“Almost every American overthrow of a foreign government has left in its wake a bitter residue of pain and anger.”
A review of Overthrow by Stephen Kinser, published in 2006.
According to the Washington Post, during his presidency Trump was on course to have told 25,000 lies by election day. His record may be exceptional, but he stands in a long tradition of liars as US presidents, as is clear from Stephen Kinzer’s book. For well over a century, US presidents or their officials have been lying about other governments that they’ve taken a dislike to, usually because they’ve ceased to provide a low-tax, low regulation environment for US companies to mine gold, grow bananas or exploit the country’s resources in other ways. They’ve also indulged in gross insults and caricatures, ensuring that the US public, probably largely ignorant of the particular country or foreign government being targeted, comes to see them as dictatorships ruled by tyrants.
For example, of which country did a US administration say that they would “no longer tolerate and deal with such a medieval despot” or alternatively that they would “no longer appease dictators and despots near our shores”? Of which country did the US say that there was a “reign of terror” or that it exhibited “rampant corruption, dismantling of democratic institutions [and] serious human rights abuses”? Where is there either a “brutal and oppressive” regime or one that is “the cause of immense human suffering”? The answer to all these questions is Nicaragua, but the time frame for the first quotations of each pair is very different from that of the second.
The first quotations in each pair all come from the government of President Taft in 1909, referring to the reformist Nicaraguan president Jose Santos Zelaya, who was in office from 1893 until 1909, when the Taft administration successfully engineered his overthrow. This was because he was showing too much independence and refused to bow to the wishes of US companies operating in Nicaragua. Stephen Kinzer thinks Zelaya is the best president Nicaragua has ever had. President Taft’s secretary of state, however, Philander Knox, accused Zelaya’s “regime” of corrupting the Nicaraguan administration, of throttling public opinion and a free press and of imprisoning its opponents. Zelaya’s real crime was to lead Nicaragua on a path that diverged from that of the US, investing in public services and putting curbs on companies such as the US lumber operations that wanted to strip Nicaragua’s forests.
Roll forward 110 years and we find the Trump administration using almost the same words (the second in the pairs quoted above) to deride the current Nicaraguan government, led by President Ortega, which is also implementing radical reforms. As in 1909, the US media and its counterparts in Europe faithfully repeat the lies told by the administration as if they present a true picture of what’s happening in Nicaragua. This is far from the case. Nowhere do you hear that the Ortega government has halved extreme poverty in just over ten years, built 18 hospitals or had the biggest growth in renewable energy use in Latin America. Nor do you hear that it is one of the safest countries in the hemisphere or that women occupy more than half of all public positions of power.
The verbal attacks and sanctions deployed by the Trump administration (should we say “regime”?) against Nicaragua come too late for inclusion in Kinzer’s book. But as a journalist who specialised in Central America he naturally includes several other examples of US administrations overthrowing democratically elected neighbouring governments. Guatemala in 1954 perhaps had the thinnest justification of all (President Arbenz was trying to exert a degree of control over the US company, United Fruit) and the gravest consequences – perhaps 300,000 dead in the subsequent repression of the Guatemalan population, mainly its indigenous poor. Chile is 1973 was arguably as serious in different ways, not least because Salvador Allende aimed to show how socialism could develop as a result of an election, not only as a result of revolutionary violence. More recently in Latin America we’ve seen governments overthrown by more subtle and indirect methods – such as Manuel Zelaya’s ousting in Honduras in 2009 or, most recently, of Evo Morales in Bolivia in 2019 – both too recent for inclusion in Overthrow.
According to Kinzer, in little more than a century the U.S. played “a decisive role” in the overthrow of 14 foreign governments, by his count: Hawaii, Cuba, the Philippine Islands, Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, Honduras, Iran, Guatemala, Vietnam, Chile, Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan, Iraq. Even if we count only successful overthrows, there are gaps in this list such as the deposition of Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic in 1961. But a list of active interventions by the US in other countries’ democratic processes would be much longer: Dan Kovalik, in The Plot to Control the World, says that the US interfered in 81 foreign elections between 1946 and 2000. The charge sheet against US governments which claim to be ‘promoting democracy’ while imposing sanctions on a quarter of the world’s population and spending $ billions destabilising elected governments is a lengthy one.
Kinzer argues that the motive for US intervention is more often economic than ideological, although he does acknowledge ‘the power of the noble idea of American exceptionalism’. The clue to the limits of his analysis is in those words ‘the noble idea’: Kinzer can’t quite get away from his conviction that the US is fundamentally a force for good, if only it could restrain its foreign adventures. Overthrow was published in 2006. Perhaps if Kinzer were to produce a new edition of the book after the Trump era and its 25,000 lies, he might conclude that US foreign interventions are not some kind of aberration but rather just another brazen example of the US’s fundamental economic, social and political problems that began in the twentieth century but continue, even more disastrously, in the twenty-first.