‹‹ back

The Hypocrisy of American Imperialism

By Brandon Heiblum
Published 2019-04-10

In his final speech as President, Ronald Reagan- the paragon of American conservatism- dramatically invoked puritan John Winthrop’s rosy 17th century characterization of America as a “shining city upon a hill.” Considering that as first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Winthrop was a stark opponent of democracy, supported slavery, and pitted indigenous communities against each other to more easily conquer them, Reagan’s reference was a fitting end to his destructive reign over the American Empire. Hypocrisy, after all, is more a feature of US foreign policy than a bug. In fact, the myth of American goodwill is central to the national ethos and has long been used to justify US intervention in the domestic affairs of sovereign nations. The disastrous consequences of covert intervention- particularly in Latin American countries like Chile, Guatemala, and Nicaragua- are the very antithesis of the compassionate language espoused by American leaders. It is hard to argue that such language was offered in good faith, however. American foreign policy towards Latin America is and was motivated more by unmitigated self-interest than by a desire to increase the welfare of the citizens of the region, directly contradicting the public justifications so confidently offered by American leaders.

Any survey of U.S. foreign policy towards Latin America must begin with its first attempt at consolidating regional hegemony: the Monroe Doctrine. In 1823, President James Monroe declared that any European interference in the Western Hemisphere would be viewed as an act of aggression against the United States, ostensibly to deter European imperialism. Initially the threat was more bark than bite, as the country lacked superior naval capacity. When Britain invaded the Falkland Islands in 1833 and allied with France to blockade Argentina in 1845, the US was virtually powerless to intervene. With growing military superiority, the government began invoking the Monroe Doctrine not to prevent European imperialism, but to justify America’s own imperial ambitions to widen the state’s influence over the region. Within a century it had been invoked to annex Puerto Rico, occupy Cuba after their Independence from Spain, and encourage rebellion in Panama after its rulers rejected a plan for an inter-oceanic canal. While the U.S. maintained that the Monroe Doctrine was in place to discourage imperialism in the Western Hemisphere, it was more in place to ensure that any imperialist profit - both monetary and geopolitical - would flow into the hands of American corporations and the state.

A similar pattern unfolded as the Second World War ended, ushering in an era of bipolar hegemony alongside the Soviet Union, and shifting American foreign policy towards a campaign of Cold War anti-Communism. That is to say that the preservation of private capital, the maintenance of foreign markets, and unrivaled regional influence were threatened by leftist political movements, and that the U.S. acted decisively to resist such a pattern. Since 1945, the U.S. has backed 18 attempts at Latin American regime change and has additionally provided weapons and logistical support to groups in several civil wars. Many of these regime changes involved the illegal depositions of democratically elected leaders and saw unwavering U.S. support for authoritarian and dictatorial regimes, even as many would kidnap, rape, and torture innocent victims. The Central Intelligence Agency was embedded into dozens of governments, covert arms deals were negotiated, and American economists descended upon the region to experiment with neoliberal “shock therapy,” the macroeconomic equivalent of “ripping off the band-aid quickly.” This devastated the middle and lower classes while enriching those who were already the richest. The examples of Chile, Nicaragua, and Guatemala are by no means the only manifestations of this pattern, but they are incredibly explicit in their motivations and consequences and as such are illuminating case studies.

On September 11th, 1973, the twice democratically elected socialist President of Chile, Salvador Allende, committed suicide as a military coup led by right-wing General Augusto Pinochet bombed the capital and illegally seized power. Pinochet implemented strict martial law and refused to respect basic human rights, filling the national soccer stadium with political opponents to torture them at length, and famously authorizing “death flights” that would fly opponents into the pacific ocean and drop them from helicopters. Despite these unspeakable horrors, Pinochet had strong working and personal relationships with Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and was heavily involved in the neoliberal program of renowned conservative economist Milton Friedman and his colleagues at the University of Chicago, known colloquially as the “Chicago Boys.” The preservation of a petri dish for privatization, deregulation, and austerity was, for the elite, worth more than the reestablishment of democracy or human rights.

In 1979, murderous Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza was overthrown in a leftist revolution by the Sandinista rebel group. Fearing the spread of communism throughout Central America, the Reagan administration devoted major financial and military resources towards aiding a brutal right-wing rebel group known as the Contras. As they began to use increasingly inhumane methods, from kidnapping to rape to torture, American domestic support for the Contras declined, and in 1984 Congress passed the Boland Amendment, which expressly prohibited military aid to the group. Reagan’s administration disregarded this legal constraint and continued its operations covertly. Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North of the National Security Council and others secretly sold weapons to Iran in exchange for the release of hostages and used the profits of these sales to fund the Nicaragua Contras. All the while, the Contras would terrorize rural Nicaraguan communities as a means of dissuading the local population from supporting the Sandinista government. While this scandal is almost incomprehensively depraved, the Reagan Administration faced relatively few consequences. Today Oliver North is, naturally, President of the National Rifle Association.

