French Colonial Wars and the CIA in the Americas

On April 18th, Barack Obama attended the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago where he announced that the US seeks an ‘equal partnership’ with all the nations of the Americas.  In spite of this grand gesture, he specified that the hemisphere cannot be kept prisoner of past disagreements or ‘blame for right-wing paramilitaries and left-wing insurgents,’ also adding that Latin America shouldn’t blame all of their problems on the US.  In this context, despite critical studies of US war crimes in the recent past appearing in increasing number, Obama’s moderate tone on the problematic history in the hemisphere seems to try to sweep this past under the rug.  In other words, how can the Americas move forward together without fully acknowledging the crimes of the past and their roots in colonialist and reactionary ideology?

A recently published book in France titled ‘L’Ennemi Intérieur’ by Mathieu Rigouste looks at the origin of counter-insurgency strategy and warfare in the 20th century, tracing its history in governmental and extra-governmental bodies of Western ‘democracies.’  Starting with the colonialist wars at the end of the French empire in Indochina (1947-1954) and Algeria (1954-1962), Rigouste looks at the development of certain practices of extreme state violence which increasingly gained currency in post-World War II French military strategy known as ‘counter-revolutionary war’ to brutally repress and contain anti-colonial resistance movements.  Employing death squads, systematic torture, internment of ‘suspects’ in concentration camps, kidnapping, disappearances, manipulation of the violence of opponents, disinformation and psychological warfare, these tactics are in use by Western imperial powers in ‘non-conventional war settings’ up through the second war on and occupation of Iraq, in the present (thus the Pentagon’s 2003 screening of Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers which they termed a ‘useful illustration of the problems faced in Iraq’).  While originally existing on the margins of official policy, the use of these tactics in Indochina and Algeria continually increased in proportion with the need to counter the growing resistance, and maintain French colonial control over its territories.  By the end of the war in Indochina, the French began to export these tactics to the United States, Israel as well as Latin America.

‘The enemy exists among the populace like a fish in water.’  These words of Mao Zedong describe the ‘Third World’ resistance fighter, following the Second World War.  While the Western armies radiate their officious presence wherever they go, the resistance fighter not only uses the local population as a cover but forms a part of the whole, thus leading their colonial oppressors to situate entire peoples in the category of ‘insurgent fighters.’  This new paradigm in which entire populations were categorized as ‘enemy combatants’ necessitated a new type of protracted warfare based on the ability of the aggressor to dismantle ‘insurgent’ or ‘terrorist’ networks with the use of underhanded tactics such as torture and military presence in civilian zones.  A colonialist counter-insurgency strategy was thus the foreign policy of the ‘free world’ during the Cold War due to the fact that colonized peoples – making up more than 3/4 of the global population – were considered to be the point of proliferation of the communist menace that was necessary to neutralize.  In other words, all non-white, non-Christian citizens of the French colonial empire were considered susceptible to anti-colonial communist infiltration; this threat of ‘Soviet encirclement’ of the ‘free world’ was thus a pretext to use ‘whatever means necessary.’

Developing at the same time as this theory of the anti-colonial ‘communist menace’ was the concept of the counter-insurgency ‘shock team,’ of which the CIA created its first in the early 1950s upon intelligence gained from the French.  This secret organization within a secretive organization had its first chance to test its skills on the democratically elected president of Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz.  An extremely poor country due to unequally distributed land resources among a largely Indian population, Arbenz undertook a land reform project that aimed to deprive United Fruit of 84,000 acres, roughly 1/3 of its land in Guatemala.  As a result the CIA ‘shock team’ under the leadership of John Foster Dulles – a United Fruit stockholder – organized a mercenary army under the code name PB/Success that invaded from Nicaragua and Honduras to overthrow Arbenz in June 1954.  Arbenz later claimed that, ‘Our only offense was to create our own laws, our crime was to apply them to United Fruit.’  Following the overthrow of the Iranian president Mohammed Mossadegh after his decision to nationalize Iranian oil resources, PB/Success gained a reputation of invincibility in the CIA, and president Dwight D. Eisenhower gave them the green light to attack Cuba.  However, the attempt at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961 failed with Dulles’ resignation soon to follow.  Nevertheless, Miami became the epicenter of the largest paramilitary operation in the world shortly after with the help of Gen. Edward Lansdale, who worked with the French secret service in the colonial war in Indochina.  Also part of this group was Porter Goss, future head of the CIA following the 2004 ‘Terrorism Prevention Act,’ co-sponsor of the Patriot Act, and co-chair of the Joint 9/11 Intelligence Inquiry. 

