The Cold War in Latin America


So how did the US support the fight against communism in Latin America? They sent money and weapons to governments fighting against leftist governments or insurgencies. More directly, they invited many officials from those governments to the prestigious US Army School of the Americas.

Located at Fort Benning in Georgia, the School of the Americas provided military training to government personnel from US-allied countries in Latin America. It was founded in 1946, just one year after the end of World War Two. The Cold War was on in Latin America. After 1961, its goal was specifically to teach, “anti-communist counterinsurgency training.”

Hundreds of military officials were also educated as they helped support conservative governments across Latin America. At the school, they learned about how to fight against guerrilla movements, how to use all the weapons the US was also giving their governments, and how to use torture in the fight against communists. Several Latin American dictators were educated here, let me tell you about a few. First, there’s Colonel Domingo Monterrosa from El Salvador. He was responsible for the El Mozote massacre of 800 civilians during the Salvadoran Civil War in 1981. Other military officers from El Salvador were also responsible for the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero and other Jesuit priests who resisted the dictatorship.

Or there’s Franck Romain from Haiti. He led a special operations unit organized by the Haitian dictator that assaulted and burned down a church in 1988 with dozens of people inside. More recently, Colombian Colonel Alberto Quijano attended the school. He was arrested in 2007 for providing security and mobilizing Colombian Special Forces in support of Don Diego, the leader of the Norte del Valle Cartel and one of the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted Criminals. Whoops.

I’m not saying that these people were told to do these terrible things by the US military. But I am saying that they were trained and supported by the US military in the name of the war on communism. Human rights activists have closely monitored the school and its graduates since the early 90s, documenting crimes committed by officers who came through the school. It was eventually closed in 2000.

Oh, but it reopened one month later but was just called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. I guess they figured the longer the name the more likely people would just give up and leave them alone. Not this girl! I see you School of the Americas…

How else did the US fight the Cold War in Latin America? When a government would start to say the words you can’t say if you don’t want to get overthrown, the US would send in the CIA and we would have a good old-fashioned coup. Sometimes these military overthrows were actually instigated by the US, but more often they just sent support down to already existing conservative groups, often the military. Unfortunately, there are a lot of instances of this happening but let’s look at one example.

In 1944, the Guatemalan people overthrow an authoritarian government and established a democracy. This new government introduced things like the minimum wage and universal suffrage, starting Guatemala on the path toward liberal democracy. In 1951 Jacobo Arbenz was elected president and he called for land reform. Oh no, “Don’t go in the basement Arbenz! There are bananas down there!” To be clear, he did not propose taking land that was already being used but just giving uncultivated land to landless peasants. The owners of the land were compensated and in the end, this reform only affected 1,700 out of over 350,000 landholdings in the country.

Arbenz also legalized the Communist Party – No! You’re going to get yourself killed! – although he himself was not a communist. Arbenz passed reforms that outlawed abusive labor practices, which the United Fruit Company had been using for decades. All of this combined to get Arbenz overthrown. Not by the people of Guatemala, they loved his reforms. But under President Eisenhower, the CIA implemented Operation PBSUCCESS. They funded, trained, and armed an army of Guatemalans to overthrow the democratically-elected government. Guatemala City was bombed and the U.S. blockaded the country with its navy. The coup was also supported by U.S.-funded campaign of psychological warfare. Radio stations broadcast anti-government propaganda and a false version of the coup as a national revolution. The CIA sent “death notices” to communist leaders for 30 days in a row. They would paint message on their houses like, “You have 5 days left,” and sent them coffins and nooses to intimidate them.

After briefly attempting to arm civilians and resist, Arbenz resigned in 1954 and a dictatorship was instated. This new government banned opposition parties, imprisoned and tortured political opponents, and reversed all of the social reforms of the democracy. 40 years of civil war followed in Guatemala between leftists and the military, including a genocide of the Mayan population in the country, often called the “Silent Holocaust.”

So there’s that. And just in case you were thinking, “Well that’s bad, but I mean… communism.” No. Arbenz wasn’t a communist. And the government found no evidence of Soviet influence in the country. And they looked for it. The international community condemned the coup and U.S. involvement which prompted another government operation called PBHISTORY. They scoured all of Arbenz’s communications for any evidence that could justify the coup and the didn’t find anything. What they did learn was that in the future, if they wanted to get involved, they would have to be more secretive.

Since we don’t have time right now to go over every example of the US helping take down a popularly chosen government, let me just list a few more:

  • 1961 – US backs Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo. After his assassination, the U.S. sent 22,000 troops to the Dominican Republic to help the military oust the new democratically president.
  • 1964 – Operation Brother Sam helped overthrow the President of Brazil and install a military government that would rule Brazil for the next 20 years.
  • 1973 – Kissinger brags that the U.S. “created the conditions for” the coup overthrowing democratically-elected Salvador Allende in Chile. The U.S. publicly criticized the subsequent regime of dictator Augusto Pinochet while secretly sending support. During Pinochet’s 16 years in power, 3,000 people were executed, 80,000 people were sent to internment camps, and tens of thousands were tortured by the government.
  • 1975 – The U.S. implements Operation Condor – a campaign of political repression and state-sponsored terror across South America meant to eradicate communism from the continent. At least 60,000 people were killed including union and peasant leaders, students and teachers, priests and nuns, and intellectuals and suspected leftists.
  • 1980s – the U.S. arms and supports the Contras in Nicaragua, a collection of right-wing rebel groups fighting the socialist government. More on this one next episode…

So yeah. Remember when I said this episode wouldn’t be quite as patriotic? Believe me – my intention is not to hate on the United States, although I get that it seems that way right about now. But it’s irresponsible to only teach about the good stuff. If we look back and think of the Cold War as just a very scary, very tense philosophical debate that’s irresponsible. I also think it’s problematic to keep calling it the Cold War. Because, yeah, the U.S. and the USSR never fought – but almost everywhere else in the world did.

I also think it’s important to learn this side of the story because Latin America is an incredibly important region for the United States, as allies in the hemisphere, potential trading partners, and the source of a lot of immigrants to our country. We have to learn their side of the story to understand just how much the decisions we make in the United States – which may seem like a really good, logical idea on our side of the border – have enormous impacts and ripple effects for our neighbors to the south.

So after the Cold War ended, support for these military dictatorships went out of fashion. Slowly, they were dismantled and new democracies have been growing in their place. But these democracies have a lot working against them, mostly a long tradition of corruption, corporate interference, and the threat of being ousted if their decisions are unpopular.

But one Latin American country did successfully avoid US overthrow, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying on our part…