‘Ideological Authors’: Harvard’s Hidden Ties to Dirty Wars in Latin America

By Olivia G. Pasquerella and Jem K. Williams, Crimson Staff Writers
By Sarah F. Li

“Latin America — my sense was, it was not something a lot of people were interested in or concerned about.”

These words, spoken by Morton H. Halperin, characterize Harvard’s academic environment from 1961 to 1966, when Halperin served as a professor of government.

Although there was a committee on Latin American Studies in the 1960s and 70s, it only had six or seven faculty members. According to Latin American History professor John Womack, Jr., their budget “could buy a bottle of sherry a month.”

“We would meet, I don’t know, maybe a couple times a semester. But it was pretty lame,” Womack says. “There wasn’t much going on.”

The same could not have been said of the region they studied.

In contexts across Latin America, the 1960s and 1970s were a time of revolutionary hope and fervor met with a reactionary tide unleashing terror.

The Cuban Revolution had installed a new government by 1959, and as they attempted to realize the socialist project, the U.S. backed violence throughout the region, particularly through the Central Intelligence Agency, to promote “regime change” that suited Cold War anti-communist interests.

Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador — the list seems innumerable. The U.S. government provided ideological and financial support to right-wing militants and even trained them in military tactics.

Latin American elites were also conspiring to eliminate the threat of leftists in their own lands. According to History professor Kirsten Weld, under Operation Condor, the secret police of the Southern Cone Dictatorships — Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay — conspired to identify, hunt down, and kill civilians deemed “dissident,” first domestically, then in each others’ countries, and, in the final phase, in the U.S. and Europe.

Across Latin America, tens of thousands were politically persecuted, exiled, imprisoned, murdered, and “disappeared” – a far cry from the concurrent sleepiness of Harvard academics on the Latin American Studies Committee.

According to Womack, U.S. Cold War involvement in Latin America was “never a matter of discussion” in the Latin American Studies Committee.

But elsewhere on campus, at places like the Center for International Affairs, which was co-founded by Henry Kissinger ’50, “it was, of course, a big concern.”

In fact, these two worlds — political upheaval and mass violence in Latin America and the rarefied academic spaces of Harvard — were far less separate than one might think.

Under the guise of academic freedom, professors shook hands with (and sometimes became) military and intelligence officials, covert operatives recruited students, and the CIA discreetly channeled funding into research projects — blurring the lines between political interests and neutral inquiry. Even in the face of student backlash and new University regulations, the CIA subverted or brazenly ignored any attempts to limit their presence on campus.

Ultimately, Harvard allowed professors and institutional resources — in particular Kissinger and his Defense Studies Program — to engage in covert planning that enabled the destabilization of a region and the loss of tens of thousands of lives.

Kissinger left the University in 1971, but his legacy remains in the still-active Weatherhead Center for International Affairs and a new professorship in “Statecraft and World Order,” announced in February, that carries his name.

Over two decades after Kissinger left Harvard, the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies was founded. DRCLAS supports a wide variety of research and speaks about its support of “democracy, social progress and sustainable development.” But the contested legacy of its donors, particularly David Rockefeller ’36 himself, provides a more morally dubious account.

Operation Condor and Cold War containment politics left Latin American countries with authoritarian governments and memories of mass kidnappings and murders they’re still grappling with to this day. The stories of Kissinger, Rockefeller, and the larger forces they were a part of — stories that begin with and continuously loop back to Harvard — raise questions about the lasting connection between the University and government interests, what it means to reckon with a legacy of violence, and whether Harvard could ever truly be ideologically independent.

Kissinger’s Training Grounds

Over his century of life, Kissinger amassed academic accolades, a Nobel Peace Prize, and well-evidenced allegations of ties to mass violence in Argentina, Chile, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and more.

While his death provoked some celebration globally, especially on social media, that the U.S. statesman left behind a complicated legacy was the ubiquitous stance of most major publications.

But before the wiretapping, carpet-bombing, and alleged war crimes, Kissinger was just a Harvard professor — a position that he would use as the springboard to positions of power in Washington and on the world stage.

Kissinger was a prolific writer, with numerous scholarly articles published in journals like “Foreign Affairs.” By 1957, while working as a government professor and director of the Special Studies Project for the Rockefeller Brothers’ Fund, Kissinger had attracted the attention of the U.S. Air Force, which wrote to him requesting his expertise on military strategy.

