Perspectives On U.S. Intervention In Latin American Affairs Through History

How has US intervention in Latin American affairs impacted social, political, and economic development in the region throughout history?


Basel Ammane – Program Editor of Canadian Armed Forces

Conquest, Age of Piracy, and Monroe Doctrine: 1492-1902

It is no exaggeration to describe the Spanish and Portuguese conquests of Latin America as a cataclysmic events that completely transformed the demographics, culture, economics and identity of that region. Superior European military technology and weaponry, as well as diseases (chiefly smallpox) that indigenous American populations lacked immunity to, were responsible for the subsequent demise of once flourishing empires (chiefly the Aztecs and the Incas) that possessed high degrees of cultural sophistication. What came afterward was the establishment of an agricultural system, known as the encomienda, that entrenched the economic domination of European colonizers and their descendants at the expense of mixed and indigenous people through the rewarding of land plots to the former. This forms the basis for the extremely uneven income distribution that characterizes the region in contemporary times.

With the rise of other European powers, Spain and Portugal’s domination of Latin America ceased to be uncontested. One of the ways competition over resources and trade in Latin America manifested itself was through piracy. Piratical activity, carried out by licensed privateers from the 16th to 18th century, can be divided into stages that reflect the power shifts and religious tensions among the various European powers who competed amongst each other. It reached its peak during the latter half of the 17th century as multinational pirate conglomerates attacked the established powers and sought to enrich themselves. The overall effect of this was to create an environment of political instability that, in addition to the effect of state power competition, fostered structural economic dependency of Latin America to Europe.

As a fledgling power that wrested its independence from Great Britain in 1778, the United States sought to shelter itself from the effects of European power competition by securing what it considered its “backyard.” The Monroe doctrine, issued by President James Monroe in 1823, stated “The American continents … are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers.” It was utilized on different occasions by successive presidents, but its greatest advocate was Theodore Roosevelt who prevented European countries from taking military action in Latin America to collect debt that was owed to them. The chief motive behind this policy was to secure order in these countries, but the doctrine became a justification for military intervention in Central America and the establishment of protectorates that experienced the brunt of US domination. As a consequence, the doctrine acquired a bad reputation. That is why  subsequent presidents sought to disassociate it from Roosevelt’s policies in the region.


Tiffany Kwok – Program Editor of Cyber Security and Information Warfare

Truman Doctrine and Communism: 1950s-1970s

Looking closely at the 1950s and 1970s, the topic of communism was prevalent in many developing countries around the world. Specifically, its significance and implications in relation to the Truman Doctrine and the United States reveal deeply embedded processes that continue to shape Latin American affairs today.

The Truman Doctrine was created in 1948 by United States President Harry S. Truman, for the primary stated purpose of  combating the influence of the communist Soviet Union. This was done in order to protect the Greek government from the Greek Communist Party, as well as to protect Turkey from the influence of the Soviet Union, following the British government’s decision to sever foreign aid. The $400,000,000 worth of aid provided for the two governments was backed by  the United States with the intent to “support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” All in all, the Truman Doctrine marked the official beginning of Cold War tensions and an era where Communist ideologies and practices became seen by many Americans as the epitome of the ultimate enemy against safety and democracy.

Recognizing the intense fear and paranoia that came with battling all actors and instances that  related to Communist sympathies, Operation PBSUCCESS, executed by the United States against Guatemala, is a good example of intervention in Latin American affairs, resulting in troublesome consequences. The 1954 Guatemalan coup overthrew President Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, under the conviction that “Arbenz threatened U.S. national security because of alleged Communist sympathies.” Although this was supposedly executed under CIA’s good intentions to prohibit the spread of communism in the Cold War era, the consequences of Operation PBSUCCESS resulted in four decades of instability and civil war in Guatemala. These interventions have always been performed with purportedly good intentions, on the executing end, and yet have almost always had potential to disrupt Latin America’s existing  political, economic, social, and cultural order.


Wu Xiao – Program Editor of Women in Security

Era of the Coups d’États and Operation Condor: 1970s-1990s

The most visible impact of American interventionism in contemporary Latin America can be seen in the continent’s successive military coups d’états in the 20th century. Coups d’états are violent and abrupt efforts to rapidly change a nation’s political system. Although studies show  a strong correlation between coups and unstable socio-political and economic environments, the 1973 Chilean coup and Operation Condor demonstrate how foreign interference can undermine the efforts of juvenile democratic systems to achieve self-determination.

