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This past Friday on November 30, 2018, George H.W. Bush passed away in the late night. What has happened since that night is what happens in every case when a figure with a controversial history dies…the whitewashing of said person’s history. In the case of “Poppy” Bush (as he was called), he will be called a war hero and a patriot by most. He won’t be called a war criminal, an enabler of human rights violations, and an architect of the drug war. All of which are true and all of which destroyed the lives of countless people at home and abroad.
This article is not about denigrating the deceased, it’s about the truth and it’s about telling all sides of the story. Even the sides that people don’t want to know about and/or don’t want to remember. The reality is that our government not only gave weapons to Iranian terrorists, but supported right-wing dictatorships in South America and allowed drugs to be funneled into American inner cities which led to the crack epidemic and was subsequently used as a pretext to ramp up the Drug War and push mass incarceration.
Most folks prefer the appetizer as opposed to the entire meal when it comes to George H.W. Bush. So I want to add a few dishes to this entree. I push back on this incentive to sanitize and sugarcoat Bush Sr’s time in office and even his actions prior to his becoming Ronald Reagan’s Vice President. If we are not going to have this discussion now, then when? Few people were talking about these things when he was alive, why would they after he passes away? Now is the best time to talk about Bush Sr’s legacy.
So let us begin.
When America Supported Right-Wing Terrorism in South America
In the 1960’s and throughout the 1970’s, socialist and various flavors of left-wing movements were spreading all across South America. They were challenging entrenched power structures backed by mountains of capitol and finance. These movements were considered a threat not only by the local leaders in power, but by the United States as well.
Back then, America was deep in the Cold War and anything remotely leftist was deemed a path to Communism. So a lot of treacherous things were done to maintain capitalistic domination over the region. This included assassinations of political enemies, threats of death, torture, among other things.
Operation Condor was (officially) a joint military intelligence alliance between the dictatorships of Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay. It lasted from 1975 to 1985, but it’s believed the planning began in the early ‘70’s. The goal was simple, to target political activists, journalists, clergymen, politicians and anyone who posed a threat to the power of the right-wing dictatorships themselves.
The barbarism of Operation Condor, as well as the involvement of George H.W. Bush, can be seen in the assassination of Orlando Letelier. Letelier served under the democratically-elected administration of Salvador Allende. Both men were socialists, Letelier had been a member of the Chilean Socialist Party since 1959 and was appointed Ambassador to the United States by Allende in 1971.
It was in 1970 that the Chilean Left had a major election victory. Not only was Allende elected President, but all three branches of government were controlled by leftists as the country itself was moving further left in a powerful way. According to Naomi Klein in The Shock Doctrine, all of these factions supported nationalizing the nation’s largest source of wealth: the copper mines then controlled by U.S. mining giants.
While in politics, Letelier argued in defense of nationalization of Chilean resources like copper which the United States did not support. The U.S. supported private ownership of resources which gave multinational corporations the ability to make a lot of money in the region.
In 1973, a US-backed coup d’tat toppled the Allende government and Allende himself died in the takeover. Some say he killed himself, others believe he was murdered. The end impact was the installation of Augusto Pinochet as dictator and autocrat of Chile. Letelier was one of the first members of the Allende administration to be captured and was tortured for a year in more than one concentration camp.
Letelier was able to gain his freedom due to international political pressure and eventually relocated to America where he became a vocal critic of the Chilean dictatorship. In 1976, three years after Pinochet came to power, Orlando Letelier was assassinated in a car bomb on American soil. The terrorist attack was carried out by DINA, the Chilean secret police and an American was killed in the bombing.
George H.W. Bush comes into the picture because he was the Director of the CIA in 1976 under the administration of Gerald Ford. Unclassified documents have been released over the years that show how integral the CIA was in not only training DINA assassins, but having at least one of them, General Manuel Contreras, on their payroll as an asset. Contreras was the head of DINA from 1974-77 when Bush was heading the CIA. Just put two and two together.
Bush’s CIA leaked false information to the media implying that the Chilean government had nothing to do with Letelier’s assassination. An act that we now know was a lie. It’s also believed that the CIA knew about the planned assassination of Letelier on American soil weeks before it happened. That might be more of a conspiracy since we don’t really know when they became aware of the impending attack.
What’s even more problematic is that we know the head of the Chilean secret police, the same group that assassinated Letelier, was an asset and working with the agency. It’s hard to believe Bush Sr. wasn’t knowledgeable of the operation before it happened.
Operation Condor is a complex conspiracy that is too involved to go into more detail about in this one article. I’d advise checking out the links below. Just know that he was in a top position in the country as head of the CIA and as Vice President during the Reagan administration to be complicit in much of the pro-dictator bloodletting that went on during this era.
The Iran Contra Affair
One can make the argument that the Iran-Contra scandal is the biggest known political scandal in post-WWII American history. The reasons for that belief are included in this section - I’d say it’s even bigger than Watergate. It may only be surpassed by the numerous record scandals of the Trump administration.
