The United States Has Used Latin America as Its Imperial Laboratory

Greg Grandin

Over the past two centuries, US imperial interventions have had a devastating impact on the peoples of Latin America. Those interventions have also played a crucial role in US domestic politics, enabling new power blocs to cohere and develop their strategies.

Col. James Steele of the US Army speaks to a Salvadoran Army official during the Salvadoran Civil War, 1985. (Scott Wallace / Getty Images)

Interview by
Daniel Denvir

US imperialism in Latin America has had a devastating impact on the region over the past two centuries. It has also profoundly shaped US domestic politics during the same period. Historian Greg Grandin discusses this squalid history in his book Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Making of an Imperial Republic.

According to Grandin, Latin America has consistently been the place where the United States has developed its strategies for dominance on the world stage while enabling specific power blocs to cohere within the domestic political system. Washington either orchestrated or provided key support for dozens of successful regime-change efforts in Latin American states. US intervention has been so frequent that it has become normalized and almost invisible.

Grandin sat down with Daniel Denvir, host of Jacobin podcast The Dig, in June 2021 to discuss the arguments of Empire’s Workshop. You can listen to the conversation here. The following excerpt has been edited for length and clarity.

Daniel Denvir

How has the long history of US intervention in Latin America shaped the development of American empire?

Greg Grandin

Over the course of two centuries, Latin America has been a workshop for the United States in a number of ways. First of all, it was able to try out different things in the region — not just new military tactics but also legal precedents to justify military intervention. It was the place where the United States first projected its power.

When we think about Latin America today, we see it as starting on the US-Mexico border that was drawn on the map after the war in the 1840s. But Latin America had previously extended much further north, covering the space between the Mississippi River and the Pacific. Before Mexico gained its independence, that territory had been part of the Spanish Empire.

The region also served as a workshop for the United States in terms of forging coalitions during moments of political realignment, from Andrew Jackson to Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. Latin America was the unacknowledged linchpin for those coalitions. It was the place where different constituencies came together and developed a sense of themselves as a class or as a bloc of classes.

Some political scientists argue that the United States has largely managed to contain social conflict within its party system — apart from the Civil War, of course. That system has evolved over time, with major realignments that bring to power new political coalitions made up of various constituencies through one of the two parties that are governing at the time. I find that argument interesting, and it explains a lot, but its advocates don’t look at the role of foreign policy.

We have to remember that the United States is an exceptional nation. No other country in the world has had the same opportunities for almost limitless expansion, beginning with the territorial drive toward the west and south. This gave rise to the idea that domestic social problems could be resolved by continuous outward growth. Latin America was indispensable for that.

Daniel Denvir

What kind of ugly legal precedents did the United States set in Latin America?

Greg Grandin

In 1854, for example, a US gunboat destroyed Greytown in Nicaragua — leveled it to the ground. That was part of a competitive struggle with Britain over an international trade route. The US courts upheld the legitimacy of the bombardment as a presidential prerogative. There was an accumulation of precedents like that, often worked out quietly in low-level courts, that are still being cited in our own time.

During the war in Mexico, the United States had a small standing army, so it relied on volunteers. Any state could raise a volunteer force and it would be under the army’s nominal command. Those volunteers committed terrible atrocities: rape, destruction of churches, desecration of cemeteries. Things got to be so bad that General Winfield Scott asked Congress for the authority to set up military courts to judge the perpetrators.

This meant that Scott had extraordinary power to set up those tribunals in another country that was being administered by the US army. The US government then cited that precedent after 9/11 as a justification for holding enemy combatants in Guantanamo. The accretion of precedents like that gave the executive a freer hand when it came to foreign policy.

Daniel Denvir

What made FDR’s “Good Neighbor” policy such a radical departure from the prior history of US intervention in Latin America?

Greg Grandin

It was a radical revision of international law in general, which was based on the idea of conquest and the right of great powers to send troops in to protect their interests against any perceived threats.

From the nineteenth century, a cohort of jurists, statesman, and political theorists in Latin America argued that you could remake international law in the Americas so that it was based on a presumption of solidarity and mutual interests. From that perspective, the immediate priority was to induce the United States to abandon its claimed right to intervene in the affairs of Latin American countries whenever it wanted to. US officials resisted this agenda for a long time.

However, by the 1930s, the US had the experience of being bogged down in unwinnable counterinsurgencies in countries like Haiti and the Dominican Republic. It was governing Cuba as a neo-colony via the Platt Amendment, which Washington had inserted into the Cuban Constitution.

That amendment gave the United States the right to intervene whenever it wanted, which it did several times. By 1939, it was clear that this approach was doing nothing to consolidate US power in Latin America and was in fact radicalizing the hemisphere and generating antagonism toward the United States.

