Counterinsurgency, coups, and coercion: History and the US Empire in Latin America


The conventional understanding of US Cold War policy in Latin America portrays a defensive and reactive posture on the part of the US. The ‘containment doctrine’ is popularly understood to have been the US’s core Cold War Grand Strategy and allegedly aimed at preventing and rolling back the expansion of the Soviet empire. In the final decade of the Cold War alone, massive amounts of US military aid were sent to the Nicaraguan Contras and the El Salvadoran government and was justified as necessary to rollback the Soviet ‘evil empire’. Then US President Ronald Reagan argued, “the security of our own borders depends upon which type of society prevails [in Central America], the imperfect democracy seeking to improve, or the Communist dictatorship seeking to expand.”1


In resisting and rolling back alleged Soviet aggression in the third world, the US sometimes carried out covert warfare and government destabilisation. The US also installed and backed a number of pro-US dictatorships throughout as a bulwark against what were characterised as Soviet-backed insurgencies.2 Although these regimes’ practices were frequently anti-democratic, and they often carried out human rights abuses, these policies were deemed necessary to resist the alleged negative consequences for both US and global security should a pro-Soviet regime assume power. Conservative ‘realist’ scholars argue that this was an unfortunate but necessary policy consequence in resisting the global spread of Soviet communism.3 Liberal scholars tend to argue that sometimes US fears were overstated. This divergence between conservative and liberal opinion over policy means tends not to extend to divergence over the ends, the US’s innate right to pursue these ends, or the essentially benign character of Cold War US foreign policy.


This picture bears little resemblance to the reality in Latin America where, contrary to propaganda, Soviet expansionism was a largely peripheral concern for US planners. To illustrate this crucial point it is necessary to examine the internal planning record.


The earliest US intervention in Latin America justified as responding to Soviet expansionism was the 1954 US backed coup in Guatemala that overthrew the democratically elected administration of Jacob Arbenz. President Eisenhower condemned Arbenz’s government as a “Communist dictatorship” that had been established as an outpost “on this continent to the detriment of all American nations”, whilst Secretary of State John Dulles stated that under Arbenz, Guatemalans were living under a “Communist type of terrorism”.4 Contrary to these declarations however, the Soviet Union had no diplomatic mission in Guatemala nor did it provide any military assistance. Arbenz’s coalition government was drawn from a wide political spectrum, with the Communist Guatemalan Labour Party the smallest party within Arbenz’s coalition with only four seats from a total of fifty-one.5 Arbenz set about to distribute uncultivated land to one hundred thousand landless peasants and also carried out social reforms that included the recognition of unions and basic adult literacy campaigns. Arbenz’s economic policy was a nationally based capitalism with a mixed economy aimed at bolstering local industries that would eventually compete with foreign owned companies.


These mild domestic reforms were seen as a direct threat to US interests. In 1953, Charles R. Burrows of the Bureau of Inter-American Affairs argued that the economic reforms in Guatemala threatened US interests as they provided an alternative development model for neighbour counties. He stated, “Guatemala has become an increasing threat to the stability of Honduras and El Salvador. Its agrarian reform is a powerful propaganda weapon; its broad social program of aiding the workers and peasants in a victorious struggle against the upper classes and large foreign enterprises has a strong appeal to the populations of Central American neighbors where similar conditions prevail”.6 Aiding the poor and dispossessed was deemed a dangerous precedent in Latin America and Arbenz’s government was subsequently overthrown by a US-backed coup in 1954. The coup ended democracy in Guatemala and inaugurated forty years of US-backed dictatorships that presided over the murder of over one hundred thousand civilians. The UN concluded that the murder of civilians by the Guatemalan state reached genocidal proportions during the 1980s with full US support.7 The record is similar in Chile.


