Stephen Kinzer is an award-winning author and journalist. His works include Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq, All the Shah's Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror, and his most recent book A Thousand Hills: Rwanda's Rebirth and the Man Who Dreamed It. Kinzer currently teaches journalism and political science at Northwestern University.
Imagineer: In Central and South America, most nations have had very difficult times establishing stable democratic systems. Why is this, and is the United States at all responsible for this?
Kinzer: The beginning of the modern social and political systems of Latin America have to be traced back to the periods of Spanish colonialism. There was a social system that was imported to Latin America from Spain. The Spanish royal family wanted to populate its colonies in the new world. How did they do that? They told them: we will give a huge plot of land, and you can do whatever you want with that land; you can enslave or kill all of the people who you find there; you can use that land as your own; it will be your property. That was a very enticing deal, naturally, but of course many people didn’t want to go to the other side of the world even under such conditions.
So, who ended up going? They tended to be the second, third, and fourth sons of noblemem; these were the people who were deprived of inheritance. That’s where the word Hidalgo comes from. This word kind of means “gentleman” in Latin America. Originally, it comes from the Spanish phrase hijo de alguien, or "somebody’s son" in English. So, Latin America was populated largely, in the beginning, by Spaniards who were given these huge tracts of land and the right to treat the people who lived on that land anyway they wanted. This produced highly unjust social systems in many countries in which a tiny elite controlled almost all the land. Since land was the only source of wealth, they controlled almost all the wealth.
The large majority of people were impoverished and had no access to land, which was the only way to accumulate wealth or even to support life. They had no choice but to work for these land owners either as slaves or later on as highly abused contract or migrant laborers. This is the root of the injustice in Latin America. Naturally, the small elite who had almost all of the economic power wanted to exercise political power. Essentially, they created armies in these countries that served as private police forces for the landed elite.
As a result, you wound up with societies in which over the years, the poor masses have become educated and conscious of what is happening to them and have rebelled against the system. The people who control power economically, politically, and militarily have tried to resist it. So, that is the original root of the tremendous inequality that has caused so much instability in Latin America over centuries.
More recently, the United States has become the dominant power in Latin America. This began a little more than one hundred years ago with the defeat of the Spanish at the end of the nineteenth century. Since that time, the United States has also sought to exercise great economic, as well as political control over many parts of Latin America, particularly in Central America and in the Caribbean. American corporations have had huge investments there, and the United States government has taken it as part of its responsibility to protect the rights of those companies to operate in Latin American countries under conditions they see fit, under conditions that the Americans believe are fair. This has dragged the United States into interventions where American companies have important investments. That goes all the way from Guatemala to Chile. So while the origins of the injustice in Latin America can be found in Spain, the more recent attempts over the past century to suppress popular uprising have largely come from the United States or groups in Latin America that count on the United States’s support.
Kinzer: When I look at the history of American intervention, I see a pattern developing. It doesn’t fit every case, but in most cases I see a three-part process going on:
Phase one comes when some big, usually American company has a problem with country x. The government of that country is either harassing it, taxing it, trying to regulate it, trying to nationalize it, tying to make it obey labor laws, or doing something that this company doesn’t want to do. The company then complains to the U.S. government. If there is no conflict between a big corporation and the government in country x, then that country doesn’t even get onto the radar screen in Washington. Nobody cares about it. It is a conflict between corporate power and the nationalism of people in foreign countries that originally brings the United States into most of these interventions. That’s phase one.
Phase two comes when the problem in country x is being discussed within the U.S. government. Inside the foreign policy process, the motivation for the intervention changes. In fact, the United States government formally does not overthrow foreign regimes in order to protect U.S. corporations. It’s the corporate interests that get Americans interested in the first place, but while this complaint is working its way through the American government, the motivation changes from an economic one to a political one. Our leaders convince themselves or allow themselves to be convinced that they are not overthrowing a government to defend our corporations. They’re overthrowing because it poses a strategic political threat to the United States. How do we know that it poses such a threat? Because, it is bothering some big American corporation, and we assume that any government that would do that must be anti-American, anti-capitalist, and perhaps in league with our great foreign enemies. So, that’s phase two. The motivation changes, and American leaders believe that they are only intervening to protect the interests of the nation, not the interest of these corporations that first got them interested in country x.
