Making the World Safe for Meddling

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Given the realityTVpolitik show that is the Trump administration, with its crypto-fascist bluster and Orwellian tactics, and a camarilla that would make any caudillo proud, who among the viewing audience still feels inclined to binge on the strained plot twists offered up by the likes of Netflix?

This week’s big reveal is the discovery, first published in The New York Times, that The Donald’s dauphin, Donald Jr., “was promised damaging information about Hillary Clinton before agreeing to meet with a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer during the 2016 campaign.” The meeting, which included Trump’s aide-de-camp, Jared Kushner, and Trump campaign chairman Paul J. Manafort, was held at the then-Republican nominee’s manor house, Trump Tower, in early June of last year.

In the latest ironic gem to come from the presidential court, Junior says the Russian lawyer in question, Natalia Veselnitskaya, offered “vague, ambiguous” claims about Russians funding the Democratic Party in support of Trump’s opponent, Mrs. Clinton. “No details or supporting information was provided or even offered,” the airhead apparent assures us. “It quickly became clear that she had no meaningful information.”

Instead of a Russian plot to meddle in U.S. elections, it appears Ms. Veselnitskaya conned Trump’s coterie into a meeting wherein she could discuss U.S. sanctions against Russia and President Putin’s subsequent freeze on U.S. adoptions of Russian children. “I think [it’s] entirely plausible that she kind of set up a bait-and-switch, that she … felt that the Trump campaign wanted this information so badly,” Julia Ioffe, a national-security and foreign-policy reporter for The Atlantic, tells NPR.

Alan Futerfas, the son’s lawyer, says the firestorm swirling around this latest revelation concerning the Trump team’s connection to Russian meddlers amounts to “much ado about nothing.” While it’s hard to agree with that view, the current Russian Scare fomented by the Democrats and their liberal supporters masks one simple fact: No country has meddled in more elections over the past 100 years than the United States; in fact, besides the former Soviet Union, no one even comes close.

As Don Levin, a post-doctoral fellow at Carnegie-Mellon University’s Institute for Politics and Strategy, wrote in May:

Although they usually get far less international attention and media coverage than various violent forms of meddling, partisan electoral interventions, or attempts by foreign powers to intervene in elections in other countries in order to help or hinder one of the candidates or parties, are actually quite common. In a dataset I constructed (called PEIG) the US and the USSR/Russia have intervened in this manner 117 times between 1946 and 2000–or, put another way, in about one of every nine competitive national level executive elections during this period. Both countries used a variety of methods for this purpose, including public threats or promises, the secret provision of money to the preferred party or candidate’s campaign, ‘dirty tricks’ such as the release of true (or false) damaging information about the undesired side, or either an increase in foreign aid or other assistance before election day or a withdrawal this kind of aid.

It should be pointed out that Levin attributes 81 of those 117 instances of electoral meddling to the U.S. government, usually through the CIA, and that a full 59 percent of all attempts resulted in a victory for the preferred candidate or party.

Since Levin’s dataset begins with the year 1946, nearly all mainstream coverage of the study starts with the Italian election of 1948, in which the CIA funneled millions of dollars to the centrist Christian Democracy party in an attempt to keep a leftist coalition of communists and socialists from coming to power. “We had bags of money that we delivered to selected politicians, to defray their political expenses, their campaign expenses, for posters, for pamphlets,” F. Mark Wyatt, the U.S. intelligence agent in charge of the operation, admitted in a 1995 interview.

In the Philippine election of 1953, famed intelligence specialist Edward Lansdale acted as the de facto campaign manager for Ramon Magsaysay, the former secretary of national defense. CIA Director Allen Dulles, a main orchestrator of the 1953 coup in Iran, the 1954 coup in Guatemala and the 1961 failed coup in Cuba, offered Lansdale $5 million to secure Magsaysay’s election, though Lansdale was convinced he could do it for a cool million. Lansdale later bragged he’d spent less than $60,000 on swaying the election, which Magsaysay won with 69 percent of the vote, earning Lansdale the unambiguous nickname “Colonel Landslide.”

Col. Edward Lansdale with his friend and advisee, Vietnamese president Ngô Đình Diệm (manhhai/Flickr)

Of course, U.S. meddling in foreign elections long precedes the Italian election in 1948 and even the CIA, founded only the year before. And while you can point to examples from across the globe till you’re as orange in the face as our Dear Leader, a mere smattering of those in Latin America is enough to fill the belly of this little essay.

