Ecuador, 1960 to 1963: A Textbook of Dirty Tricks
If the Guinness Book of World Records included a category for “cynicism”, one could suggest the CIA’s creation of “leftist” organizations which condemned poverty, disease, illiteracy, capitalism, and the United States in order to attract committed militants and their money away from legitimate leftist organizations.
The tiny nation of Ecuador in the early 1960s was, as it remains today, a classic of banana-republic underdevelopment; virtually at the bottom of the economic heap in South America; a society in which one percent of the population received an income comparable to United States upper-class standards, while two-thirds of the people had an average family income of about ten dollars per month – people simply outside the money economy, with little social integration or participation in the national life; a tale told many times in Latin America.
In September 1960, a new government headed by José María Velasco Ibarra came to power. Velasco had won a decisive electoral victory, running on a vaguely liberal, populist, something-for-everyone platform. He was no Fidel Castro, he was not even a socialist, but he earned the wrath of the US State Department and the CIA by his unyielding opposition to the two stated priorities of American policy in Ecuador: breaking relations with Cuba, and clamping down hard on activists of the Communist Party and those to their left.
Over the next three years, in pursuit of those goals, the CIA left as little as possible to chance. A veritable textbook on covert subversion techniques unfolded. In its pages could be found the following, based upon the experiences of Philip Agee, a CIA officer who spent this period in Ecuador. 1 )
Almost all political organizations of significance, from the far left to the far right, were infiltrated, often at the highest levels. Amongst other reasons, the left was infiltrated to channel young radicals away from support to Cuba and from anti-Americanism; the right, to instigate and co-ordinate activities along the lines of CIA priorities. If, at a point in time, there was no organization that appeared well-suited to serve a particular need, then one would be created.
Or a new group of “concerned citizens” would appear, fronted with noted personalities, which might place a series of notices in leading newspapers denouncing the penetration of the government by the extreme left and demanding a break with Cuba. Or one of the noted personalities would deliver a speech prepared by the CIA, and then a newspaper editor, or a well-known columnist, would praise it, both gentlemen being on the CIA payroll.
Some of these fronts had an actual existence; for others, even their existence was phoney. On one occasion, the CIA Officer who had created the non-existent “Ecuadorean Anti-Communist Front” was surprised to read in his morning paper that a real organization with that name had been founded. He changed the name of his organization to “Ecuadorean Anti-Communist Action”.
Wooing the working class came in for special emphasis. An alphabet-soup of labor organizations, sometimes hardly more than names on stationery, were created, altered, combined, liquidated, and new ones created again, in an almost frenzied attempt to find the right combination to compete with existing left-oriented unions and take national leadership away from them. Union leaders were invited to attend various classes conducted by the CIA in Ecuador or in the United States, all expenses paid, in order to impart to them the dangers of communism to the union movement and to select potential agents.
This effort was not without its irony either. CIA agents would sometimes jealously vie with each other for the best positions in these CIA-created labor organizations; and at times Ecuadorean organizations would meet in “international conferences” with CIA labor fronts from other countries, with almost all of the participants blissfully unaware of who was who or what was what.
In Ecuador, as throughout most of Latin America, the Agency planted phoney anti-communist news items in co-operating newspapers. These items would then be picked up by other CIA stations in Latin America and disseminated through a CIA-owned news agency, a CIA- owned radio station, or through countless journalists being paid on a piece-work basis, in addition to the item being picked up unwittingly by other media, including those in the United States. Anti-communist propaganda and news distortion (often of the most far-fetched variety) written in CIA offices would also appear in Latin American newspapers as unsigned editorials of the papers themselves.
In virtually every department of the Ecuadorean government could be found men occupying positions, high and low, who collaborated with the CIA for money and/or their own particular motivation. At one point, the Agency could count amongst this number the men who were second and third in power in the country.
These government agents would receive the benefits of information obtained by the CIA through electronic eavesdropping or other means, enabling them to gain prestige and promotion, or consolidate their current position in the rough-and-tumble of Ecuadorean politics. A high-ranking minister of leftist tendencies, on the other hand, would be the target of a steady stream of negative propaganda from any or all sources in the CIA arsenal; staged demonstrations against him would further increase the pressure on the president to replace him.
The Postmaster-General, along with other post office employees, all members in good standing of the CIA Payroll Club, regularly sent mail arriving from Cuba and the Soviet bloc to the Agency for its perusal, while customs officials and the Director of Immigration kept the Agency posted on who went to or came from Cuba. When a particularly suitable target returned from Cuba, he would be searched at the airport and documents prepared by the CIA would be “found” on him. These documents, publicized as much as possible, might include instructions on “how to intensify hatred between classes”, or some provocative language designed to cause a split in Communist Party ranks. Generally, the documents “verified” the worst fears of the public about communist plans to take over Ecuador under the masterminding of Cuba or the Soviet Union; at the same time, perhaps, implicating an important Ecuadorean leftist whose head the Agency was after. Similar revelations, staged by CIA stations elsewhere in Latin America, would be publicized in Ecuador as a warning that Ecuador was next.
