Category: Latin America

CondorHistory has many dark secrets that some have wished remained hidden from the official record so that the history that has been portrayed remains sanitized and above reproach.  But it is also said that what you do in the dark always comes to light.  In the wake of the coup that saw the overthrow of Chilean President Salvador Allende (1908-1973) on September 11, 1973, the country was placed in a vice grip by his successor, Augusto Pinochet (1915-2006), who commenced a program of retribution against enemies, activist and those “suspected” of being part of the opposition to the new government.  His regime was marred by human rights violations for which he was arrested by British Police in England on October 17, 1998.  Pinochet was extradited back to his native Chile but never stood trial for his actions.  He died on December 10, 2006 of congestive heart failure and pulmonary edema. His death marked the end of legal action to bring him to justice but it did not stop the prosecution of others who were complicit in the horrific actions that took place in the aftermath of the coup.  Researchers continued to investigate Pinochet’s actions and those of fellow dictators in Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay.  During one such expedition in Paraguay, a trove of documents were uncovered that shed light on a joint program created by several neighboring countries to track down those deemed enemies of the state with the purpose of execution.  The program is known as Operation Condor and here Charles River Editors provides a concise summary of how and why the program came into existence.

For those who are unfamiliar with Operation Condor, the book’s contents may come as a significant shock.  I think readers may benefit from also taking a look at Peter Kornbluh’s ‘The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability‘, which provides a detailed explanation of Pinochet’s rise to power and the crimes against humanity that occurred under his reign.   It is not necessary to read that book in order to enjoy this one but Kornbluh’s book is complemented by what is found here.  And while Kornbluh’s book focuses mainly on Pinochet, this book is centered on Operation Condor itself.   To set the stage for the gritty details of the operation, the author explains the dictatorships that were found in the nations that formed Operation Condor.  A brief explanation of the regimes of Argentina’s  Juan Perón (1895-1974) and Paraguay’s Alfredo Stroessner (1912-2006) and provided as examples.  The two rulers are just a sample of the many dictatorships that became common to Latin American during the 1960s and 1970s as the term “the disappeared” became part of the Latin American lexicon.

This book is dark and the descriptions of actions carried out by operatives of the program may be tough for some readers to accept.  The actions of American operative Michael Townley and the Central Intelligence Agency (“CIA”) are also discussed and sheds light on a very dark time in United States foreign policy as Washington courted and accepted right-wing tyrants determined to keep their nations classified as banana republics. Power, greed and violence were the trifecta that spread fear and mayhem across several continents as political opponents and voices against the government were murdered in cold blood sometimes on foreign soil.  Pinochet remained firmly at the center and his intelligence apparatus Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional (“DINA”) served as nucleus for the death sowed as operatives spared no expense or destination to carry out acts of violence.   The attacks were brazen and shocking, and caused Washington to finally take notice.  Undoubtedly, there are many more secrets buried in files locked tightly away in the archives of several countries.  But the truth about Operation Condor remains public for the world to see.

We have heard the saying that the past is prologue.  Latin America has been plagued by dictatorships, fraudulent elections, corruption and murder.  It remains to be seen if the region that is full of beautiful scenery, people and cultures will move forward and correct the wrongs that have been done in the past. As it does, it remains critical to remember the dark legacy of Augusto Pinochet and Operation Condor.

ASIN: B07QY6CTNZ

Latin America

contra1I still remember the video footage taken during the live testimony of Lt. Col. Oliver North (Ret.), as Congress sought to unravel  interconnected covert operations that revolved around Iran, Israel and Nicaragua. North appeared on television in full military dress, earing the sympathy and admiration of a large segment of American citizens.  There were some who felt he should have been incarcerated and that his actions were a dishonor to the very uniform he had on.   Regrettably, his testimony did little to help fully understand what had really taken place.  And even my father who follows politics and news religiously did not fully understand what had taken place.  What was clear, is that the administration of President Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) had engaged in questionable and possibly illegal activities that sent shockwaves of panic through Reagan’s cabinet and raised alarm bells on Capitol Hill.  As more information came to light, the media began to call it the Iran-Contra scandal and even today, it is still known by that description.  It remains one of the darkest moments of Reagan’s time in office.  Author Malcolm Byrne revisits the Iran-Contra scandal to tell the full truth about how and why it developed, and the actions of a president abusing the powers of the Oval Office. 

If you have decided to read this book, I am sure that there is a good chance that you are already familiar with the Iran-Contra scandal. But even if you are not, the story will still be of interest and easy to follow. The story begins by revisiting the events of October 5, 1986, when a C-123 plane carrying arms for the contras fighting the Sandinista government is shot down while over Nicaraguan airspace.  Several days later, a revelation on Iranian television sent Washington in panic mode.  Nearly everyone began to question the actions of Reagan and his cabinet.  The full story was carefully hidden from the public through omissions and in some cases, deception.   Here we have the whole account and Byrne take us on quite a ride as he peels back the layers of obfuscation employed by key officials close to the President.

Although prior knowledge of the events that gave way to the scandal is not necessary, I do believe that it will help if the reader has some prior knowledge of the political climate of Central America and the Middle East during the time period in which the scandal took place.  In fact, the histories of Nicaragua, Honduras, Israel, El Salvador an Iran are all relevant to the information that Byrne is presenting to the reader.   The fear of a communist expansion under the thumb of the Soviet Union, continued to shape U.S. foreign policy following World War II.  The rise of left-leaning and popular figures across Latin America had caused Washington to pay close attention and subvert several governments through the Central Intelligence Agency.  Central America became the next battle ground and as Byrne shows, Reagan intended to pull out all of the stops.