Kissinger was on the rise, but his directorship of Harvard’s Defense Studies Program, from 1958-1971, further propelled his ascendancy.

The Defense Policy Seminar was started in 1954 by Harvard Law School professor W. Barton Leach. In 1955, the Ford Foundation gave a grant of $214,000 — nearly $2.5 million in today’s dollars — to establish the Defense Studies Program and house the seminar. According to a 2007 History Senior Thesis, the program aimed “to pioneer a civilian national security elite,” mobilizing citizenry for Cold War strategic interests.

Despite founding the seminar, Leach seems not even a footnote in its legacy. Neither his obituary in The Crimson nor in the New York Times as much as mentions the Defense Policy Seminar. Kissinger, on the other hand, is credited with its rise to prominence.

In November of 1959, funding problems and attrition had put the program’s future in doubt, but by March of 1960, Kissinger had secured a grant of $25,000 a year (over $260,000 adjusted for inflation) for three years from the Carnegie Corporation.

Kissinger also increased the recruitment of students from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences and the School of Public Administration, as well as the U.S. military.

But these innocuous operational successes might not paint a full picture of the program under Kissinger.

“I never was really sure what the Defense Studies Program was. The Defense Studies Program, if it existed at all, existed in name only,” says Halperin, who, starting in 1961, co-taught the Defense Policy Seminar with Kissinger (and “nominally” with Leach, who Halperin alleges did not show up for lectures).

“I knew that Kissinger wanted to keep [the program] going and always listed it as one of his activities. But I never saw any sign of it except for the seminar.”

Halperin believes that Kissinger’s concealed motivation with the program was to possess “another mechanism to raise money” to be under his control.

One way Kissinger employed the ample funds at his disposal was, in the words of his biographer Walter Isaacson, “to invite a stream of potential patrons from Washington to be his guest lecturers.”

When Kissinger first expressed intentions to recruit active military and intelligence personnel to speak at the seminar, Leach pointed out that materials and discussions from the seminar could express opinions that were “distasteful” to the military, discouraging them from future cooperation.

Leach suggested assuring members of the military services that the contents of the seminar would be “classified and unpublishable.”

Under the assurance that the program was secure, Kissinger had the mandate to invite seemingly any high-ranking military and intelligence official he pleased to lecture at the Seminar.

The insularity of the Defense Studies Program perhaps emboldened the influential guest lecturers, with whom Kissinger could bump elbows and potentially gain access to classified intelligence.

Under Kissinger, the revolving door between Washington and Harvard students was in full swing.

Kissinger, Powerful in the Two Worlds

In Kissinger’s last few years leading the program, the illusion of division between the actual activities of Washington and the Program’s detached academic interest in them gradually shattered.

On May 8, 1967, Leach wrote to Kissinger to inform him that John McNaughton, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, believed the location of a bombing target in North Vietnam had been leaked through the Seminar.

Leach was unconcerned. “I have been amazed that there hasn’t been a security breach before,” he wrote. “Indeed, some of the things that McNamara said were so hot (especially concerning Latin America) that I held my breath.”

Robert McNamara, who served as the U.S. Secretary of Defense from 1961-1968 under Presidents John F. Kennedy ’40 and Lyndon B. Johnson, had also served as the president of the Ford Motor Company and is credited with saving the company from $85 million in losses. When McNamara delivered his guest lecture, the Ford Foundation, whose funding established the Program, was in the process of selling off its non-voting shares of Ford Motor — it had once owned 90 percent.

“But nothing happened,” continued Leach.

Leach was skeptical that any modification to the Seminar rules would truly prevent leaks from happening in the future. The only remedy he proposed was to “repeat each hour that nothing said in the Seminar can be discussed outside it.”

He even went as far as to say he believed the security breach occurred at the government level, not in the Seminar — making clear that there was little distance between the abstract ideas of defense discussed at Harvard and their actual implementation in Washington.

“Forget it,” he wrote to Kissinger. “It is one of the hazards of life.”

The seminar also hosted notable government officials such as Ray S. Cline, the deputy director of intelligence at the CIA, who visited just a month after playing a leading role during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

As important people who knew important things cycled in and out of the Defense Studies Program, Kissinger’s connections grew, translating to real-world power. When he was elected in 1968, President Nixon appointed Kissinger to be his national security advisor — a position where he worked closely with the CIA. In his final years at Harvard, Kissinger’s national stature seemed to eclipse his role at the Defense Studies Program.

