Many in the United States view their country as a beacon of democracy. As children, they are taught that America is a shining light of freedom that combats authoritarianism and oppression. However, the truth surrounding the United States can be far more sinister, and which is evidenced by Operation Condor. Through Operation Condor the United States supported authoritarian right-wing dictatorships in South America, installing puppet leaders and orchestrating coups. The U.S. overthrew democratically elected left-wing leaders in the continent, and did not come close to exemplifying a “shining beacon of democracy”. The repression of political opposition and support of authoritarianism that the U.S. exhibited in South America during the latter half of the 20th century is antithetical to the ideals that the U.S. supposedly holds itself to, and must be recognized.
Operation Condor began under the context of the cold war, as the defining ideals of U.S. foreign policy were to fiercely oppose communism. This fear of communism led to the Domino Theory, which was the idea that one country “falling” to communism in a region would lead to other countries in the region becoming communist, and countries would fall like dominoes in support of communism. This was the motivating belief that justified the Vietnam War, as the US thought that they needed to stop the spread of communism before it overtook Southeast Asia. Operation Condor was much more covert than the Vietnam War and didn’t require the drafting of American men. This meant that the U.S. government didn’t need to justify Operation Condor to the mass populace, as only foreign policy experts and those with family in South America knew of the Operation. While the Domino Theory was not used as much in Condor, there are still strong similarities between the Vietnam War and Operation Condor. The prime parallel between Vietnam and Condor is that in both instances extrajudicial killings and human rights abuses were committed under the name of repression of communism.
Operation Condor started in 1968 with U.S. General Robert Porter's comments, "[I]n order to facilitate the coordinated employment of internal security forces within and among Latin American countries, we are ... endeavoring to foster inter-service and regional cooperation by assisting in the organization of integrated command and control centers; the establishment of common operating procedures; and the conduct of joint and combined training exercises." As a response to rising left-wing ideologies within Latin America, in 1975, Paraguay, Brazil, Bolivia, Uruguay, Chile, and Argentina joined forces with the goal to eliminate socialists, guerrillas, and any political dissidents. Ecuador and Peru later joined the Operation. The casualties from the Operation are staggering and atrocious. It’s estimated that there were 60,000-80,000 deaths in South America due to Condor, along with 400,000 political prisoners captured. Operation Condor utilized kidnappings, assassinations, and state-sanctioned terrorism.
The most egregious example of this state-sanctioned terrorism was the assassination of Orlando Letelier, which was committed in Washington DC and resulted in the death of an American citizen. Orlando Letelier was a former Ambassador to the U.S. and Minister of Foreign Affairs, Interior, and Defense under Chilean President Salvador Allende. Allende was a socialist who was deposed due to a military coup led by CIA-backed Augusto Pinochet. Following this coup, Letelier was brutally tortured by Pinochet’s forces for a year before being released, which led Letelier to move to the U.S. Once in the U.S., Letelier ardently opposed Pinochet, and the Chicago Boys, a group of disciples of Milton Friedman, the father of modern free-market capitalism. The Chicago Boys were tasked with redesigning Chile’s economy, and transformed it from a socialist economy to an extremely free-market capitalist economy. Letelier’s opposition to Pinochet and his free-market reforms led to Pinochet taking action. On the 21st of September, 1976, Letelier and his American colleague, Ronni Moffitt, were assassinated via a car bomb in Washington DC. The car bomb was planted by DINA, Pinochet’s secret police, which included Michael Townley, an American expatriate. Documents released in 2015 demonstrate that the CIA knew that Pinochet organized the bombing. The assassination itself exemplifies that the American support of anti-communist leaders, like Augusto Pinochet, led to state-ordered murders of U.S. citizens on American soil.
The biggest foreign policy misunderstanding that the U.S. held surrounding Operation Condor, that led to the awful effects of Operation Condor, was their binary view on communism, socialism, and other left-wing ideologies. The U.S. viewed communism and socialism as a direct threat to capitalism, which is true, but in turn was also a direct threat to freedom, which is more debatable. The U.S. then viewed anyone who stood against communism as a fighter of freedom, without understanding that a free market economy does not necessitate a free society. Pinochet’s Chile is the best example of this. Without any opposition in Chile due to the state’s purging of political dissidents, the Chicago Boys were able to transform Chile into a radically free-market economy. Milton Friedman referred to these laissez-faire reforms as the “Miracle of Chile.” And while the Chilean markets were extremely free, the state itself was not free. It is estimated that 3,000-10,000 political dissidents were killed under Pinochet, with thousands being kidnapped by the secret police. Pinochet was supported by the U.S., especially the CIA, due to the fact that he fought against socialist Salvador Allende’s regime. The U.S. couldn’t understand that just because someone is capitalist doesn’t mean they aren’t also authoritarian, and that social and political freedom is not inherent to a capitalist society. The other explanation is that the U.S. knew that Pinochet was authoritarian from the onset, but because he slaughtered left-wing political dissidents, they were ok with supporting him.
Operation Condor is incredibly recent history for the United States, and demonstrates the horrors that the U.S. has had a hand in across the globe. The U.S.’s involvement in the kidnapping of political prisoners and the assassinations of professors, politicians, and other left-wing luminaries is entirely antithetical to the beliefs that supposedly fuel the United States. The U.S.’s obsession with free-market capitalism and unequivocal hatred of communism led to the state being willing to look past incredibly dramatic human rights abuses. The U.S. must look to rectify their past mistakes regarding Operation Condor, and look at the leaders that they support with much more nuance and criticism. If this doesn’t happen, the U.S. is doomed to repeatedly support regimes that commit the same atrocities that happened in Latin America during Operation Condor.
Eli Pearl is a high school junior from California who's journalistic focuses are modern politics, history, foreign policy, the intersections between sports and politics, and food culture. In his spare time he enjoys film-making and improv.