President Salvador Allende was elected in Chile in 1970. The internal planning record indicates clearly that US planners were not particularly concerned as to whether Chile was aligned with the Soviet Union. In a US National Security Meeting called on November 6, 1970 US President Richard Nixon declared  “If Allende can make it with Russian and Chinese help, so be it–but we do not want it to be with our help, either real or apparent”. He continued that the US’s main concern “is the prospect that he [Allende] can consolidate himself and the picture projected to the world will be his success…If we let the potential leaders in South America think they can move like Chile and have it both ways, we will be in trouble”. He continued, “No impression should be permitted in Latin America that they can get away with this, that it’s safe to go this way”. Nixon explained how the US would overthrow Allende; “I want to work on this and on the military relations—put in more money. On the economic side we want to give him cold turkey. make sure that the EXIM [Export Import Bank of the United States] and the IO’s [International Organisations] toughen up”. US Secretary of State William Rogers added that the US “military should keep in contact with their Chilean colleagues and try to strengthen our position in Chile”. 8 Allende was overthrown in 1973, and a US-backed dictatorship was installed under General Augusto Pinochet.


The two states most frequently cited to support the thesis that the US was driven by fears of Soviet expansionism in Latin America were Cuba and Nicaragua. What then can these cases tell us? Again, US hostility towards post-revolutionary Cuba was triggered by Cuban domestic policies not its later alignment with the Soviet Union.9 The Cuban economy was heavily dependent on its crucial sugar exports to US markets. The US sought to use this dependency as leverage for bargaining purposes to ameliorate Cuban domestic reforms. As a result of this and Cuba’s fear of an imminent cut in its sugar quota, the Cuban government signed a trade agreement with the Soviet Union, arranging to barter sugar for oil. American owned oil refineries, under US government encouragement, refused to refine Soviet crude oil, a crucial need for an energy dependent Cuban economy. In response to this situation and amid increasing fears of a complete US cut-off of sugar purchases the Cubans nationalised a number of the largest American owned refineries. This in turn led to a complete cut-off of American sugar purchases. The Soviets then offered to make up for this shortfall through increased purchases of the now surplus Cuban sugar crop. In short, the US sought to exercise an economic strangulation of post-revolutionary Cuba prior to any significant alignment with the Soviets. The US was thus instrumental in pushing Cuba into the arms of the Soviets. How else could the Cuban economy stay alive? These series of US provocations also took place against the backdrop of increased calls for US military intervention in Cuba and an increasingly warlike posture on the part of the new Kennedy administration, which culminated in the US, backed “bay of pigs”.


Similarly, the leftist Nicaraguan Sandinistas sought to maintain good relations with the US after their revolution overthrew the US-backed dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza in 1979. Cuba had strongly encouraged Nicaragua to maintain strong diplomatic and economic ties to the US, having realised that “small states…cannot afford the luxury of opposing the United States”.10 Mexico became Nicaragua’s largest backer with $500 million in credits given by 1984.11 Western European countries supplied $282.9 million whilst multilateral lending institutions such as the United Nations (UN) and World Bank provided $632.2 million by 1984.12 A report prepared for the US state department concluded, “aid from Western Europe and UN agencies has been…substantial, and hence crucial. Furthermore, it must also be said that in the context of her overall aid to Third World nations, Moscow’s commitment to Nicaragua is modest”.13 (Eastern Bloc aid combined amounted to only 24.2 per cent or $605.6 million by 1984). Nicaraguan reliance on Soviet aid increased however when the US applied pressure to lending countries and multilateral organisations. For example, the Nicaraguan government sent a loan request to the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) in 1985 requesting $100 million to develop its private-sector agriculture. The then Secretary of State, George Shultz, sent a letter to the bank after the request was received. The letter threatened to withdraw US support for the bank if the loan was made. A senior IDB official later remarked, “I have never seen such political pressure on the bank as in the last four years”.14


Despite US hostility, Nicaragua pursued impressive domestic reforms. In 1982, the World Health Organisation awarded Nicaragua its prize for the “most significant achievement in public health by a Third World nation” and two years later UNSECO honoured Nicaragua for its 1980 literacy campaign. A campaign that reduced illiteracy rates amongst adults from 50 per cent to below 15 per cent.15 A 1985 Americas Watch report also noted that human rights abuses in Nicaragua by government forces had virtually disappeared (unlike El Salvador where they grew exponentially with US aid). The report goes on to note that in Nicaragua “there is no systematic practice of forced disappearances, extra judicial killings or torture-as has been the case with “friendly” armed forces in El Salvador-“.16


