There are still many people who believe that United States foreign policy is dictated by concern for peace, poverty and human rights. Many of them are to be found amongst Labour MPs, not least in the Shadow Cabinet. The main protagonist of such thinking in Britain is the BBC – which some people are still concerned to ‘defend’ against the wicked Tory government.
reveal a coordinated assault against Latin America’s left-wing governments.
Alexander Main; Dan Beeton
this summer, the world watched Greece try to resist a disastrous neoliberal diktat
and get a painful thrashing in the process.
|Rafael Correa of Bolivia – another US target|
Greece’s left government decided to hold a national referendum on the
troika-imposed austerity program, the European Central Bank retaliated by
restricting liquidity for Greek banks. This triggered a prolonged bank closure
and plunged Greece further into recession.
Greek voters ended up massively rejecting austerity, Germany and the European
creditor cartel were able to subvert democracy and get exactly what they
wanted: complete submission to their neoliberal agenda.
the last decade and a half, a similar fight against neoliberalism has been
waged across the breadth of an entire continent, and mostly outside of the
public eye. Although Washington initially sought to quash all dissent, often
employing even fiercer tactics than those used against Greece, Latin America’s
resistance to the neoliberal agenda has in large part been successful. It’s an
epic tale that’s gradually coming to light thanks to continued exploration of
the massive trove of US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks.
|Chavez and Argentina’s President Kirchner who defaulted on IMF debt|
was firmly implanted in Latin America long before Germany and the eurozone
authorities began force-feeding structural adjustment to Greece and other
indebted, peripheral countries. Through coercion (e.g., conditions attached to
IMF loans) and indoctrination (e.g., the US-backed training of the region’s
“Chicago Boys”), the US succeeded in spreading the gospel of fiscal austerity,
deregulation, “free trade,” privatization, and draconian public sector
downsizing throughout Latin America by the mid-1980s.
outcome was strikingly similar to what we’ve seen in Greece: stagnant growth
(almost no per capita income growth for the twenty years from 1980-2000),
rising poverty, declining living standards for millions, and plenty of new
opportunities for international investors and corporations to make a quick
in the late ‘80s, the region began to convulse and rise up against neoliberal
policies. At first, the rebellion was mostly spontaneous and unorganized — as
was the case with Venezuela’s Caracazo uprising in early 1989.
then, anti-neoliberal political candidates began to win elections and, to the
shock of the US foreign policy establishment, an increasing number of them
stuck to their campaign promises and began implementing anti-poverty measures
and heterodox policies that reasserted the state’s role in the economy.
1999 to 2008, left-leaning candidates won presidential elections in Venezuela,
Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia, Honduras, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and
of the story of the US government’s efforts to contain and roll back the
anti-neoliberal tide can be found in the tens of thousands of WikiLeaked diplomatic cables from the
region’s US diplomatic missions, dating from the early George W. Bush years to
the beginning of President Obama’s administration.
cables — which we analyze in the new book, The
WikiLeaks Files: The World According to US Empire — reveal the
day-to-day mechanics of Washington’s political intervention in Latin America
(and make a farce of the State Department mantra that “the US doesn’t interfere
in the internal politics of other countries”).
and strategic support is provided to right-wing opposition groups, some of
which are violent and anti-democratic. The cables also paint a vivid picture of
the Cold War ideological mindset of senior US emissaries and show them
attempting to use coercive measures reminiscent of the recent chokehold applied
to Greek democracy.
the major media has largely missed or ignored this disturbing chronicle of
imperial aggression, preferring to focus instead on US diplomats’ accounts of
potentially embarrassing or illicit actions taken by foreign officials. The few
pundits that have offered bigger picture analysis of the cables typically
assert that there is no significant gap between US official rhetoric and the
reality depicted in the cables.
doesn’t get an image of the United States as this all-powerful puppet master
trying to pull the strings of various governments around the world to serve its
close look at the cables, however, clearly belies this assertion.
late 2005, Evo Morales won a landslide victory in the Bolivian presidential
elections on a platform of constitutional reform, indigenous rights, and a
promise to combat poverty and neoliberalism. On January 3, just two days after
his inauguration, Morales received a visit from US Ambassador David L.
Greenlee. The ambassador cut straight
to the chase: US-vetted multilateral assistance to Bolivia would hinge on
the good behavior of the Morales government. It could have been a scene from The
ambassador] showed the crucial importance of US contributions to key
international financial [sic] on which Bolivia depended for assistance, such as
the International Development Bank (IDB), the World Bank and the International
Monetary Fund. “When you think of the IDB, you should think of the US,” the
Ambassador said. “This is not blackmail, it is simple reality.”
