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Why Washington Cares about Countries like Haiti and Honduras
by Mark Weisbrot
When I write about U.S. foreign policy in places like Haiti or
Honduras, I often get responses from people who find it difficult to
believe that the U.S. government would care enough about these
countries to try and control or topple their governments. These are
small, poor countries with little in the way of resources or markets.
Why should Washington policy-makers care who runs them?
Unfortunately they do care. A lot. They care enough about Haiti to
have overthrown the elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide not once,
but twice. The first time, in 1991, it was done covertly. We only
found out after the fact that the people who led the coup were paid by
the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. And then Emmanuel Constant, the
leader of the most notorious death squad there -- which killed
thousands of Aristide's supporters after the coup -- told CBS News
that he, too, was funded by the CIA.
In 2004, the U.S. involvement in the coup was much more open.
Washington led a cut-off of almost all international aid for four
years, making the government's collapse inevitable. As the New York
Times reported, while the U.S. State Department was telling Aristide
that he had to reach an agreement with the political opposition
(funded with millions of U.S. taxpayers' dollars), the International
Republican Institute was telling the opposition not to settle.
In Honduras this past summer and fall, the U.S. government did
everything it could to prevent the rest of the hemisphere from
mounting an effective political opposition to the coup government in
Honduras. For example, they blocked the Organization of American
States from taking the position that it would not recognize elections
that took place under the dictatorship. At the same time, the Obama
Administration publicly pretended that it was against the coup.
This was only partly successful, from a public relations point of
view. Most of the U.S. public thinks that the Obama Administration
was against the Honduran coup; although by November of last year there
were numerous press reports and even editorial criticisms that Obama
had caved to Republican pressure and not done enough. But this was a
misreading of what actually happened: The Republican pressure in
support of the Honduran coup changed the Administration's public
relations strategy, but not its political strategy. Those who
followed events closely from the beginning could see that the
political strategy was to blunt and delay any efforts to restore the
elected president, while pretending that a return to democracy was
actually the goal.
Among those who understood this were the governments of Latin America,
including such heavyweights as Brazil. This is important because it
shows that the State Department was willing to pay a significant
political cost in order to help the Right in Honduras. It convinced
the vast majority of Latin American governments that it was no
different than the Bush Administration in its goals for the
hemisphere, which is not a pleasant outcome from a diplomatic point of
Why do they care so much about who runs these poor countries? As any
good chess player knows, pawns matter. The loss of a couple of pawns
at the beginning of the game can often make a difference between a win
or a loss. They are looking at these countries mostly in straight
power terms. Governments that are in agreement with maximizing U.S.
power in the world, they like. Those who have other goals -- not
necessarily antagonistic to the United States -- they don't like.
Not surprisingly, the Obama Administration's closest allies in the
hemisphere are right-wing governments such as Colombia or Panama, even
though President Obama himself is not a right-wing politician. This
highlights the continuity of the politics of control. The victory of
the Right in Chile last week, the first time that it has won an
election in half a century, was a significant victory for the U.S.
government. If Lula de Silva's Workers' Party were to lose the
presidential election in Brazil this fall, that would really be a huge
win for the State Department. While U.S. officials under both Bush
and Obama have maintained a friendly posture toward Brazil, it is
obvious that they deeply resent the changes in Brazilian foreign
policy that have allied it with other social democratic governments in
the hemisphere, and its independent foreign policy stances with regard
to the Middle East, Iran, and elsewhere.
The United States actually intervened in Brazilian politics as
recently as 2005, organizing a conference to promote a legal change
that would make it more difficult for legislators to switch parties.
This would have strengthened the opposition to Lula's Workers' Party
(PT) government, since the PT has party discipline but many opposition
politicians do not. This intervention by the U.S. government was only
discovered last year through a Freedom of Information Act request
filed in Washington. There are many other interventions taking place
throughout the hemisphere that we do not know about. The United
States has been heavily involved in Chilean politics since the 1960s,
long before they even organized the overthrow of Chilean democracy in
In October of 1970, President Richard Nixon was cursing in the Oval
Office about the Social Democratic President of Chile, Salvador
Allende. "That son of a bitch!" said Richard Nixon on October 15,
1970. "That son of a bitch Allende -- we're going to smash him." A
few weeks later he explained why:
"The main concern in Chile is that [Allende] can consolidate himself,
and the picture projected to the world will be his success. . . . If
we let the potential leaders in South America think they can move like
Chile and have it both ways, we will be in trouble. . . ."
That is another reason that pawns matter, and Nixon's nightmare did in
fact come true a quarter-century later, as one country after another
elected independent left governments that Washington did not want.
The United States ended up "losing" most of the region. But they are
trying to get it back, one country at a time.
The smaller, poorer countries that are closer to the United States are
the most at risk. Honduras and Haiti will have democratic elections
some day, but only when Washington's influence over their politics is
Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy
Research, in Washington, D.C. He received his Ph.D. in economics from
the University of Michigan. He is co-author, with Dean Baker, of
Social Security: The Phony Crisis (University of Chicago Press, 2000),
and has written numerous research papers on economic policy. He is
also president of Just Foreign Policy. This article was first
published in the Guardian on 29 January 2010 and republished by the
CEPR under a Creative Commons license.