Presidential “Peacemaking” in Latin America

Noam Chomsky

In These Times, January 5, 2010

Barack Obama, the fourth U.S. president to win the Nobel Peace Prize, joins the others in the long tradition of peacemaking so long as it serves U.S. interests.

All four presidents left their imprint on “our little region over here that has never bothered anybody,” as U.S. Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson characterized the hemisphere in 1945.

Given the Obama administration’s stance toward the elections in Honduras in November, it may be worthwhile to examine the record.

Theodore Roosevelt

In his second term as president, Theodore Roosevelt said, “The expansion of the peoples of white, or European, blood during the past four centuries has been fraught with lasting benefit to most of the peoples already dwelling in the lands over which the expansion took place,” despite what Africans, Native Americans, Filipinos and other beneficiaries might mistakenly believe.

It was therefore “inevitable and in the highest degree desirable for the good of humanity at large, that the American people should ultimately crowd out the Mexicans” by conquering half of Mexico and, “It was out of the question to expect (Texans) to submit to the mastery of the weaker race.”

Using gunboat diplomacy to steal Panama from Colombia to build the canal was also a gift to humanity.

Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson is the most honored of the presidential laureates and arguably the worst for Latin America.

Wilson’s invasion of Haiti in 1915 killed thousands, restored virtual slavery and left much of the country in ruins.

Demonstrating his love of democracy, Wilson ordered his Marines to disband the Haitian parliament at gunpoint for failing to pass “progressive” legislation that allowed U.S. corporations to buy up the country. The problem was remedied when Haitians adopted a U.S.-written constitution, under Marine guns. The achievement would be “beneficial to Haiti,” the State Department assured its wards.

Wilson also invaded the Dominican Republic to ensure its welfare. Both countries were left under the rule of vicious national guards. Decades of torture, violence and misery there come down to us as a legacy of “Wilsonian idealism,” a leading principle of U.S. foreign policy.

Jimmy Carter

For President Jimmy Carter, human rights were “the soul of our foreign policy.”

Robert Pastor, Carter’s national security advisor for Latin America, explained some important distinctions between rights and policy: Regretfully, the administration had to support Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza’s regime, and when that proved impossible, to maintain the U.S.-trained National Guard even after it had been massacring the population “with a brutality a nation usually reserves for its enemy,” killing some 40,000 people.

To Pastor, the reason is elementary: “The United States did not want to control Nicaragua or the other nations of the region, but it also did not want developments to get out of control. It wanted Nicaraguans to act independently, except when doing so would affect U.S. interests adversely.”

Barack Obama

President Barack Obama separated the United States from almost all of Latin America and Europe by accepting the military coup that overthrew Honduran democracy last June.

The coup reflected a “yawning political and socioeconomic divide,” The New York Times reported. For the “small upper class,” Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was becoming a threat to what they call “democracy,” namely, the rule of “the most powerful business and political forces in the country.”

Zelaya was initiating such dangerous measures as a rise in the minimum wage in a country where 60 percent live in poverty. He had to go.

Virtually alone, the United States recognized the November elections (with Pepe Lobo the victor) held under military rule — “a great celebration of democracy,” according to Hugo Llorens, Obama’s ambassador.

The endorsement also preserved the use of Honduras’ Palmerola air base, increasingly valuable as the U. S. military is being driven out of most of Latin America.

After the elections, Lewis Anselem, Obama’s representative to the Organization of American States, instructed the backward Latin Americans that they should recognize the military coup and join the United States “in the real world, not in the world of magical realism.”

Obama broke ground in supporting the military coup. The U.S. government funds the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute, which are supposed to promote democracy.

The IRI regularly supports military coups to overthrow elected governments, most recently in Venezuela in 2002 and Haiti in 2004.

But the NDI has held back. In Honduras, for the first time, Obama’s NDI agreed to observe the elections under military rule, unlike the OAS and the United Nations, still wandering in the world of magical realism.

Given the close connections between the Pentagon and the Honduran military, and the enormous U.S. economic leverage in the country, it would have been a simple matter for Obama to join the Latin American/European effort to protect Honduran democracy.

But Obama preferred the traditional policy.

In his history of hemispheric relations, British scholar Gordon Connell-Smith writes, “While paying lip-service to the encouragement of representative democracy in Latin America, the United States has a strong interest in just the reverse,” apart from “procedural democracy, especially the holding of elections, which only too often have proved farcical.”

Functioning democracy may respond to popular concerns, while “the United States has been concerned with fostering the most favorable conditions for her private overseas investment.”

It takes a large dose of what has sometimes been called “intentional ignorance” not to see the facts.

Such blindness must be guarded zealously if state violence is to proceed on course — always for the good of humanity, as Obama reminded us again in his Nobel Prize address.