As Bolivian soldiers were firing tear gas at a funeral for slain protesters recently, the US State Department issued a statement saluting “Bolivia’s political transition to democracy” and declaring that the military leaders who had just overthrown the elected government were “standing up for their constitution.” It was the latest example of intensifying US support for violently oppressive regimes south of our border. We are paying attention to Latin America again. That’s bad news for Latin America.
The US invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan nearly 20 years ago are sometimes described as wars in which everyone lost. In an odd way, though, Latin America won those wars. For more than a decade, the US government focused so obsessively on the Middle East that it forgot about Latin America. Free of intervention from Washington, voters in several countries elected progressive or leftist leaders whom the United States would never have tolerated in an earlier era. That cycle is now ending. The United States is returning to its traditional role in Latin America, embracing retrograde regimes just as we did during the dark days of military dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s.
In Bolivia, the landlocked heart of South America, the military deposed President Evo Morales on Nov. 10 after opponents charged that he had used fraud to secure his re-election three weeks earlier. Morales was Bolivia’s first indigenous president and an outspoken socialist. He had nationalized the oil and gas industries. Some feared that he was preparing to limit foreign exploitation of his country’s rich lithium deposits. His indigenous identity was a permanent affront to the white ruling class. The little-known politician who has installed herself as provisional president, Jeanine Añez, once tweeted: “I dream of a Bolivia free of satanic indigenous rituals.”
Morales may have —manipulated election laws to give himself an extra presidential term. But in its first days, the new regime has shown little democratic impulse. Morales has been forced to flee the country. Senior members of his party have been attacked or arrested. If his masses of indigenous followers are pushed back into political isolation despite constituting the country’s majority, many will feel disenfranchised and angry.
Their cousins in Honduras would know the feeling. Late one night in 2009, the elected Honduran president, Manuel Zelaya, who like Morales had alienated both the United States and his own ruling elite, was pulled out of bed and put on a plane out of the country while still in his pajamas. In the decade since then, the new regime in Honduras has eagerly handed out mining and hydroelectric contracts to foreign corporations. It has abolished term limits for presidents — the very sin for which we denounced President Morales in Bolivia. Mass protests have been harshly suppressed. Environmental activists are killed with impunity.
Last month in a New York court, the brother of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez was convicted on charges of large-scale drug trafficking. A witness testified that the drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman had contributed $1 million to Hernandez’s presidential campaign. Yet just a couple of days after the trial ended, the senior American diplomat in Honduras was photographed partying with President Hernandez. Hondurans who saw those pictures could hardly miss the message: the United States happily supports a Latin American government that holds power unconstitutionally, allows political killers to rampage freely, and is widely reported to be infiltrated by drug traffickers — as long as it is friendly to the United States. How has Honduras showed that friendship? By keeping leftists out of power and agreeing to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
The other Latin American country in which the United States is most assiduously wrecking prospects for democracy is Guatemala. Like neighboring Honduras, it has long been dominated by a clique of lavishly corrupt oligarchs. But over the last decade, a force has emerged that for the first time mounted a serious challenge to drug traffickers, larcenous politicians, organized-crime kingpins, and death squad leaders. In 2006, the government invited a squad of investigators and prosecutors assembled by the United Nations to come to Guatemala and build cases against powerful criminals. Since then the squad, known by the Spanish acronym CICIG, has secured more than 400 convictions and deeply shaken the political elite. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama recognized that this process might help stabilize Guatemala, and provided moral support and funding for CICIG.
This year, at the request of senior Guatemalan officials who seemed likely to be indicted for corruption, the State Department agreed to stop backing CICIG. That crippled the first serious effort in generations to confront the violent corruption that throttles civic life in Guatemala. What did President Trump ask in return? That Guatemala open an embassy in Jerusalem and agree to serve as a “safe haven” for Honduran and Salvadoran immigrants the United States doesn’t want to accept — a sick joke considering that Guatemala is plagued by violence and has one of the world’s highest murder rates.
Bashing leftists in Latin America and embracing their quasi-fascist enemies is one of Washington’s oldest habits. It feels good and pays electoral dividends in Florida. Bolivians, Hondurans, and Guatemalans might be forgiven for wishing that United States would once again plunge into all-consuming war somewhere far away. That might allow them to try shaping their societies as they see fit.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.