With its imposition of the Platt Amendment on occupied Cuba at the turn of the 20th century — which also witnessed the dawn of its overseas empire — the U.S. government declared not only its intention to keep meddling in hemispheric affairs under the rubric of the Monroe Doctrine (in which the young republic advised the European powers to keep out of its “backyard”), but also its right to meddle in the affairs of its American neighbors as well, specifically those of the newly conquered Cuba. Platt would lead to more occupations of Cuba, from 1906 to 1909, and again from 1917 to 1933, with the U.S. Marines invading the island once or twice in between to protect U.S. property and other business interests.

President Teddy Roosevelt upped the ante in 1904 with an addendum to the Monroe Doctrine stating Washington’s right to police the Americas by intervening against unstable governments. For nearly the next three decades, U.S. troops would be deployed throughout the hemisphere, occupying the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Panama, Haiti, Nicaragua and others — often more than once.

History remembers this period of U.S. meddling in Latin America as the Banana Wars, though bananas had very little to do with the interventions. The United States was merely playing empire, for years the realm mostly of the British, the French, the Russians and the Germans. If the 20th century was to be the American Century, however, the United States had to start acting like the superpower it wished to become, which meant bullying its neighbors into becoming client states of an ascendant American Empire.

In 1933, another President Roosevelt, this time Teddy’s fifth cousin, Franklin, officially ended the Monroe Doctrine (and his cousin’s “Corollary” along with it), but the United States would never actually give up its imperial prerogative. In the months after FDR announced the Good Neighbor Policy in his inaugural address, the U.S. diplomat in Cuba was desperately urging his bosses in the State Department to intervene (once again) in Cuban affairs. Ambassador Sumner Welles ultimately teamed up with an aspiring Cuban colonel by the name of Fulgencio Batista, beginning his role as “our man in Cuba” — which would last until New Year’s Day, 1959, when he fled to the Dominican Republic ahead of the guerrilla forces commanded by Camilo Cienfuegos and Che Guevara.

Batista’s destination was no accident, since the U.S. government also had a man in the Dominican Republic. Rafael Trujillo ruled the D.R. with a bloody iron fist from 1930 till 1961, when assassins shot up his Chevy Bel Air on a highway just outside Ciudad Trujillo, the capital city he’d renamed in his own honor. El Jefe‘s death wouldn’t mark the end of U.S. meddling there. After a military coup overthrew the short-lived social-democratic presidency of Juan Bosch in 1963, President Lyndon Johnson sent troops to the island to stabilize the situation — that is, to keep leftists from taking power. The U.S. government colluded with Joaquín Balaguer, the last puppet president of the Trujillato, who ran against Bosch in the 1966 Dominican election. Balaguer won handily, and the United States promptly withdrew its occupying forces. Balaguer would rule the D.R. for the next 12 years — which Dominicans remember glumly as “the 12 years” — and then again between 1986 and 1996.

Perhaps the most notorious instance of U.S. meddling in Latin America, besides the infamous ouster of left-leaning presidents in Guatemala (in 1954) and in Brazil (in 1964), is the covert operation launched against socialists and other leftists in Chile during the 1960s and early seventies. The CIA itself has admitted to scheming against then-candidate Salvador Allende in the 1964 election, spending millions of dollars on anti-Allende and anti-socialist propaganda, even financing the campaign of Allende’s rival, Eduardo Frei, who eventually won.

After Allende was elected in 1970, the CIA, spurred on by National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger, waged total war — political, economic, and finally military — on President Allende, leftists, the Chilean government and the Chilean economy. It was all done covertly, as usual, though decades later one chileno would remember knowing full well the foreign threat menacing Chile’s fragile democracy. In a New York Times op-ed on the brewing Trump-Russia scandal, published last December under the title “Now, America, You Know How Chileans Felt,” author and scholar Ariel Dorfman recalls his response to the assassination of Chile’s loyal military chief:

[My wife] Angélica and I had the same automatic reaction: It’s the C.I.A., we said, almost in unison. We had no proof at the time — though evidence that we were right would eventually, and abundantly, surface — but we did not doubt that this was one more American attempt to subvert the will of the Chilean people.

