Kissinger in Argentina

Leandro Morgenfeld
René Rojas

“If there are things that have to be done, you should do them quickly,” Henry Kissinger advised the Argentine regime. In the first three years of the dictatorship, thousands of labor, student, and community activists were killed or disappeared.

Henry Kissinger ca. 1976 in New York City. (PL Gould Images / Getty Images)

Just after his 1969 inauguration, Richard Nixon sought to reset relations with Latin America and decided to send New York governor Nelson A. Rockefeller on a state trip to the region. The tour, which entailed visiting twenty Latin American countries, was plagued by protests and violent incidents, reminiscent of the difficult trip that Nixon himself had taken in 1958 as Dwight Eisenhower’s vice president.

Upon returning, Rockefeller submitted a report recommending the US government ease restrictions on foreign assistance to the region and grant Latin American countries special trade preferences, giving their exports access to the US market. Yet despite Nixon’s promises to address Latin American governments’ demands and the Rockefeller report’s recommendations, economic assistance to the region subsequently decreased significantly.

In 1971, for example, only $463 million was distributed — 50 percent less than the average given a decade before. In the midst of a deep economic crisis — which caused the dollar to devalue — Latin America wasn’t a priority for Nixon and his national security advisor, Kissinger, in spite of public statements to the contrary. In the meantime, Perón’s return to power in Argentina — after seven years of dictatorship and eighteen years of his party’s electoral proscription — eroded relations with Washington. Peronism dominated as a nationalist movement, rooted in a populist alliance with powerful unions.

After almost two decades in exile, Perón aimed to develop closer ties with Western Europe, hoping to conserve a margin of autonomy in policymaking decisions vis-à-vis the United States. But while certain limits on US interests were put in place — such as the establishment of a new law restricting foreign investments — the new administration actually sought an understanding with Washington, hoping to attract American capital.

One of the many friendly gestures toward America in this period was the May 1974 signing of a convention confirming Argentina’s commitment to the fight against drug trafficking, between the influential minister of social welfare, José López Rega, and US ambassador Robert Hill. Linking drug trafficking and terrorism, the agreement enlisted Argentina into the Nixon administration’s new War on Drugs.

The incoming US policy coincided with Kissinger’s announcement of a “New Dialogue” with Latin America at the Tlatelolco conference, a summit of regional foreign ministers held in February 1974. During the conference, Nixon’s government attempted to diffuse growing anti-American sentiment after the military overthrow of Salvador Allende. He promised to resolve the Panama Canal conflict and, in a context of global economic crisis and falling European demand for the region’s primary products, review commercial and financial measures affecting Latin America. Despite the promised new outlook, though, it amounted to a modification of the “carrot and stick” policies of the past.

A few months later, the State Department — headed by Kissinger — presaged this new era in its relationship with the United States’ Latin American “backyard.” This was done at a moment of relative weakness for the North American super-power, after its inglorious withdrawal from Vietnam War, the economic crisis, and the Watergate scandal that had recently broken out and which ultimately led to Nixon’s resignation.

Immediately following his appointment as secretary of state, Kissinger met with Argentine foreign minister Alberto Juan Vignes in October 1973 and conveyed the economic concessions the United States was willing to offer in line with the New Dialogue policy. Highlighting Argentina’s crucial role in making the new policy work, Kissinger convinced his counterpart to align himself as Latin America’s White House mouthpiece. Despite its origins in a Republican government, the New Dialogue’s dual strategy of concessions and pressures closely resembled the approach applied a decade earlier by its Democrat predecessors following the Cuban Revolution. Indeed, even the shining promises made after Rockefeller’s tour had been thrown out.

Nixon appointed Kissinger as secretary of state in September 1973, months before the beginning of the Isabel Perón administration (1974–76). After Perón’s death on July 1, 1974, his wife and successor, Isabel, had to confront a growing economic crisis, which only ended in 1975 with the so-called “Rodrigazo” — an adjustment via devaluation implemented by the economics minister, Celestino Rodrigo, that sparked a wave of strike actions against the government. This chain of events only weakened Perón’s fragile political base. Her government needed international loans, heightening Argentina’s dependence on Washington and international financial organizations. But it pursued a contradictory foreign policy.

