As the end of Obama’s term in office approaches, it may be of interest to evaluate his performance on Latin America. One of Obama’s foreign policy promises at the beginning of his first term was to change the way America does business with Latin America.
The promise to change the way America does business in its backyard was a significant one because the way America has played in its backyard has a long and consistently appalling history. The history of interference and regime change began early when President McKinley betrayed Cuba and stole it under the deceptive promise of liberating it from Spain. In 1903, Theodore Roosevelt severed Panama from Columbia, declared it an independent nation and put in power a government whose first act was to sign over the future Panama Canal. In a little discussed maneuver, the U.S. cooperated with the 1908 removal of Venezuelan President Juan Vicente Gómez. In 1909, President Taft removed Nicaragua’s José Santos Zelaya because he insisted that US companies in Nicaragua honor their agreements and tried to make his country less dependent on the US by borrowing from European, and not American, banks.
In the modern era, 1954 saw Eisenhower order the CIA overthrow of Guatemala’s Jacobo Arbenz. In 1959-1960, Eisenhower would also start the covert action to remove Fidel Castro from Cuba. Kennedy would continue to rain "the terrors of the earth" on Cuba. He would also begin the Brazilian coup that would overthrow Goulart in 1964 and undertake a political action to encourage the removal of Cheddi Jagan from power in Guyana. In 1971, Nixon would brutalize Chile with the coup against Salvador Allende. President Omar Torrijos of Panama would die in a plane crash in 1981. In The New Confessions of an Economic Hit Man and in an interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now, John Perkins has claimed that Torrijos’ plane crash was another US assassination. Though it has never been proven that Torrijos’ death was a CIA assassination, there is some evidence that, at least earlier, consideration of his assassination was on the table. At the close of 1989, George H.W. Bush, in an unprovoked attack on the civilian population of a nation that had never threatened America, would take out Panama’s Manuel Noriega. At the end of the last century and the beginning of this one, Jean-Bertrand Aristide was twice removed from power over the popular voice of Haitians. The Latin American coups would continue through George W. Bush’s unpopular and short lived 2002 removal of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.
So, it is not unimportant to evaluate Obama’s performance on his promise to change this tragic and shameful history. It’s not unimportant, but it is unimpressive.
It didn’t take long for the first indication that nothing had changed. On June 28, 2009, Honduras’ democratically elected President, Manuel Zelaya, was seized at gunpoint, removed in a coup and whisked away in a plane that refueled at a US military base.
After the coup, US support to the Honduran military only increased. The American ambassador was never recalled, and the US refused to join the call of the United Nation’s General Assembly and the Organization of American States for the return of the elected President. Though the Organization of American States (OAS) refused to recognize the new coup president, the US State Department refused to join in that too. In fact, following an election that the OAS, the U.N. and others refused to recognize, the US would insist on recognizing the coup government as the victor of the election.
But, despite the refusal to call Zelaya’s removal at gunpoint a coup, and despite recognizing the coup government as the legitimate government of Honduras, the Obama White House knew it was a coup. By July 24, 2009, less than a month after the coup, the White House was in receipt of a cable sent from the US embassy in Honduras. In an almost comic lack of subtlety that was clearly never meant to be public, the cable is called "Open and Shut: the Case of the Honduran Coup". In it, the embassy says "There is no doubt that the military, Supreme Court and National Congress conspired on June 28 in what constituted an illegal and unconstitutional coup . . . ." Their conclusions could not be clearer: the embassy explicitly calls it a "coup" and says that "[t]here is no doubt". And just in case there were any remaining objections, the cable adds that ". . . none of the . . . arguments [of the coup defenders] has any substantive validity under the Honduran constitution".
At best, Obama cooperated with the coup by maintaining silence, though his administration was engaged in dialogue with the rebellious military up to the day of the coup, and by recognizing the coup government as the legitimate government of Honduras. Latin American expert Mark Weisbrot told me in a correspondence that "the Obama administration acknowledged that they were talking to the [Honduran] military right up to the day of the coup, allegedly to convince them not to do it". But, he added, "I find it hard to believe that they couldn’t convince them not to do it if they really wanted to: the Honduran military is pretty dependent on the US" The charge was reiterated by Rodolfo Pastor Fasquelle, the minister of culture in the Zelaya government, who said on Democracy Now that "I know for a fact that CIA operatives and military personnel of the United States were in direct contact with the conspirators of the coup d’état and aided the conspirators of the coup d’état." At worst, Obama was, as Zelaya has always insisted, involved in the coup. Zelaya claims that "the coup came from the north form the US" In the heat of the coup, the plane that was carrying the kidnapped president landed at the US military base of Palmerola for fifteen to twenty minutes while it refueled, despite the close proximity of its destination. After the coup, then Secretary of State Clinton has admitted that she aided the coup government by shoring up the coup government blocking the return of the elected government: "In the subsequent days [after the coup] I spoke with my counterparts around the hemisphere, including Secretary [Patricia] Espinosa in Mexico. We strategized on a plan to restore order in Honduras and ensure that free and fair elections could be held quickly and legitimately, which would render the question of Zelaya moot."
