Profiting from Terror in Cold War Latin America: Bishara Bahbah’s Israel and Latin America: The Military Connection

In 1970s Mexico, air force pilots called it the “avocado.” Dark green with an ovoid-shaped fuselage, the IAI-201 Arava airplane indeed looked like a flying avocado with wings. Developed by Israeli Aerospace Industries (IAI) after the 1967 Six-Day War, the first airplane developed in Israel failed to attract domestic civilian or military customers after a series of failed tests and fatal crashes. Company officials turned to the international arena and focused on Latin America, Israel’s primary market for arms sales during the 1970s and 80s. Designed as a slow, tough short take-off and landing (STOL) aircraft, capable of transporting at least 20 passengers, the Arava found willing Latin American customers – especially those governments involved in counterinsurgent, “dirty war” operations. I encountered the Arava when researching guerrilla movements and state terror in the southern Mexican state of Guerrero. From an air force base located on the outskirts of Acapulco, military officials used the Arava to dump persons tagged as “subversives” into the Pacific Ocean in a series of “death flights.”

Less than a decade later, journalist Victor Perera traveled to the country of his birth, Guatemala, to investigate what he termed “Uzi diplomacy.” Since at least 1978, Israel had become the main arms supplier to a series of consecutive military regimes. He learned that the death squads and special forces responsible for murdering and disappearing thousands of Guatemalans used Uzi submachine guns. When he visited the town of Chichicastenango, he encountered community members burying a loved one, killed by the military. When Perera asked if they wanted to fight back, to seek revenge, the gravedigger responded: “Even if we wanted to join the guerrillas, where would we obtain arms? In church they tell us that divine justice is on the side of the poor; but the fact of the matter is, it is the military who get the Israeli guns.”

Why would the Israeli government encourage the selling of weapons and commodified counterinsurgency know-how to Latin American regimes during some of the most violent years that the region had witnessed since independence? Why sell advanced weaponry to an Argentine military dictatorship (1976-1983) that tortured journalist Jacobo Timerman in military jails decorated with swastikas and Hitler portraits? That framed its struggle in the following, anti-Semitic way: “Argentina has three main enemies, Karl Marx, because he tried to destroy the Christian concept of society; Sigmund Freud, because he tried to destroy the Christian concept of the family; and Albert Einstein because he tried to destroy the Christian concept of time and space.” Why would it provide dozens, if not hundreds, of military advisors to Central American death squad regimes, like the Guatemalan military dictatorship of the early 1980s that committed genocide against the country’s Mayan indigenous population?

Profiting from Terror

Bishara Bahbah provides some answers in his 1986 study Israel and Latin America: The Military Connection. A former Associate Director of the Middle East Institute at Harvard and newspaper editor, Bahbah contextualizes the Israel-Latin American arms trade within the former’s “absolute imperative to export arms.”1Bishara Bahbah (with Linda Butler), Israel and Latin America: The Military Connection (Palgrave Macmillan/Institute of Palestine Studies, 1986), 5. For Bahbah, the domestic arms industry that quickly developed after 1967 soon occupied a central place within the broader Israeli economy, that by 1984 had the largest per capita foreign debt in the world. With heavy state participation, the arms industry became a sort of military import substitution that could both provide the country with advanced weaponry in times of crisis and war (e.g., the French arms boycott during the 1967 war and again in 1969) and, more importantly, develop an export sector whose arms sales could offset a negative balance of trade and declining balance of payments. The result: Israel became the world’s largest exporter of weapons per capita by 1985, constituting some 16% of its total exports. Moreover, by 1982 the arms industry employed nearly 40% of the country’s industrial labor force and “close to 10 percent of the total labor force.”2Ibid., 6-7, 26-27

Forged as an internal necessity dictated by the brutal imperatives of settler colonialism and expansionist wars waged against rival neighboring states, Israeli militarism comprised – to borrow from Rosa Luxembourg – “a province of accumulation” that fundamentally depended on export arms sales. Indeed, by the 1970s and 80s the entire Israeli economy depended on it. “From this dependence,” Bahbah writes, “all else is derivative,” including its weapons sales to military dictatorships, death squad regimes, and authoritarian governments in Latin America.3Ibid., 5. For the sake of the Israeli economy, it sold Uzi submachine guns to death squads in Guatemala and “death flight” Aravas to the Mexican air force. This is what Perera meant by “Uzi diplomacy.”

Bahbah’s dispassionate study thus focuses on the Israeli state’s dependence on arms exports and the resultant economic and political consequences within and beyond its borders. In particular, he analyzes how such consequences relate to governments, communities and individuals in 1970s-80s Latin America – the biggest regional market for Israeli weapons and those military agents euphemistically described as “advisors.” Two initial chapters that cover official state policy toward the Israeli arms industry and the domestic history of its development reveal the initial goal: the achievement of military self-sufficiency and independence from foreign arms sellers for the sake of national security. Yet by the mid-1970s, production exceeded domestic military demand. Selling arms abroad thus fueled a dynamic arms industry capable of producing advanced weaponry while maintaining a chronically indebted national economy, which was dependent on foreign aid. Independence and self-sufficiency, though, would prove chimeric.