Announcing the nationalization of gas service stations belonging to oil giants Dutch–British Shell and America’s Exxon, the new administration abandoned the confrontational position in the Organization of American States (OAS) adopted before Perón’s return by interim president Cámpora. Following Kissinger’s script, Vignes lobbied for the then-Argentine ambassador to the United States, Alejandro Orfila, to be named the new secretary-general of the OAS. Orfila, who was viewed positively by the White House, would improve the bilateral relationship and attract US investments.

But Argentina’s sudden about-face, intended to appease Kissinger, who ostensibly wanted to ease inter-American relations, was not reciprocated — the United States did not offer the political and financial support that Argentina expected in return. US banking interests and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) held on to loans that were already approved for the country in the final months of Isabel Perón’s administration, encouraging sectors plotting to overthrow the government. In spite of warnings from US diplomats and Capitol Hill, which had been under Democratic control since 1975, Kissinger vigorously backed the imminent military coup, just as he had two and a half years earlier in Chile.

The fall of Isabel Perón’s administration on March 24, 1976, shifted the country’s relationship with the United States. Although the CIA didn’t directly intervene in the military overthrow as it had in Chile, it lent political, economic and military support to the dictatorship. José Alfredo Martínez de Hoz’s economic plan convinced Gerald Ford’s administration to provide financial and military support to the military junta led by Videla that lasted from 1976 to 1981. The economics minister, according to the White House, was a guarantor for US financial interests in the region.

Further, following several political upsurges — starting with the 1969 citywide industrial rebellion known as the Cordobazo and Peronism’s traumatic return in 1973 — the armed forces assured Kissinger that the country would continue down the path of Western, Christian, and anti-communist values. The military junta represented a bulwark against subversion and a safeguard for US national security.

This was music to the ears of the Republican administration, in spite of concerns voiced on Capitol Hill and in the State Department over the systematic repression occurring in Argentina. In the first three years of the dictatorship, thousands of militants and labor, student, and community activists were killed or disappeared. In 1984, the National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons (CONADEP) issued the Nunca Más report, which documented more than 340 secret detention centers and almost 9,000 forced disappearances, noting that the number of victims was surely higher.

Trade unionists, students, journalists and activists, including the mothers of state terror victims of the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo — some of whom were themselves kidnapped and disappeared — were targeted by the dictatorship and brutally tortured for weeks or even months. Some 500 children, most of them babies, were stolen and given to families supporting the regime under false identities. (In the ensuing years, the Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo have recovered the identities of 120 of these kidnapped infants.)

The military government imposed a strict censorship regime in order to suppress all criticism and demonstrations. Still, thousands of exiles tried to publicize this genocide in the United States and Europe, hoping to exert international pressure against the Argentine dictatorship. Videla’s regime wanted to avoid these criticisms, but he was aware that, during a presidential election year in the United States, it would be difficult for the White House to provide unconditional support publicly to a military junta that was responsible for carrying out mass murder and internal repression.

Two days after the coup, Kissinger and the assistant secretary of state, William D. Rogers, discussed how the White House should respond to the military overthrow and ensuing state terror in Argentina. Rogers predicted looming bloodshed, and, hoping to avoid repeating the errors in Chile and Uruguay, advised caution; Kissinger, on the other hand, believed that the junta required US backing and should in no way feel pressured by Washington.

By June, the CIA was involved in Operation Condor — the coordinated system of repression set up by the regimes of Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Peru, and Paraguay to secretly assassinate political opponents. Yet the State Department viewed Videla as a moderate in Argentina’s junta and avoided rebuking him directly, lest criticism facilitate his overthrow by hardliners.

In contrast to other Southern Cone examples, US involvement in Argentina proceeded from a distance. Unlike the overt support given to the 1964 coup that toppled Goulart’s administration in Brazil and the active involvement in setting the stage for and planning Allende’s overthrow, the hands-off approach to the 1976 military overthrow responded to the need to uphold formal support for Latin American democracies. But more than non-intervention, Kissinger headed a policy of duplicity, publicly proclaiming concerns over human rights violations while privately supporting the state terrorism that came to the awareness of the State Department just weeks into the military takeover.

In two secret meetings between Kissinger and Argentina’s foreign minister, César Augusto Guzzetti, on June and September 1976, Kissinger, aware of impending congressional scrutiny, pledged his support for the regime’s dirty war. The first meeting was in Santiago de Chile, two days after an encounter between Kissinger and Pinochet in the presidential office. Kissinger praised Guzzetti for Argentina’s fight against subversion and terrorism, sympathetically explaining, “We are aware you are in a difficult period. It is a curious time, when political, criminal and terrorist activities tend to merge without any clear separation. We understand you must establish authority.” Regarding state terrorism, he added, “if there are things that have to be done, you should do them quickly. But you should get back quickly to normal procedures.”

