The Torture Consensus in U.S. Democracy

Learning from Latin America’s democratic transition. 

December 19, 2014

Fast against torture, Washington (Justin Norman / Creative Commons)

We learned about mass graves over breakfast. An overdose before heading off to school. Unidentified, mutilated bodies always uncovered in some wasteland in the working class suburbs of Buenos Aires. Then there was the torture, the chronicle of how those bodies had been wrecked. La Semana, Somos, Clarín. The newspapers had it all. Magazines, also television. Government reports, special features, victims, survivors. Rape, shackles, hangings. Genitals and feces, those two words. Water and electricity. The death flights. Democratic Argentina in the early months of 1984 was a time of grappling with the detritus of the war on terror manufactured during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship. A puzzling realization that now that it was over, it would be all over. There was horror. The genuine horror and the more insincere, some relenting. Insulation. And a perpetual mourning cycle about what to do with it all.

One of the most telling episodes in the aftermath of the U.S. Senate report on torture is the dim reference to Latin America’s own experience in dealing with the legacy of state terrorism during its democratic transitions. It is not surprising. If the sad history of human rights violations in the region has taught us anything, it is the futility of how President Obama says he will now proceed in order to "not re-fight old arguments of the past." Those now brave enough to point towards the region stress the need for prosecution as a necessary step after the Senate report. Very few listen. Denial, horror, and power prevent some in the United States from recognizing in the Latin American dictatorships of the 1970s the all too familiar features of the crimes against humanity committed around the globe by the United States after September 11, 2001. But if resemblance brings fear, what makes the U.S. case different rather than similar is precisely what makes the contrast more ominous. The real tragedy of the experience after September 11, 2001, is not that the CIA violates human rights, but that democracy tortures.

Obama's call to move forward eases tensions with the military and intelligence agencies involved in human rights violations. It is also a largely comforting thought, for those of us who have consumed torture for breakfast during the past week, that the soul searching will not last forever and that everything will lead to closure in the end. In the grim admonition of British writer Julian Barnes, Americans feel optimism as a constitutional duty.

A conveniently misleading duty, in fact. State Terrorism doesn't go away so merrily. Thousands of people were disappeared during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship in Argentina. As in the rest of Latin America, death squads and a vast security apparatus kidnapped, tortured and killed. They were shielded by a Cold War Moloch that provided symbolic and material resources in the crusade against communism. Yet at the time, violating human rights and defending freedom were seen as opposing tasks—hence the necessity of dictatorships. While massive, the war on terror in Latin America was waged clandestinely. At its core, state terrorism remained not only discordant with democracy, it was its anathema.


Argentina’s dictatorship came to an end in 1983, when reformist leader Raúl Alfonsín won the presidential elections. His campaign embodied the hopes of the time by promoting a long-standing liberal tradition in Latin America. As historian Jennifer Adair argues, "the triple promise of political rights, physical safety, and social well-being resonated in a country where many understood political terror and social deprivation to be bound up with one another." Argentine democracy delivered at first. Three days after taking office, Alfonsín decided to prosecute the military juntas. Shortly thereafter, the government created an independent truth commission in which leading personalities from civil society compiled the most extensive report on State Terrorism in Argentine history. As political scientist Jo-Marie Burt has explained in NACLA, Argentina was the only nation at the time to link truth-seeking with criminal prosecution. The “Nunca Más,” report set a precedent for a generation of truth commissions that came afterwards, from El Salvador to Guatemala to Brazil.

These were courageous actions for a new democracy, especially since dictatorships were still thriving throughout the region, most notoriously Augusto Pinochet’s regime in neighboring Chile. But not four years into his administration and under pressure from the military, Alfonsín promoted two laws that ostensibly absolved many lower-ranking officials from trial. He and many others hoped that these laws would smooth the tensions between the military and the young democratic institutions. They did not. Two years later, and against the protests of human rights organizations, the administration of Carlos Menem offered a general amnesty that absolved the military juntas under the logic of not fighting fights of the past. Sound familiar? Argentina had to wait one more decade until the Supreme Court declared the amnesty laws unconstitutional, and a new administration promoted the re-opening of 2,000 trials for human rights violations and sent the juntas back to jail.

Other Latin American countries experimented with different strategies over these past decades, but throughout the region at large, democracy was not only preserved from torture; its condemnation fortified a shared regional idea of national sovereignty, the "sovereignty-social rights complex," which historian Greg Grandin locates at the center of Latin America’s modern notion of citizenship. If there was an unexpected offspring of the Cold War in the region, it was the way in which democratic projects in the region embraced with renewed strengths social reform, human rights, and the containment of the United States as tied to one another.

