“Who Will Impose Democracy?”: Sacha Volman and the Contradictions of CIA Support for the Anticommunist Left in Latin America

I have an article in Diplomatic History, and available at the link. [UPDATE: It appeared in print in Diplomatic History 37, no. 5, November 2013. An article review by Ernesto Semán of the University Richmond is accessible hereSince I submitted the piece a few years ago, I had the opportunity to do some additional research in the Dominican Republic, none of which would not substantially alter the piece or its argument. Nevertheless, I was able to confirm that Juan Bosch was fully aware that Volman represented a link to the CIA. And I was able to learn a bit more about Volman’s life after Balaguer returned to power and his subsequent involvement in anti-Castro activities. Those details will get incorporated into future work I have planned on this subject.]

This piece was a bit of a side project that emerged spontaneously from documents that I was using for other reasons–the name Sacha Volman repeatedly appeared in unexpected places. As I began putting the pieces together, it ceased to seem unexpected, but remained very interesting. Volman was (quite probably) a Romanian CIA contract agent who worked to support Latin America’s anti-Communist left during the Cold War, working with politicians like Costa Rica’s José Figueres, Venezuela’s Rómulo Betancourt and especially the Dominican Republic’s Juan Bosch. Here is the paper abstract:

This article examines the life of Sacha Volman (1923–2001), a Romanian exile who became a key conduit for CIA support to Latin America’s anticommunist left during the Cold War. It traces the evolution of the front groups that underwrote his activities, his involvement with institutes for political training and the production of propaganda in Mexico and Costa Rica, and, most importantly, his organizing in support of the short-lived presidency of Juan Bosch (1963) in the Dominican Republic. The article argues that, contrary to traditional accounts, the Cold War environment and the actions of the United States provided certain opportunities for the political left in the region—provided, of course, that it was an anticommunist left. Yet CIA support was a weak form of commitment on the part of the United States. In the end, Volman’s ally Bosch was overthrown and President Johnson sent troops to prevent him from being restored to power, while much of the propaganda produced by his movement was easily appropriated by the very powers that had deposed it. Acceptance of the hegemonic position of the United States and its anticommunist agenda—the same thing that gave social democratic parties their lease on life in the international arena—left them with little political flexibility.

The material has the flavor of spy fiction, and I worked hard to make the paper as cinematic as possible.  Here are the opening paragraphs:

Short-story writer, anti-dictatorial conspirator, and politician, Juan Bosch took office as the elected president of the Dominican Republic in early 1963. His friend on the anticommunist left, Rómulo Betancourt—then president of Venezuela—observed to President Kennedy that his own nation’s writer-president had lasted only nine months before being overthrown, and he had been a novelist. Bosch was merely a short-story writer, Betancourt joked: Could he last even that long? 

He did not. Bosch was overthrown after seven months in a coup led by Elías Wessin y Wessin, a fanatically anticommunist right-wing air-force colonel. Less than two years later, the Johnson administration issued controversial orders to occupy the country, which had the effect of blocking an armed uprising that sought to restore the progressive constitution Bosch had put in place. Meanwhile, in testimony before a Senate subcommittee, Wessin y Wessin, by then a general, stated that Bosch and his colleagues were Communists. Asked specifically about one Sacha Volman, a Romanian associate of Bosch who had served him as a close but unofficial advisor while he had been president, Wessin y Wessin said: “Tell me with whom you go, and I will tell you who you are.” Bosch was a Communist, Wessin y Wessin reasoned, so his coterie of supporters must be as well. 

Wessin y Wessin was badly mistaken, making a common—sometimes seemingly definitional—error of the extreme right: the inability to conceive of a difference between members of socialist and Communist groups. Bosch, a socialist, held sincere anticommunist views. On Volman, the general blundered still further: Volman was practically a professional anticommunist. A filibuster for the age of ideologies, he roamed the globe in search of a place to put his skills to use and his politics in place. The Comintern, of course, had once had many such agents, seeking to create new Communist revolutions in distant lands, and Volman’s life had a superficially similar trajectory to theirs. But when he served as Bosch’s advisor, he had in fact been working with the CIA for more than a decade. Volman tried to find allies wherever he could to fight against Communism and, when possible, to advance a social democratic agenda.

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