The United States has waged a war on democracy in Central America for decades.
Today, the international media is portraying the recent wave of anti-corruption, pro-democracy protests in Guatemala and Honduras as part of a Central American spring. This so-called spring is fighting against structural corruption, violence and impunity that is largely due to U.S. meddling in these countries. It is instructive to look back at how Washington responded to similar democratic movements in the past and how that has shaped the current democratic crises the region is facing.
What is known as the first Guatemala spring occurred after a popular uprising forced U.S.-backed dictator Jorge Ubico from power July 1, 1944. What followed was the country’s decade-long flirtation with democracy between 1944-1954. During this decade, Presidents Juan Jose Arevalo and Jacobo Arbenz Guzman initiated social democratic reforms, which included adopting a new constitution and passing progressive labor and land reforms, much to the chagrin of local elites and foreign capitalist interests, like the U.S.-based United Fruit Company.
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These democratic reforms proved unpalatable for Washington. Largely at the behest of the United Fruit Company, which looked to suffer huge profit losses as a result, in 1954 the CIA planned and executed a coup against President Arbenz. What followed was a succession of brutal military regimes and a 36-year internal conflict that started in 1960 and left over 200,000, mostly Indigenous Guatemalans killed, and tens of thousands tortured and disappeared.
In neighboring Honduras, Washington was instrumental in the rise of the death squad Battalion 316. A 1995 Baltimore Sun exposé revealed that it was trained by the CIA, along with Argentine counterinsurgency experts. At the time, the U.S.-backed military junta ruling Argentina launched a “dirty war” against its own population, which used its own death squads to murder, torture and disappear tens of thousands of its civilians. The Washington-backed Honduras death squad, aided and abetted at the time by U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte, abducted, murdered and tortured students, trade unionists, journalists, college professors and other social movement actors who were deemed subversives. Their crimes? They organized for labor rights, affordable education, and freedom for political prisoners.
A wall displaying Honduran victims of forced disappearance in the office of COFADEH. Photo: COFADEH
Honduras also served as a de facto military base for the United States during the Cold War. During the aforementioned coup in Guatemala, Honduras was a training ground for U.S.-backed mercenaries charged with overthrowing democracy. Decades later, in the 1980s, the same Argentine trainers of Battalion 316 also trained the murderous, drug trafficking Nicaraguan paramilitaries known as the Contras, who U.S. President Ronald Reagan likened as “freedom fighters” and “the moral equal of our founding fathers." The Contras were Washington’s proxy paramilitaries created to terrorize Nicaragua and overthrow the progressive Sandinista government, which removed U.S.-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979 and governed afterward to help the country’s majority poor population and promote social justice. In 1986, the International Court of Justice ruled that Washington’s support of the Contras, as well as other miltary operations against Nicaragua, amounted to the “unlawful use of force,” or the equivalent of terrorism.
Also during the 1980s, the U.S. provided over $US4 billion in aid to the brutal right-wing government and military of El Salvador. Between 1979-1992, the country was embroiled in a brutal civil war where the military-led government and death squads terrorized the civilian population and fought against a left-wing insurgency led by the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) that sought to bring democracy back to the country.
More recently, the U.S.-backed the 2009 military coup in Honduras that removed the moderate reformer President Manuel Zelaya and replaced him with a de facto regime, thus illustrating a continuity of U.S. imperialism in the region from President Dwight D. Eisenhower to Reagan, to current U.S. President Barack Obama.
Democracy in the region has continuously been deemed such a threat that murder, torture, femicide, genocide, disappearances and other acts of state terror by Washington’s despotic allies has been regarded as acceptable in order to quash any kind of democratic uprisings or dissent. The fact that Reagan visited Rios Montt and said that he “is a man of great personal integrity” and is committed to “promot[ing] social justice,” is one example of the political support Washington provided to dictators and war criminals.
An indication of the success of U.S. military doctrines in Central America is the structural violence and poverty and continued impunity which have relegated countries such as Guatemala and Honduras as banana republics to provide cheap labor and natural resources to U.S. and transnational capital. And Guatemala is currently ruled by a president, Otto Perez Molina, who is a former School of the Americas graduate and general believed to be involved in the massacres of Indigenous people in Guatemala during the country’s internal conflict, while subsequently serving under genocidal dictator Efrain Rios Montt. Perez Molina faces a potential court date and possible impeachment, not for any past war crimes or human rights abuses, but for his alleged involvement in a corruption scheme.
Honduras, it can be argued, hasn’t had a legitimate election since the 2009 election which occurred just months after the coup. The election was held while the country was ruled by a de facto regime that unleashed violent repression against the country’s population opposed to the usurpation of democracy. The right-wing Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo Sosa was elected, before being succeeded by current President Juan Orlando Hernandez, who has been implicated in a corruption scandal where his National Party stole millions of dollars from the country’s social security institute to finance its 2013 election campaign. Hernandez, who has been facing calls from voters to resign (like his colleague Perez Molina), faced accusations by an EU election observer right after the vote that the actual results were changed.
If these two countries are in fact at the precipice of a “revolutionary moment,” as Guatemala feminist and activist Sandra Moran suggested to teleSUR, this begs the question: What will be Washington’s response?
While the United States is not free to employ the naked barbarism that it had used and subsidized in the past, the threat of democratic reforms could still prove to be an even bigger threat to the people pushing for them, if history is any indicator.