How Latin America Saved the United
States from Itself
excerpted from the book
Latin America, the United States,
and the Rise of the New Imperialism
by Greg Grandin
Metropolitan/Owl, 2006, paper
"The Americans who engineered countless
military coups, death squads and massacres in Latin America never
paid for their crimes - instead they got promoted and they're
now running the 'War on Terror.'"
Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
I kept my workshop of filthy creation
... The dissecting room and the slaughterhouse furnished many
of my materials; and often did my human nature turn with loathing
from my occupation, whilst, still urged on by an eagerness which
perpetually increased, I brought my work near to a conclusion.
advised a young Donald Rumsfeld
"Latin America doesn't matter.
Long as we've been in it, people don't give one damn about Latin
"People don't give one shit" about the place [Latin
... by 1930, Washington had sent gunboats into Latin American
ports over six thousand times, invaded Cuba, Mexico (again), Guatemala,
and Honduras, fought protracted guerrilla wars in the Dominican
Republic, Nicaragua, and Haiti, annexed Puerto Rico, and taken
a piece of Colombia to create both the Panamanian nation and the
Panama Canal. For their part, American corporations and financial
houses came to dominate the economies of Mexico, the Caribbean,
and Central America, as well as large parts of South America,
apprenticing themselves in overseas expansion before they headed
elsewhere, to Asia, Africa, and Europe.
After World War II, in the name of containing Communism, the United
States, mostly through the actions of local allies, executed or
encouraged coups in, among other places, Guatemala, Brazil, Chile,
Uruguay, Argentina and patronized a brutal mercenary war in Nicaragua.
Latin America became a laboratory for
counterinsurgency, as military officials and covert operators
applied insights learned in the region to Southeast Asia, Africa,
and the Middle East. By the end of the Cold War, Latin American
security forces trained, funded, equipped, and incited by Washington
had executed a reign of bloody terror-hundreds of thousands killed,
an equal number tortured, millions driven into exile-from which
the region has yet to fully recover.
This reign of terror has had consequences
more far-reaching than the damage done to Latin America itself,
for it was this rehabilitation of hard power that directly influenced
America's latest episode of imperial overreach in the wake of
It is often noted in passing that a number
of the current administration's officials, advisers, and hangers-on
are veterans of Ronald Reagan's Central American policy in the
1980s, which included the patronage of anti-Communist governments
in El Salvador and Guatemala and anti-Communist insurgents in
Nicaragua. The list includes Elliott Abrams, Bush's current deputy
national security adviser in charge of promoting democracy throughout
the world; John Negroponte, former U.N. ambassador, envoy to Iraq,
and now intelligence czar; Otto Reich, secretary of state for
the Western Hemisphere during Bush's first term; and Robert Kagan,
an ardent advocate of U.S. global hegemony. John Poindexter, convicted
of lying to Congress, conspiracy, and destroying evidence in the
IranContra scandal during his tenure as Reagan national security
adviser, was appointed by Rumsfeld to oversee the Pentagon stillborn
Total Information Awareness program. John Bolton, ambassador to
the United Nations and an arch-unilateralist, served as Reagan
point man in the Justice Department to stonewall investigations
Yet the links between the current Bush
administration's revolution in foreign policy and Reagan's hard
line in Central America are even more profound than the simple
recycling of personnel. It was Central America, and Latin America
more broadly, where an insurgent New Right first coalesced, as
conservative activists used the region to respond to the crisis
of the 1970s, a crisis provoked not only by America's defeat in
Vietnam but by a deep economic recession and a culture of skeptical
antimilitarism and political dissent that spread in the wars wake.
Indeed, Reagan's Central American wars can best be understood
as a dress rehearsal for what is going on now in the Middle East.
It was in these wars where the coalition made up of neoconservatives,
Christian evangelicals, free marketers, and nationalists that
today stands behind George W. Bush's expansive foreign policy
first came together. There they had near free rein to bring the
full power of the United States against a much weaker enemy in
order to exorcise the ghost of Vietnam-and, in so doing, begin
the transformation of America's foreign policy and domestic culture.
