Magazine

Online Extra: Commentary: Harsh History Lessons from Latin America


By Geri Smith

For those who have lived in countries afflicted with terrorism, it's unsettling to watch as people in the U.S. become accustomed to living under the threat of terrorist violence. For the first time, Americans are battling an unseen, enraged enemy whose actions are deviously planned to sow uncertainty and fear. What's worrisome is that Americans, the beneficiaries of one of the world's most free and open societies, may be too quick to relinquish some of their precious freedoms as the nation proceeds to root out the terrorist threat.

That's a concern being voiced in Latin America, which in the 1970s and 1980s suffered twice: From brutal terrorism and then from ruthless government anti-terror campaigns that led to widespread torture, disappearances, and killings. From Argentina to Chile to Peru, lawyers, journalists, and human-rights activists feel a disturbing sense of déjà vu as they watch Americans debate tough new anti-terror measures.

The challenge for U.S. leaders now is to restore Americans' sense of security without diminishing basic civil rights that served as beacons of inspiration to many Latin Americans when their own societies were racked by political turmoil.

SOBERING EXAMPLES. Chances are, Americans don't run the risk of a wholesale loss of their rights, because the U.S. has a strong judiciary, alert watchdog organizations, and a long democratic history. But a look at how Latin countries fared when they fought internal terrorist threats provides sobering examples of how easily basic rights can be eroded and how difficult those rights are to restore once the crisis has passed.

No one is suggesting the U.S. will start looking like Argentina in the 1970s, when 30,000 people disappeared during the "Dirty War" against terrorism. It's difficult for outsiders to understand how Argentina reached that extreme, but after several years of vicious attacks by the Montoneros guerrillas, the Argentines were desperate for relief.

Robert Cox, an English journalist who now works for the Charleston (S.C.) Post-Courier, was editor-in-chief of the Buenos Aires Herald in the 1970s and was practically the only journalist who dared write about the abuses. That won him powerful enemies in the military regime: Death threats forced him to flee from Argentina in 1979. Now, Cox watches in dismay as Americans are forced to come to grips with terrorism.

"TERRIBLE THINGS." He knows all too well how fear and outrage can turn into a thirst for revenge. "In Argentina, terrible things happened: There were kidnappings, nail bombs, policemen killed horribly, and a 17 year-old woman who befriended the daughter of an Army general and then planted a bomb in a satchel beneath his bed and killed him. Eventually, you had very nice people who were going around saying, 'If I could get ahold of those terrorists, I'd tear their limbs apart.'"

As a neighbor's teenage son was carted away, never to be seen again, people would mutter: "Por algo será" ("It must be for some good reason"). Many Argentines ignored evidence that abuses were occurring. Sociologists, psychiatrists, scientists, and other intellectuals who suggested the repression had gone too far were branded terrorist sympathizers and became victims themselves. "You're either against the terrorists, or with the terrorists," people would say, in words that today are echoed by President Bush.

Peruvians also know how quickly basic civil rights can be lost. In the 1980s, the Maoist Shining Path guerrillas were so ruthless that Peruvians initially applauded the government's tough anti-terrorism measures, which included summary trials for suspected terrorists before hooded judges. But the government cast such a wide net in that it wrongly imprisoned hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of people.

UNSAVORY ALLEGIANCES. Accused terrorists won reduced sentences if they would name collaborators. In their desperation, they often named innocent people. That's why Latin legal advocates are dismayed as hundreds of immigrants to the U.S. are being detained indefinitely as part of the sweep for terrorists. "Adoption of strict anti-terrorism legislation sends out a very serious message, but exceptional measures can degrade hard-won civil rights -- and they're difficult to win back," says Han Landolt of the Institute of Legal Studies in Lima, Peru.

Others are troubled by Washington's embrace of unsavory governments in the fight against Osama bin Laden. The U.S. actively encouraged Chile's 1973 military coup d'état and then backed dictator Augusto Pinochet despite evidence of widespread human-rights abuses. In Argentina, the military felt confident enough of Washington's support to repress its citizens for half a decade before cockily invading the British Falkland Islands in 1982. Only then did Washington turn its back on the regime, which collapsed.

"It may be necessary to form alliances with this kind of people, because otherwise you won't get the results you need," says Felipe González, a law professor at the Diego Portales University in Santiago, Chile. "But that could pave the way for new problems down the road, just as it did in Latin America."

LONG CURBS. Argentine journalist Horacio Verbitsky lists other concerns: Some U.S. news organizations are exercising self-censorship, small-town journalists have been fired, and comedians have been shunned by advertisers for unpatriotic comments. "In Latin America, the dictatorships were brutal, cruel, and exercised unlimited power," he says. "In the U.S., control is exercised in a more sophisticated, less evident, Big Brother kind of way." If a society is not careful, Verbitsky says, "you run the risk of growing accustomed to curbs on freedom of speech and other basic rights."

In Argentina, controversial books were burned publicly. In Chile, fully 28 years after the military coup, judges still won't allow the publication of hard-hitting books about abuses by the intelligence service and justice system, or even about business scandals. "We're still trying to reverse the many restrictions on rights set up during that period," says González.

Because Americans have always enjoyed such extraordinary freedom of speech, movement, and activities, they take those rights for granted. They should proceed carefully as they agree to some curbs on such liberties. As many Latin Americans will attest, you don't always appreciate those freedoms until they're gone. Mexico Bureau Chief Smith has reported from Latin America for 22 years, including four years under military rule in Argentina and Chile


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