We’re the US and We’re Here to Help Your Nation

By Paul Buchheit

The White House has clearly stated goals of promoting democracy around the world. Does this work? Let’s consider the past and present.

• In 1950 Jacobo Arbenz was democratically elected president of Guatemala. He tried to help native Mayan Indians regain rightful ownership of their land, which had been appropriated by the United Fruit Company (UFC). But the powerful conservative base in the U.S. saw the land reforms as communist activities. By 1954, after nearly 400,000 acres of uncultivated land had been redistributed to the native population, UFC launched a public relations campaign to portray Arbenz as a Marxist and a threat to freedom. The Eisenhower administration backed the idea of a coup. By late 1953 the CIA was excitedly planning the bribes, propaganda, infiltration, and sabotage that would harass Arbenz into a humiliating resignation.

After the 1954 overthrow, U.S. Vice President Richard Nixon noted that “this is the first instance in history where a communist government has been replaced by a free one.” In the 40 years following, over 100,000 Guatemalans, most of them native Mayans, were slaughtered in one of the most brutal ethnic cleansings in recent history. Anyone suspected of leftist influences was subject to torture and death. This included priests, teachers, students, lawyers, journalists, and anyone who might be capable of organizing the people.

A military mentality flourished through the years as the U.S. continually supported the Guatemalan army with money and military training. A Guatemalan Historical Commission concluded in 1999 that U.S.- trained and U.S.-supported military forces had been responsible for most of the human rights abuses during the war. The commission estimated that over 200,000 Guatemalans were killed. President Clinton admitted U.S. involvement and issued a formal apology.

• In 1962 the little country of the Dominican Republic was freed from President Trujillo’s oppressive rule and Juan Bosch became the country’s first democratically-elected president in 40 years. He introduced land reform, low-rent housing, nationalization of businesses, and public works projects. Nationalization and civil liberties, and especially Bosch’s tolerance of communists, frightened Washington. Bosch was forced out in 1963 by a military coup supported by the United States. Newsweek magazine said, “Democracy was being saved from communism by getting rid of democracy.”

In 1965 popular support appeared ready to return Bosch to office, but the U.S. intervened again. President Johnson and the CIA announced that communists had infiltrated Bosch’s party. To placate the U.S. public they claimed to be protecting the lives of Americans in the Dominican Republic. 23,000 American troops invaded the country, and the bombing of Santo Domingo was approved. About 3000 Dominicans, many of them civilians, were killed.

Reputable sources later showed that even Bosch’s opponents scoffed at the idea of a communist takeover. In an eerie parallel to the failed search for WMD in Iraq 40 years later, the search for communists turned up almost nothing, and American troops remained in the country long after the invasion.

• In 1970 Salvadore Allende was elected President of Chile. The South American country had a strong democratic society with a high literacy rate and bright prospects for its sizable middle class. Allende was a passionate supporter of people’s rights and the nationalization of industries that were controlled by American companies. He was also friendly with Cuba and China. In 1973 a CIA-supported coup assassinated him (or pressured him into committing suicide) and installed General Augusto Pinochet, who tortured and murdered thousands of people over the next two decades.

At least 40,000 citizens of Chile were tortured under the Pinochet government from 1973 until 1990. They suffered rapes, beatings, electric shock, sleep deprivation. A document released by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in 2000, titled “CIA Activities in Chile”, revealed that the CIA actively supported Pinochet.

• In the early 1980s, the small Caribbean nation of Grenada achieved a 9 percent cumulative growth rate under socialist-leaning Prime Minister Maurice Bishop. Unemployment dropped from 49 percent to 14 percent. The government developed a diversified agricultural base that sharply reduced imports. The literacy rate rose from 85 percent to 98 percent. Free health care and secondary education systems were established. Although there were aspects of repression to Bishop’s government, the overall human rights record was good. Bishop supported the Soviets, but his own government was more of a ‘popular socialism.’

In 1983 military extremists killed Bishop. The U.S., which had been hostile toward Bishop and frequently hinted at Cuban or Soviet infiltration, seized the opportunity to invade the island and take over the government. The attack was called Operation ‘Urgent Fury.’ The official reason for the invasion was the protection of American lives, although employees of the U.S. embassy reported no need for urgency.

Most of the world opposed the invasion. The United Nations Security Council voted to condemn it, but this action was vetoed by the United States. The General Assembly also voted against the invasion. Despite post-invasion aid from the U.S., the quality of life deteriorated for most islanders. No pediatricians or psychiatrists remained in the country (the U.S. bombed the mental hospital during the invasion). Many foreign doctors and teachers were arrested and deported by the U.S. The island’s only radio station was taken over by the U.S. Navy and the press was censored.

• • •

In 1990 Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a Catholic priest, was elected president in Haiti’s first free democratic election. He was popular among the poor for his social programs, and he opposed industry privatization measures that were supported by the upper class. After a few months in office Aristide was overthrown by a US-backed military coup. The Council on Hemispheric Affairs stated after the coup: “Under Aristide...Haiti seemed to be on the verge of tearing free from the fabric of despotism and tyranny...” In 2000 Aristide was re-elected president with over 90 percent of the vote. The US-led Organization of American States claimed that the election was conducted unfairly, and the U.S. began to withhold foreign aid from Haiti. In 2003 the country was forced to send 90 percent of its foreign reserves to Washington to pay off its debt.

Conditions in Haiti remain desperate, with crumbling roads and infrastructure and nonexistent public services. Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere, with unemployment at 70 percent and half the adults illiterate. The great majority (85 percent) of Haitians live on less than $1 U.S. per day. The richest 1 percent of the population controls nearly half of all of Haiti’s wealth.

• • •

How about today in Iraq, where our democracy objective is clearer than ever? A recent study by Peter Bergen and Paul Cruickshank shows a sevenfold increase in the annual rate of fatal terrorist attacks around the world since the March 2003 invasion of Iraq. Even outside Iraq and Afghanistan such attacks have increased by over one-third. Data was taken from the MIPT-RAND Terrorism database (, generally regarded as the best public database on terrorism. Terrorist attacks were defined as politically motivated jihadist attacks on civilians with at least one fatality. And it’s getting worse each year. According to Iraq Body Count, “almost half (44 percent) of all violent civilian deaths after the initial invasion phase occurred in the just-ended fourth year of the conflict.”


Paul Buchheit is a Professor, Harold Washington College in Chicago. He can be reached at:

—CounterPunch, May 21, 2007