U.S. Policy in Latin America

The history of U.S. relations with Latin America is a story of imperialism, exploitation, and crimes against humanity. Eduardo Galeano’s book, “Open Veins of Latin American,” is an excellent introduction to this history. Greg Grandin’s 2006 book, “Empire’s Workshop,” and Naomi Klein’s more-recent book, “The Shock Doctrine,” cover issues of modern economic and military imperialism in the region. From the Monroe Doctrine to the School of the Americas, the tax dollars of U.S. citizens have been used to sell arms to cruel militias, install and uphold brutal dictators, train anti-communist insurgencies in torture methods, implement trade policies that increase extreme poverty and inequality, and undermine democratic movements. But there are hopeful signs on the horizon.

In recent years, many Latin American nations are declaring their independence from U.S. intervention. They are freeing themselves of debt that make them beholden to U.S. corporate interests, and they are beginning a trend toward regional unification. This resistance is a major challenge to U.S. authority in the region–leading the Council on Foreign Relations to pronounce the Monroe Doctrine “obsolete.”

I have put together some notable points from various source below, including information about President Obama’s track record in Latin America.

Latin America’s Left Turn, Jorge G. Castaneda, Foreign Affairs, May/June 2006:

“Although the region has just enjoyed its best two years of economic growth in a long time and real threats to democratic rule are few and far between, the landscape today is transformed. Latin America is swerving left, and distinct backlashes are under way against the predominant trends of the last 15 years: free-market reforms, agreement with the United States on a number of issues, and the consolidation of representative democracy…

“Starting with Hugo Chávez’s victory in Venezuela eight years ago and poised to culminate in the possible election of Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico’s July 2 presidential contest, a wave of leaders, parties, and movements generically labeled “leftist” have swept into power in one Latin American country after another. After Chávez, it was Lula and the Workers’ Party in Brazil, then Néstor Kirchner in Argentina and Tabaré Vázquez in Uruguay, and then, earlier this year, Evo Morales in Bolivia. If the long shot Ollanta Humala wins the April presidential election in Peru and López Obrador wins in Mexico, it will seem as if a veritable left-wing tsunami has hit the region. Colombia and Central America are the only exceptions, but even in Nicaragua, the possibility of a win by Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega cannot be dismissed.”

Reasons for Latin America’s turn to the left

  1. “The fall of the Soviet Union would help the Latin American left by removing its geopolitical stigma. Washington would no longer be able to accuse any left-of-center regime in the region of being a “Soviet beachhead” (as it had every such government since it fomented the overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz’s administration in Guatemala in 1954); left-wing governments would no longer have to choose between the United States and the Soviet Union, because the latter had simply disappeared.”
  2. “Latin America’s extreme inequality (Latin America is the world’s most unequal region), poverty, and concentration of wealth, income, power, and opportunity meant that it would have to be governed from the left of center. The combination of inequality and democracy tends to cause a movement to the left everywhere. This was true in western Europe from the end of the nineteenth century until after World War II; it is true today in Latin America. The impoverished masses vote for the type of policies that, they hope, will make them less poor.”
  3. “The advent of widespread democratization and the consolidation of democratic elections as the only road to power would, sooner or later, lead to victories for the left — precisely because of the social, demographic, and ethnic configuration of the region. In other words, even without the other proximate causes, Latin America would almost certainly have tilted left.”


Last year, the President of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, delivered on his campaign promise to refuse renewal of Washington’s decade-old, rent-free lease on an air base outside the Pacific’s main South American outpost. Ecudor’s new constitution calls for “universal disarmament” and opposes the “imposition” of military bases of “some states in the territory of others.” President Correa joked that, “We’ll renew the lease if the U.S. let’s us set up a base in Miami.” (Source: The Nation, 2/8/2010, Greg Grandin, Muscling Latin America).


Greg Grandin of The Nation reports: “Last year in Peru, massive indigenous protests forced the repeal of laws aimed at opening large swaths of the Amazon to foreign timber, mining, and oil corporations, and throughout the region similar activism continues to place Latin America in the vanguard of the anti-corporate and anti-militarist global democracy movement.” (Source: The Nation, 2/8/2010, Greg Grandin, Muscling Latin America).


Washington backed a military coup against democratically elected Hugo Chavez in 2002. The vast oil resources of Venezuela coupled with Chavez’s independence has made him a foe of American power since his election in 1998. Although Chavez have undoubtedly been authoritarian (perhaps even corrupt) in many regards, he is also doing many things to help the people of Venezuela. In his 2006 Foreign Affairs article on Chavez, Michael Shifter outlines some of Chavez’s accomplishments:

“Chávez’s government has undertaken important social programs and launched workers’ cooperatives in urban slums. Plans are under way to set up ‘social production companies’ that would extend the state sector and seek to distribute earnings among workers and community projects. Venezuela’s oil wealth has made massive expenditures possible — an estimated $20 billion in the past three years alone on programs to provide food, education, and medical care to underserved populations — which have undeniably had some effect.”