When Roosevelt gave his inaugural address as president, in 1933, it was overwhelmingly focused on domestic policy, with just one paragraph on foreign affairs. He introduced the idea of a “good neighbor” approach in that paragraph, not specifically in relation to Latin America but as a general approach toward the rest of the world.

There weren’t many places where FDR could put that vision into effect. Militarists were on the march in Asia and fascists were gathering strength in Europe. Even US allies in Europe were tightening their grip over their colonies. The Roosevelt administration turned to Latin America, and Cordell Hull, the secretary of state, went to Montevideo for the seventh Pan-American Conference in November 1933.

Hull was a Jacksonian Democrat from Tennessee who had fought in the Spanish-American War in 1898. He was accompanied by Ernest Gruening, an editor at the Nation who was a staunch anti-imperialist. Gruening urged Hull to accept the principle of nonintervention. At the conference, Hull conceded to the Latin Americans on a host of issues. Most importantly, he said that the United States would recognize the absolute sovereignty of Latin American states in their domestic and foreign affairs.

Roosevelt withdrew all US forces from the region and abrogated the Platt Amendment in Cuba. He began to tolerate a significant degree of economic nationalism in countries like Brazil, Mexico, and Bolivia. All of this created enormous goodwill and allowed Hull to sign a series of bilateral free-trade agreements.

That in turn helped the United States to climb out of the Great Depression and get ready for World War II. This process of opening up Latin American markets also enabled Roosevelt to build ties with a modernizing corporate bloc around pharmaceuticals, energy, and electronics that became the business ballast of the New Deal coalition.

Daniel Denvir

What role did the Mexican Revolution and its legacies play in the development of the Good Neighbor policy?

Greg Grandin

The Mexican Revolution was the first revolt against US capital in what became known as the Third World. It resulted in the passage of the first social democratic constitution in the world, which established rights to education, social security, pensions, and so on. The role of the state in the Mexican economy greatly expanded, with more control over natural resources.

For a long time, US governments were completely opposed to the Mexican Constitution’s definition of social property and its very robust understanding of eminent domain that gave the state authority to nationalize resources. But Roosevelt went along with it because he had no choice. He needed Mexico during the Depression and as an ally in WWII, so he didn’t oppose the nationalization of Standard Oil’s Mexican holdings and other US economic assets.

Mexico also became an inspiration for some of the more radical elements within the New Deal coalition. Rexford Tugwell and the Sharecroppers’ Union went to Mexico because they wanted to see what real agrarian reform looked like. They began suggesting that Roosevelt might follow a similar approach in the United States, although that was never going to happen.

Daniel Denvir

FDR’s Good Neighbor policy didn’t last very long after his death, did it?

Greg Grandin

Immediately after the victory of the Allies in WWII, there was a lot of hope for the expansion of social democracy. There was also a widespread belief that you could promote development by breaking the power of the landed class, which extracted wealth through monopoly control of land and labor. If that monopoly was broken, you would increase the purchasing power of peasants who could then buy locally made products, strengthening the progressive industrial bourgeoisie.

However, the wider geopolitical shifts in the late 1940s, with the beginning of the Cold War, broke that link between democracy and development in the eyes of US planners. They established a new equation between development and order. The US was no longer encouraging democratization or the unionization of workers.

Latin America never had its own version of the Marshall Plan. In Europe, industrializing elites had access to massive amounts of public capital and didn’t feel it was necessary to suppress the trade unions or the noncommunist left in order to develop. In Latin America, on the other hand, they were told to obtain the money from private capital and loans. In that context, the priority was to repress organized labor and all the demands for social reform. There was no structural space for social democratic parties or even Christian democratic reformers.

Guatemala’s revolution in 1944 was a perfect example of the continent-wide democratic spring that I’ve been talking about. Jacobo Árbenz was elected in 1950 with a mandate to extend the ideals of political democracy into the social realm. That meant trying to assert the role of the state sector in the countryside, where the United Fruit Company ran its plantations like feudal estates. Árbenz passed an agrarian reform law that expropriated United Fruit land on the basis of the company’s own valuation for tax purposes.

The CIA put an operation to overthrow Árbenz into play. It drew on all the advances in psychological warfare and techniques to disseminate misinformation. The main goal was to promote the idea that there was an internal opposition to Árbenz when there wasn’t. They created a mercenary force of disgruntled military people in Honduras and let the Guatemalan national army know that if the mercenaries failed, the United States would intervene directly.

In seeking to isolate Guatemala, the United States didn’t formally break with multilateralism. It got the Organization of American States to sanction Guatemala on the pretext that it was threatened by external communist aggression. Árbenz was enormously popular, and so was the land reform, but the coup was successful, and it was followed by decades of brutal repression.

