In the pursuit of (whose?) wealth

Tonight I raise my glass to Padre Gregorio Iriarte, although he is no longer with us. He passed away quietly on 11 October 2012, having miraculously managed to reach the age of 87. I say “miraculously”, because he was for many years pursued by the authorities as a dangerous public enemy, and several of his closest friends had been tortured and killed.

Who was Padre Gregorio Iriarte, you may ask. A hero. A real honest-to-goodness hero, not of the day-dreaming, flame-spitting Che Guevara-kind, but of the sort who quietly saved countless lives at the risk of his own. While living underground in La Paz during the Banzer years, he documented among other things the innumerable killings committed by successive Bolivian dictators propped up by the CIA and their rather colourful henchman Klaus Altman, alias Barbie.

No joke, this, for as Encyclopedia Britannica writes: “After the war Barbie was seized by American authorities, who recruited him (1947–51) for counterintelligence work and then spirited him and his family out of Germany to Bolivia (actions for which the U.S. government later officially apologized to France).” I ask, rhetorically: did the US apologise to the Bolivians, so many of whom the said Barbie had the pleasure of personally torturing – doing so was apparently one of his favourite pastimes – until he reluctantly left for France in 1980.

Bolivia was cursed with a wealth of valuable minerals. We keep seeing, all over the world, that in the pursuit of gold and silver, no ethically reprehensible expedient is waived.

You will find plenty of literature about Klaus Altman, not much about Bolivia, and virtually none about Padre Gregorio Iriarte, not even his invaluable book “Analisis crítico de la realidad”. Born in Spain, his career in Bolivia started when he was posted to a Catholic radio station in the destitute mining community Llallaga, Bolivia, to preach against Communism (i.e. anti-Christ). But as he laughingly told the journalist Ander Izagirre many decades later (cf. Potosí, Spanish edition 2017, The Mountain that Easts Men, 2019), he had only been there a few days, when he realised that the problem wasn’t Communism (besides, the “Communist” miners were all devout Catholics) but poverty. Working conditions in the mines and the living conditions for the miners’ families were such that life expectancy was no more than about 35 years. The padre’s book can no longer be found in bookshops. A pity, because I find that US Crimes against humanity tend to be all too soon forgotten.

Why were so many people incarcerated again and again, so many tortured again and again? Why the massacres, the bestiality? Because… well, quite simply, to make the miners work! To make them work more. Why, then, not feed them properly, pay them properly? The answer is astonishingly simple, of course: Because paying them a pittance was cheaper than paying them properly.

Why was the US involved? Because US owners had assets in Bolivia and because US investors all over the world blanched at even the thought of worker empowerment in general. Worker empowerment in one country will inspire workers in other countries, and that will ultimately reduce investors’ profits. The miners had to be prevented at all cost from organising themselves to demand proper wages, proper living conditions. The US would have none of it, and via their lavishly paid Latin American client regimes, persecuted all Latin American union activists and had as many as possible of them killed, and many others, too, for good measure.

To this aim, i.e, to discourage worker empowerment, they established what to this day is commonly known among Latin Americans as Escuela de las Americas. Note: The link is to a Cuban site. I am also giving you a link to the equivalent entry from the National Library of Chile. You might find the comparison interesting. While you’re at it, you might read Chapter 1 of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine (“The Torture Lab” about Ewen Cameron and the CIA).

I wish to make the point that statistics tell us next to nothing about the actual horror of living in a Latin American dictatorship. Waking up to hear your neighbour’s wife and children howling when armed men have broken into their flat and torn her man out of her arms is almost as much of a trauma as … not least if your children have heard it all too. Not knowing where they’ve taken him, what they’ re doing to him…