There are many acronyms in the book due to the complexity of Washington’s design with regards to intelligence and foreign policy.  Several departments play a role in the story and Byrne keeps track of them all, keeping the story flowing smoothly.  Chapters one through twelve alternate between Iran and Nicaragua. It was a good decision by the author, for it allows the reader to focus one part of the story before going to the next and then back again.  The two tracks eventually merge but not before Byrne provides a ton of staggering and shocking information.  When the tracks do merge, the book takes another turn as Reagan’s cabinet goes into damage control and the full weight of Congress comes down on his administration.

The hearings and testimony are summarized here so readers should not expect full transcripts but only snippets of the most critical statements.   In fact, the section regarding the hearings and prosecutions by the Department of Justice do not make up a large portion of the book.  The majority is devoted to the developments in Central American and the Middle East.  But that in no way diminishes the importance of the later chapters and they are just as surprising as the rest of the book.

One section in the book that caught my attention was the discussion about Reagan’s health.  Putting aside the attempted assassination in 1981, there were other health issues that arose during his presidency that caused many to question whether he was fit for office.  His actions and later testimony provide evidence that the conditions he later suffered from, had began to manifest as early as the 1980s. Byrne does not give Reagan a pass because of this but is equally mystified at how he was able to function.  He also makes a compelling point regarding Reagan’s mental state and his interactions with subordinates. It is certainly food for thought about the 40th President of the United States.

America has always said that it does not negotiate with terrorist.   On the surface it sounds tough and gives off the impression that the United States can take as hardline of a stance as anyone else.  However,  the events described in this book, challenge that position and Byrne’s research shows that negotiation became as common as public denials.  For many Americans, the scandal is an afterthought.  Reagan died in 2004 and the suriving members from his cabinet who are still alive had faded out of the public light, well into their later years in age.  However, I do believe that the story is still important in light of the recent events regarding the administration of Donald J. Trump.  Impeachment and investigations are two words that give rise to fear and concern but the founding fathers knew early on that such a system of governing was needed if the United States would truly be a democracy.  Future presidents may also want to read this book so that they too are never accused of abuse of power.

This account of the Iran-Contra scandal lays it all out for the reader to digest. It is an incredible and unnerving story about the very dark side of United States foreign policy.  Highly recommended.

ISBN-10: 0700625909
ISBN-13: 978-0700625901

American History Latin America

BonnerFor the first time in a long time, I found myself emotional and angry as I finished this book about the relationship between the United States and the military dictatorship in El Salvador during the small Central American nation’s civil war in the 1980s.  I had expected the book to be a tough read and contain many facts that would be both uncomfortable and upsetting.  But I admit that I was not prepared for what I learned.  This is not the first book I have read or reviewed regarding  El Salvador.  There are many  other books that are very good but take different approaches to the subject matter.  It might be fair to say that the other books were a primer for what I was to learn here in this mind-blowing and deeply troubling book by Raymond Bonner, a former Marine who served in Vietnam and current staff writer for the New York Times.

Younger Americans will most likely have no recollection of the civil war that claimed the lives of thousands of El Salvadorans.   A friend of mine was born in El Salvador and has told me the story of her family’s departure from the country as government troops surrounding their town.  They found refuge in New York before making a home in New Jersey.  Although she has never spoken in too much detail about El Salvador, I am sure there are many memories that she has kept to herself from a time in her youth where death was certain but life was not.   Those who are old enough to remember the war in El Salvador and the actions both the Carter and Reagan Administrations, will find this book to be a thorough account of what really did happen as America became more entrenched in the affairs of Central America.

To help the reader understand politics in El Salvador, Bonner provides a brief history of the nation, including the settlement of the Pipil Indians and the Spanish colonization which has had long term effects on El Salvadoran society.  Coffee became a prized possession and still remains on the nation’s top exports.  The plantations, known to the locals as “fincas“, became a hot commodity and later actions by the wealthy upper class backed by ruling officials, set the stage for the adversarial relationship between the peasants and the Government that late reached deadly proportions.  The 1932 massacre or “matanza“, is discussed as well, so that readers can understand the long history of repression.

On October 15, 1979, President General Carlos Humberto Romero Mena (1924-2017) was overthrown in a military backed coup that marked a turning point for El Salvador and set the country down a dark path that still reverberates today.  At this point in the book, the pace picks up considerably.  The administration of Jimmy Carter found itself unsure on how to proceed with El Salvador, a nation of no strategic importance for the United States.  Fears of a left-leaning administration permeated the in Washington resulting in policy mistakes that later came back to haunt the United States.  Through Bonner’s work we can see how the mistakes developed but more importantly, why.  Relying on now declassified cables, other documents released to the public and his time in the country, a clearer picture of what did and did not happen has begun to take shape.  And it is a deeply troubling picture of ineptitude and complicity.   Or some might simply call it weakness.

