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United States involvement in regime change in Latin America

The United States involvement in regime change in Latin America was most prominent during the Cold War, in part due to the Truman Doctrine of fighting Communism, although some precedent exists especially during the early 20th century.



In Argentina, right-wing forces overthrew the democratically elected President Isabel Perón in the 1976 Argentine coup d’état, starting the military dictatorship of General Jorge Rafael Videla, known as National Reorganization Process, resulting with around 30,000 victims becoming missing. Both the coup and the following authoritarian regime was eagerly endorsed and supported by the United States government[1] with US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger paying several official visits to Argentina during the dictatorship.[2][3] Among the many human rights violations committed during the period were extrajudicial arrest, mass executions, torture, rape, disappearances of political prisoners and dissenters,[4] and illegal relocations of children born from pregnant women (both pregnant before their imprisonment or made pregnant by the continuous rape).[2][4] According to Spanish judge Baltazar Garzón, Kissinger was a witness to these crimes.[5]

The first democratic elections after the end of the military junta’s regime were the 1983 Argentine general election, with Radical Civic Union candidate Raul Alfonsin winning the plurality of votes. But Argentina’s economy was in shambles due to years of bad decisions taken during the military junta following the Washington Consensus.[6][7] The 1998–2002 Argentine great depression caused all sorts of social and political turmoil provoking the resignation of several presidents.


Brazil experienced several decades of right-wing authoritarian governments, especially after the US-backed[8] 1964 Brazilian coup d’état against center-left social democrat João Goulart promoted, according to then President John F. Kennedy, to “prevent Brazil from becoming another Cuba”.[9] Brazil’s return to democracy saw several consecutive right-wing neoliberal governments following the Washington Consensus ending in endemic inequality and extreme poverty, one of the worst in the Continent.[10]


After the democratic election of President Salvador Allende in 1970, an economic war ordered by President Richard Nixon,[11] among other things, caused the 1973 Chilean coup d’état with the involvement of the CIA[12][13] due to Allende’s democratic socialist leanings. What follows was the decades-long US-backed military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.[14] In 1988 a presidential referendum was held in order to confirm Pinochet’s ruling for 8 more years. The oppositional Concertation of Parties for Democracy, made of mostly center-left and left-wing parties, endorsed the “No” option winning the referendum and ending Pinochet’s rule democratically. After that free elections were held in 1989 with Concertation winning again. The Concertation and its successor New Majority would rule Chile since then with consecutive victories except for two periods with right-wing candidate Sebastián Piñera attaining the presidency. With time several corruption scandals involving the Pinochet family and the US emerged.[15][16][17]

President Michelle Bachelet was elected for the first time in 2006. Bachelet’s father was a General loyal to Allende who was executed by the regime, and she herself was arrested and tortured during Pinochet’s dictatorship. She was re-elected in the 2013 Chilean general election.

Costa Rica

Costa Rica was the only country in Latin America that never had a long lasting authoritarian government in the 20th century. Its only dictatorship during the period was after the 1917 Costa Rican coup d’état lead by Minister of War Federico Tinoco Granados[18] against President Alfredo González Flores after González attempted to increase tax to the wealthiest, and it lasted only two years. In fact, the US government lead by Democratic President Woodrow Wilson did not recognize Tinoco’s rule and, despite the fact that the United Fruit Company was one of the affected companies by González’ tax reform, helped the opposition that quickly overthrew Tinoco after a few months of warfare.[18]

Years later Christian socialist medic Rafael Ángel Calderón Guardia of the National Republican Party would reach power through democratic means, promoting a general social reform and allied to the Costa Rican Communist Party.[19] Tensions between government and the right-wing opposition (supported by the CIA) caused the short-lived Costa Rican Civil War of 1948 that ended Calderón’s government and led to the short de facto rule of 18 months by José Figueres Ferrer.[19] However Figueres also held some left-leaning ideas and continued the social reformation.[18] In any case, after the war democracy was quickly restored and a two-party system encompassed by the parties of the Calderonistas and Figueristas developed in the country for nearly 60 years.[18]

Although Costa Rica did not have as much conflict as the rest of the region, the Central American crisis did impact the country. Left-leaning President Rodrigo Carazo (1978-1982) supported the FSLN and allowed it to operate in the northern border against Dictator Anastasio Somoza which –alongside some controversial Carazo policies like breaking in with the IMF and the World Bank[20] and stopping payment of foreign debt– meant economic warfare from Washington that caused hardships in the country.[21] Carazo’s successor Luis Alberto Monge (1982-1986) switched these policies entirely[22] becoming a trusted ally of Washington in the war against the FSLN to the point that Monge was accused of hawkish behavior by the opposition and even members of his own party like Oscar Arias.

After years of bloodshed the governments of Costa Rica and Mexico began negotiations for a peace agreement between all sides, despite receiving harsh opposition from the Ronald Reagan administration that sought a victory over left-wing forces. Nevertheless, the peace negotiations did succeed ending with the Esquipulas Peace Agreement and granting Costa Rican President Oscar Arias the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts and allowing for democratic election and constitutional reforms in the mentioned countries.

