History of U.S. Interventions in Latin America; Review
From 1846 to 1996
Covert or indirect operations
! Other events of note
- The U.S., fulfilling the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, goes to war with Mexico and ends up with a third of Mexico’s territory.
- 1850, 1853, 1854, 1857:
- U.S. interventions in Nicaragua.
- Tennessee adventurer William Walker and his mercenaries take over Nicaragua, institute forced labor, and legalize slavery.
“Los yankis… have burst their way like a fertilizing torrent through the barriers of barbarism.” –N.Y. Daily News
He’s ousted two years later by a Central American coalition largely inspired by Cornelius Vanderbilt, whose trade Walker was infringing.
“The enemies of American civilization– for such are the enemies of slavery– seem to be more on the alert than its friends.” –William Walker
- First of five U.S. interventions in Panama to protect the Atlantic-Pacific railroad from Panamanian nationalists.
- U.S. declares war on Spain, blaming it for destruction of the Maine. (In 1976, a U.S. Navy commission will conclude that the explosion was probably an accident.) The war enables the U.S. to occupy Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines.
- The Platt Amendment inserted into the Cuban constitution grants the U.S. the right to intervene when it sees fit.
- When negotiations with Colombia break down, the U.S. sends ten warships to back a rebellion in Panama in order to acquire the land for the Panama Canal. The Frenchman Philippe Bunau-Varilla negotiates the Canal Treaty and writes Panama’s constitution.
- U.S. sends customs agents to take over finances of the Dominican Republic to assure payment of its external debt.
- U.S. Marines help Mexican dictator Porfirio Díaz crush a strike in Sonora.
- U.S. troops land in Honduras for the first of 5 times in next 20 years.
- Marines occupy Cuba for two years in order to prevent a civil war.
- Marines intervene in Honduras to settle a war with Nicaragua.
- U.S. troops intervene in Panama for first of 4 times in next decade.
- Liberal President José Santos Zelaya of Nicaragua proposes that American mining and banana companies pay taxes; he has also appropriated church lands and legalized divorce, done business with European firms, and executed two Americans for participating in a rebellion. Forced to resign through U.S. pressure. The new president, Adolfo Díaz, is the former treasurer of an American mining company.
- U.S. Marines occupy Nicaragua to help support the Díaz regime.
- The Liberal regime of Miguel Dávila in Honduras has irked the State Department by being too friendly with Zelaya and by getting into debt with Britain. He is overthrown by former president Manuel Bonilla, aided by American banana tycoon Sam Zemurray and American mercenary Lee Christmas, who becomes commander-in-chief of the Honduran army.
- U.S. Marines intervene in Cuba to put down a rebellion of sugar workers.
- Nicaragua occupied again by the U.S., to shore up the inept Díaz government. An election is called to resolve the crisis: there are 4000 eligible voters, and one candidate, Díaz. The U.S. maintains troops and advisors in the country until 1925.
- U.S. bombs and then occupies Vera Cruz, in a conflict arising out of a dispute with Mexico‘s new government. President Victoriano Huerta resigns.
- U.S. Marines occupy Haiti to restore order, and establish a protectorate which lasts till 1934. The president of Haiti is barred from the U.S. Officers’ Club in Port-au-Prince, because he is black.
“Think of it– niggers speaking French!” –secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, briefed on the Haitian situation
- Marines occupy the Dominican Republic, staying till 1924.
- ! 1916:
- Pancho Villa, in the sole act of Latin American aggression against the U.S, raids the city of Columbus, New Mexico, killing 17 Americans.
“Am sure Villa’s attacks are made in Germany.” –James Gerard, U.S. ambassador to Berlin
- U.S. troops enter Mexico to pursue Pancho Villa. They can’t catch him.
- Marines intervene again in Cuba, to guarantee sugar exports during WWI.
- U.S. Marines occupy Panamanian province of Chiriqui for two years to maintain public order.
- President Coolidge strongly suggests the overthrow of Guatemalan President Carlos Herrera, in the interests of United Fruit. The Guatemalans comply.
- U.S. Army troops occupy Panama City to break a rent strike and keep order.
- Marines, out of Nicaragua for less than a year, occupy the country again, to settle a volatile political situation. Secretary of State Kellogg describes a “Nicaraguan-Mexican-Soviet” conspiracy to inspire a “Mexican-Bolshevist hegemony” within striking distance of the Canal.
