Where is South America? The Earthquake, Clinton, and the Forgotten Continent

Reflections, Eating a Madeline, on a Rainy Saturday Morning

(*reference to Marcel Proust)

The news from Chile regarding the earthquake on Februray 27 evokes sympathy for those who have suffered personal and other losses. Individuals have several options if they wish to contribute to relief funds.

The one positive benefit from the earthquake in Chile (8.8 on the Richter scale) is that it has reminded North American news readers and listeners that there is a large continent to the south of the United States and Mexico, which is known as South America. Chile, where the earthquake occurred, is the southernmost country on the west coast of South America.

The Falklands and Argentine claims to the islands are also back in the news this week, as a result of British exploration for oil in the area. Argentina is the southernmost country on the East coast of South America.

Given the lack of knowledge of world geography and history, such explanations may be useful now.

One might rightfully ask, indeed, “Where did South America go?”

In our consciousness, in our awareness of the world. In the United States, but I suspect also in other parts of the world.

One country that has discovered South America is China, which has made important investments in Brazil and other countries, and which has an expanding trade relationship with the countries of the region.

The 1823 Monroe Doctrine is long dead, which is a good thing. In fact, it died in 1933 with Franklin Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy and the Montevideo Convention. Its legal death was reinforced with the United Nations Charter (1945), the Charter of the Organization of American States (1948) and the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance or “Rio Treaty” (1947).

Nonetheless, these treaties did not prevent the CIA overthrow of the leftist Arbenz government in Guatemala in 1954, the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961, the U.S. intervention in the Dominican Republic in 1965, or CIA involvement in events leading to the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973. Or the invasion of and overthrow of the governments of Grenada in 1983 and Panama in 1989.

Oh yes, Chile, a country at the southern extreme of South America, on the west coast. Now the memories start to flow again. Torture. Forced disappearances. Costa-Gavras’ movie “Missing” (1982) with Jack Lemmon, telling the story. An even deeper memory emerges, of Costa-Gavras’ movie “State of Siege” (1972), which told the story of the 1970 kidnapping of Dan Mitrione, a U.S. agent reported to have been deeply involved in training the police and military in the arts of torture in Uruguay, and earlier in Brazil in the 1960’s.

Then there was the whole thing with Argentina, which is reported to have killed some 10-30,000 people during “the Dirty War” from 1976-1982. A memorable movie, “The Official Story” (Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 1985), deals powerfully with these events, although in an oblique fashion which raises the question of the individual citizen’s complicity in the torture and disappearances ordered by the generals. (This movie could be of interest to fans of the U.S. TV series “24”.)

Also from this period, one may recall, Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands in 1982. And remember also the endless and mindless arguments over whether it was “The Falklands” or “las Islas Malvinas”, an argument from conclusions that impeded any analytical discussion. Argentina’s defeat at the hands of the British had a lot to do with the fall of the military junta that followed, and the election of Raúl Alfonsín in December 1983.

One recalls U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Jeane Kirkpatrick, and her views on “Dictatorships and Double Standards” and U.S. relations with friendly authoritarian states. She supported Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands, until finally overruled by others in the Reagan administration.

Alfonsín served as President of Argentina until 1989. He set in motion the trial of former junta leaders in 1985 and tamed the military, standing firm in the face of a military rebellion at the Campo de Mayo military base and in Cordoba in 1987. After this rebellion, he made concessions to the military, including the infamous “Due Obedience Law”. The law, however, was repealed in 2003. A principal prosecutor at the trial of former junta leaders was Luis Moreno-Ocampo, who is currently the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

Significantly, Alfonsín set up a National Commission on the Disappearance of People which produced in 1984 a report entitled “Nunca Más,” (“Never Again”), which was presented to the courts.

Torture, military government, U.S. involvement. The memories return. Of events in Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile. Nicaragua under Anastásio Somoza. Electoral fraud and suppression of the democratic opposition in El Salvador in the 1970’s.

From 1978 or so through early 90’s, the attention of the American public was riveted on Central America, where the Sandinista revolution triumphed over Somoza, death squads became common in El Salvador, and the United States backed the efforts of the contras operating in and against Nicaragua from bases in Honduras. Memories surface of the assassination of Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero while saying mass in the cathedral in San Salvador in 1980, and of the American lay worker and three Maryknoll nuns who were dragged from their van and killed by a Salvadoran death squad later that year.

U.S. support of the contras led to Nicaragua’s case against the U.S. in the World Court in 1984, and the decision of the Court against the U.S. in 1986. In response the U.S. withdrew from the compulsory jurisdiction of the Court, as Óscar Arias, the President of Costa Rica, won a Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the Arias Plan or Contadora Process which brought the hostilities in the region to a halt.

A civilian government was also elected in Guatemala in 1985, which was a harbinger of hope following the massacres and assassinations of Indians and others by the Guatemalan military in the early 1980’s, and earlier.

Then finally, in 1989, the U.S. invaded Panama and overthrew the government of Manuel Noriega, a former CIA agent who had become deeply involved in the drug trade. After holding out in the Vatican Embassy, where he was intensely harassed from outside by American troops, he finally emerged and was whisked away to Miami where he stood trial and now serves a life sentence.

After Panama, we all seem to have forgotten about South America, as attention turned to Mexico and the North American Free Trade Agreement, which entered into force in 1994. To be sure, there was a great resumption in interest in the region in the 1990’s among U.S. businesses, as Mercosur was formed in 1991 and private investment flowed to Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Mexico in particular.

But for the last ten years, the public in the United States seems to have forgotten about South America, and even the rest of Latin America except Mexico–which has become a dangerous place as the drug traffickers have moved in. This development may be related to the success of the United States and Colombia in fighting the drug trade in that country. A lot has been going on in Venezuela, with Hugo Chávez rewriting the constitution with popular support–and also apparent thuggery in the streets and increasing restraints on independent media–but little of this has drawn much attention in the United States.

Ah yes, memories brought to mind by an earthquake, and a renewed awareness that there is a continent down there called South America, and an even larger area called Latin America.

While America sleeps, others seem interested in South America. In November, 2009, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Brazil, Bolivia, and Venezuela. The State Department seems to have taken note, announcing on February 26, 2010 that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will travel to Uruguay, Argentina, Chile, Brazil and Costa Rica during the first week in March.

Chances are, in the next 10 or 20 years, South America—and Latin America–will be back in the news.

For those who are a bit hazy on exactly where Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil. Chile, and Costa Rica are, it’s time to get out the maps, and to read and ask a few questions about what has happened there in the last 50 years.

The Trenchant Observer

E-mail: observer@trenchantobserver.com
Twitter: www.twitter.com/trenchantobserv

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