Perhaps the starkest example of American intervention in Latin America is CIA operation PBSUCCESS, which overthrew democratically elected President of Guatemala Jacobo Arbenz and replaced him with right-wing authoritarian Carlos Castillo Armas. Arbenz, a leftist, had implemented policies that threatened the profits of a highly influential American corporation, the United Fruit Company. The epitome of exploitative neocolonialism, the United Fruit Company successfully lobbied the U.S. government to overthrow Arbenz. The CIA-led coup resulted in massive instability and heavily contributed to the four decades of civil war and strife that followed. In fact, a subsequent 1982 coup only possible due to this environment of instability led to the ascension of the genocidal right-wing General Efrain Rios Mott, who enthusiastically and aggressively pursued a program of indigenous genocide aimed at decimating the native Maya population. Throughout the decades of brutal civil war and the indigenous genocide, the United States offered the Guatemalan government political and military support.

It is important, of course, to acknowledge that the United States of America is not history’s only – or even most abhorrent – example of imperial depravity. Europe’s Scramble for Africa, which was formalized at the inhumane 1884 Berlin Conference, regulated the exploitation of African territories as if they were the pieces of a board game. British policy in India caused widespread famine and exploited ethnic and religious cleavages. German imperialism eventually sought to exterminate entire races and religions. Japanese imperialism devastated China and the rest of East Asia, leaving behind a trail of ruin. Unlike the United States, however, these evils were perpetrated with quite explicit intents and forthcoming motives. The British, for instance, justified the raping and pillaging of the Southern Hemisphere with white supremacist notions of the “white man’s burden,” and Prime Minister Winston Churchill would often refer to Indians as “beastly.” Germany spouted insidious ideations about the superiority of the nonexistent “Aryan race” and openly sought global domination. American interventions, on the other hand, were predicated on an altruistic attempt at protecting Latin America from the evils of communism and at “spreading democracy.” Spreading democracy, of course, is an indirect means of referring to the protection of profit and the maintenance of regional influence. While America may not have committed atrocities at the scale of its aforementioned counterparts, it certainly went to greater lengths to mischaracterize its underlying motivations.

The consequences of decades of foreign policy towards Latin America are manifold, but particular attention is owed to the ongoing migration crisis. Interventionism and the War on Drugs, combined with IMF-imposed neoliberal austerity and a Washington-led push for Free Trade, are partially responsible for creating the conditions that today saddle parts of Latin America with extreme poverty, political instability, and high crime rates. This trifecta of poverty, instability, and crime invariably leads to mass migration, much of which aims to enter the United States. President Donald Trump labeled this as a “migrant caravan” and spouted false and fearmongering rhetoric about an invasion of immigrants. The Obama administration was far more subtle about its framing, but nonetheless prevented millions of non-violent migrants from entering the country. These responses are a cold-hearted abdication of America’s responsibility to the region after years of abuse. The onus is on the United States to repair what is has broken, without tormenting its victims. If that requires uncomfortable conversations and arduous solutions, then so be it.


Chishti, Muzaffar, et al. “The Obama Record on Deportations: Deporter in Chief or Not?” Migrationpolicy.org, 22 Mar. 2017, www.migrationpolicy.org/article/obama-record-deportations-deporter-chief-or-not.

Cullather, Nick. “Secret History: The CIA’s Classified Account of Its Operations in Guatemala, 1952-1954.” Stanford University Press, 2006. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/mcgill/detail.action?docID=589554.

Faux, Jeff. “How US Foreign Policy Helped Create the Immigration Crisis.” The Nation. October 19, 2017. Accessed April 04, 2019. https://www.thenation.com/article/how-us-foreign-policy-helped-create-the-immigration-crisis/.

Glaser, Daryl. "Does Hypocrisy Matter? The Case of US Foreign Policy." Review of International Studies 32, no. 2 (2006): 251-68. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40072137.

Lefebvre, Stephan, and Dan Beeton. “U.S. Supported Former Ally Rios Montt While Aware of Atrocities Committed by the Dictatorship | The Americas Blog.” CEPR. Accessed April 04, 2019. http://cepr.net/blogs/the-americas-blog/us-supported-former-ally-rios-montt- while-aware-of-atrocities-committed-by-the-dictatorship.

McSherry, J. Patrice. "Tracking the Origins of a State Terror Network: Operation Condor." Latin American Perspectives 29, no. 1 (2002): 38-60. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3185071

Scott, Peter Dale. "Contragate: Reagan, Foreign Money, and the Contra Deal." Crime and Social Justice, no. 27/28 (1987): 110-48. http://www.jstor.org/stable/29766330

Tharoor, Ishaan. “The Dark Side of Winston Churchill’s Legacy No One Should Forget.” The Washington Post. February 03, 2015. Accessed April 04, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2015/02/03/the-dark-side-of- winston-churchills-legacy-no-one-should-forget/?utm_term=.86335898cd34.

Waldstein, David. “In Chile’s National Stadium, Dark Past Shadows Copa América Matches.” The New York Times. June 17, 2015. Accessed April 04, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/19/sports/soccer/in-chiles-national-stadium-dark-past- shadows-copa-america-matches.html.

“What is the Monroe Doctrine?” The Economist. February 12, 2019. Accessed April 04, 2019. https://www.economist.com/the-economist-explains/2019/02/12/what-is-the-monroe- doctrine.