Following the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, counter-insurgency strategy began to take on a more official form with the creation of the School of the Americas in the Panama Canal Zone and the training of 300 members of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in counter-insurgency military installations at Fort Benning, GA, Fort Mayers, FL, and Fort Peary, VA.  This group consequently was shipped off to Belgian Congo where they supplied arms to the future dictator Joseph-Désiré Mobutu, and attempted to track down Che Guevara and his group of Latino revolutionaries using the planes and supplies of Air America, a company owned by the CIA.  Two years later, in March 1964, the CIA was involved in the overthrow of the democratically elected Brazilian leader with the help of French experts from the Algerian war, sparking a series of coups d’états in the region in which newly installed dictatorships systematically used torture, kidnapping and disappearances to quell political opposition.

The links between the French and the American Schools however were most profoundly developed in the Vietnam War in which the US reused and further developed counter-insurgency tactics through financing from the opium traffic in Laos and Burma (again with the documented use of Air America planes to such ends).  And here again we find many of the same characters from the Bay of Pigs including John Negroponte, future ambassador to Honduras, Deputy Secretary of State, first ever Director of National Intelligence, and ambassador to Iraq from June 2004 to April 2005, and Oliver North who was later implicated in the Iran-contra scandal.

In 1970 with the election of Salvador Allende in Chile, Nixon gave the order for the CIA to prevent him from taking office.  The attack failed to harm Allende yet killed General René Schneider, loyal to Allende, leaving Augusto Pinochet to lead the army.  The rest of the story is well known, and the US became increasingly brash in the hemisphere following these large ‘successes.’  The CIA, in effect, became the right hand of imperialist American economic interests, used to create violent situations in which the US could more easily enact its neo-colonial desires on the people of the region (an idea exemplified in Naomi Klein’s ‘The Shock Doctrine’).  Further CIA attacks just after Allende’s overthrow in 1973 targeted Cuban passenger airplanes in Venezuela, as well as former members of Allende’s cabinet.  Other well known CIA violent counter-insurgency activity includes the US proxy war in Central America in the 1980s which killed tens of thousands of Nicaraguans and El Salvadorians in another war against ‘left-wing insurgents’ – as Obama calls them – that lasted throughout the decade of the 1980s.  After Congress declared all aid to the contras illegal in 1984, the Reagan Administration (with George H. W. Bush as Vice President) continued to funnel money to the contras by illegally selling weapons to Iran.  All involved were consequently absolved of their crimes when Bush occupied the presidency in 1989.

With this historical trajectory as a background, it is easy to understand how the people of the Western hemisphere find it difficult to take the United States for its word.  Obama’s commentary on the need to move forward and leave behind the past’s ‘stale debates’ obfuscates the dire historical injustice exacted on the ‘weaker’ countries, and legitimizes the ‘might makes right’ foreign policy that pardoned American war criminals and left the hemisphere in its current disastrous state.


Works Cited

Marie-Monique Robin’s ‘Les Escadrons de la mort: L’école française’

Mathieu Rigouste’s ‘L’Ennemi Intérieur’

Le Monde Diplomatique’s ‘Plus de Cinquante ans de “coups tordus”: L’équipe de choc de la CIA’ from January 2009


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