Dark age before the renaissance


Latin America is demanding respect. Grace Livingstone’s bruising book on US regional policy, America’s Backyard, explains why. Here she answers questions about Washington’s role in the darkest days of Latin American history


America’s Backyard: The United States and Latin America from the Monroe Doctrine to the War on Terror
Grace Livingstone
2009, Zed Books
270 pages

YOUR BOOK examines some of the worst aspects of US foreign policy towards Latin America over the past half century. Why do you feel this is necessary at this time?

The United States’ relations with Latin America (and with the rest of the world) reached a nadir under George W. Bush, but there is an opportunity now to re-cast that relationship with Barack Obama. I am cautious about how much Obama will really be able to change in Latin America, but at least he has a more nuanced tone and has called for a relationship of mutual respect.

In addition, as your readers probably know, a “pink tide” of progressive governments has been elected in Latin America. These governments are reasserting their sovereignty and demanding an end to US interference. In order to understand why their demands have resonance among the Latin American electorate, we need to know the history.

And finally, the Clinton administration declassified many official documents relating to Latin America making it possible to study what really happened.

Critics of your book – most probably in the US itself – will say that you have unfairly focused on the negative aspects of US policy towards Latin America at the expense of the positive. What would you say to them?

To a certain extent that’s true, but it’s a history that needs to be told. The US contributed to some of the darkest periods in Latin America’s history: the military dictatorships of the 1970s that were responsible for the “disappeared”; the brutal contra war in Nicaragua and the death squads in El Salvador, for example. These horrors are etched into the collective memory of Latin Americans, and before a new relationship can be built the White House needs to grasp what many Latin Americans hold them responsible for.

I also try to show in the book that in a more mundane way the US has been an obstacle to change. Latin America is not the poorest region in the world, but it is the most unequal. Historically a small elite has controlled most of the wealth. The US has traditionally allied itself with that elite, however repressive or reactionary it has been and in so doing has helped to undermine democracy and stunt Latin America’s own development. Even when the US government appears to be acting benignly, it has acted as a counterweight to reform, regarding upheaval, mass protest (and of course revolution) as a threat to stability and therefore its own interests even though in the US and Europe revolutionary upheaval or war has at times been the necessary precursor to change – eg the French Revolution or the American War of Independence.

You provide a very useful summary of US fear of communism and attitudes towards the Left during the Cold War: to what extent are Washington’s postures towards the Left in Latin America today similar or different?

Certainly during the Bush administration’s attitudes towards the Left were strikingly similar to those of the Cold War and, even now Bush has left office, the Pentagon and intelligence services are still very suspicious of the Left. The difference now is the attitude of other Latin American governments. In the old Cold War, the US successfully built a common front against Cuba – it was expelled from the Organisation of American States (OAS) in 1962, for example. In contrast, recently the OAS has acted more independently, condemning, for example, the short-lived coup against Hugo Chávez in Venezuela in 2002, much to the chagrin of Washington which had publicly welcomed the coup.

The Pentagon is particularly concerned about the “radical populists”: Chávez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua. It differentiates them from the more moderate administrations of Brazil, Chile, Uruguay and Argentina. It regards Chávez as a particular threat not just because Venezuela is the fourth largest oil supplier to the US, but because he is building alliances both in Latin America and with Iran, Russia and China. One army publication warns that “Chávez and Venezuela are developing the conceptual and physical capability to challenge the status quo in Latin America to generate a ‘super insurgency’ intended to bring fundamental political and economic change in the region.” However, the strategy of isolating Venezuela in Latin America has so far failed. President Lula da Silva of Brazil or Michelle Bachelet [in Chile], for example, although running very different types of administrations, have been reluctant to criticise him.

Flaw in US democracy

Does your book, by highlighting efforts by Washington through, for example, the CIA, to intervene in the political process in sovereign republics, expose a flaw at the heart of American democracy itself? Put another way, would you say that this book is about the failure of the US democratic process to hold to account those who threaten democracy abroad?