Ronald Reagan was elected President of the U.S. in 1980 after defeating Jimmy Carter in a major political move to the Right for America. Many political writers have pinned Reagan’s massive electoral sweep on Carter’s failure to end the Iranian hostage crisis where 52 Americans were being held in the U.S. embassy in Tehran after supporters of the Iranian Revolution stormed the facility and took control. It was the biggest news story of the 1980 Presidential election cycle.
Reports later emerged that Ronald Reagan’s campaign chairman met with the Iranians behind the scenes and influenced them to not release the hostages until after the 1980 election so Reagan could use it as a piece of political warfare and propaganda against Carter. Reagan didn’t want Carter to look strong and victorious because obviously that would help his chances of getting re-elected.
What’s even more scandalous is what happened after Ronald Reagan won. In his second term, when Bush Sr. was Vice President, the U.S. sold weapons to the Iranians while the country was the subject of an arms embargo. Laws be damned I guess, because they wanted to use to proceeds from those weapons sales to fund the right-wing Contras in Nicaragua so they could fight the socialist revolutionaries known as the Sandinistas (the FSLN was the name of their political party) who controlled the government at the time.
So the Reagan administration sold weapons to Iranian terrorists mere years after the hostage crisis and when numerous members of the former adminstration were indicted and trials about to start, George H.W. Bush basically implicated himself as being a co-conspirator when he pardoned every last indicted Reagan official accused of crimes. He was on his way out of the door and had just lost re-election to Bill Clinton and he did this under the cover of darkness and it got very little attention from the media.
Funny how people are pointing out all of these differences between Trump and Bush Sr. when one of the biggest fears people have is Trump doing basically the same thing Bush Sr. did to cover up his potential crimes in Iran-Contra.
It was exposed by investigative journalist Gary Webb in his book Dark Alliance that the Contras were using that money from the U.S. government to set up an international drug smuggling network. Cocaine from Colombia was smuggled through Nicaragua and found its way into South Central, LA where it would lead to the crack epidemic and subsequent drug war that happened there. It’s a deeply disturbing story that likely got Gary Webb killed.
Very, very few people talk about the role the U.S. government played in the crack epidemic. It destroys a foundational myth about the drug war and actually implicates entire Presidential administrations. It is not up for debate that a US-backed and US-funded right-wing militia was using that support to put drugs on American streets. Then the Reagan and Bush Sr. administrations come in acting like they don’t know what the fuck is going on when they were funding the crap from the very beginning.
Willie Horton and the Drug War
George H.W. Bush is being said to have been different from Trump because Trump is a blabbering buffoon who speaks before he thinks. Whereas Bush Sr. was smart enough to know how to use dog whistle’s to convey his racist message - and convey it he did and with devastating impacts on the Black community.
While he was running for President in 1988, George H.W. Bush ran one of the most racist political campaign ads in recent U.S. history. ‘The Willie Horton ad’ has become synonymous with dog-whistle political racism. The ad was a piece of flaming hot propaganda meant to scare white America with the threatening image of the black male drug menace. The “Willie-Hortification” of the black male image as drug dealers became an actual thing in both the news and entertainment mediums. This was all used as a pretext to justify the mass incarceration of Black people, especially Black men. This destroyed some Black families. It’s mighty funny how people talk about the broken Black home and the broken Black family and completely gloss over the U.S. governments role in manufacturing that dynamic.
George H.W. Bush had a huge role to play in all of this. He wasn’t the only one, but he was one of several ‘Drug Warrior Presidents’ we’ve had in American history.
The point of the Willie Horton ad was to make the claim that his Democratic opponent Michael Dukakis was “soft on crime.” A term often used in political discourse that itself was a dog-whistle. We know this because they weren’t talking about being tough on Wall Street and white collar crime. They weren’t talking about going after white drug dealers. The “tough on crime” rhetoric was always a reference to “urban communities” ie. Black people. So Bush Sr. was basically sending messages to racists and those fearful of Black people in the country that, “hey this Democrat won’t be as hard on these Blacks as I will. Vote for me if you want to be safe from them.” Michelle Alexander has spoken on this rhetoric at length in her own work.
Bush Sr as Vice President under Reagan support policies like the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988 which created the office of the Drug Czar and made crack cocaine the only drug to come with a mandatory minimum sentence. Crack cocaine being the common drug in black cities and towns, while powder cocaine was found more in white homes. So it is clear right here what the intent was.
It would be during Bush Sr’s Presidency that money would continue to flow in huge amounts to police departments to fight the drug war. Prisons construction began booming and America took effectively an autocratic, one-party position of drug enforcement. We are still very much living in the shadow of that era as the drug war continues to this very day.
Lots of people just aren’t honest about a lot of this information. So I want to end this by saying that we must demand transparency and accountability in all walks of life. Without it, we are left with glorified fabrications of history that whitewash the past. This privilege of being able to break laws and commit war crimes and be called a hero is (so far) a purely white dynamic. At least in the case of America. Black men aren’t glorified when they are killed unjustly - they are most often vilified and criminalized to the point of gross fabrication by the same people telling you not to denigrate a man who was once the most powerful in the world.
So speak the truth at all times. It is truly what people fear the most.
The Murder of Orlando Letelier - Jacobin