As President Barack Obama makes history as the first sitting US president to visit Cuba since 1928, we find ourselves reflecting upon our historic relationship with Latin America.
We were all taught in school that the United States is a “great” and “kind” nation that promotes “freedom” and “democracy” around the world. And many still drink the Kool-Aid of how the US can do no wrong.
History, however, paints a rather different picture.
Suffering Under Empire
Latin America has suffered grievously as a result of the unfortunate circumstance of being located inthe same neighborhood as the mighty empire of the United States. This is really no different from subjugated territories of other empires in history, such as the Roman Empire or the Ottoman Empire. It is no fun living in the shadow of imperial domination because the empire exploits you. And if you step out of line, you are crushed like a bug.
The island of Cuba has had a particularly rough time when it comes to being exploited.
Cuba’s misfortune dates back to around 1500, with the historic journey of Christopher Columbus sailing from Spain across the Atlantic Ocean to “discover” America. Columbus found his way to Cuba, and the Spanish conquistadors quickly invaded it and colonized it.
This Spanish occupation of Cuba lasted for 400 years. Similar to the American Revolution in which American colonists sought freedom from Britain, so too the Cuban colonists began their own Cuban War for Independence to seek their freedom from Spain.
But alas, for at the last minute in 1898, the United States under President William McKinley swoopedin and intervened in the Cuban revolution under the Spanish-American War. The US military — including the soon-to-be president Theodore Roosevelt and his “rough riders” — took over Cuba, supposedly freeing it, but through diplomatic and military manipulation, effectively subjugating it.
The United States also snatched-up Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines from Spain in this Spanish-American War, and thus was born the imperial American empire expanding beyond its shores.
The United States self-righteously congratulated itself for spreading the wonders of “freedom” and “democracy” to other countries in the world. The “liberated” countries, however, did not quite experience the “liberty” part. Crushed were the hopes of the Cuban people for their own freedom.
For the next 60 years, the US empire dominated Cuba by exploiting its natural resources and usingthe Cuban population to perform the manual work by pressing them into the servitude of cheap labor.
The Cuban people, however, still yearned for their freedom, and the United States was repeatedly forced to send in the military to crush popular protests. But sending in the military every time was difficult, expensive and inefficient.
This did not bode so well back home in the US. There is a credibility problem when attempting to proclaim that the United States is promoting democracy and freedom in these foreign countries whenthe US is continually forced to send in its military to maintain this form of “democracy.” After all, it’s not exactly freedom when it is imposed by the US at gunpoint.
In a tribute to the ingenuity of American capitalism, the playbook was expanded to address this little problem and devise an ideal solution: the dictatorship.
The Empire’s Henchmen
A dictatorship would enable the US to continue to reap for itself all of the benefits of exploiting these foreign countries, while simultaneously covering up the dirty little downside of the violent oppression and making it all less visible to the US public.
The playbook is very simple: The foreign country remains as a separate “sovereign” nation, thereby creating the false appearance that it is independent and free. But a ruler is installed who is favorable to US interests. And the United States provides generous foreign aid to the country so the ruler can maintain internal “stability” and “law and order.”
In return, the expectations of the ruler are very simple and pretty much focused on two roles. First,the ruler must ensure that the foreign country enacts and maintains local laws that are very favorable to US corporations seeking to exploit the foreign country for profit.
Typically, this includes enacting laws that help push local people off their land in favor of vast corporate ownership, suppressing individual rights and labor rights to ensure a system of servitude, privatizing industries so the corporations can reap the profits, minimizing any measures in favor of thepublic interest and squashing any sort of environmental laws and other corporate regulations.
The second role of the ruler is to use the generous foreign aid from the United States to build up theinternal military and police forces, and use them not for national security, but instead, for brutally suppressing its own population to keep the people obedient to the US corporations and under theservitude of cheap labor.
The ruler is expected and required to employ any means necessary to maintain this internal “stability” and “law and order.” Of course, this almost always means a brutal and violent repression of those inthe civilian population who dare to question this illegitimate structure of power — including systemic imprisonment, kidnapping or disappearances, torture, rape and murder.
Now, why in the world would any ruler do such a disastrous thing in his own country and to his own population?
Simple: Wealth and power. That’s all it takes.
In exchange for performing the role of keeping the country “stable” and subservient to UScorporations, the ruler is permitted to accumulate enormous sums of money. Sometimes the ruler skims directly from the United States’ foreign aid. But often the ruler enriches himself through a formof corruption by taking a cut of the profits from the US corporations that are exploiting his country. Theruler accumulates vast sums of wealth unto himself, while leaving his own population in abject poverty.
The ruler is also granted a wide latitude to rule supreme over his country with absolute authority, much like a king with no accountability. As long as the ruler does not infringe upon the interests of theUS corporations, the ruler is free to impose his will upon his own population. This intoxicating amountof power is an irresistible incentive for the ruler to kowtow to the United States.