What can we conclude from these empirical examples of US Cold War intervention in Latin America? First, the conventional picture of US policy is empirically unsustainable. The two states that have traditionally been used to illustrate US containment efforts most clearly, Cuba and Nicaragua, both sought good relations with the US, and US hostility towards these states occurred prior to any significant Soviet alignment. US hostility, which included militarised intervention, occurred as a result of domestic reforms in the target countries, with these reforms very clearly seen as both a threat to US economic interests and as a symbolic threat of a good example to other developing nations. Second, the stated desire to contain Soviet expansionism was clearly articulated as the primary publicly declared threat by US planners. As illustrated above however the internal record reveals a very different set of concerns. This divergence between the publicly declared interests of US policy (Soviet containment) and the actual interests (the destruction of independent forms of development) illustrates clearly that the ‘Soviet expansionism’ rationale was in fact a propaganda device used to rally a scared public behind US policy.  Third, US Cold War policy throughout the developing world costs millions of lives, with US support to pro-Western backed dictatorships in Latin America justified as a necessary policy response to the superpower competition. The alternative understanding that I have outlined refutes this, with the conventional Cold War picture obscuring the overt pursuit of US interests at the expense of the lives of millions within the developing world. Lastly, and most importantly for world order today, these relations between the US and the developing world have largely remained the same. That is, contrary to the claims that the US is now promoting democracy and development there has been a significantly continuity in US post-Cold War objectives towards Latin America. These objectives continue to be the preservation and defence of a neo-liberal international order and the destruction of social forces considered inimical to this order. Logically one would expect the continuity between US Cold War and post-Cold War policies to be clearest in those countries that are the most direct threat to the US’s actual interests. In contemporary Latin America those countries are Colombia due to the armed insurgency and Venezuela due to its vast oil reserves.


General Peter Pace, the Commander in Chief of the US militaries Southern Command outlined these concerns clearly when he spoke of the three vital US national interests that guide US post-Cold War policy in South America. The first vital national interest is the “continued unhindered access to strategic natural resources in the USSOUTHCOM AOR [area of responsibility]”. Pace outlined the importance of Colombian and Venezuelan oil to the US when he stated that there is a “common misperception” that the US “is completely dependent on the Middle East” for oil, when in fact Venezuela provides “15% – 19 % of our imported oil in any given month”. Pace went on to note that the “internal conflict in Colombia poses a direct threat to regional stability” with “Venezuela, Ecuador, and Panama” the “most vulnerable to destabilization due to Colombian insurgent activity along their borders”. Pace outlined the second vital interest as the preservation of pro-US governments in Latin America so as to provide stability “for access to markets in the USSOUTHCOM AOR, which is critical to the continued economic expansion and prosperity of the United States”. The third and final vital interest is the US’s freedom of navigation, with particular concern over the “continued unencumbered access to the Panama Canal”. 17 In sum, US vital interests in Latin America are the unhindered access to Latin America’s oil, the bolstering of pro-US governments or the overthrow of governments that might threaten US-led neo-liberalism (what is called ‘stability’ in official discourse), and open access to strategic land and water corridors. How then has the US responded to a reformist government in Venezuela and the FARC insurgents in Colombia? 


In Venezuela the US backed a military coup against the democratically elected government of Hugo Chavez that almost succeeded in removing him from power.18 The US’s Orwellian ‘National Endowment for Democracy’ had channelled “hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants to US and Venezuelan groups opposed to Mr Chavez, including the labour group whose protests sparked off the coup” whilst the American Navy co-ordinated and aided the coup plotters.19 Thomas Dawson, the IMF External Relations Director, stated that the IMF stood ready to assist the new junta “in whatever manner they find suitable”.20 A Bush administration spokesman stated quite bluntly that although Chavez was “democratically elected” one had to bear in mind that “legitimacy is something that is conferred not just by a majority of the voters”.21 Once Chavez had been returned to power after mass street demonstrations, Miguel Bustamante-Madriz, a member of Chavez’s cabinet argued, “America can’t let us stay in power. We are the exception to the new globalization order. If we succeed, we are an example to all the Americas’”.22 Like Arbenz’s Guatemala and Allende’s Chile, Venezuela has sought to use its national assets for a “broad social program of aiding the workers and peasants” that if left to succeed could provide a “powerful propaganda weapon” against “the upper classes and large foreign enterprises” that may spread to infect  “the populations” of other Latin American nations “where similar conditions prevail”.


In Colombia however, the US has chosen more overtly violent means to destroy not only the rebel insurgent FARC guerrillas, but also to pacify Colombian civil society through it’s counterinsurgency campaign. Colombia is now the worlds third largest recipient of US military aid with the newly elected Colombian President Uribe fully committed to a scorched-earth style total-war against his enemies. The Colombian military has long-standing and extensive ties to the paramilitary networks that terrorise Colombia’s civilians. Talks between Uribe’s government and the paramilitaries are ongoing with Justice Minister Fernando Londono stating that both sides “are working very sincerely”. A regional commander of the AUC declared, “Uribe is like heaven compared to [former Colombian President] Pastrana”.23 Gordon Sumner, former President Reagan’s special envoy to Latin America outlined the best way to publicly incorporate the paramilitaries within the Colombian states counterinsurgency war: “First, have them answer the law, cut out the drugs, and embrace human rights” then try to “bring them under the tent, to fight against the guerrillas, who are the biggest threat”. He went on to note that in Colombia the “battle is never too crowded with friends”.24  Colin Powell has broadly supported Uribe’s policies and argued that the US is “firmly committed to President Uribe and his new national security strategy,” with the Bush administration working  “with our Congress to provide additional funding for Colombia”.25


US support for Uribe takes place amidst terrible state terrorism. In 2002 over 8000 political assassinations were committed in Colombia with 80 percent of these murders committed by paramilitary groups; three out of four trade union activists murdered worldwide are killed by the Colombian paramilitaries whilst 2.7 million people have been forcibly displaced from their homes. According to the UN, lecturers and teachers are “among the workers most often affected by killings, threats and violence-related displacement.”26 Paramilitary groups also regularly target human rights activists, indigenous leaders, and community activists.27 This repression serves to criminalize any form of civil society resistance to US-led neo-liberal restructuring of Colombia’s economy and stifle political and economic challenges to the Colombian status quo with Castano arguing that his paramilitaries “have always proclaimed that we are the defenders of business freedom and of the national and international industrial sectors”.28 Amidst this repression over half of Colombia’s population live in poverty according to the World Bank, with those most vulnerable being “children of all ages”.29


We see then a very clear continuity of US objectives in Latin America. These continuities continue to be the commitment to destroy social forces that might threaten US-led neo-liberalism. ‘Stability’ is the euphemism employed by US planners to describe the preservation of social orders that reproduce themselves through the containment of the poor majorities of Latin America. If a serious challenge occurs that threatens to change the structural configuration of power in favour of the poor majority of a society, then the US intervenes to ‘stabilise’ the situation. It’s preferred method is the use of powerful financial institutions such as the IMF and World Bank that ‘lock down’ governments policies to neo-liberal agendas. If however these do not work then the US falls back on the tried and trusted formulas of counterinsurgency or coups. Regardless of the tactical considerations involved however the ultimate objective remains the preservation of ‘stability’ that keeps the cash flowing north.



1 Ronald Reagan. Radio Address to the Nation on Central America. March 24, 1984. <http://www.reagan.utexas.edu/resource/speeches/1984/32484a.htm>
2 David F. Schmitz, Thank God They’re On Our Side: The United States & Right-Wing Dictatorships, 1921-1965 (London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1999).
3 For the classic conservative articulation of this perspective, see Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, Dictatorships and Double Standards: Rationalism and Reason in Politics (New York: American Enterprise Institute, 1982); See also Alexander M. Haig. Jr, Caveat: Realism, Reagan and Foreign Policy (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1984).
4 Eishenhower and Dulles quotes taken from William Blum, Killing Hope: US Military and CIA Intervention Since World War II, (Maine: Common Courage Press, 1986), p.73.
5 Manu Saxena, United Fruit & the CIA, March 17, 1999. <http://eatthestate.org/03-26/UnitedFruitCIA.htm>
6 Burrows quote taken from James F. Siekmeier, ‘”The Most Generous Assistance” U.S. Economic Aid to Guatemala and Bolivia , 1944-1959′, in Journal of American and Canadian Studies, 11, 1994, pp. 26.
7 The Commission for Historical Clarification, Guatemala: Memory of Silence http://shr.aaas.org/guatemala/ceh/report/english/default.html.
8 Nixon quote taken from White House, National Security Meeting on Chile Memorandum of Conversation, November 6, 1970. <http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB8/nsaebb8.htm>
9 Carla Anne Robins, The Cuban Threat (Philadelphia: ISHI publications, 1985), p. 17.
10Carla Anne Robins, ‘Examining the “Cuban Threat”‘, in Abraham F. Loenthal and Samuel F. Wells, Jr. (eds.) The Central American Crisis: Policy Perspectives (Washington: The Wilson Center, 1985), p. 110. 
11 Robert Armstrong, Marc Edelman and Robert Matthews. Sandinista Foreign Policy: Strategies for Survival. NACLA Report on the Americas. May/June 1985, p. 36.
12 Robert Armstrong, Marc Edelman and Robert Matthews. Sandinista Foreign Policy: Strategies for Survival. NACLA Report on the Americas. May/June 1985.
13 Report prepared by Carl. G. Jacobsen for the US Department of State. The Jacobsen Report: Soviet Attitudes Towards, Aid To, And Contact With Central American Revolutionaries. June 1984., p. 21.
14 John Lamperti, What Are We Afraid Of? An Assessment of the ‘Communist Threat’ in Central America  (Boston: South End Press, 1988), p. 54.
15 Thomas W. Walker, Nicaragua: The First Five Years (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1985), pp. 14-16.
16 Americas Watch. Report on Human Rights in Nicaragua. July 1985, p 3.
17 Peter Pace, Advance Questions for Lieutenant General Peter Pace. Defense Reforms. United States Senate Committee on Armed Services. 2000. <http://www.senate.gov/~armed_services/statemnt/2000/000906pp.pdf>
18 Greg Palast, ‘OPEC Chief Warned Chavez About Coup,’ The Guardian, May 13, 2002.
19 Duncan Campbell, ‘American navy helped Venezuelan coup,’ The Guardian, April 29, 2002.
20 Thomas C, Dawson, Transcript of a Press Briefing, International Monetary Fund
Friday, April 12, 2002, <http://www.imf.org-external-np-tr-2002-tr020412.htm>
21 Terry Jones, ‘If You Want A Free Vote, Ask Nicely’. The Observer, April 21, 2002.
22 Quote taken from Greg Palast, ‘A Tale of Two Coups,’ New Internationalist, June 29, 2002.
23 Quotes taken from Steve Salisbury, ‘Colombia War Takes Right Turn’, in  Washington Times,  28 Jan 2003
24 Gordon Sumner quote from Steve Salisbury, ‘Colombia War Takes Right Turn’, in  Washington Times,  28 Jan 2003.
25 Powell quote taken from Steven R. Weisman, ‘Powell Says US Will Increase Military Aid For Colombia’, in The New York Times, 05 Dec 2002
26 UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. Report 2000, February 8, 2001.
27 State Department. Human Rights Report 2000. Colombia, February 26, 2001.
28 CNN.com. 6 September 2000. <http://www.cnn.com/2000/WORLD/americas/09/06/colombia.paramilitary.reut/>
29 Christopher Neal, Sustained Growth and Improved Social Safety Nets to Fight Poverty, Says World Bank (Bogata: The World bank Group, 2002). <http://lnweb18.worldbank.org/external/lac/lac.nsf/Countries/Colombia/CC081B1813AF278985256BA300824DE6?OpenDocument>

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