El Salvador

After several peasant and workers uprisings in the country against the oligarchic and anti-democratic governments, often under the control of powerful American companies’ interests like the United Fruit Company, with the appearance of figures like Farabundo Martí who lead these social revolts and were violently crushed, efforts to take the power democratically were often thwarted by US intervention. Civil war spread with US-endorsed far-right governments in El Salvador facing far-left guerrillas.[23][24][25]

When democracy was restored, four consecutive governments of the conservative ARENA in El Salvador were elected, all of which endorsed neoliberal and Washington consensus policies. The results of which were clear with increases in poverty,[26] expansion of the inequality gap,[27] and corruption scandals. The first democratically elected leftist leaders in El Salvador were Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front‘s nominee Mauricio Funes in 2009 and then Salvador Sánchez Cerén . Like neighboring FSLN, FMLN also was a former guerrilla turn into political parties and both Ortega and Cerén were former guerrilla fighters, albeit their political position were very different, with Cerén continuing Funes’ pragmatic pro-market approach.


Peasants and workers (mostly of indigenous descent) revolt during the first half of the Guatemalan 20th century due to harsh conditions and abuse from landlords and the government-supported American United Fruit Company were brutally repressed. This led to the democratic election of left-leaning Jacobo Arbenz. Arbenz was overthrown during the US-backed 1954 Guatemalan coup d’état leading to right-wing US-endorsed authoritarian governments.[28] and nearly 40 years of civil war in the Central American country.[29] United States president Ronald Reagan, who sought to prevent the spread of communism in Central American countries near the United States, officially met with far-right Guatemalan dictator accused of crimes against humanity Efraín Ríos Montt in Honduras, giving a strong support to his regime.[30]


State dinner between US President Richard Nixon and Nicaraguan President Anastasio Somoza Debayle

United States Marines with the captured flag of Augusto César Sandino in 1932

After the Sandinista Revolution that overthrew pro-American dictator[31] Anastasio Somoza Debayle, Nicaragua faced the USA sponsored rebel far-right Contra guerrilla.

After the return of the democracy, right-wing forces were dominant in the country, with Nicaragua having three consecutive governments of the Liberals. As in other Central American countries these governments endorsed neoliberal economic policies with a quick increase in poverty,[26] inequality and income gap.[27] The first left-wing victory in Central America came from former leftist guerrilla fighter Daniel Ortega and the Sandinista National Liberation Front in Nicaragua in 2006.


Left-wing Panamanian de facto ruler Omar Torrijos‘ unexpected death in a plane crash has been attributed to US agents in collaboration with Manuel Noriega.[32][33] According to John Perkins‘s book Confessions of an Economic Hit Man the motive behind it was Torrijo’s negotiations with Japanese businessmen to expand the Panama Canal excluding American firms.[34] Torrijos was also a supporter of the anti-Somoza FSLN rebel group in Nicaragua which stained his relationship with Reagan.[35] Torrijos was succeeded by more pro-American dictator Manuel Noriega, who sided with the US interests during Torrijos government.[36][37]

However, increasing tensions between Noriega and the US government also led to the United States invasion of Panama which ended in Noriega’s overthrowing.


Conservative (sometimes described as far-right) Colorado Party in Paraguay ruled the country for 65 consecutive years, including the American-supported[38][39][40][41] brutal dictatorship of Alfredo Stroessner that lasted 35 years, from 1954 to 1989. Paraguay is one of the poorest countries of South America. This dominant-party authoritarian system was temporarily broken in the 2008 Paraguayan general election, when practically the entire opposition united in the Patriotic Alliance for Change manage to elect former Bishop Fernando Lugo of the Christian Democratic Party as President of Paraguay. Lugo’s government was praised for its social reforms including such as investments in low-income housing,[42] the introduction of free treatment in public hospitals,[43][44] the introduction of cash transfers for Paraguay’s most impoverished citizens[45] and indigenous rights.[46]

Nevertheless, Lugo did not finish his period as he was impeached, despite enjoying very high approval ratings and popularity. Lugo’s most staunch and conservative opposition was sponsored by USAID.[47] The impeachment was rejected by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights,[48] condemned by both right-wing and left-wing governments,[49][50] and considered a coup by UNASUR and Mercosur and treated accordingly with sanctions and suspensions for Paraguay.[51][52] Lugo was later elected President of Senate.


Another CIA-sponsored government in Peru was Alberto Fujimori and Vladimiro Montesinos‘s regime,[53][54] However, Montesino’s extreme corruption and authoritarian leanings eventually led to the downfall of Fujimori’s government.