This, in a nutshell, is the system of the dictatorship. It is quite an effective form of rule. It is a win-win situation for the ruling parties involved. The US wins, the American corporations win, the foreign countries remain “sovereign,” the US is spared from having to send in its own military while still dominating these countries, and the dictators win. How wonderful.
Well, actually, the one group of people who do not win are the civilian populations in these countries. They lose. They lose big-time. And, of course, they just so happen to comprise the overwhelming majority of the population.
The civilian people are forced into miserable circumstances through no fault of their own. They are exploited for cheap labor. Their land is appropriated by the corporations. They are forced to live inpoverty. And they are deprived of education, opportunity and self-fulfillment.
They are helpless to do anything about it. If they take steps against this power structure and seek to improve their situation, they face brutal retaliation. And they have no recourse against such treatment. There is no system of justice to protect them. The dictator controls the police, theprosecutors and the courts. So the people have no place to turn for help. And this is no accident. Thesystem is specifically designed to prevent the people from having any recourse to justice in order to keep them in servitude.
How Imperialism Works in Practice
After sending the military into Cuba a few times, the US decided to give a whirl to this little system ofa dictatorship. With US backing, General Fulgencio Batista rose to power in the 1930s as Cuba’s new dictator, and this kicked off an era of great cooperation and success between the United States andCuba that lasted for three decades. How wonderful.
US corporations rushed into Cuba and took over industry after industry. They took over a substantial portion of the sugar industry and sold the sugar back to the US, which accounted for a huge percentage of Cuba’s sugar exports. US corporations acquired lands, mines, factories, oil refineries,the telephone utility, the electricity utility, railroads, hotels, you name it. Great fortunes were made from extracting wealth out of Cuba, and the dictator Batista enriched himself lavishly from his cut ofthe action.
But the people of Cuba throughout the land were left suffering in poverty, and anyone who had dared to question this power structure had been mercilessly executed or imprisoned by Batista.
This environment of repression and exploitation is what eventually produced the popular uprising under Fidel Castro.
Fidel Castro led a revolution against this illegitimate power structure. In 1959, Castro overthrew theBatista dictator, who fled Cuba with a personal fortune estimated at over $300 million and lived outthe remainder of his days in luxury in Spain and Portugal until his natural death in 1973.
The purpose of Castro’s revolution was to free Cuba from domination, and instead operate Cuba as a free and independent nation for the benefit of the Cuban people, including the poor citizens.
For the first time since 1500, Cuba was now its own free nation.
Castro took back assets that had been owned by US corporations. Land, sugar mills, the telephone and electricity utilities, and many other properties were expropriated and taken over by the Cuban government. The US corporations had suddenly lost their huge investments in Cuba, so they were outraged.
The Cuban revolution resulted in the United States losing its property in Cuba, just like the American Revolution in 1776 had resulted in Britain losing its property in America. This is what happens inrevolutions.
But the US was not going to stand for this disobedience to the empire. Castro’s seizure of American assets kicked off a severe and violent response. The US committed itself to nothing less than the total destruction of Cuba through a systematic siege of strangulation.
The United States would take advantage of Cuba’s geography as a small island by cutting off all supplies into Cuba and blocking all exports out of the island in an attempt to cause Cuba’s utter ruination and collapse. Never mind the enormous suffering that this would impose upon the innocent civilian population of Cuba.
In fact, imposing this enormous suffering upon the innocent people of Cuba was the whole point.
This is what led to the US-backed embargo against Cuba, and the severing of all relations betweenthe United States and Cuba that lasted for over 50 years. It is this isolation and attempted strangulation of Cuba that President Obama is now seeking to bring to an end.
To be sure, Cuba under the Castro government has not exactly been a wonderland. Cuba is not a democracy and the Castro regime has indeed repressed its political opponents. But the Castro regime did not just arise out of thin air for no reason. Rather, it was a predictable reaction to theruthless oppression imposed in Cuba by the US empire.
And Cuba, it turns out, was no isolated example.
A Formula for “Success”
The playbook for the Batista dictatorship in Cuba served as something of a successful little business model that could be replicated in country after country in Latin America (and elsewhere around theworld).
This didn’t just happen once or twice. No, this business model was replicated over and over again, incountry after country.
Guatemala is another prime example. In 1931, the United States backed the rise to power of President Jorge Ubico, who then permitted the United States’ United Fruit Company (today known as Chiquita) to utterly plunder Guatemala. This eventually led to a revolt by the people and a democratically-elected government in 1944. But in 1954, the CIA overthrew this democratically-elected government and installed a new dictator, which kicked off the Guatemalan Civil War that lasted for almost 40 years and resulted in 200,000 deaths and disappearances and countless atrocities, including the genocide of the Indigenous Mayan population.
