U.S. Intervention in Latin America
“U.S. prestige and interests … are being affected materially at a time when the U.S. can ill afford problems in an area that has been traditionally accepted as the U.S. ‘backyard’.”
- Declassified CIA document following the election of Chilean President Salvador Allende, November 12, 1970
From its earliest days, the United States has had designs on Latin America and has felt entitled to intervene in the affairs of sovereign nations south of the border.
The U.S. interventionist posture was made official in the Monroe Doctrine beginning in 1823 which stated that the Western Hemisphere was the United States “sphere of influence,” and that the U.S. would not tolerate other countries’ interference in its geopolitical affairs. The Doctrine provided the intellectual justification for the U.S.’ future interventions in the region. At the beginning of the Twentieth Century, President Theodore Roosevelt established the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, in which the United States claimed the right to intervene in any cases of “flagrant and chronic wrongdoing by a Latin American Nation.”
The U.S. acted on this policy with regular frequency, mounting no less than 55 military invasions or significant covert operations in the region between 1890 and 2004,[i] usually overthrowing or undermining various Latin American and Caribbean governments through covert or overt means.
The Cold War
In the context of the Cold War (1945 – 1989) between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, the U.S. used military, counter-insurgency, and a variety of covert and overt means in countries around the world to undermine social movements, political parties, labor unions, peasant groups, and various popular organizations in the name of anti-communism. In these efforts, the U.S. allied with various brutal dictatorships – some of which it helped to bring to power – which in turn employed murder, torture, rape, terror, and repression to stamp out Left-leaning and popular movements and control the population. In Latin America, the U.S. supported repressive regimes in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Uruguay, Venezuela, and other countries.
Some scholars and analysts believe that in many cases the threat of communism was exaggerated, and that the real purpose of these U.S. interventions around the world was to maintain as much control as possible over political and economic developments to ensure favorable conditions for U.S. and multinational business.
Throughout most of the Cold War, the key U.S. government agency engaged in these campaigns was the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The CIA, which was created following the end of World War II, employed (and continues to employ) numerous secret and covert tactics including assassinations, sabotage, torture, disinformation and manipulation of the media, the creation of and dissemination of propaganda, the funding of political parties and groups, and of course widespread surveillance and espionage. Various details of the CIA’s methods and activities came to light in the 1970’s with Congressional hearings led by Senator Frank Church and the publication of the book CIA Diary: Inside the Company by a former CIA officer, Philip Agee, who had been stationed in Ecuador, Uruguay, and Mexico. Another important government agency for advancing U.S. interests abroad has been the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which historically has made U.S. aid money conditional on foreign governments’ acceptance of various policy changes.
In the early 1980’s, the U.S. Congress created a group of organizations to conduct some of the CIA’s previous activities in the open.[ii] These so-called “democracy promotion” groups include the National Endowment for Democracy, which in turn funds the Solidarity Center of the AFL-CIO, the Center for International Private Enterprise, and the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, which act as international arms of the Democratic and Republican parties, respectively.[iii] The NED and these other groups provide funding and/or training to numerous foreign political parties, trade unions, business groups, women’s groups and other minority groups in an attempt to gain control over political movements, prevent any undesirable revolutionary changes, and advance U.S. interests.[iv]
U.S.-Supported Coups d’etat
During the Cold War, the U.S. employed these various agencies and methods to support violent coups d’etat in Latin American and Caribbean nations. Two of the more infamous examples occurred in Guatemala in 1954 and in Chile in 1973.
The CIA engineered and assisted the Guatemalan military in carrying out a violent coup d’etat against the government of Jacobo Arbenz in 1954. The U.S. opposed Arbenz’s program of, as the CIA referred to it, “an intensely nationalistic program of progress colored by the touchy, anti-foreign inferiority complex of the ‘Banana Republic,”[v] which included land reforms and other policies opposed by the U.S.-based United Fruit Company (now known as Chiquita). Hundreds of Guatemalans were killed following the coup, and the coup paved the way for decades of successive dictatorships who are estimated to have killed over 100,000 civilians between 1954 and 1990.[vi] As is now known from declassified CIA documents the CIA helped to target individuals for assassination, and provided funds and weapons to do so. The CIA had planned to assassinate Arbenz himself prior to his resignation during the coup.
