A Brief History of U.S. Intervention in Latin America During the 20th Century

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By Quentin Choy

March 9, 2021

While the United States was heavily involved in the domestic affairs of Central America, South America, and the Caribbean, the 20th Century saw a changing dynamic in American interests and justification for U.S. interventionism in the region.

Various patterns for intervention throughout the 1935 to 1990 period included protection of U.S. economic and corporate interests, geostrategic advantages, maintaining regimes of U.S.-backed leaders, spreading of democracy, and the fear of communist incursion into the Western Hemisphere.

These justifications play out in several interventions during the aforementioned time period which include Guatemala, Cuba, Nicaragua, Grenada, and Panama.

While similar in some ways, these interventions will demonstrate how changing political structures, ideological battles, and economic interests changed and continued throughout the 1935-1990 period of U.S. intervention. 

Guatemala (1954)

Guatemala was the clearest example of U.S. intervention justified by the protection of U.S. economic interests. With the interests of the United Fruit Company (UFCO) at stake and with the Dulles Brothers both having worked for UFCO, their positions as both the Secretary of State and CIA Director propelled this intervention to the forefront of American foreign policy priorities.

The target of the brothers’ wrath was none other than President Jacobo Arbenz whose leftists reforms allowed him to be labeled as a communist by the U.S. government with the U.S. ambassador to Guatemala saying that Arbenz “talked like a communist, thought like a communist, acted like a communist, and if he is not one, he will do until one comes along.”

President Arbenz, a modernizer, legalized the Communist Party in Guatemala, passed land reform which aimed to distribute over 1 million acres of land to peasant families, and was prepared to expropriate 234,000 uncultivated acres of UFCO land. The planned expropriation of UFCO land was the inciting factor for CIA intervention in Guatemala and the eventual overthrow of Arbenz.

Lies about Arbenz spread through the country, with many now believing he was going to ban Catholic Holy Week, exile the archbishop, and force young children into reeducation centers.

After Arbenz realized that he would not be protected by his military, many of whom were anti-communists, Arbenz handed the presidency to Colonel Carlos Enrique Diaz who stepped down and was replaced by Castillo Armas and his military junta, who would reverse Arbenz’s reforms and would be friendly to American economic interests.

Colonel Carlos Enrique Diaz

The reversal of Arbenz’s reforms disillusioned poor and indigenous Guatemalans to their government and sparked guerilla resistance which killed around 200,000 people and destabilized the region while decreasing trust in the Guatemalan state.

This intervention clearly showed the justifications of anti-communism, protection of U.S. economic interests, and started a pattern, demonstrating that interventions decrease faith in the government and prevent necessary reforms to improve Latin America out of fear of being labeled a communist by the United States. 

Nicaragua (1979)

The case for U.S. intervention in Nicaragua was to combat armed resistance within the country against Anastasio “Tachito” Somoza Debayle.

The Sandinista Revolution led by Daniel Ortega prevailed against Somonza and began enacting social programs involving health, agriculture, literacy, and more which sought to undo decades of “U.S.-friendly thieving dictatorship” while allowing Cubans and Soviets into the country.

The U.S. had lost a key regional ally in Somoza and they were prepared to fight the Sandinistas to bring an American puppet back into power. Reagan believed that the Sandinistas helped spread communism throughout Central America which continued the Cold War theme of opposing reform through anti-communist intervention.

The CIA-funded Contras helped to fight the Sandinistas, and they were supported by Nicaraguans fearful of the hardening revolution which was becoming more atheistic, enacted rationing, and lowered prices for crops and livestock.

After the loss of 30,000 lives in the war, an election was held between Ortega and Violeta Chamorro, in which Chamorro, an anti-Sandinista candidate was victorious.

Daniel Ortega. Courtesy of BBC.

The Nicaraguan intervention demonstrated a continuation of anti-communist interventions framed within the context of the Cold War and continued support for U.S.-backed regional allies who were also staunch anti-communists. However, Nicaragua was different in that times were changing globally with the fall of communism, and the U.S. government was seemingly souring toward CIA coups and unilateral intervention with the passing of the Boland Amendments restricting Reagan’s powers in supporting the Contras.

