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The democratically-elected Arbenz government hoped for economic prosperity through economic reform and a highway to the Atlantic.

United States Interventions What For?

By John H. Coatsworth 

Revista Harvard Review of Latin America 

Spring/ Summer 2005

In the slightly less than a hundred years from 1898 to 1994, the U.S. government has intervened successfully to change governments in Latin America a total of at least 41 times. That amounts to once every 28 months for an entire century (see table).

Direct intervention occurred in 17 of the 41 cases. These incidents involved the use of U.S. military forces, intelligence agents or local citizens employed by U.S. government agencies. In another 24 cases, the U.S. government played an indirect role. That is, local actors played the principal roles, but either would not have acted or would not have succeeded without encouragement from the U.S. government.

While direct interventions are easily identified and copiously documented, identifying indirect interventions requires an exercise in historical judgment. The list of 41 includes only cases where, in the author’s judgment, the incumbent government would likely have survived in the absence of U.S. hostility. The list ranges from obvious cases to close calls. An example of an obvious case is the decision, made in the Oval Office in January 1963, to incite the Guatemalan army to overthrow the (dubiously) elected government of Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes in order to prevent an open competitive election that might have been won by left-leaning former President Juan José Arévalo. A less obvious case is that of the Chilean military coup against the government of President Salvador Allende on September 11, 1973. The Allende government had plenty of domestic opponents eager to see it deposed. It is included in this list because U.S. opposition to a coup (rather than encouragement) would most likely have enabled Allende to continue in office until new elections.

The 41 cases do not include incidents in which the United States sought to depose a Latin American government, but failed in the attempt. The most famous such case was the failed Bay of Pigs invasion of April 1961. Allvadorso absent from the list are numerous cases in which the U.S. government acted decisively to forestall a coup d’etat or otherwise protect an incumbent regime from being overthrown.

Overthrowing governments in Latin America has never been exactly routine for the United States. However, the option to depose a sitting government has appeared on the U.S. president’s desk with remarkable frequency over the past century. It is no doubt still there, though the frequency with which the U.S. president has used this option has fallen rapidly since the end of the Cold War.

Though one may quibble about cases, the big debates—both in the public and among historians and social scientists—have centered on motives and causes. In nearly every case, U.S. officials cited U.S. security interests, either as determinative or as a principal motivation. With hindsight, it is now possible to dismiss most these claims as implausible. In many cases, they were understood as necessary for generating public and congressional support, but not taken seriously by the key decision makers. The United States did not face a significant military threat from Latin America at any time in the 20th century. Even in the October 1962 missile crisis, the Pentagon did not believe that the installation of Soviet missiles in Cuba altered the global balance of nuclear terror. It is unlikely that any significant threat would have materialized if the 41 governments deposed by the United States had remained in office until voted out or overturned without U.S. help.

In both the United States and Latin America, economic interests are often seen as the underlying cause of U.S. interventions. This hypothesis has two variants. One cites corruption and the other blames capitalism. The corruption hypothesis contends that U.S. officials order interventions to protect U.S. corporations. The best evidence for this version comes from the decision to depose the elected government of Guatemala in 1954. Except for President Dwight Eisenhower, every significant decision maker in this case had a family, business or professional tie to the United Fruit Company, whose interests were adversely affected by an agrarian reform and other policies of the incumbent government. Nonetheless, in this as in every other case involving U.S. corporate interests, the U.S. government would probably not have resorted to intervention in the absence of other concerns.

The capitalism hypothesis is a bit more sophisticated. It holds that the United States intervened not to save individual companies but to save the private enterprise system, thus benefiting all U.S. (and Latin American) companies with a stake in the region. This is a more plausible argument, based on repeated declarations by U.S. officials who seldom missed an opportunity to praise free enterprise. However, capitalism was not at risk in the overwhelming majority of U.S. interventions, perhaps even in none of them. So this ideological preference, while real, does not help explain why the United States intervened. U.S. officials have also expressed a preference for democratic regimes, but ordered interventions to overthrow elected governments more often than to restore democracy in Latin America. Thus, this preference also fails to carry much explanatory power.

An economist might approach the thorny question of causality not by asking what consumers or investors say about their preferences, but what their actions can help us to infer about them. An economist’s approach might also help in another way, by distinguishing between supply and demand. A look at the supply side suggests that interventions will occur more often where they do not cost much, either directly in terms of decision makers’ time and resources, or in terms of damage to significant interests. On the demand side, two factors seem to have been crucial in tipping decision makers toward intervention: domestic politics and global strategy.