Exporting Weapons and Counterinsurgency

Bahbah then pivots to Latin America. The bulk of his book consists of case studies in South America (Ecuador and Argentina) and Central America (El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica and Guatemala). Having scoured through dozens of newspapers and government yearbooks, in addition to nearly twenty interviews with experts, government officials and guerrilla fighters, Bahbah traces how and why the region emerged as the main regional buyer of Israeli weapons. Historic ties provide part of the answer. He notes that almost all Latin American nations supported Zionist aspirations in 1947-48, including the direct role played by Uruguayan and Guatemalan diplomatic officials in designing the partition plan. The entire region thereafter quickly recognized Israel and supported its admission into the United Nations. Some ties predated 1948, exemplified by the diplomatic assistance provided by Nicaraguan dictator Anatasio Somoza to Haganah agents in their efforts to purchase weapons during the late 1930s.4Ibid., 132.

The geopolitical map drawn by the Cold War and redrawn by decolonization movements in Africa and Asia provides another part of the answer. Latin America formed neither part of the Soviet bloc nor the Bandung Conference nations that labeled Israel “as a bridgehead of Western colonialism” in 1955. Lacking the need to consistently cultivate political support or broader economic ties in the region (with the exception of oil), Israeli diplomacy “appears to be in the service of arms sales.”5Ibid., 66-71. Border wars between Latin American nations – those moments when the region reveals itself as “an archipelago of idiot countries… trained to dislike each other,” in the memorable words of Eduardo Galeano – also provided a market opportunity for advanced Israeli-made weapons like fighter jets, missiles and gunboats.6Eduardo Galeano, Century of the Wind: Memory of Fire, Volume 3 (W.W. Norton, 1998), 5.

But why did individual Latin American countries, eighteen in total, buy substantial amounts of weapons from Israel? For a region that witnessed sustained political radicalization, widespread political dissent, and instances of armed struggle from the 1960s to the early 80s, regimes needed the weaponry, technical knowledge and training for “population control” and counterinsurgency. Indeed, as Bahbah convincingly argues, this represented Israel’s “comparative advantage:” its settler colonial experience in Palestine commodified, packaged and sold as “successful” and proven to authoritarian Latin American states. Right-wing military “pariah states,” so brutal that the question of providing military aid became a hot political debate in the US during the late 1970s and 80s, became Israel’s best customers. Israeli weapons and advisors went where their US counterparts could not without violating presidential and congressional bans or generating public scrutiny. “We sell to everyone,” Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir told the Los Angeles Times in 1981; “that is, we don’t sell to our enemies or to the Soviet bloc.”7Bishara Bahbah, Israel and Latin America, 102.

By the early 1980s, a pariah state Legion of Doom that included most Central American nations and the military junta that ruled Argentina imported large amounts of Israeli weapons and military advisors with particular skill sets. As a Salvadoran colonel involved in counterinsurgency operations commented to a French journalist in 1985, “The Americans know nothing. Don’t forget they lost in Vietnam. The Israelis do know.” A Nicaraguan Contra leader echoed those sentiments, “We think the Israelis would be best because they have the technical experience.”8Ibid., 101. Technical experience, population control, counterinsurgency: more euphemisms to sanitize the waging of eliminationist wars against communities and popular organizations that resisted oligarchic military rule and revanchist counterrevolution.

Bahbah’s use of Central America as a case study illustrates how the inexistence of political constraints for the Israelis, combined with US president Jimmy Carter’s use of human rights policies to determine foreign aid during the late 1970s, provided economic opportunities for the former. Facing the Sandinista revolutionaries in 1978 – and a later US ban on military aid after the killing of an American journalist by regime troops – the third Somoza dictator relied heavily on Israel as his only purveyor of weapons. By the time of the Sandinista victory in July 1979, “Israeli arms were so ubiquitous as to have become synonymous with the Somoza dictatorship.”9Ibid., 149. A similar level of dependence existed in El Salvador where a series of bloody military rulers faced a constellation of widening popular protests, labor strikes, and five separate guerrilla organizations that would eventually form the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). Having had their US military credits and aid cut off by Carter, the military would receive nearly 80% of its weapons from Israel by 1980.10Ibid., 147-149.

Palestinianization in Guatemala

But it was in Guatemala where Bahbah reveals a deep relationship that extended beyond just weapons sales and counterinsurgent training and surveillance technology to broader modes of colonial governance. Indeed, Israel’s rule of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories – and its invasion of Lebanon in 1982 – provided inspiration and models for right-wing Guatemalan elites and military rulers. They spoke of the “Palestinianization” of the country’s Mayan peoples in the aftermath of a genocidal, scorched earth campaign in 1981-1983 that sent 100,000 into exile and internally displaced around a million. The military razed hundreds of villages to the ground. Soldiers murdered children in front of their parents by smashing their heads against rocks. They burned people alive in front of their loved ones, committed mass rapes, and demolished sacred Mayan sites. Mayans, wrote journalist George Black, “began to look very much like a people stripped of a homeland.”11George Black, “Israeli Connection: Not Just Guns for Guatemala,” NACLA Report on the Americas 17:3 (May-June 1983), 43-45.

