US IMPERIALISM IN LATIN AMERICA CONTINUES: From Undermining Governments to Causing Migrations of People

The world again enters an economic, political, and military crisis in the Western Hemisphere. It remains important to think historically about last January’s call by the United States and 10 hemisphere countries for President Nicholas Maduro to step down as President of Venezuela, increases in the blockade of Cuba, the undermining of economy and political institutions in Puerto Rico, and the desperate migration of Central Americans fleeing repression. For many who are learning about US imperialism for the first time, it is important to revisit the history of the Western Hemisphere and to contextualize regional crises, including the sordid treatment of those fleeing violence and poverty and the borders of the United States.

A Brief History

As Greg Grandin argues in “Empire’s Workshop,” the rise of the United States as a global empire began in the Western Hemisphere. For example, the United States took one-quarter of Mexico’s land as a result of the Mexican War of the 1840s. Later in the nineteenth century, the United States interfered in the Cuban Revolution defeating Spain in the Spanish/Cuban/American War of 1898. And, at the same time, the United States attacked the Spanish outpost in the Philippines (while colonizing Puerto Rico and Hawaii) thus becoming a global power. Latin American interventionism throughout the Western Hemisphere, sending troops into Central American and Caribbean countries thirty times between the 1890s and 1933, “tested” what would become after World War II a pattern of covert interventions and wars in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.

The Western Hemisphere was first colonized by Spain, Portugal, Great Britain, and France from the fifteenth to the twentieth centuries. The main source of accumulated wealth funding the rise of capitalism as a world system came from raw material and slave labor in the Western Hemisphere: gold, silver, sugar, coffee, tea, cocoa, indigo, and later oil. What Marx called the stage of “primitive accumulation,” was a period in world history governed by land grabs, mass slaughter of indigenous peoples, expropriation of natural resources, and the capture, transport, and enslavement of millions of African people. Conquest, land occupation, and dispossession was coupled with the institutionalization of a Church that would convince the survivors of this stage of capitalism’s development that all was “God’s plan.”
 

Imperial expansion generated resistance throughout this history.  In the nineteenth century countries and peoples achieved their formal independence from colonial rule. Simon Bolivar, the nineteenth century leader of resistance, spoke for national sovereignty in Latin America.

But from 1898 until the present, the Western Hemisphere has been shaped by US efforts to replace the traditional colonial powers with neo-colonial regimes. Economic institutions, class systems, militaries, and religious institutions were influenced by United States domination of the region.
 

In the period of the Cold War, 1945-1991, the United States played the leading role in overthrowing the reformist government of Jacob Arbenz in Guatemala (1954), Salvador Allende in Chile (1973), and gave support to brutal military dictatorships in the 1970s in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay. The Reagan administration engaged in a decade-long war on Central America in the 1980s.  In 1989 the United States sent 23,000 marines to overthrow the government of Manuel Noriega in Panama. (This was a prelude to Gulf War I against Iraq). 

From 1959 until today the United States has sought through attempted military intervention, economic blockade, cultural intrusion, and international pressures to undermine, weaken, and destroy the Cuban Revolution. 
 

Often during this dark history US policymakers have sought to mask interventionism in the warm glow of economic development. President Kennedy called for an economic development program in Latin America, called the Alliance for Progress and Operation Bootstrap for Puerto Rico. Even the harsh “shock therapy” of neoliberalism imposed on Bolivia in the 1980s was based upon the promise of rapid economic development in that country. 

The Bolivarian Revolution
 

The 21st century has witnessed a variety of forms of resistance to the drive for global hegemony and the perpetuation of neoliberal globalization. First, the two largest economies in the world, China and India, have experienced economic growth rates well in excess of the industrial capitalist countries. China has developed a global export and investment program in Latin America and Africa that exceeds that of the United States and Europe.

 

On the Latin American continent, under the leadership and inspiration of former President Hugo Chavez Venezuela launched the latest round of state resistance to the colossus of the north, with his Bolivarian Revolution. He planted the seeds of socialism at home and encouraged Latin Americans to participate in the construction of financial institutions and economic assistance programs to challenge the traditional hegemony of the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization. 


The Bolivarian Revolution stimulated political change based on varying degrees of grassroots democratization, the construction of workers’ cooperatives, and a shift from neoliberal economic policies to economic populism. A Bolivarian Revolution was being constructed with a growing web of participants: Bolivia, Ecuador, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and, of course, Cuba. 

 

It was hoped that even after the premature death of Chavez in 2013, the Bolivarian Revolution would continue in Venezuela and throughout the region. But the economic ties and political solidarity of progressive regimes, hemisphere regional institutions, and grassroots movements have been challenged by declining oil prices and economic errors; increasing covert intervention in Venezuelan affairs by the United States; a US-encouraged shift to the right by “soft coups” in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and Ecuador; and a more aggressive United States foreign policy toward Latin America. Governments supportive of Latin American solidarity with Venezuela have been undermined and/or defeated in elections in Honduras, Paraguay, Brazil, Argentina, and now attacks have escalated against what former National Security Advisor John Bolton calls “the troika of tyranny;” Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba.  As Vijay Prashad puts it: “Far right leaders in the hemisphere (Bolsonaro, Márquez, and Trump) salivate at the prospect of regime change in each of these countries. They want to eviscerate the “pink tide” from the region” (Vijay Prashad, thetricontinental.org, January 20, 2019).

