Continuity And Change: Evolving U.S. Engagement With Authoritarianism In Latin America

Authoritarianism in Latin America has often seen support from the United States (U.S.) when it suits their economic, ideological, and geopolitical interests. When these interests are under threat, the U.S. utilizes pro-democratic rhetoric and other tactics to oppose socialist authoritarianism. The story of Latin American authoritarianism is also one of declining civilian support for democracy. In 2018, one in four Latin Americans said they were satisfied with democracy. This has only worsened as a result of Covid-19.

The 20th Century involved U.S. support for military dictatorships to prevent communism, protect U.S. capitalist interests, and maintain a geopolitical sphere of influence. 

U.S. support for authoritarianism and dictatorships

The U.S. has supported military coups and/or authoritarianism in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru, and Uruguay.

This 20th-century pattern can provide context to U.S.-Latin American relations today. It helps to explain the aversion towards the U.S. in some states, with the ‘U.S. threat’ being harnessed by authoritarian leaders, such as Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, to justify their domestic control. The U.S. now supports governments that respond to civic emergencies with authoritarian tendencies. In Colombia, multifaceted support for the security forces has remained unchanged despite at least 20 peaceful protestors being killed since April.

Under President Donald Trump, U.S. advocacy for democracy in the region was limited. Trump cozied up to Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who often stated his support for the U.S.-backed Brazilian dictatorship of 1964-1985. That regime killed or forcibly disappeared at least 434 people, while Brazil’s President (2011-2016) Dilma Rousseff was also tortured. The Trump administration was also silent when El Salvador’s President violently cracked down on anti-lockdown protestors.

Venezuela and Cuba 

Latin American authoritarianism has also been opposed by the U.S., largely when it suits its economic and ideological interests. There has been long-standing U.S. opposition to authoritarian socialist regimes in Cuba and Venezuela. 

President Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela has arrested journalists, activists, and opposition leaders for questioning Covid-19 statistics. His socialist predecessor and mentor, Hugo Chavez, oversaw a halving of unemployment and poverty, while income and education levels increased. However, some believe that Chavez had a strong authoritarian streak, evident in restricting journalism and expanding his own power. 

The U.S. has strongly opposed such socialist leaders. It awarded Venezuelan anti-communist dictator Marcos Pérez Jiménez the Legion of Merit, despite killing and torturing thousands between 1948-1958. Sanctions were imposed on Venezuela in 2017 and the U.S. supported the opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, and his calls for an uprising that ended unsuccessfully in 2019. The U.S. denies support for a failed coup by former U.S. servicemen last year. Meanwhile, the U.S., European Union, and Canada recently indicated they are “willing to review sanctions policies” currently in place against the Venezuelan regime. The regime and the opposition are also entering talks, while Maduro has suggested he is open to compromise.

The reality of authoritarianism can be more complex and changeable than it seems. In Cuba, the U.S. propped up a military dictatorship led by Fulgencio Batista between 1952-1959. The U.S. provided financial, military and logistical support to a regime that utilized torture, violence, and public executions. Western commercial interests benefited immensely, owning nearly 70% of arable land in Batista’s Cuba for lucrative activities like sugar and banana plantations. Many are unaware that Dole, a major supplier of bananas and pineapples today, owes much of its fortune to U.S.-supported dictatorships. Under Fidel Castro’s leadership between 1959-2006, the people’s revolution became twisted into the suppression of the population. Despite significant improvements in literacy and health, there was an increase in beatings, public humiliation, repression of political rights, and arbitrary detention in inhumane conditions. This reflects that authoritarianism flourished in some areas, such as political expression, whereas personal advancements simultaneously occured in health outcomes. 

U.S. policy has ignored such complexity. Kennedy’s failed 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion against Castro’s regime was followed with a trade embargo from 1962 until President Obama relaxed restrictions, followed by President Trump reimposing them. Under President Biden, the U.S. and Israel were the only states to vote last week against a UN General Assembly (UNGA) resolution calling for a lifting of the embargo. For the last 27 years consecutively, the UNGA has supported the resolution. Shortages of food, fuel, and medical supplies have plagued Cuban society due to what is likely an unlawful blockade under international law. This is particularly inhumane during a global pandemic.

In 1963, U.S. President John F. Kennedy publicly stated, “there is no country in the world including any and all the countries under colonial domination, where economic colonization, humiliation, and exploitation were worse than in Cuba, in part owing to my country’s policies during the Batista regime. I approved the proclamation which Fidel Castro made in the Sierra Maestra when he justifiably called for justice and especially yearned to rid Cuba of corruption.” This further reflects self-contradictory U.S. policy and admits U.S. support for authoritarianism. 


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