Agency financing of conservative groups in a quasi-religious campaign against Cuba and “atheistic communism” helped to seriously weaken President Velasco’s power among the poor, primarily Indians, who had voted overwhelmingly for him, but who were even more deeply committed to their religion. If the CIA wished to know how the president was reacting to this campaign it need only turn to his physician, its agent, Dr. Felipe Ovalle, who would report that his patient was feeling considerable strain as a result.
CIA agents would bomb churches or right-wing organizations and make it appear to be the work of leftists. They would march in left-wing parades displaying signs and shouting slogans of a very provocative anti-military nature, designed to antagonize the armed forces and hasten a coup.
The Agency did not always get away clean with its dirty tricks. During the election campaign, on 19 March 1960, two senior colonels who were the CIA’s main liaison agents within the National Police participated in a riot aimed at disrupting a Velasco demonstration. Agency officer Bob Weatherwax was in the forefront directing the police during the riot in which five Velasco supporters were killed and many wounded. When Velasco took office, he had the two colonels arrested and Weatherwax was asked to leave the country.
CIA-supported activities were carried out without the knowledge of the American ambassador. When the Cuban Embassy publicly charged the Agency with involvement in various anti-Cuban activities, the American ambassador issued a statement that “had everyone in the [CIA] station smiling”. Stated the ambassador: “The only agents in Ecuador who are paid by the United States are the technicians invited by the Ecuadorean government to contribute to raising the living standards of the Ecuadorean people.”
Finally, in November 1961, the military acted. Velasco was forced to resign and was replaced by Vice-President Carlos Julio Arosemana. There were at this time two prime candidates for the vice-presidency. One was the vice-president of the Senate, a CIA agent. The other was the rector of Central University, a political moderate. The day that Congress convened to make their choice, a notice appeared in a morning paper announcing support for the rector by the Communist Party and a militant leftist youth organization. The notice had been placed by a columnist for the newspaper who was the principal propaganda agent for the CIA’s Quito station. The rector was compromised rather badly, the denials came too late, and the CIA man won. His Agency salary was increased from $700 to $1,000 a month.
Arosemana soon proved no more acceptable to the CIA than Velasco. All operations continued, particularly the campaign to break relations with Cuba, which Arosemana steadfastly refused to do. The deadlock was broken in March 1962 when a military garrison, led by Col. Aurelio Naranjo, gave Arosemana 72 hours to send the Cubans packing and fire the leftist Minister of Labor. (There is no need to point out here who Naranjo’s financial benefactor was.) Arosemana complied with the ultimatum, booting out the Czech and Polish delegations as well at the behest of the new cabinet which had been forced upon him.
At the CIA station in Quito there was a champagne victory celebration. Elsewhere in Ecuador, people angry about the military’s domination and desperate about their own lives, took to arms. But on this occasion, like others, it amounted to naught … a small band of people, poorly armed and trained, infiltrated by agents, their every move known in advance – confronted by a battalion of paratroopers, superbly armed and trained by the United States. That was in the field. In press reports, the small band grew to hundreds; armed not only to the teeth, but with weapons from “outside the country” (read Cuba), and the whole operation very carefully planned at the Communist Party Congress the month before.
On 11 July 1963 the Presidential Palace in Quito was surrounded by tanks and troops. Arosemana was out, a junta was in. Their first act was to outlaw communism; “communists” and other “extreme” leftists were rounded up and jailed, the arrests campaign being facilitated by data from the CIA’s Subversive Control Watch List. (Standard at many Agency stations, this list would include not only the subject’s name, but the names and addresses of his relatives and friends and the places he frequented – anything to aid in tracking him down when the time came.)
Civil liberties were suspended; the 1964 elections canceled; another tale told many times in Latin America.And during these three years, what were the American people told about this witch’s brew of covert actions carried out, supposedly, in their name? Very little, if anything, if the New York Times is any index. Not once during the entire period, up to and including the coup, was any indication given in any article or editorial on Ecuador that the CIA or any other arm of the US government had played any role whatever in any event which had occurred in that country. This is the way the writings read even if one looks back at them with the advantage of knowledge and hindsight and reads between the lines.
There is a solitary exception. Following the coup, we find a tiny announcement on the very bottom of page 20 that Havana radio had accused the United States of instigating the military takeover. 2 The Cuban government had been making public charges about American activities in Ecuador regularly, but this was the first one to make the New York Times. The question must be asked: Why were these charges deemed unworthy of reporting or comment, let alone investigation?
- Philip Agee, Inside the Company: CIA Diary (New York, 1975) pp. 106-316, passim. Agee’s book made him Public Enemy No. One of the CIA. In a review of the book, however, former Agency official Miles Copeland – while not concealing his distaste for Agee’s “betrayal” – stated that “The book is interesting as an authentic account of how an ordinary American or British ‘case officer’ operates … As a spy handler in Quito, Montevideo and Mexico City, he has first-hand information … All of it, just as his publisher claims, is presented ‘with deadly accuracy’.” (The Spectator, London, 11 January 1975, p. 40.
- New York Times, 14 July 1963, p. 20. For an interesting and concise discussion of the political leanings of Velasco and Arosemana, see John Gerassi, The Great Fear in Latin America (New York, 1965, revised edition) pp. 141-8.