Military governments are so entrenched in South America now that a top guerilla leader Nelson Gutierrez of Chile's Revolutionary Leftist Movement (MIR), said from his exile in Sweden last year that he thought it might take 15 years to turn them out.
It would have to be done without help from the Soviet Union, he continued, because "The Soviet aren't willing to risk and armed confrontation with the United States over Latin America."
The U.S. role in militarizing the continent and its continued influence over the situation are widely taken for granted among theoreticians of both the left and the right. That is why repeated U.S. assertions that deinocratically elected governments would be preferable to the prevalent dictatorships are greeted with derisfort on the left and incomprehension the right.
The continent is U.S. turf, the leftist maintain; even the Soviet Union restricts itself to trade and to wooing Peru's government with dirt-cheap arths. Therefore the situation is as the United States wants it to be.
Bolivia would be less repressive, a leftist student there claimed, if American bankers were no so insistent on absolute tranquility and conservatism in their loan prospects.
Social reforms from Colombia to Uruguay routinely invoke alleged Central Intelligence Agency activity as the reason their policies have not caught the public imagination. U.S. funds allegedly aimed at fighting drug traffic really buy guns and helicopters to further domestic repression, according to the leftist North American Conference on Latin America.
The military officers and their supporters, on the other hand, regard their own actions as logical outgrowths of the U.S. fostered anti-communism. They learned it at the U.S. government's School of the Americas in Panama, and now they do not understand why North Americans fail to see the need for measures as strong as the threat is perceived to be.
Left and right agree, paradoxically, that the current situation owes much to U.S. attitudes. Central in their discussions in the role of the School of the Americas, which has trained more than 30,000 Latin American officers in dozens of courses since it opened in 1949.
Chile and Peru, a Bolivian officer said recently, are less likely to go to war over their desert frontier than if their top commands had not become friendly in classes at the school.
They have learned everything from jet-engine maintenance and map-reading through electronic communications, counter-insurgency and military administration. The ideas shared there have created a common bond of information and basic attitudes across the continent.
The ideological approach to governing is new with this generation of soldiers. Earlier military rulers tended to be caudillos bent on personal enrichment or saviors stepping in for the moment, imposing temporary order until the civilians could reorganize.
The School of the Americas steeped young Latin officers in the early 1950s anti-Communist dogma that subversive infiltrators could be anywhere. The notion fit readily into the Brazilian concept of national security, a wholly new theory of government worked out after 1949 at Brazil's Advanced War College.
When the Brazillian officers took powers in 1964, they erected their national security state on a bedrock of anti-communism, and the model has since been recreated in Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Chile. Including Paraguay's army-backed one-man rule, 180 million South Americans live under the domination of these ideas.
There are three fundamental concepts, according to an analysis of national security ideas by Belgian theologian Jose Comblin:
The nation -state, rather than the individual, is seen as the basic unit of politics. Nations are in permanent competition for scarce resources, according to the theory, and forge alliances to conduct wars. The current lineup consists of the clashing non-Communist and communist forces, and this conflict determines everything else.
Every human activity is a war activity for or against the national goal which is economic development and maximum cultural, informational and even conversational effort to increase the National power.
Only the armed forces are coordinated, disciplined and strong enough to guide the nation in this struggle. It is possible for civilians to learn, eventually - but not with their traditional political maneuverings, for compromise is impossible. "It is not just a question of who should govern, but of remaking the nation from the ground up," Comblin said.
This framework has been broad enough to admit both Peruvian Gen. Juan Velasco Alvarado's leftist "Christian, socialist and humanist" revolution in 1968 and Chilean Gen, Augusto Pinochet's moves toward what he recently called "authoritarian democracy."
The Genrals feel that the takeovers were forced on them by the incompetence of corrupt elected officials unable to keep their promises.
Broad sectors of the population urged the soldiers to take power in Brazil and Chile and Argentina. Uruguay and Argentina gave the military a free hand against guerrillas the civilians could not stop. Colonels and general in Brazil, Bolivia, Peru and Chile saw themselves as rescuing their countries from reckless, chaotic spendthrifts.
The national security doctrine not only explain the coordinated anti-leftist activities with which most of the governments in the southern cone have been charged, it almost requires them.
"The invasion of Marxism that we are suffering and the internal subversion we are living through is the principal worry of the Inter-American Defense Council," said council vice president Col. Francisco Poujol of Honduras in November. That and other mutual problems were under discussion "to evaluate later the joint defense plans," he said.
Gen. Golbery de Couto Silva, Brazil's top theoretician and No. 2 man in the government, proposed a South Atlantic nations's proposed a South Atlantic nation's alliance as early as 1952. The plan was revived and aired again last year during the Cuban incursion in Angola, while the American magazine Defense and Foreign Affairs said five Central American nations were studying a proposal to form a unified joint army "to combat terrorism and subversion."
Chilean and Uruguayan refugees have claimed that they have been arrested and tortured by their own countrymen in Argentina, indefiance of international agreements. Even in Colombia, where a turbulent democracy has so far withstood rumored military restlessness, and intelligence agency report on continental guerrilla activity recommended "coordination of the different intelligent organs on a regional level in Latin America, in order to gain more effective control."
When voices in the press, the church or abroad are raised to protest the human-rights abuses such an all-out war produces, the national security philosophy requires that those who complain be classed with the enemies. "There's no denying that Amnesty International is a Communist organization," said an Argentine colonel after the London-based group critized abuses in Argentina.
Chile has banned half a dozen foreign correspondents from its territory for allegedly presenting a false, Marxist-inspired view of the country. In virtually every country, dozens of dissident priests have been arrested, tortured, killed or simply disappeared, and their leaders accused circumspectly or openly of Communist tendencies.
In this context, President Carter's proposed cuts in military aid to Argentina and Uruguay were seen as a betrayal. U.S. diplomats had frequently expressed concern about continuing human-rights violations, but the military men assumed that former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's policy still applied. Although Kissinger said in Chile last June that human-rights abuses had "impaired our relationship" with Chile, he was known to oppose any real economic or political sanctions.
At the moment, no South American military regime has gotten beyond the talking stage in regard to restoring democracy, and existing plans are vague at best. U.S. interest may have shifted from anti-Communist defenses to protection of individual rights, but there are no signs that the change has made it to most of South America.
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