WASHINGTONThe CIA recently declassified almost 700 pages of documents related to illegal activities undertaken by that agency in the 1960s and ’70sthe so-called “family jewels.” Many skeptical Latin Americans were hoping that this exercise in transparency would help re-establish some trust in the U.S. government south of the Rio Grande, where the CIA was heavily involved at the time. Unfortunately, that is unlikely to happen.
The papers contain few revelations in connection with Latin America, except for the names of the mobsters contacted by the CIA to attempt an assassination of Fidel Castro. One reason is that the “family jewels” refer to the CIA’s illegal activities, meaning espionage on U.S. soil. A great deal of the CIA’s involvement in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Argentina and Chileto name but a few countriesat the time fell within the purview of the organization’s mandate because the activities took place outside U.S. territory. Another reason for the likely disappointment is that certain elements have been censored. There are blank spaces, for instance, in the section that refers to the break-ins that occurred at the Chilean embassy and other Chilean buildings in the U.S. just before the Watergate break-inthat may or may not have been organized by the CIA.
There are enough teasers in the papers to set one’s imagination in motionnever a good thing with regard to U.S.Latin American relations, which tend to ignite so many conspiracy theories. In a memo addressed to William Colby, then a senior official at the agency, there is a question mark next to the passage on the break-in at the Chilean embassy, perhaps indicating that someone was asking whether it fell under the category of illegal activities. One is left with the impression that there were people inside the CIA who thought it did. If the CIA was indeed involved, it would be the first time an official document gives credence to the hypothesis that the CIA used the Chilean embassy as a training ground for the team that would later break into Watergate.
Another interpretation could be that the CIA was looking for papers relating to contacts between Chile and Cuba, or to the activities of the Chilean affiliate of International Telephone and Telegraph, a sworn enemy of Salvador Allende, Chile’s socialist president. However, there is not enough information to confirm or discard the hypothesisbut it’s enough to give arguments to those who think they know.
The conclusion of many Latin Americans will probably be that the CIA continues to hide information regarding its activities in Chile in the 1970s. This will not help the cause of improving trust across the border, especially if, as CIA Director Michael Hayden said last week, his agency has a responsibility to be as open as possible.
Could the CIA be more forthcoming with regard to Latin America? Of course it could. Under an executive order given by President Clinton and enforced by President Bush, documents are automatically declassified after 25 years, with eight types of exceptions. The CIA is making an uncanny use of those exceptions. Peter Kornbluh, the head of the Chile Documentation Project at the National Security Archive, tells me that he has repeatedly asked the U.S. government to declassify the papers that refer to meetings between Manuel Contreras, the former head of Chile’s secret police, and the CIA. He has also asked to see the information on Chilean strongman Augusto Pinochet. More than 30 years have passed and they still refuse to disclose the information, says Kornbluh.
Nothing poisons a citizen’s perception of the authorities more than the suspicion that the truth is ancillary to ill-defined higher purposes. Given the significant involvement of the U.S. government in Latin America, an argument can be made that the moral obligation of the authorities to come clean in relation to past activities extends beyond the U.S. borders.
Many Latin American countries have made painful attempts in recent years to learn the truth about their ugly past through bodies of inquiry known as truth commissions. The country that built a republic on the notion of human rights ought to be sensitive to the need of foreign citizens to know certain truths about their own nations that only the U.S. government and particularly the CIA are in a position to disclose.
It won’t hurt U.S. national security interests to fully disclose events that took place decades ago. It will only hurt those who fear the truth.
Alvaro Vargas Llosa
Alvaro Vargas Llosa is Senior Fellow of The Center on Global Prosperity at The Independent Institute. He is a native of Peru and received his B.S.C. in international history from the London School of Economics. His weekly column is syndicated worldwide by the Washington Post Writers Group, and his Independent Institute books include Lessons From the Poor: Triumph of the Entrepreneurial Spirit, The Che Guevara Myth and the Future of Liberty, and Liberty for Latin America.
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