Phase three comes after the intervention when it’s time for American leaders to explain and defend what they did both to the American public and the world. Then, they come up with a third motivation, one that was normally not even mentioned in the earlier phases. They then say that the United States did not enter for economic or even political reasons. We did it for a third reason. We only wanted to help the poor, suffering, oppressed people who live under this brutal regime. We did it to rescue an oppressed nation. Far from trying to gain any advantage for ourselves, we sacrificed ourselves to help the poor, brutalized people of some foreign country.
So, this is the way the pattern usually emerges. It’s the problem that an American company has that first gets us interested. We then convince ourselves that we have to intervene because the country has a political system that is threatening. Finally, we defend our intervention by saying we only did it to defend the human rights of the intervention.
Imagineer: Have there been any positive effects of U.S. intervention in Latin America?
Kinzer: The effects of U.S. intervention in Latin America have been overwhelming negative. They have had the effect of reinforcing brutal and unjust social systems and crushing people who are fighting for what we would actually call “American values.” In many cases, if you take Chile, Guatemala, or Honduras for examples, we actually overthrew governments that had principles similar to ours and replaced those democratic, quasi-democratic, or nationalist leaders with people who detest everything the United States stands for.
Now, there have been some exceptions. I think if you look at Puerto Rico, for example, you find will find many Puerto Ricans fervently devoted to Puerto Rican culture and the idea of Puerto Rican nationality. Nonetheless, when Puerto Ricans look around their neighborhood and they see who is around them, they see Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and Haiti. Many may think that Puerto Rico would probably have turned out like one of those had it remained independent or had the United States allowed it to become independent. Puerto Rican nationalists would tell you that Puerto Rico was on a different track and might have emerged as an independent democracy. Nonetheless, in those rare cases like Puerto Rico and Hawaii where the United States was able to offer full incorporation into the United States after an intervention, the long-term results have not been as unequivocally negative as they have been in many other countries.
Imagineer: Recently, there have been trade programs like the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) that some say benefit Latin American countries far more than the United States. Would you say that this is indeed true, and the United States is sacrificing its economic prosperity to help its neighbors?
Kinzer: I don’t think these trade agreements are acts of charity by the United States. In fact, under these agreements, more developed countries have an advantage. If you have big transport and communications systems or if you have traditions of innovation, you tend to arrive in a more desirable position under a free trade agreement. This is why the United States pursued what used to be called the Open Door Policy during the early part of the twentieth century. Open Door Policy meant what we now call free trade. Many countries didn’t want to trade with the United States, but we insisted they do so under terms that we set. When they refused to do that, we intervened to force them to do so. That’s why I think sometimes that the open door policy was a bit misnamed; maybe it should have been called “Kick in the Door Policy.”
Now, it’s true that these trade agreements have raised national income in some Latin American countries. However, when you look under the surface, you’ll find that these agreements have increased inequality within the countries. They don’t have the effect of spreading wealth. In fact, they tend to concentrate and increase it in the pockets of those who are already wealthy. It may be that over the long run that these agreements can be shaped in ways that are productive for both sides, but the fact that the United States pursued them so rigorously is a reflection on the fact that they tend to benefit the United States.
Imagineer: What is your opinion of the War on Drugs in regard to Latin America?
Kinzer: In the first place, the idea of a drug-free society is a complete myth and a fantasy; there has never been a drug-free society in the entire history of humanity. The War on Drugs is widely seen in Latin America and in other parts of the world where it is waged in as an aggressive attack. People in Latin American countries naturally look at the U.S. and say: you’re consuming all of the drugs, so why are you saying the problem is with us? The answer, of course, is that wiping out drug use in the United States is too difficult of a challenge—actually an impossible challenge—and too disruptive; whereas the disruption that we caused within these drug projects is in other countries so we don’t feel it or see it. In many cases, although the drug traffickers are very wealthy, the people actually growing the substances tend to be quite poor. When the United States sprays their little farm with herbicide or burns it, we impoverish people. We particularly impoverish poor people. That makes them more willing to collaborate with radical groups as they are desperate and willing to do whatever they have to do to feed their families.
The Drug War is a way of doing something that the United States often does during its interventions which is exporting social problems. If the War on Drugs has done any good at all, which is highly debatable, it certainly hasn’t done any good in Latin America. There is a reason why many Latin American leaders would, some more overtly than others, like to see a big change in American drug policy. The War on Drugs has been a very negative factor for the United States’s image in the world. I think we’re even starting to realize it. Even as recently as in the last few weeks, the United States has more or less abandoned the idea of cracking down on citizens of Afghanistan. We’ve realized that we can’t turn those people away from their plight. I’d like to see the United States try to rethink its drug policies on a global scale.