Correspondence between Leach and Air Force Lieutenant General Glen W. Martin revealed the extent to which powerful military officials and Kissinger’s colleagues at Harvard had grown deferent to his will.

“Recently we have learned that Henry has reorganized the NSC [National Security Council] structure,” wrote Martin on January 21, 1969. “The Air Force has not been asked for any recommendations or views on this subject.”

Over the next two weeks, Leach and Martin repeatedly tweaked the word choice of draft letters to Kissinger, seeming to read carefully as they expressed the Air Force’s concern at being left out of his decision.

That same month, he would declare a leave of absence from Harvard, and by 1971, he would resign his professorship and submerge himself entirely in the world of international intelligence.

As Kissinger became more and more immersed in the world of National Security, his allegiance to the man who promoted him, Nixon, grew stronger. So when the New York Times published leaked information on the U.S. bombing of Cambodia, Nixon turned to Kissinger to investigate the origin of the leak.

Halperin, who Kissinger had taken with him to the NSC when he left Harvard, was one of the people named. According to Halperin, Kissinger identified four people as the possible source of the leak, but chose the names of officials he knew Nixon already held suspicions against, particularly because they were Jewish, Democrats, and against the Vietnam War.

Halperin had considered leaving the NSC in the wake of the leak, but Kissinger convinced him to stay — then ordered the FBI to wiretap Halperin’s phone. For nearly two years, the FBI recorded Halperin’s calls, even after he resigned in May of 1970.

Halperin wouldn’t discover he had been wiretapped until 1973 when he filed a lawsuit. The lawsuit dragged on for 19 years until Kissinger apologized to Halperin in 1991, who then voluntarily dropped the case.

Argentina and Chile, Kissinger and the CIA

At the same time Halperin attempted to hold Kissinger accountable, Kissinger’s power over diplomatic relations in Latin America was only growing.

“We know that he was an ideological author of what happened in the region,” says Esteban L. Herrera Simerman, one of the many people affected by the story Kissinger helped pen for the region.

Herrera Simerman was born in Argentina in 1975. By the time he was born, his mother was already living under an alias, hiding from the government after being identified as a member of the Workers’ Revolutionary Party.

1975 was a year of mounting concern about violence and instability under President Isabel Perón. To some, it seemed that total upheaval was on the horizon. The prior year, President Juan Perón had died, leaving his wife to take over the presidency. The next year, a military coup led by Jorge Rafael Videla would replace the government entirely.

After the military junta took over in 1976, they initiated mass kidnappings and murders of people who were deemed political dissidents under “La Guerra Sucia,” the Dirty War.

When Herrera Simerman was still less than a year old, his father, who was also a member of the Workers’ Revolutionary Party, was kidnapped from the street and shot in the leg. The family was told that his father was in the hospital, but by the time they arrived, he had been moved and would never be seen again alive.

In the news reports that came out after the incident, police claimed they were chasing down a terrorist group. Four people were killed in the crossfire — and all of them were later identified as “subversives.”

When his father’s corpse eventually turned up, visibly scarred from the torture he endured, the family was only allowed to collect him in exchange for their signed affirmation that his father died from a stray bullet.

When Herrera Simerman was around three years old, he was staying in a house with other families from the Workers’ Revolutionary Party when it was stormed in the middle of the night. The troops of the junta entered, quickly taking over the house and gathering all the adults.

“They put bags on their heads and made them kneel on the floor of the living room,“ Herrera Simerman says. The next morning, the children were discovered. The official story was that they had all been abandoned inside the house.

Herrera Simerman was too young to remember the disappearances of his parents and relies on the memories of those around him to fill in the gaps. But he grew up in the care of grandparents who were always honest about the identity of his parents.

As he grew up, he found himself drawn to activism, advocating for fair hours among production workers and working with the National Commission on the Right to Identity — an organization which helps the separated children of the disappeared reconnect with their biological family members.

Herrera Simerman’s story is far from unique. Without the support of his grandparents, he might have ended up as one of the approximately 500 Argentine children separated from their parents in the Dirty War. Because many do not know of their origins or even grew up in the homes of military officials, Abuelas de la Plaza de Mayo — another organization that works to reconnect families separated by the junta — consider these children to be a part of the disappeared. An estimate for the total number of people disappeared and likely killed during the period from 1974 to 1983 is as high as 30,000.