Morales stuck to his agenda. Over the next few days he forged ahead with plans
to re-regulate labor markets, re-nationalize the hydrocarbons industry and
deepen cooperation with Washington’s arch-nemesis Hugo Chávez.
suggested a “menu of options” to try to force Morales to bend to the will
of his government. These included: vetoing multi-million dollar multilateral
loans, postponing scheduled multilateral debt relief, discouraging Millennium
Challenge Corporation funding (which Bolivia has still never received, despite
being one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere) and cutting off “material
support” to Bolivian security forces.
for the State Department, it soon became clear that these sorts of threats
would be duly ignored. Morales had already decided to drastically reduce
Bolivia’s reliance on multilateral credit lines that required US Treasury
vetting. Within weeks of his taking office, Morales announced that Bolivia
would no longer be beholden to the IMF, and let the loan agreement with the
Fund expire. Years later, Morales would advise
Greece and other indebted European countries to follow Bolivia’s example and
“economically free themselves from the International Monetary Fund’s dictate.”
to force Morales to do its bidding, the State Department began focusing instead
on strengthening the Bolivian opposition. The opposition-controlled Media
Luna region began receiving increased US assistance. A cable from April
2007 discusses “USAID’s larger effort to strengthen regional governments as
a counter-balance to the central government.”
from 2007 stated that its Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) “ha[d]
approved 101 grants for $4,066,131 to help departmental governments operate
more strategically.” Funds also went to
local indigenous groups that were “opposed to Evo Morales’ vision for
year later, the Media Luna departments would engage in open rebellion
against the Morales government, first holding referenda on autonomy, despite
these having been ruled illegal by the national judiciary; then supporting
violent pro-autonomy protests that left at least twenty government supporters
believed an attempted coup was unfolding. The situation only calmed under pressure
from all the other presidents of South America, who issued a joint declaration
of support for the country’s constitutional government.
as South America rallied behind Evo, the United States was in regular
communication with the leaders of the separatist opposition movement, even
as they spoke openly of “blow[ing] up gas lines” and “violence as a probability
to force the government to . . . take seriously any dialogue.”
to its official posture during the events of August and September 2008, the
State Department took the possibility of a coup d’etat against, or the
assassination of, Bolivian President Evo Morales seriously.
reveals plans by the US embassy in La Paz to prepare for such an event: “[The
Emergency Action Committee] will develop, with [the US Southern Command
Situational Assessment Team], a plan for immediate response in the event of a
sudden emergency, i.e. a coup attempt or President Morales’ death,” the cable
events of 2008 were the greatest challenge yet to Morales’s presidency, and the
closest he came to being toppled. The embassy’s preparations for Morales’s
possible departure from the presidency reveal that the United States, at least,
believed the threat to Morales to be very real. That it did not say so publicly
only underscores which side Washington was taking during the conflict, and
which outcome it probably preferred.
of the methods of intervention deployed in Bolivia were mirrored in other
countries with left governments or strong left-wing movements. For instance,
after the return of the left-wing Sandinistas to power in Nicaragua in 2007,
the US embassy in Managua went into high gear to bolster support for right-wing
opposition party Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN).
February 2007, the embassy met with the ALN planning coordinator and explained
that the US did “not provide direct assistance to political parties,” but — in
order to bypass this restriction — suggested that the ALN coordinate more
closely with friendly NGOs that could receive US funding.
ALN leader said she would “forward a comprehensive list of NGOs that indeed
support ALN efforts” and the embassy arranged for her to “next meet with IRI
[International Republican Institute] and NDI [National Democratic Institute for
International Affairs] country directors.” The cable
also noted that the embassy would “follow up on capacity building for [ALN]
like this one should be required reading for students of US diplomacy and those
interested in understanding how the US “democracy promotion” system really
works. Through USAID, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), NDI, IRI and
other para-governmental entities, the US government provides extensive
assistance to political movements that support US economic and political
March 2007, the US ambassador in Nicaragua asked the State
Department to provide “approximately $65 million above our recent past base
levels over the next four years — through the next Presidential elections” so
as to fund the “the strengthening of political parties, “democratic” NGOs, and
“small, flexible grants on short notice to groups engaging in critical efforts
that defend Nicaragua’s democracy, advance our interests, and counter those who
rail against us.”
