America has been gripped by scandal after scandal of banana-republic proportions as Congress and the FBI probe Russian interference in the 2016 presidential elections.
The underlying sentiment from every article, think piece, and talking head is: How could a foreign power act to destabilize the democracy we hold so dear? Who let this happen?
In Latin America and the Caribbean, however, the outrage and confusion coming from the United States seems ironic. This country has been meddling in elections, propping up dictators, financing coups, and destabilizing governments in the region for so long that it’s cast a shadow over the meaning of democracy itself.
Just as Vladimir Putin aims to sprinkle the Trump administration with his brand of authoritarianism, Latin America has functioned as the proxy for the whims of various American administrations.
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As a kid, my parents explained to me the 2004 coup d’etat that ousted democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide from office in Haiti in the most basic terms: “Bush never liked him.”
While this may seem like an offhand comment made to a persistent child, it wasn’t without some truth. A radical leftist preacher turned president, Aristide vehemently maintained that the “arrangements for his departure,” complete with U.S. Marines, that ignited the coup were a show of force by the United States to get him to resign, not just a free flight as the Bush administration maintained.
Some tried to dismiss Aristide’s claim as baseless, but Latin American history is a master class in U.S.-backed coups. In 1954, A CIA operation removed the democratically elected President Jacobo Arbenz from power in Guatemala and instituted a series of bloody U.S.-backed dictators. Why? Because the powerful American company, United Fruit Company, disliked Arbenz’s commitment to providing land to peasants and thought minimum wage was clearly a communist plot.
In Chile, democratically elected President Salvador Allende found himself deposed by the CIA-backed General Pinochet in 1973. Allende sealed his fate by being friendly to Cuba’s Fidel Castro, and was considered “pro-Communist.”
On the other hand, politically savvy dictators have fared well under U.S. administrations.
Several U.S. presidents bolstered the bloody dictatorship of “anti-communist” Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier in Haiti and then his son, “Baby Doc” with military and foreign aid. Dictator Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic next door also aligned himself with U.S. business and political interests. The Americans reasoned that the unchecked violence of the regimes, which murdered countless people and disappeared thousands more, was a reasonable trade-off for having committed partners in the Caribbean.
The leftist Sandinistas in Nicaragua found out the hard way what happens when one overthrows a U.S.-backed dictatorship. They found themselves faced with U.S.-backed counterrevolution that crippled Nicaragua throughout the 1980s.
Say what you will about Russia, murdering American politicians hasn’t been put on the agenda. In contrast, the CIA made several attempts to kill Fidel Castro. Unclassified CIA documents detail that CIA hired a mobster, Sam Giancana, to slip cyanide pills into Castro’s drink.
When that failed, they recruited his lover, Marita Lorenz, for a halfhearted assassination attempt. The CIA made other attempts to kill Castro with no success, using a poisonous dive suit, snipers, exploding baseballs, poisoned cigars, pistols disguised as cameras, and on and on. No telling how much these spectacular failures cost US taxpayers.
By all accounts, America is still leading the way in terms of unwelcomed foreign interventions too numerous to list. Faced with these facts, a more cynical person could conclude that Russia’s meddling here seems amateurish compared to how deeply involved the United States has been in Latin American and Caribbean nations.
For us immigrants from the region (the byproducts of failed U.S. interventions) it is blatantly clear that foreign “intervention” is destabilizing by nature.
The true meaning of democracy is upheld only when the rule of law and the will of the people are respected, and democratic processes are allowed to play out. As the truth behind the Russian scandal unfolds, take Latin America and the Caribbean as a warning on what can go wrong when your most precious democratic institutions — as imperfect as they might be — are manipulated by outsiders.
France Francois, of Miami, is a writer and human rights activist. She has worked in international development in Latin America and the Caribbean.