Kinzer: With all that’s going on in the world, I sense that the Obama administration is not paying much attention to Latin America. The administration has not even named its chief Latin American policy maker. The person who’s in charge of Latin American policy in the State Department is a holdover from the Bush administration. We haven’t seen a real focus on Latin American issues. The president has made one trip to a Latin American summit. He gave a nice speech, certainly with a change in tone, which is one of the most obvious changes we’ve seen in Washington over the last few months. I think this change is effective as Obama is certainly a more popular figure than his predecessor. Nonetheless, I haven’t seen concrete results yet.
We haven’t seen a new policy towards Cuba, for example. We haven’t seen any new initiatives towards Haiti. We haven’t seen a real engagement with Mexico, which is a long-term security threat to the United States. There haven’t been new initiatives in Central America, nor has there been a concerted plan for the United States about how to deal with the lies of leftist and anti-American regimes in Central and South America. Nobody has really thought through what this new administration’s approach should be towards Latin America. That may be as a result of competing pressures of the administration’s time and focus. Nonetheless, it has left the United States more or less absent in the Latin American policy debate during recent months.
Imagineer: Why would you say leaders like Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro, leftist leaders who are very anti-American, have been so successful in Latin America? How should the United States approach these leaders?
Kinzer: The main reason these leaders have been successful is that they have been seen as reformers of highly unjust social systems. You mentioned Chavez and Castro. In Venezuela, the political system was always described as a democracy. There were two parties. There were elections. Sometimes one party would win; sometimes the other party would win. We like that in the United States. It’s like our system in that it seems democratic. In fact, those two parties in Venezuela represent a small group of the white elite, and they essentially alternated in power by one group of families coming in, then another group of families coming in, and so on. It’s true that there were elections, but the large majority of Venezuelans felt isolated from the political system. They didn’t feel well represented or considered by either of the dominant political parties. Therefore, the idea of democracy began to lose some of its luster. It didn’t seem like a productive system to most Venezuelans; they wanted something different.
In Cuba, it was a similar situation. There was a far more repressive regime in Cuba than there ever was in Venezuela. Not only was there not even the pretense of democracy that existed in Venezuela, but the United States exercised suffocating control over Cuba all throughout the first half of the twentieth century. Right after the Spanish-American war in 1898, the United States promised to allow Cuba to become independent after it overthrew Spanish rule with U.S. assistance. After the U.S. and Cuba overthrew Spanish rule, we decided we didn’t want Cuba to become independent. We forgot that, but the Cubans didn’t forget it. They became very angry, and their anger intensified over generations as the United States imposed a series of oppressive dictators on them. When Fidel Castro took power in 1959, he said in his very first speech that his regime would not let what happened in 1898 reoccur, when Cubans were promised freedom and independence but didn’t get it. I think that speech wasn’t widely reported in the United States. If it had been, many Americans would first of all have asked what happened back in 1898, and secondly what could something that happened sixty years ago possibly have to do with something today. We don’t realize that while we forget these interventions, hard feelings fester and burn in the hearts, the minds, and the souls of the particular country’s people. They don’t forget. Certainly in Cuba, the rising resentment of the American role in imposing brutal leadership was a large part of the reason why Fidel Castro was so widely welcomed.
Imagineer: What do you think causes powerful nations to start intervening in weaker countries? The United States, for example, has intervened in dozens of countries over the last half century alone but used to be more isolationist in its foreign policy.
Kinzer: This is something that has been going on since the beginning of history. I think it is a very simple explanation. It’s the very same reason little boys fight on the playground. Stronger countries intervene in weaker countries because the weak one has something, and the strong one wants it. That’s essentially what it all comes down to. The Vikings used to have a slogan: “What you cannot hold is not yours.” It has been the guiding principle of powerful nations and tribes since the beginning of time.
