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The KGB in the Third World

A trove of the Soviet Union's darkest secrets was smuggled out of Russia in 1992. Vasili Mitrokhin, a former archivist for the KBG, defected to the West, bringing with him tens of thousands of pages documenting the whole history of KGB spying.

A few years ago, Cambridge historian Christopher Andrew and Mitrokhin (who died in 2004) published a revelatory book about KGB operations in the West. A newly published second volume is called The World Was Going Our Way: The KGB and the Battle for the Third World.

Andrew says the title signals just how effective -- and deluded -- the KGB was.

Below is an excerpt from The World Was Going Our Way, about Soviet designs on Latin America.

Book Excerpt

President Ronald Reagan was fond of quoting what he claimed was Lenin's description of the Soviet master-plan to take over the Western hemisphere:

First, we will take over Eastern Europe, then we will organize the hordes of Asia . . . then we will move on to Latin America; once we have Latin America, we won't have to take the United States, the last bastion of capitalism, because it will fall into our outstretched hands like overripe fruit.

Reagan was so impressed by this quotation that he repeated it twice in his memoirs. Lenin, however, said no such thing. His only published reference to Latin America, in Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism, was to cite approvingly a German economist who claimed that 'South America, and especially Argentina, was under the financial control of London' and was 'almost a British commercial colony'.

For over forty years after the Bolshevik Revolution, Moscow doubted its own ability to challenge American influence in a continent which it regarded as the United States' backyard. By far the most important Soviet intelligence operation in Latin America during the Stalin era was aimed not at subverting any of the ruling regimes but at assassinating the great Russian heretic Leon Trotsky, who had taken refuge near Mexico City. In 1951, two years before Stalin's death, he scornfully dismissed the twenty Latin American republics, most of them traditionally anti-Communist, as the 'obedient army of the United States'. For the remainder of the decade the Soviet Union maintained diplomatic missions and 'legal' KGB residencies in only three Latin American capitals – Mexico City, Buenos Aires and Montevideo. Though the KGB began delivering secret Soviet subsidies to a handful of pro-Moscow Communist parties in 1955, the amounts remained small by comparison with those given to the leading parties in the West and Asia.

The serious interest of the Centre (KGB headquarters) and subsequently of the Kremlin in the possibility of challenging the United States in its own backyard was first aroused by the emergence of a new generation of charismatic Latin American revolutionary leaders, chief among them Fidel Castro. The KGB's leading Latin American expert, Nikolai Leonov, who was the first to make contact with Castro, wrote later, 'Cuba forced us to take a fresh look at the whole continent, which until then had traditionally occupied the last place in the Soviet leadership's system of priorities.' The charismatic appeal of Castro and 'Che' Guevara extended far beyond Latin America. Though the Western 'New Left' of the 1960s had little interest in the increasingly geriatric leadership of the Soviet Union, it idolized both Castro and Guevara, lavishing on them the uncritical adulation which much of the Old Left had bestowed on Stalin's supposed worker peasant state in the 1930s. Che Guevara T-shirts on American campuses comfortably outnumbered, even in presidential election years, those bearing the likeness of any US politician alive or dead. Though there was much that was genuinely admirable in Cuban health-care and educational initiatives, despite the increasingly authoritarian nature of the Cuban one-party state, the radical pilgrims to Havana in the 1960s were as uncritical as those to Moscow in the 1930s of whom Malcolm Muggeridge had written, 'Their delight in all they saw and were told, and the expression they gave to that delight, constitute unquestionably one of the wonders of our age.' One of the wonders of the 1960s was delight such as that expressed by the political economist Paul Sweezy after his pilgrimage to Cuba:

To be with these people, to see with your own eyes how they are rehabilitating and transforming a whole nation, to share their dreams of the great tasks and achievements that lie ahead – these are purifying and liberating experiences. You come away with your faith in the human race restored.

Though sympathetic to the Cuban Revolution, Frances Fitzgerald accurately noted that 'many North American radicals who visit Cuba or who live there have performed a kind of surgery on their critical faculties and reduced their conversation to a kind of baby talk, in which everything is wonderful, including the elevator that does not work and the rows of Soviet tanks on military parade that are in the ''hands of the people'' '.