“[Chavez] is bravely fighting for Latin American solidarity and standing up to the overbearing United States. With charisma and oil dollars, he is seizing an opportunity to correct the power and wealth imbalances that have long defined Venezuelan and hemispheric affairs.”

View declassified documents on the attempted 2002 coup against Chavez.


Columbia remains the most repressive Latin American nation, and Washington’s closest regional partner. More than 500 trade-unionists have been executed since Uribe took office, and in recent years 195 teachers have been assassinated. The military has been accused of  killing more than 2,000 civilians and dressing their bodies in guerrilla uniforms. Currently, the U.S. is expanding its bases in Columbia, including seven more in the works.

“The militarisation of Latin America has provoked a swell of protest. Almost all the governments of South America have spoken out against the Colombian bases deal. In Colombia, a wide coalition of grass-roots movements, including the country’s largest trade union federations, is braving paramilitary repression to speak out against the bases – which, they say, not only violate the country’s sovereignty but will exacerbate the country’s human rights crisis.” (Source)

Paraguay and Honduras

“In Paraguay, the Pentagon spent millions of dollars building a base with a state-of-the-art radar system, which opened in 2006. But to the consternation of US military planners, a progressive priest, Fernando Lugo, has won the presidency, so it looks as if the construction was a wasted investment.”

“Apart from the large numbers of US troops sited in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, the most important US base in the region is in Honduras, where 500 troops of Joint Task Force Bravo are stationed. One reason why Pentagon hardliners have been sympathetic to the recent coup in Honduras is because the ousted president, Manuel Zelaya, planned to start commercial flights from the base, compromising the security and secrecy of US operations on that vital installation.” (Source)

Puerto Rico

“Latin America’s new anti-base movement has an inspiring example in Puerto Rico. There tens of thousands of people protested and took part in civil disobedience campaigns against the US Navy, which for decades carried out bombing exercises on the small island of Vieques. The test bombs contained depleted uranium and carcinogenic chemicals such as triocyl phosphate. In 2003, the US Navy finally left Vieques and the Pentagon closed all but one of its military bases in Puerto Rico.” (Source)


“The 2004 documentary called The Take is about Argentina’s movement of worker-run businesses. In the wake of the country’s dramatic economic collapse in 2001, thousands of workers walked into their shuttered factories and put them back into production as worker cooperatives. Abandoned by bosses and politicians, they regained unpaid wages and severance while re-claiming their jobs in the process.” (source)

School of the Americas

“Latin American elites once gave US Green Berets free rein in their mountains and rainforests and schooled their own officers in US academies, where they learnt the latest counter-insurgency and torture techniques to be used against ‘subversives’. But today the ‘pink tide’ governments are pulling their officers out of US training schools. Argentina, Venezuela, Bolivia and Uruguay have now withdrawn from the School of Americas, the notorious institution that boasts 11 Latin American dictators among its graduates. Ecuador and Nicaragua are likely to withdraw their soldiers and Costa Rica, which has no army, has pulled out its police cadets. The School of Americas used to be based in the Panama Canal Zone, but has now moved to Fort Benning, Georgia and has a new anodyne name: the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.” (Source)

Old Imperialism vs. New Imperialism

Debt has been used by advanced nations to control that South. At one point, the Haitian government was spending 80% of its national budget on debt repayments. Last year, much of Haiti’s debt was forgiven, but some $1 billion remains. Right now it needs aid in the form of grants, not loans. Its loan holders–the World Bank, the IMF, the Inter-American Development Bank, Venezuela, and Taiwan–should forgive its debt. A group of intellectuals and politicians has called on France to repay 17 billion euros  “extorted” from Haiti in the 19th Century (source).

The Obama Administration

Greg Grandin of The Nation: “Barack Obama’s administration [is] disappointing potential regional allies but continuing to promote a volatile mix of militarism and free-trade orthodoxy in a corridor running from Mexico to Columbia…The White House could have restored democracy to Honduras, [but] instead capitulated to Senate Republicans and endorsed the murderous regime [the military coup that ousted the democratically elected regime]…Shortly after taking office, Obama abandoned hist pledge to renegotiate NAFTA. ”


Although Latin America is still controlled by neocolonial actors in the U.S. (i.e., multinational corporations, the U.S. military, etc.), there are promises signs that the region is working toward greater self-determination and independence. It is worth taking lessons from some of these movements.

A Brief History of U.S. Intervention in Latin American and the Carribean Since 1890 (source)

•Nearly all interventions defended or installed pro-U.S. dictators. • •Ideological agenda (defending capitalism) (Vietnam, Central America) • •Economic agenda (defending oil or investments)  (Chile)

•A few  interventions toppled dictatorships that had been backed by U.S. Intervened to prevent the people from overthrowing their own dictator first, and installing their own democratic government (Panama).

