It Didn’t End With the Cold War

You don't have to travel back to the Cold War to find evidence of US meddling in elections abroad.

Hugo Chávez in 2013. Keith Dannemiller / CORBIS

In the wake of the accusations that the Russian government worked with Julian Assange to release e-mails from Democratic Party members before the November election, many journalists, scholars, and politicians have pointed out how the United States has its own sordid history of foreign intervention.

They have rightfully drawn attention to a number of episodes that took place during the Cold War: the CIA under the Eisenhower administration bombed Guatemalan military facilities and assisted in the overthrow of Jacobo Arbenz, the democratically elected president of Guatemala, in 1954; the Nixon administration sought “to make the economy scream” in Chile and the CIA eventually assisted dissident military officers in the coup d’état that deposed Salvador Allende, the democratically elected president of Chile, in 1973; and the Reagan administration recurrently funded the Contra forces in Nicaragua to destabilize the Sandinista government throughout the 1980s, even after the US Congress passed legislation forbidding it.

Indeed, Lindsey O’Rourke has pointed out that the United States attempted to change a foreign government seventy-two times between 1947 and 1989. And during a Senate Armed Forces Committee hearing on cyber attacks, Senator Thom Tillis (R-NC) cited additional research on Cold War-era US foreign policy and acknowledged the hypocrisy of the United States in criticizing Russia for its alleged intervention, stating that “we live in a big glass house and there are a lot of rocks to throw.”

While we should never forget the undemocratic and bloody policies that the United States pursued during the Cold War, we should also remember that the United States has continued to meddle in international political affairs abroad after it and into the twenty-first century.

By the 1980s, much of what the CIA covertly accomplished throughout the world had become the agenda of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and its associated groups, including the International Republican Institute (IRI). Under the auspices of “democracy assistance” programs, the United States used these agencies openly to bolster center-right political party leaders and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) throughout the world by providing them with funding and technical support.

In William Robinson’s pioneering work on democracy assistance, he illustrated how the United States, through USAID and the NED, furnished, for example, the Nicaraguan opposition with technical and logistical support in the lead-up to the 1990 election against the Sandinistas, which the opposition would win. While these policies didn’t involve the obvious bloodshed that support for the Contras entailed, USAID and NED efforts continued to augment center-right parties throughout much of the Global South.

These efforts have not subsided, especially in contemporary Latin America.

In recent years, USAID and its contractors have deployed a number of strategies in Cuba, for instance, to destabilize the Castro government. In 2009, the United States began to orchestrate the creation of a social media app similar to Twitter that would begin by posting sports-related and other pop cultural messages, and then move on to disseminate messages urging members to protest against the government. What’s more, under the cover of development projects such as HIV programs, the United States sought to find “potential social change actors,” an act that would severely damage the reputation of US development projects actually intent on health care.

Elsewhere, in Venezuela, US agencies, including USAID, the NED, and its associated groups, worked with and funded organizations and actors that supported a 2002 coup d’état that temporarily deposed former president Hugo Chávez, the democratically elected leader of Venezuela. Some organizational leaders would even offer rhetorical support for the overthrow. IRI president George Folsom, for example, would commend “the Venezuelan people in their efforts to bring democracy to the country.”

Although the United States has asserted that they did not work with and fund these organizations in order to overthrow the Venezuelan government, the US continued to work with organizations that were intent on displacing the Venezuelan government following the coup, including Súmate, an organization that would lead a recall referendum effort against President Chávez in 2004 and become the training ground for María Corina Machado, now a key figure of the Venezuelan opposition.

USAID, in fact, possessed a clear mandate to destabilize the Chávez government.

In 2006, former US ambassador to Venezuela William Brownfield described USAID’s five-point strategy: “1) Strengthening Democratic Institutions, 2) Penetrating Chavez’s Political Base, 3) Dividing Chavismo, 4) Protecting Vital US business, and 5) Isolating Chavez internationally.” That is, under USAID programs, the United States sought to pull supporters away from Chávez by introducing them to opposition activists in forums they organized. They sent Venezuelan human rights defenders around the world in order to publicize alleged human rights abuses in the country in order to “isolate Chavez internationally.”

Finally, in Nicaragua, once again, USAID continued to work with center-right parties, as they did in the 1980s, in an effort to prohibit the Sandinistas, including former president Daniel Ortega, from returning to power in the November 2006 presidential elections.

In a meeting with Department of State and USAID administrators in January 2006, local USAID and Millennium Challenge Corporation staff in Nicaragua warned the administrators that a “Sandinista win would likely result in capital flight, a setback in open markets, an anti-US foreign policy and an immigration crisis . . . For these reasons, [they warned that] timing is crucial for the receipt of election and other financial assistance to bolster chances for a reform-minded, democratic candidate to win the elections.” And in July 2006, US ambassador Paul Trivelli reported that the IRI was involved in intensive party-building projects with four parties opposed to Ortega and Sandinista leadership.

In the end, programs in all three of these particular countries failed in their ultimate objectives. Raúl Castro remains entrenched in Cuba, Nicolás Maduro and the Socialists still govern in Venezuela, and Daniel Ortega recently won a third term in Nicaragua. These governments, of course, exert their own efforts to remain in power and often justify them with reference to the destabilizing agenda of the United States. In doing so, Presidents Castro, Maduro, and Ortega are often portrayed as so incredibly paranoid that they simply invent US-led plots to overthrow their governments. But their concerns are not misplaced, and you don’t have to travel back to the Cold War to understand why.

If it transpired, we should assuredly condemn any form of Russian intervention. We shouldn’t kid ourselves, though, about contemporary US foreign policy. Just as the sun never set on the British Empire, the moon never ceases to illumine US interference abroad. The Berlin Wall might have fallen and the Soviet Union might have dissolved, but the United States’ Cold War-era interventions abroad still persist.