Kissinger Backed Argentine Junta 30 Years Ago

Two days after the coup d’etat that brought a brutal military junta to power in Argentina, then U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger ordered his subordinates to "encourage" the new regime by providing financial support, according to a previously classified transcript released here by the independent National Security Archive (NSA).

The document, whose public release came on the 30th anniversary of the coup, depicts Kissinger as uninterested in warnings by his assistant secretary of state for Inter-American Affairs, William Rogers, that the junta would likely intensify repression against suspected dissidents in ways that could make U.S. support for the regime embarrassing.

"The point I’m making is that although they have good press today, the basic line of all the interference was that they had to do it because she [ousted President Isabel Peron] couldn’t run the country," Rogers told his boss. "So I think the point is that we ought not at this moment to rush out and embrace this new regime – that three-six months later will be considerably less popular with the press."

"But we shouldn’t do the opposite either," Kissinger insists, adding that "whatever chance they have, they will need a little encouragement from us."

"I do want to encourage them," he went on, asking to review the instructions to Washington’s ambassador in Buenos Aires, Robert Hill, on his first meeting with the junta’s yet-to-be-named foreign minister. "I don’t want to give the sense that they’re harassed by the United States."

Washington approved 50 million dollars in military aid the following month.

The Mar. 26, 1976 transcript, which was obtained by NSA analyst Carlos Osorio, was one of a batch of documents posted overnight on the NSA’s website, some of which had previously been obtained and publicized by the NSA, Argentina’s Clarin newspaper, and John Dinges, author of The Condor Years.

Among them are a series of chilling documents collected by Osorio from several sources about the early days of Operation Condor, a trans-border collaboration among the intelligence agencies of the Southern Cone military regimes directed against suspected dissidents both within the region and abroad.

The documents detail the tracking down and eventual disappearance of a Uruguayan couple, Jorge Zaffaroni and Maria Islas de Zaffaroni, between May and October 1976. The couple was among 62 alleged members of the OPR-33 guerrilla group who were listed in an Uruguayan intelligence memo to their Southern Cone colleagues.

The newly posted documents also include a number of State Department and Pentagon memoranda on the number of victims of the Argentine junta’s repression, including one that cited 15,000 disappearances between 1975 and late 1978. Yet another Chilean document obtained by Dinges and also posted on the NSA site cited a total figure of 22,000 dead and disappeared in Argentina from 1975 until mid-1978.

The 1976 coup followed a year in Argentina in which political violence by pro-government death squads and left-wing guerillas engulfed the nation. As noted by Osorio, the coup was seen by many in Argentina and in the U.S. government and business community as a necessary and inevitable step to restore stability to the country.

That assumption is reflected in the Kissinger transcript. "This junta is testing the basic proposition that Argentina is not governable…," Rogers tells Kissinger, adding that the new regime will likely make "a considerable effort to involve the United States – particularly in the financial field."

"(T)hat’s in our interest," Kissinger observes, as Rogers goes on to warn that Washington must "expect a fair amount of repression, probably a good deal of blood, in Argentina before too long. I think they’re going to have to come down very hard not only on the terrorists but on the dissidents of trade unions and their parties."

Kissinger’s remarks about not harassing the regime regarding human rights were consistent with Washington’s policy toward a number of military dictatorships at the time, including those of Gen. Augusto Pinochet in Chile, and Gen. Soeharto in Indonesia, according to transcripts that have been obtained by the NSA and other sources in recent years.

In Argentina, however, the repression after the coup was so fierce that even Amb. Hill, who initially praised the military takeover as "the most civilized coup in Argentine history," appears to have become disgusted with the regime – and Kissinger’s refusal to condemn its human rights record – within just a few months.

Hill had urged Kissinger to warn the junta’s foreign minister, Admiral Cesar Guzetti, at a meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS) in Santiago in June 1976 that aid could be cut back if the rights situation did not immediately improve.

But Kissinger failed even to bring up the issue. When, instead, Guzetti himself raised it, Kissinger asked only how much longer the repression would continue and indicated approval when Guzetti said it would last until the end of the year, according to a previously disclosed cable.

In succeeding months, Hill repeatedly tried to convince Guzetti that Washington would not tolerate continuing atrocities by the junta. On the eve of a two-week trip by the foreign minister to Washington, Hill sent a cable to his superiors Sep. 20 in which he recounted those efforts, stating that he had told Guzetti that "murdering priests and dumping 47 bodies in the street in one day could not be seen in context of defeating the terrorists quickly; on the contrary, such acts were probably counter-productive."

But Guzetti’s visit to Washington – where he held separate meetings with Kissinger, then-Vice Pres. Nelson Rockefeller, and Kissinger’s top Latin America aide, Harry Shlaudeman – failed to reinforce that message, according to a subsequent cable from Hill obtained by Dinges.

Guzetti had left for the United States, he wrote, "fully expecting to hear some strong, firm, direct warnings on his government’s human-rights practices. Rather than that, he has returned in a state of jubilation, convinced there is no real problem with the United States over this issue."

Guzetti had told him that Kissinger "had assured him that the United States ‘wants to help Argentina’," Hill, now deceased, reported, "(and), that if the terrorist problem was over by December or January (Kissinger) believed serious problems could be avoided in the United States."

"Based on what Guzetti is doubtless reporting to the [government of Argentina], it must now believe that if it has any problems with the U.S. over human rights, they are confined to certain elements of Congress and what it regards as biased and/or uninformed minor segments of public opinion," he wrote in what Shlaudeman later called a "bitter criticism" of Kissinger’s role.

Kissinger’s response to Guzetti was remarkably similar to a conversation he held with Chilean General Augusto Pinochet at the OAS meeting in June 1976.

According to a memorandum of that meeting obtained and released 18 months ago by the National Security Archive, Kissinger reassured Pinochet repeatedly that Washington supported his junta and the "overthrow of the Communist-inclined government here," and that human rights concerns in Washington were confined to some sectors in Congress and were not shared by the Ford administration.

When Pinochet complained about efforts by Allende’s exiled defense minister, Orlando Letelier, to persuade Congress to cut off U.S. support for the junta, Kissinger noted the existence of a "worldwide propaganda campaign by the Communists."

Letelier was assassinated in central Washington, D.C. in a Condor operation in late September 1976, three months after Kissinger’s conversation with Pinochet and just days before Guzetti’s arrival for talks with U.S. officials.

(Inter Press Service)

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Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.