Confronting Empire – U.S. Policy in the Global South

Last night was the first event in the Feinberg Series: Keynote Addresses. Presented by the UMass Amherst History Department in collaboration with the Ellsberg Initiative for Peace and Democracy, the 2022-2023 series is focused on (and named) Confronting Empire – U.S. Policy in the Global South. 

The keynote event, U.S. Policy in the Global South, was moderated by Amy Goodman, host of Democracy Now!, and featured 1992 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dr. Rigoberta Menchú Tum with author and journalist Vincent Bevins. 

Menchú gained notoriety for her decades of bringing awareness to Guatemala’s disastrous Civil War, particularly the many human rights violations targeted against Indigenous peoples under the oppressive government installed and supported by the United States. The best-selling book about her life and fight, I, Rigoberta Menchú, tells her story as an Indian woman in Guatemala and many others like her in gripping, vivid detail. Since the end of the Civil War, she has remained politically active, seeking justice for those affected, and campaigning to have military and political officials prosecuted for their actions. 

Bevins, an American journalist, worked as a foreign correspondent in Brazil for the Los Angeles Times from 2011 to 2016. In 2017, he moved to Jakarta, Indonesia, where he began covering Southeast Asia. While working for The Washington Post, he began writing his recent book, The Jakarta Method: Washington’s Anticommunist Crusade and the Mass Murder Program That Shaped Our World. Bevin’s research and first-hand accounts outline the U.S.’s violent repressions during the Cold War throughout Indonesia and Latin America, from staging right-wing, military-backed coups to committing genocide against indigenous peoples and communists (and those merely aligned with supposed communists).

Per the title of the keynote address, both Menchú and Bevins gave their accounts of U.S. aggression abroad. For Menchú, her account is harrowing and first-hand; for Bevins, it involves telling the story of many others affected before his birth. Together, they both speak of a core theme: to speak up and make a story known because to remain silent is to surrender. 

In the case of Menchú’s family, what transpired was severe. Menchú recollected:

“I had to break that silence, and that silence brought about the killing of my father, who was burned alive in the Spanish embassy in the ’80s. My mom was kidnapped, and I don’t know what happened to her. I don’t know where my mom is, where her remains are. Where does her body lie? I also lost my brothers Victor and Patrocenio. Many other members of my family.”

Menchú remarks that it was essential for her to speak up, to tell her story, to keep the memories of those murdered alive, and to ensure that something like this could never happen again. She continues:

“But my story is also a story that I could use to vindicate the collective memory of the Indigenous peoples … I think history belongs to us, the generations who were protagonists, but it also belongs to the young people who are going to be living in the future. We can’t improve the future if we don’t have historical memory. We need that historical memory.”

Menchú elaborates on the need for a “historical memory” by referencing the policies of terror supported by American leaders like Henry Kissinger and Ronald Reagan, to name a few. Furthermore, she speaks on the importance that the participation of women had on the movement she is a part of. Women led the struggle to bring about peace and justice after the fact, from reuniting others with their stories to putting the criminals behind the atrocities on trial. 

Because the events of Guatemalan history did not occur in a vacuum, what happened there still resonates today. 

It’s vital that people, young and old (especially those who know nothing of Guatemalan history), understand the ramifications of what took place due to U.S. policy, greed, and apathy for human life. As Menchú aptly puts it:

“We wrote the history, the memory because we don’t want the young ones, the young people to go through that again, to commit those crimes again … We want to make a legitimate narrative. And here we continue this work constructing, and building democracy. We are writing the stories of the armed conflict in Guatemala, of the Cold War, something that left us divided, that left us with a lot of pain, that left the footprints of violence.”

Bevins begins his part by reflecting on the notion that “unlike what [he] was taught in high school,” U.S. imperialism did not start at the turn of the 20th century with the Spanish-American war, “it started in 1776 with the very foundation of the United States. Imperialism started in North America; the vast majority of what is now the United States was conquered not by the British empire but by the United States government.”

He uses this as a launchpad to discuss Jakarta, using 1945 and the end of World War II for context regarding global imperialism. For context, this is where the division of the modern, Western-centric world took place: “First World,” “Second World,” and “Third World.”

These terms arose after 1945, during the Cold War, as a way to easily define countries (un)aligned with NATO – which is to say, countries unaligned with the United State’s capitalist empire. The “First World” comprised the U.S., Canada, Japan, South Korea, and Western European nations. The “Second World” was represented by communist states, including the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam, and their allies. 

While “Third World” has become synonymous with “an impoverished nation,” the term was initially used politically. “Third World” countries were often former-colonial settlements. The people native to these countries had been ravaged by colonialism and imperialism. They were also countries that enriched “First World” nations due to colonialism and imperialism. Thus, these countries needed to remain “Third World” nations (and anti-communist) to protect the interests (riches) of “First World” politicians, investors, businesses, etc. 