In 1976, Congress proposed sanctions against Argentina in reaction to reports of human rights abuses by the military junta. But before those sanctions could be passed, Kissinger met with Argentina’s foreign ambassador and encouraged him to resolve the situation quickly. Kissinger also assured the ambassador that the U.S. wouldn’t “cause you unnecessary difficulties,” but also requested “whatever freedoms you could restore would help.”

This meeting came on the heels of a recent increase in the rate of people disappearing. As Americans joined the ranks of those abducted and fatally tortured, Kissinger used the same language as the Argentine government, describing the disappeared people as terrorists and commenting to Argentine officials that he “hoped the Argentine [government] could get the terrorist problem under control as quickly as possible.”

Kissinger’s top aide on Latin America told him the junta’s theory was to “use the Chilean method.”

“That is, to terrorize the opposition — even killing priests and nuns and others.”

When Nixon decided he could not support the rule of Salvador Allende, the socialist president elected in the Chilean election of 1970, CIA Director Richard Helms was instructed to orchestrate a military coup d’etat to prevent the new presidency.

In 1975, the Senate’s Church Committee released a report titled “Alleged Assassination Plots Involving Foreign Leaders,” explaining that while the CIA worked on the coup, they were designated “to report, both for informational and approval purposes, to the President’s Assistant for National Security Affairs, Henry Kissinger.”

At the beginning of 1970, Kissinger had written to University President Nathan Pusey to request an extension on his leave of absence from Harvard. Kissinger seemingly believed he still might return to academia after his stint in national security. But just 10 months later, he was taking the lead on an operation with the potential to change the fate of an entire nation.

As the CIA began building relationships with military and police officials in Chile, they came across a recurring obstacle. They were informed that the Army’s Commander-in-Chief René Schneider would never support a military coup against Allende. So they decided Schneider needed to be removed from the position — by force.

On Oct. 19 and Oct. 20, 1970, two unsuccessful attempts to abduct Schneider occurred. Then, on Oct. 22, according to the Church report, “machine guns and ammunition were passed by the CIA to the group that had failed on October 19.” That group never succeeded, but a different group — allegedly unaffiliated with the first – shot Schneider that same day.

While the CIA has not been directly implicated in Schneider’s actual murder, Richard Helms, the Director of the CIA who was later convicted of misleading Congress about covert operations in Chile, congratulated the CIA station on their “excellent job.”

As the committee investigating the matter looked deeper, they began to hear two distinctly different stories. Kissinger and his Deputy National Security Advisor testified that they directed the CIA to shut down the coup attempt five days before Schneider’s killing and had no awareness of CIA activity in Chile afterward. CIA officials, however, testified the opposite, insisting that “their activities in Chile after October 15 were known to and thus authorized by the White House.”

Even after Schneider’s assassination, the Allende administration continued to enact new social programs and nationalize industries.

That was until the U.S. drastically cut its economic aid and the World Bank, in 1971, severed all loans under the leadership of McNamara, the Defense Studies Program lecturer who said “hot things” about Latin America. As Chile lost international financial backing and inflation soared, the U.S. increased aid to the military and the pro-coup opposition.

On September 11, 1973, the Chilean military, led by General Augusto Pinochet, launched a coup and started rounding up “dissidents.” According to the Chilean Ministry of Justice, an estimated 40,175 people were executed, detained and disappeared, or tortured as political prisoners under Pinochet’s 17-year dictatorship.

In the aftermath, the family of René Schneider filed a 2001 lawsuit against Kissinger, alleging he knew about the attempted kidnapping plot and did nothing to prevent it. The lawsuit also alleged that some of the people arrested for Schneider’s murder were paid $35,000 by the CIA.

The case was dismissed in 2005 on the grounds that Kissinger could not be held personally responsible because he was acting within the bounds of his position as National Security Adviser. Furthermore, the U.S. government could not face repercussions because it enjoyed immunity for the alleged crimes.

A spokesperson for the CIA did not respond to a request for comment.

Kissinger was also sued for damages in a lawsuit filed in 2002 by Laura Gonzalez-Vera, whose husband was tortured and killed under the reign of Pinochet. Despite a report in which the CIA admitted to paying off coup conspirators and the secret police, the court leaned on the precedent set by Schneider v. Kissinger and dismissed the case in 2006 on the grounds of “sovereign immunity” — though, this time, it was a “close” call.