Faced with a devastated countryside during and after the genocidal campaigns, Guatemalan military officials and planners turned to Israeli advisors for advice on how to reorganize rural communities and everyday life. This entailed the “Palestinianization” of rural indigenous communities: the reorganization of the countryside to facilitate government surveillance and counterinsurgent terror. In addition to the forced conscription of villagers into poorly armed civil defense patrols, Israeli advisors on the ground helped implement agricultural cooperative programs modeled on the kibbutz and moshav in reconcentrated rural communities. Rather than win “hearts and minds,” these agricultural development plans fundamentally worked to terrorize communities into not supporting current and future instances of armed revolutionary struggle. Bahbah uses the Arava to drive home this point. The Guatemalan military used the plan to both “transport agricultural products from remote areas to the markets because of lack of road,” and bomb indigenous villages.12Bishara Bahbah, Israel and Latin America, 166.

Uzi Diplomacy and its Consequences

Besides arms sales and foreign currency, what else did Israel gain from this type of relationship with different Latin American states? Bahbah concludes by examining the “very complex relationship” that developed between Israel and the United States, particularly during the late 1970s and early 80s. The initial goal of achieving military self-sufficiency by creating a domestic military industrial complex failed. Israel’s dependence on advanced US military technology and funds deepened even as its arms industry expanded internationally. On several occasions, the US vetoed the sale of Israeli warplanes (that used American technology) to Latin American countries because they ran contrary to US geopolitical interests in the region. Such dependence embodied the broader Israeli economy’s increasing reliance on annual US aid, which was akin to “an addict’s need for a fix: the larger the dose, the greater the need becomes.”13Dr. Yoram Peri—journalist, academic and later a political advisor to Yitzhak Rabin—quoted in Bahbah, 186.

This dependence also expressed itself politically between the two countries. Israel’s entrance into the Latin American market on a major scale, Bahbah contends, only occurred as a result of the US banning weapons sales to repressive regimes under the Carter administration’s so-called human rights-driven foreign policy. This type of surrogate relationship became more explicit after Carter left office. As exemplified by the covert arming of Contras who waged counterrevolutionary terror in Nicaragua, US officials asked Israel to act as a sort of proxy to “countries Washington felt uncomfortable dealing with directly” – “let us do it!,” as Menachim Begin’s government’s (1977-83) chief economic coordinator exclaimed.14Ibid., 167-169. By no means a hegemonic position within the Israeli government during the early 1980s, such surrogacy nonetheless subjected the country to substantial pressure from the Ronald Reagan administration. Failure to follow dictates from Washington D.C. could easily result in the blocking of Israeli arms sales and cause domestic economic turmoil. In the words of Yohanah Ramati, former head of the Knesset’s foreign relations committee during the early 1980s: “if we can aid a country that it may be inconvenient for the US to help, we could be cutting off our nose to spite our face not to.”

Within Latin America, Israel’s arms sales and support of the region’s most brutal regimes did much to erase the diplomatic and political goodwill from the late 1940s. Profits cost the country support at the United Nations where numerous Latin American representatives repeatedly criticized its treatment of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and 1982 invasion of Lebanon. On the ground, the arms sales and its reputation as an American proxy “cost Israel the sympathy of large segments not only of progressive Latin American opinion, but also of the local populations at large.”15Ibid., 183. The death squad executioners may have been locals but, like the gravedigger in Chichicastenango, people knew the origins of their weapons.

The Palestine-Mexico Border

Despite such negative consequences – along with strong domestic Israeli support for the arms industry – Bahbah concludes by predicting continuity for the country’s arms export policy. Indeed, subsequent decades have only confirmed his findings. Bhabha’s study is indispensable for understanding the logics that drive an arms industry that has only expanded since the mid-1980s. Not only has the dependency on US aid deepened but Israel is now the world’s largest exporter of weapons per capita. Moreover, decades of colonial subjugation of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, and the everyday brutalities that this process entails, has created an additional, sought-after Israeli arms export: the infrastructure and technology of border policing.

From Indian-occupied Kashmir to the US-Mexico borderlands, Israel sells its settler border model of walls, drones and surveillance technology, which kills migrants in arid borderland deserts and maims occupied populations. “We have learned lots from Gaza,” Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Brigadier General Roei Elkabetz told the audience at a 2012 border technology conference and fair. “It is a great laboratory.” That the US-Mexico border now looks like its counterparts in Gaza and the West Bank led journalist Jimmy Johnson in 2012 to dub it the “Palestine-Mexico” border.

After supplying death squad regimes in the 1970s and 80s, Israel’s arms industry helped create the conditions that have prompted tens of thousands of Central American refugees to flee their homelands in the past fifteen years. They fled the consequences of “Uzi diplomacy,” only to encounter the Palestine-Mexico border, the site where their past and the present converge.

Alexander Aviña is a historian of Mexico and Latin America at Arizona State University. He is the author of Specters of Revolution: Peasant Guerrillas in the Cold War Mexican Countryside (Oxford University Press, 2014). His personal website can be found here.

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