An earlier version of this opinion piece was published at Punto Rojo.
Recent revelations by whistleblower Dawn Wooten exposed that at ICE detention centers, doctors have been performing hysterectomies on unsuspecting patients. Her revelations, while appalling and detestable, are not surprising to me. I’ve seen this before.
As a Latin American History scholar, I’ve spent many years familiarizing myself with people like Cornelius Rhoades, and about forced sterilizations on colonial islands through documentaries like La Operación.
I’ve combed through the published studies of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment on African American males who were injected with syphilis. I am well aware of the medical community’s penchant for using Africa to conduct clinical trials for prescription drugs.
There is an extensive, sordid history of the United States conducting medical experiments on the population, targeting people of color. Quite often, the atrocities perpetrated against the targeted sectors somehow never seemed to find the mainstream awareness in all the ways that their medical breakthroughs had.
As shocking and deplorable as the history of medical experimentation by this country on people of color is, it is very much interwoven into the fabric of the definition of what it is to be American It is a definition that underscores the racism that this country is founded upon and projected globally through its foreign policies. It also isn’t the only form of experimentation that has historically been done by this country. There is an extensive record of experimentation in the form of political interventions across this hemisphere into countries of people of color that very much define and exemplify the true nature of this country, while foreshadowing our political realities.
In 1965, the United States was operating the Phoenix program in Vietnam. It was a CIA initiative which fostered the formation of counter-insurgency groups whose responsibility was to target political opposition and subject them to torture, rape, murder, and assassinations as a means of destabilizing and undermining them. Some accounts approximate 80,000 victims of the Phoenix Program by its culmination in 1972, a program executed by locals under the direction of the CIA.
The intelligence collected was repackaged and repurposed, and the program’s framework would resurface in Operation Condor, which was a CIA operation in South America that officially began in 1975. Condor was a conglomerate of South American countries overseen by the CIA that coordinated the oppression of opposing political activists using extra judicial means to disappear journalists, rape nuns, murder activists, and instill right-wing governments under military dictatorial mandates.
According to documents buried in the basement of a police station in Paraguay found by an anonymous tip, Condor began when Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet’s director of national intelligence Manuel Contreras, invited the military liaisons of several South American countries to engage in coordinated efforts to rid each other’s countries of political dissidents.
Contreras was a graduate of the U.S. Army School of the Americas (SOA), also known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), an institution located at Fort Benning in Georgia that trained its students in all measures of oppression of political dissent, in operating a police state under the mantra of law and order, and maintaining the consolidation of power vested in conservative doctrine and policy. Many infamous strongmen, henchmen and dictators that retained power in Latin America have graduated from the SOA, including dictator Jorge Rafael Videla of Argentina, where during his trial in an Argentine courtroom, it was revealed that approximately 500 babies were taken from their parents who were being held in detention centers and 80% of them were never reunited with their parents.
Another graduate of SOA was Bolivian dictator Hugo Banzer Suárez, who through Operation Condor, had Videla’s men capture and assassinate his political rival Bolivian president Juan José Torres after staging a coup that forced President Torres into exile. Banzer also appointed Nikolaus “Klaus” Barbie to his administration, a.k.a. the Butcher of Lyon, noted SS and Gestapo torturer under Hitler’s Nazi regime.
The graduates of the SOA were sent back to their respective countries to unleash the blood-thirsty, undemocratic oppression that has plagued this side of the globe, all orchestrated and coordinated by the United States. As recent as 2018, the U.S. was still very much involved in subversive political oversight through Operation Thesaurus (later as Rubicon), using Cypto AG, a CIA front that manufactured encryption machines, to gather intel and monitor the political strategies of countries.
All this political maneuvering was not circumstantial, nor was it a benevolent attempt to rein in a chaotic political landscape. It was exactly what the United States had declared they would do. It was the calculated outcome of an expressed aspiration to become an empire.
I learned about the Monroe Doctrine in grade school, wherein James Monroe in his State of the Union Address in 1823 declared to the world that anyone attempting to involve themselves in the Western Hemisphere would be considered an act of war. This declaration was not mere grandstanding filled with empty rhetoric, to date the U.S. has been involved in military conflicts virtually each year since the Revolutionary War in 1775, apart from only a few short lapses.
The United States has more than 700 acknowledged military bases in 130 countries across the globe, even in enemy territory like the one in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The U.S. has been prepping for this moment its entire existence, invading country after country, initiating government coups like we did in Guatemala or usurping leaders like we did to the Shah of Iran, assassinating heads of state, like Patrice Lumumba, and our attempts on Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez. This was the manifest destiny that was so often affectionately referred to by so many presidents and political pundits and ingrained in us from an early age through the singing of songs like “America the Beautiful.” And it was achieved by undermining democratic values through sinister schemes.
Currently across this country, people are being snatched from city streets by masked, unidentified police, like the ones off Portland streets, just like in Condor. Police are conducting extra judicial executions, like they have done to so many Black people (#SayHerName), just like in Condor. Journalists are being attacked and undermined using catch phrases like “fake news”, just like in Condor.There are detention centers where children are being taken from their families only to be lost in the system, just like in Argentina during Condor, while women are undergoing hysterectomies without their consent.
There are calls for the imprisonment of political rivals, first with “Lock Her Up” followed by the calls for investigating Joe Biden and his son. There are armed militias roaming the streets that are coordinating with the state, as witnessed in Kenosha. There is the undermining of the electoral process with purging of voters from electoral rolls and reductions in polling locations. There is the silencing of political dissension, like the labeling of BLM movement as a terror organization. There is the raiding of government funds and the enriching of heads of state, which Trump has continually done since achieving office. And after numerous instances throughout his administration of stating that laws don’t apply to him, he stated that he would not leave office or transition power peacefully.
In our educational system, our academic curricula have focused on European institutions as the bulk of what was taught to us as world history. Much of the history and truths of the people of color throughout Latin Americas were not covered by curricula, resulting in a lack of context for the political realities of countries that we shared this hemisphere with.
The arrogance imbedded in U.S. citizenry contributes to a collective ignorance. We have chosen to believe in an absent benevolence of our government, and to believe that its oppressive actions across the globe would never affect us because we were isolated from our own government’s insurgencies into our lives through protective bodies like the Supreme Court, which is currently undergoing a right-wing takeover, just like in Condor.
We’ve never concerned ourselves with the plights of people of color across Latin America. We’ve never confronted ourselves about the realities of what our government actually is so we never realized that all that this government is could easily be redirected at us. This collective ignorance, whether intentional or not, is the result of focusing history through a Eurocentric lens while dismissing the realities of people of color throughout this hemisphere, which prevents the population from recognizing the ways in which we have victimized our Latin American neighbors.
We stood by watching as our government invaded and interfered and disrupted political dynamics throughout the Americas. We scorn them when they come here to seek asylum from the upheavals that we are responsible for. And now, we face the same repression from our government in all the ways that we had historically perpetrated throughout the Americas. We didn’t speak up when our government came for our Latin American neighbors. Martin Niemöller warned us about the consequences of inaction. Now, we must speak up for ourselves.
Ivan Waldo identifies as a Black Puerto Rican who resides within the borders of the Bronx. He is a graduate of CUNY Lehman College, holding a Bachelor of Arts degree in Puerto Rican Studies, and is currently a student at the CUNY Graduate Center, where the focus of his studies centers around the political relationship and colonial realities of the island of Puerto Rico with the United States.