The Senate report is the last missive from a long series of countries that have dealt with an immediate past of state terrorism. Yet, it has hardly been described in these terms. To do so would imply acceptance of the real nature of torture and other human rights violations committed in the last decade. Few people admit that the war on terror has been, at its core, a magnified case of state terrorism. It is an alienation that starts with language, which betrays and distorts itself in order to conceal the nature of the challenge to democracy that the war on terror represents. A look back to Latin America quickly forces the reintroduction of torture within the semiological chain to which it belongs. It reminds us that the debate between the CIA, the Pentagon and the Department of Justice boils down to how to define detainees who are later to be tortured as something other than state actors, who as POWs are afforded the protections of several international statutes, or criminals for whom the local criminal code would apply. Crudely put, what U.S. officials discussed back in the days following September 11, was how to arrive at the very solution that Latin American dictators discovered decades earlier: The very idea that it was legal to torture detainees because they were not criminals or POWs is a proxy for the desaparecido.

Yet, instead of accepting the significance of the war on terror in undermining the rule of law, the report has served the Obama administration as another component of an ideological spinning wheel. In this scenario, torture is the anomaly against which the soul-searching efforts of the Senate Report confirm the exceptionality of American democracy as opposed to its derailment. In the days after the report's release, even those who condemn torture fabricated the idea that it was the heinous product of a rush decision made in the days after September 11 with the threat of new attacks looming on the horizon. Torture, though, has always required expertise.

The CIA (created in 1947 with the activities of the FBI in Latin America as one of its blueprints) has tortured and trained torturers in Latin America for a long time. CIA officers in Brazil led by the infamous Dan Mitrione trained local police officers in torture techniques in Belo Horizonte and Río de Janeiro in 1966. Two years later, Mitrione moved down to Montevideo, where he trained and tortured with the Uruguayan police. Or take Chile in the 1970s, when CIA operative Michael Townley ran a torture chamber in the basement of his house while his wife hosted parties in the living room. U.S. military and CIA officers also trained the Argentine military at the peak of the national security apparatus, and then Argentine and U.S. forces both trained death squads together in Honduras. As we were reminded this week, the accumulated experience in the region during those years became an important institutional asset: The head of the CIA's Counterterrorism Center during the worst years in the Bush-Cheney's torture program was José A. Rodríguez, a former member of the CIA's Latin American division who did not speak Arabic and had no experience in the Middle East, though he had extensive knowledge of torture techniques.

During the Cold War, the region also provided the opportunity for a dress rehearsal of a transnational network of state terrorism. The CIA provided logistical support to Operation Condor, the notorious program created in 1975 that coordinated the repressive military and police forces of the Southern Cone to engage in clandestine actions against citizens of any of the member countries. Condor's operations remained in the hands of South American officers, although its activities included assassinations in the U.S and Europe of potential sources of opposition to Latin American dictatorships, including former Foreign Minister of Chile, Orlando Letelier, who was assassinated in 1976 by Pinochet emissaries in Sheridan Circle, 1.4 miles from the White House.

The globalization of these transnational forms of state terrorism in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, required an extensive reworking of the methods and frameworks of U.S. national security agencies. The anxiety with which the U.S. media quibbles over the debates between officials of the Bush administration and members of the security apparatus about whether or not the CIA hid the real, substantial meanings of torture borders on delusion.

There was a reason why ideologues of the war on terror spent thousands of hours working to narrow the definition of torture in order to expand its execution. By the time that law professor John Yoo provided the arguments for the use of torture, members of the Bush administration and the public at large had full knowledge of what the CIA understood by torture, as thousands of secret documents had been declassified during the Clinton Administration. Anybody who wanted to know the CIA's definition of torture could have Googled it. Yet, the methods employed in Latin America were never mentioned by U.S. officials as the murky waters that the CIA had to avoid in this new war on terror. On the contrary, his expertise on torture landed Rodríguez a job at the head of the new crusade.


What a brief visit through Latin American recent history shows us is that the U.S. use of torture during the war on terror was not new, nor was it the product of rushed decisions taken under pressure, nor was it hidden from political leaders concerned with rule of law.

Yet, what is appalling is not the parallel between the war on terror and the history of Latin American dictatorships, but rather the genuinely unique way in which the United States has been able to torture without interrupting democracy. Once again, Latin America is the uncanny mirror: the United States promotes rough violence in the form of authoritarian regimes with liberal hopes, and receives back the dystopian image of its own demons, in the form of those feared democratic practices that the original violence had tried to contain. Black holes, the disappeared, torture: Democracies in Latin America in the 1980s were re-founded against those words. At least in the Southern Cone, rejection of state terrorism, in hand with the pursuit of some forms of economic equality, became the foundations of the so-called democratic transitions in the region, bringing the sanction against human rights violations at the center of a new political order.