A critical element of that transformation
entailed shifting the rationale of American diplomacy away from
containment to rollback, from one primarily justified in terms
of national defense to one charged with advancing what Bush likes
to call a "global democratic revolution." The domestic
fight over how to respond to revolutionary nationalism in Central
America allowed conservative ideologues to remoralize both American
diplomacy and capitalism, to counteract the cynicism that had
seeped into both popular culture and the political establishment
regarding the deployment of U.S. power in the world. Thus they
pushed the Republican Party away from its foreign policy pragmatism
to the idealism that now defines the "war on terror"
as a world crusade of free-market nation building.
At the same time, the conflicts in Nicaragua,
El Salvador, and Guatemala allowed New Right militarists to find
ways to bypass the restrictions enacted by Congress and the courts
in the wake of Vietnam that limited the executive branch's ability
to fight wars, conduct covert operations, and carry out domestic
surveillance of political activists. The Reagan White House perfected
new techniques to manipulate the media, Congress, and public opinion
while at the same time reempowering domestic law enforcement agencies
to monitor and harass political dissidents. These techniques as
we shall see,)refigured initiatives now found in the PR campaign
to build support for the war in Iraq and in the Patriot Act, reinvigorating
the national security state in ways that resonate to this day.
The Central American wars also provided the New Christian Right
its first extensive experience in foreign affairs, as the White
House mobilized evangelical activists in order to neutralize domestic
opponents of a belligerent foreign policy. It was here where New
Right Christian theologians first joined with secular nationalists
to elaborate an ethical justification for a rejuvenated militarism.
In other words, it was in Central America
where the Republican Party first combined the three elements that
give today's imperialism its moral force: punitive idealism, free-market
absolutism, and right-wing Christian mobilization. The first justified
a belligerent diplomacy not just for the sake of national security
but to advance "freedom." The second sanctified property
rights and the unencumbered free market as the moral core of the
freedom it was America's duty to export. The third backed up these
ideals with social power, as the Republican Party learned how
to channel the passions of its evangelical base into the international
Reverend Josiah Strong in his 1885 book 'Our Country'
[The] "world is to be Christianized
and civilized, and what is the process of civilizing but the creation
of more and higher wants. Commerce follows the missionary."
By the mid-nineteenth century, the United States had ... sent
warships into Latin American ports a staggering 5,980 times between
1869 and 1897 to protect American commercial interests and, increasingly,
to flex its muscles to Europe. In 1893, the United States quietly
backed both a revolution in Hawaii instigated by American sugar
barons that eventually led to the annexation of those islands
and, with more bluster, a counterrevolution in Brazil, when, at
the behest of Standard Oil's William Rockefeller, Washington sent
man-o'-wars steaming into Rio de Janeiro's harbor to defeat rebels
believed to be hostile to U.S. economic interests. In 1898, the
United States took Puerto Rico and the Philippines as colonies
and Cuba as a protectorate and established a series of coaling
stations and naval bases throughout the Caribbean. In 1903, Theodore
Roosevelt teamed up with J. P. Morgan to shave the province of
Panama off Colombia, turning the new nation into an important
global transit route and, as the eventual home of Southcom headquarters,
the forecastle of America's hemispheric might.
Over the course of the next thirty years,
U.S. troops invaded Caribbean countries at least thirty-four times,
occupied Honduras, Mexico, Guatemala, and Costa Rica for short
periods, and remained in Haiti, Cuba, Nicaragua, Panama, and the
Dominican Republic for longer stays.
General William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam
Orientals don't value life."
In 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt, shortly after his inauguration
under what became known as the Good Neighbor policy, withdrew
occupation forces from the Caribbean, abandoned a series of treaties
that gave the United States special privileges in a number of
Caribbean and Central American countries, and abrogated the Platt
Amendment in Cuba's constitution, which granted Washington the
right to intervene in that islands politics at will. He also agreed
to a precedent-setting policy of absolute nonintervention in Latin
American affairs. Washington even began to tolerate a degree of
economic independence, allowing, for instance, Bolivia and Mexico
to nationalize the holdings of U.S. oil companies. For the first
time ever, the U.S. government could reasonably be expected to
side with Latin American nations in their tax and labor disputes
with North American corporations. Washington backed loans to Latin
America not only for infrastructure development to facilitate
the extraction of raw materials and agricultural exports but for
potentially competitive industrial production. When no private
American steel company would finance the construction of a mill
in Brazil, the State Department persuaded the newly established
Export-Import Bank to do so. The United States even helped Haiti,
as part of its withdrawal plan, to buy back its Banque Nationale,
which during the occupation had been taken over by New York's
National City Bank. "Your Americanism and mine," FDR
said in an address to the PanAmerican Union, "must be a structure
built of confidence, cemented by a sympathy which recognizes only
equality and fraternity."