Specifically about the United States, it is true that in the early stages of European settlement of North America, the principle that early settlers held was enunciated by John Winthrop, who said, “We shall be as a city upon a hill—the eyes of all people are upon us.” What he meant, as he explained in his other writings, was that this new nation should set a great example for the rest of the world. If it did that, then other countries would look at it and then decide that there were aspects of this society they wanted to copy, but we wouldn’t go out and force ourselves upon others. During the nineteenth century, that began to change. Part of it, I think, had to do with the kinds of people who settled in the United States. You had the Scott Irish, who were the dominant group in much of the pioneering movement. The Scott Irish are a war hawk people. They were sent to Ireland by the British to fight the “barbarian Irishmen.” They came to the United States, and they had to fight the Indians on the frontier. They helped created the war hawk nation in which we live.
The second reason is religion. There was a growing sense in the nineteenth century in the minds of religious people that God had blessed the United States with not only great wealth but also a fantastic insight. God told Americans how the world should be governed. He gave us the key to prosperity, happiness, and freedom. It drove many religious people in America to believe that not only did we have a right to spread our beliefs around the world, but we really had a duty to do it. It would be very childish of us to be given such a fantastic gift by the Almighty and only selfishly hold it to ourselves. We thought that we needed to push our example particularly strongly where the population were so backwards that they didn’t even understand how much they needed our guidance. So, the religious aspect was also a factor.
Finally, during the second half of the nineteenth century, the techniques of mass production were perfected in the United States. Large scale agriculture also spread throughout our continent. We wound up producing huge amounts of food and manufactured goods. We couldn’t contain ourselves. Our productive capacity was greater than our population could absorb. We had to have access to resources in other countries and be able to market and sell our goods abroad. Many countries didn’t want to accept those goods. They wanted to do what the United States and many European countries did which was to threaten tariff walls around their country so that domestic industry and agriculture could develop. The United States didn’t like that. That meant that we were going to be deprived of markets, and that was going to cause economic depression in the United States. As a matter of fact, there were periodic depressions, crashes, and what they called panics in the late nineteenth century. You had labor groups conducting strikes and soldiers being called out to shoot strikers. There were thoughts that revolution was in the air. America needed a base now, a way to keep people employed. We saw foreign markets as absolutely vital to that, and when foreign countries did not agree with us, we insisted.
Imagineer: Thanks so much for joining us, Professor Kinzer.
Kinzer: The pleasure was all mine. Great to be with you.
He assumes that the needs and rights of the US corporations are different than the USA. While in many cases they may be, but remember that corporations are owned by stockholders. Many of these stockholders are retirement accounts. his views seem to play on the prejudice that big business is evil, and what it wants must also be evil. What is often the case is that US entities will work with whoever can provide what they need. This provides cash (power) to people in smaller countries who may not be very "nice" to their fellow countrymen. The number of democracies has greatly increased since the USA has become more interventionalistic in the last century. This is a good thing. This professor would write off these democracies as being "shams". Writing these democracies off is a dangerous idea. The way for people to have rights is for them to be able to vote.
The alternative is to have someone in power that is not a democracy. This is the model of places like Venezuela, where opposition parties are shut out. Leaders in countries like this think that they know what is best for their people, even if the people would disagree.
The left is currently upset about Honduras. With over 60% of the population voting, the non leftists were voted back into power. The leftists don’t want to recognize the election. The previous president was kicked out of power when he tried to maneuver things such that he would be president for life.
While the US is not perfect, it does more good than harm in other countries.
"his views seem to play on the prejudice that big business is evil, and what it wants must also be evil."
I disagree. This is a common criticism of anti-corporate activists, but I think it is a bit misleading. Corporations are not 'evil.' It would be outside the scope of Kinzer's work as a scientist to label them as such, but it is also simply not true. They are amoral, not immoral. They do whatever will make them money. This can and often does include charity. However, more frequently and with much more impact, it includes cost-cutting, externalizing measures that would be considered immoral by most moral standards, based on their effects on the community. One of these measures is, as Kinzer says, lobbying the US government to instigate regime change in countries that provide raw materials and labor for them, in order to keep prices down and goods flowing.
"The number of democracies has greatly increased since the USA has become more interventionalistic in the last century."
I am not sure the correlation here implies causation. Most of these new democracies come as a result of decolonization, along with perhaps Germany and Japan. There are few occasions on which the US has intervened to install a democracy. The trend is heavily the opposite. In Guatemala, Chile, and Honduras, the US overthrew democratic governments and put in power "people [. . .] who may not be very "nice" to their fellow countrymen." In other cases, the US has supported friendly dictatorships against revolutions (often democratic ones, but sometimes revolutionaries that would be just as bad or worse socially - the point is that they don't care about the politics of the revolutionaries) such as in Nicaragua, Iran, Vietnam, Cuba, and Iraq.
