U.S. applauds (and orchestrates) military coups in Latin America

by Clay Wadena

Western writers often write about Latin Americans as some sort of child-like race that “found” democracy late and has had trouble grasping it ever since. They treat them—as they do the oppressed all around the world—with arrogance and paternalism the likes of which one hears in the imperialist logic of “bringing democracy” to Iraq.

The underlying tone of these articles implies that it is somehow a result of Latinos’ cultural peculiarities (an “affinity for caudillos,” among other things) that has led to so many coups and dictatorships. This subtle racism gives a free pass to the imperialists and capitalists, who comprise the real reason why Latin Americans have had any “difficulty” democratically deciding their destiny.

There is a long and tragic history in Latin America of coups and dictatorships, and the blood of the innocent stains the hands of the right-wing elements in their home nations and their imperial handlers.

Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz was ousted in 1954 in a CIA-backed coup, in a scenario that would unfortunately become recurring. Arbenz had renegotiated the land rights of United Fruit Company, a notorious U.S. company that had made vast profits in Guatemala. The CIA funded ambitious military brass to overthrow the democratically elected Arbenz, terrorized urban and rural supporters of the president, and bombarded the country with hostile propaganda that threatened to use the full force of the imperialist military. The coup was successful and would be replicated: the CIA would act quickly when any leader renegotiated the privileges of American corporations in Latin America.

In 1973, Chilean President Salvador Allende would also fall to a military coup, but he—unlike Arbenz—wouldn’t make it out alive. Allende had threatened to nationalize the copper mines of Chile, the most important export of Chile, and the industry most dominated by U.S. capitalist interests. He tried his hardest to carve out a third way, “La Via Chilena,” independent of Western capitalism and Eastern bureaucratic “communism,” but his mild attempts at reform were met with another CIA-backed coup.

U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, speaking at the time, demonstrated the capitalists’ view of the “hallowed” principles of democracy when he said that “the issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves.” The incoming military regime of Augusto Pinochet became among the most brutal in South America—quickly liquidating the radicalized elements of Chilean society.

Both Arbenz and Allende had pursued leftist agendas of varying degrees, but neither was actively attempting to fundamentally dismantle capitalism and build a social system based on human needs (despite what their imperialist detractors claimed). Also, they both had chances to give arms to workers’ militias who were demanding them—hoping to defend their social gains and democratic rights by any means necessary—but neither president did, leaving the working class exposed and vulnerable as the right wing’s heel fell upon them.

Today we continue to see military coups taking place, with the successful coup in Honduras last year and the failed coup attempt in Ecuador on Sept. 30 being the most recent examples. Much as they did during coups of the past, the capitalist media is quick to “put the spin” on these events and portray them positively.

In an op-ed published by the San Francisco Examiner recently, Jaime Daremblum wrote that the Honduran military coup of 2009 was “a remarkable democratic achievement.” This is in reference to the Honduran military taking the democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya prisoner (in the middle of the night) and putting him on a plane to Costa Rica at gunpoint! It’s hard to imagine the twisted logic needed to couch this event in positive terms, but this is the usual modus operandi for the big-business press.

President Zelaya had raised the minimum wage and was attempting to hold a referendum on convening a constituent assembly that threatened to infringe on the profits and privileges of the Honduran oligarchy. The military and oligarchs opted to remove Zelaya in the traditional style—a coup—but did everything they could to portray it to the world as legal. The Honduran oligarchy even went to the lengths of securing lawyers that could legally cover their tracks and give apologists like Daremblum their talking points.

The grisly repression in Honduras following the coup has been chronicled by groups like Amnesty International since the coup first took place (see Socialist Action of April 2010, “Repression Continues In Honduras”) and shows no signs of letting up.

Most recently at least six campesino farmers, members of the Unified Campesino Movement of Aguan (MUCA), were murdered by private mercenaries protecting their wealthy employer’s land. According to the president of the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights in Honduras (CODEH), the employer, Miguel Facusse, is responsible for over 19 farmers’ deaths since December 2009.

It has gotten so bad that 30 members of Congress have signed a statement, recently sent to the Obama administration, requesting that American assistance and aid be suspended to the Honduran military and police. The Obama administration, exposing its own twisted logic, has said that they don’t intend to suspend funding and training to the groups that shield these unaccountable murderers—yet they continue to impose an embargo on Cuba over supposed human rights’ violations.

The Honduran coup was a well-organized operation with major institutional support from every branch of government, the entire military brass, and a small privileged sector of Honduran society that was ready to mobilize. The Ecuadorean coup attempt, on the other hand, seemed more of a spontaneous confrontation that escalated into a coup attempt amid a general atmosphere in which the right wing is very volatile. But even though the attempted coup wasn’t as well planned, it was not bloodless.

When President Rafael Correa confronted the police officers that were on strike (over a proposed elimination of their promotion bonuses), the police officers responded by tear gassing Correa and then holding him hostage until army commandos freed him in a hail of gunfire. In the meantime, supporters of Correa had clashed with the police officers—leaving hundreds wounded and a handful dead.

The mere fact that some of Correa’s captors gave their lives in an effort to continue to hold him should be enough to convince anyone that it elevated into a situation where it qualified as a coup attempt. Nevertheless, Western media was filled with articles extolling readers not to get caught up in Correa’s “misinformation,” claiming instead that it was just a publicity stunt by the Ecuadorean president.

The Times of London ran a headline after the Honduran coup titled, “Latin American coups have become positively old-fashioned,” noting in the article that it was a huge achievement for democracy that coups were so infrequent in Latin America now. There is no reason to assume that the tactic of the military coup is falling out of grace with the capitalist class. But they are cognizant that the world is watching; hence they have increased their efforts at making sure these actions are seen as legitimate and legal.

Malcolm X once said, “The press is so powerful in its image-making role, it can make a criminal look like he’s the victim and make the victim look like he’s the criminal.” In the same way, the capitalists will tell us a democratically elected president is an autocrat, and that coup-makers are defenders of liberty and democracy.

While many in the right wing mischaracterize these center-left leaders as “communists,” there are also those on the left who believe these leaders have revolutionary credentials or that they are steadfast allies to the revolutionary struggle. But both Correa and Zelaya had only been pursuing rather limited reforms when they ran afoul of the right-wing elements in their home countries. Much like Arbenz and Allende before them, they were not attempting to conquer the capitalists.

Revolutionary socialists stand with the masses of these countries when their democratic rights come under attack, and support their right to have their elected leaders serve their full term. This solidarity continues into the aftermath, such as the struggles the FNRP (Resistance Front) in Honduras continues to go through today as it pushes ahead for a legitimate Constituent Assembly.

But we also raise the alarm: reformist leaders will leave workers unprepared and vulnerable when the right-wing attack comes. Their perspective neither takes the threat of the capitalist class seriously enough nor prepares for defense against and victory over that class.

Even President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, a man that many revolutionaries around the world regard as a comrade, has faults in this area. While it is true that Chavez has armed workers in his country to an extent, something that no other leader we have mentioned did, the weaknesses of his political perspective are evident.

For example, when speaking this year to 35,000 assembled members of the civilian militia on the anniversary of the 2002 failed coup against him, Chavez said that in the event of his assassination the militia should “know what [they] would have to do. Simply take all power in Venezuela, absolutely all, sweep away the bourgeoisie from all political and economic spaces, deepen the revolution.” This revolutionary program should be Chavez’ program for today, not the contingency plan for his death.

Workers everywhere have to be prepared for a right-wing offensive themselves, and cannot count on reformist leaders to properly defend against the right wing, let alone succeed in victory to socialism.

> This article was originally published in the December 2010 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.

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