According to Robert C. Hill, the US ambassador to Buenos Aires at that time, the junta got the message; the encounter was correctly interpreted as a green light to hastily unleash its terror. Historian Stephen G. Rabe explained that the US diplomat in Argentina “protested these atrocities and provided Washington with explicit accounts of what was happening in Argentina. For his humanity, Ambassador Hill merited a rebuke for contesting, in Kissinger’s words, ‘my policy.’”

After months of unwavering support, the situation began to shift in January, when the Democrats returned to the White House. One of Carter’s goals was to establish respect for human rights as a central plank of US foreign policy, with foreign aid conditional upon clean records in this area. But the promotion of human rights launched under Carter would advance to the extent that it aligned with the US strategy for re-imposing global hegemony. This selective denunciation of human rights violations characterized Washington’s policy in relation to the Argentine dictatorship.

Accordingly, the United States condemned the flagrant human rights violations committed by Videla’s regime and, from 1978, suspended military assistance to Argentina. Of course, Washington’s rediscovered interest in human rights was governed by a double standard. As it sanctioned violations in Argentina, it failed to denounce Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile. Nor did the United States condemn Operation Condor, which was facilitated by the CIA. As historian William Michael Schmidli has documented, Carter’s arrival in 1977 marked a shift from Kissinger’s realist perspective—useful for justifying alliances with South American dictatorships—to a more idealistic view that factored in ethical standards. Argentina became a test case for understanding the reach and limits of the United States’ new foreign policy in Latin America.

Kissinger’s position toward the region’s dictatorships — particularly his support for Pinochet — was fundamental in encouraging the Argentine military coup in 1976 and extending American support to the junta, despite increasing domestic opposition from Democrats in the run-up to the November presidential election of that year. Even in 1978, with criticisms of Videla’s human rights violations mounting, Kissinger attended the World Cup, inexplicably hosted by Argentina during the military’s reign of terror. He even joined the dictator in visiting the soccer players’ locker room following a tense game in which the local team beat Peru six to zero, and Argentina went on to win the cup.

Kissinger’s influential presence, shoulder to shoulder with the de facto Argentine president, at the center of international attention during the global soccer tournament, was a high-profile signal of support. It was unequivocally designed to counter pressure from Patricia Derian, the assistant secretary of state for human rights. In sum, although Kissinger acted more cautiously than in recent years, he welcomed the arrival of the military dictatorship, giving it diplomatic and political cover inside the State Department.

The United States–Argentina relationship underwent an important change with the March 1976 coup. When it became known that Martínez de Hoz, who had close relations with David Rockefeller and US banking interests, would be appointed economics minister, financial backing then also followed. Videla rapidly proclaimed his administration’s alignment with the West, with the fight against communism, and followed the National Security Doctrine as central regime policy. This earned him immediate and unwavering support from Kissinger. However, conflicts with Washington reappeared with the advent of the Carter administration, when human rights promotion became a central US foreign policy concern and recurring point of conflict with the Argentine dictatorship.

A mere four years later, under Ronald Reagan’s presidency, human rights were pushed back into the degraded area of hushed diplomacy that Kissinger preferred; “observations” about these sensitive issues had to now be addressed via private dialogue, not public policy. Two months after assuming power, Reagan announced plans to convince Congress to remove bans on armament sales and military supplies to Argentina. In July, the policy of voting against loans for Argentina from international financial institutions based on human rights was tossed out.

Kissinger’s policies were back.

This chapter draws extensively on research conducted for my two books, Vecinos en conflicto: Argentina y Estados Unidos en las conferencias panamericanas, 1880–1955 (Buenos Aires: Ediciones Continente, 2011) and Relaciones Peligrosas: Argentina y Estados Unidos (Buenos Aires: Capital Intelectual, 2013).

Excerpted from The Good Die Young, Jacobin and Verso Books’s book-length anti-obituary for Henry Kissinger.

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Leandro Morgenfeld, a history professor at the University of Buenos Aires, is the author of several books in Spanish about US–Argentina relations.

René Rojas is an assistant professor in the department of human development at SUNY Binghamton. He is on the editorial board of Catalyst.

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