“That intervention is not now, never was, and never will be a set policy of the United States is one of the most important facts President-elect Hoover has made clear.” —NYT, 1928
- U.S. establishes a military academy in Nicaragua to train a National Guard as the country’s army. Similar forces are trained in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
“There is no room for any outside influence other than ours in this region. We could not tolerate such a thing without incurring grave risks… Until now Central America has always understood that governments which we recognize and support stay in power, while those which we do not recognize and support fall. Nicaragua has become a test case. It is difficult to see how we can afford to be defeated.” –Undersecretary of State Robert Olds
- Rafael Leonidas Trujillo emerges from the U.S.-trained National Guard to become dictator of the Dominican Republic.
- The U.S. rushes warships to El Salvador in response to a communist-led uprising. President Martínez, however, prefers to put down the rebellion with his own forces, killing over 8000 people (the rebels had killed about 100).
- ! 1933:
- President Roosevelt announces the Good Neighbor policy.
- Marines finally leave Nicaragua, unable to suppress the guerrilla warfare of General Augusto César Sandino. Anastasio Somoza García becomes the first Nicaraguan commander of the National Guard.
“The Nicaraguans are better fighters than the Haitians, being of Indian blood, and as warriors similar to the aborigines who resisted the advance of civilization in this country.” –NYT correspondent Harold Denny
- Roosevelt sends warships to Cuba to intimidate Gerardo Machado y Morales, who is massacring the people to put down nationwide strikes and riots. Machado resigns. The first provisional government lasts only 17 days; the second Roosevelt finds too left-wing and refuses to recognize. A pro-Machado counter-coup is put down by Fulgencio Batista, who with Roosevelt’s blessing becomes Cuba’s new strongman.
- ! 1934:
- Platt Amendment repealed.
- Sandino assassinated by agents of Somoza, with U.S. approval. Somoza assumes the presidency of Nicaragua two years later. To block his ascent, Secretary of State Cordell Hull explains, would be to intervene in the internal affairs of Nicaragua.
- ! 1936:
- U.S. relinquishes rights to unilateral intervention in Panama.
- Ricardo Adolfo de la Guardia deposes Panamanian president Arias in a military coup– first clearing it with the U.S. Ambassador.
It was “a great relief to us, because Arias had been very troublesome and very pro-Nazi.” –Secretary of War Henry Stimson
- The editor of the Honduran opposition paper El Cronista is summoned to the U.S. embassy and told that criticism of the dictator Tiburcio Carías Andino is damaging to the war effort. Shortly afterward, the paper is shut down by the government.
- The dictator Maximiliano Hernández Martínez of El Salvador is ousted by a revolution; the interim government is overthrown five months later by the dictator’s former chief of police. The U.S.’s immediate recognition of the new dictator does much to tarnish Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor policy in the eyes of Latin Americans.
- U.S. Army School of the Americas opens in Panama as a hemisphere-wide military academy. Its linchpin is the doctrine of National Security, by which the chief threat to a nation is internal subversion; this will be the guiding principle behind dictatorships in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Central America, and elsewhere.
- José Figueres Ferrer wins a short civil war to become President of Costa Rica. Figueres is supported by the U.S., which has informed San José that its forces in the Panama Canal are ready to come to the capital to end “communist control” of Costa Rica.
- Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, elected president of Guatemala, introduces land reform and seizes some idle lands of United Fruit– proposing to pay for them the value United Fruit claimed on its tax returns. The CIA organizes a small force to overthrow him and begins training it in Honduras. When Arbenz naively asks for U.S. military help to meet this threat, he is refused; when he buys arms from Czechoslovakia it only proves he’s a Red.
Guatemala is “openly and diligently toiling to create a Communist state in Central America… only two hours’ bombing time from the Panama Canal.” –Life
The CIA broadcasts reports detailing the imaginary advance of the “rebel army,” and provides planes to strafe the capital. The army refuses to defend Arbenz, who resigns. The U.S.’s hand-picked dictator, Carlos Castillo Armas, outlaws political parties, reduces the franchise, and establishes the death penalty for strikers, as well as undoing Arbenz’s land reform. Over 100,000 citizens are killed in the next 30 years of military rule.
“This is the first instance in history where a Communist government has been replaced by a free one.” –Richard Nixon
- Eisenhower establishes Office of Public Safety to train Latin American police forces.
- ! 1959:
- Fidel Castro takes power in Cuba. Several months earlier he had undertaken a triumphal tour through the U.S., which included a CIA briefing on the Red menace.
“Castro’s continued tawdry little melodrama of invasion.” –Time, of Castro’s warnings of an imminent U.S. invasion
- Eisenhower authorizes covert actions to get rid of Castro. Among other things, the CIA tries assassinating him with exploding cigars and poisoned milkshakes. Other covert actions against Cubainclude burning sugar fields, blowing up boats in Cuban harbors, and sabotaging industrial equipment.
- The Canal Zone becomes the focus of U.S. counterinsurgency training.
