He told me about his brother taken away by the Chilean military after the CIA supported coup in 1973. There was an American with them. He was tortured and killed in the local soccer stadium. Others were flown out over the ocean in American helicopters, chained together and dumped to die. These people surrounding me at the bar were all forced to flee their countries; our CIA and the local police on their heels. They were refugees from the West. All were victims of Fascist dictatorships put into power and supported by the United States.
I tried to speak but my normally fluent Spanish was garbled with bits of my nascent German. All I could do was stutter incoherently. They just stared at me with uncomprehending eyes amazed at my deadly ignorance. They shook their heads and walked away. I had always believed that we were the good guys. We fought for the democratic rights of others. The United States stood against oppression in all its forms. They let me know that was a lie. I lost my innocence that night. My eyes were opened and I began to look at my country and its history in a whole new light.
I remembered that night in Vienna the other day. It was just a few days after the conviction of General Efrain Rios Montt, for genocide and crimes against humanity for the killing of thousands of Guatemalan civilians. General Rios Montt was supported by Ronald Reagan throughout his reign of terror. It was happening as I sat in that bar that night in Vienna. It went largely unreported at the time. The media repeated Reagan’s words that Rios Montt “was getting a bum rap”.
A few days after, General Jorge Rafael Videla, the military junta leader who oversaw the ruthless campaign of political killings and forced disappearances during Argentina’s so-called Dirty War, of which they accused me that night in Vienna, died in the Marcos Paz Prison in Buenos Aires, where he was serving a life sentence for crimes against humanity. It merited a cursory mention in the press here and there was no mention of his accomplice, Ronald Reagan who protected him and was instrumental in the continuation of his crimes.
In fact, I sat watching Chris Matthews on MSNBC praising Ronald Reagan for how he “handled” the Iran-Contra scandal back in the 80s. The Contras were a right-wing death squad in Nicaragua who raped and murdered with impunity. Matthews didn’t mention that. That wasn’t the “scandal”. Reagan was an icon, a saint and no one, even “liberals” speak ill of him!
Guatemala, Argentina, Chile and other countries have come to terms with their pasts. They have brought those responsible for the atrocities to justice. But here in the United States, 30 years after my “history lesson”, we still lionize the man that helped to make the murders of the family and friends of those people in Vienna possible. There is even a movement to have him added to Mount Rushmore.
Most Americans believe, like I did so many years ago, that we are the “good guys”, fighting for freedom and bringing democracy to the world. Most Americans believe it when they hear “They hate us for our freedoms". No. Today, just like those people in Vienna, they hate the United States for our deeds, for killing their loved ones, and destroying their livelihoods and homes.
We have to open our eyes and realise, as I did that night in Vienna, that when our government supports a dictator who tortures and imprisons his people, it does so in our name. When it sends a drone and kills the innocent, it does so in our name. And if we stay wrapped in our comfortable little cocoons and fail to learn the truth and speak out, we are guilty too and we shall reap more of what we have sown.
Greg J. Welsch is the General Manager of WRFN-LP 107.1 Radio Free Nashville. You can listen over the air in West Nashville or on line at www.radiofreenashville.org.