In Latin America, Politics Of Fear Makes A Comeback

Countries like Colombia, traumatized by decades of violence, have yet to shake off the tyrant's favored arm of fear. Now it also spreads on social networks.

In Latin America, Politics Of Fear Makes A Comeback
Reinaldo Spitaletta


BOGOTÁ — While working at the Crisis magazine in Buenos Aires in the 1970s, the writer Eduardo Galeano received a phone call from someone in the Argentine Anti-Communist Alliance (Alianza Anticomunista Argentina), a paramilitary gang also known as Triple A. The caller told him: "We'll kill all you, you sons of bitches." Galeano replied without missing a beat: "The hours for threats, sir, are six till eight," and hung up. In Latin America, fear and threats are both a part of its history and a tool of power used (by all sides) to thwart opposition.

With the weapon of fear, people's lands have been stolen, human rights trampled, and the essential principles of democracy pilloried. "Run, run, run, run or they'll kill you," goes the song by the Chilean folk singer Víctor Jara, himself put to death in 1973. In Colombia, we have grown up surrounded by fears, including those that fear change, differences and anything not inscribed in existing, systemic canons.

This was the setting for the rise of the various gangs of political murderers throughout the country's tumultuous 20th century, with sinister names like the Birds (most notably the Condor, León María Lozano) or "head rippers' and gruesome practices and exotic methods for cutting people to pieces. These home-bred savages consolidated the reign of fear, and even sang its praises to encourage themselves as they rampaged and murdered their way through districts.

The institutionalization of terror and threats has created forced displacements and disappearances that have undermined the will to protest and exercise civil resistance. People were warned: anyone behaving like a local black sheep could expect to end up in the slaughterhouse.

Elsewhere the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda evokes fear's presence in his General Song or Canto General: "Loud knocking on the quiet door/the abyss or the flash that swallowed the assassin/when dogs bark and the violent police/arrive among people asleep/to fiercely twist the threads of tears/and pull them from terrified eyelashes."

A means of fear that goes beyond the physical.

Fear and threats (subtle at times, but more often brutal and crass) have replaced political argument. It is one of the tricks of repression, used by torturers to prevent opposition to the reign of atrocities. It becomes a strategy to dissuade anyone from denouncing or acting on a design to formulate criticisms. That is how "fear of losing" imposes itself: Best to keep quiet, people think, while you are being trampled on.

In an oppressive environment, reality is no longer an objective category. The reigning subjectivity contain the ingredients that lead you to conclude it is better to leave things as they are, to avoid danger (or worse). Today, the media as a whole, fueled with social networks, have become the vehicles to further spread such fears.

Writer Eduardo Galeano — Photo: ENicolas Celaya/ZUMA

Our current culture of fear is also wont to use the psychology of guilt: If they killed, sacked or mocked that person "s/he must have owed something." Within this rationale, victims become perverse beings, and crime, persecution and repressive tactics become natural way of things. The regular reincarnations of McCarthyism seems to triumph wherever political culture falters and fears abound.

It has been said that if fighting for liberty entails great risks, oppression needs fear of physical death or the threat of violence. We shall kill you, in other words, if you insist on drawing cartoons mocking a regime or or its leaders. If you keep singing against the torturers, we shall cut your head off. Fear of death provides tyrants with a means of gagging that goes beyond the physical.

Call it the imagination of terror whose forms include fear of all dissent, differentiation and singularity. Which is why we need to sing along with Violeta Parra: "Bullets and the barking pack of hounds don't frighten us."

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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