Uncle Sam. Photo: Public Domain Uncle Sam. Photo: Public Domain

The push for regime change in Venezuela represents the latest in an abhorrent history of intervention in Latin America, writes Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

The recent decision by the Western powers, most notably the United States and the European Parliament, to recognise an unelected, right wing figure as president of a sovereign state in Latin America must have struck many around the world as a crass and arrogant act without precedent.

For a long time, this kind of intervention was simply not practised. Having presented itself as the empire of liberty ever since the Second World War, while fighting the Cold War, the United States has excelled at presenting its actions around the world as motivated by defence of democracy.

But its longer-term record in Latin America is far more sinister and the recent moves against Nicolás Maduro represent a return to the more brazen tactics of the past.

Indeed, until the Second World War, the United States very openly intervened directly and military in the affairs of many Latin American states. There is a long list of direct American military interventions in the late 19th and early to mid 20th century in Colombia, Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama and Puerto Rico.

We can take Cuba as an example. Dressing itself in democratic garbs, and proclaiming solidarity with the decades-long anti-colonial movements in Cuba, the US entered war with Spain in the Caribbean in 1898.

But it was interested also in Cuban tobacco and sugar, and even more so in the strategic goal of securing what became later known as the Panama Canal, critical to connecting the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans for the purposes of trade.

Indeed, Cuba became independent under president Tomas Estrada Palma in 1902 – but not before it had accepted in its constitution that the US had the right to intervene in Cuban affairs (the so-called Platt Amendment). Duly, the US invaded Cuba in the period 1906-9, 1912 and again between 1917 and 1922.

The last named intervention was nicknamed ‘the sugar intervention’ – it was designed to put down peasant unrest and urban strikes, and ensure the rights of plantation owners and the production and transportation of sugar.

The US only gave up its right to intervene in Cuban affairs in 1934, just a year after a coup led by Sergeant Fulgencio Batista, who became Cuba’s strongman in a variety of positions until he was overthrown by Fidel Castro’s revolutionary forces in 1959. Batista had the backing of the United States for much of this period.

This indirect support to right wing strongmen was part of an overall shift in US policy that lasted until around 1980. The new policy involved less overt intervention, and what was known for decades as ‘developmental aid’ to local allies, which involved fostering agrarian reform, economic growth, and funding and training of security apparatuses.

Much of this was obviously aimed at taking the wind out of the sails of left wing radical oppositions and strengthening the local states’ capacities to put down their own populations in defence of private property and foreign investment.

This does not mean that overt US (military) intervention stopped. The US started its long-term blockade of Cuba in 1960, and, in 1965, for example, 22,000 US troops landed in the Dominican Republic to prevent what Washington feared would turn into a second Cuba.

But these kinds of policies had become the exception rather than the rule. Intervention in these decades tended to be covert, even if obvious. Examples include the CIA-orchestrated 1954 coup against the left in Guatemala, the CIA-backed attempt by Cuban exiles to overthrow Castro in the Bay of Pigs debacle in 1961, the CIA-backed military coup in Brazil in 1964, and perhaps most infamously the CIA-backed overthrow of the leftist Salvador Allende in 1973.

Other Western powers, of course, played a role too. It was recently revealed in released MI5 files that, fearful of left advances in democratic elections, Winston Churchill orchestrated a coup in British Guyana in 1953. Later, Britain allowed the CIA to use covert means to prevent similar outcomes in 1966. So it should be unsurprising that the Bank of England is currently withholding access to Venezuela’s gold reserves to President Nicolás Maduro.

But, despite the shameless US support for the right wing Contras in Nicaragua in the 1980s, Western imperialist policies appeared more subtle following the ebbing and end of the Cold War in that decade. Until the 2000s, there was more of a push for free markets and austerity measures by a series of right wing governments across the region. American interests were pursued indirectly through re-designing world economic rules to suit the new, neoliberal Washington Consensus.

Though profits soared for foreign companies, however, growth in the region was weak and poverty and inequality were on the increase. It was this that catalysed what became known as the ‘pink tide’ across Latin America, which brought soft left governments to power across the region and saw significant attempts at shoring up welfare states in countries like Bolivia, Brazil and Venezuela in the 2000s and 2010s.

Attempts to engineer coups did not stop, but they were rolled back, most obviously in 2002 in Venezuela, when the masses acted to stop the ouster of Hugo Chávez in a Western-backed coup. Many Latin American states rode a wave of increasing commodity prices that they had in plentiful possession, from oil to mining. This ensured the soft left temporary support from the subaltern classes.

But as the commodity prices began to fall in recent years, the welfare states of Latin America suffered. Moreover, US pressures re-intensified, in the form of sanctions (against Venezuela) or support for soft coups (illicit support for impeaching left wing politicians for corruption, and then having them unconstitutionally barred from standing in elections, as in Brazil).

The US is finding that the door is more open now than a decade ago. This is clearly in part due to the limitations of the ‘pink tide’ itself. Or, as the old adage puts it, he who makes a half-revolution digs his own grave. The soft lefts of Latin America largely never went beyond redistributive measures in economic terms. Now, their attempts at rolling back the US-backed right wing counter-offensive often look more like a resort to desperate authoritarian acts rather than the politics of emancipation.

With the US in decline, its ruling class in greater disarray than for many decades, and an authoritarian in the White House, the Latin American right will be even more emboldened than in the past to press its current advantage to the full. This will mean that victories for the right could be even more brutal than even under the military dictatorships.

The workers and poor of Latin America have a real fight on their hands. They will have to learn the lessons of the past to avoid more defeats. But they should have the right to decide matters in their own countries without external meddling. That means we are duty bound to exposing mercilessly and fighting the complicity of our own governments in the undemocratic outrages that are occurring in the countries of Latin America. This is the highest act of solidarity that we can offer.

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica

Vladimir Unkovski-Korica is a member of Marks21 in Serbia and a supporter of Counterfire. He is on the editorial board of LeftEast and teaches at the University of Glasgow.

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