Good question. What the intelligence services have done in Latin America is certainly at odds with the professed ideals of the American constitution. These operations are obviously clandestine and the public and the legislature cannot prevent them occurring beforehand, but have to trust that the White House, the military and CIA are acting in the national interest – which, in the case of supporting dictators or abetting torture, for example, is questionable. On the other hand, the US does have a far more reaching freedom of information entitlement than we do in Britain and, at times, Congress has reined back the executive – it cut off aid to Augusto Pinochet’s Chile for example, prevented Ronald Reagan backing Efraín Ríos Montt’s genocidal war in Guatemala. US democracy may be flawed, but its democratic institutions are certainly not worthless, indeed they have been admired round the world, not least in Latin America. Organised citizens and principled politicians can use their democratic rights to make a difference to foreign policy. Clearly a corporate lobbyist has greater access to the Oval Office, but ordinary citizens can and should make their voices heard.

You draw attention to the barbarities committed by Pinochet’s torturers, how the CIA has fought hard to keep its involvement in human rights abuses in Pinochet’s Chile secret, and that many documents remain classified. Are you, by implication, suggesting that in the continuing absence of those documents it is fair to conclude that the CIA was involved in those barbarities?

Although thousands documents relating to Chile have been declassified, large chunks of the information have been blacked out, leaving you to wonder what the government still has to hide.

Nevertheless public record already shows that Richard Nixon’s government welcomed Pinochet’s coup and gave his regime large amounts of aid. Two days after the coup the State Department issued a message to Pinochet stating: “The USG [US government] wishes [sic] make clear its desire to co-operate with the military junta and to assist in any appropriate way”.

Before Pinochet took power, the CIA tried to organise its own coup against Salvador Allende but failed, it then worked to encourage a coup within the Chilean military and spent millions of dollars on propaganda against the Socialist government. The CIA admits that it collected operational intelligence that would be necessary in the event of a coup – arrest lists, lists of key civilian installations and personnel that would need protection, and lists of government installations that would need to be taken over – but claims it did not hand operational intelligence to the Chilean military. We have transcripts of Henry Kissinger talking to Pinochet in 1976, three years after the coup, when details of horrific torture was known all over the world, saying “In the United States, as you know, we are sympathetic with what you are trying to do here… We want to help, not undermine you. You did a great service to the world in overthrowing Allende.”

Even without further revelations, I think it fair to say the CIA and the Nixon government were complicit in the atrocities committed in Chile.

Do you feel that there is any political momentum in the US to have CIA documents about its involvement in some of the darkest moments of Latin America’s recent history declassified; or does it remain so unaccountable to the American people that these will remain out of reach indefinitely?

The Clinton administration has already declassified an unprecedented amount of information relating to Chile, El Salvador, Nicaragua and other countries. This was in large part due to the efforts of campaign groups in the US, in particular the National Security Archive, a very impressive non-governmental organisation in the US which spearheads the campaign for the release of documents, then catalogues them and makes them available to the public. There are numerous organisations in the US pressuring the executive to release material, so no, I do not think these will remain out of reach to the public indefinitely.

You point to the fact that, under Bill Clinton, the chance to refashion policy towards Latin America was lost and that the region remained a low priority. Won’t this always be the case while the region poses no real security challenge to the US?

Yes, but there is a recognition in the White House that during the Bush administration, while US eyes where on the Middle East, Latin America turned left and drifted away from the US. The Obama administration has promised to re-engage with Latin America, although I agree that conflagrations elsewhere may push Latin America down the agenda of priorities.

‘War on Terror’

Have the “war on drugs” and the “war on terror” pursued by successive US presidents damaged Latin American democratic development – and, if so, how?

Undoubtedly. The “war on drugs” in my view was used as a pretext for continued military intervention in Latin America after the Cold War, when the threat of communism no longer seemed plausible. Since 1999, when the US left the Panama Canal Zone and removed its own large military centre of operations, the US has had to lease military bases from co-operative Latin American governments. All these new bases have been established on the pretext of combating drug trafficking. Strengthening the military when Latin American governments are trying to bring these institutions under democratic control has been unhelpful.

The US has viewed the drug issue as a purely military problem, when it is actually rooted in social and economic inequalities. More than 70 per cent of the world’s cocaine comes from Colombia, for example. Coca leaf is grown by very poor peasants who find it is the only crop from which they can make a living. US policy for the past two decades has been to fund heavily militarised planes to spray herbicides on coca farms. These herbicides have killed food crops and animals, there is evidence that they are causing human illnesses, particularly respiratory problems and skin complaints, and they may be doing long-term damage to the environment. The herbicide strategy is not even effective because, in the last twenty years, coca cultivation has risen by over 500 per cent in Colombia.