As Bevins puts it:

“The third world at the time was an entirely optimistic forward-looking idealistic project which sought to reformulate the rules of the global economy, which sought to put the peoples of the third world alongside the first world in what was believed to be their rightful place and what was believed to be their natural destination after the end of formal European colonization of the countries of Africa, Asia, and Latin America.”

Yet we see how that turned out for the “Third World.” The U.S. security apparatus created the CIA (formerly the OSS during the Second World War) to take on the “Second World,” yet they repeatedly failed to breach the iron curtain. 

So, the CIA diverted their attention elsewhere, to regions and nations agents they were unfamiliar with: the “Third World.” But, even without prerequisite knowledge, they may be able to fight back against the communists and protect the “Third World” for the U.S.’s interests. 

And so the CIA anti-communist mission began. They won their first with the Mossadegh coup of 1953 in Iran, followed by the ousting of Arbenz of Guatemala in 1954. Then, the CIA moves on to Jakarta to oust the first president of Indonesia, Sukarno, which leads to the CIA- and MI6-backed genocide of Indonesian communists and any tangential sympathizers. 

As Bevins outlines, the CIA set its sights on Indonesia for two reasons: (1) Indonesia hosted the first formal “third world” conference, a movement which aimed to “put into practice the idea that the world should be reformulated along the lines of real decolonization rather than just formal decolonization.” (2) The Indonesian Communist party starts performing better in elections, and it appears a fair, free democratic election would lead to a socialist candidate getting elected to the presidency; however, CIA and MI6 declassified documents showed that this was “a moderate, unarmed socialist party that had no intention of carrying out a revolution in the near future.”

The CIA thus began making their move, first through funding an anti-communist Muslim party. When that didn’t work, they moved on to committing direct violence across the country. CIA agents began dropping bombs on Indonesian civilians and, later, the CIA trained the Indonesian military – taking notes from past work done in Guatemala with Cuban exiles, etc. – to suppress dissent and overthrow the government. 

Eventually, this led to the military takeover and installment of Suharto, who became “one of the most important allies of the United States in the Cold War.” But not after disappearing approximately one million Indonesians – taken from their homes at night to be executed and discarded in rivers – and forcing one million others into concentration camps due to their political beliefs.

Bevins notes the significance of what happened in Jakarta, and the fact that this very real, yet forgotten or unknown history, had severe effects which set the tone for U.S. anti-communist interventionism abroad: 

“[Indonesia had] the most important unarmed socialist party perhaps in human history. This is the president who has been at the forefront of the third world movement, and basically, overnight, this country is flipped into the pro-western, anti-Communist camp, and the Indonesian Communist party has been eliminated. This was seen as something that could be copied by potential allies of the United States and right-wing movements around the world. This was seen as something that worked, that could be implemented in their own countries, and if it were implemented they would get the support of the United States government.”

As Guatemala was a playbook for Indonesia, “Jakarta” became a playbook (and hostile, loaded term) to be used worldwide. It will appear next in Chile. Bevins continues: 

“The first explicit instantiation of the word “Jakarta” to signify the mass murder of Communists or accused Communists comes in Chile during the administration of democratically elected socialist president Salvador Allende. At this time, far-right groups, many of which have been funded by the United States, are carrying out a number of terror campaigns on the streets of Santiago, and one of them is to write on the walls of the street or send out postcards to leftists or government employees or people accused of being leftists, “Jakarta” or “Jakarta is coming.””

Tragically, “Jakarta” did come to Chile. In 1973, Augusto Pinochet and the Chilean military, backed by the United States and CIA, completed a coup against Allende’s government. A brutal 17-year dictatorship would follow. 

Together, Menchú’s and Bevin’s stories tell a sordid tale of U.S. imperialism abroad. Often at the behest of corporations and the CIA, the U.S. sanctioned the overthrow of leftist governments throughout the Cold War. In at least 22 countries, military-backed governments supported by the U.S. intentionally murdered leftists and accused leftists of ensuring the protection of American interests and stamping out Communism around the globe. 

For Menchú, she and her family experienced U.S. interventionism in Guatemala. Unfortunately, only Menchú was able to see its long-term effects. Albeit unpleasant, she has lived to tell the tale, to ensure the story is known so the events may never be repeated.

For Bevins, it’s a story that begins with Guatemala and is replicated more efficiently (and violently) in Indonesia. Then “Jakarta” becomes a phrase meant to fear still, to know that anti-communist violence and repression are coming. And with that, “Jakarta” was repeated again and again around the globe. 

As both illustrate, what happened in Guatemala or Indonesia are not isolated events. They did not simply occur and never happened again. Once the tactics of repression work, they will be implemented again elsewhere. That is unless we do something about it. From educating younger generations to fighting for justice, whether for those who have died in the fight or prosecuting those who commit crimes against humanity, we can make a difference.   

As Menchú puts it, “We can’t improve the future if we don’t have a historical memory. We need that historical memory.”

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