 

Special Dilemmas Latin Americans Face

 

Historically all Western Hemisphere countries have been shaped and distorted in their economies, polities, and cultures by colonialism and neo-colonialism. They have also been shaped by their long histories of resistance to outside forces seeking to develop imperial hegemony. Latin American history is both a history of oppression, exploitation, and violence, andconfrontation with mass movements of various kinds. Also, it is important to emphasize that the imperial system has created complicit and repressive regimes in Latin and Central America and have generated extremes of wealth and poverty. Military repression and extreme poverty within countries have forced migrations of people seeking some physical and economic security. Armed with this understanding several historical realities bear on the current crises in the region, including the emigration of people from their countries.

First, every country, with the exception of Cuba, experiences deep class divisions. Workers, peasants, the new precariat, people of color, youth, and women face off against very wealthy financiers, entrepreneurs, and industrialists, often with family ties, as well as corporate ties, with the United States. Whether one is trying to understand the soft coup in Brazil, the instability in Nicaragua, or the deep divisions in Venezuela, class struggle is a central feature of whatever conflicts are occurring.
 

Second, United States policy in the administrations of both political parties is fundamentally driven by opposition to the full independence of Latin America. US policy throughout the new century has been inalterably opposed to the Bolivarian Revolution. Consequently, a centerpiece of United States policy is to support by whatever means the wealthy classes in each country.

Third, as a byproduct of the colonial and neo-colonial stages in the region, local ruling classes and their North American allies have supported the creation of sizable militaries. Consequently, in political and economic life, the military remains a key actor in each country in the region. Most often, the military serves the interests of the wealthy class (or is part of it), and works overtly or covertly to resist democracy, majority rule, and the grassroots. Consequently, each progressive government in the region has had to figure out how to relate to the military. In the case of Chile, President Allende assumed the military would stay neutral in growing political disputes among competing class forces. But the Nixon Administration was able to identify and work with generals who ultimately carried out a military coup against the popular elected socialist government of Chile. So far in the Venezuelan case, the military seems to be siding with the government. Chavez himself was a military officer.
 

Fourth, given the rise of grassroots movements, the Bolivarian Revolution in Venezuela began to support “dual power,” particularly at the local level. Along with political institutions that traditionally were controlled by the rich and powerful, new local institutions of popular power were created. The establishment of popular power has been a key feature of many governments ever since the Cuban Revolution. Popular power, to varying degrees, is replicated in economic institutions, in culture, and in community life such that in Venezuela and elsewhere workers and peasants see their own empowerment as tied to the survival of revolutionary governments. In short, defense of the Maduro government, depends on the continuing support of the grassroots and the military.

Fifth, the governments of the Bolivarian Revolution face many obstacles. Small but powerful capitalist classes is one. Persistent United States covert operations and military bases throughout the region is another. And, perhaps most importantly, given the hundreds of years of colonial and neo-colonial rule, Latin American economies remain distorted by over-reliance on small numbers of raw materials and, as a result of pressure from international financial institutions, on export of selected products such as agricultural crops. In other words, historically Latin American economies have been distorted by the pressure on them to create one-crop economies to serve the interests of powerful capitalist countries, not diversified economies to serve the people.
 

Sixth, United States policy toward the region from time to time is affected by the exigencies of domestic politics. For example, the Trump Administration verbal threats against Venezuela are being articulated as the president’s domestic fortunes are being challenged by the threat of impeachment and confrontations with the new Congressional leadership. War often masks domestic troubles.

Finally, the long history of colonialism, neo-colonialism, “land grabs” such as taking one third of Mexico, and the establishment of repressive regimes in the Western Hemisphere coupled with the establishment of draconian neo-liberal economic policies set in motion desperate migrations of people fleeing repression, violence, and abject poverty. The migration crisis today, the creation of virtual concentration camps of people at the United States border, is a direct result of over one hundred years of United States foreign policy.
 

Where do Progressives Stand

First, and foremost, progressives should prioritize an understanding of imperialism, colonialism, neocolonialism, and the role of Latin American as the “laboratory” for testing United States interventionist foreign policies. This means that critics of US imperialism can be most effective by avoiding “purity tests” when contemplating political activism around US foreign policy. One cannot forget the connections between current patterns of policy toward Venezuela, with the rhetoric, the threats, the claims, and US policies toward Guatemala, Cuba, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Panama, and in the new century, Bolivia, Venezuela, Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina.
 

Second, progressives need to show solidarity with grassroots movements in the region, support human rights, oppose military interventions, and demand the closure of the myriad of United States military bases in the region and end training military personnel from the region. 

Third, progressives should realize that as tensions rise again in the hemisphere there are growing dangers of violence spreading throughout Latin America. By attacking “the troika of tyranny,” the United States is increasing the likelihood of class war throughout the region. And, given growing Chinese and Russian economic and political involvement in the Western Hemisphere, it is not inconceivable for regional war to escalate to global war.

Finally, progressives must stand and fight against brutal and inhuman United States border policies and the establishment of concentration camps that violate every element of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. The migrations and the oftentimes brutal responses at the border are inextricably connected to the historic role of the United States in the Western hemisphere.
 

In short, the time has come to stand up against United States imperialism.

(A useful history of United States interventionism can be found in Stephen Kinzer, Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq, Henry Holt, 2006).

by Harry Targ