After the coup against Zelaya, Ecuador’s popularly elected president, Rafael Correa, said, "We have intelligence reports that say that after Zelaya, I’m next." He may have been right.
The year after the Honduran coup, there was an attempted coup on Correa. Although the action failed, Latin American expert Mark Weisbrot says it was clearly an attempted coup to overthrow the government of Rafael Correa.
Corrrea had renegotiated oil contracts and demanded a bigger share of the big oil companies’ revenue for the people of Ecuador. He also opposed a free trade agreement with the US and closed the US military base in Ecuador. He joined Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia and Ecuador in the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) and successfully defaulted on over $3 billion of foreign debt that was illegitimately contacted by Ecuadorian leaders Correa said were CIA supported dictators.
Prior to Obama, the US had started action against Correa. An October 2005 embassy cable sent by US ambassador Linda Jewell outlined action for "desirable political and economic change in Ecuador." In 2006, she cabled that a Correa election would "derail" US hopes as the embassy expects Correa to join Chavez and other nationalist South American leaders." In the same cable [06QUITO2150], Jewell said that the US has "actively discouraged potential alliances" with Correa. She admitted [06QUITO2991] to "working in concert with other Ecuadorians and groups who share our vision."
During the Obama years, the US would continue to intervene in Ecuador. In March 2009, Ecuador expelled Mark Sullivan, an American official whom they accused of being the CIA station chief in Quito and whom they accused of playing a role in the suspension of US assistance to a special investigative police unit when Ecuador named a new chief of whom the US didn’t approve.
On October 30, 2010, the coup Correa had been expecting came. The coup leader was a graduate of the School of the Americas. A government appointed commission found that "foreign actors" had been involved in the coup. One of members of the commission announced his belief that the US State Department and the CIA had been involved.
The same year, Obama failed his next test. That year, America bankrolled the Haitian elections. The cost was 14 million dollars: a price tag that presumably gave America some say. But Haiti’s Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) banned fourteen parties from running in the election. The CEP was handpicked by the ruling party in a process that is not recognized by Haiti’s constitution.
Fanmi Lavalas, the party of Jean Bertrand Aristide, who was twice removed in US sponsored coups, is the largest and the most popular party in Haiti. It has won every election it has been allowed to participate in. That it has been allowed to participate in, that is. But in this US backed election, Fanmi Lavalas was not allowed to participate: it was banned by the CEP.
The US and its allies continued to influence the Haitian elections when they supported a runoff between two unpopular candidates representing essentially the same side. But the second round runoff between the two candidates was illegal because the CEP never accomplished the number of votes to ratify the first round results that selected them.
The Obama administration financed the election that specifically excluded the party the people wanted to elect. And, in doing so, Obama broke his foreign policy promise to Latin America and very quietly continued to do business with Latin America in the same interventionist way the US had always done business with Latin America.
The next indicator of a failing grade came in Paraguay, where in June 2012, Fernando Lugo, the democratically elected leader of Paraguay was removed in a coup. The right wing opposition opportunistically capitalized on a skirmish over disputed land that left at least eleven people dead to unfairly blame the deaths on President Lugo. It then impeached him after giving him only twenty-four hours to prepare his defense and only two hours to deliver it. The Latin American organizations Unasur and Mercosur suspended the new Paraguayan government; the US spent coup day negotiating a new military base in Paraguay. As in Honduras, they never used the word “coup”.
But they could have used the word if they hadn’t wanted to support the coup with their silence. As early as 2009, US embassy cables say that Lugo’s political opposition has as its goal to "Capitalize on any Lugo missteps" and to "impeach Lugo and assure their own political supremacy". The cable notes that to achieve their goal, they are willing to "legally" impeach Lugo "even if on spurious grounds". Obama knew it was a coup: the US had been tipped off about the strategy and told what it would look like.
The next year, 2013, the interference moved to Venezuela. Against the wishes of the United States, Hugo Chavez’ successor, Nicolás Maduro, won the right to continue the Bolivarian Revolution by winning the next national election. America was the only country in the world to refuse to recognize the election results, though 150 electoral monitors from around the world monitored Venezuela’s election, including delegations from the Union of South American Nations and the Carter Center.
Two years later, in 2015, the Obama administration again became involved in Venezuela. Contrary to Obama’s promise, business went on as usual with American money being pumped into Venezuela to fund groups who oppose Maduro. Since 2000, $90 million has poured into Venezuela. That sort of interference in Venezuela is not suggestive of a new way of doing business in Latin America. In 2015, that US funded opposition once again attempted to pull off a coup in Venezuela. Maduro explicitly accused the Americans of, as in 2002, being involved.