Daniel Denvir

How did the events in Guatemala influence the revolution in Cuba later in the decade?

Greg Grandin

When Guatemala’s democratic revolution began, left-wingers — including those of the Communist Party — still looked toward the United States as a potential model for development and still thought they could work with the progressive bourgeoisie. The land reform policies were designed to strengthen the progressive bourgeoisie. They still thought they could create national class coalitions to bring about social democratic reforms.

By 1959, five years after the coup against Árbenz, the Cuban revolutionary leaders had a much more radical vision of economic justice. Fidel Castro was also much better prepared for what the United States was going to do in response. They beat back the Bay of Pigs Invasion, which led to a wave of radicalization throughout the hemisphere and gave Castro legendary status as someone who could beat the US Goliath, unlike Árbenz.

Daniel Denvir

The Kennedy administration supported counterinsurgencies in Latin America but also launched the Alliance for Progress, which promised billions of dollars in development aid to assist with reform and break up extreme concentrations of power. Were there contradictory forces or power blocs at work within the US government that gave rise to these policies?

Greg Grandin

The idea of the United States as a liberalizing and revolutionary agent in the world is deeply ingrained within the country’s self-conception. John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign was predicated on restoring a sense of purpose, part of which involved embracing that revolutionary rhetoric.

It was also specifically in response to Castro and the inspiration that his revolution offered to the rest of the hemisphere. Kennedy famously said that we were going to complete the revolution of the Americas. At the same time, however, the United States was committed to strengthening the internal security capacities of states like those in Latin America.

The Alliance for Progress did promote attempts at land reform in Chile and even, to some extent, in Guatemala and El Salvador. But it also strengthened the security services in Latin American countries by professionalizing them and getting them to work in a coordinated manner by sharing and acting on information.

As political polarization grew during the 1960s and ’70s, with many on the Left deciding to follow the Cuban path of insurgency, you saw a radicalization of the Right and the rise of death squads. There was a first round of coups in the 1960s in countries such as El Salvador, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, and Brazil, followed by a second round in the 1970s. The second round was concentrated especially in the Southern Cone and the Andes: Bolivia, Chile, Uruguay, Argentina.

The coups of the first round were designed to counter the influence of Cuba or any potential sympathy for Cuba and begin strengthening the repressive capacities of those states under the rubric of a national security doctrine. But they set off a cycle of radicalization and repression, with insurgencies in a number of countries. The second round was the culmination of that cycle, with full-fledged death-squad states coming to power.

The second round of coups took the strengthening of national security agencies to an international level through Operation Condor. That was the period when we saw the worst forms of violence, with disappearances and massacres. By the end of the 1970s, South America was locked down, with one country after another ruled by US-backed right-wing dictatorships. The axis of conflict then shifted to the Central American region.

Daniel Denvir

Going back a little from that point, why did Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger find the Chilean government of Salvador Allende so threatening?

Greg Grandin

This was taking place in the wider context of détente with the Soviet Union. The United States was trying to extricate itself from Vietnam. That partly involved recognizing the idea of the world being divided into spheres of influence for the two superpowers. Chile was firmly within the US sphere of influence, so Allende’s government was a challenge to that.

The idea of a country like Chile voting a self-described Marxist into power was also threatening because it was harder to discredit. Castro had used authoritarian methods to save the Cuban Revolution because he wanted to avoid the fate of Árbenz. But it was harder to discredit someone who was democratically elected, like Allende.

In addition, this was a model that might not be confined to Chile or Latin America. The United States was worried about what was happening in Western Europe, with the increase in support for the Italian Communist Party, and the revolution in Portugal. The overthrow of Allende was a warning to the European communists that while the United States might accept them as junior partners in a center-left alliance, they would never be accepted as the major party in a European government.

Chile was an interesting case because its appeal went in different directions. On the one hand, it was a key player in the Third World, with discussions around the idea of a new international economic order. On the other hand, it had a deep resonance for the Eurocommunists who were distancing themselves from the Soviet Union and wanted to work within the established political structures of Western Europe.

The advocates of a new international economic order wanted to establish a basic price floor for fourteen commodities. They also wanted to socialize intellectual property rights and technology in order to help the Third World develop and create value-added industry. Neoliberalism, of course, did precisely the opposite, promoting a race to the bottom in commodity prices while entrenching intellectual property rights and rolling back nationalization.

Daniel Denvir

What role did a reinvigorated form of imperialism in Central America play in the rise of Ronald Reagan and the New Right during the last years of the Cold War?

Greg Grandin

Reagan’s UN ambassador, Jeane Kirkpatrick, famously said that Central America was the most important place in the world at that time. Commentators had a hard time understanding what she meant by that. Was it really more important than Europe or the Middle East, for example?

