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The Killing Zone — A Review

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by Garn LeBaron Jr.

copyright © Garn LeBaron Jr., 2012, all rights reserved

Attending primary school in the 1970’s we were taught the reasons why we fought the Cold War were simple. The United States was a beacon of Freedom, Liberty, Justice, and “Opportunity For All” arrayed against the Godless forces of Communism bent on domination, control, and repression of their people. We were taught about how the lives of Eastern Europeans were miserable and how they were not allowed to travel or leave their countries. We were not taught about what was happening 5700 miles to the south in Latin America. We were aware that the US was supporting governments against Communism, but we didn’t understand what that really meant. The recitation of crimes committed in the name of communism goes on, with some estimates as high as 100 million deaths.(1) The United States, however, positioned itself on the side of truth, justice, and the American Way, seizing the moral high ground in the process. But the sordid details of US operations in Latin America place a bloody stain on the robes of lady liberty.

The Killing Zone is organized in a generally chronological fashion, with a chapter devoted to Guatemala in 1954, and Cuba in the late 50’s. Thereafter, partial chapters are given to the Dominican Republic in 1965, Brazil in 1964, Chile in 1973, Argentina in 1976, Nicaragua in 1979, and El Salvador in 1980. The primary focus of the book is not just to give accounts from repression and body counts, but instead to show the decision making process of US leaders given the environment in which they operated. Rabe especially shows how the lens of the cold war served to distort the process and generate anti-communist hysteria. The first two chapters are a discussion of US Policy toward Latin America before the cold war, starting with the declaration of the Monroe Doctrine and continuing through all of the various corollaries and gyrations that succeeding presidents appended to the original in order to justify their policy decisions. A great deal of time is spent on the Kennan Corollary highlighting the racist dimensions of the document, and the racist and xenophobic views of the US Government in general.(2) The main concept that the reader gains from these first two chapters is: The United States believes that Latin America is within its zone of hegemony. It will take any measures necessary to protect that zone in any manner it sees fit.

Guatemala

The overthrow of the Guatemalan government of Arbenz occurred in 1954, right at the height of the wave of anti-communist hysteria which swept the US.(3) During the Truman Administration, the CIA had identified that the Arbenz government, by establishing basic labor rights and modest land reform, was a threat to the profits of the United Fruit Company.(4) The CIA embarked on a covert operation to destabilize and overthrow the government, but the Truman Administration denied funding for the operation.(5) The Eisenhower Administration funded $3 million to complete the operation.(6) The CIA was able to convince the military to complete the coup in June of 1954.(7) From this point forward, Guatemala would be ruled by a string of repressive military dictatorships and the citizenry subjected to massive human rights violations until 1996 when the civil war finally ended.(8)

Cuba

When Fidel Castro started his campaign to overthrow the Batista dictatorship of Cuba in 1956, he had the support of the United States. It is pretty clear that even after he took power in 1959, he did not consider himself to be a Marxist-Leninist or a client of the Soviets, but merely a liberal reformer.(9) The problems started when he implemented land reform and kicked out the Mafia. By the end of 1961 he had seized all US investments and in December of 1961 declared that he was now a “Marxist-Leninist.”(10) From this point forward, Cuba becomes a client state of the Soviet Union. The Soviets fund Cuban development and militarization, culminating in the Cuban Missile crisis.(11) Castro spends the next ten years making the CIA look like Boris and Natasha on the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show.(12) It’s important to understand how this colored US perception of Latin America for the remainder of the cold war. No president wanted to be responsible for “another Cuba.” Whenever a governmental change that leaned “to the left” appeared to be imminent, the US was right there to make sure it would not succeed.(13)

Dominican Republic

The CIA assassinated Trujillo in 1961. When members of the Trujillo family managed to retain power, the US decided it needed to act, and forced them out of the country.(14) The election of Juan Bosch was initially approved by the US, but when he started to turn a little to the left and was ousted by military elements on the right, the US did nothing to aid him. When the Dominican people rose up in support of Bosch, the US invaded with 22,000 troops, deciding that a strong military dictatorship was preferable to any government with a penchant for communism.(15)