The involvement of American intelligence in Latin America throughout the 1970s and 1980s has left a lasting suspicion in the minds of some people there.

“Anyone who’s going to do social science research in these countries is going to be suspected at some point of being CIA,” says Julia Fierman, a lecturer in the Anthropology Department.

But to get beyond suspicion, the lawsuits, along with the trials of Argentine and Chilean military officials who orchestrated the disappearances, relied on the public release of U.S. documents detailing the country’s involvement in Chile.

Still, the record on CIA involvement in Latin America remains sparse, only composed of documents the CIA has intentionally released. To some, this is not enough.

Herrera Simerman, for one, says the U.S. should fully acknowledge any and all involvement.

“We have to investigate. We need access to the truth,” Herrera Simerman says. “Because if you forget your past, your future is not secure.”

‘The Right To Deceive Your Students’

If you wanted to get recruited to the CIA in the 1960s, Harvard was a great place to be. Harvard had an open recruiting relationship with the CIA. Twice a year, recruiters were even invited to campus. There appeared to be little to no concern at the time about the implications of actively inviting the CIA onto campus and allowing faculty to freely associate themselves and their research with the directives of intelligence agencies.

But that all started to change in 1967. That year, a dropout from Pomona College named Michael Wood disclosed to Ramparts magazine that the CIA had infiltrated the National Student Association, a confederation of college and university student governments, converting many of its members into operatives as the CIA covertly channeled funding into the organization. The Association’s president admitted to receiving CIA funds but stated that he “had no more problems with that money” than money that was being funneled in by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations.

Most of the funding from the CIA, in particular, ended up at the Association’s Cambridge branch, which handled international affairs. This clandestine control of the Association allowed the CIA to discreetly fund opposition groups in communist-ruled countries, recruit foreign student leaders for intelligence purposes, and build dossiers on potential future government leaders. When the scandal broke, word of a student protest spread across campus and the CIA canceled their biannual visit for the first time in years.

A CIA recruiter at the time denied that the cancellation was a direct result of the student protests, instead crediting low registration numbers. But the real turning point for Harvard’s relationship with the CIA wouldn’t come until nine years later, with the findings of the Church Committee report.

In his book “Spy Schools,” journalist Daniel L. Golden called it “the most comprehensive investigation ever of U.S. intelligence agencies” documenting an “appalling litany of abuses.”

Among these abuses included the testing of hallucinogens like LSD on nonconsenting prisoners, students, and mentally impaired people under MKUltra and the FBI’s wiretapping, intimidation, and infiltration of the Black Panthers, the American Communist Party, anti-Vietnam War protesters, and more under COINTELPRO.

The report also revealed how behind the scenes at over 100 U.S. colleges, the CIA formed back-alley bonds with faculty to gain access to students, particularly from Soviet-bloc countries, to serve as CIA informants, often without their full knowledge.

“Students are entitled to have a relationship with their professors that they are confident is private,” Halperin says. The presence of covert recruiting violated that expectation of trust.

A 1976 article in The Crimson also noted the Church Committee’s finding that government agencies had paid professors and universities to lie about the source of their funding and mislead students and administrators about the nature of their research.

Despite the force of its findings, the Committee said that Congress would not introduce restrictions on academics via legislation, leaving the onus of creating guidelines on individual universities.

In response, Halperin, working with the American Civil Liberties Union, approached the Harvard administration about introducing regulations to prevent the violation of academic integrity.

Halperin says he tried to approach other institutions but “was successful at Harvard and then not successful anyplace else.”

Other professors proved resistant to the idea of restrictions on their freedom of association. “They thought academic freedom included the right to deceive your students,” Halperin says.

By May 1976, Harvard had established its own committee. The following year, the Harvard committee released a series of recommendations for handling future relationships between academics and government agencies.

The 1977 guidelines stated that “the use of the academic profession and scholarly enterprises to provide a ‘cover’ for intelligence activities is likely to corrupt the academic process and lead to a loss of public respect for academic enterprises.”

As such, the recommendations continued to allow Harvard and its affiliates to enter into research contracts with the CIA — as long as those contracts were publicly disclosed. The recommendations also explicitly restricted the presence of undercover recruiters on campus and prohibited affiliates from undertaking intelligence operations on behalf of the CIA.

However, it was not required that affiliates who worked with the CIA prior to the guidelines disclose those relationships, which applies to the entire time in which the Defense Studies Program operated. In addition, the guidelines relied on self-reporting by affiliates with no oversight mechanism to ensure they did.