But in a way, Central America was so important for the Reagan administration precisely because of its insignificance. It did not have any resources that the United States could not do without and there were no nuclear weapons there. It was squarely within the US backyard. Reagan could give movement conservatives a free hand with little fear of the consequences.

Neoconservatives like Kirkpatrick argued that the United States had to retake the Third World. Central America was the first place for them to do that, with a rhetoric of moralized militarism. There was a bloc of secular neoconservatives like Kirkpatrick and Elliott Abrams with the “theocons” of the religious right who were mobilized to support anti-communism in Central America.

The Reaganite alliance came together around the wars in Central America. There were mercenaries working with the Contras in Nicaragua and evangelicals supplying them with humanitarian aid who saw it as a military crusade. It led to a thickening of the relations between different parts of the alliance.

Once the Republicans returned to power under Reagan, the militarists and counterinsurgency theorists who had failed in Vietnam saw El Salvador as a chance to get it right. They spent money on civic action and land reform, but none of that worked. At the end of the day, the United States and its Salvadoran allies fought the FMLN [Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front] guerrillas to a standstill through the massive use of violence — torture, killings, and disappearances on a grand scale.

The idea of “winning hearts and minds” is a form of self-delusion on the part of counterinsurgency theorists. Pure repression is what ultimately wins the day. The language of state-building and winning hearts and minds just allows them to convince themselves that what they’re doing is noble.

Daniel Denvir

How did the Reagan administration target domestic opponents and critical journalists who were challenging its dirty war in Central America?

Greg Grandin

In 1983, the Reagan administration set up the Office of Public Diplomacy. This was in direct violation of the National Security Act, which prohibited the use of propaganda and disinformation on the US public. It was staffed by psyops operatives from the Department of Defense and used Republican-aligned advertising firms from Madison Avenue to run polls and focus groups so they could find out what language would play well with public opinion.

If anyone reported a negative story about the US-backed regime in El Salvador, the response wasn’t necessarily to try and disprove it but rather to throw enough mud in the water so that nobody could form a clear opinion about what had happened. At the same time, they wanted to raise the cost for journalists of reporting on stories like that.

One reporter noted that if she wanted to do a story about the Salvadoran Army or the Contras, she would have to spend so much time fact-checking that it wasn’t worth it. She would be attacked straight away, and if she got any details of the story wrong, it would be a career killer.

Daniel Denvir

We tend to think about the US religious right in terms of domestic cultural issues like abortion and gay rights. But you argue that foreign policy was a key strand in its history.

Greg Grandin

Evangelical conservatives were deeply hostile to the emergence of liberation theology, which criticized the social system upheld by US militarism on religious grounds, arguing that the profit motive was an amoral mechanism that destroyed human solidarity. The religious right insisted that the free market wasn’t amoral — it reflected God’s grace.

This overlapped with the effort of secular conservatives to present the market as a place of creativity and fulfillment. A focus on opposing liberation theology brought these two forms of conservativism together. The projection of Reaganism was to rehabilitate the capitalist market and US power in moral terms.

Daniel Denvir

The Reagan-backed Contra force in Nicaragua is best remembered today because of the Iran-Contra scandal. The Democrats treated Iran-Contra as a question of domestic process: the Reagan administration had broken the law by sending aid to the Contras after Congress barred it from doing so, using money generated from secret missile sales to Iran. Why did they refuse to confront Reagan’s militarism on more fundamental terms?

Greg Grandin

Although there was still a substantial peace caucus within the Democratic Party, the Democratic establishment essentially went along with the assumption that the Sandinistas in Nicaragua were a problem that had to be contained and it was the right of the United States to do that.

There’s a great video that you can watch on YouTube of Senator George Mitchell lecturing Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North. It’s seven minutes long and North doesn’t say a word. He’s sitting there with his chest full of medals, his rock-hard jaw, and his short haircut. But right off the bat, Mitchell basically concedes that the Sandinistas were a problem and ways had to be found to deal with them. It’s an example of how you can win an argument without saying a word.

If you watch that video, you will see a New Deal establishment that is so exhausted, it can talk and talk without actually saying anything, while the ascendant Reagan coalition is so confident, it doesn’t have to speak at all. Because they largely shared the assumptions of Cold War anti-communism when it came to Nicaragua, the Democrats never went after Reagan on the substance of his policy rather than the procedural aspects.

Iran-Contra wasn’t a scandal; it was the coming-out party of the New Right. If you want to understand the New Right, there’s no better place to look than Iran-Contra in all its different aspects. When Dick Cheney wrote the House minority report, he put forward a theory of executive power that was considered outrageous in 1987 but would later be rehabilitated after 9/11 under George W. Bush as common sense.