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Military Aides' Cant Makes Latins Wince

July 22, 1987|JORGE G. CASTANEDA | Jorge G. Castaneda is a professor of political science at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

MEXICO CITY — Whatever else he may have said, Oliver L. North is certainly right on one point. The United States' enemies and allies, its friends and neighbors are all watching the congressional hearings on the Iran- contra affair. What they are seeing, at least as viewed from Mexico and Latin America, is not a happy sight.

For those on the left of the political spectrum it confirms the worst suspicions about the United States: Its talk about democracy and the rule of law is simply a cover for anti-communist, interventionist aggression. For the pragmatic center, neither favorably disposed toward nor unduly prejudiced against the United States, it is a new chapter in the process inaugurated by the Vietnam War and furthered by Watergate, whereby many icons of American mythology--accountability, the rule of law, congressional oversight--have been progressively crumbling. And for the pro-American right it makes life exceedingly uncomfortable; the hearings have produced little to defend, let alone cheer about.

The hearings are being broadcast live, gavel-to-gavel, on cable television here, and are available elsewhere in Latin America through satellite transmission to those who have dish antennas. But most people are following the hearings through extensive coverage on the evening news and in the press, which are paying a great deal of attention to what Lt. Col. North and Adm. John M. Poindexter told the congressional committees. In the unfolding drama there is an irony that is not lost on Latin Americans, who are seeing their region's worst political vices reproduced at the very pinnacle of the U.S. government.

It used to be that the practice whereby military officers and civilian ideologues brazenly acknowledged violating their nations' laws and traditions, all in the name of a higher cause, was considered a Latin American custom. There is a time and place in many Latin Americans' memories when anti-communism, the higher cause, was the noble end that justified all means imaginable--and some that were unimaginable. The time was the 1960s and '70s; the places were Chile, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Central America.

In many Latin minds there are indelible images of their countries' rulers arguing forcefully that the struggle against "communists and Soviet- and Cuban-inspired subversion" was a war in which there could be no quarter, a fight that could not be waged without dirtying one's hands. So, from a Latin perspective, the United States' new popular heroes seem eerily familiar--even if they did not contemplate a coup or have direct involvement in torture, repression and murder.

Yet, with these admittedly important differences, we are witnessing an American remake of an old Latin American script, whether in the outrageous version masterfully executed by Col. North or in the subdued, serene, thoughtful role played out by Adm. Poindexter. Instead of an Argentine or Chilean general proudly justifying the "dirty war" against "subversion," we are hearing senior Reagan Administration officials unabashedly say that they lied, misled Congress, destroyed evidence and kept the President in the dark about illegal acts, all in the name of the struggle against "communism in our hemisphere." And they are being applauded for it by sizable sectors of the American people and a substantial part of Congress.

The Vietnam War and the legacy of the past two decades--Watergate, the Church Committee hearings, the Carter presidency--led many outside the United States to believe, perhaps naively, that a lasting change had come about in the American political psyche. While few dared hope that traditional American anti-communism had disappeared, many expected that it could no longer be the definitive element of U.S. foreign policy, overriding all other interests. In spite of the 1980 election of a President who was well known even beyond the United States' borders for his virulent anti-communism, many thought that the American people would no longer accept going to war or disrupting the domestic rule of law in the name of an obsessive anti-communist crusade. The emerging cult of Oliver North--even if short-lived, more convincingly if lasting--has shown that while the first judgment was correct--Ronald Reagan has been able to fight in Central America to the last Nicaraguan, but not to the first American--the second was hopelessly premature.

After a long night of terror and evil, many Latin nations, particularly in South America, have concluded that suspension of the rule of law for the sake of anti-communism was wrong. There are many things that today's Latin America has to offer the United States, but the subordination of all legal and ethical means to political ends is not one of them. At a time when many Latin American societies are finally putting this view of the world behind them, they are seeing it flaunted as defensible patriotism in Washington. This is, from the perspective of many neighbors who share this hemisphere with the United States, an ironic and sorry state of affairs.

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