Our Commitment to Democracy

Noam Chomsky

Excerpted from What Uncle Sam Really Wants, 1992

planners stated their view that the primary threat to the new US-led world order was Third World nationalism-sometimes called ultranationalism: "nationalistic regimes" that are responsive to "popular demand for immediate improvement in the low living standards of the masses" and production for domestic needs.

The planners’ basic goals, repeated over and over again, were to prevent such "ultranationalist" regimes from ever taking power-or if, by some fluke, they did take power, to remove them and to install governments that favor private investment of domestic and foreign capital, production for export and the right to bring profits out of the country. (These goals are never challenged in the secret documents. If you’re a US policy planner, they’re sort of like the air you breathe.)

Opposition to democracy and social reform is never popular in the victim country. You can’t get many of the people living there excited about it, except a small group connected with US businesses who are going to profit from it.

The United States expects to rely on force, and makes alliances with the military-"the least anti-American of any political group in Latin America," as the Kennedy planners put it-so they can be relied on to crush any indigenous popular groups that get out of hand.

The US has been willing to tolerate social reform-as in Costa Rica, for example-only when the rights of labor are suppressed and the climate for foreign investment is preserved. Because the Costa Rican government has always respected these two crucial imperatives, it’s been allowed to play around with its reforms.

Another problem that’s pointed to over and over again in these secret documents is the excessive liberalism of Third World countries. (That was particularly a problem in Latin America, where the governments weren’t sufficiently committed to thought control and restrictions on travel, and where the legal systems were so deficient that they required evidence for the prosecution of crimes.)

This is a constant lament right through the Kennedy period (after that, the documentary record hasn’t yet been declassified). The Kennedy liberals were adamant about the need to overcome democratic excesses that permitted "subversion"-bywhich, of course, they meant people thinking the wrong ideas.

The United States was not, however, lacking in compassion for the poor. For example, in the mid-
1950s, our ambassador to Costa Rica recommended that the United Fruit Company, which basically ran Costa Rica, introduce "a few relatively simple and superficial human interest frills for the workers that may have a large psychological effect."

Secretary of State John Foster Dulles agreed, telling President Eisenhower that to keep Latin Americans in line, "you have to pat them a little bit and make them think that you are fond of them."
Given all that, US policies in the Third World are easy to understand. We’ve consistently opposed democracy if its results can’t be controlled. The problem with real democracies is that they’re likely to fall prey to the heresy that governments should respond to the needs of their own population, instead of those of US investors.

A study of the inter-American system published by the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London concluded that, while the US pays lip service to democracy, the real commitment is to "private, capitalist enterprise." When the rights of investors are threatened, democracy has to go; if these rights are safeguarded, killers and torturers will do just fine.

Parliamentary governments were barred or overthrown, with US support and sometimes direct intervention, in Iran in 1953, in Guatemala in 1954 (and in 1963, when Kennedy backed a military coup to prevent the threat of return to democracy), in the Dominican Republic in 1963 and 1965, in Brazil in 1964, in Chile in 1973 and often elsewhere. Our policies have been very much the same in El Salvador and in many other places across the globe.

The methods are not very pretty. What the US-run contra forces did in Nicaragua, or what our terrorist proxies do in El Salvador or Guatemala, isn’t only ordinary killing. A major element is brutal, sadistic torture-beating infants against rocks, hanging women by their feet with their breasts cut off and the skin of their face peeled back so that they’ll bleed to death, chopping people’s heads off and putting them on stakes. The point is to crush independent nationalism and popular forces that might bring about meaningful democracy.