Similar examples of self-administered brain surgery proliferated across both the West and the Third World. Even Jean-Paul Sartre, despite his global reputation for rigorous philosophical analysis, became for a period almost incoherent in his hero-worship:

Among these fully awake men, at the height of their powers, sleeping doesn't seem like a natural need, just a routine of which they had more or less freed themselves . . . They have excluded the routine alternation of lunch and dinner from their daily programme.

. . . Of all these night watchmen, Castro is the most wide awake. Of all these fasting people, Castro can eat the most and fast the longest . . . [They] exercise a veritable dictatorship over their own needs . . . they roll back the limits of the possible.

Castro's emergence, after some hesitations, as a reliable pro-Moscow loyalist was of immense importance for both Soviet foreign policy and KGB operations. Had he shared much of the New Left's scornful attitude to the bloated Soviet bureaucracy and its increasingly geriatric leadership, siding instead with the Prague Spring and other manifestations of 'Socialism with a human face' (as many expected him to do after the tanks of the Warsaw Pact invaded Czechoslovakia in August 1968), Castro would have added to Moscow's problems instead of becoming one of its greatest international assets. With Castro and other charismatic Latin American revolutionaries on its side against American imperialism, the prestige of the Soviet Union in the Third World was enormously enhanced and its ageing revolutionary image rejuvenated.

It was often the KGB, rather than the Foreign Ministry, which took the lead role in Latin America. As Khrushchev later acknowledged, the first Soviet ambassador to Castro's Cuba 'turned out to be unsuited for service in a country just emerging from a revolution'

and had to be replaced by the KGB resident, who proved to be 'an excellent choice'. Nikolai Leonov later described how he had also 'worked with many [other] Latin American leaders . . . to help them as far as possible in their anti-American stance'. The first contacts with Salvador Allende before his election as President of Chile in 1970 and with Juan and Isabel Pero´ n before their return to Argentina in 1973 were also made by the KGB rather than by a Soviet diplomat. KGB contacts with the Sandinistas began almost two decades before their conquest of power in Nicaragua in 1979. As Leonov acknowledged, the initiative frequently came from the Centre's Latin American experts:

We ourselves developed the programme of our actions, orienting ourselves . . . I might as well admit that sometimes we also wanted to attract attention to ourselves, to present our work as highly significant. This was to protect the Latin American direction in intelligence from withering away and dying out. On the whole we managed to convince the KGB leadership that Latin America represented a politically attractive springboard, where anti-American feeling was strong . . .

KGB operations were greatly assisted by the clumsy and sometimes brutal American response to Latin American revolutionary movements. The poorly planned and ineptly executed attempt to overthrow Castro by a CIA-backed landing at the Bay of Pigs in April 1961 was probably the most farcically incompetent episode in Cold War US foreign policy. Humiliation at the Bay of Pigs, however, did not prevent Kennedy authorizing subsequently a series of plans to assassinate Castro which, mercifully, also degenerated into farce. Some, like the proposal to place an explosive seashell on the sea bed when Castro went snorkelling, probably never progressed beyond the drawing board. The most practicable scheme devised during Kennedy's presidency seems to have been the plan for one of Castro's lovers to slip two poison capsules into his drink. While waiting for an opportunity, she hid them in a jar of cold cream. When she came to retrieve them, the capsules had melted. It is doubtful in any case that she would actually have used them.

Investigative journalism and official investigations in the mid-1970s gave global publicity to a series of such homicidal farces. Also revealed were CIA attempts on presidential instructions to destabilize the regime of Chile's Marxist President Salvador Allende in the early 1970s. Among the revelations was that of an apoplectic President Richard M. Nixon ordering his Director of Central Intelligence, Richard Helms, to 'make the [Chilean] economy scream'.