On January 21, 1980, Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) took office as the 40th President of the United States and as Bonner show, events in El Salvador took an even darker turn that might cause some readers to revolt in disgust.  I warn readers that the book is not for the faint at heart and what is revealed during the administration of Ronald Reagan forced me to question all that I knew about El Salvador.  To be clear, there are no happy endings here but instead, the dark truth about events in El Salvador including the murders of Archbishop Oscar Romero (1917-1980) and churchwomen Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan in December, 1980.   The heinous act was portrayed in the 1986 film ‘Salvador‘ by Oliver Stone, starring James Woods and Jim Belushi.  in 1989, the film ‘Romero‘ was released starring the late Raul Julia (1940-1994) as the late Archbishop Romero. Both films are powerful but there is far more to the story as told here.

It goes without saying that on all sides there were multiple players and it was no different in Washington and San Salvador.  The actions of the military commanders are horrific but what I found to  be even more disturbing as I read through the book, were the actions of many in Washington, including elected officials, cabinet members and officials in the State Department.  Misrepresentations and outright lies to the American public and Congress, coupled with covert plans to sent military aid to El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, which became ground zero in Washington’s battle against the left in Central America.  These actions are what would be called deceit.  That deception resulted in repeated tragedies that claimed the lives of thousands of people through failed U.S. policy that failed to fully understand El Salvador, Central America and the truth about the influence of communism.   The red scare was alive and well and Washington’s justifications for its actions are misguided and repulsive.   In the book, the paranoia surrounding it is eerily reminiscent of the mantra endorsed by U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy (1907-1957).  Bonner provides snippets of public states and cables to drive home the message so that it is loud and clear.

Surprisingly, to date there has never been a full investigation into Washington’s actions in El Salvador.  And as the gangs MS-13 and Barrio 18 (composed of a significant number of deportees from the United States) continue to tear the country apart, investigations into individuals of prior administrations are almost certain to never happen.  Many in Washington have made it a point to forget El Salvador but for the its people, the memories of the civil war will never fade.  This is their story, told by Raymond Bonner, of hope and disappointment, supplemented by death and terror under a military backed by America and determined to maintain its grip by any means necessary.

ASIN: B01FGHJ5MK

Latin America

 

91zChcroMlL._SR500,500_If you have visited the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico, then you know very well why it is called the “Island of Enchantment”.   It has a mystical feel to it and attracts thousands of tourist everyday.   The presence of the United States is found across the island, reminding the visitor of the territory’s status as a commonwealth.  Regardless, Old San Juan is like a step back in time several hundred years earlier as European explorers under the command of Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) make their way to the new world.  The history of Puerto Rico is often misunderstood or unknown.  The American occupation and the  events that followed still ring fresh in the minds of Puerto Ricans both on the island and across the continental United States.  But for a large number of people, the history of Puerto Rico prior to American intervention is often a mystery.  This book by Rudolph Adams Van Middeldyk addresses that very topic, providing a true history of how Puerto Rico came into existence and why it ended up in the possession of the United States.

The story begins in 1493 as Columbus and his entourage makes another journey to the Caribbean at the service of the Spanish monarchy.  Gold, spices and human labor are on the list of items to obtain as Spain seeks to expand its global influence.  However, Columbus had bigger plans and does not stay on the island long. In fact, he is only mentioned early in the story before departing for Hispaniola where he would establish Santo Domingo.  Other figures take prominence such as Juan Ponce de León (1474-1521), whom the town in the southern part of the island is named after.  There are many players active in the story, each with their own agenda and claim to a stake in a part of the new territory.  Ponce establishes a capital named Capárra from which he served the Spanish Government.  But his tenure is short lived as Columbus’ son Diego (1479-1526) embraces chicanery and Ponce decides to continue exploring resulting in his discovery of new territory that he names Florida.

Ponce’s actions are literally the tip of the iceberg.  As the new settlers move in, the fate of the island population is sealed.  Murder, rape, pillage disease mixed into a deadly brew that systematically erased the native population, some of which had already been enslaved and sent to Europe. Here we learn of the tragic story of the Boriquén population which does not exist today.  They are often referred to as the Tainos, which apparently is a name that might have been given to them by the Europeans.  The Caribs are also mentioned in the book providing a better understanding of their culture and the clash between the natives and the explorers.   The natives do stand idly by  waiting to be extinguished. Revolts take place and the author details them in the book.

Spain had become alarmed by what was happening to the native population and dispatched the Jerome Friars to attend to the island. Ordinances were passed to protect the natives’ lives and prevent their eradication but too much had taken place for too long. When the Friars arrived, the island was split in two with capitals in the north and south.  The southern capital of San German and its dark fate are discussed here in depth.  Visitors to modern day San German will take high interest in this part of the book.   Needless to say, it is quite a story and shows how close Puerto Rico came to being under the rule of several different empires.

Similar to the West Indies and South America, the French, British and Dutch empires all make an appearance as they steal territory from one another in an attempt at world domination.  The story of the British is perhaps the most famous and as an American, it is entrenched in the history of the place I call home. However, the focus here is on Puerto Rico and the number of foreign invasions are simply mind-boggling.  And it is a near miracle the the island eventually became a commonwealth of the United States and not territory of a number of nations.  The author discusses in detail each invasion for the reader to digest.

In September, 2017, Hurricane Maria barreled through the Caribbean and damaged Puerto Rico extensively.  Hurricanes are nothing new for the region and the number of those that have occurred over the past several hundred years are staggering.  Middeldyk provides a timeline for the major hurricanes that took place after the founding of Puerto Rico up until the time of U.S. intervention.  History truly does have a way of repeating itself.

