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Ariel Dorfman: George H.W. Bush Is Alive in His Many Victims Across the Globe, Including Me

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George H.W. Bush was the only president in U.S. history to serve as CIA director, a role that would come to define his career and politics. He once described the intelligence agency as “part of my heartbeat.” Bush Sr. was at the helm of the CIA from January 1976 to January 1977. We speak with Ariel Dorfman, best-selling author, playwright, poet and activist, who teaches at Duke University. In 1973, he served as a cultural adviser to Chilean President Salvador Allende’s chief of staff. He says George H.W. Bush was “presiding over the CIA when Pinochet, the dictator of Chile, had concentration camps open. They were torturing people. They were executing people. They were persecuting people. And they were killing people overseas.” We also speak with Greg Grandin, prize-winning author and professor of Latin American history at New York University, and José Luis Morín, professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We continue our coverage of the death of President George H.W. Bush, particularly looking at his involvement in Latin America. We’re joined by the acclaimed novelist, playwright and human rights activist Ariel Dorfman. In 1973, he served as cultural adviser to Chilean President Salvador Allende’s chief of staff. He went into exile soon after the U.S.-backed coup in Chile that brought to power Augusto Pinochet and saw the death of Salvador Allende. His new piece for The Guardian, “George HW Bush thought the world belonged to his family. How wrong he was.” He’s joining us from Durham, North Carolina. He teaches at Duke University.

As you watch the reporting on George H.W. Bush, as he lays in state in Washington—the major funeral will be tomorrow in Washington, then one in Houston on Thursday, before he is laid to rest—can you talk about the corporate media’s assessment of him, and your experience of him, Ariel Dorfman?

ARIEL DORFMAN: Well, first, I just—I’m very glad to be with you again, Amy and Juan. And, of course, my old friend and former colleague, Greg Grandin, I say hello to him. I’m glad to be participating with him in this.

I think that we are so in despair because of Donald Trump that there is a tendency to say, “Oh, my gosh, oh, if only old Bush were in charge of this, things would be different.” So there’s a sort of a nauseating nostalgia for the past, which ends up being amnesiac about the past, as you have just so brilliantly exposed.

My take on George, the elder, Bush is a very special one, because I had a very special experience, which is what I speak about in my piece in The Guardian. It turns out that I spent, with my wife, Angelica, two nights in very close proximity—in fact, just a wall away—from where the former President Bush was sleeping. I was in Sydney, Australia, in end of October 2001, just a bit, six weeks after, after 9/11. And I was giving the centennial lecture there, so they were putting us up in state; they had given us the best room in the Park Hyatt overlooking the bay, looking at the Opera House. And we were asked, the day after we arrived, if we wouldn’t mind changing our room for security reasons. And we said, “No, we’ve got the best room. Why would we possibly give it up?”

And then it turned out that it was George W. Bush—I mean, H.G.W. Bush, George Bush Sr., who was there for the Carlyle Group, which is this enormous group of international capital, which was a meeting they were holding in Australia in fact to divest bin Laden, the bin Laden family, of everything in the Carlyle Group. We would find that out later. But when we heard that George Bush was the one who was trying to get our room from us, my wife and I were just filled with glee. We were saying, “Oh, boy! We are taking the room away from George W. Bush—away from old Bush.”

AMY GOODMAN: From George H.W. Bush.

ARIEL DORFMAN: Bush Sr. I mean, we had reasons—we had reasons, some of the ones which have just been explained, right?—for detesting him, but in particular, because of our Chilean connection, we thought this is a little bit of ironic history—right?—because here is the man who, from 1976 to ’77, presiding over the CIA when the following things were happening: Operation Condor, which Greg Grandin just mentioned—right?—which is basically a series of death squads, but he was also presiding over the CIA when Pinochet, the dictator of Chile, had concentration camps open. They were torturing people. They were executing people. They were persecuting people. And they were killing people overseas.

One of those persons was in Washington, Orlando Letelier, and Ronni Moffitt, who were blown up by a Chilean death squad. And it turns out that Bush Sr., President Bush, the one we’re talking about, he was complicit in leaking information saying—to the press, saying that Augusto Pinochet, the dictator of Chile, had nothing to do whatsoever with this. And not only was he complicit, he was complicit along with Henry Kissinger trying to steer the press away from the Chileans who had perpetrated this terrorist act in Washington, D.C., and blamed the Cubans for having blown up Letelier.

So, there were many, many reasons why we were so happy to be taking the room away from Bush, right? I mean, we felt, well, this is our tiny, vicarious victory against him, a very strange coming together. Afterwards, I was a bit worried because, as my wife told me, what if something happens to this guy? Who are they going to—next door. I mean, who are they going to blame? The Chileans have all the reasons. These Chilean revolutionaries have all the reasons, you know, to have perpetrated some sort of assault upon him. But, no, the next day I saw him walking along the marina, and I have an anecdote about that, as well, if you want me to tell it to you.

AMY GOODMAN: Go ahead. Yes, go ahead.

ARIEL DORFMAN: Right, well, I was sort of doing pre-yoga exercises in the morning. This is because it—the reason why it matters is because I hadn’t seen Bush 'til that moment. But I was sort of, you know, looking at the bay and enjoying myself very early in the morning. All of a sudden, he appears with an entourage of people around him, all of them sort of around him, surrounding him. There was this bedecked military man. I thought it was a general, but he had so much medals, you know, I thought he was going to fall into the bay, it was so heavy. And Bush is going along. He's like with his golfing things, you know. He’s like walking. He wasn’t using a tie or anything like that.

