Atone for the Past as a Prelude to the Future for All of the Americas

Jorge G. Castaneda is a political scientist and writer in Mexico City

Cuban exile and self-styled terrorist Luis Posada Carriles has helped uncover a convoluted and painful issue in U.S.-Latin American relations, in a confusing and rambling but revealing interview granted earlier this month to the New York Times.

The Cuban’s confessions of planting bombs in Havana hotels last year, killing an Italian tourist, but also of carrying out assassination attempts on Fidel Castro’s life in the early ‘60s as well as myriad other terrorist activities against the Cuban regime, raise an issue that has been lingering on the U.S.-Latin American agenda since the end of the Cold War.

The two superpowers waged a surrogate war for more than 40 years across the globe. The former Soviet Union lost the Cold War and then its very existence. The United States bore much of its burden domestically; part of the cost of the Cold War was paid for by the internal dissension and distress wrought by Vietnam.

But although the damage provoked by the superpowers in Latin America was nowhere near what occurred elsewhere in the Third World, neither the Soviet Union nor the United States has really come to terms with this dark history, much less made amends for what happened. The U.S.S.R. is no longer around to revisit the past; the U.S. is.


The anti-Castro crusader’s confessions regarding his participation in terrorist bombings as recently as last year, as well as his claims that these and other terrorist acts were directly financed by Jorge Mas Canosa and the Cuban American National Foundation, bring this problem to the fore. The foundation, a lobbying group that has not only been welcomed at the White House for nearly two decades, but also has tax-exempt status and has received federal support for many of its projects, denies involvement and has threatened to sue the New York Times for “outrageous and malicious” allegations.

The CIA and the FBI have also dismissed any connection with Posada, but given their track record on such matters, the denials are less than credible. The real question should be whether it is not time for the Clinton administration, on its own, to open an independent investigation of the United States’ behavior in Latin America during the Cold War and whether that behavior was compatible with perennial American laws and values and not only with realpolitik imperatives of the moment.

Washington should delve into its own archives, testimony, confessions and recollections to determine what was right and what was wrong--to sit in judgment on its own history in Latin America, as other nations have done in regard to World War II. If it turns out, as many suspect, that at least part of what was done ran flagrantly counter to American principles, then apologies are in order. Although what occurred was partially explainable by the Cold War logic of the time, if U.S. laws and norms were violated, it should so be stated, and Washington should ask forgiveness of those who became the victims of its own illicit acts.

The process could begin with the better-known cases:


* The CIA-sponsored coup in Guatemala in 1954 that ushered in a 45-year period of violence, repression and instability that is only now beginning to subside and that has included instances of CIA involvement in highly questionable acts as recently as five years ago.

* The Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961, the official investigation and report of which was recently issued by the CIA, where a U.S. sponsored, financed and trained force invaded a sovereign nation whose government was recognized as legitimate by the international community.

* The invasion of the Dominican Republic in April 1965, where the presumed threat of instability and “communism” warranted, in the eyes of the Johnson administration, occupation of the island.

* The various CIA-organized “dirty tricks” against Salvador Allende of Chile between October 1970 and September 1973.


* The financing, training and sponsoring of the Contras in Nicaragua during the 1980s, where the U.S. openly sought to overthrow a government with which it had diplomatic relations, which was fully recognized by the regional and international community and which had committed no act of hostility against the United States other than resorting to strident rhetoric and unfriendly votes in the United Nations. Indeed, recent CIA investigations now acknowledge that the agency knew some of its friends were accused of drug trafficking.

* The Christmas invasion of Panama in 1989, where Washington unleashed the bloodiest, costliest and most disproportionate drug bust ever against Manuel Noriega, someone who probably deserved to spend years in jail, but not at the cost of hundreds of lives and millions of dollars in damage.

All of these instances can be judged from two perspectives: the Cold War rationale of the time and the more lasting criteria of American and universal values of morality, respect for the rule of law and international coexistence. One can understand the logic of the moment, but it cannot be an eternal standard. If that were the case, slavery, segregation, colonialism and torture would be perpetually justified. At the time they occurred, they were either legal, accepted or tolerated. Yet today, with other values and other views, they are deemed immoral, reprehensible and wrong.

Governments, states and leaders increasingly are responding to demands for a revision of their past, for a more balanced judgment of their history and for apologies when they are due. Events transpired cannot be relived, but the uncertainties of the future perhaps can best be faced by proceeding with this wrenching but necessary settling of scores with the past.