Six weeks earlier, Salvador Allende, a democratic Socialist, had won the presidency in a free and fair election, in spite of the United States’ spending millions of dollars on psychological warfare and misinformation to prevent his victory (we’d call it ‘fake news’ today). Allende had campaigned on a program of social and economic justice, and we knew that the government of President Richard M. Nixon, allied with Chile’s oligarchs, would do everything it could to stop Allende’s nonviolent revolution from gaining power.

The country was rife with rumors of a possible coup. It had happened in Guatemala and Iran, in Indonesia and Brazil, where leaders opposed to United States interests had been ousted; now it was Chile’s turn.

General Schneider’s death did not block Allende’s inauguration, but American intelligence services, at the behest of Henry A. Kissinger, continued to assail our sovereignty during the next three years, sabotaging our prosperity (‘make the economy scream,’ Nixon ordered) and fostering military unrest. Finally, on Sept. 11, 1973, Allende was overthrown and replaced by a vicious dictatorship that lasted nearly 17 years. Years of torture and executions and disappearances and exile. [emphasis mine]

Pres. Salvador Allende, on the far left, with Fidel Castro and leaders of Chile’s Socialist and Communist parties during a state visit by the Cuban leader, 1971

The U.S. coup in Chile was merely a ratcheting up of Washington’s experiments with curbing democracy in Latin America, which had become standard practice after Brazil’s military coup in 1964. Fearing the rise of socialist governments essentially opposed to U.S. business interests, the United States, mainly through the CIA, either installed or propped up national-security states across the region, from the Southern Cone to Guatemala.

The Reagan administration brought renewed efforts to stamp out “Communist insurgencies” (left-wing populism) in Latin America, especially in Central America. More than 200,000 guatemaltecos, mostly campesinos and the indigenous, were killed or went missing in a “civil war” between peasants and the military dictatorship; Washington supported men like President Efraín Ríos Montt (currently on trial for genocide and crimes against humanity) and their brutal tactics under the guise of fighting the “Communist threat.” Using Honduras as its unsinkable aircraft carrier in the region, the United States secretly funded, supplied and trained right-wing paramilitary forces attempting to overthrow the socialist Sandinista government in Nicaragua, which itself had toppled the 43-year U.S.-backed Somoza dictatorship in 1979.

At the nefarious School of the Americas, Green Berets trained Latin American cadets in what has been described as “unconventional warfare,” a euphemism, at least in the Latin American context, for the total eradication of democratic uprisings against U.S.-backed regimes. One of the School’s monsters, the Atlacatl Battalion, committed some of the most heinous atrocities of El Salvador’s “civil war” (a term which should carry a certain implication by now), including the torture and slaughter of over 800 men, women and children in the village of El Mozote in December 1981, and the killing of six Jesuit priests, a hapless housekeeper and her daughter on a university campus in the capital city of San Salvador in November 1989.

The U.S. armed and intelligence services continued relying on their paramilitary proxies to avoid fingerprints well into the current century, especially in Colombia. There the U.S. government has trained and funded the Colombian military and right-wing paramilitary groups to fight leftist guerrilla forces and suppress labor unionists, campesinos, Afro-Colombians, indigenous peoples and anyone else opposing the puppet regime. Volumes of leaked documents, sworn testimonies, journalistic investigations, book-length studies and Washington’s own admissions have shone a blacklight on Latin America revealing the United States’s fingerprints all across the region.

For the Nicaraguan election in 1990, the United States simply reprised the tactics it had used in Chile during the sixties. Along with the usual propaganda and misinformation campaigns, President Reagan and later Bush relied on U.S. counter-revolutionary forces and economic threats to trick, scare and bludgeon nicas into electing Washington’s preferred candidate, Violeta Chamorro. (President Bush outright promised to lift the trade embargo against Nicaragua if Chamorro won.) Chamorro, the publisher-cum-revolutionary-cum-reactionary, ran under the National Opposition Union coalition which received millions of dollars from a privately run but publicly funded U.S. non-profit agency. Launched in 1983, the National Endowment for Democracy states its mission, with not a little irony, as providing “American assistance on behalf of democracy efforts abroad.” According to election monitors in Nicaragua at the time, however — one a former CIA analyst, David MacMichael — NED was created to do overtly what the CIA had done covertly as far back as Italy and the Philippines.

