In the first chapter to his 2017 history of “New Latin America,” while providing one exception that he argues proves the rule, Michael Reid observes that notable about “the last few decades” is that “coups are largely a thing of the past.” He writes, “the pendulum between dictatorship and democracy that marked much of the twentieth century in Latin America has stopped.” What Reid is implicitly arguing is that there has been a decline in U.S. imperialism. He acknowledges the 1973 Chilean coup and the wars in the 1980s in Central American as regrettable ventures the U.S. had a hand in. But according to Reid, “In the dying years of the Cold War, Latin America had undergone a historic transformation, with the seemingly definitive establishment of democratic government.” This may have been the case if the U.S. had not repeatedly interfered in the region over and over stopping any and all forms of democratization.
Since 2017, Reid’s thesis has entirely been disproven in the crudest of ways. In 2018, Brazil underwent a political coup. In April of that year, Workers Party leader, former president, and presidential hopeful Lula da Silva was imprisoned, barring him from elections that polls suggested he would win. He was hit with corruption charges brought about by the so-called “Carwash” taskforce. Reporting from The Intercept revealed heavy bias by the prosecutorial team and illegal collaboration between the taskforce and the judge handling the case, Sergio Moro. Silva’s imprisonment allowed for the election of Jair Bolsonaro, a protofascist who is an active supporter of Brazil’s former military dictatorship who has cracked down on civil liberties and regulations and ruled as a strongman. Bolsonaro’s economic advisor for his campaign, Paulo Guedes, who planned to “privatize everything,” worked under the Pinochet dictatorship brought about by the 1973 coup in Chile. President Donald Trump supported Bolsonaro’s rise, calling him the “Trump of South America”. The Wall Street Journal endorsed him as well.
In November 2019, the democratically elected leadership of Bolivia was overthrown by a military coup supported by the United States. In 2006, Evo Morales had become the first Indigenous head of state in Bolivia. During his tenure, extreme poverty was cut from 33% to 15% as he implemented social programs targeted towards the most vulnerable. In October 2019, Morales won a free and fair election that members of the opposition and the U.S. accused erroneously of showing irregularities. On Nov. 10, the U.S.-funded Organization of American States issued an audit echoing right-wing accusations of irregularities. Backed into a corner, Morales agreed to new elections but the military intervened that same day, forcing Morales to step down. Trump called the coup a “significant moment for democracy.” The U.S. connection to the coup may go further than OAS pressure as the Bolivian military has deep ties to the U.S. stemming from the Cold War. Williams Kaliman, the commander of Bolivia’s armed forces, which spearheaded the coup, had served as the military attaché of Bolivia’s embassy in Washington D.C.
On Oct. 18, 2021, Bolivian officials confirmed that the team of mercenaries involved in the July assassination of Haitian President, Jovenel Moïse, had traveled to Bolivia with plans to assassinate Luis Arce, who was then the Movement Toward Socialism candidate for president. For some reason they didn’t. Arce had served as finance minister under Morales. The team was contracted by the Florida-based security firm, Counter Terrorism Unit Federal Academy LLC. In 2019, I wrote a piece about how history in Bolivia didn’t repeat itself, but it certainly rhymed. That was because the coup in 2019 played out similarly to the U.S.-backed coup that took place in 1964. History in Bolivia seems to want to repeat and repeat and repeat and repeat.
We could say that Reid was working with the information that he had at the time. If we said this, we would be wrong. Reid claims that in “the last few decades” the number of coups was reduced to one. Merriam-Webster defines a “few” as consisting of or amounting to only a small number. We can then conclude that Reid is referring to more than two decades because if not he would have said a couple. We can also assume that he is not referring to the 1980s because he notes the end of the Cold War as a turning point. We can safely land around 1990 as the starting point for Reid’s era of stability.
Since 1990 there has only been one coup. In 1991, Haiti’s first democratically elected president, Jean Bertrand Aristide, was overthrown in a military coup funded and supported by the Bill Clinton administration. In 2004, Aristide was kidnapped by the U.S. and sent to the Central African Republic where he would be effectively barred from the 2010 and 2011 elections.
In 2002, democratically-elected President Hugo Chavez was removed from office for 47 hours in a coup d’état. After a shootout between pro-Chavez and anti-Chavez protesters resulted in 19 dead, which some contend was a false flag operation conducted by anti-Chavez organizers, a coup ousted Chávez and Pedro Carmona, a business leader, was declared president. During his brief time in office, Carmona disbanded the National Assembly and the Supreme Court. Declassified documents later revealed that the United States had full knowledge that the coup would take place and had funded it to the tune of millions of dollars through the United States Agency for Internal Development (USAID) and the National Endowment for Democracy.
With regard to Reid’s argument that the “exception that proves the rule,” he tries to suggest that the 2009 coup in Honduras was a coup for democracy. He writes that the coup resulted from, “a conflict of powers in Honduras which ended with the army, acting at the request of Congress and the Supreme Court, ejecting the president, Manuel Zelaya and installing another civilian in his place.” Terrific news but of course this is just not true.
Following his election in 2005, President Zelaya implemented a series of economic reforms focused on aiding poor and working people, like a minimum wage hike and free school lunches. Four years later, acting within the bounds of Article 5 of the 2006 Honduran Civil Participation Act, Zelaya called for a non-binding referendum determining whether amendments should be made to Honduras’ constitution, which was written in 1982 under a military dictatorship.
On June 28, 2009, Zelaya was arrested in the middle of the night in his pajamas after his bodyguard was assaulted. According to the Associated Press, “Tanks rolled through the streets and army trucks carrying hundreds of soldiers equipped with metal riot shields surrounded the presidential palace in the capital’s centre.” Zelaya was deported to Costa Rica. Even according to President Obama, “the coup was not legal.” Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton disagreed, and the State Department acknowledged the new government, though Clinton graciously qualified her support for the coup saying she, “didn’t like the way it looked or the way they did it.” As the U.S. continued to fund Honduras’ military, fraudulent elections were held. In 2015, a right-wing government had the constitution changed, abolishing term limits and going much further than Zelaya’s non-binding resolution.
It is time we come to terms with the U.S. footprint in Latin America. The entire region continues to be plagued by U.S. Imperialism. All democratizing efforts have been and will be challenged by the United States. Reid criticizes in his book, “Rich-world leftists” who, “while enjoying the freedoms and prosperity of capitalist democracy, worshipped vicariously the defiance of the United States by Castro and Chávez.” Reid is an English journalist and economist. It’s time he realized those freedoms and that prosperity he enjoys are predicated on blood, exploitation and violence.