“The president has decided that the public posture of the United States will be correct but cool,” wrote Henry Kissenger in a memo to the state department on US policy in Chile in 1970. Chile had recently seen the democratic election of Salvador Allende, a Marxist who supported land reform and nationalization of foriegn controlled industries in Chile. Kissenger wrote of the need to “coordinate efforts to oppose Chilean moves which may be contrary to our mutual interests.” Three years later, in 1973, the United States would support and help coordinate a move by the Chilean general Augusto Pinochet to violently overthrow Allende’s government in a coup. A state department memo circulated mere months after the coup detailed the practice of “summary, on-the-spot” execution by Pinochet’s government, and suggested that “2-3,000” people had been killed by the Junta in the weeks following the coup, a number three times the officially published account. The report concludes that the “increasing confidence and stability” of the Junata was a “hopeful sign.”
This was the structure of US foreign policy in Latin America following the Second World War. As Kissinger said, the United States functioned on a basis of imperialism whereby it was willing to repeatedly engage in covert violence in order to protect its “interests.” These interests varied, but tended to fall along three lines; geopolitical strategic interest, cold war anticommunist fears, or economic interest. The first two are mainly based on the US fear and hatred of the Soviet Union, captured in such documents as CIA’s First Analysis of Soviet Capabilities, first written in 1945. The documents show that despite the CIA’s initially assessment of the Soviet economy being pessimistic, with analysts predicting “sluggish growth and poor overall manufacturing performance without wartime measures” there was nevertheless a fear that “with communist movements in vital strategic regions connected to and supported by Soviet intelligence and arms, the potential for the Soviet Union as a danger to the United States cannot be understated.”
These geopolitical, cold war concerns played a central role in providing the basis for United States interventionism in Latin America. This can be seen in the CIA’s specific worry that Soviet connections to communist movements in “strategic regions” would pose a serious threat. Indeed, leftist movements in various forms gained strength in Latin America during the cold war, as large swaths of the population sought an alternative to massive wealth and power inequalities which had plagued the region for centuries. Some of these movements did have the Soviet connections that CIA analysts feared; others did not. Still many more, not the least of them the Cuban communist government, preferred independence but were pushed towards Soviet cooperation by the threat of US opposition.
However, I want to make an examination of the third factor which influenced American interventionism: the perceived need of the United States government to protect the interests of US corporations abroad. This motivator is older than the cold war; the US repeatedly intervened in Latin America to protect its commercial interests even before the second world war, such as in Panama in 1903 and Honduras in between 1903 and 1924. It also led the United States to respond negatively to any regime type that threatened its power, including nationalist regimes which simply wished for greater independence.
Protection of American corporate interest – specifically the interests of the United Fruit Company – was a major motivation for United States support for the coup in Guatemala in 1952. The popularly elected Arbenz government sought to implement land reform, which would have extended land ownership to more than a million landless peasant laborers. Initially, neither the administrations of US president Roosevelt nor Truman opposed the revolution; Arbenz did not proclaim himself a communist. A CIA report filed in 1952 explicitly describes Arbenz as noncommunist, saying that he “desires to establish a ‘modern democracy’ which would improve the lot of its people through paternalistic social programs.” However, the report considers a portion of Arbenz’s plan to be a liability which could bring him into conflict with US interests in the future: “His goal is to assert the rights of the Guatemalan Government to dictate the terms under which foriegn firms will operate in the country.”
Arbenz’s plan required the United Fruit Company, based in the United States, to give up many of the millions of archers of land it owned in Guatemala, much of it unused, which it had gained after supporting authoritarian governments in Guatemala before the 1944 revolution. However, following increasing disagreements between United Fruit and the Arbenz government, president Truman and the State Department began to classify the Arbenz government as “communist.” Here, the feared geopolitical label of communist was a response to economic disagreement, not an end in itself. This is revealing about the use of the term “communism” in the context of US interventions in Latin America. Although the fear of communism was often a factor, even the primary factor, in US interventions, it could also be used as an excuse to the public and US allies for intervention on a different basis. Here, although one of the primary concerns of American interest in Guatemala was economic and based on a disagreement over Guatemalan sovereignty in relation to US corporations, and despite that fact that CIA intelligence had specifically described the Arbenz government as non-communist previously, rooting out communism would become one of the main publicly given reasons for the coup.