As Brian Willson, an activist and attorney who’d gone to Nicaragua in the late eighties, writes:

The U.S., through the CIA and NED, orchestrated a process to consolidate a number of Nicaragua’s opposition parties into a so-called unified effort, the United [National] Opposition (UNO). In attempting to tabulate the total amount of money provided by the U.S. government between 1984-1990 to the ‘opposition’ parties of Nicaragua, one must add up the known covert aid with the identifiable overt funds provided to both the CIA and the NED. If the truth were known, the total might approach $50,000,000. Fifty million dollars in Nicaragua, a country of 3.5 million people as of the mid to late 1980s, is equivalent to $3,550,000,000 in the United States, a country in 1990 of nearly 250 million inhabitants. Over 3.5 billion dollars! … In effect, the U.S. is spending nearly $14 for every Nicaraguan citizen, and $28 for each registered voter. This is an incredible amount. If the total costs of all campaigns during the 1988 U.S. presidential year amounted to $500 million, that would equal $2 for every U.S. resident, or about $2.80 for each eligible voter.

Chamorro won the election in 1990, beating the Sandinista incumbent, Daniel Ortega, by a margin of about 14 percent. President Chamorro promptly halted the Sandinista Revolution and instituted austerity measures and other neoliberal policies which cut most of the social programs introduced by the Sandinistas in the previous decade.

A Green Beret inspects a Honduran soldier at Soto Cano Air Base in Honduras (USASOC News Service/Flickr)

Skipping over Washington’s failed attempt to remove Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez from office in 2002, as well as the U.S.-orchestrated coup in Haiti two years later, we come full circle — back to where the United States first began to flex its imperialist muscles abroad in the early part of the 20th century, to the original banana republic, and arguably the longest and most thoroughly subjugated U.S. protectorate of them all: Honduras.

As a Honduran American myself, I’ve written extensively about the 2009 coup in Honduras which ousted the left-leaning president, Manuel Zelaya. As with most U.S. interventions, debate still swirls around the events of June 2009 — whether it was in fact a military coup or simply the democratic removal of a potential dictator; whether the U.S. secretary of state at the time, Hillary Clinton, and others in Washington had prior knowledge of the plot or were plotters themselves.

Regardless of personal views, that the United States gave tacit approval to the scheduled election in November 2009, when most of the international community — including nearly all of Latin America itself — made Zelaya’s reinstatement a prerequisite for any legitimate election, insinuates Washington’s manipulation of the democratic process in Honduras. And while it may be hard to prove direct meddling in the 2009 and 2013 elections, the violent repression of opposition candidates and their supporters by the regime’s security forces, which have only received more U.S. funding and training since the coup, suggests the U.S. government is content with simply assisting its puppet regimes in steering their elections in favor of U.S. interests.

Having declared itself the global purveyor of democracy a century ago, the United States has since developed methods for disguising its anti-democratic, pro-business maneuvers in other countries (and its own), methods which have been practically perfected in Honduras. The study of Honduran history and politics is the study of U.S. imperialism and its capabilities. Honduras is a puppet state, as is Colombia and others, only the strings in Honduras have been made almost invisible, with a web of intermediaries obscuring the lines of control running from marionette to marionettist. The evolution of the United States’s anti-democratic tactics abroad is nothing if not impressive, and in more ways than one.

That the United States has meddled in the affairs of other countries more intensely and more frequently than any other power doesn’t forgive similar attempts by President Putin to meddle in our most recent election. (I for one don’t believe the Russians had much to do with the election of Donald Trump, but it’s clear nonetheless that they attempted to have a say.) But given the increasing normalization of foreign meddling by the United States, few should be surprised when, as Malcolm put it, Uncle Sam’s chickens come home to roost.


Featured image: A 1904 cartoon depicting Pres. Teddy Roosevelt’s ‘big stick’ diplomacy as an episode in Gulliver’s Travels

Hector is the founder and editor of MANO as well as the host of the LATINISH podcast. A Chicagoan living in Las Vegas, he's also the senior editor of Latino Rebels, part of Futuro Media, as well as a former managing editor of Gozamos, an art-activism site based in his home town. He was a columnist at RedEye, a Tribune-owned daily geared toward millennials. His work has been mentioned by The New Yorker, Good Morning America, TIME, the Washington Post, and other outlets, and his writing was featured in 'Ricanstruction, 'a comic book anthology whose proceeds went toward recovery efforts in Puerto Rico. He studied history at the University of Illinois-Chicago where his concentration was on ethnic relations in the United States.

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