An Incomplete History of America’s Efforts to Manipulate and Destabilize Foreign Governments
Written by Vicki Smith and Joe Ponzillo
Published 29 November 2018
In the United States, people value their democratic society for the freedoms and civil rights they enjoy. Not only do many Americans advocate for the rights of their own citizens, they see themselves as champions of freedom for other nations around the globe. Certainly there are many instances where Americans have fought alongside their allies to ensure that democracy reigns. But what about those times when supporting a government in other lands was contrary to what the United States government perceived as their best interest? Are there instances when the United States actively intervened to topple democracies or thwart the will of other sovereign nations that opposed their intentions?
There are, in fact, too many such occurrences, as a look at American-involved conflicts reveals. In this article, we will explore cases of American manipulation and destabilization of foreign governments in different regions of the world.
Central and South America
Current National Rifle Association President Oliver North was an active-duty Marine in 1981 when he joined President Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council and started clandestine operations to funnel money to the Contra rebels in Nicaragua to help them overthrow the socialist Sandinista government. North received millions of dollars in donations from Brunei and Saudi Arabia, but North’s master plan was to sell weapons to Iran to raise money for the Contras. The Contras used the weapons money to support cocaine smugglers who sold their drugs in the United States. North became involved with the sale of contraband drugs and weapons all across the globe, all ostensibly to give back-door support to right-wing rebels that the U.S. government had stopped overtly funding. Additionally, the American government also controversially trained and aided Battalion 3-16 of the Honduran army in their conflict against the Contras. Their politically motivated assassinations and war crimes stimulated violence in the region that directly led to today’s ongoing “migrant caravan” crisis.
2009 saw members of the Obama administration, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, repeating far-right propaganda against democratically-elected President Manuel Zelaya of Honduras, implying that he was going to attempt to illegally remain in office after his term expired. The information was untrue, but it nevertheless led to a coup that forcibly removed Zelaya from his position and literally whisked him out of the country under dark of night. The Obama administration then supported the illegitimate faction that took over the government, creating unrest that continues to this day. Honduran refugees fleeing the violence that continues to ravage their country are being met with escalating hostility by the current Trump administration, with little acknowledgement of the responsibility that the United States owns in creating the fractured political situation that is forcing Hondurans to flee for their lives.
One unusual and unfortunate instance of United States’ involvement in the affairs of other nations revolved around land holdings by US-based United Fruit Company (UFCO) in Guatemala. In 1952, 70% of farmable land in Guatemala was owned by just two percent of the population, and UFCO controlled 42% of that. When the democratically elected president, Colonel Jacobo Arbenz, made a move to nationalize and redistribute the land, UFCO convinced President Eisenhower to employ the newly-created Central Intelligence Agency in dismantling the Guatemalan government, both to protect UFCO’s interests and erase any possibility of the spread of communist leanings in the Central American country.
Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier was elected leader of Haiti in 1957 and rapidly became totalitarian in his rule. He established death squads to torture and murder opponents. After his death, Papa Doc’s son, Jean Claude “Baby Doc”, became president. Because he was a staunch anti-communist, Duvalier received backing from the United States in spite of his human rights abuses. When Haitians began fleeing to the United States seeking asylum, the Clinton administration locked them in Guantanamo Bay, essentially detaining them as though they were criminals when they were actually refugees.
United States involvement in Chile has almost always been based on controlling Chile’s resources, which is why it suited President Nixon to aid in the overthrow of Chile’s president, democratically elected Salvador Allende. The U.S. supported dictator Augusto Pinochet, and continued to do so for the seventeen years of his reign, in spite of his horrific record of human rights violations.
America backed Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista in the early 1950s, party due to his American-friendly trade relationship with the United States. Sugar cane grown in Cuba was important to U.S. business interests, but the U.S. government was also concerned about a growing revolutionary movement headed by Fidel Castro, whose left-leaning ideology was not popular with American leaders.
The Middle East
The CIA was also involved in a coup that ousted Iranian Prime Minister Muhammad Mossadegh in 1953. Mossadegh was supportive of democratic principles and reportedly intended to establish a democratic government in Iran, but when he nationalized Iran’s oil, British and American oil interests were furious, calling for his ouster. He was replaced with Ayatollah Abol-Gashem Kashani, who ultimately refused to fully release Iran’s nationalized oil fields anyway.
