complete. In view of the subject matter, Brands might have profited from Stern's example and interviewed or listened to Argentina's Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, who began marching in 1977, on Thursday afternoons. The mothers demand an accounting of their disappeared children and stolen grandchildren.

Brands properly points out, as have scholars like Gil Joseph and Daniela Spenser, that the Cold War in Latin America has local, regional, and national aspects, as well as international dimensions. Issues of race, ethnicity, religion, and gender bedeviled the ideological combat that characterized life in the South American nation of British Guiana (Guyana) in the 1960s. The Brazilian military and police savagely attacked female university students in 1968, equating feminist consciousness and sexual liberation with social disorder and communism.3 As the esteemed Latin Americanist Thomas E. Skidmore once noted, historians have too often “underestimated the power of conservative forces in Latin American societies.”4 Brazilian and Peruvian military theorists independently developed national security doctrines that were consistent with basic U.S. Cold War strategies like NSC 68/2 (1950).

Brands resurrects the “two demons” theory to explain what happened in Latin America's Cold War.5 The ideological extremes of the Left and Right went to war in Latin America. Countless innocent people died as a result. Brands writes of the “fundamental interdependence of left-and right-wing extremism” (p. 97). Revolutionary Cuba and the Soviet Union aided, abetted and radicalized the Left and the Right responded in kind. Latin Americanists have undermined the “two demons” thesis. Left-wing agitation in countries such as Brazil, Chile, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, and Guatemala arose in response to right-wing political repression. Military conspirators overthrew constitutional reformers like Arturo Frondizi (Argentina), Víctor Haya de la Torre (Peru), João Goulart (Brazil), and Juan Bosch (Dominican Republic). The innocent suffered their fate while in the custody of the military and police and not revolutionary tribunals. South American military governments, not the Communists, developed an international terrorist network—Operation Condor.6

The U.S. role in generating mayhem and murder in Latin America is judged less significant by Brands than the intervention by the “more incendiary” Communists (p. 261). Analysts of the CIA intervention in Guatemala—Richard H. Immerman, Piero Gleijeses, Nick Cullather, and Stephen Streeter—will perhaps be surprised to read that “it would oversimplify matters to say that the United States overthrew Arbenz” (p. 16).7 During the Cold War, the United States destabilized governments in Argentina, Brazil, British Guiana, Chile, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. Military and police officers identified as violators of human rights trained at U.S. military and police schools, like the School of Americas and the Inter-American Police Academy.

The most astonishing assertion in Latin America's Cold War is that “the actions of military regimes were the logical—if exaggerated—response to the leftist radicalism of the period.” Brands further characterizes “the essential sincerity” of the anticommunist mind-set of military officers (p. 127). El turco Julian demonstrated his “sincerity” by donning Nazi regalia and playing Nazi propaganda tapes while torturing Argentines. The meaning of the word “logical” is strained if attached to the Brazilian military's assault and murder of university students who complained about the quality of cafeteria food. The words “logical” and “anti-Semitic” do not easily coexist. Argentine Jews, like newspaper publisher Jacobo Timerman, suffered disproportionality during la guerra sucia.8

These two books can be seen as legal briefs, with Stern making the case for the prosecution of those who murdered and tortured, whereas Brands tries to explain and rationalize the Right's gross violations of human rights. Brands judges his work as “detached narrative and analysis” and mocks Stern and other scholars for their “moral outrage” and “moral certitude” (pp. 126, 270–71). In the post–Cold War era, Latin Americans have embraced Stern's arguments. In Brazil (Dilma Rousseff), Chile (Bachelet), El Salvador (Mauricio Funes), and Uruguay (José Mujica), citizens have elected to the presidency men and women who were either tortured or had relatives killed by military rulers during the Cold War. Courts in Latin America and Europe have rejected Brands's plea for a contextual justification for human rights atrocities. Judges in Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and Spain have imposed lengthy sentences, even life terms, on leaders and their subordinates who ordered or carried out murder and torture. A Spanish court has entertained the indictment and extradition of General Efraín Ríos Montt (1982–83), the Guatemalan butcher who supervised the eradication of 100,000 mainly Mayan people. In December 2010, a French court convicted in absentia thirteen Pinochet-era Chileans for the murder of French citizens. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights has rejected the Brazilian military dictatorship's decree of self-amnesty for the 1964–85 period. Rousseff, Brazil's new president and a torture victim, has promised to bring human rights violators from the dictatorship to justice. The judgment of the civilized world is that right-wing governments, the anticommunist friends of the United States, perpetrated crimes against humanity during the Cold War.


  • 1

    John Dinges and Saul Landau, Assassination on Embassy Row (New York, 1980); Cecilia Menjívar and Néstor Rodríguez, eds., When States Kill: Latin America, the U.S., and Technologies of Terror (Austin, TX, 2005); Mark Danner, The Massacre at El Mozote: A Parable of the Cold War (New York, 1994); Thomas C. Wright, State Terrorism in Latin America: Chile, Argentina, and International Human Rights (Lanham, MD, 2007).

  • 2

    Archdiocese of São Paulo, Torture in Brazil. Translated by Jaime Wright. Edited and with an Introduction by Joan Dassin (New York, 1986); Argentine National Commission on the Disappeared, Nunca Más. With an Introduction by Ronald Dworkin (New York, 1986); Commission on the Truth for El Salvador, From Madness to Hope: The Twelve Year War in El Salvador (1993). Web site:; Guatemalan Commission for Historical Clarification, Guatemala: Memory of Silence (1999). An English translation of the conclusion of Memory of Silence can be found at the Web site

  • 3

    Gilbert M. Joseph and Daniela Spenser, eds., In from the Cold: Latin America's New Encounter with the Cold War (Durham, NC, 2008); Stephen G. Rabe, The U.S. Intervention in British Guiana: A Cold War Story (Chapel Hill, NC, 2005).

  • 4

    Thomas E. Skidmore, “Studying the History of Latin America: A Case of Hemispheric Convergence,”Latin American Research Review 33, no. 1 (1998): 113.

  • 5

    For the “two demons” thesis, see Jorge Castañeda, Utopia Unarmed: The Latin American Left after the Cold War (New York, 1993), 5, 51–112; David Stoll, Between Two Armies in the Ixil Towns of Guatemala (New York, 1993); David Stoll, Rigoberta Menchú and the Story of all Poor Guatemalans (Boulder, CO, 1999), 141–55.

  • 6

    Jeffrey L. Gould, “Solidarity under Siege: The Latin American Left, 1968,”American Historical Review 114 (April 2009): 348–75; J. Patrice McSherry, Predatory States: Operation Condor and Covert War in Latin America (Lanham, MD, 2005), 27–28.

  • 7

    Richard H. Immerman, The CIA in Guatemala: The Foreign Policy of Intervention (Austin, TX, 1982); Piero Gleijeses, Shattered Hope: The Guatemalan Revolution and the United States, 1944–1954 (Princeton, NJ, 1991); Nick Cullather, Secret History: The CIA's Classified Account of Its Operations in Guatemala, 1952–1954 (Stanford, CA, 1999); Stephen M. Streeter, Managing the Counterrevolution: The United States and Guatemala, 1954–1961 (Athens, OH, 2000).

  • 8

    Jacobo Timerman, Prisoner without a Name, Cell without a Number. Translated by Tony Talbot (Madison, WI, 2002).