Though the Senate Committee’s report applied to the relationship between universities and all government agencies, the Harvard committee’s recommendations singled out the CIA.

Stansfield Turner, the director of the CIA at the time, was not pleased. In a memo dated March 25, 1977, Turner recalled informing President Derek Bok over the phone that “it was unfair to single out the CIA.”

The recommendations, Stansfield wrote, “were going overboard and would contravene the individual’s right to freedom of association.”

But the CIA wasn’t going to back down. Just a year later, Medical School researcher Dr. Martin T. Orne ’48 revealed that the CIA had opaquely funneled $30,000 into his project without his knowledge. Orne’s research investigated the nature and limitations of hypnosis.

A year after that, in a 1979 Crimson op-ed, Trevor Barnes wrote that the, “refusal of Admiral Stansfield Turner, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), to heed Harvard’s guidelines about the agency’s activities on campus is worth serious attention.”

Barnes claimed presidents of eight elite universities had been informed of the CIA’s covert recruiting efforts during the spring of 1976. To him, the lack of definitive action on the part of universities was nothing but complacency.

The CIA remained tenacious — 1979 was far from the last time The Crimson exposed clandestine affiliations between the CIA and Harvard.

In October of 1985, The Crimson reported that the director of Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern studies was receiving funding for intelligence work under the guise of scholarly research. The following year, the New York Times reported that three professors had been exposed by The Crimson in the last few months for harboring covert funding relationships with the CIA.

Beyond continuing to meddle in academic programming, the ripples of real-world harms caused by the CIA in Latin America reached Harvard’s campus and sparked controversy. In particular, Héctor A. Gramajo, an influential Guatemalan general, was permitted to attend and graduate from the Harvard Kennedy School. Under his control from 1982-1983, the Guatemalan army, funded by the U.S. government and long backed by the CIA, killed an estimated 70,000 people and and destroyed hundreds of villages in a counterinsurgency campaign that committed genocide against the Mayas.

“We instituted Civil Affairs (in 1982) which provides development for 70 percent of the population while we kill 30 percent. Before, the strategy was to kill 100 percent,” Gramajo said in an interview given while attending HKS.

On June 6, 1991, Gramajo was served U.S. court papers outside the Kennedy School accusing him of human rights abuses in Guatemala. One day later, he was awarded a master’s in public administration at a commencement led by Bok, who had passed the earlier rule trying to cleanse Harvard’s reputation of ties to the CIA.

That same year, Gramajo — who was stung to death by killer bees in 2004 — gave the commencement address at the School of the Americas, a Department of Defense school which educated over 60,000 Latin American soldiers, including Gramajo, in military tactics employed by multiple juntas. In 1995, a U.S. federal court found Gramajo responsible for a systematic campaign of human rights abuses and was ordered to pay $47.5 million to the defendants. Returning to Guatemala with his Harvard degree, he declared he had no intention to give his victims a single cent.

From covert affiliations to educating a war criminal, it seemed hard for Harvard to rid itself of controversial associations.

The Legacy of Latin American Studies

Back within the comfort of Harvard academic offices, John Womack tells us, the Latin American Studies Committee continued to stagnate in obscurity through the ‘80s.

That was, until “Rockefeller gave the University all that money for a Latin American center,” he says.

Just as Kissinger left his legacy on campus with the professorship that bears his name, Rockefeller left his in the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies.

During his lifetime, David Rockefeller sustained a friendship with the Argentine junta’s minister of economics, Jose A. Martínez de Hoz, and praised his policies as “brilliant, solid, and absolutely realistic.” These neoliberal policies drastically deregulated the Argentine economy, and real wages plummeted as inflation skyrocketed. Martínez de Hoz died while under house arrest in Argentina for human rights abuses in 2013.

Still, Rockefeller, who was the CEO of Chase Bank, opened his pockets to the administration under Martínez de Hoz, approving a loan to the dictatorial regime through the bank.

In 1986, Argentine protesters took to the streets to hurl eggs and stones, smash windows, and set cars and an American flag on fire — all in response to Rockefeller’s presence at a meeting in Buenos Aires. For the billions of dollars in debt Argentina owed to him and other American bankers, leftist groups labeled Rockefeller a “bloodsucker.”

Later, in 1994, Rockefeller was encouraged by his friend University president Neil L. Rudenstine to turn his fascination with Latin America into a center — and DRCLAS was born.