Similarly, today the US is very concerned about the drug-related violence in Mexico. Obama and [Secretary of State] Hillary Clinton have at least conceded that the demand for drugs in the West fuels that trade and that gun controls in the US need to be tightened, because most of the guns used in the Mexican gang wars come from the US – this is evidence of Obama’s new tone that I mentioned earlier. But the US needs to face the fact that both the neoliberal economic model in Mexico and the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) have led to a rise in landlessness, falling wages and rising male unemployment, leaving a pool of young men available for the drugs gangs. Although NAFTA allows for the free movement of goods and capital, people cannot move freely, so when these young men try to cross the border into the US to find work, they are deported back, leaving many with little option but to take the dollars of the gang leaders.

The “war on terror” was reminiscent of the Cold War and the activities of the Bush administration were certainly a threat to democracy. Bush brought back many figures from the Reagan years who were involved in Iran Contra. Cold War paranoia fused with the Bush Doctrine making a noxious ideological brew. The Bush administration supported the coup against Chávez in Venezuela, meddled in the elections of Nicaragua and Bolivia, trying unsuccessfully to prevent the election of leftwing presidents, and played a very dubious role in Haiti, working with allies of the old repressive military regime to oust the elected president. In contrast to the Cold War, however, many of their attempts at interference failed or backfired, because of the strength of the progressive movement in Latin America.

Does neoconservative support for President Alvaro Uribe in Colombia, which turned a blind eye to an intelligence report allegedly linking him to the Medellín cartel, recall US past support for unsavoury leaders provided they were allies?

The most obvious example is Panama’s Manuel Noriega, who was an informant for both the CIA and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), even though he had clear links to the Medellín Cartel. Noriega even used information given to him by the DEA to help drug traffickers who were his allies, while incriminating his competitors. The whole sorry tale is recounted in a congressional report which concluded: “It is clear that each US government agency which had a relationship with Noriega turned a blind eye to his corruption and drug dealing, even as he was emerging as a key player on behalf of the Medellín cartel.”

But, of course, the US has a history of supporting “friendly dictators”, such as the Somoza dynasty in Nicaragua; Jorge Ubico in Guatemala; Tiburcio Carías in Honduras; Maximiliano Hernández in El Salvador; and not forgetting, of course, Fulgencio Batista in Cuba.

In the 1950s the US government gave two of the most hated dictators in the region (Peru’s Manuel Odría and Venezuela’s Marcos Pérez Jiménez) the Legion of Merit. And what about Alfredo Stroessner, dictator of Paraguay for 35 years, to whom Vice President Nixon said on a visit to the country: “In the field of international affairs, I do not know of any other nation which has risen more strongly than yours against the threat of communism and this is one reason why I feel especially happy to be here.”

Have Latin Americans themselves done enough to hold the US to account for its interference in their countries? Is this now happening?

Traditionally, the Latin American elite has formed the government and has therefore been a willing ally of the US. It has been hard for the populations to hold the US to account although there is a deep vein of resentment against its interference. Today, many of the leftwing governments are strongly re-asserting their sovereignty; their right to follow their own economic models, and are demanding respect and end to interference. The mood is so strong it feels like a renaissance or a second wave of independence.

You incorporate a number of extracts from Latin American and Latino poetry and songs in the book. Why is such verse so good at illustrating or making political points?

Poetry distills emotions, capturing the essence of a historical moment. I hope the poetry, as well as the songs and speeches, give the reader a sense of history and the atmosphere at the time – a human voice to balance the rather clinical and cold declassified cables and memos.

Your chapter on cultural attitudes towards Latin America and stereotyping is very interesting, and points out the influence of US media in the region but also the development of Hispanic programming in the US. Is culture one area in which Latin America is “fighting back”?

This is a complex area because although large television and multimedia corporations have emerged from Latin America that produce their own programming, most of them have formed alliances with the global media giants that we know so well – Sky, Time Warner, etc. Latin American corporations have joined the ranks of a global elite, producing rather safe, homogenous, corporate-friendly programming.

In Hollywood and US mainstream TV it is certainly true that the old stereotypes are being challenged (the sombrero-wearing bandit, the ominous drug lord, the corrupt, unshaven, porcine Mexican policeman) and we see more positive representations of Latin Americans on screen (Ugly Betty, Dora the Explorer – even Jennifer Lopez in Monster in Law, which may be dismissed as middle-of-the road junk, but shows that Latinas can now play roles in which they are not defined by their ethnicity and in which they end up with their American man – in contrast to the old Westerns when the gringo rode off into the sunset alone). This change is mainly due to the growing Latino community in the US which makes up 15 per cent of the population today and is forecast to make up 24 per cent by 2050. There are more Latino producers and directors, but it is also a marketing decision by the large companies that need to appeal to this growing audience.

