Chavez was one man among a trend of democratically elected leaders that desire a Latin America independent of US influence

Part II of Julian Drury’s American Empire Series

hegemonyAs the people of Venezuela mourn the death of their president, there is a real debate now being raised about the legacy of Hugo Chavez in relation to the rest of Latin America. This is an important debate as it’s far too often overlooked or unappreciated. Leaders such as Hugo Chavez have instilled on their people a progressive new path that can be taken, a new direction that the people of Latin America can take to advance their nations on their terms.

Anyone who knows history also knows that the notion of an independent Latin America is a frightening proposition to their big brother further north; the United States. Throughout history, the United States has intervened countless times to prevent the nations of Latin America from following a path outside of US control. Before you hear someone say how horrible men like Chavez or Castro were, maybe a little history lesson is in order.

Since the 19th century, the United States made it a top priority to establish sole political and economic hegemony in Latin America. Since the declaration of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, bit by bit, the United States had successfully established its power over its neighbors to the south at the expense of the Latin American people. They did so by depriving them of free voices and access to their own resources.

From 1890-1947 (the pre-Cold War era), the United States intervened militarily nearly forty separate occasions in several Latin American nations, including Argentina, Chile, Nicaragua, Honduras, Cuba, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Haiti. These interventions were often to suppress movements against pro-American regimes. In this period the Spanish America War of 1898 occurred, seeing America seize Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines from Spain. Cuba was ruled by pro-US dictatorships until 1959 , the Philippines became a US territory until 1946 and was ruled by pro-American regimes until 1986, Puerto Rico still remains an American territory to this day.

By 1945, US hegemony was unmatched in Latin America. With pro-American dictators such as Trujillo in the Dominican Republic and Batista of Cuba, American corporate interests were raking in huge profits from natural resources. America was the top dog on the block. The term “banana republic” emerged in this period due to the fact the United Fruit Corporation of America became the single business entity throughout Latin America with the power to affect the political stability of these countries.

However, the advent of the Cold War with the Soviet Union saw the United States become more assertive in maintaining its sway over Latin America. The CIA sponsored a mercenary army in 1954 to topple a centrist president in Guatemala who nationalized some plots of land that belonged to the United Fruit Corporation. A right-wing military regime later took power and reversed the nationalization. Then came 1959 and the Cuban Revolution, it was all down hill from there.

When Fidel Castro ousted long-backed US dictator Fulgencio Batista in January 1959, panic spread in Washington. By 1960 it was clear that Castro planned to take Cuba down a leftist path, independent of American policy. That declaration alone was enough to force heads in Washington to explode, then came Castro’s alliance with the Soviets. After the disaster of the Bay of Pigs it became evidently clear that Castro was going nowhere. The United States did everything possible to ensure another popular revolution elsewhere would not bring another Castro to power.

From 1960-1990, the United States saw a new round of military and covert interventions in Latin America. In 1965, US Marines intervened in the Dominican Republic to oust a pro-leftist president after the assassination of long ruling US-backed dictator Trujillo. In 1964, the CIA supported a coup in Brazil which instituted a military regime until 1985.

Chilean Dictator Augusto Pinochet
Chilean Dictator Augusto Pinochet

The 1970’s saw a number of US interventions. The CIA covertly aided the forces of General Augusto Pinochet to overthrow pro-Marxist president Salvador Allende in 1973. Pinochet went on to rule Chile as dictatorial president until 1990. In 1971, a military coup overthrew a leftist president in Bolivia and installed pro-American Hugo Banzer as president. In 1976 the military of Argentina toppled Isabel Peron with American backing. The 1980’s would be no better.

The 1980’s saw Reagan’s America pump up its hegemonic power over Latin America and it may have been the single bloodiest decade for many of these nations. It started with the overthrow of the pro-American Somoza regime in Nicaragua. Brutal civil wars broke out in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala.

An estimated 75,000 people were either dead or missing in El Salvador (1980-1992) and 250,000 people were missing or dead in Guatemala (1968-1996). Nicaragua has estimated up to 50,000 were dead or missing as a result of the CIA backed contra war (1980-1990).

These estimates are not including the several other nations in Latin America who did not suffer from warfare per say, yet saw thousands of dissidents “disappear” (Chile, Argentina, Brazil). The end of the Cold War saw a democratic period in which the old regimes faded away, yet American hegemony did not fade away with them.

In 2002, Hugo Chavez himself was nearly overthrown in a classic US-backed military coup. Chavez managed to survive, yet the stigma of this event resonated with him and other countries in Latin America. After this coup attempt, Chavez veered Venezuela further away from American influence, and encouraging his neighbors to do the same.

Since the failed coup on Chavez, Latin America has seen several leftist governments elected in Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Argentina, and Nicaragua. Save for the Honduras coup in 2009, it seems that the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of the Cold War did the reverse of what was expected. Rather than solidify Latin America in the US camp, they actually drove it away. This is not absolute of course, but it appears that the legacy of Chavez may not only belong to him.

The United States has suffered peaceful blow-back as a result of its own legacy. America, for countless generations forbade any nation in us_hegemony2Latin America to act outside its political and economic interest (save for Cuba from 1959 onward). Because of these generations of hegemony and suppression, the nations of Latin America are now taking their countries back for themselves and moving on. It’s also important to note that the 21st century has American hegemony tied elsewhere (Middle East).

With Chavez’s death still fresh in mind, let us remember that Chavez was but one man among a new trend of democratically elected leaders that desire an independent Latin America. Only time will tell if these new leaders are ultimately successful or if history will repeat itself and the United States once again establishes imperial hegemony over its southern neighbors.


  1. Julian,
    I’m loving this. Brings me back to the good olde school daze and
    American History, which I really loved. But, aslas, even back then my minimal amout of brain cells just couldn’t set it all to memory
    thanks for doing this!

Leave a Comment