Domestic politics seems to be a key factor in most of these cases. For example, internal documents show that President Lyndon Johnson ordered U.S. troops to the Dominican Republic in 1965 not because of any plausible threat to the United States, but because he felt threatened by Republicans in Congress. Political competition within the United States accounts for the disposition of many U.S. presidentions

nts to order interventions.

The second key demand-side factor could be called the global strategy effect. The United States in the 20th century defined its strategic interests in global terms. This was particularly true after World War II when the United States moved rapidly to project its power into regions of the earth on the periphery of the Communist states where it had never had a presence before. In the case of Latin America, where the United States faced no foreseeable military threat, policy planners did nonetheless identify potential future threats. This was especially true in the 1960s, after the Cuban Revolution. The United States helped to depose nine of the governments that fell to military rulers in the 1960s, about one every 13 months and more than in any other decade. Curiously, however, we now know that U.S. decision makers were repeatedly assured by experts in the CIA and other intelligence gathering agencies that, in the words of a 1968 National Intelligence Estimate, “In no case do insurgencies pose a serious short run threat…revolution seems unlikely in most Latin American countries within the next few years.” Few challenged the idea that leftist regimes would pose a secutiry threat to the United States. threat…revolution seems unlikely in most Latin American countries

Thus, in a region where intervention was not very costly, and even major failures unlikely to damage U.S. interests, the combination of domestic political competition and potential future threats—even those with a low probability of ever materializing—appear to explain most of the 20th century US interventions.

It is difficult to escape the conclusion that U.S. interventions did not serve U.S. national interests well. They generated needless resentment in the region and called into question the U.S. commitment to democracy and rule of law in international affairs. The downward trend in the past decade and half is a positive development much to be encouraged.

CHRONICLING INTERVENTIONS

U.S. DIRECT INTERVENTIONS 
Military/CIA activity that changed governments

COUNTRY YEAR EVENT SUMMARY
Cuba 1898-1902 Spanish-American War
1906-09 Ousts elected Pres. Palma; occupation regime
1917-23 U.S. reoccupation, gradual withdrawal
Dominican Rep 1916-24 U.S. occupation
1961 Assassination of Pres. Trujillo
1965 U.S. Armed Forces occupy Sto Domingo
Grenada 1983 U.S. Armed Forces occupy island; oust government
Guatemala 1954 C.I.A.-organized armed force ousts Pres. Arbenz
Haiti 1915-34 U.S. occupation
1994 U.S. troops restore constitutional government
Mexico 1914 Veracuz occupied; US allows rebels to buy arms
Nicaragua 1910 Troops to Corinto, Bluefields during revolt
1912-25 U.S. occupation
1926-33 U.S. occupation
1981-90 Contra war; then support for opposition in election
Panama 1903-14 U.S. Troops secure protectorate, canal
1989 U.S. Armed Forces occupy nation

U.S. INDIRECT INTERVENTION
Government/regime changes in which U.S. is decisive

COUNTRY YEAR EVENT SUMMARY
Bolivia 1944 Coup uprising overthrow Pres. Villaroel
1963 Military coup ousts elected Pres. Paz Estenssoro
1971 Military coup ousts Gen. Torres
Brazil 1964 Military coup ousts elected Pres. Goulart
Chile 1973 Coup ousts elected Pres. Allende.
1989-90 Aid to anti-Pinochet opposition
Cuba 1933 U.S. abandons support for Pres. Machado
1934 U.S. sponsors coup by Col. Batista to oust Pres. Grau
Dominican Rep. 1914 U.S. secures ouster of Gen. José Bordas
1963 Coup ousts elected Pres. Bosch
El Salvador 1961 Coup ousts reformist civil-military junta
1979 Coup ousts Gen. Humberto Romero
1980 U.S. creates and aids new Christian Demo junta
Guatemala 1963 U.S. supports coup vs elected Pres. Ydígoras
1982 U.S. supports coup vs Gen. Lucas García
1983 U.S. supports coup vs Gen. Rios Montt
Guyana 1953 CIA aids strikes; Govt. is ousted
Honduras 1963 Military coups ousts elected Pres. Morales
Mexico 1913 U.S. Amb. H. L. Wilson organizes coup v Madero
Nicaragua 1909 Support for rebels vs Zelaya govt
1979 U.S. pressures Pres. Somoza to leave
Panama 1941 U.S supports coup ousting elected Pres. Arias
1949 U.S. supports coup ousting constitutional govt of VP Chanís
1969 U.S. supports coup by Gen. Torrijos
John H. Coatsworth is Monroe Gutman Professor of Latin American Affairs. Coatsworth’s most recent book is “The Cambridge Economic History of Latin America,” a two-volume reference work, edited with Victor Bulmer-Thomas and Roberto Cortes Conde – See more at: http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/157958#sthash.I6nAx9Oq.dpuf

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Want to See How Afghanistan Will Turn Out After the U.S. Withdrawal? Look to Latin America 

HNN   March 31, 2014 

Image via Wiki Commons.