Venezuela’s President Chávez has launched a new regional television station, Telesur – a sort of al Jazeera of Latin America – but I think it’s fair to say that it has not really moved on from a propaganda platform (perhaps fulfilling a necessary function for those who want to hear the point of view of the leftwing governments in Latin America in contrast to Fox News) but it is still pretty wooden and does not represent the type of cultural blossoming we witnessed in the very early years after the Cuban Revolution when intellectuals from all over the world flocked to the island.

Generally speaking, though, I have to say that Latin American literature and music has made a tremendous impact on both the US and the world in the post-war period.

It is often assumed that the growing influence of Latinos in the US will have a bearing on its foreign policy towards Latin America; but there is evidence to suggest that Latino voters, like everyone else, are preoccupied mainly with domestic issues. Do you believe Latinos will transform US foreign policy?

Latino voters have the potential to be a powerful voting block, but they have not really used that potential yet. The polls suggest, however, that the Republican party’s hard line on immigration (not that of George W. Bush himself) was one important reason why Latino voters switched away from the Republicans in the last congressional elections and in the most recent presidential election.

The attitudes of Latinos in the US can be very important on particular issues. For example, the Cuban American community in Florida and New Jersey has for almost 50 years prevented a rapprochement with Cuba.

Latinos vote on domestic issues, but when there is a foreign policy issue of particular relevance to their community, their votes can tilt the balance.

You conclude by drawing attention to the possibilities of change in the US relationship with Latin America under Obama. What is your assessment of his position following his first 100 days in office: do the signs suggest change is likely?

The most important difference is a change of tone. He has called for “mutual respect” and said there is should be “no junior partner” in the relationship between Latin Americans and the US. Latin American governments have welcomed this new, less arrogant tone.

Obama has said that he would be willing to talk to Venezuela’s Chávez (as well as other “rogue” leaders like Raúl Castro and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad), but I think it is more likely that he will try to form strong alliances with the more moderate leftwing administrations such as Brazil, while trying to isolate Venezuela within Latin America.

Obama has said he will continue the war against the FARC in Colombia and continue the Andean Counter-Drug Strategy. Some Democratic politicians have campaigned on the question of herbicides in the past, so there is a slim chance of change here. The Obama administration may put human rights conditions on aid to the Colombian military, which is by far the largest recipient of US aid in the region. But I don’t think the overall war strategy will change in Colombia because it is the Pentagon that is driving policy there.

Obama has called for a “new beginning with Cuba” and has already lifted restrictions on Cuban Americans travelling to the island and sending remittances back. This move had very little political cost, however, because the measures imposed by George W. Bush, were even unpopular with Cuban Americans. Obama has also said he is willing to engage with the Cuban government on a wide range of issues and low-level government discussions have already started.

I think Obama has a historic opportunity to mend relations with Cuba. Raúl Castro is clearly making overtures towards the White House and Obama has more freedom at home because he is not so constrained by the rightwing Cuban American lobby. The younger generation of Cuban Americans and the newer economic migrants from Cuba, who are less ideologically opposed to Castro, favour a more constructive approach. Obama should act quickly though, while he is still has such high poll ratings.

Many US companies are keen to invest in Cuba – indeed, if Cuba had had a market the size of China, I’m sure the embargo would have been overturned years ago, but the profits to be made just do not compare. Obama has said he will not lift the trade embargo unless Castro takes steps towards democratisation. There is a bill going to Congress this autumn proposing the removal of travel restrictions for all Americans going to Cuba. If this is approved, it could be the beginning of the end of the 49-year old trade embargo.

Obama has promised to renegotiate NAFTA, but this is highly unpopular with the Mexican government and many US corporations which have done well out of the free trade treaty, so I am not sure if he will fulfil that promise. It will depend on the strength of the protectionist lobby in the US. More broadly, it will be interesting to see if the US, the IMF and World Bank continue to promote neoliberalism in Latin America now that the US has clearly abandoned it at home.

Grace Livingstone is a journalist and the author of Inside Colombia: Drugs, Democracy and War

Bookmark and Share