Towards the end of the book, I did feel as if the author had strayed a bit off topic.  He asserts his own beliefs about the characteristics of some groups which could be viewed as prejudiced.  I did feel as if he made several judgments which were quite broad and unfounded.  However, the book was published in 1903, a time in which diversity and acceptance were nearly unheard of.   I do believe that the book has enough value to be of interest without that part included.  But we do not have the ability to go back in time and change his mind.

If you are looking for a quick primer on the history of Puerto Rico prior to commonwealth status, then this book is a good addition. The information is straight forward and clearly presented.   And maybe after finishing the book, you will see why Puerto Ricans say “Yo soy Boricua!”

ASIN: B079R846RP

Latin America

20190302_202131On January 11, 2019, Netflix released ReMastered: Massacre at the Stadium, a look back at the violent coup in September, 1973 in which President Salvador Allende (1908-1973) was overthrown by the Chilean military.  In his place, General Augusto Pinochet (1915-2006) assumed power and unleashed a reign of tyranny that lasted sixteen years and caused the deaths of thousands of Chileans.  His reign came to an end when Patricio Aylwin (1918-2016) was elected as the next President of the Republic of Chile. Pinochet was arrested in October, 1998, by British intelligence and repatriated to Chile on March 3, 2000.  He died on December 10, 2006, without having served a day in prison for the human rights violations that occurred during his time in office.  Today he is largely recognized as one of Latin America’s most infamous tyrants.  The story of his rise to power and fall are covered beautifully in Peter Kornbluh’s The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability .  His ruthlessness knew no bounds that tragic September day, and the military engaged in a purge of all perceived enemies of the new regime.  Among the endless number of victims was former activist, playwright and singer, Victor Lidio Jara Martínez  (1932-1978), known to the world as Victor Jara.

Jara’s widow Joan, is now 92 and has never ceased in her efforts to promote Victor’s legacy and find justice for his murder.  In the Netflix documentary, his brutal death and the successful lawsuit against former Chilean soldier Pablo Barrientos, take center stage in the mission to unravel Jara’s final moments at the stadium. The film is thought-provoking and I do believe there is more to his death that remains hidden.  After I finished the film, I became determined to learn as much as I could about Jara and his importance in Chilean history.  I found this book by Joan Jara, wherein she discusses the Victor she knew and her life in Chile, a place that became her home away from home.  British by birth, life took her across the Atlantic and to Santiago, where she continued to perfect her craft as a performer.  Soon she was divorced with a young daughter trying to find her purpose far away from the bustling city life in London.  Soon, a young charismatic singer crossed her path and before long, the story of Victor and Joan Jara had begun.

The beauty in this book is that Joan allows us into their home, to learn about Victor’s private life and his rise from the poverty-stricken town of Lonquén to become one of Chile’s most vocal supporters of Allende’s government.  She provides a short biography on Victor and herself, filled with anecdotes that show how the basis for their political beliefs.  As she admits, at first she had no fondness for anything communist but after witnessing the poverty and inequality in Chile and other parts of Latin America, she became more accepting of  communist ideology.  These beliefs would have far-reaching and tragic implications up until the time she fled Chile with Manuela and Amanda, her daughter with Jara.  Today, it seems unreal that someone should be physically assaulted or even murdered for political affiliation, but this was the atmosphere that existed in Chile under Allende’s administration.   Joan captures the atmosphere, recalling tense situations in which anarchy could have prevailed at the drop of a hat.  Her analysis is a prime example for anyone seeking to understand how and why the coup had formed.

Joan takes us through the development of their relationship, their new daughter and success in the theater, a place she and Victor have always called home.  Life is good and the girls are growing up nicely, but there is an undercurrent of dissent among the right-wing faction, determined to end Allende’s rule by any means necessary.   The involvement of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Allende’s downfall is well-documented.  And the further fracture of Chilean society is critically examined in A Nation of Enemies: Chile Under Pinochet by Pamela A. Constable and Arturo Valenzuela. I found myself startled as I read the book, at the revelations that it was openly assumed  by many Allende supporters that the CIA was actively working to bring down Allende.  It seems as if it was the secret that was not no secret.  Perhaps the events in Cuba, Guatemala and Vietnam had provided fuel for the suspicion.  The political turmoil that later engulfed the nation had started to build nearly the day that Allende was sworn in.  The right-wing extremists failed to get the two-thirds vote to remove him from office and it was clear to Allende’s detractors that his removal would only come through violence.  Allende was not oblivious to his precarious situation and even gave an unofficial last address to the nation in the days leading up to the coup.   Little by little, dissension grew and the stage was set for September 11, 1973.

Open contempt by opposing parties had reached toxic levels in the week leading up to the coup and the audacity exemplified by enemies is recounted here by Joan.  Some of the behavior might shock some readers. The descriptions of the brutality inflicted upon political opponents is reprehensible and as a woman states in the book, the coup taught Chileans how to hate.  Similar to the Netflix film, Joan discusses that day in detail and how she came to learn about Victor’s death, her retrieval of his remains and her actions in the wake of his untimely demise.  The story is riveting and Victor’s death silenced a voice of hope in a country that later endured a tyranny that soon spread across the continent, making its mark in places such Argentina and Uruguay under the regimes of Juan Perón and Juan María Bordaberry.  Today, the dictatorships are a dark reminder of the past and the perils of extremism.

In January, 2019, I visited Chile and it has found a place in my heart as a true gem.   It is hard to put into the words, the feeling that comes over the body upon the arrival on Chilean soil.   To many of its neighbors, Chile is the black sheep of Latin America.  But similar to its neighbors, it too has suffered through and survived its own history of military rule under right-wing dictatorship.  Victor Jara was one of many voices who spoke out and took action to transform society in the hope of correctly many of mankind’s mistakes.  His belief in his actions made him a marked man but Jara refused to abandoned his position and stood by his beliefs until the end.  Joan has kept her husband’s memory alive in both the Netflix documentary and his book about their time together and the man she simply knew as Victor and his life which truly is an unfinished song.

ISBN-10: 0747539944
ISBN-13: 978-0747539940

Biographies Latin America

PinochetDecember 10 will mark twelve years since Augusto José Ramón Pinochet Ugarte (1915-2006) died from the effects of a heart attack in his native Chile.  For many Chileans, he is the epitome of evil and a ruthless tyrant whose regime persecuted thousands of citizens, many of whom were “disappeared”.  He also has his supporters, known simply as “pinochetistas”.  His rise to power after the CIA- backed coup that overthrew the government of Salvador Allende (1908-1973), resulted in a new level of human rights violations across Latin America.  Allende’s removal and death has become known as the other September 11th and a day that no Chilean can ever forget.

Washington’s involvement in the coup and the destabilization of Chilean politics was initially kept hidden from the American Public through the efforts of President Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994) and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (b. 1923). The true story of the Nixon Administration’s interference in Chile might have remained a carefully guarded secret if not for the efforts of famed reporter Seymour Hersh who broke the story of what was known as Track II and the CIA efforts to bring down Allende’s government, through a published article in the New York Times.  But what Hersh did not know at the time, was that the relationship between Washington and Pinochet was much darker and uglier than anyone could have imagined.   It is here in this look at the Pinochet file, that author Peter Kornbluh goes deep inside the story of what became Chile’s worst nightmare.

I warn the reader that this a book you will not want to put down once you have started. From the beginning, it pulls the reader in with an iron grip as Kornbluh opens our eyes to what really happened in the 1970s as Chile was on the verge of taking a different course from the one approved of in Washington.  As an American citizen, I found myself overcome with a range of emotions from shock to anger and eventually regret. Declassified documents serve as the backbone of the book and what is contained in those files is simply astonishing. As a nice supplement, Kornbluh includes copies of the documents for the reader’s reference.   Some readers, particularly Americans, may find the story hard to believe at first. But I assure you that this is not fiction.  Similar to Jacobo Arbenz (1913-1971) and Mohammed Mossadegh (1882-1967), Allende found himself on the wrong side of Washington foreign policy as he embraced a left-leaning government, believed by many to be a possible pawn of the Soviet Union.  The beliefs were unfounded but the suspicion was enough for the Nixon Administration to set in motion, a deadly chain of events that gave rise to one of Latin America’s worst dictators.

In a cruel twist of fate, the rise of Pinochet and its aftermath was not confined to Chile.  Other rulers seeking to emulate Pinochet’s style, began their own campaigns of oppression and through the Pinochet inspired “Operation Condor”, they would embark on a campaign of extermination of exiled citizens designated as “Enemies of the State”.  The wave of terror spread across several continents including the United States, culminating with the assassination of Orlando Letelier (1932-1976) on September 21, 1976.  The attack also claimed the life of Ronni Karpen Moffitt (1951-1976), the wife of Letelier´s assistant, Michael.  The attack in broad daylight, sent shock waves around the world causing anger and outrage across the nation.  Operation Condor had reached American soil but the U.S. Government´s response is one of the darkest moments in its history with Chile.  There is far more to the story of Operation Condor and Kornbluh does a masterful job of explaining it, in all its mind-blowing detail.

Kornbluh takes us on a carefully guided timeline from start to finish where we witness the downfall of the Pinochet regime.  On October 5, 1988, Patricio Aylwin (1918-2016) was elected the next leader of Chile in a landslide victory after U.S. Officials warned Pinochet not to interfere.  Aylwin served four years and was succeeded by Eduardo Frei Ruiz-Tagle.  Although out of office, Pinochet still maintained a presence in Chilean politics. But as Washington threw its support behind the newly elected government, Pinochet’s star began to fade and while in London recuperating from back surgery, he was arrested by British Agents and held for over a year before being returned to Chile where he was indicted more than a dozen times for a multitude of crimes.  At the time of his death, convictions and imprisonment loomed on the horizon and his departure allowed him to escape justice.  But his dark legacy remains a reminder to Chileans of a past which should never return.

This book is simply incredible and the amount of research that went into is nothing short of monumental.  Kornbluh has given us a gift that will continue to give as more learn about a ruler that controlled a country with an iron fist used in conjunction with murder, arrests and other acts of violence.  They will learn about the many American citizens in Chile, also murdered at the hands of the Pinochet regime and their own government’s inaction and indifference.  For the families of Charles Horman, Boris Weisfeiler and Frank Teruggi, Pinochet escaped the fate that laid before him.  But their efforts and help with this book have resulted in the full story of his murderous reign. The Chilean government long denied any involvement in Operation Condor, Letelier’s murder and other deaths that occurred as Pinochet expanded his power and used the Dirección de Inteligencia Nacional (DINA), under the rule of the infamous Manuel Contreras (1929-2015), as his own personal group of enforcers.  But as we now know and can see here with our own eyes, there was far more than meets the eye.  Pinochet had support from many places and some of them will certainly surprise the reader. I firmly believe that every American should read this book, to understand what was done in the name of our country and why it should never happen again.