In the first decade of this century, a new generation came to lead a wave of stable and reformist democracies in Latin America. Torture has shaped this generational change in personal and political ways. Many of Latin America’s current heads of state suffered torture during a time frame that encompass the evolution of U.S.-sponsored madness in the region during the Cold War of the 1960s and 1970s. The presidents of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, and former president of Uruguay, José Mujica were tortured in black holes, while the President of Chile, Michele Bachelet was kidnapped and lost her father during torture sessions in the first days of Pinochet's regime. A few decades later, under the auspice of the war on drugs, the current President of Bolivia, Evo Morales, was repeatedly tortured for his leadership of coca unions. It should not be surprising, although it often goes unnoticed, that between 2001 and 2005, South America was the only region that refused to participate in the extraordinary rendition program implemented by the United States, in which torture was routinely practiced, the region also struck the most significant blow to U.S. trade liberalization in decades when a majority of the region’s leaders publicly rejected a free trade agreement for the Western Hemisphere, halting FTAA for the foreseeable future.

The truth is, not all Latin American countries prosecute the perpetrators of human rights violations. Amnesty laws passed by the same perpetrators and repressive institutions prevented many governments from doing so. Brazil, for example, created a truth commission that released its final conclusions about the 1964-1985 military dictatorship just one day after the U.S. Senate released its own report (with telling differences: the Brazilian commission worked in close and official collaboration with United Nations through the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP); the President of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, publicly announced its results; and the leading members of the commission called for prosecution against those who violated human rights and have been protected under the amnesty law decreed by the same dictatorship.) But even when prosecution was not an immediately available options they all founded new regimes that, institutionally and politically, enclosed in a past tense the experience of state terrorism.

This has not necessarily been enough to improve life for millions of citizens. The mass kidnapping and disappearance of students in Iguala, México, as well as the extended social violence that grew through parts of Central America in the shadows of the U.S.-sponsored war on drugs, are a major challenge for human rights in the region. Yet, as a discursive framework and with all its flaws, democracy in South America is defined by the options it encourages as much as for the options it excludes. In producing a contrast with the lingering effects of the dictatorships, it molded a new political philosophy under which institutional and personal legacies were renegotiated in bold terms, especially in the subordination of the national security apparatus expanded during the Cold War to democratic powers that can be publicly contested.

The news, then, is not that torture was exercised, but that it was openly advocated for and/or secretly consented to. During the Cold War, the CIA became a de-facto power in Latin America, never seeking any kind of endorsement for its actions. From the overthrow of President Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala in 1954 to the one of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973 to the many cases of torture and sabotage, the United States sensed that the activities of the CIA had to be concealed from the general public both domestically and in Latin America; that's the raison d'être of covert operations. In formal terms, the United States remained committed to the respect of national sovereignty and human rights.

The architects of the war on terror accomplished something that their predecessors and Latin American dictatorships were not able or eager to do: they built in the U.S. public an open and democratic consensus for torture, bringing human rights violations out of the closet and into the open as one more resource for security. Today, neither Obama, nor American society, have an institutional and discursive platform to look at torture with the horror of a historical other against which they can define themselves. Each presidential attempt to offer a drastic step forward to the future is eroded by its own relapses on the institutional continuity with what he is trying to break. As political philosopher Martín Plot has insisted since the early years of the war on terror, what "will define the future of democracy in America is the dilemma posed by the fact that democracy and total security cannot exist in the same society." Somewhere close to paranoia, the fantasy of total security only offers complete protection in exchange for an increasingly unconditional obedience, the opposite of democratic societies.

This was the Latin American quandary for decades. In the United States, though, the balance of this tension, brutally inclined towards the pole of total security, has not produced a dictatorship of any kind known previously, but rather a violent mutation into something else, contained in the same democratic logic but stripped of its democratic effects. Unlike the experience of Latin America, the United States did not produce a change of regime when it felt that it needed to torture in order to violate its own freedom, and it does not seem able to now generate a regime change that would sever the ties to the atrocities committed. What is exceptionally American is that large bureaucracies of the U.S. democratic government worked infinite hours in defining, tabulating, analyzing, measuring, and implementing torture at a massive scale, producing an infinite amount of written and legal precedent for these institutions to a incorporate, the way other areas of the administration reflect on the exchange rate or housing policy.

Running in the opposite direction of Latin America, the radical doctrinary step of separating human rights and democracy renders both meaningless. Few people sense this clearer than those who had a hand in sanctioning the torture itself. As President Bush's Attorney General, John Ashcroft, told senators in the weeks after September 11, the administration would not roam the fields of the Cold War fears: "We need honest, reasoned debate, and not fear-mongering." Only five years later, in light of Abu Ghraib and the brutal destruction of the war on terror, Ashcroft put his own sentence in perspective, sensing the monstrous importance of the steps taken: "History Will Not Judge This Kindly."

Nor should we.

Ernesto Semán is a historian and a writer. He is a professor at the University of Richmond's Jepson School of Leadership Studies. He is currently working on a history of Peronist and U.S. labor diplomacy during the Cold War in Latin America. His last book is "Soy Un Bravo Piloto de la Nueva China" (2011), a novel. Follow him on Twitter @ErnestoSeman and Facebook.


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