And all of a sudden, he does the following gesture—the general or whoever this officer is behind him. The entourage is around him like that. He goes like that. He snaps his finger in the air like that. This military man, this officer, takes out a little piece of cream, some cream that was there, and hands it to him. Bush doesn’t say “thank you” or anything like that, begins to lather himself like that, hands it back to him. And I’ve been haunted by that gesture, that imperial gesture, that sense of patrician arrogance, that sense that “I own the world, and you know what? I can do whatever I want.” And I think that there’s that sense. You know how everybody speaks about his decency and civility. And I have no doubt that he was decent and civil to many, many people. There’s no reason why he wasn’t. Certainly he was much better than what we’ve got now. But there was that sense of “The world is mine. I do with it what I want. I’ll squeeze Panama like I squeeze this. I’ll squeeze Chile like I’ll squeeze this.” In other words, “I own the world.”

The irony of it all, of course, is that his son then went on to destroy the world—right?—with the Iraq and the Afghanistan invasions, and then with the destruction of the U.S. economy. And, of course, that ended up somewhat softening my image of the elder Bush, because I said to myself, “Well, at least he’s not his son, right?” And then, when Trump came along, we said, “Well, at least he’s not Trump.” And, of course, you know, Bush did some things that were worthy of praise. I mean, there were the terrible things he did, but he did the [Americans with] Disabilities Act, and he lowered the threat of nuclear war. And there are some other things. But basically, you know, we should remember the terrible pain that he wrought. He’s not really dead. He’s alive in the sense that so many of his victims are alive, including myself and many other people.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, of course, he gave us Clarence Thomas as a Supreme Court—as a Supreme Court justice.

ARIEL DORFMAN: Oh, please, don’t start me.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But I wanted to ask Greg Grandin, if I could—

ARIEL DORFMAN: Yeah, he defended Clarence Thomas very, very, very strongly, right?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I want to ask, Ariel, if—

ARIEL DORFMAN: And he—I mean, there’s just—and the AIDS. Let’s don’t even speak about his attitude towards AIDS, right? He told gays that they should change their behavior, as if they were to blame for the fact that AIDS was decimating them, you know? I mean, and don’t forget that he was the vice president of Reagan. My gosh, that would be enough to condemn him to the hall of infamy.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I’d like to ask Greg Grandin: the issue of the sector of the Republican Party or the American elite that Bush represented or was essential to vis-à-vis the Trump administration and those who are in power in the Republican Party today?

GREG GRANDIN: Today, yeah. I mean, obviously, as Ariel pointed out, there’s a lot of kind of nostalgia or yearning, and a lot of the praise of George H.W. Bush has to do with the politics today and Bush seen as like the opposite of Trump. There’s a continuation. There’s, you know, the decay, the rot that George H.W. Bush represented. The CIA coming to power in 1988, it was a big deal that a CIA director—this was like the fulfillment of the national security state taking power. I remember. It was a—nobody even talks about that anymore. But the—

AMY GOODMAN: It was the first time a CIA director became president.

GREG GRANDIN: Yeah, yeah. But the rot that Bush represented isn’t—it delivered us to Trump. And there is a tendency to kind of posit these two people as opposites—you know, Trump’s grasping and his grotesqueries, this whole shtick. But in some ways, they’re mirror images of each other. You go back to that Bush family, the two grandfathers embedded in, you know, Brown Brothers Harriman. Their deals, their economic deals with foreign countries, including Russia, were just as sketchy and unaccountable and corrupting as what Trump is accused of, right?

There might have been a moment of reform that separated those two that makes Trump seem unacceptable, but in some ways there’s a continuation. And certainly, the catastrophe that the first Gulf War, the second Gulf War, that his son delivered onto us, has laid the groundwork for the complete debasement of American politics that Trump represented. So it’s not a question of this or that, you know, comparing these two things as if they’re separate, but understanding how this led to that, how Bush led to Trump.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, José, I wanted to ask you, in terms of the impact of the Panama invasion on how U.S. policy is regarded internationally, in terms of the ability of the United States to act in such a unilateral form, to just come in and invade a country?

JOSÉ LUIS MORÍN: So, one of the things that happens almost immediately is that the international community rejects the invasion. The United Nations said that this was a flagrant violation of international law. The OAS also condemned it. And yet the United States proceeded as if it had all authority to go ahead and do something like this. So, it was really a continuation of that long history of U.S. interventions in Latin America, looking at Latin America as its backyard. And in Panama, of course, we know that it was the United States that helped even create the country. The Panama treaty that created the country of Panama was not even signed by a Panamanian. It was all about trying to make sure that the United States could build its canal and to control that canal in perpetuity, according to the original treaty.

AMY GOODMAN: And the Inter-American Commission decision that just took place, what does it mean for Panamanians? Will reparations be paid? Would the U.S. even respect?

JOSÉ LUIS MORÍN: So, first and foremost, and I recall distinctly the victims telling me, one of the things that we need is an authoritative decision by an internationally respected body that could say that, yes, the United States had violated the human rights of civilians in this invasion. They thought that that was just the most important thing. They knew from the very beginning getting reparations from the United States would be very difficult. But right now—unfortunately, it took 28 years, but right now we have that decision.

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