•Reinstalled democratically elected leader to office, but undercut his power and later encouraged his ouster  (Haiti)

  1. ARGENTINA  1890  T  Buenos Aires interests protected.
  2. CHILE  1891  T  Marines clash with nationalist rebels.
  3. HAITI  1891  T  Black revolt on Navassa defeated.
  4. NICARAGUA  1894  T  Month-long occupation of Bluefields.
  5. PANAMA  1895  T, N  Marines land in Colombian province.
  6. NICARAGUA  1896  T  Marines land in port of Corinto
  7. CUBA  1898-1902 (-?)  T, N  Seized from Spain, still hold Navy base.
  8. PUERTO RICO  1898 (-?)  T, N   Seized from Spain, occupation continues.
  9. NICARAGUA  1898  T   Marines land at port of San Juan del Sur.
  10. NICARAGUA  1899  T   Marines land at port of Bluefields.
  11. PANAMA  1901-14  T, N  Broke off from Colombia 1903, annexed Canal Zone 1914.
  12. HONDURAS  1903  T  Marines intervene in revolution.
  13. DOMINICAN REP.  1903-04  T  U.S. interests protected in Revolution.
  14. CUBA  1906-09  T  Marines land in democratic election.
  15. NICARAGUA  1907  T  “Dollar Diplomacy” protectorate set up.
  16. HONDURAS  1907  T  Marines land during war with Nicaragua
  17. PANAMA  1908  T  Marines intervene in election contest.
  18. NICARAGUA  1910  T  Marines land in Bluefields and Corinto.
  19. HONDURAS  1911  T  U.S. interests protected in civil war.
  20. CUBA  1912  T  U.S. interests protected in civil war.
  21. PANAMA  1912  T  Marines land during heated election.
  22. HONDURAS  1912  T  Marines protect U.S. economic interests.
  23. NICARAGUA  1912-33  T, B  10-year occupation, fought guerillas
  24. MEXICO  1913  N  Americans evacuated during revolution.
  25. DOMINICAN REP.  1914  N  Fight with rebels over Santo Domingo.
  26. MEXICO  1914-18  T, N  Series of interventions against nationalists.
  27. HAITI  1914-34  T, B  19-year occupation after revolts.
  28. DOMINICAN REP.  1916-24  T  8-year Marine occupation.
  29. CUBA  1917-33  T  Military occupation, economic protectorate
  30. PANAMA  1918-20  T  “Police duty” during unrest after elections.
  31. HONDURAS  1919  T  Marines land during election campaign.
  32. GUATEMALA  1920  T  2-week intervention against unionists.
  33. HONDURAS  1924-25  T  Landed twice during election strife.
  34. EL SALVADOR  1932  N  Warships send during Farabundo Marti revolt.
  35. PANAMA  1925  T  Marines suppress general strike.
  36. URUGUAY  1947  NT  Bombers deployed as show of strength.
  37. PUERTO RICO  1950  CO  Independence rebellion crushed in Ponce.
  38. GUATEMALA  1954  B, CO  CIA directs exile invasion after new gov’t nationalized U.S. company lands; bombers based in Nicaragua.
  39. PANAMA  1958  T  Flag protests erupt into confrontation.
  40. CUBA  l961  CO  CIA-directed exile invasion fails.
  41. CUBA  l962  N, NT  Blockade during missile crisis; near-war with USSR.
  42. PANAMA  l964  T  Panamanians shot for urging canal’s return.
  43. DOMINICAN REP.  1965-66  T, B  Marines land during election campaign.
  44. GUATEMALA  l966-67  CO  Green Berets intervene against rebels.
  45. CHILE  1973  CO  CIA-backed coup ousts elected marxist president.
  46. EL SALVADOR  l981-92  T, CO   Advisors, overflights aid anti-rebel war, soldiers briefly involved in1992  hostage clash.
  47. NICARAGUA  l981-90  N, CO  CIA directs exile (Contra) invasions, plants harbor mines vs Sandinista revolution.
  48. GRENADA  l983-84  T, B  Invasion four years after revolution ousts regime.
  49. HONDURAS  l983-89  T  Maneuvers help build bases near borders.
  50. BOLIVIA  1986  T  Army assists raids on cocaine region.
  51. VIRGIN ISLANDS  1989  T  St. Croix Black unrest after storm.
  52. PANAMA  1989 (-?)  T, B  Nationalist government ousted by 27,000 soldiers, leaders arrested, 2000+ civilians killed.
  53. HAITI  1994  T, N  Troops restore Aristide to office 3 years after coup.
  54. COLOMBIA  2003-?  T  US special forces sent to rebel zone to back up Colombian military protecting oil pipeline.
  55. HAITI  2004-05  T, N    Marines land after rebels oust elected Pres. Aristide.

Further Study: