Lawyers, guns, and money: The CIA’s complicated history in Latin America
Tensions between the United States and Latin America seem to get worse with each passing day. The vast majority of 24-hour news programs are rife with stories highlighting the discord between the US and its nearest neighbors to the south. Like when President Donald Trump tweets about open borders or someone in his administration labels Latin American leaders as a “troika of tyranny.”
“The first thing I’d say is that the roots of this are really deep. There’s a long history of U.S. involvement in the region,” said Christopher Darnton, an associate professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.
That involvement is typically subtle, like when the U.S. decides who to support during/after a coup. It can also, of course, be far more direct – as with economic sanctions or, less frequently, direct military action. Operations in the 1980s involving the Central Intelligence Agency are pivotal to the grander scheme, demonstrating how the U.S. “mission” in Latin America has evolved, as well as the reasons for the ramifications that still linger after this century of conflict.
Early CIA operations
When the CIA was created in 1947, Latin America was not a major priority. The U.S. government had intervened in Central and South America a handful of times since the start of the century (i.e. the Panama Canal Zone), but there was no sustained effort to affect some larger change on the region. All of that changed in the early 1950s.
“Those priorities change when the US perceives leftist groups taking power in the region,” Darnton said. “In 1954, the US helps instigate the overthrow of a democratically-elected, but leftist government in Guatemala. That was, largely, a CIA operation.”
The CIA was prepared to assassinate Guatemalan President Jacobo Árbenz and a number of other government officials. Árbenz resigned and fled the country, and the assassination was aborted. The CIA then installed right-wing military officer Carlos Castillo Armas as president, beginning decades of repressive rule by successive regimes that are believed to have killed more than 100,000 civilians.
Guatemala became the model for “the agency’s” regime change operations that followed. Any leader with perceived communist ties was ousted in favor of a right-wing figure who could hold the country together. These U.S.-backed leaders became many of the people we identify today as Latin American dictators.
“Leaders in the U.S. had a hard time seeing the good in promoting nationalist, reform-oriented governments that flouted the US and its foreign policy. There was a real sense of ‘you’re with us or against us,’” Darnton said. “These repressive, authoritarian, right-wing governments were seen as on the road to something better. Yeah, they repressed their citizens, but it could be a lot worse from the U.S. perspective. They could be communists.”
The 1980s: Massacres, miracles, and Operation Condor
The Reagan Administration undoubtedly drew the most unprecedented attention to Latin America. The previous administration, under President Jimmy Carter, was largely viewed as a foreign policy failure. As summarized in the essay “Dictatorships & Double Standards” by Jeane Kirkpatrick, ambassador to the United Nations under Reagan: “The U.S. has never tried so hard and failed so utterly to make and keep friends in the Third World.”
Throughout the ‘80s, Latin America was alight with CIA operations. The agency functioned alongside other defense and intelligence groups in the U.S., each seeking to accomplish Reagan’s goal to spread democracy and subvert communism.
In Guatemala, for instance, the CIA monitored and did nothing (according to declassified documents) to intervene as right-wing militias burned down entire villages while looking for anyone supporting the left-wing Guerrilla Army of the Poor.
By 1990, the U.S. had cut off military aid to Guatemala over the thousands of civilians left displaced or dead. Regardless, the CIA secretly funneled millions of dollars in aid to anti-communist forces in Guatemala for years after assistance officially ended.
The Iran-Contra affair epitomized how far the Reagan administration would go to fight communists. Excessive human rights violations by pro-democracy partners in Guatemala and elsewhere brought increased scrutiny from Congress, which began limiting how much money the CIA and other agencies could spend on their missions.
Meanwhile, the Reagan administration was compelled to find a way to defeat the left-leaning Sandinista regime that had come to power in Nicaragua, a longtime U.S. ally in Central America.
The Contras, a paramilitary group staging in Honduras, were the best bet for safeguarding Nicaragua from communist influence. The administration was desperate and got creative with a solution for aiding the Contras.
“There’s essentially a clandestine Kickstarter campaign seeking alternative sources of funding to keep the Contras going,” Darnton added. “The Argentine dictatorship sent special forces advisors. The Sultan of Brunei and Saudis contributed funding. One of those ideas was to sell weapons to the regime in Iran, which was extremely controversial since it had held U.S. citizens hostage. This off-books sale brought in off-books revenue which made its way to the Contras.”
When a U.S. plane with a shipment of these weapons was shot down, the whole Iran-Contra Affair was broadcasted to the world. This resulted in several CIA officials lying under oath whilst testifying before Congress. The agents were then forced to plead guilty to perjury.
Operation Condor proves an example of the U.S. and the CIA exerting power by choosing to stay uninvolved. A 1975 agreement between Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay, the purpose of Operation Condor was to share intelligence and coordinate in actions against leftists, (including assassinations).
Manuel Contreras, head of the Chilean intelligence apparatus, would eventually deny to the U.S. that Condor involved the murder of political opponents.
Declassified materials, however, show that Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State and National Security Advisor for President Richard Nixon, knew the grisly details of the agreement. The CIA confirmed those details to Kissinger, who initially determined to send a communication to Condor leaders that disavowed extra-judicial murder. Instead, Kissinger rescinded the communication, stating that, “no further action be taken on this matter.”
Not every CIA mission aided the whims of madmen. In 1988, Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet called for a referendum on his own rule. Voters could choose either “Yes” or “No,” and Pinochet would continue or step down accordingly.
Pinochet, however, coordinated with his underlings to orchestrate mass public violence if the returns were not “Yes.” Informants quickly relayed this plot to the CIA, and the information made its way to Reagan.
The administration convinced Chile’s armed services to allow the elections to continue unencumbered. Returns showed 54.7 percent for “No” and Pinochet left office, peacefully, ending decades of authoritarian rule.
Unfortunately, the American people may not ever be fully enlighted to the extent and veracity of missions the CIA undertook in the 1980s throughout Latin America.
“Broadly speaking, a lot of it was threat assessment,” said Darnton. “Finding out the friendliness or unfriendliness of different regimes, and figuring out who was willing to be a good partner. The intelligence community, and the CIA, in particular, is one actor or one set of tools to achieve these missions.”
The effect of these missions influenced the region as it exists today, and directly impacts issues that currently embroil U.S. domestic and foreign policy. Immigrants and asylum-seekers from Central America emigrate from countries with long histories of intense US interference.
“There was a period of war, and then the war’s gone. From the U.S. perspective, it’s all Band-Aids over some festering, deep wounds. They flare up all over again when an economy skids or elections get contested, or any other number of reasons,” concluded Darnton.