While the situation in Iraq in the 1960s was more complicated than what might be explained as just a desire for a regime change, the CIA was nevertheless involved in the ouster of Abdel Karim Kassem and eventual installation of Saddam Hussein. The conflict was, in large part, due to the vast oil wealth in the region, which Western interests sought to exploit for their own gain. Secondary to the oil, however, was what can only be called a purge of communists and other left-leaning individuals from within the Iraqi populace. The CIA provided a list of “suspects” whom the Baathists commenced to slaughter. Untold numbers of Iraq’s educated citizens–teachers, doctors, scientists, technicians, lawyers, and other professionals–were hunted down and murdered.
In the 1980s, Arab volunteers went to Afghanistan to fight against Soviet Communism. Their leader was Osama Bin Laden, who received Saudi and American backing, and may have even received CIA training in the field. Once the Soviet threat retreated from Afghanistan, Bin Laden formed Al-Qaeda and went looking for fresh jihads.
As has often been the case when the United States has taken sides in the politics of other countries, business interests were largely behind America’s backing of right-wing factions against democratically-elected Vice President Goulart of Brazil in the 1960s. Goulart, although a moderate, was accused of being a communist and prevented from taking office when President Quatros resigned in a clumsy maneuver that Quatros hoped would increase his popularity. The United States instead backed a military regime to eliminate the “socialist threat” claimed against Goulart and to protect American business interests in Brazil.
Another country favored by the United States that has an appalling human rights history is Saudi Arabia. Courted by the U.S. for almost a century, Saudi Arabia is America’s oldest ally in the Middle East. The U.S. and Saudi Arabia deal in oil, weapons, information and power.
Early in the Syrian Civil War, the United States was reluctant to outright arm the Free Syrian Army for fear that the weapons would fall into the hands of Al-Qaeda, which did eventually happen in some cases. Instead, the U.S. provided food, then intelligence, training, and money. The U.S. eventually put resources behind equipping the Syrian rebels and training them to fight, but an estimated $500 million in spending only lead to a couple dozen Syrian soldiers, so the program was abandoned. In 2017, the United States, under the Trump administration, initiated a series of bombing attacks that killed more than 70 civilians, mostly women and children. Since January 2018, the stated purpose of U.S. involvement in Syria is to oust Syrian President Bassar Ashad.
Although President Barack Obama halted military aid to Egypt after General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi overthrew elected President Mohamed Morsi, the flow of money and weapons was soon resumed, citing the need to allow el-Sisi to combat Islamic State militants.
Then there was the time an informant for the CIA, Donald Rickard, helped the South African government find and arrest the anti-apartheid leader, Nelson Mandela. Mandela spent 27 years in prison because he opposed the oppressive white regime. He was labeled as a communist, although he never claimed to belong to the party, and called a terrorist for his actions in trying to gain equal rights for black Africans. White, right-wing politicians in America saw little reason to find fault with the political inequality in South Africa as long as the South African government stood firm against allowing Mandela’s leftist beliefs to spread.
Oil is an asset critical to American interests, and the United States government has been involved in supporting anti-democratic forces in other countries when such support enhanced their control of oil supplies in those regions. One such instance occurred in Angola during the mid-1970s when lobbyist Paul Manafort, a name most Angolans had never heard at the time, became a conduit linking Angolan anti-government rebels to “a coalition of ultraconservative Republicans, anti-Castro Cuban Americans, and moderate Democrats who wanted to appear tough on Communism.” The resulting conflict cost hundreds of thousands of Angolan lives.
The African Congo in the early 1960s was the stage of yet another coup orchestrated by the United States that proved successful in terms of US goals and interests but devastating to the people of Congo. When democratically-elected Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba’s military mutinied and began terrorizing the European population of Congo, the United States supported a UN peacekeeping force rather than backing the Congolese government directly. The CIA attempted to assassinate Lumumba in 1960, and although that attempt failed, someone succeeded in murdering him in 1961. Joseph Mobutu was installed in his place, and the country has been in turmoil for decades, leading to shocking humanitarian tragedies that continue to this day.
Hissene Habre attempted to take power by force in Chad in 1980, but he was not successful in his efforts until he received United States backing in 1982. Habre’s initial attacks against President Goukouni Oueddie caused Oueddie to seek help from Lybian leader Muammar Gaddafi, an alliance which unsettled the United States government and led them to aid Habre in Oueddie’s overthrow. It might be just a coincidence that ExxonMobil had a desire to exploit oil reserves in Chad.
Proof of the CIA’s action during the Cold War can be hard to come by, yet enough information exists to implicate CIA involvement in the overthrow of Ghana’s first President, Kwama Nkrumah, in 1966.
CIA involvement in Somalia has been marked by failed attempts to arm warlords and train them to act in a counterterrorism capacity, only to have them turn to committing atrocities themselves instead of aiding to stabilize the government. Part of the problem stems from the fact that the United States government does not seem to have faith in the relatively weak Somali government, the U.S. prefering to arm and train Somali intelligence agents who are not fully under the control of Samali leadership.
In the late 1950s, Indonesia’s newly-elected President Sukarno was head of the world’s third-largest communist population, behind only the Soviet Union and China. It was during the Cold War, and the United States was aggressively opposing communism around the globe. In an attempt to limit the spread of communism and potential left-leaning ideology in Indonesia, the United States provided covert support to an anti-communist faction led by Suharto. The US assisted with communications, military strategy and weapons, and even helped to spin any unfavorable reporting of the round-up and murder of an estimated one million Indonesians as Suharto gruesomely eliminated his opponents.
Laos was the focal point of America’s containment strategy against communism in Southeast Asia in 1961. The CIA trained and fought alongside an ethnic army intent on defeating the Pathet Lao government, who were backed by North Vietnam. The United States Air Force launched an offensive that, astonishingly, saw an average of one attack every eight minutes for ten years. One tenth of the population of Laos were killed in the offensive.
The atrocities committed by the United States in Vietnam in the name of defeating communism defy description. Attempting the thwart Vietnam on another front, the United States aided and supported Pol Pot and the infamous Khmer Rouge. Not only did the United States help create the situation that allowed Pol Pot to come to power, but the U.S. supplied the Khmer Rouge with political backing, financial support, and critical to their needs at the time, gave them large quantities of food. The genocidal force is estimated to have killed as many as a million Cambodians, and some scholars suggest the number could be twice that. Although near the end of his life in 1998 the United States was making noise about possibly trying Pol Pot for genocide against the Cambodian people, U.S. bombs killed at least as many Cambodians as the Khmer Rouge did.
Following a familiar pattern, the United States supported Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos, standing behind him even as he declared martial law in order to stay in power beyond the limit of his elected term. Marcos was popular in America because of his charisma and that of his wife, Imelda. In spite of the ruthlessness with which Marcos moved to stamp out opposition, America valued him as an ally against the communist threat in Southeast Asia.
The CIA ran covert operations against China’s Chairman Mao from mountain camps in Burma where General Li Mi controlled 80% of the country’s prized poppy fields. The CIA flew weapons to Li Mi and returned with drugs to Bangkok. The CIA was pleased that Li Mi was able to fund his warriors with opium. The drug trade was extremely lucrative, with CIA agents offering intelligence, but also running drugs using planes owned by the CIA’s proprietary airline, Civil Air Transport.
In the United States, there is much indignation concerning alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 election. What most Americans do not know is just how involved the United States was in helping Boris Yeltsin win his second term as President of the Russian Federation. American leadership was thrilled, but the Russian people, with whom Boris Yeltsin was no longer popular, were furious. Widespread voter fraud and election meddling were obvious, creating outrage among the Russian population and setting the stage for Vladimir Putin’s rise to power years later.
In America, people like to think of themselves as fair, honest and generous. It can be argued that, on many occasions, America’s interventions in various regions around the world were undertaken with the best interests of the local populations at heart. Too often, however, greed, power and global influence have guided the decisions of America’s leaders, causing suffering and death that might have been avoided. As citizens of a powerful nation, Americans need to ensure that they are aware of the actions of their government so that their policies abroad are implemented to lift people up and not cause unnecessary harm.