Several democratic governments followed including Fujimori’s opposition leader Alejandro Toledo, APRA leader Alan García and left-leaning Ollanta Humala. Albeit at one point signaled as “chavista” (close to Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez), Humala kept Peru as part of the Pacific Alliance and its economic influence.[55]


After 150 years of right-wing governments from the so call “traditional parties” in Uruguay, the US-backed[56][57][58] civic-military dictatorship of Uruguay started after the military-led 1973 Uruguayan coup d’état that suppressed the Constitution of Uruguay of 1967 empowering President Juan María Bordaberry as dictator. Trade union leaders and political opponents were arrested, killed or exiled, and human rights violations were abundant.[59] Democracy was finally restored in the 1984 Uruguayan general election.[60]

Uruguay’s first left-wing government in history came after Broad Front‘s nominated Tabaré Vazquez‘s victory in the 2004 Uruguayan general election, winning with 50% of the votes, over the 35% of his main rival Jorge Larrañaga of the Blanco Party. Vazquez enjoyed high popularity rates during his first tenure and afterwards, with up to 70% popularity[61] He was succeeded by fellow Broad Front member and former guerrilla fighter José Mujica who gained 54% of support on the second round in the 2009 Uruguayan general election, and then Vázquez was re-elected during the 2014 Uruguayan general election, also with some 54% of support.



In April 2002, president Hugo Chávez was briefly ousted from power in the 2002 Venezuelan coup d’état attempt. Members of the Bush administration held meetings with opposition leaders four months before the coup attempt and Chávez accused the United States of being involved.[62] The OAS and all of Venezuela’s neighbours denounced the coup attempt, but the United States acknowledged the new government.[62] The coup did not draw overt criticism from the Bush administration, and the White House initially denied that a coup had taken place, later distancing itself from direct involvement.[63] As US-Venezuela relations deteriorated leading up to the coup, the US National Endowment for Democracy increased its civil society assistance to Venezuela, quadrupling the existing budget.[63] Several Venezuelan groups involved in the coup, such as the Venezuelan trade union CTV, received US civil society assistance.[63] Chávez allegedly used the judiciary in order to detain or intimidate opposition politicians or NGOs accused of receiving such civil society assistance purportedly in order to overthrow the government.[64][65]


Chávez died in office in 2013, and was succeeded by Nicolás Maduro. Maduro’s presidency has coincided with a decline in Venezuela’s socioeconomic status, with crime, inflation, poverty and hunger increasing. Analysts and critics have attributed Venezuela’s decline to both Chávez and Maduro’s economic policies,[66][67][68] while Maduro has blamed speculation and economic warfare waged by his political opponents.[69][70][71]

In early 2015, the Maduro government accused the United States of attempting to overthrow him. The Venezuelan government performed elaborate actions to respond to such alleged attempts and to convince the public that its claims were true.[72] The reactions included the arrest of Antonio Ledezma in February 2015, forcing American tourists to go through travel requirements and holding military marches and public exercises “for the first time in Venezuela’s democratic history”.[72] After the United States ordered sanctions to be placed on seven Venezuelan officials for human rights violations, Maduro used anti-U.S. rhetoric to bump up his approval ratings.[73][74] However, according to Venezuelan political scientist Isabella Picón, only about 15% of Venezuelans believed in the alleged coup attempt accusations at the time.[72]

In 2016, Maduro again claimed that the United States was attempting to assist the opposition with a coup attempt. On 12 January 2016, Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS), Luis Almagro, threatened to invoke the Inter-American Democratic Charter, an instrument used to defend democracy in the Americas when threatened, when opposition National Assembly member were barred from taking their seats by the Maduro-aligned Supreme Court.[75] Human rights organizations such as Human Rights Watch,[76] and the Human Rights Foundation[77] called for the OAS to invoke the Democratic Charter. After more controversies and pursuing a recall on Maduro, on 2 May 2016, opposition members of the National Assembly met with OAS officials to ask for the body to implement the Democratic Charter.[78] Two days later on 4 May, the Maduro government called for a meeting the next day with the OAS, with Venezuelan Foreign Minister Delcy Rodríguez stating that the United States and the OAS were attempting to overthrow Maduro.[79] On 17 May 2016 in a national speech, Maduro called OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro “a traitor” and stated that he worked for the CIA.[80] Almagro sent a letter rebuking Maduro, and refuting the claim.[81]

On 20 May 2018, Maduro was reelected into the presidency in an election that had the lowest voter turnout in Venezuela’s modern history,[82] which as a result was described by some analysts as a show election,[83][84] The majority of nations in the Americas and the Western world refused to recognize the validity of this election and of the pro-Maduro Constituent Assembly, initiating their own sanctions against him and his administration as well, although allies such as China, Cuba, Iran, Russia and Turkey offered support and denounced what they described as interference in Venezuela’s domestic affairs.[85][86][87]

Maduro was inaugurated for a new term on that date, which resulted in widespread condemnation. On 23 January 2019, the President of the National Assembly, Juan Guaidó, was declared the acting President by that body. Guaidó was recognized as the legitimate president by several nations, including the United States and the Lima Group, as well as the Organization of American States. Maduro disputed Guaidó’s claim and broke off diplomatic ties with several nations who recognized Guaidó’s claim.[88] Maduro’s government says the crisis is a coup d’état orchestrated by the United States to topple him and control the country’s oil reserves.[89] Guaidó rejects the characterization of his actions as a coup, saying that his movement is backed by peaceful volunteers.[90]

See also


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