The US and Latin America

By the early 1970es, armed groups of Campesinos were taking up armed resistance against the governments in countries like El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua. The CIA trained government forces, which, allegedly combatting a communist insurrection, victimized the rural population in order to preserve an economic structure which saw few families owning most of the fertile land, while the mass of the population had to live with extremely low wages, poverty, no education. The military, distrustful of the CAMPESINOS, relocated many into strategic settlements, surrounded by a fence, with watchtowers, for the purpose of keeping the inhabitants under control; at night, death squads (mostly soldiers/policemen in disguise) visited villages, harrassed the population, executed men and women suspected of being rebels or of supporting them/sympathizing with them. The civil wars in Guatemala and El Salvador cost 10,000s of lives, responsibility for the lions' share lies with the military.
While Cuba supported the rebels, the US administration supported the governments, often dictators like Nicaragua's notorious ANASTAZIO SOMOZA.
In 1972, the SANDINISTAS - Marxist rebels supported by Cuba - succeeded in toppling Somoza, and established a socialist one-party state. They implemented a number of reforms improving the lot of the poor. The US immediately engaged in a policy of confrontation, organizing an economic blockade, financing the Nicaraguan CONTRA rebels and training them on Honduran soil; later using the revenues from illegal arms sales to Iran to finance the Contras.
There were low-level rebellions going on in South America as well, most notably in Colombia and Peru, where Marxist guerilla groups controlled parts of the countryside; yet here U.S. influence was less dominant than in Central America. In 1970, the Chilean socialists won the election; SALVADOR ALLENDE became president, engaged in a policy of nationalizing major industries, pursuing a land reform and other social reforms. The CIA induced Chilean General AUGUSTO PINOCHET to stage a coup d'etat (in 1973); thousands of communists and suspected communists were rounded up in Santiago's soccer stadium, never to be seen again. Pinochet justified his coup with the 'danger of a communist revolution, which had to be forestalled', a danger which never had existed. Thousands of Chileans went into exile, many to East Germany.
Similarly the CIA supported a coup d'etat in Argentina (1976), where General VIDELA copied the Chilean model; many intellectuals were arrested, then to 'disappear'.

US policy in Latin America concentrated on 3 major goals : (a) prevent any state to be taken over by communism, (b) protect US economic interest, for instance land of facroties owned by US citizens, and (c0 combat the rising illegitimate trade in narcotics. In the pursuit of the first two goals, US policy often supported dictators under whose rule human rights were regularly volated, the assassination of ARCHBISHOP ROMERO of El Salvador - in church during holy mass, being just an extreme example of that policy (he had dared to speak out against corruption, injustice, human rights violations). Another consequence was the deterioration of the economies of many Latin American countries, which saw runaway inflation (a phenomenon which also occurred in countries where there had been little US interference.)

In 1983, the leftist government of the tiny Caribbean island of GRENADA, Commonwealth member, had Cuban advisors on the island and was working on an airfield designed as a base for long-range bombers, not necessary to serve the economic interests of the island. When prime minister Bishop was lynched, at the request of a group of Caribbean governments, US forces intervened.
Internationally, the US was severely criticized for its Latin American policy. Under President JIMMY CARTER the US openly distanced themselves from the dictators and announced to support the return to democray. In the early 1980es, country after country returned to democratic rule. Central American nations negotiated the reintroduction of democratic elections in Nicaragua (1985); Costa Rican President OSCAR ARIAS SANCHEZ was awareded the Nobel Peace Prize of 1987 for his effort to restore peace and democracy in the region.
With the USSR reducing its engagement, the US placed less emphasis on what it used to perceive as a communist threat. Guatemalan peasant woman RIGOBERTA MENCHU, for having brought the hardship of suppressed Guatemalan peasants to world attention, was awarded the NOBEL PEACE PRIZE (1992). In 1999, US President BILL CLINTON voiced his regret for past US policy toward Guatemala.
Us policy having turned against the military dictators it previously had supported. The Argentinian military government, in a desparate move to distract from its domestic problems, ordered the occupation of the FALKLAND ISLANDS (called ISLAS MALVINAS by the Argentinians, in 1984). The Reagan administration approved the British rexonquest of the islands (FALKLANDS WAR).
US policy now focussed on the drug traffic. Panamanian strongman MANUEL NORIEGA was notoriously involved in illicit drug trade; in 1989 US forces landed in Panama, toppled his dictatorship, arrested Noriega and brought him to the states for standing trial. Before Noriega became a US public enemy, he had been on the payroll of the CIA.
Colombia had become one of the world's leading cocain producers; here the US administration cooperated with Colombian authorities in fighting the cultivation of coca (WAR ON DRUGS).

Clinton offers Guatemala aid; He voices regrets for old policies, March 11, 1999 from freep
The Invasion of Grenada 1983, from The History Guy
Chile, from the book "The CIAs Greatest Hits" by Mark Zapezauer, posted by Third World Traveller
VIDEOS Romero, 1989, on El Salvador

This page is part of World History at KMLA
First posted on July 13th 2001, last revised on November 15th 2004

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