- A new junta in El Salvador promises free elections; Eisenhower, fearing leftist tendencies, withholds recognition. A more attractive right-wing counter-coup comes along in three months.
“Governments of the civil-military type of El Salvador are the most effective in containing communist penetration in Latin America.” –John F. Kennedy, after the coup
- Guatemalan officers attempt to overthrow the regime of Presidente Fuentes; Eisenhower stations warships and 2000 Marines offshore while Fuentes puts down the revolt. [Another source says that the U.S. provided air support for Fuentes.]
- U.S. Green Berets train Guatemalan army in counterinsurgency techniques. Guatemalan efforts against its insurgents include aerial bombing, scorched-earth assaults on towns suspected of aiding the rebels, and death squads, which killed 20,000 people between 1966 and 1976. U.S. Army Col. John Webber claims that it was at his instigation that “the technique of counter-terror had been implemented by the army.”
“If it is necessary to turn the country into a cemetary in order to pacify it, I will not hesitate to do so.” –President Carlos Arana Osorio
- U.S. organizes force of 1400 anti-Castro Cubans, ships it to the Bahía de los Cochinos. Castro’s army routs it.
- CIA-backed coup overthrows elected Pres. J. M. Velasco Ibarra of Ecuador, who has been too friendly with Cuba.
- CIA engages in campaign in Brazil to keep João Goulart from achieving control of Congress.
- CIA-backed coup overthrows elected social democrat Juan Bosch in the Dominican Republic.
- A far-right-wing coup in Guatemala, apparently U.S.-supported, forestalls elections in which “extreme leftist” Juan José Arévalo was favored to win.
“It is difficult to develop stable and democratic government [in Guatemala], because so many of the nation’s Indians are illiterate and superstitious.” –School textbook, 1964
- João Goulart of Brazil proposes agrarian reform, nationalization of oil. Ousted by U.S.-supported military coup.
- ! 1964:
- The free market in Nicaragua:
The Somoza family controls “about one-tenth of the cultivable land in Nicaragua, and just about everything else worth owning, the country’s only airline, one television station, a newspaper, a cement plant, textile mill, several sugar refineries, half-a-dozen breweries and distilleries, and a Mercedes-Benz agency.” –Life World Library
- A coup in the Dominican Republic attempts to restore Bosch’s government. The U.S. invades and occupies the country to stop this “Communist rebellion,” with the help of the dictators of Brazil, Paraguay, Honduras, and Nicaragua.
“Representative democracy cannot work in a country such as the Dominican Republic,” Bosch declares later. Now why would he say that?
- U.S. sends arms, advisors, and Green Berets to Guatemala to implement a counterinsurgency campaign.
“To eliminate a few hundred guerrillas, the government killed perhaps 10,000 Guatemalan peasants.” –State Dept. report on the program
- A team of Green Berets is sent to Bolivia to help find and assassinate Che Guevara.
- Gen. José Alberto Medrano, who is on the payroll of the CIA, organizes the ORDEN paramilitary force, considered the precursor of El Salvador‘s death squads.
- ! 1970:
- In this year (just as an example), U.S. investments in Latin America earn $1.3 billion; while new investments total $302 million.
- Salvador Allende Gossens elected in Chile. Suspends foreign loans, nationalizes foreign companies. For the phone system, pays ITT the company’s minimized valuation for tax purposes. The CIA provides covert financial support for Allende’s opponents, both during and after his election.
- U.S. stands by as military suspends an election in El Salvador in which centrist José Napoleón Duarte was favored to win. (Compare with the emphasis placed on the 1982 elections.)
- U.S.-supported military coup kills Allende and brings Augusto Pinochet Ugarte to power. Pinochet imprisons well over a hundred thousand Chileans (torture and rape are the usual methods of interrogation), terminates civil liberties, abolishes unions, extends the work week to 48 hours, and reverses Allende’s land reforms.
- Military takes power in Uruguay, supported by U.S. The subsequent repression reportedly features the world’s highest percentage of the population imprisoned for political reasons.
- Office of Public Safety is abolished when it is revealed that police are being taught torture techniques.
- ! 1976:
- Election of Jimmy Carter leads to a new emphasis on human rights in Central America. Carter cuts off aid to the Guatemalan military (or tries to; some slips through) and reduces aid to El Salvador.
- ! 1979:
- Ratification of the Panama Canal treaty which is to return the Canal to Panama by 1999.
“Once again, Uncle Sam put his tail between his legs and crept away rather than face trouble.” –Ronald Reagan
- A right-wing junta takes over in El Salvador. U.S. begins massively supporting El Salvador, assisting the military in its fight against FMLN guerrillas. Death squads proliferate; Archbishop Romero is assassinated by right-wing terrorists; 35,000 civilians are killed in 1978-81. The rape and murder of four U.S. churchwomen results in the suspension of U.S. military aid for one month.
The U.S. demands that the junta undertake land reform. Within 3 years, however, the reform program is halted by the oligarchy.
“The Soviet Union underlies all the unrest that is going on.” –Ronald Reagan
- U.S., seeking a stable base for its actions in El Salvador and Nicaragua, tells the Honduran military to clean up its act and hold elections. The U.S. starts pouring in $100 million of aid a year and basing the contras on Honduran territory.
Death squads are also active in Honduras, and the contras tend to act as a state within a state.
- The CIA steps in to organize the contras in Nicaragua, who started the previous year as a group of 60 ex-National Guardsmen; by 1985 there are about 12,000 of them. 46 of the 48 top military leaders are ex-Guardsmen. The U.S. also sets up an economic embargo of Nicaragua and pressures the IMF and the World Bank to limit or halt loans to Nicaragua.
- Gen. Torrijos of Panama is killed in a plane crash. There is a suspicion of CIA involvement, due to Torrijos’ nationalism and friendly relations with Cuba.
- A coup brings Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt to power in Guatemala, and gives the Reagan administration the opportunity to increase military aid. Ríos Montt’s evangelical beliefs do not prevent him from accelerating the counterinsurgency campaign.
- Another coup in Guatemala replaces Ríos Montt. The new President, Oscar Mejía Víctores, was trained by the U.S. and seems to have cleared his coup beforehand with U.S. authorities.
- U.S. troops take over tiny Granada. Rather oddly, it intervenes shortly after a coup has overthrown the previous, socialist leader. One of the justifications for the action is the building of a new airport with Cuban help, which Granada claimed was for tourism and Reagan argued was for Soviet use. Later the U.S. announces plans to finish the airport… to develop tourism.
- Boland Amendment prohibits CIA and Defense Dept. from spending money to overthrow the government of Nicaragua— a law the Reagan administration cheerfully violates.
- CIA mines three Nicaraguan harbors. Nicaragua takes this action to the World Court, which brings an $18 billion judgment against the U.S. The U.S. refuses to recognize the Court’s jurisdiction in the case.
- U.S. spends $10 million to orchestrate elections in El Salvador— something of a farce, since left-wing parties are under heavy repression, and the military has already declared that it will not answer to the elected president.
- U.S. invades Panama to dislodge CIA boy gone wrong Manuel Noriega, an event which marks the evolution of the U.S.’s favorite excuse from Communism to drugs.
- The U.S. battles global Communism by extending most-favored-nation trading status for China, and tightening the trade embargo on Castro’s Cuba.
- Black, George. The Good Neighbor. Pantheon Books, New York: 1988. Highly recommended. An often amusing history of U.S. attitudes toward its southern neighbors.
- Burns, E. Bradford. Latin America: A concise interpretive history. 4th ed. Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs: 1986. Not only what the U.S. does to Latin America, but what Europe and the Latin Americans do to Latin America.
- Chomsky, Noam. Year 501: The Conquest Continues. South End Press, Boston: 1993. Packed with documentation.
- Galeano, Eduardo. Century of the Wind and Faces & Masks. Pantheon Books, New York: 1988. (Originally published as Memoria del fuego II, III: El siglo del viento, Las caras y las mascaras.) Vignettes from history, from a master Latin American novelist. As history, take it with a grain of salt.
- Gleijeses, Piero. Shattered Hope: The Guatemalan Revolution and the United States, 1944-1954. Princeton, Princeton NJ: 1991. The definitive study of the Arévalo/Arbenz administrations and the U.S. coup.
- Kwitny, Jonathan. Endless Enemies: The Making of an Unfriendly World. Congdon & Weed, New York: 1984. By a former Wall Street Journal reporter.
- Blum, William. Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventionism Since World War II. Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1995.
- Ege & Makhijani. “180 Landings by the U.S. Marine Corps” (History Division), Counterspy (July-Aug. 1982). Foreign Affairs Division, Congressional Research Service, Library of Congress.
- Richard Grimmet, Instances of Use of Armed Forces Abroad, 1798-2001. CRS Report for Congress, 2002.
- Grossman, Zoltan. Over a Century of U.S. Military Interventions. Self-published, revised Jan. 1, 1995.
- Sklar, Holly. “Who’s Who: Invading ‘Our’ Hemisphere 1831-,” Z Magazine (Feb. 1990).
- U.S. Congress, Committee on Foreign Affairs’ Report. Background Information on the Use of United States Armed Forces in Foreign Countries. Washington, D.C.: 91st Congress, 2nd Session, 1970.
- Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. New York: Perennial Library, Harper & Row, 1980.