The Chilean case study highlights the hypocrisy of American intentions and their unwarranted consequences. Chile pre-coup was the only Latin American nation with a stable democratic system. The 1970 elections brought this to a close when socialist candidate Salvador Allende ran for presidency. Despite American efforts to fund opposing parties, Allende succeeded in gaining over one-third of the popular vote. According to CIA records, the Nixon administration delivered immediate orders for the CIA to begin clandestine operations to overthrow the ‘Marxist-sympathizer’. The CIA administered tactics such as Track I strategies to infiltrate Chilean Congress and manipulate its socio-economic condition to incite a coup. Heavily reliant on American foreign aid, Chile suffered from rising inflation and drops in foreign investments. In 1973, Augusto Pinochet successfully overthrew Allende in a United States-backed military coup d’état. Pinochet’s military dictatorship entailed  the dissolution of Chile’s democratic structure and various human rights violations against both political opponents and civilians.

Similar political upheavals across the region within the same time frame reflected the larger influence of Washington. Operation Condor was a covert multinational alliance between Washington and Latin American intelligence agencies to utilize military forces (junta) against the threat of communist expansion in the Western hemisphere. Widespread kidnappings, exiles, and killings were ordered against socialist politicians; dictators were supported as long as they leaned in  Washington’s favour. Jorge Videla’s 1976 Argentine Coup and the subsequent Dirty War, as well as Panama’s Noriega are a few notable examples.

Although conducted with purported good intentions, the covert operations ran by the United States ultimately stunted Latin America’s path towards stability. However, the lesson of Latin America in the 20th century does not solely lie in American hands. Chile and its neighbours are a sobering reminder of the reality any nation faces when caught between the crossfire of two great powers vying for dominance on the global stage. History has shown time and again that smaller nations fall through the cracks, and the individuality of their socio-political climates is ignored in favour of generalized paranoia to further personal agendas. Nevertheless, the legacy of Latin America’s bloody past is integral to the strength and identity of its people.


Emma Tallon – Program Editor of Emerging Security

Modern Day Implications and Venezuela: 1990s-onwards

Venezuela, similar to other countries in Latin America, is no stranger to United States intervention. Whether it is halting the spread of communism or attempting to stabilize a regime to make it more “U.S. friendly,” U.S interference in Latin America’s foreign affairs continued past the Cold War. It is suspected by political analysts that the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) was heavily involved in undermining the rule of previous Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez. Previous Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro stated the U.S.’s past and present interventions in Latin American affairs are to blame for the ongoing social and economic crisis happening in Venezuela. To buttress  his argument, Maduro cited the heavy U.S. sanctions that began under the Obama Administration and deeply impacted Venezuela’s social and economic landscape. The U.S. imposed the sanctions to challenge and combat Maduro’s dictatorship. However, the sanctions resulted in a drastic cut off of Venezuela’s access to international supplies and capital. In a recent speech to his supporters, Maduro warned that “The U.S. is trying to mount a coup and install a puppet government to protect its interest in Venezuela.”  He is worried that the chain of American imperialist activities has not yet run its course and has vowed to put an end to U.S. intervention once and for all.

The U.S, similar to the United Kingdom and Canada, has recognized Juan Guaido, the leader of the opposition party, as the legitimate interim president. Following this announcement, Maduro publicly announced he was going to put an end to all relationships with the U.S. As a result, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo refuted the claim and stated that Maduro had no “legal authority” in the matter, as he is only backed by a segment of the international community. The relationship between the U.S. and Venezuela remains highly fraught . The Trump Administration  has not announced whether or not they are going to intervene militarily.  

However, it is important to note that although U.S. intervention in Latin American affairs is not new, there are fundamental differences that make the crisis even more unique and complex than its predecessors. Guaido does not plan to fully take over and become the president of Venezuela. Under Venezuela’s Constitution, when Guaido assumes power he must call an election within 30 days. Moreover, Guaido appears to have serious support  from Venezuelan citizens. These were not common characteristics of the past American interventions. It remains to be seen what further impact the U.S. will have on Venezuela, in terms of the political, social, and economic order. Numerous political analysts have come to the conclusion that unless Venezuela’s societal structure changes considerably, things are not likely to improve any time soon.


Photo: John F. Kennedy and Romlo Betancourt at La Morita, Venezuela, during an official meeting (Dec 16, 1961), by Historia de Venezuela en Imagenes, El Nacional via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

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