They planned DRCLAS as a space for collaboration across the various disciplines studying Latin America and as a way to recruit other faculty and students.

Rudenstine brings up one of the first DRCLAS events, a Fogg Museum art exhibit. By displaying the extensive collection of Patricia Phelps de Cisneros, a highly-regarded Dominican art collector and philanthropist, the show aimed to give visibility to underrepresented Latin American art.

Rudenstine and Stephen J. “Steve” Reifenberg, a former executive director of DRCLAS, both argue that exposure to Latin American culture was crucial to expanding the worldview of the Harvard populace.

According to Reifenberg, the study of Latin America had long been eclipsed by pervasive stereotypes that depicted the region as little more than a conglomeration of civil wars, drugs, and violence. DRCLAS gave people the opportunity to explore Latin America beyond that confining image and even travel there to see it firsthand.

Steve Reifenberg, a former executive director of DRCLAS, argues that exposure to Latin American culture was crucial to expanding the worldview of Harvard affiliates.
Steve Reifenberg, a former executive director of DRCLAS, argues that exposure to Latin American culture was crucial to expanding the worldview of Harvard affiliates. By Courtesy of Steve Reifenberg

But University leadership had a different set of demands for academics within the Center.

“Most of the faculty were just trying to do their jobs, and there was a lot of pressure to help the Development Office to raise money,” says Womack. “What they were particularly interested in was having Rockefeller’s rich friends in Latin America give the center money.”

Rudenstine and Rockefeller were the first donors to DRCLAS — with Rockefeller contributing an especially hefty sum of $11 million. But, according to Rudenstine, DRCLAS’s advisory council also contributed funding. Rockefeller kept an advisory council that consisted of, at various times, Patty Cisneros, Gustavo Cisneros, Fernando Reimers, Philip Lehner, and Hilda Ochoa-Brillembourg.

(The Cisneros were ranked the richest family in South America by Forbes in 2006. Philip Lehner was a former naval intelligence officer with ties to the leader of the Democratic Revolutionary Alliance, a right-wing, CIA-backed Contra group. Hilda Ochoa-Brillembourg, meanwhile, is the World Bank’s former chief investment officer, a member of the Rockefeller Family Fund’s investment committee, and serves on the board of the Harvard Management Company.)

One of the Center’s initiatives, which Reifenberg recalls fondly, was a series of dialogues which invited leaders from different countries to discuss how to resolve international disputes — from Chile’s annexation of Bolivia’s access to the sea to the almost two-century-long border dispute between Peru and Ecuador — without the pressure of bringing two countries to a binding negotiation table.

And the effect of these dialogues would be cemented in history. When Peru and Ecuador finally sat down at the official negotiating table years later, the foreign ministers both credited the conversations they’d had as participants in the dialogue series at DRCLAS with inspiring their actual negotiations.

Rockefeller’s money, then, funded both a junta and the training for a peace negotiation in Latin America. To Reifenberg, the Center’s impact outweighs the other elements of Rockefeller’s legacy.

“I would argue the history of any uber wealthy individual or family is almost always inevitably built on the oppression of somebody,” he says.

Reifenberg doesn’t think Rockefeller was the ultimate culprit for “the coups or things like that.” Rather, he was connected to wealthy people who dealt directly with “local political issues.”

Reifenberg — along with all former faculty of DRCLAS interviewed for this article — also minimizes Rockefeller’s control of the center.

They say Rockefeller did not set explicit objectives for the center. Instead, DRCLAS was faculty-directed. Reifenberg says that Rockefeller “could not have been more enthusiastic that a diverse group of people came together that had very different ideas.”

Today, DRCLAS and the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, which Kissinger co-founded, continue to fund research in and about Latin America. Reifenberg argues this should be taken into consideration when looking at the full “impact of someone’s life.”

And Rockfeller wanted to have an impact. Reifenberg recalls that in business meetings, Rockefeller frequently asked people, “what are you doing for your country?”

“I think he saw Harvard as a beacon of light and positive values in the world,” Reifenberg says.

— Associate Magazine Editor Jem K. Williams can be reached at jem.williams@thecrimson.com. Follow her on Twitter @jemkwilliams.

— Magazine writer Olivia G. Pasquerella can be reached at olivia.pasquerella@thecrimson.com. Follow them on Twitter @pasqapasqa.

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