Brazil

In the early 60’s the US found that it didn’t particularly care for the government of Joáo Goulart. He nationalized the phone company and maintained relations with Cuba. Even though there was little risk of Brazil becoming another Cuba, the CIA decided he had to go. They spent money on candidates opposed to Goulart and let the military know they would not be opposed to a coup. The military obliged in April of 1964.(16) Rabe argues that the coup in Brazil set off a whole chain of events that eventually led to military dictatorships throughout the southern cone of South America.(17)

Chile

If the US feared potential Cuba’s in Brazil and the Dominican Republic, it just KNEW that it had another Cuba on its hands with the election of Salvador Allende in Chile (1970).(18) Allende admitted that he was a communist. He nationalized the copper industry, he consorted with Castro, he visited the Soviet Union.(19) Nixon and Kissinger nearly lost their minds.(20) They tried to prevent him from taking office. When that failed, they tried to undermine the economy and put the CIA to work orchestrating another coup. Rabe details exactly how the CIA organized the coup, assassinated the general who refused to participate, put the screws to the Chilean economy, and finally supported General Pinochet as he attacked and overthrew the Allende government. The new regime was astonishing in its brutality and in its reach. Its ability to track down and destroy regime opponents wherever they might be was quite amazing.(21)

Argentina

Argentina was a military dictatorship from 1966 to 1973, and the US was generally supportive. Although the CIA was not involved when the Argentine military overthrew the government of Isabel Perón in 1976, the Nixon/Ford administration was more than happy to assist them in controlling the country.(22) The Carter Administration limited aid to the Argentine military because of human rights abuses that had taken place with the tacit approval of Kissinger.(23)

Nicaragua

The US had been propping up the Somoza regime since the 1930’s. A true banana republic, Nicaragua has always been one of the poorest nations in the hemisphere. Rabe explains the role that the Somoza’s played in helping the US to undermine other governments in the region. When the people revolted and finally overthrew the Somoza regime, the Sandinistas came to power. While it is true that the Sandinistas had ties to Cuba and were Communist, theirs was more a revolution of national liberation than of ideology.(24) Obviously this was not seen as a revolution of national liberation by the Reagan Administration. They used bases in Honduras to host the Contras, which they armed and funded. They sold weapons to Iran in exchange for the release of seven hostages. The proceeds from this sale were then diverted to fund the Contras. It was one of the main scandals of the Reagan Administration. The CIA spent millions of dollars and a lot of time an effort trying to defeat the Sandinistas. They managed to cause a civil war, and eventually, after winning one election, the Sandinistas did step down after losing the elections of 1990.(25)

El Salvador

The US paid precious little attention to El Salvador until the 1980’s. During the ’70’s it was ruled by military dictators who had blocked the ascension of the elected Duarte. The government tacitly backed a number of right-wing “death squads,” who tortured and terrorized those who spoke out against the ruling elite. The Carter Administration approved of the overthrow of the military regime in 1979, and again, the popular Duarte this time was able to assume the leadership role. However, the military was too powerful and prevented any real reforms.(26) The Reagan Administration firmly backed the military and the abuses really began to escalate out of control. Throughout the 1980’s El Salvador was really in a state of civil war. The military and their death squads killed thousands.(27)

It is a very difficult job to attempt to explain the effects of the Cold War as it unfolded throughout Latin America. It’s a very large area with lots of different countries, millions of inhabitants, and the Cold War lasted a long time. Rabe’s solution to this problem is to focus specifically on US strategy objectives, how they were implemented, and the results of those objectives. The result of this effort is uneven at best. There are sections of the book where there are pages and pages of detail spanning just a few days time, then years go by without any mention. For example, in his discussion of Guatemala, Rabe spends 22 pages detailing the overthrow of the Arbenz government, but almost nothing on all of the terrible atrocities that happened afterward. It is clear that the atrocities of the 1970’s probably deserve more than two pages of coverage. Similarly, we read of the Dominican invasion in 1965, but then the pages of history are blank for the remainder of the Cold War.

