It is with deep sadness the Board and Friends of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) inform our readers of the passing of our beloved founder and Director Larry Birns. We would like to express our heartfelt condolences to Larry’s family. As we mourn, we also celebrate the legacy of a great defender of human rights, a tireless critic of Monroeism, and a man who despite a serious illness, fought the good fight by continuing to work for a more progressive US policy towards Latin America and the Caribbean.
We feel fortunate to have had so many discussions with Larry about hemispheric affairs and the values that ought to drive political analysis. Larry was an uncompromising humanist. And you could hear this in all his writing. As he would say to new associates during their orientation, “when you write for us please remember that COHA has a soul.” One gets a glimpse of what he meant by this by going back to the beginning, a beginning that continued to inform the direction and voice of COHA for more than four decades.
Larry was profoundly impacted by the bloody military coup against the democratically elected government of Chilean President Salvador Allende in 1973 and founded COHA two years later. He often said that this coup was an eye opener, a life changer for him. Larry was indignant at Washington’s attack on democracy and freedom in Chile and thereafter sought to expose the underside of US intervention in the region and advocate for a policy based on mutual respect, rather than domination, towards Latin America and the Caribbean. This was certainly an ambitious undertaking, but he never let up on these ideals. At the helm of COHA for more than four decades, thanks to a generous donor, and beholden to neither corporate nor governmental imperatives, he was able to pursue this task without ever being, in his words, “in any one’s pocket.”
Larry’s fierce independence, ability to expose moral duplicity with a disarming sense of humor, and insistence on intellectual honesty, made him a formidable adversary of those who deployed high minded rhetoric to justify US interventions in the region. While generally sympathetic to the so called “pink tide” governments, Larry also did not hesitate to critique regressive tendencies when he saw them. For Larry, there was no sacrosanct constituted power; he deplored “selective indignation” and urged associates to be critical of everything—but always in a constructive spirit!
Over the course of more than forty years, hundreds of COHA associates and dozens of research fellows, under Larry’s guidance and editorial support, published numerous essays, with critical political analysis and cutting edge investigative reporting. Many of these articles helped expand the parameters of public debate by raising critical perspectives that were not in line with the Washington Consensus.
While insisting that COHA was not a solidarity organization, Larry did not hesitate, at critical moments for the region, to take editorial positions and speak out in broadcast media in order to oppose aggression and violence in favor of peace and dialogue. To take just a few examples, he spoke out often against violations of human rights; he vigorously opposed the US embargo against Cuba; he uncovered uncomfortable truths about Washington’s role during the civil wars in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Colombia; and he swam against the tide by promoting dialogue instead of the imposition of regime change to address conflict in Venezuela. A believer in the potential of multilateral organizations to promote cooperation and peace, he personally delivered a letter, signed by a number of organizations, to the assistant of Luis Almagro, Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), urging Almagro that the OAS ought to represent the diversity of ideologies in the region rather than stoke the flames of extreme partisanship.
Larry Birns cared about the fate of the peoples of the Americas deeply and never lost sight of his original motivations. He certainly ruffled some feathers in high places from time to time, as he was an unrepentant humanist and abhorred bullies. For many of us he was also a good friend and mentor. To honor his legacy we ought to continue to work for a transformation of US policy towards Latin America, one based on sovereign equality, cooperation, and a reverence for human life. Larry Birns would no doubt have us fight on. We will miss him dearly as he continues to inspire us.