If you find that you enjoy this book, I highly recommend Pamela A. Constable and Arturo Valenzeula’s “A Nation of Enemies: Chile Under Pinochet.

ISBN-10: 1595589120
ISBN-13: 978-1595589125

Latin America

winshipThe civil war the engulfed the small Central American nation of El Salvador from 1980-1992 caused the deaths of over 75, 000 people.  The violence, heartache and oppression felt by millions of El Salvadorans has reverberated over the years as a reminder of dark times for the country known as the “Pulgarcito” (Tom Thumb of the Americas). The conflict forced millions of people to flee, many of them settling in the United States.  For those that remained,  they faced years of more turmoil but also slow and steady healing.  The nation still has a long way to go and for the youth, there is much to tell about growing up in one of the most violent countries in the world.

Jim Winship is a Professor of Social Work at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewate and was once a Fulbright Scholar in El Salvador and Colombia.  By his own admission, he has traveled to El Salvador well over a dozen times.  It has become a second home for him and his fondness for the country is evident in his words.   This book by Winship takes a different approach to El Salvador and in comparison to Joseph Frazier’s El Salvador Could Be Like That, the story here is about the youth of the country and what it means to come of age in a place without many sources of hope. The book is set in two parts, the first tells the history of El Salvador, introducing or re-introducing facts to the reader.  I believe many Americans will be surprised at some of the things that can  be found in the book.  And I will go a step further and say that there may be some people who could place the small country on a map.  To some, it is an afterthought or just another Latin American nation plagued by corruption and violence.  But to take a such narrow-minded view disregards the complicate and tragic history between El Salvador and the United States.  In fact, El Salvador’s existence for the last forty years is directly related to U.S. foreign policy.  The truths are uncomfortable but necessary in understanding the decline of a beautiful country with some of the nicest people who I have met.

The second half of the book moves on to the stories of young people who have grown up in El Salvador, some of them through the civil war.  This is the crux of the book and drives home the author’s points about coming of age in El Salvador.  The words are sharp and the stories moving, leaving readers to question what they thought they knew.   Person after person, we learn of the despair and income inequality faced by young men and women making life in El Salvador perilous.  Unsurprisingly, nearly a third of El Salvadorans live in the United States. Some are legal, others illegal, but they all have their stories of how and why they left the only home they knew.  Some will go back either on their own accord or by deportation.   What they will bring back to their home nation could be a blessing or a curse.  As Winship relays in the book, the deportations carried about the U.S. Government helped set the stage for one of the largest crime waves in El Salvador’s history.  And that same crime wave is now spreading across American cities.  I believe many readers will shake their head in bewilderment at the revelations in that section. The old adage holds true that we do reap what we sow.

No book about El Salvador would be complete without a discussion about violence there.  Winship discusses this to give readers an honest analysis of violent crime.  Latin America is a hotbed of revolution and has been for over a century.   The late Simón Bolívar once said “when tyranny becomes law, rebellion is right”.  Across the continents of Central and South America, violent protests and removals of presidents sometimes by military force, have etched into the fabric of the many nations found on both continents, a lingering distrust of government and vicious cycles of corruption that may never be broken. Whether El Salvador can leave both of these in the past completely, remains to be seen.  The future for some is bleak but others never give up.  And one day they may reach their goals of prosperity, health and happiness.  But their stories will always remind of days past when there was no shining light.

ASIN: B00L4CKRG0

Latin America

galeanoLatin America is home to some of the most beautiful scenery in the world.   The Iguazu Falls, Andes Mountains and Patagonia attract millions of visitors annually.  The beauty of these and other sites across Latin America stand in stark contrast to the poverty that can be found outside of major cities and sometimes within.  In between major railway stations and ports exist slums that remind us of the severely uneven distribution of wealth throughout the continent.  Speaking from personal experience, most Americans would be shocked at living conditions that still exist in Latin America to this day.   But why does a continent with a history that goes back several hundred years  and is home to beautiful people, beautiful languages, great foods and beautiful scenes of nature, continue to suffer from poverty, corruption and exploitation.

The key to understanding the current state of these and other Latin American affairs, is to revisit its history.  Eduardo Galeano (1940-2015) has done just that in this eye-opening and best-selling study of Latin American history that was first published in 1971.   The edition that is the subject of this review was re-published in 1997, and contains a foreword by Isabel Allende,  a cousin of the late Chilean President Salvador Allende (1908-1973).   On September 11, 1973, Allende died on a self-inflicted gunshot wound as opposition forces engaged in a CIA-backed overthrow of the government.  Isabel currently lives in California and is a naturalized United States Citizen.