Violetta Chamorro. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Grenada (1983)

Grenada is perhaps the most unusual 20th Century intervention because it differed from the others in several ways. One of the most unusual features of this intervention was the small size of the country compared to others as well as the historical context in which the Grenada invasion fell. The United States was still reeling from the Iran hostage crisis, and bombings in Beirut, Lebanon killed hundreds of U.S. soldiers that same week. This trauma would be used to justify the invasion of the small island-nation, with Reagan using 600 U.S. students on the island as the victims who needed to be saved, drawing parallels to Iran and with the Beirut bombings justifying the quick, decisive use of force. One of the most predictable features of this intervention was the justification of anti-communism in the region following the killing of Marxist, Maurice Bishop by Bernard Coard, who was even more extreme and was viewed as a communist. Reagan also believed that Grenada was being used to support Cuban and Soviet interests with the construction of an airbase even though Grenada had no air force. While the U.S. military faced several shortcomings during the invasion, several objectives were achieved. Reagan’s approval rating lept by at least 20 points. Communist aggression was curbed, American students were rescued, the Cubans were intimidated, and secret military agreements between Grenada, the Soviets, and the North Koreans were revealed. While the invasion was still viewed as unilateral intervention by the Americans, it was supported by the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States, 91 percent of Grenadians, and by a majority of Americans while upsetting Margaret Thatcher, seething across the pond.

U.S. forces in Grenada. Courtesy of Libcom.org

Panama (1989)

Panama differed from nearly all other 20th Century U.S. interventions in Latin America because rather than being justified by anti-communism or protecting U.S. economic interests, the intervention was justified by the spreading of democracy and democratic ideals. Manuel Noriega, the military leader of Panama was a modern caudillo, a strongman “accused of murder, drug trafficking, corruption, electoral fraud, and orchestrating his predecessor, Torrijo’s plane crash.” The National Civic Crusade (NCC) was the opposition to Noriega, and they were secretly supported by the CIA with $10 million. The invasion of Panama was justified for several reasons including his history of drug trafficking, his cracking down on political opponents and opposition, and the idea that Noriega simply “knew too much” because of his involvement with the Cubans, Colombians, El Salvadorans, Syrians, Palestinians, the Contras, and the intervention in Nicaragua. Bush also didn’t want to be viewed as a weak leader, and harassment of U.S. personnel in Panama near the Canal Zone needed to be protected.

Norriega’s mugshot following his capture. Courtesy of Britannica.

The killing of First Lieutenant Robert Paz by the Panamanian military was the inciting factor for American invasion. Colin Powell’s comment revealed his sentiments about the role of the U.S. in the Western Hemisphere in regards to Panama, saying that Washington needs to reaffirm that “the superpower lives here.” Domestic politics benefitted from the invasion for Bush as it did for Reagan with Grenada with 80 percent of Americans approving the invasion and with 90 percent of Panamanians approving of it. However, the U.S. was viewed as too unilateral in its actions and the invasion was officially deemed a violation of international law by the UN. The spread of democracy, the invasion’s justification was successful with democratically-elected presidents being sworn in and with power being passed on peacefully. Noriega’s arrest also marked a changing, modernizing time in terms of international affairs with American intervention being “less barbaric” to a certain extent with leaders being allowed to live rather than killed in interventions, since the threat of communism no longer haunted American minds as it once did.

The changing justifications and motivations for U.S. intervention in Latin America is important to follow to understand U.S. involvement around the world. With the collapse of communism as a global threat, the invasion of Panama is the most “modern” of the interventions, justified by the spreading of democracy mirrored in U.S. intervention in Iraq in 2003 and in U.S. political involvement in Bolivia and Venezuela in the last few years. While communism is no longer a legitimate justification for intervention, the spreading of democracy to undemocratic countries may be that new justification, coupled with geostrategic advantages, protection of U.S. economic interests, and maintaining the regimes of U.S.-backed leaders.

McPherson, Alan. A Short History of U.S. Interventions in Latin America and the Caribbean. West Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell, 2016. 

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