How Latin America Saved the United States from Itself

excerpted from the book

Empire's Workshop

Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism

by Greg Grandin

Metropolitan/Owl, 2006, paper

Naomi Klein

"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 America."

Richard Nixon
"People don't give one shit" about the place [Latin America]

... 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 9/11.

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 into Iran-Contra.

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 arena.

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 and dependence."

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 point.

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 revolution.

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.

Empire's Workshop

Home Page