Additionally, if you look at the laundry list of headings above, the outcomes all seem to have a depressing sameness to them. There is a problem. The CIA opts for repression and stability, thousands are repressed and killed. In part this comes from the focus of the book and the way that time is compressed and decompressed through the various pages. But, what is missing is the bigger picture.

There is a lot more diversity to the region and to all of the nations in the region than is readily apparent from reading this book. There are multiple countries which are not even mentioned or only mentioned in passing. Examples of this would be Panama, Venezuela, Columbia, Peru, Paraguay, and Uruguay. Also, even in the countries that get top billing, there are a lot of elements which are left out of the story. There are several cases where the reader is left to wonder about what economic forces are at play, why did inflation suddenly increase so rapidly, what was the role of the IMF and the World Bank? We see the role of the United Fruit Company in Guatemala, but what other multi-national corporations are playing a role? How are they trying to protect their investments? There is not a single mention of the “War on Drugs.”

In reality, if you want to see the Killing Zone up close and personal, a good historian could probably write an interesting book about each of the nations listed above. Such a book would have the liberty of going into great detail about all of the factors that led to the point where the US decided to put its Cold War muscle onto the stage. Some of these books have probably already been written. This leaves me with the impression that the author, because he is writing for a specific purpose, was forced to make choices about what to leave in and what to leave out. The result of those choices sometimes leaves the reader wondering and wishing for a bit more context.

In the final analysis, Rabe does accomplish his objective of writing a controversial book that shows the results of US foreign policy decisions during the Cold War and how the people of Latin America paid for those decisions in blood. His description of the aftermath of the Cold War, and how the redemption process is still being carried out, is useful. It helps to see that some closure is happening to many whose lives were torn apart so badly. The reader will leave this book knowing that the United States was not the white knight in shining armor that I learned of in elementary school, but rather a collection of men who emerged from the field of battle victorious, with the blood of state sponsored terror on their hands.

Notes

(1) Wikipedia, “The Black Book of Communism,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Black_Book_of_Communism (accessed September 26, 2012).
(2) Stephen G. Rabe, The Killing Zone: The United States Wages Cold War in Latin America (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2012), 23-25.
(3) p. 38.
(4) p. 39.
(5) p. 42.
(6) p. 44.
(7) p. 50.
(8) pp. 53-58.
(9) p. 60.
(10) p. 63.
(11) pp. 75-76.
(12) pp. 77-80.
(13) pp. 85-86.
(14) pp. 96-97.
(15) pp. 98-104.
(16) pp. 104-108.
(17) pp. 110-112.
(18) p. 126.
(19) pp. 130-132.
(20) p. 127.
(21) pp. 135-142.
(22) pp. 142-143.
(23) p. 147.
(24) p. 155.
(25) pp. 159-164.
(26) pp. 164-165.
(27) pp. 166-172.

Bibliography

Rabe, Stephen G., The Killing Zone: The United States Wages Cold War in Latin America. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2012.

BBC News. “Timeline: Guatemala.”
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/country_profiles/1215811.stm (accessed September 26,2012).

BBC News. “Cuba timeline.”
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/1203355.stm (accessed September 26, 2012).

BBC News. “Timeline: Dominican Republic.”
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/1217771.stm (accessed September 26, 2012).

BBC News. “Timeline: Brazil.”
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/1231075.stm (accessed September 26, 2012).

BBC News. “Chile Timeline.”
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/1222905.stm (accessed September 26, 2012).

BBC News. “Timeline: Agrentina.”
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/1196005.stm (accessed September 26, 2012).

BBC News. “Nicaragua Timeline.”
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/1225283.stm (accessed September 26, 2012).

BBC News. “Timeline: El Salvador.”
http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/1220818.stm (accessed September 26, 2012).

Written by Garn LeBaron

September 26, 2012 at 5:06 pm

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