The accusation is not an empty one. Venezuelan officials have produced a significant volume of evidence that the events constitute a failed coup and that the US was involved. They have produced a recording of a communique that was to be issued after the Maduro government was removed from power. They have shown confessions by military officials. And they have admitted as evidence a recorded phone conversation between opposition leaders discussing the coup. The day before the planned coup, Caracas Mayor Antonio Ledezma, who is known to have made phone calls to a US number, Leopoldo Lopez and Maria Corina Machado, both major opposition leader of last year’s attempt to remove Maduro from power – an attempt that they made clear was an attempted coup by saying that they would not to stop until they “got rid of Maduro" – signed a National Transition Agreement. Weapons were also found in the office of the opposition party.
Lucas Koerner of Venezuelanalysis.com adds that the aircraft to be used as part of the failed coup has links to the notorious American security firm Academi (formerly Blackwater). And it has been reported that a number of the coup leaders obtained US visas from the American embassy to facilitate escape should the coup fail.
And, just this past May, President Maduro has declared a state of emergency, accusing the US of once again conspiring with right wing groups in Venezuela to overthrow his government. Maduro says that “Washington is activating measures at the request of Venezuela’s fascist right.”
In perhaps his final chance to make good on his promise to do business with Latin America differently, Obama has, once again, disappointed by maintaining American silence on the coup in Brazil. How do we know that Obama should have spoken out against the take over of parliament by an unelected party? How do we know that it was a coup? Because the unelected party said so. Twice: both before the coup and after.
The publication of a transcript of the call between Romero Jucá, who was a senator at the time of the call and is currently the planning minister in Michael Temer’s new government, and former oil executive Sergio Machado, provides incontrovertible proof that the removal of the elected President was a coup. The phone call lays bare “a national pact” to remove Dilma and install Temer as President. Jucá reveals that, not only opposition politicians, but also the military and the Supreme Court are conspirators in the coup. Regarding the military’s role, Jucá says, “I am talking to the generals, the military commanders. They are fine with this, they said they will guarantee it.” And, as for the Supreme Court, Glenn Greenwald reports that Jucá admits that he “spoke with and secured the involvement of numerous justices on Brazil’s Supreme Court.” Jucá further boasted that “there are only a small number” of Supreme Court justices that he had not spoken to.
So confident is Michel Temer that he has US support for his coup that he is comfortable to openly boast about it in the US in front of an audience of business and foreign policy leaders. Temer clearly told his American audience that elected President Dilma Rousseff was not removed from power for "violating fiscal laws by using loans from public banks to cover budget shortfalls, which artificially enhanced the budget surplus" as the official charge stated. She was, the new, unelected President admitted, removed because of her refusal to implement a right wing economic plan that was inconsistent with the economic platform Brazilians elected her on. Temer’s economic plan featured cuts to health, education and welfare spending as well as increased emphasis on privatization and deregulation.
Rousseff was not on board. So she was thrown overboard. In the words of Temer’s comfortable confession:
And many months ago, while I was still vice president, we released a document named ‘A Bridge to the Future’ because we knew it would be impossible for the government to continue on that course. We suggested that the government should adopt the theses presented in that document called ‘A Bridge to the Future.’ But, as that did not work out, the plan wasn’t adopted and a process was established which culminated with me being installed as president of the republic.
Confession. Cased closed.
And just to remove any doubt that the coup government’s motivation was not indignation at Rouseff’s fiscal maneuver, one of the coup government’s first acts of legislation was to explicitly legalize the very budgetary act they had impeached Rousseff for two days earlier.
So, once again, at best, Obama gets a low grade on his foreign policy promise for maintaining silence on what he knows to be a coup in Latin America. Silence is support. At worst, he gets a failing grade for cooperating with the coup.
American participation in the Brazilian coup has not been established. But, “there is no doubt that the biggest players in this coup attempt – people like former presidential candidates José Serra and Aécio Neves – are US government allies," according to Latin American exert Mark Weisbrot. And Boaventura de Sousa Santos, Professor of Sociology at the University of Coimbra in Portugal and Distinguished Legal Scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison says that Brazil is awash in financing from American sources, including “CIA-related organizations.”
The very day after the impeachment vote, Senator Aloysio Nunes of the coup government began a three day visit to Washington. Nunes is a significant player in the coup government: he was the vice-presidential candidate on the 2014 ticket that lost to President Rousseff and a key player in the effort to impeach President Rousseff in the senate. Nunes scheduled meetings with, amongst others, the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker and Ben Cardin, as well as with Undersecretary of State and former Ambassador to Brazil Thomas Shannon. Though Nunes denies it, there are reports that his trip to Washington was ordered by Michel Temer. The willingness to go ahead with the planned meetings with Nunes right after the impeachment vote demonstrates, once again, at least tacit acceptance or approval on the part of Washington.
So, Obama broke his promise. His foreign policy in Latin America may be more silent and more subtle, but the way he has done business with Latin America has not broken from the long line of Presidents who preceded him. At a rapid and consistent rate of almost one each year, Obama has done business as usual in America’s backyard: 2009 in Honduras; 2010 in Haiti and, perhaps, Ecuador; 2012 in Paraguay; 2013 in Venezuela; 2015 in Venezuela again and 2016 in Brazil.
Ted Snider writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history. An earlier version of this article was published on ConsortiumNews.