"While the US is not perfect, it does more good than harm in other countries."
While the long term consequences of US interventionism throughout the world are debatable, the short term goals (often explicitly expressed by US government officials) have almost consistently been imperial or neocolonial in nature. The governments installed or supported by the US have traded the well being of their populations for the neoliberal restructuring of sectors of or all of their economies, to either protect existing US business interests or to create or expand investment opportunities, particularly in cases in Latin America. The results of such interventions have killed hundreds of thousands in the immediate run-ups or aftermaths, and the economic repercussions have widened the gaps between the rich and poor, destroyed or prevented the development of vital social services, and concentrated the wealth of the countries in the hands of their elites. Especially in Latin America, as Stephen Kinzer could well demonstrate (read his Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq), the US brand of intervention has been one of protecting profits at the expense of people.
Either way, what needs to be considered is not how the US should be interfering with the internal affairs of other countries, but whether we should at all. When you say "in other countries", the problem with your thinking is revealed. Despite official rhetoric, the US government and its military are not a democratizing force in the world, committed to peace and whatnot. Like imperial powers before it, its primary interests are not shared by the victims of its military adventures.
Adam Kranz and Alex Hiatt
For brevity’s sake, I will deal only with Chile. It is rather Yanqui-centric to claim that “we overthrew” Allende’s government when one takes the trouble to examine the historical record.
Those who consider the democratically elected Allende a victim of the US and CIA are ignorant of the historical record. Three weeks before the coup, the also democratically elected House of Deputies passed by 81-47 a resolution titled the “Declaration of the Breakdown of Chile’s Democracy.” An excerpt follows.
"5. That it is a fact that the current government of the Republic, from the beginning, has sought to conquer absolute power with the obvious purpose of subjecting all citizens to the strictest political and economic control by the state and, in this manner, fulfilling the goal of establishing a totalitarian system: the absolute opposite of the representative democracy established by the Constitution;
6. That to achieve this end, the administration has committed not isolated violations of the Constitution and the laws of the land, rather it has made such violations a permanent system of conduct, to such an extreme that it systematically ignores and breaches the proper role of the other branches of government…"
In general and in specific, the resolution could be interpreted as an invitation to a coup. Allende himself called it such. The democratically elected members of the House of Deputies would not have passed such a strongly-worded resolution by a commanding 63- 37% majority if their constituents, the Chilean people, were not also disgusted with the Allende government’s repeated violations of law and democratic procedure.
When the democratically elected House of Deputies passed by a commanding majority a resolution that states that President Allende has repeatedly violated the tenets of democracy, such as following the laws and Constitution that were democratically voted on, that doesn’t say much about the democratic bonafides of President Allende, doesn’t it?
While the legislature voted on the copper nationalization, most of the nationalizations during the Allende era were unilateral acts on Allende’s part. He justified his unilateral nationalizations by citing a decree law issued by Colonel Marmaduke Grove, a member of a short-lived military junta in the 1930s. Is citing a decree law issued by a military junta indicative of “principles similar to ours,” Mr. Kinzer?
Mr. Kinzer should learn something about his subject before he presents himself as an expert.
Did you forget that detail, sir?
Mr. Kinzer is not the only person who should learn something about history, here regarding "most murderous."
The US actively allied itself with Stalin, a ruler exponentially more murderous than Pinochet, in World War II.Did you object to that alliance? Regarding relations with less than savory regimes, and the Pinochet regime was less than savory,the US is often between a rock and a hard place. If the US maintains relations, the US is accused of "backing a murderous regime." If the US takes active steps to depose the regime, the US is accused of "interfering."
Regarding "travesty," I would suggest that you research the following issue. Compare the time it took Chile under Pinochet and Cuba under Castro to get their Infant Mortality rate under 20. Also compare this with the Infant Mortality rates of their respective countries when Castro and Pinochet assumed power.
I once thought as you did regarding Chile, until I thoroughly researched the issue. History is more complex than the Allende/angel Pinochet/devil stereotype, and vice versa. Example: for all their condemnation of Pinochet, the leftist coalitions that were elected for twenty years after Pinochet, followed Pinochet's economic policies, not Allende's economic policies. If you are interested in learning more about Chile, I can point you to some good reading.
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