KGB active-measures specialists could not have hoped for more promising raw material to use as the basis of their campaigns than the series of scandalous revelations of American dirty tricks in Latin America from the Bay of Pigs to Iran-Contra a quarter of a century later. Service A was also able to exploit a much older tradition of resentment at Yanqui imperialism, which was kept alive during the Cold War by a recurrent US tendency to claim that its determination to root out Communist influences in Latin America wherever possible was in reality a high-minded attempt to defend democratic values in the interests of Latin Americans themselves. Having persuaded himself in 1965, contrary to the advice of the State Department, that a coup in the Dominican Republic was Communist inspired, President Johnson sought to justify US military intervention by the sanctimonious rhetoric which rarely failed to enrage much of Latin American opinion: 'The purpose of America is never to suppress liberty, but always to save it. The purpose of America is never to take freedom, but always to return it.'

American intervention, however, had little to do with democratic renewal. When Johnson's extravagant claims of 'headless bodies lying in the streets of Santo Domingo' were challenged by opponents of US intervention, he phoned the US ambassador and appealed to him, 'For God's sake, see if you can find some headless bodies.' The left-wing regimes overthrown with American assistance or approval in Guatemala in 1954, in the Dominican Republic in 1965 and in Chile in 1973 were replaced by military dictatorships.

The Sandinista victory in Nicaragua in 1979 revived much the same hopes and fears of Central American revolution created by Castro's triumph in Cuba twenty years earlier. As one of their supporters noted, the Sandinistas had inspired 'a renewal of belief in the possibility of a revolution'. 'Backwater Nicaragua', said the left-wing writer Paul Berman, became 'the world center of the New Left'. For the journalist Claudia Dreifus: 'To be in Managua was like being in a time machine. Here was a place seemingly run by the kind of people who were Sixties radicals. Wherever one went, people were young, singing political folk songs and chanting ''Power to the People''.'

The Reagan administration's campaign against the Sandinista regime was a public-relations disaster on a global scale. Just as the Bay of Pigs invasion was remembered by President John F. Kennedy as 'the most excruciating period of my life', so the lowest point in Ronald Reagan's generally popular presidency came as a result of the revelation that the profits from secret arms sales to Iran, then a state sponsor of terrorism, had been illegally diverted to support the Nicaraguan Contra rebels in their attempt to overthrow the Marxist Sandinista regime. When Reagan was informed in 1985 that this episode had been uncovered by the Attorney General, his chief of staff noted that 'the color drained from [the president's] face'.

A survey in the mid-1980s found that the two most 'unappealing countries' in the view of Mexican academics were the United States and Pinochet's Chile. Though the USSR came in third place, 72 per cent of those polled believed that reports of 'repression' in the Soviet Union had been exaggerated. Clearly the most admired country was Castro's Cuba. Estimating how much Service A's disinformation contributed to the Latin American distrust of Yanqui imperialism is an almost impossible task. It is, however, possible to identify some causes of widespread anti-American indignation which were clearly of Soviet origin. Among them was the 'baby parts' fabrication which alleged that wealthy Americans were buying up and butchering Latin American children in order to use their bodies for organ transplants. The story was taken up by a Soviet front organization, the International Association of Democratic Lawyers (IADL), and publicized extensively in the press of over fifty countries. Those taken in by the fabrication included groups as remote from the KGB as the Jehovah's Witnesses, who published the story in 1989 in their magazine Awake, which had a world-wide circulation of 11 million copies printed in fifty-four languages. In 1990 an American correspondent in Mexico noted that the 'baby parts' story was still current even in 'the respectable press':

It was reported that Mexican children routinely were being kidnapped, spirited across the US border, and murdered for their vital organs, which were then transplanted into sick American children with rich parents . . . Millions of educated and uneducated people – particularly in Latin America – firmly believe that the United States has created, in essence, an international network of child murderers, backed by gruesome teams of medical butchers.

Despite their many differences, KGB active measures and American policy to Latin America thus had one strikingly similar effect – to strengthen the traditional distrust of Yanqui imperialism.

From The World Was Going Our Way: The KGB and the Battle for the Third World, Copyright © 2005 by Christopher Andrew and the Estate of Vasili Mitrokhin.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Robert Siegel
Prior to his retirement, Robert Siegel was the senior host of NPR's award-winning evening newsmagazine All Things Considered. With 40 years of experience working in radio news, Siegel hosted the country's most-listened-to, afternoon-drive-time news radio program and reported on stories and happenings all over the globe, and reported from a variety of locations across Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Asia. He signed off in his final broadcast of All Things Considered on January 5, 2018.