‘He might be a son of a bitch but he’s our son of a bitch’, said US President Roosevelt about Anastasio Somoza Garcia in 1939. That statement about the Nicaraguan dictator encapsulates the attitude of the US to a long line of dictators and despots across Latin America and the Caribbean.
It is a policy that goes back much further than the thirties: at least to 1823 when an earlier US President, James Monroe, declared ‘America for the Americans’. His contemporary, Simon Bolivar, the great ‘liberator’ of South America understood what this meant. He said that, ‘the US is destined to plague Latin America with miseries in the name of freedom’. He was right. The Monroe doctrine genesis may have been as a bulwark against the ongoing interference of European colonial powers but for the best part of 200 years it has led to the US supporting and perpetrating massacres against latino and indigenous peasants and workers alike.
Of course, various pretexts have been necessary to justify the interventions: the urgent need to suppress the spread of the Bolshevik Revolution to Mexican peasants; conjuring the spectre of communism during the Cold War; and since the break-up of the Soviet Union, Reagan’s “evil empire”, there’s been the even more ridiculous notion of the ‘war on drugs’. Documented cases of overt military intervention by US marines are aplenty but we also know that US agencies, the CIA and others, have more often played a sinister, covert, role on many other occasions.
Every time there’s been a movement by people in the region that could be considered a vague threat to the interest of US capital, there’s been a response. The struggle has been relentless; sometimes acute, sometimes subdued; the form has varied. Of course, armed insurrection against dictators has featured, as has action by trade unions and social movements, but the transmission of ideas, exposing current realities and enabling an analysis of different truths has taken many forms. The educative impact of Paulo Friere’s ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ should never be underestimated, nor should the poetry of Pablo Nerruda, Carlos Godoy or the songs of Victor Jarra, to name but a few.
Add to that list Voluspa Jarpa, a Chilean artist, whose latest exhibition (En Nuestra Pequeña región de por aca) we were lucky enough to catch last week on a visit to MALBA (Museum of Latin American Art in Buenos Aires). Through exceptionally creative use of archived documents and images, Jarpa combines the investigative and artistic modes. As you enter the exhibition space you are met by vertical streams of A4 paper. On three walls are copper-coloured images of 47 Latin American leaders who were either assassinated or died in circumstances shrouded in doubt. In another room, on a simple shelf, are metal lever-arch files containing archived documents arranged by country. You are free to browse. Elsewhere, specific documents are pulled apart.
Jarpa has combined the investigative and artistic modes, moving between politics and aesthetics with little effort. By presenting two dimensional media in a visually pleasing manner, Jarpa facilitated an exploration by the viewer. While the presentation may be easy on the eye, the content is not. Even though the documents are redacted before release (presumably to spare us the really gory details), the information is damning. Here’s a small sample:
A CIA briefing on the agencies’ involvement in 1950’s Guatemala indicated that it ‘directed covert operations aimed at removing the government of Jacobo Arbenz…[including] suggestions for the disposal of key Arbenz government officials and Guatemalan Communists.’
CIA documents noting the employment of Argentinian security force personnel by Coca-Cola. There’s the inevitable reference to the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) in Nicaragua as ‘terrorists’.
A formal minute (heavily paraphrased, no doubt) of a conversation between Henry Kissinger, US Secretary of State, and officials about the removal by armed forces of the legitimate President of Chile in 1973, the socialist Allende. Referring to reports that during the initial phase of the coup over 4000 people had been rounded-up and killed, Kissinger said, ‘…I think we should understand our policy – that however unpleasant they act, the government is better for us than Allende was.’
Remember, these are only three examples out of many. The artist by letting the viewer find their own snippets of information; by using the viewers’ existing knowledge, enables an individual interpretation of language and image. One becomes part of the creative act by participating in the process. To her credit, nothing is pushed; Jarpa allows the participant to uncover the hidden economic interests and powers at play.
But, friends, if you think that Jarpa’s expose only refers to times past then I think you are wrong. The interests that have shaped US policy for 200 years to the Americas remain. Ask yourself how on earth as recently as 2009 the constitutional President of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, was overthrown by the military with hardly a peep from the so-called guardian of western democracy, the great US of A? Perhaps consider the pivotal role of Saint Obama’s administration in that manoeuvre? Watch the current events unfold in Brazil, Bolivia and Venezuela and, if you’re so inclined, question what lies behind the news? Why is it that every Thursday the mothers of those who disappeared during the Argentinian junta still congregate in the Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires?
The content of Jarpa’s exhibition did not shock me. It provided a focus for reflection on prior knowledge and an opportunity to remember that as well as the figureheads, hundreds of thousands of men and women have died for mounting a direct challenge to the state mechanisms supporting dominant economic interests.
I also felt no despair. Today, I know people are still putting their necks on the line. Not in the pursuit of meaningless, irritating and hackneyed phrases so beloved of social movements and ‘the left’ in the UK (please save me from anyone over 21 who makes a banner saying ‘Another World is Possible’) but to make material gains for their families and communities; their class.
In another 20 or 30 years released archives will again illuminate (partly) what the US and other economic interests have done to destabilise the recent centre left and left governments in the region. No doubt the file on Chilean artist, Voluspa Jarpa, has been open for some time.
Michael MacNeil – 19 September 2016.