Galeano starts by revisiting how Latin America came into existence from a continent of indigenous people to one in which Spanish is the dominant language.  The arrival of Christopher Columbus in the Caribbean marked a distinctive change in the course of world history and although he never set foot in North America,  Columbus is still considered by many to be the person that discovered what is today the United States. In recent years however, the holiday of Columbus Day has been replaced by Indigenous People’s Day or in others not acknowledged.  In Central and South America, the arrival of the Spanish explorers would have a profound impact and set the stage for plunder, murder and exploitation that engulfed the continent.   Next to Columbus are the stories of Vasco Núñez de Balboa (1475-1519) and Pedro de Valdivia (1497-1553), explorers who would spend their last days in South America.    And as Galeano re-tells their stories, the reader might want to make notes of names, dates and places as the story comes together like a puzzle.

While the tragedy of exploitation and violence played out, not all voices were content with Spanish domination and the extermination of South America’s inhabitants.  Tupac Amaru (1545-1572) and Simón Bolívar (1783-1830) also appear in the book and it would be safe to say that an author would find it impossible to discuss Latin American history without recounting their extraordinary and short lives.   However their efforts proved to be ineffective against the rush of colonization that dominated the southern hemisphere.  And it is at this point in the book that Galeano turns up the heat as we learn how natural resources became a gold mine and and the populations of the Carribean, Central American and South American nearly disappeared as a result of warfare, famine and disease.  World superpowers sank their teeth into the Latin American cash machine and have never let go.

The grip of foreign control has proven to have disastrous effects on politics, producing revolutions and widespread practice of the coup d’état.   Leaders who leaned left and sought to reclaim industries exploited by foreign corporations were quickly dealt with through American foreign policy.   Those who did play the game were rewarded and tolerated through the Good Neighbor Policy and other shady practices.  The climate of distrust and violent overthrow of the government has never left Latin America.  The current events in Nicaragua, Venezuela and Argentina are prime examples of the volatile political climate that continues to exist.  And all the while, foreign corporations continue to reap enormous profits as they move around offices and politicians like pieces on a chess board.

Galeano provides a staggering amount of information in the book which is sure to shock the reader.   But this book is key to understanding why Latin America has developed so many third-world countries. It would be easy to blame those countries for their own failures.  But what we know is that after a colonizer has left the colonized, it is immensely difficult for those nations to find a permanent path of success.  This was beautifully explained by Frantz Fanon (1925-1961) in his classic The Wretched of the Earth.   The future is bleak for many Latin American nations as inflation rises and the IMF becomes more reluctant to give out loans.  Poverty continues to increase giving rise to protests, crime and strikes.  What we see today is a manifestation of what Galeano calls “five hundred years of the pillage of a continent”.

If you have never traveled through Latin America, I implore you to do so at least once.  I firmly believe that there are many great things that are unfamiliar to those who live in the northern hemisphere. I have had the privilege of visiting  Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay.  Chile is next on the list.  Through my travels, I have met many people who have become a permanent part of my life and I am eternally grateful for having met them.   Galeano died on April 13, 2015 after a battle with lung cancer but he left behind important works and this masterpiece which has been translated into more than twelve languages.  This book has proven to be the companion guide every person needs in order to understand many of things that will be seen in Latin America, including the current presence of open veins.

ISBN-10: 0853459916

ISBN-13: 978-0853459910

Latin America

20180603_011546The definition of courage is the ability to do something that frightens one.  On October 13, 1972, Roberto Canessa was one of forty passengers aboard Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 bound for Santiago, Chile.  The plane clipped the top of a mountain peak and crashed in a region known as the Valley of Tears.  Seventy-two days passed before all of the survivors were rescued.  Canessa and Nando Parrado, author of Miracle in the Andes, walked for ten days through the mountains  towards Chile to find help.  A peasant, Sergio Catalan, rode his horse for eight hours to notify authorities.  The ordeal of the survivors was turned into a book called Alive, and a film of the same name starring Ethan Hawke and John Malkovich.  In 2010, a documentary was released by the History Channel under the name of  I Am Alive: Surviving the Andes Plane Crash.  The films and books that have been published do an incredible job of allowing readers and viewers to step inside the nightmare than existed on that isolated mountain slope.  Here, Canessa tells his story but his account differs from the others not in facts but in presentation and focus.

Parrado’s book deals mainly with the time they spend stranded in the Andes.  The end of the book is focused on his life after the crash and updates on the other survivors. Canessa takes a different track and the book is not just about him but also about his family and patients.  A small part of the book is dedicated to the crash.  Canessa confirms statements given by Parrado both in his book and in the documentary.  But I honestly believe it is what happens in his life after the event that makes the book so intriguing.  As the story progresses, the reader will note that at times we are reading Roberto’s words and then another section will be the testimony of his children, father or patients.  These interviews were not conducted by Canessa himself. Vierci, a childhood friend and journalist, reached out to Canessa’s patients and obtained their recollections without his involvement.  I believe that this decision was critical to the book’s aura for it gives us a complete picture of not just the rugby player that survived the impossible, but also of a husband and doctor of medicine.

Dr. Canessa, as he has been known since finishing medical school in his native Uruguay, became a well-known cardiologist throughout the world. He has performed operations on scores of patients, mainly children and devoted his life to their survival.  But as we read the stories and read Canessa’s words, we get the feeling that the Andes mountains always remain present in his mind and as he admits, they shape the way he has viewed life since he returned to Montevideo. He certainly could have never imagined he would face death in the autumn of 1972 but the experience is one which no person can ever fully leave behind.