On the face of it, a radical reversal
of decades of U.S. policy had taken place, one that today would
be the equivalent of George W. Bush's withdrawing troops from
Iraq, repudiating his doctrine of preemptive strikes, signing
the International Criminal Court treaty, normalizing relations
with Syria and Iran, and permitting thirdworld nations to have
greater control over international capital flows.
"If the United States is to maintain its security and its
political and economic hemispheric position," [Nelson] Rockefeller
argued, "it must take economic measures at once to secure
economic prosperity in Central and South America, and to establish
this prosperity in the frame of hemisphere economic cooperation
In turn, this economic expansion into
Latin America-which after the war entailed not just the extraction
of raw materials and the opening of markets for U.S. products
but the setting up of manufacturing in foreign countries for local
consumption-attracted the support of what political scientists
Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers describe as an emerging "power
bloc of capital-intensive industries, investment banks, and internationally-oriented
commercial banks." Firms heavily invested in Latin America,
such as Standard Oil, Chase National Bank, Goldman Sachs, and
Brown Brothers Harriman, gave their support to what would be the
keystones of the New Deal state for the next three decades: "liberalism
at home" and "internationalism" abroad."
After the war, Latin Americans continued to reorient international
law away from power politics toward multilateral collaboration
in pursuit of social welfare and peace. Bringing with them their
long experience of pan-American diplomacy and encouraged by their
experience of wartime alliance with the United States, twenty-one
Latin American representatives-nearly half the total delegates
and the largest single regional caucus-gathered in San Francisco
in 1945 to found the United Nations. The memoirs of a number of
these diplomats convey a hopeful confidence in their ability to
create a new global community of peaceful, stable nations. 55
They pressed the United Nations to confront directly the issue
of colonial racism and to adopt a human rights policy. Chile and
Panama provided draft charters for the Universal Declaration of
Human Rights, while Latin American representatives pushed for
the inclusion of social and economic rights in the declaration-the
right to social security, to work, to an adequate standard of
living, to unionize, to rest and leisure time, to food, clothing,
housing, health care, and education, and to equality for women.
"If political liberalism does not ensure the economic, social,
and cultural rights of its citizens," said the Chilean delegate
Hernán Santa Cruz, capturing the broad vision of economic
democracy that prevailed at the time of the drafting of the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights, "then it cannot achieve an enduring
progress. Yet neither can progress be gained by those who suppress
liberty under the pretext or illusion of satisfying material needs.
Democracy - political as well as social and economic - comprises,
in my mind, an inseparable whole."
In short, the 1930s and 1940s marked a
turn in the fortune of the American empire, when diverse expressions
of what political scientists call "soft power" began
to congeal in a coherent system of extraterritorial administration-largely
thanks to Latin America.
For the United States, Latin America may not have been most politically
important or most economically profitable region... the hemispheric
alliance system provided a working blueprint-a model that U.S.
diplomatic, intellectual, and military leaders followed to extend
channels of authority and corporations used to establish chains
of production, finance, and markets elsewhere, in Western Europe,
East Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. It was a flexible system
of extraterritorial administration, one that allowed the United
States, in the name of fighting Communism and promoting development,
to structure the internal political and economic relations of
allied countries in ways that allowed it to accrue more and more
power and to exercise effective control over the supply of oil,
ore, minerals, and other primary resources-all free from the burden
of formal colonialism.
Starting in 1944, reform swept the continent, revitalizing old
democracies in Chile and Colombia, among other places, and creating
new ones in countries such as Guatemala, Peru, Argentina, and
Venezuela. Within two years, every Latin American country save
Paraguay, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and the Dominican
Republic was operating under constitutional rule. Broad coalitions
ranging from political liberals to Communists toppled dictators
throughout the continent, while new reform governments extended
the franchise, legalized unions, expanded public education, provided
health care, and implemented social security programs."'
The United States at first backed this process of democratization.
But in 1947 Washington began to send signals that its preference
for democrats over autocrats was now contingent on political stability.