Following the US Guatemalan split over the status of United Fruit, the CIA began drawing up plans for covert support for a coup against Arbenz in Guatemala, a mission codenamed PBFORTUNE. CIA documents detail that approval from President Truman came for the CIA to help Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza (who was also supported by the US) to arm the Guatemalan dissident Carlos Castillo Armas to overthrow Arbenz. Following this, the CIA director arranged for the agency to “supply Castillo Armas with arms and $225,000 and that Nicaragua and Honduras to furnish the Guatemalans with air support.” Before and as the coup was being carried out, the CIA created both a manual for and a list of targets for assassination. One document, written in 1954, says that it contains a list of individuals whose assassination is necessary. These individuals are those who either “high government leaders… whose outward position has not disclosed the fact they are motivated and directed by the Comintern” as well as “Out and proved communist leaders,” and lastly, “those few vital government leaders whose removal is necessary… so that military success may be achieved.” The coup in Guatemala was, in fact, a success. Arbenz was overthrown and a reactionary government installed by the 27th of August, 1954.
In order to contrast this example of US intervention primarily on an economic basis with an example of US intervention on a geopolitical basis, I would like to examine US treatment of Cuba. The Cuban revolution, which saw the communists under Fidel Castro in power by 1959, was unacceptable to the US for several reasons. It ended US political and economic dominance in Cuba, which itself was deeply objectionable from a US perspective, but also established a Soviet-allied communist state not far from their shores. As such, the United States moved almost immediately to find a mechanism to destroy the new Cuban state.
State department documents show that president Kennedy and the state department hurried to invoke the “Trading with the Enemy Act” against Cuba in 1961 in order to cripple the Cuban economy. The document details that the US knew that the elimination of “more than $100 million in non-sugar exports” as well as “more than $300 million in Cuban sugar, which accounts for 70% of Cuban exports to the US” would severely harm “the financial situation for the Castro regime.” This would come at a cost to US business and consumers; sugar would have to be imported at a higher cost from father away. However, the US government in this case put its economic concerns on the backburner in comparison to its perceived geopolitical necessity of destroying the Cuban government. The urgency of this project is underscored by the end of the document: “if multilateral action cannot be undertaken to resolve this matter soon, we must act unilaterally.”
Later documents show how the Central Intelligence Agency attempted to set up an operation to land Cuban exiles on the mainland of Cuba with the intent of overthrowing the Cuban government. This invasion, which would fail spectacularly, became known as the “Bay of Pigs” invasion due to its ultimate location. CIA thinking in the document makes it clear that the use of Cuban exiles was a deliberate political decision, as “the operation must have the appearance of a rebellion against the communist regime from within, and not a foriegn imposed invasion.” The operation was designed with careful political intent to match its purpose; a geopolitically motivated attempt at regime change.
The coup in Guatemala and attempted coups in Cuba showcase an example of economically motivated regime change and an example of geopolitical and anticommunist regime change. However, many US regime change operations in Latin American were motivated by a combination of these factors. For an example of an operation like this, I will return to the example which opened this paper: the case of Chile in 1973. Following the election of Allende in 1970, the State Department immediately sought to find ways to limit Chile’s diplomatic options, by trying to “find justification which will be widely enough acceptable to remove Chile from the OAS.” This was based on two primary factors: “the recognition of Cuba by Chile opens the door to its alliance with the wider Soviet bloc,” an unacceptable development, as it subverted US geopolitical and anticommunist concerns. The documents also mention “discussion between several concerned American and Chilean business leaders who are wary of the possibility of nationalization of their wares, something which Allende has indicated he may do.”
The US desire to overthrow the Chilean government, a gruesome process which I detailed earlier in this essay, was therefore multifaceted. It was both a reaction to possible subversion of American business interests and political interests. These concerns directed much of the United States foreign policy towards Latin American because despite claims of American love of freedom and democracy, it functions in Latin America as an empire which protects its interests through exercise of its hard and soft power. The pattern of United States interference in Latin America makes this apparent.