Socialist Worker

Four US-backed coups in Latin America—and two close shaves

by Dave Sewell
Issue No. 2568

A bloody history

A bloody history (Pic: Socialist Worker)


The right hail the chaos in Venezuela as proof that socialism never works—and warn that “something must be done” by the “international community”.

But the biggest problem with any remotely left wing government in Latin America is that they keep getting toppled with the help of foreign powers.

The continent has seen repeated and brutal US interventions.

Making socialism a success means keeping imperialist hands off it.

Here are just a few examples of when the US did—and didn’t—get its way.

Guatemala 1954

The original “banana republic”, early 20th century Guatemala was dominated by the US-owned United Fruit Company.

United Fruit owned over 40 percent of the land and, working with a series of military dictators, enforced a regime of poverty. Top White House and CIA spy agency figures were closely linked to the firm.

From the mid-1940s the governments of Juan Arevalo and then Jacobo Arbenz began to pursue moderate reforms, driven forward by strikes and peasant mobilisations.

These included trade union rights and limited redistribution and taxation of land.

Jacobo Arbenz

Jacobo Arbenz


The CIA financed, armed and trained a paramilitary force to overthrow Arbenz in 1954. CIA planes bombarded Guatemala City from the air as its proxy army invaded from Honduras. Arbenz resigned within a week.

The coup put an end to democracy. For four decades successive dictatorships ruled through terror and slaughtered tens of thousands of people.

The coup came as no surprise, with the US and its allies banging the drum for months.

But Arbenz knew army chiefs weren’t behind him. When he refused to arm the workers and peasants it left him helpless.

Tragically the PGT Communist Party, which was part of his government and growing in strength, went along with this instead of rallying resistance itself.

Dominican Republic 1965

Juan Bosch

Juan Bosch


The US government considered the Dominican Republic firmly under its thumb.

US troops occupied it from 1914-26.

Of dictator Rafael Trujillo’s gruesome regime, US secretary of state Cordell Hull famously said, “He may be a son-of-a-bitch, but he is our son-of-a-bitch.”

Then, when Trujillo became a liability, the CIA had him assassinated in 1961.

But ordinary Dominicans refused to stick to the script of an orderly transition to a more presentable right wing leader. They elected Juan Emilio Bosch, who tried to enact social ­democratic reforms.

The rich turned against him, and top generals and former Trujillo allies mounted a coup.

But rebels led by sections of the military rose up to restore Bosch, and initially had much success. US president Lyndon Johnson sent over 40,000 troops to stop the resistance turning into a revolution.

They occupied the country and installed a former official of Trujillo’s, Hector Garcia-Godoy, as provisional president. He helped US firms carve up the nation’s wealth.

Before leaving, the occupiers “oversaw” the election of Trujillo’s minister Joaquin Balaguer.

Chile 1973

Salvador Allende

Salvador Allende (Pic: Chilean National Congress library)


Former Chilean president Salvador Allende is one of history’s most famous political martyrs. He made his last defiant speech under the bombs of a military coup that killed 30,000 people.

It followed a long period of “destabilisation”. Much like in Venezuela today, the right organised counter-demonstrations of the middle class and the bosses tried to shut down the economy.

The CIA funded their organisations and directed US firms to help them “make the economy scream”. It pressured generals to impose a “military solution”.

But the bloody coup wasn’t just aimed at Allende’s reformist Popular Unity coalition. It sought to crush a wave of mass action.

Peasants and poor people seized land.

Workers struck and formed “cordones”—organisations to coordinate production and beat the bosses’ sabotage. They set up self-defence committees to repel right-wing violence.

But Allende believed his only hope was to try and unite everyone—including the rich and the right—behind the constitution. This proved disastrous.

He appointed his future killer General Augusto Pinochet to the head of the armed forces. And he did all he could to demobilise workers—particularly the powerful miners who struck to defend their pay.

The Communist Party had real influence in the working class, and used it to argue for patience and moderation. This fatally handed the initiative to its worst enemies.

Honduras 2009

Manuel Zelaya

Manuel Zelaya (Pic: Agencia Brasil)


Honduras had been a key US base for crushing other uprisings in Central America.

Then president Manuel Zelaya, though coming from the right wing Liberal Party, began to explore alternative alliances with left governments in Venezuela and Bolivia.

After hiking the minimum wage he held an unofficial referendum on democratising a constitution born of the US’s brutal 1980s ­counter-revolutionary war on Nicaragua.

The army withheld ballot boxes then arrested Zelaya for protesting.

The coup provoked enormous protests. But the US state department under Hillary Clinton threw its weight behind the army.

It gave a stamp of legitimacy to sham elections to, as Clinton put it, “render the question of Zelaya moot”.

Honduras spiralled into violence and had the highest murder rate in the world,

outside a war zone, for many years. The police, army and state-backed paramilitaries were often to blame.

Clinton responded by increasing US aid to the Honduran police and military, including a new £20 million tailor-made propaganda programme.


...and two that failed

Imperialist states are powerful, but not all-powerful.

The US has generally gone in behind reactionary forces in the countries it seeks to dominate—the rich, the political right and the army—rather than alone.

Their viciousness, and their reliance on US support, speaks to how much they fear the power of the poor. That power has only increased with the growth of an urban working class.

Two major humiliations for the US expose the limits of its power.

Cuba 1961

Fidel Castro

Fidel Castro


The 1959 revolution boosted ordinary Cubans’ confidence while demoralising the rich and the right. Its leader Fidel Castro initially enjoyed huge support.

That’s one reason a CIA-backed invasion attempt failed spectacularly, and repeated attempts to assassinate Castro even more so.

But what kept US revenge at bay in the long run was an unequal alliance with Soviet Russia.

This was hardly ideal. It dragged Cuba into a ­superpower conflict that nearly ended in nuclear war.

It strengthened the most authoritarian aspects of Castro’s government and brought economic domination eerily similar to that previously imposed by the US.

Venezuela 2002

The best example comes from Venezuela itself.

US-backed plotters who arrested left wing president Hugo Chavez didn’t reckon with the tens of thousands who rose up and surrounded the presidential palace demanding his return.

Those same masses mobilised to beat a Chile-style bosses’ strike in 2002-3 and an attempt to oust Chavez by referendum in 2004.

But even left wing governments rest on what Chavez himself called a “bourgeois state” that will oversee workers’ exploitation until the day it is “pulverised”.

In order to govern it Chavez—like Arbenz, Bosch, Allende, Zelaya and so many others—increasingly put alliances with capitalists before the mobilisation of workers.

That’s why his successor Nicolas Maduro is in such deep water now.

The alternative is to build workers’ own strength—in opposition to such a state.


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