61 Support for dictators like the Dominican Republic's Rafael
Trujillo or Nicaragua's Anastasio Somoza (who after the marines
withdrew executed Sandino and seized power) was no longer understood
as the unwanted consequence of the principle of nonintervention.
Rather, as a backstop against subversion, such support was now
understood to be the centerpiece of U.S. policy toward Latin America.
One reason for this turnaround was, of course, the Cold War. Washington
found that it greatly preferred anti-Communist dictatorships to
the possibility that democratic openness might allow the Soviets
to gain a foothold on the continent. Because of a "growing
awareness of Soviet Russia's aggressive policy," wrote the
State Department's Division of the American Republics, the United
States now "swung back toward a policy of general cooperation
[with dictators] that gives only secondary importance to the degree
of democracy manifested by [Latin America's] respective governments."
Another reason was to protect investment, as democracy led to
a wave of strikes calling for more humane standards of living,
better wages, health care, social security, and land and labor
reform. Threatened by escalating labor unrest, U.S. corporations
demanded protection from Washington and stepped up their patronage
of local conservative movements. For their part, Latin America's
landed class, Catholic Church, and military took advantage of
the United States' new Cold War policy to launch a continental
counterrevolution, overturning newly democratic governments and
forcing those constitutional regimes that survived to the right.
By 1952, when Fulgencio Batista took power in a military coup
in Cuba, nearly every democracy that had come into being in the
postwar period was upended.
Moreover, by the early 1950s, Washington
found that it was increasingly difficult merely to support dictators
from the sidelines. The frustration of postwar democracy combined
with increased political repression to radicalize a generation
of young nationalists, who began to identify the United States
not as a model but as an obstacle to reform. In the face of such
growing opposition to its hemispheric authority, the United States
began to take the lead in efforts to "arrest the development
of irresponsibility and extreme nationalism," as Thomas Mann,
Eisenhower's assistant secretary of state for Inter-American affairs,
wrote in 1952.
The CIA was established in 1947-the same year Washington served
notice that its support for Latin American democracy was conditional
on the maintenance of order-and began to develop contacts among
military officers, religious leaders, and politicians it identified
as bulwarks of stability. Yet it was not until 1954 that it would
execute its first full-scale covert operation in Latin America,
overthrowing Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz and installing
a more pliant successor. Arbenz, as CIA analysts and most historians
today admit, was trying to implement a New Deal-style economic
program to modernize and humanize Guatemala's brutal plantation
economy. His only crime was to expropriate, with full compensation,
uncultivated United Fruit Company land and legalize the Communist
Party-both unacceptable acts from Washington's early- 1950s vantage
In addition to destabilizing Guatemala's
economy, isolating the country diplomatically through the OAS,
and training a mercenary force in Honduras, the Guatemalan campaign
gave CIA operatives the chance to try out new psych-war techniques
gleaned from behavioral social sciences. They worked with local
agents to plant stories in the Guatemalan and U.S. press, engineer
death threats, and conduct a bombing campaign-all designed to
generate anxiety and uncertainty. They organized phantom groups,
such as the "Organization of Militant Godless," and
spread rumors that the government was going to ban Holy Week,
exile the archbishop, confiscate bank accounts, expropriate all
private property, and force children into reeducation centers.
Operatives studied pop sociologies and grifter novels and worked
closely with Edward Bernays, a pioneer in public propaganda (and
Sigmund Freud's nephew), to apply disinformation tactics. Borrowing
from Orson Welles' War of the Worlds, they transmitted radio shows
taped in Florida and beamed in from Nicaragua-that made it seem
as if a widespread underground resistance movement were gaining
strength; they even managed to stage on-the-air battles.
In the 1950s, the Cold War was often presented
as a battle of ideas, yet CIA agents on the ground didn't see
it that way. They rejected the advice of their Guatemalan allies
that the campaign include an educational component, instead insisting
on a strategy intended to inspire fear more than virtue. Propaganda
designed to "attack the theoretical foundations of the enemy"
was misplaced, one field operative wrote; psychological efforts
should be directed at the heart, the stomach and the liver (fear)."
"We are not running a popularity contest but an uprising,"
rejoined [CIA} agent to Guatemalan concerns that the campaign
was too negative.
