February 13, 2017
New Research on the Relationships between Businesses and Military Regimes under Latin America’s Cold War
by Eyal Weinberg, PhD candidate in the Department of History at The University of Texas at Austin and member of the 2016-2017 Working Paper Series Editorial Committee.
State terror and human rights violations during Latin America’s authoritarian phase have been amply studied in the past two decades. Scholarship has revealed how Cold War military dictatorships and juntas-headed national security states detained, tortured, and disappeared hundreds of thousands of civilians— from indigenous groups in Central America to political activists in the Southern Cone. Studies have also illuminated how the relations of military regimes with various international and domestic forces—among them U.S. policymakers, Church representatives, technocratic experts, and industrialists—enabled and facilitated that repression. Yet many facets of the repressive apparatus remain under-examined.
Recently, scholars are returning to scrutinize the interplay between business corporations and Latin American regimes. Early literature has already unraveled the close ties between business elites and authoritarian rules, from the state’s reliance on industrialists in developing a pro-market, open economy, to industrialists’ consent and sometimes-active support of coups d’état and ensuing state-led repression. Today, newly available archives and updated approaches to the study of Latin America’s Cold War allow researchers to revisit some of these issues, as well as other questions that explore the entanglements between corporations and regimes.
Studies exemplifying this new wave of research were presented last September in a special workshop at the University of Göttingen in Germany. Presentations shed light on the changing nature of relationships between businesses and dictatorships across states and over time, analyzing the transitions from collaborations to conflicts and even opposition. They also examined the direct and indirect roles companies played in state-sponsored repression. And they explicated how the regimes’ policy planning met business interests to introduce new domestic industries—healthcare, energy, and pharmaceutical markets, to name a few. The histories of multinational corporations under the military rules received a particular focus. Moving beyond the traditional interpretation of the authoritarian state as a guarantor of international companies, papers focused on how subsidiaries dealt with both state apparatuses and parent corporations, typically located in Europe or North America.
In Argentina, for example, German companies Deutz, Siemens, and Daimler-Benz held subsidiaries operating during the Dirty War. Case studies examined how these businesses reacted to workers’ protests and union demands, as well as how they handled reports of disappeared people in their correspondence with the distant board of directors. In 2015, for example, a team of Argentinian researchers supported by Argentina’s Ministry of Justice published a detailed report that investigates the responsibility of domestic and multinational companies in regard to human rights violations carried out on the premises of their factories. The workshop’s papers also payed considerable attention to the relationship of Volkswagen do Brasil (a subsidiary of the German car manufacturer) with the Brazilian regime and its counterinsurgency agencies. The Brazilian National Truth Commission (2012-2014) concluded that over 70 corporations, among them Volkswagen, provided security agencies with blacklists of unionizing and “problematic” workers, some of whom were later detained or fired. The workshop’s presentations illustrated the controversy over the extent of VW’s collaboration with state repression, a result of inaccessible or missing archival material. For now, appeals are still in review at the office of the Attorney General.
As the last example demonstrates, there is much to reveal about the intricate relationships between corporations and authoritarian regimes in Latin America, and particularly about their relation to human rights violations. Further archival research, as well as intellectual exchanges focused on that theme, will expand current knowledge and scholarship.