Vincent Bevins has written a new book that goes a long way towards explaining the election of Donald Trump. In The Jakarta Method, a riveting new exploration of America’s mass murder program in the twentieth century, journalist Vincent Bevins contends that the sadistic campaigns in Indonesia and Brazil in the 1960’s are still shaping our world for the worse. I’ve been pointing out for a while that crimes committed on the periphery of empire always return. The election of Trump is just the latest manifestation of this dynamic.
The Jakarta Method examines the actions taken by the CIA in Indonesia and Brazil that was used as the template for social control around the world. Indeed, the actions carried out in both countries led to the creation of a “monstrous international network of extermination” of civilians in numerous countries, which played a fundamental role in building the world we all live in today. It’s clear what “Jakarta” meant: anticommunist mass murder and the state-organized extermination of civilians who opposed the construction of capitalist authoritarian regimes loyal to the United States. It meant forced disappearances and unrepentant state terror. And it would be employed far and wide over the decades that followed.
It’s not an easy read and most Americans will be baffled by the history. What happened contradicts so forcefully our common ideas of what it means to be an American and our naive ideas about freedom and democracy. But the United States is a corporate empire that with its international financial appendages pushed neoliberal reforms in Indonesia, Brazil and across the world, wrenching these countries even further open to transnational capital through deregulation, privatization, and free-trade agreements. State sponsored terror was the cudgel wielded to achieve these goals.
Bevins says, “The prime responsibility for the massacres and concentration camps lies with the Indonesian military. But Washington shares guilt for every death.” In all, right-wing forces slaughtered upwards of a million communists, alleged communists, and ethnic Chinese, many by way of machete — a weapon that Bevins notes arrived on the island of Bali contemporaneously with the military’s anticommunist propaganda campaign.
And in the end, US officials got what they wanted. It was a huge victory. As historian John Roosa puts it, “Almost overnight the Indonesian government went from being a fierce voice for cold war neutrality and anti-imperialism to a quiet, compliant partner of the US world order.”
This method of control was exported around the world, with Central and South America becoming the empire’s workshop. These counterinsurgency practices were a key part of the US-backed anti-communist doctrine that devastated the region during the civil wars of the 1970s and 1980s. The US, with its School of the Americas, torture manuals and death squads, turned Central American armies into counterinsurgency killing machines, who targeted so-called subversives: from guerrilla combatants to social-justice-minded nuns, priests, and nuns; union organizers; student radicals; and peasants who happened to be living on top of valuable minerals.
In one of the more horrifying segments of the book, Bevins writes that after the election of democratic-socialist Salvador Allende in Chile, graffiti began appearing in the more upscale neighborhoods of Santiago: “Jakarta se acerca” — Jakarta is coming. Anticommunist terrorist groups including Pátria y Libertad (Country and Freedom) threatened nothing less than the extermination of the Chilean left, “of people organizing for a better world,” while “Jakarta” would become a code word for US-sponsored mass killings throughout the region.
And it was all done to make these countries safe for US investment, something that elites in both US political parties agree should be the principle aim of US foreign policy.
I served in an elite military unit at the time and was aware of the insurgency/counterinsurgency attacks on workers and leftist movements in Central America. What burns me up is that many of my fellow paratroopers came from working-class homes, brought into the US military initially through an economic draft and kept there by crude patriotic propaganda with its appeals to country and duty and honor. What’s deeply ironic is that the US corporate empire has since turned its sights on the homeland. Many of these soldiers returned to cities and small towns ravaged by plant closures, corporate offshoring of middle-class jobs, boarded up homes, opioid addictions and deaths of despair.
Trump campaigned against all of this but since taking office has turned out to be another sociopathic monster. As I’ve talked about before, I believe the elite antipathy towards him is largely because he’s not a high functioning sociopath. He’s simply a more obvious monster.
Far-right congressman Jair Bolsonaro was elected President of Brazil in 2018. Since the election he’s been described as the Brazilian Trump, but I don’t think that’s quite right. After reading Bevins book I’m convinced that Trump is the American Suharto, or Pinochet, or Bolsonaro.
Update: Bevins has a new article in the Times discussing his book.
“No reasonable person denies the great things the United States did in the 20th century, or that many countries enjoyed prosperity while in happy alliances with Washington. But as we move deeper into the 21st century, Americans are going to need to confront the darker side of American hegemony — because much of the rest of the world already has. Part of the reason the current order is so fragile is because so many people around the world know, indeed can physically feel in their bodies, that Washington used brutality to construct it.”