Following the election of Salvador Allende, a democratic socialist, to the presidency of Chile in 1970, U.S. President Richard Nixon “demanded a coup” in the words of scholar Peter Kornbluh.[vii] Nixon’s Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, and CIA Director Richard Helms responded, laying out plans for a coup d’etat. Nixon also vowed to “make the Chilean economy scream.” As it would later do to undermine the Aristide government in Haiti, the U.S. blocked loans to Chile from the World Bank and other international lenders.
On September 11, 1973, the Chilean military, led by General Augusto Pinochet, struck, seizing control of strategic parts of the country and attacking the presidential palace. Rather than be captured, Allende shot himself in the head. The new regime rounded up thousands of Allende supporters and suspected Leftists, many of whom it held in the national stadium where the regime interrogated and tortured them. In the weeks following the coup, 1,500 people had been killed, including over 320 whom the regime summarily executed.[viii]
The U.S. continued to support the Pinochet dictatorship for the next 18 years, even as the regime carried a campaign of terror and assassinations – called Operation Condor – in Argentina, Spain, Italy, and even the United States. In 1976, the Pinochet regime killed former Chilean diplomat Orlando Letelier and his American assistant, Ronni Moffit, in a car bombing on Embassy Row in Washington, D.C. Prior to the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, this incident had been considered to be one of the worst acts of foreign terrorism on U.S. soil.[ix]
The end of the Cold War brought few changes to U.S.-Latin American relations. The U.S. continued to undermine the Left and popular movements through a variety of means. The U.S. role in several coups d’etat over the past decades illustrates the continuity of policy.
In 1991, the Haitian military ousted Haiti’s first democratically-elected President, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, in a coup d’etat. During the next few years, while Aristide remained in exile, armed paramilitary groups targeted his supporters, labor and peasant groups, and other popular movements, killing thousands and employing a campaign of rape as a weapon of repression. It later emerged that leaders of the key paramilitary group, FRAPH, were on the CIA payroll.[x] In 1994, the U.S. safeguarded Aristide’s return to Haiti, but only after he agreed to a series of economic and political policies known as the “Paris Plan.”[xi]
In 2004, during his second, non-consecutive term, Aristide was ousted again. This time, democracy promotion groups – especially the International Republican Institute – played a larger role in undermining Aristide, although at this time what role U.S. intelligence agencies might have played is not known.[xii] This undermining of Aristide was aided by a destructive U.S.-led aid embargo which prevented Aristide’s government from much-needed loans from the World Bank and other institutions.[xiii] Inside Haiti, armed thugs – some of whom had been in FRAPH – provided the official pretext for Aristide’s departure from the country as they vowed – through the media – to attack the presidential palace. When Aristide refused to leave, the U.S. military put him on a plane and flew him to exile in the Central African Republic. Aristide claimed to have been the victim of a “kidnapping and under the cover of coup d’etat.” A U.S.-backed radio talk-show host from Florida, Gerard Latortue, was installed as the head of the new, unconstitutional, “interim” government. Over the next two years, 8,000 people were murdered and 35,000 women and girls raped,[xiv] and many Aristide government supporters and others were imprisoned on bogus charges.
In April 2002, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was removed in a coup d’etat following violence and instability provoked by a violent protest movement that was aided by major television networks and other media that promoted the protests. Although the New York Times said “Venezuelan democracy is no longer threatened by a would-be dictator,”[xv] the new regime, headed by Pedro Carmona, quickly dissolved the constitution, the Congress, and the Supreme Court. Chavez returned to power just two days later after thousands of people – supported by factions of the Venezuelan military – took to the streets and surrounded the presidential palace. Declassified U.S. government documents reveal that the U.S. had advanced knowledge of the coup, yet did nothing to warn the Venezuelan government of the plot. The U.S., through the NED and other groups, also funded and providing training for some of the individuals and organizations involved in the coup.[xvi]
On June 30, 2009, the Honduran military ousted President Manuel Zelaya at gunpoint and sent him on a flight into exile. The Obama administration’s response to the coup fell far short of the condemnation expressed by Latin American countries, as it did not condemn the coup, and never officially determined that a military coup had occurred, which would have immediately required the cutting off of aid to Honduras. Over the next several months, U.S. officials undermined Latin American efforts to pressure the coup regime, and publicly criticized Zelaya for attempting to return to Honduras.[xvii] When Zelaya still had not been restored to power by scheduled elections in November, the U.S. praised the elections, despite election-day violence and despite that the electoral process was controlled by the Honduran military. The Obama administration led – and continues to lead – international efforts to have the new Honduran government of Pepe Lobo officially recognized by other nations. The U.S. response to the Honduran coup was widely seen as the first major test for U.S.-Latin American relations under Obama, and has led to continued U.S. alienation from Latin America.