Ecuador, the US embassy opposed left-wing economist Rafael Correa well ahead of
the 2006 elections that swept him into office. Two months before those
elections, the embassy’s political counselor alerted Washington
that Correa could be expected to “join the Chavez-Morales-Kirchner group of
nationalist-populist South American leaders,” and noted that the embassy had “warned
our political, economic, and media contacts of the threat Correa represents to
Ecuador’s future, and had actively discouraged political alliances which could
balance Correa’s perceived radicalism.” Immediately following Correa’s
election, the embassy cabled the
State Department with their game plan:
are under no illusions that USG efforts alone will shape the direction of the
new government or Congress, but hope to maximize our influence by working in
concert with other Ecuadorians and groups who share our views. Correa’s reform
proposals and attitude toward Congress and traditional political parties, if
unchecked, could extend the current period of political conflict and instability.
embassy’s worst fears were confirmed. Correa announced that he would close the
US air base in Manta, increase social spending, and push for a constituent
assembly. In April 2007, 80 percent of Ecuadorean voters endorsed the proposal
for a constituent assembly and in 2008, 62 percent approved a new constitution
that enshrined a host of progressive principles, including food sovereignty,
the rights to housing, health care and employment, and executive control over
the central bank (an enormous no-no in the neoliberal playbook).
early 2009, Correa announced that Ecuador would partially default on its
foreign debt. The embassy was livid, about this and other recent actions, like
Correa’s decision to align Ecuador more closely with the left-wing Bolivarian
Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) group of nations (which was
initiated by Venezuela and Cuba in 2004 as a counter-force to the Free Trade
Area of the Americas, then being pushed by the Bush administration). But the
ambassador was also conscious that the US had little leverage
are conveying the message in private that Correa’s actions will have
consequences for his relationship with the new Obama Administration, while
avoiding public comments that would be counterproductive. We do not recommend
terminating any USG programs that serve our interests since that would only
weaken the incentive for Correa to move back into a more pragmatic mode.
partial default was successful, and saved the Ecuadorean government close to $2
billion. In 2011 Correa recommended the same medicine for indebted European
countries, particularly Greece, advising them to default on their debt payments and
“ignore” the IMF’s advice.
the Cold War, the supposed threat of Soviet and Cuban communist expansion
served to justify countless interventions to remove left-leaning governments
and prop up right-wing military regimes.
the WikiLeaks cables show how, in the 2000s, the specter of Venezuelan
“Bolivarianism” has been used to validate interventions against new
anti-neoliberal left governments, like those of Bolivia, depicted as having
“fallen openly into Venezuela’s embrace;” or Ecuador, seen as a “stalking-horse
relations with the left government of Hugo Chávez soured early on. Chávez,
first elected president in 1998, broadly rejected neoliberal economic policies,
developed a close relationship with Cuba’s Fidel Castro, and loudly criticized
the Bush administration’s assault on Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks
(the US pulled its ambassador from Caracas after Chávez proclaimed: “You can’t
fight terrorism with terrorism”).
later strengthened the government’s control of the oil sector, increasing
royalties paid by foreign corporations and using oil revenue to finance popular
health, education and food programs for the poor.
April 2002, the Bush administration publicly endorsed a short-lived military
coup that removed Chávez from power for forty-eight hours. National Endowment
for Democracy documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act showed that the US provided “democracy promotion” funding
and training to groups that backed the coup and that were later involved in efforts
to remove Chávez through a managerial “strike” that paralyzed the oil industry
in late 2002 and plunged the country into recession.
cables show that, following these failed attempts to topple Venezuela’s elected
government, the US continued to back the Venezuelan opposition through NED and
USAID. In a November
2006 cable, then Ambassador William Brownfield explained the USAID/OTI
strategy to undermine the Chávez administration:
August of 2004, Ambassador outlined the country team’s 5 point strategy to
guide embassy activities in Venezuela for the period [2004–2006]
. . . The strategy’s focus is: 1) Strengthening Democratic
Institutions, 2) Penetrating Chavez’ Political Base, 3) Dividing Chavismo, 4)
Protecting Vital US business, and 5) Isolating Chavez internationally.
close ties that exist between the US embassy and various opposition groups are
apparent in numerous cables. One cable
from Brownfield links Súmate — an opposition NGO that played a central role in
opposition campaigns — to “our interests in Venezuela.” Other cables
reveal that the State Department has lobbied
for international support for Súmate and encouraged US financial,
political, and legal
support for the organization, much of it funneled through the NED.
August 2009, Venezuela was rocked by violent opposition protests (as has
occurred a number of times under both Chávez and his successor Nicolas Maduro).
cable from August 27 cites USAID/OTI contractor Development Alternatives,
Incorporated (DAI) referring to “all” the people protesting Chávez at the time
as “our grantees”:
employee] Eduardo Fernandez said that “the streets are hot,” referring to
growing protests against Chavez’s efforts to consolidate power, and “all these
people (organizing the protests) are our grantees.”
also reveal that the US State Department provided training and support to a
student leader it acknowledged had led crowds with the intention “to lynch” a
Chavista governor: “During the coup of April 2002, [Nixon] Moreno participated
in the demonstrations in Merida state, leading crowds who marched on the state
capital to lynch MVR governor Florencio Porras.”
a few years after this, another cable
notes: “Moreno participated in [a State Department] International Visitor
Program in 2004.”
would later be wanted for attempted murder and threatening a female police
officer, among other charges.
in line with the five-point strategy as outlined by Brownfield, the State
Department prioritized efforts to isolate the Venezuelan government
internationally and counter its perceived influence throughout the region.
