In his powerful roles in two administrations, Kissinger impacted the lives of millions of Latin Americans and U.S. Latinos. And, under President Richard Nixon, his fruitless efforts to win the Vietnam War helped indirectly fuel the rise of the Chicano Movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
Stephen G. Rabe, professor emeritus at the University of Texas at Dallas, is the author of “Kissinger and Latin America: Intervention, Human Rights, and Diplomacy,” published in 2020.
He described Kissinger’s legacy in the Americas as “very, very mixed, but more positive than most people give him credit for.” Rabe noted that Kissinger helped resolve economic and trade disputes with Mexico, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela. Kissinger helped formulate the basic outlines of the Panama Canal Treaty, an agreement signed during the Carter administration to return the canal to Panamanian control.
But Kissinger is best known for his support of the right-wing dictatorships that spread across Latin America in the 1970s. For this reason, Rabe said that many Latin Americans perceive Kissinger “as a war criminal … their fury at him is still so strong.”
“By and large, it would be fair to say that most Latin Americans consider Kissinger the most destructive force in the history of inter-American relations,” Rabe said. Kissinger oversaw foreign policy at a time when the U.S. supported dictatorships in countries like Argentina, greenlighting their harsh crackdown on dissidents. He helped destabilize governments throughout the region, including Bolivia, Uruguay and — most notably — Chile.
‘Chile will be known as his Achilles’ heel’
The reality in Latin America during this time was starkly at odds with Kissinger’s refined image as a global statesman. As Graciela Mochkofsky wrote in The Atlantic in 2016 about South America during the 1970s, “Tens of thousands of people were tortured and killed in clandestine camps, their bodies dumped from planes into rivers, their children given away under false identities.”
Peter Kornbluh, director of the Cuba and Chile Documentation Projects at the National Security Archive, told NBC News that “Henry Kissinger’s legacy in Latin America is a dark one, and that’s because he didn’t give a damn about human rights. … He had no problem dealing with and supporting some of the most cutthroat dictatorships in the history of the region. And Chile will be known as his Achilles’ heel, forever.”
According to Kornbluh, Kissinger was the chief architect of efforts to overthrow the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile. “He [Kissinger] became the chief enabler of Gen. Augusto Pinochet when he took power in 1973. The documentation that has been declassified on this is unequivocal.” Under Pinochet’s regime in Chile, thousands of people were tortured, and over 3,000 people died or disappeared due to political violence. An estimated 200,000 Chileans fled into exile in Europe and the U.S.
Such emigration became part of a broader pattern throughout Central and South America, whereby U.S. intervention in Latin America led to waves of immigration to cities like Los Angeles, Miami and Washington, D.C.
“In Latin America, Kissinger will be remembered and recognized for undermining democracy and human rights,” Kornbluh said.
Yet the denunciations over what critics called Kissinger’s disregard for human rights led to such rights subsequently becoming an institutionalized criteria of U.S. foreign policy, according to Kornbluh.
“The laws that are in place now, bringing aid to countries that support human rights, came out of the repulsion in Congress of Kissinger’s embrace of Pinochet,” he said.
Vietnam’s casualties and the Chicano movement
When he served as national security adviser under Nixon, Kissinger’s policies in Southeast Asia had a profound effect on U.S. Latinos. In 1970, Latinos were about 5% of the U.S. population, numbering 9.6 million. But as the war in Vietnam escalated, Latinos were increasingly making up a disproportionate number of casualties. Some Latinos proudly served their country in Vietnam, only to become disillusioned with the war itself.
“It was a super-patriotic time at first,” recalled Carlos Muñoz Jr., professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley. “I served in Army intelligence, and it was a radical experience for me. I saw what the administration was doing, and I came to feel that it [the war] never should have occurred. So many of my friends and colleagues died needless deaths.”
After he served, Muñoz and some of his fellow “veteranos” became anti-war activists. “Once I was discharged, I started protesting in the street. In a very real sense, the anti-war movement was the beginning of the Chicano movement. Hundreds of people would take to the streets as the movement grew, but not everyone realizes that Chicano veterans were there at the beginning.”
“To be fair, no matter who was serving in his [Kissinger’s] position, it was a losing proposition,” Muñoz reflected. “The war was simply killing too many of our Chicano boys. It was just an imperialistic war.”
In this sense, Kissinger’s policies in Southeast Asia can be viewed as indirectly boosting the burgeoning struggle for Mexican American civil rights at home.
Despite Kissinger’s fierce anti-communist stance, declassified documents published in the book “Back Channel to Cuba” by Kornbluh and William LeoGrande recounted how Kissinger secretly pursued normalized relations with Cuba in the mid-1970s.
But Kissinger abandoned such efforts in 1976 in the wake of Cuba’s military support for the newly independent nation of Angola in Africa. If Cuba’s military presence in Africa expanded, Kissinger told President Gerald Ford, the U.S. might have to “smash Castro.” He favored “clobbering” the country with military force and drew up contingency plans in 1976 for a possible U.S. attack on the island. These plans were never implemented, as Democrat Jimmy Carter was elected president later that year.
In 1983, under President Ronald Reagan, Kissinger headed up a commission charged with studying the problems in Central America and proposing solutions to them. His commission recommended that the U.S. mount a large economic aid program to the area. Kissinger was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1973 and received a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977. Late in life, he became something of a foreign policy oracle, with lawmakers such as Marco Rubio seeking his counsel.