The United States has intervened hundreds of times in the affairs of Latin American countries—from spying and proxy wars to major military invasions. Here are the top 8.
In light of the current political crisis in Venezuela, a United States-supported opposition figure has announced a disputed presidency.
It follows an attempted coup by national guard members after the country’s Supreme Court rejected a declaration by an opposition-controlled legislature that Nicolas Maduro’s presidency was illegitimate.
US support for the opposition is not new.
In 2017, then CIA director Mike Pompeo commented that he was “hopeful that there can be a transition in Venezuela and we the CIA is doing its best to understand the dynamic there”.
Against a backdrop of US interventions, forced regime change and military coups in Latin America, the CIA director’s words reflect an established approach for the United States in dealing with its southern neighbours, often away from the public eye and motivated by big business, economic interest and ideology.
Here are eight of the most notorious cases of US interference in Latin America.
The United Fruit Company (UFCO) was a highly successful American company that made major profits from bananas grown in Latin America and sold in the United States and Europe. Under Guatemalan dictator Jorge Ubico, the UFCO controlled 42 percent of Guatemala’s land and was exempt from tax and import duties. The company owned all of Guatemala's banana production, monopolised banana exports, and also owned the country's telephone and telegraph system, as well as almost all of its railroad track - while brutally repressing farm owners.
In 1944, the right-wing dictator Ubico was removed following the Guatemalan Revolution, as the country saw its first democratic election in history. In 1951, after another election, Colonel Jacobo Arbez became president and extended political freedoms to all, allowing communists to enter politics.
The United States was alarmed by the alleged spread of communism, and further by President Arbenz’s proposed ‘Decree 900’, which would allow the redistribution of undeveloped lands held by large property owners to landless farmers, making up 90 percent of the population. Arbenz believed this was critical because at the time only two percent of landowners owned 70 percent of the land, while farmers worked in a form of debt slavery.
The United Fruit Company took an extreme position towards these reforms, and made use of its strong ties to the Eisenhower administration to launch a massive anti-communist propaganda campaign against Guatemala.
Following extensive lobbying, President Eisenhower chose to make use of the CIA to remove President Arbenz, in what came to be known as operation PBSUCCESS.
The CIA would go on to orchestrate a coup against the sitting president, building, arming and training an opposition force to overthrow him.
Arbenz was overthrown, and Guatemala was ruled by a military dictatorship for 40 years. During that time, nearly 250,000 Guatemalans were killed or ‘disappeared’.
2. Chile’s brutal Pinochet regime
After the democratic election of President Salvador Allende, who had ties to the Cuban Castro government, in 1970, US President Richard Nixon ordered an economic war against Chile. This would be followed by a CIA-instigated coup against Allende in 1973 by General Augusto Pinochet.
Following the coup, Pinochet’s regime would become one of the most oppressive and brutal military regimes of the 20th Century.
The US supported Pinochet’s military dictatorship for decades. Pinochet banned political parties, dissolved congress and scrapped the constitution. He also censored the press, banned unions, permitted torture and repression, and according to one government report, killed nearly 28,000 people during his rule.
3. Invasion of Grenada
Grenada is a small Caribbean island 150 km north of Venezuela. In 1979, a revolution led by Maurice Bishop succeeded with Cuban support. One of his projects was the construction of a large airstrip, which US President Reagan claimed was designed for Soviet aircraft.
During an internal power struggle, while 800 US medical students were on the island, Reagan used the unrest as justification for ordering an invasion. On October 25, 1983, 10,000 US, Jamaican and Caribbean troops invaded the island, in a move that killed over 100 civilians and was condemned internationally by the UN General Assembly.
Before Panama sought independence from Greater Colombia, the Colombian government was negotiating with the US to build a canal between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. With the failure of negotiations, the US supported a separatist movement in Panama.
Once the country gained independence, French businessman Phillip Burnau-Varilla sold his rights to building the Panama Canal to the US government. As a result, the US demanded full control of the canal and a 9.7 km zone around it.
In the 1970s, the CIA would go on to recruit General Manuel Noriega, who had previously run the country’s secret police until his president’s sudden death in a plane crash. He went on to help Colombian drug trafficker Pablo Escobar smuggle cocaine, as well as helping the US smuggle weapons to Nicaraguan Contra death squads in what would later come to be known as the Iran-Contra affair.
It was only when Noriega outlived his usefulness that he would be overthrown by the US in 1990, and arrested for corruption, racketeering and drug smuggling.
The US occupied Nicaragua in 1912, going on to acquire rights to build a supposed ‘Nicaragua Canal’ from the US-backed Chamorro family. General Augusto Sandino led a rebellion against the conservative government and US occupation. Sandino was later assassinated and followed by the US-backed Somoza dictatorship.
Not long after, the Sandinista revolution overthrew the US-backed Somoza dictatorship and faced off against the US-sponsored Contra guerrilla rebels. This would later be publicised as the Iran-Contra affair.
In a black book operation during the Reagan administration in 1985, the US sold 1,500 missiles to Iran in exchange for seven American hostages. Much of the $30 million paid by Iran for the weapons went to fund the Contras.
In 1976, Argentina’s democratically elected President Isabel Peron was overthrown in a military coup d’etat that lead to the deaths of nearly 30,000. The coup was supported and endorsed by the United States government, with US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger going to visit the newly-installed dictatorship several times.
The US-endorsed dictatorship committed grievous human rights violations while in power. Crimes included mass execution, extrajudicial arrest, torture and rape, as well as the relocation of children born of pregnant detainees (before imprisonment, after continuous rape). Spanish judge Baltazar Garzon would later rule that Kissinger was a witness to such crimes.
In 1964, President John F. Kennedy backed a coup d’etat against Brazilian President Joao Goulart, “to prevent Brazil from becoming another Cuba”. Brazil’s return to democracy would see several right-wing hardliner governments come to power, resulting in deep inequality and extreme poverty for the country that continues to affect it to the present day.
In exchange for Cuba’s independence, the US forced the newly-independent nation to include the Platt Amendment in its new constitution. The Platt Amendment prevented Cuba from leasing land to any country but the US, allowed for US intervention in Cuban affairs, and forbade it from negotiating any treaties with anyone but the US.
The Platt Amendment would also set the basis for leasing Guantanamo Bay to the US, allowing them to carry out extrajudicial torture on foreign soil.
In 1959, Fidel Castro overthrew the US-backed military Batista government in power, causing alarm in the US over his explicit communist agenda and links to the Soviet Union.
The Batista government opened Havana to US investment and tax refuge, exploitative tourism, organised crime syndicates and drugs, and announced that it would match, dollar for dollar, any investment over $1 million USD.
President Eisenhower would oversee plans to overthrow Castro with the same model used in Guatemala, eventually implemented by President Kennedy. In 1961, CIA-trained anti-Castro exiles landed in the Bay of Pigs, supported by US strikes on Cuban airfields.
Castro’s communist government was well equipped with Soviet weapons, and defeated the invasion, which would lead to the notorious Cuban Missile Crisis stand-off the following year as the world came dangerously close to outright nuclear war.