CIA and Assassinations: The Guatemala 1954 Documents. National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 4.
Mark Weisbrot’s op-ed’s and columns on Latin America.
Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism
By Greg Grandin. Metropolitan Books: 2006.
Year 501: The Conquest Continues
By Noam Chomsky. South End Press: 1993.
Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II
By William Blum. Common Courage Press: 1995.
[i] Marc Becker, “History of U.S. Interventions in Latin America.” [http://www2.truman.edu/~marc/resources/interventions.html] Accessed April 22, 2010.
[ii] George Lardner Jr., “Rep. Fascell Wears Several Hats for Cause;
In Bid to Endow Democracy.” The Washington Post, June 5, 1983; David Ignatius, ”
Innocence Abroad: The New World of Spyless Coups,” The Washington Post, September 22, 1991.
[iv] William I. Robinson, Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, US Intervention, and Hegemony. Cambridge University Press. 1996; Beth Sims, Workers of the World Undermined: American Labor’s Role in U.S. Foreign Policy. South End Press. 1992.
[v] Cited in Kate Doyle and Peter Kornbluh, “CIA and Assassinations: The Guatemala 1954 Documents.” National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 4. [http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB4/] Accessed April 22, 2010.
[vii] Peter Kornbluh, “The Chile Coup: The U.S. Hand.” iF magazine, November / December 1998. Republished by Third World Traveler [http://www.thirdworldtraveler.com/Terrorism/Chile%20Coup_USHand.html]. Accessed April 22, 2010.
[ix] Tim Weiner, “Case of Cuban Exile Could Test The U.S. Definition of Terrorist.” The New York Times, May 9, 2005. [http://www.uniset.ca/other/news/nyt_posadacarriles.html] Accessed April 22, 2010.
[x] Jim Mann, “Congress to Probe CIA-Haiti Ties,” The Los Angeles Times. November 2, 1993. [http://articles.latimes.com/1993-11-02/news/mn-52438_1_house-intelligence-committee] Accessed April 22, 2010.
[xi] Peter Hallward, Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide, and the Politics of Containment. Verso, 2007.
[xii] Walt Bogdanich and Jenny Nordberg, “Mixed U.S. Signals Helped Tilt Haiti Toward Chaos.” The New York Times, January 29, 2006. [http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/29/international/americas/29haiti.html?_r=1] Accessed April 22, 2010.
[xiii] Jeffrey Sachs, “Don’t Fall for Washington’s Spin on Haiti.” Financial Times, February 29, 2004
[xiv] Athena Kolbe and Royce Hutson, “Human Rights Abuse and Other Criminal Violations in Port-au-Prince, Haiti: A Random Survey of Households,” The Lancet 368 (September 2006).
[xv] Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, “U.S. Papers Hail Venezuelan Coup as Pro-Democracy Move.” April 18, 2002. [http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=1867] Accessed April 22, 2010.
[xvi] Documents linked and excerpts cited in Mark Weisbrot, “Venezuela’s Election Provides Opportunity for Washington to Change Course,” McClatchy-Tribune Information Services, December 6, 2006. Republished by the Center for Economic and Policy Research.
[http://www.cepr.net/index.php/op-eds-&-columns/op-eds-&-columns/venezuelas-election-provides-opportunity-for-washington-to-change-course/#U.S.%20Support%20for%20the%20Coup] Accessed April 22, 2010.
[xvii] Mark Weisbrot, “Top Ten Ways You Can Tell Which Side The United States Government is On With Regard to the Military Coup in Honduras.” Center for Economic and Policy Research, December 16, 2009. [http://www.cepr.net/index.php/op-eds-&-columns/op-eds-&-columns/top-ten-ways/] Accessed April 22, 2010.