Brazil is another prime example, with the US-backed coup d’etat in 1964 that overthrew the elected government and installed a hand-picked dictator. Within two years of the coup, the brutal regime had suppressed the workers and imposed severe economic austerity upon the population that attracted a bonanza of investment by multinational corporations and was resoundingly praised by the United States.
Chile was another doozy. In 1970, the people elected the socialist President Salvador Allende. USPresident Richard Nixon, however, did not wish to see socialism take hold, so the United States immediately began working to overthrow Allende. The Chilean military marched against him, and inthe end, holed-up in the presidential palace, Allende delivered his final address and committed suicide. General Augusto Pinochet seized power and became the ruthless dictator of Chile for about two decades. Under Pinochet, it is estimated that 80,000 political opponents were jailed, 30,000 were tortured and thousands were murdered or disappeared.
Panama was another example. The territory that is Panama today was previously part of Colombia, now its neighbor to the east. The United States desired to build the critical Panama Canal and proposed a transaction to Colombia, but the Colombian government rejected the deal. Apparently, Colombia failed to appreciate that this was an offer it could not refuse. The United States was not about to stand for this disobedience.
Instead of outright invading Colombia and seizing the territory surrounding the canal location, the USaccomplished its objectives through a variation of the typical playbook.
In 1903, under President Theodore Roosevelt, the United States caused Panama to break away from Columbia and become its own independent nation, which, of course, would be obedient to the United States. Colombia was outraged, but the United States sent a few warships into the area just to clear things up for Colombia. Gunboat diplomacy.
And thus the new nation of Panama was born. It became a protectorate of the United States, and it granted the United States the right to build and own the Panama Canal, whose ownership lasted for almost 100 years.
Of course, you still must continue to obey the boss, otherwise you’ll be in trouble. The dictator ofPanama, Manuel Noriega, learned this the hard way. When he refused to obey, US President George H. W. Bush conducted a military invasion of Panama in 1989, deposed Noriega and sent him to prison, where he languishes to this day.
Latin America is filled with example after example of this sort of US domination, over and over again. Part of the underlying cause was the Cold War between the US and Russia, in which the United States sought to prevent socialist or communist governments from emerging in Latin American countries. But the United States’ quest for “democracy” conversely led to the overthrow ofdemocratically-elected governments and the imposition of brutal dictators.
Over and over again, leftist-leaning governments, elected by the common people, were overthrown by military strongmen who implemented horrendous regimes of murder, disappearances, rape, imprisonment and torture, including Paraguay in 1954; Bolivia in 1971; Uruguay in 1973; and Argentina in 1976. And, of course, US President Ronald Reagan intensified this activity during the1980s with his support of brutal regimes in countries like Nicaragua and El Salvador.
The Empire Continues
Honduras is a contemporary example that is currently underway today. The president of Honduras, Manuel Zelaya, began pursuing progressive, left-leaning policies, such as raising the minimum wage and helping the poor. This is not friendly to US corporations. And thus in 2009, he was deposed in a coup d’etat.
The coup was widely condemned internationally, including by the United Nations, which called for theimmediate restoration of President Zelaya. But Hillary Clinton, as the US secretary of state, effectively supported the coup by instead calling for a new election and supporting the coup regime.
So who was behind the coup? Well, in the aftermath of the coup, human rights abuses in Honduras became an atrocious problem with murders, kidnappings, imprisonment, torture and rape againstpeople like labor activists, environmentalists, journalists, human rights lawyers, political opponents and peasant activists. As a case in point, two prominent activists in Honduras were just recently assassinated.
So the coup in Honduras sure looks like the same old routine of big business installing a brutal regime that will suppress the population in order to ensure a favorable business environment for corporate profits.
This is happening in present day right under our noses, and in Hillary Clinton’s case, with the supportof the leading candidate to become the next president of the United States.
One or the Other: Empire or Peace
All of this violence and oppression in the region has been utterly devastating to these countries. Not only has it repressed the civilian populations and fostered anger and resentment, but it has also destroyed institutions, dismantled governing structures and plunged these nations into chaos, thereby setting back progress for decades.
It is no wonder there is so much animosity against the United States across the entire region of LatinAmerica.
Many of those in the United States who oppose Obama’s initiative to reestablish relations with Cubaloudly proclaim that the US should continue the embargo against Cuba on the grounds that Cuba is not a “democracy,” and that Cuba denies “freedom” and “human rights.”
But what about all of the dictators imposed by the United States in numerous countries throughoutLatin America, including Cuba, who have denied “democracy,” “freedom” and “human rights” for decades?
Never mind any of that stuff about US imperialism. These opponents prefer to stick to the rosy tale ofAmerican Exceptionalism.
But the reality is that US imperialism in Latin America is a significant problem that the United States must address in order to achieve peace and harmony in the world.
Obama’s current initiative to attempt to improve relations with Cuba is a great place to start.
An earlier version of this article appears on Counterpunch.