Cables show how heads of US diplomatic missions in the region developed
coordinating strategies to counter the Venezuelan regional “threat.”
WikiLeaks first revealed in December 2010, the US chiefs of mission for six
South American countries met in Brazil
in May 2007 to develop a joint response to President Chávez’s alleged
“aggressive plans … to create a unified Bolivarian movement throughout Latin
America.” Among the areas of action that the mission chiefs agreed on was a
plan to “continue to strengthen ties to those military leaders in the region
who share our concern over Chávez.” A similar
meeting of US mission chiefs from Central America — focused on the “threat”
of “populist political activities in the region” — took place at the US embassy
in El Salvador in March of 2006.
diplomats went to great lengths to try to prevent Caribbean and Central
American governments from joining Petrocaribe, a Venezuelan regional energy
agreement that provides oil to members at extremely preferential terms. Leaked
cables show that, while US officials privately acknowledged the economic
benefits of the agreement for member countries, they were concerned that
Petrocaribe would increase Venezuela’s political influence in the region.
Haiti, the embassy worked closely with big oil companies to try and prevent the
government of René Préval from joining Petrocaribe, despite acknowledging that
it “would save USD 100 million per year,” as was first reported by Dan Coughlin and Kim Ives in the Nation.
In April 2006,the embassy cabled
from Port-au-Prince: “Post will continue to pressure [Haitian president René]
Preval against joining PetroCaribe. Ambassador will see Preval’s senior advisor
Bob Manuel today. In previous meetings, he has acknowledged our concerns and is
aware that a deal with Chavez would cause problems with us.”
must keep in mind that the WikiLeaks cables don’t offer glimpses of the more covert
activities of US intelligence agencies, and are likely only the tip of the
iceberg when it comes to Washington’s political interference in the region.
Still, the cables provide ample evidence of US diplomats’ persistent,
determined efforts to intervene against independent left governments in Latin
America, using financial leverage, the manifold instruments available in the
“democracy promotion” toolbox — and sometimes even through violent and illegal
the Obama administration’s restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba, there
is no indication that policy toward Venezuela and other left governments in
Latin America has fundamentally changed.
the administration’s hostility toward the elected Venezuelan government is
unrelenting. In June 2014, Vice President Joe Biden launched the Caribbean
Energy Security Initiative, seen as an “antidote” to Petrocaribe. In March
2015, Obama declared Venezuela an “extraordinary security threat” and announced sanctions
against Venezuelan officials, a move unanimously criticized by other countries
in the region.
despite incessant US aggression, the Left has largely prevailed in Latin
America. With the exception of Honduras and Paraguay, where right-wing coups
ousted elected leaders, nearly every left movement that came to power in the
last fifteen years remains in office today.
as a result of these governments, from 2002-2013 the poverty
rate for the region fell from 44 to 28 percent after actually worsening
over the prior two decades. These successes, and the willingness of left
leaders to take risks in order to break free of the neoliberal diktat, should
be an inspiration for Europe’s new anti-austerity left today.
some of the governments are experiencing significant difficulties today, in
part due to a regional economic downturn that has affected right- and left-wing
governments alike. But seen through the lens of the cables, there are good
reasons to question whether all of these difficulties are homegrown.
instance, in Ecuador — where president Correa is under attack from the Right,
and from some sectors of the Left — protests against the government’s new
progressive tax proposals involve the same opposition-aligned business leaders
that US diplomats are seen strategizing with in the cables.
Venezuela, where a dysfunctional currency control system has generated high
inflation, violent right-wing student protests seriously destabilized the
country. The odds are extremely high that some of these protestors have
received funding and/or training from USAID or NED, which saw its Venezuela
budget increase 80 percent from 2012 to 2014.
is still much more that we can learn from the WikiLeaks cables. For the “Latin
America and the Caribbean” chapters of The WikiLeaks Files, we pored
through hundreds of WikiLeaks cables, and were able to identify distinct
patterns of US intervention that we describe at greater length in the book
(some of these previously reported by others). Other book authors did the same
for other regions of the world. But there are over 250,000 cables (nearly
35,000 from Latin America alone) and there are undoubtedly many more notable
aspects of US diplomacy in action that are waiting to be uncovered.
following the initial excitement when the cables were first released, few
reporters and scholars have shown much interest in them. Until this changes,
we’ll be lacking a full account of how the US state sees itself in the world,
and how its diplomatic arm responds to the challenges posed to its hegemony.
Main and Dan Beeton work at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in
Washington, DC. They are contributors to The WikiLeaks
Files: The World According to US Empire.