Many who reacted to President Obama’s recent suggestion that he might pull out all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by December have used the U.S. occupations of Germany and Japan after World War II to argue that troops can bring the security and stability needed for long-term nation building.

Although the occupations in Europe and Asia were logical responses to wars against the United States just as the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan followed upon 9/11, the analogy should end there. Successful nation building does not depend mostly on the occupying force but rather on the capacity — more important, the willingness — of the occupied society to carry it out. The Germans and Japanese under occupation had the capacity to rebuild their nations simply because they had already been industrial, centralized nations before the war. They also had the willingness because anti-Nazis in Germany and anti-militarists in Japan, who hated the ideologies behind the aggression of their nation, were now in charge.

A far better analogy for the situation in Afghanistan takes us back a generation further, to the U.S. occupations in Central America and the Caribbean around World War I. Then as now, the United States perceived a security threat — German gunboats, schemes to build another canal in Central America — that compelled them to occupy small, poor, agricultural nations.

Like Afghanistan, those places strained the definition of “nation.” Nicaragua (occupied 1912-1933), Haiti (1915-1934), and the Dominican Republic (1916-1924) were all afflicted by caudillos, strongmen whose power rested on their control of small private armies and especially their ability to resist centralized power. “Leaders” in Managua, Port-au-Prince, and Santo Domingo were beholden to these regional power brokers. Presidents were weak, corrupt, and isolated. They expressed nationalism but didn’t really care about the future of their country. Such characters should sound familiar to anyone who has dealt with Hamid Karzai.

Seeing decentralization as debilitating to security or development, occupying Americans tried to build nations. They had locals build roads and string telegraph wires alongside them. They funded hospitals and reorganized schools. They surveyed lands, to make them easier to buy and sell. Most important, they trained national constabularies that were, for the first time, able to use those roads to put down any caudillo’s regional challenge.

None of it magically created the “national feeling” that occupiers wanted. It didn’t help that Americans also used forced labor, torture, racism, and strong-arm diplomacy to speed up nation building. But even without such brutality, centralization was a pipe dream that barely advanced, even after decades of occupation.

The unwillingness of Latin Americans to centralize and adopt other behaviors of industrialized democracies was made most evident, as it is now in Afghanistan, when talk of withdrawal came up. After World War I, when the Germans no longer threatened the Caribbean basin, the strategic rationale for troops evaporated. Even violent insurrectionary movements had been wiped out or had laid down their weapons.

So it was time for U.S. troops to go, but they soon learned that withdrawal would be a long, drawn-out process that entailed coming to terms with the painful reality that nation building had failed. Marines oversaw elections in each of these three occupations, but in each, candidates made wild promises and vicious accusations while they betrayed political allies. They remained wedded to personalism, following leaders who presented absolutely no program for the betterment of their nations. They continued draining the treasury and using governments not to implement policy but to hand out jobs to friends and family.

American occupiers were without good options, as the Obama administration is today. If they insisted on keeping a high level of troops, they faced calls for “self-government” from Latin Americans and cries from back home that the money would be better spent in the United States, especially as the Great Depression stifled budgets. If they kept a small amount of troops in country, as they did in Nicaragua for thirteen years and as Obama is now considering, those troops merely propped up a puppet government that fell as soon as they left. And the more Americans negotiated withdrawal agreements, the more they gave in to Latin American demands to control their own politics. Delay, then as now, was a losing strategy.

When the Marines did leave the Caribbean, the result they witnessed in each occupation was the worst of all worlds: dictators used the coercive power of national constabularies to destroy, rather than build up, what incipient democracy there was. Anastazio Somoza in Nicaragua, Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, and eventually François Duvalier in Haiti crushed caudillos and “nationalized” power without the required nationalism.

The lessons for Afghanistan today are dispiriting and opaque. There will be no happy ending, no riding into the sunset. Leaving earlier rather than later, as most Americans seem to want, makes sense, but isn’t a panacea. Afghans will sooner or later have to face their own demons and progress at their own pace. Peoples cannot be forced into nationalism; they must build it through their own initiative, trauma, and tears.

Alan McPherson is professor of international and area studies at the University of Oklahoma and the author of The Invaded: How Latin Americans and Their Allies Fought and Ended U.S. Occupations.

 

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