... CIA assets in country(who)bombed roads, bridges, military
installations, and property owned by government supporters. The
agency distributed sabotage manuals that provided illustrated,
step-by-step instructions on how to make pipe bombs, time bombs,
remote fuses, chemical, nitroglycerine, and dynamite bombs, even
explosives hidden in pens, books, and rocks. A how-to guide exhorted
Guatemalans to take up violence in the name of liberty, noting
that "sabotage, like all things in life, is good or bad depending
on whether its objective is good or bad.
Such a "terror program" worked.
Arbenz fell not because psych ops had won the hearts and minds
of the population but because the military refused to defend him,
fearing 'Washington's wrath if it repelled the mercenaries.
In Latin America, Kennedy's vaulting idealism led to the Alliance
for Progress, an ambitious project that wedded the revolutionary
and counterrevolutionary traditions of American diplomacy-as did
Theodore Roosevelt and other missionary presidents of an earlier
era-this time to especially toxic effect. Announcing the program
to a room full of Latin American ambassadors soon after his inauguration,
Kennedy sought to steal Castro's insurgent thunder, committing
Washington to "completing the revolution of the Americas."
He promised billions of dollars in development aid in exchange
for enacting land, tax, judicial, and electoral reform aimed at
breaking up extreme concentrations of economic and political power,
"to build," as the president put it, "a hemisphere
where all men can hope for a suitable standard of living and all
can live out their lives in dignity and in freedom." "Let
us once again transform the American Continent into a vast crucible
of revolutionary ideas and efforts," Kennedy roared, "a
tribute to the power of the creative energies of free men and
women, an example to all the world that liberty and progress walk
hand in hand. Let us once again awaken our American revolution
until it guides the struggles of people everywhere-not with an
imperialism of force or fear but the rule of courage and freedom
and hope for the future of man."
But while Kennedy's revolutionary rhetoric
encouraged those who sought change, his actions empowered those
who opposed it, the most illiberal forces in the hemisphere, men
who despised democrats and political liberals as much as they
hated card-carrying Communists. His administration committed the
United States to strengthening the internal security capabilities
of Latin American nations to protect against subversion, turning
the region into , counterinsurgent laboratory. advisers from the
State and Defense Departments and the worked to reinforce local
intelligence operations, schooling security forces in interrogation
and guerrilla warfare techniques, providing technology and equipment,
and, when necessary, conducting preemptive coups. It was during
this period that national intelligence agencies fortified and,
in some cases, created by the United States-Argentina's Secretaria
de Inteligencia del Estado, Chile's Dirección Nacional
de Inteligencia, Brazil's Sistema Nacional de Informaçoes,
El Salvador's Agencia Nacional de Servicios Especiales-began to
transform themselves into the command centers of the region's
death-squad system, which throughout the 1970s and 1980s executed
hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans and tortured tens of
thousands more, (including those Ford workers mentioned earlier.
Millions were driven into exile. Throughout the worst of the repression,
Washington nominally continued to support Latin America's "democratic
left." But the most passionate defenders of liberalization
and democracy were likely to be found in the ranks of Washington's
opponents-and singled out for execution by Washington's allies.
The Alliance for Progress was based on the supposed appeal the
idea of America held for the world. Kennedy offered money-upward
of ten billion dollars-but little of it was forthcoming, except
the portion that went to build the network of death squad paramilitaries.
JFK believed he could "awaken the American revolution"
in the Americas while at the same time containing its threat by
arming those most opposed to even the mildest goals of such a
It was under [Lyndon] Johnson's watch that the United States began
to shift the balance of its Latin American diplomacy away from
development toward the interests of private capital. Increasingly,
economic reform in Latin America meant not industrialization and
socially responsible investment but lower tariffs on U.S. exports
and lower tax rates on U.S. profits, a policy that would come
to full bloom under Ronald Reagan. It was also under Johnson that
Washington began either to organize or patronize a cycle of coups
starting in Brazil in 1964, continuing through Uruguay, Bolivia,
and Chile, and ending in Argentina in 1976-that completed not
the revolution, as Kennedy promised, but the counterrevolution
of South America, turning the region into a garrison continent.
... corporations, starting in the mid-1960s, despite their nominal
support for a socially responsible capitalism, increasingly opposed
any serious effort by Latin Americans to implement a humane model
of economic development, supporting coups, dictators, and even,
in some cases, death squads, to quell labor unrest.