The secret empire

The FBI in Latin America: The Ecuador Files
Marc Becker
2017, Duke University Press
322 pages, paperback

IF THERE are two enduring issues raised by this excellent study of the FBI’s role in Latin America during the second world war, they are these: that halting the Left and progressive movements has always been the foremost concern of US intelligence activities in Latin America; and that, despite plausible protestations to the contrary at the highest diplomatic and policymaking echelons, US intelligence agencies and rogue elements within them on the ground often follow their own agendas in ways that can test to destruction the credibility of “official” foreign policy in the region.

These fascinating insights from Marc Becker’s careful examination of Federal Bureau of Investigation records of its activities in Latin America in the late 1930s and 1940s provide a unique and highly original glimpse into an aspect of US imperialism in the region hitherto sidelined in the vast literature that has been devoted to this theme. This book is of significant value to the study of the Cold War, precisely because it focuses on the period that predates it when the US intelligence landscape and neo-colonial destination were merely aspirational. It gives the lie to the apparent motives of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s so-called “Good Neighbour Policy” by which the US government marketed the principle of non-intervention in the internal affairs of other American republics.

Those aspirations – certainly in the case of the FBI, if not universally when it came to the plethora of other US agencies that operated in Latin America – eventually boiled down to one overriding objective: to formulate an effective response to progressive movements in order to counter any chance of socialism in the region. The wider ambitions of the US are well documented, relating to its desire to prevent any obstructions to the rapacious extraction of Latin American natural resources to which its capitalism had become addicted.

The book focuses on the activities of the FBI in Latin America because, prior to the formation of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) as a Cold War force for the international arena in 1947, the FBI was the main US intelligence agency operating in the region.

As Becker notes, almost inexplicably very little historical attention has been devoted to FBI activities in Latin America preceding and during the second world war. It is, the author notes, a “little known chapter” in US intervention in this region, and one that he uncovers for the first time with scholarly skill. Just a few years after FDR had announced his Good Neighbour policy, the president had instructed the FBI to turn its attention to the south, ostensibly to conduct surveillance on German and Japanese activities in Mexico, Brazil, Chile, Argentina and Peru in the pre-war climate of growing hostility.

Through its so-called “Special Intelligence Service (SIS)”, the FBI placed about 700 agents in the region during the 1940s, many operating clandestinely without either the knowledge of Latin American governments themselves or sometimes even of US diplomats. Yet as Becker’s research shows, very soon the empire-building director of the FBI, J Edgar Hoover, was extending the reach of his surveillance and other activities to incorporate countries such as Ecuador, where 45 FBI agents were based and which is the focus of this book.

Ecuador is a valuable case study, because it was never the target of German espionage networks and lacked geostrategic significance: its role as an FBI destination demonstrates Hoover’s growing obsession with communism and how he imprinted his very own prioirities on the work of the agency, even as the State Department and other organisations were prepared to work with the Left and labour movements in a broader front against international fascism. The resources deployed by the FBI to monitor the country’s small Communist Party were, under the circumstances, surprising.

Becker writes: “Not only did a disconnect emerge between the justification for the FBI presence in Latin America (fascism) and the focus of their investigations (communism), but an additional disparity existed between the perceived threat of communism and the lack of danger that Latin American Communist Parties actually presented to US security concerns.” [p 3]

The threat posed by the Left to US hegemony was largely economic: as Becker points out, it was the fact that labour movements and communist parties openly challenged the attempts of US monopolies to consolidate economic dominance in the hemisphere that gained it such rigorous attention. More importantly, by contradicting the professed intentions of the Good Neighbour policy, FBI deployment established the parameters of subsequent US intelligence activity in Latin America that has persisted in the post-Cold War era.

The author writes: “This clandestine activity made a mockery of the noninterventionist tenets so central to the Good Neighbour policy. FDR’s policies highlight the reality that even with the best of intentions the United States never relaxed its imperial grasp on Latin America.” [p 8]

While noting the motives of the FBI’s deployment in Latin America, Becker’s own motives, however, are not to bang a drum about US imperialism – something that has been written about extensively – but to delve into a treasure trove of documentation from the Bureau’s Ecuador mission in order to examine social movement history. The leftwing and progressive groups that were the focus of FBI attention left few or no records of their own, making the Bureau’s field reports and other documents invaluable to historians.

Becker writes: “More interesting or more useful for that matter, than attempting to understand or explain US policy objectives is to examine what light counterintelligence documents shed on leftist organising efforts in Latin America. This book interrogates the FBI documents not for what they reveal about the nature of US political intervention in Latin America but, rather, for what they divulge about leftist struggles for a more equitable and just world.” [p 4]