As a supplement to the book, numerous color photographs are provided by Canessa and families of his many patients.  The photos show the progression of age, wisdom and how far he has come in life. By his own admission, he has always been a bit rebellious and done things his way whether they were accepted or not.  But it is this rebellious nature that served him well as he and Nando walked for over seventy miles to find another trace of human existence.   The Chileans have a saying “the Andes don’t give back what they take”.  For the players and other passengers on Uruguayan Flight 571, the mountains almost took everything.  But sixteen young men held out hope, steeled their nerves and accomplished what no one thought could be done.

Dr. Canessa has lived his life applying the lessons he learned during that ordeal and his story will always amaze shock those who are discovering the story of the crash for the first time.  Like Parrado’s book, I read this one sitting.  His words and those are others are clear and in an easy to read format making the story flow smoothly without losing the reader’s attention.   And although the crash took place more than forty years ago, the story of their survival and the approach to life by Canessa are more than enough to inspire anyone.

ISBN-10: 1476765448
ISBN-13: 978-1476765440

Latin America

20180603_011625On October 13, 1972, Nando Parrado was a twenty-two year old rugby player with the Old Christians from Montevideo, Uruguay.  The team was en route to Santiago Chile for an annual match against a rival team.  As their Fairchild 227 flew north through the Andes following a navigational error by the plane’s pilots, it clipped the top of a mountain peak as the crew struggled to force the aircraft to climb over the deadly terrain.  The initial crash killed several passengers and by the time the survivors were rescued in December, 1972, only sixteen remained.  Their story was told by author Piers Paul Read in the 1974 book Alive and a film of the same title was released in 1993, starring Ethan Hawke and John Malkovich. In  2010, the History Channel released a documentary called I Am Alive: Surviving the Andes Plane Crash.  In the documentary, Parrado is main narrator sitting in front the camera as viewers relive the nightmare.  The film, book and documentary are accurate portrayals of the events that took place but are told by others who are relaying the stories of the survivors.  This is Nando Parrado’s story and the will to survive that led him and co-survivor Roberto Canessa to walk for ten days in the hope of finding another human being and help for the other passengers left behind.

In the film Alive, Parrado is played by Ethan Hawke and despite the lack of  Uruguayan Spanish in the film, Hawke provides a convincing portrayal.  However for all of the Hollywood’s special effects and production etiquette, the film still fails to fully convey the nightmare that was their ordeal.   Perhaps producers did not have enough time or felt that audiences would have revolted at all of the details.  What is clear from Parrado’s account is that the horror that existed on the mountain slope was more than anyone could have imagined.  Brutal, tragic and even macabre, it is a story that no filmmaker could write, such events happen by circumstance, albeit tragic.  The survivors of the crash would never be the same again and according to Nando, a couple of them struggled later in life.  But their story continues to amaze and inspire and is a prime example of the tenacity of the human will to live.

The beauty of this book is that these are Nando’s words as told by him.  And what we see is a young man who through fate, rises to the occasion through sheer determination to live or in the alternative meet his death while trying.  I have been to Montevideo and Punta Del Este, two important cities both in Uruguay today and in Parrado’s story.  I have also been to Argentina and what I found interesting was the rugby aspect of his account.  Football is without question the national sport throughout Latin America.  But as we learn from Nando, Christian missionaries who traveled to Uruguay from Ireland insisted that the students at Stella Maris learn the United Kingdom pastime of rugby.  And it was this game that served as the basis for their fatal flight.  As their situation unfolds, the teachings and team spirit kicks in as they lean on each other in the struggle for survival.

The accusations of cannibalism that they faced is addressed by Parrado and he explains how and why they reached the decision to consume the only food they had left; the deceased.  I cannot imagine what it was like mentally for them to even consider such an act let alone execute it.  But in desperate times, we often rely on desperate measures.  Readers will assuredly be divided on the issue but what we can all agree on is that had we been in that situation, we honestly do not know what we would have done until we were left with no other choices.

Although this is Parrado’s story, we also learn a great deal about the other players whom he becomes closer to as the ordeal goes on.  By the end of the book, it is obvious that he and Canessa have become extremely close and are still friends to this day.  They are bonded by their love of rugby and their shared experience on an isolated mountain in the Andes.  The other survivors all play a role in the story and Parrado does not neglect their contributions and importance.  I believe it is imperative to remember that many of the players were under twenty-five years of age. In fact, Carlos Páez Rodríguez turned nineteen as they face possible death.  At that age, I could have never fathomed being in such a situation and the courage, tenacity and creativity displayed by the survivors is incredible.

I enjoyed this book so much that I read it one sitting while home on a dreary Saturday afternoon.  But as I looked outside my window, I reminded myself that no matter how bad the weather is, it does compare to what Parrado, Canessa and the other survivors were forced to endure.   The book is called Miracle in the Andes for good reason, it truly was a miracle that anyone made it off that mountain alive.  Today at the age of sixty-eight, I am sure Nando Parrado remembers everything as if it happened yesterday.  And until the day they leave here, Parrado, Canessa, Páez and the others will always look back at the time they came face to face with death in the Andes mountains.   Now a husband and father of two adult daughters, Parrado is still a revered figure, known as an Andes survivor.  A former race car driver who raced in Europe,  he is long retired from the sport but his passion for all things in life is contagious and it is easy to see why he refused to give up his fight to live.  This truly is a miraculous story and a great read.

ISBN-10: 140009769X
ISBN-13: 978-1400097692

Latin America