Discover more from Matthew's Notebook
Latin America is not Washington's Ukraine — the U.S. was more thorough
While Central/Eastern Europeans fight to preserve their hard-won sovereignty from Russia, the U.S. has prevented any neighboring country from even thinking of challenging it.
There’s a common notion that Ukraine’s flirtation with NATO would be like a Latin American joining an anti-U.S. alliance. The United States simply wouldn’t tolerate its “backyard” becoming hostile, and would probably move to stop it, the idea goes, so the Russian invasion of Ukraine is not so unreasonable.
Harper’s Magazine recently brought up that line of thinking in a deep dive about the U.S. role in Ukraine:
What, after all, would be America’s reaction if Mexico were to invite China to station warships in Acapulco and bombers in Guadalajara? For the past several years a civilian military analyst who has worked on international security issues with the Pentagon has put this question to the rising leaders in the U.S. military and intelligence services…When the analyst has drawn those connections [to Ukraine and Russia], the military and intelligence officers have been taken aback, in many cases admitting, as the analyst reports, “ ‘Damn, I never thought out what we’re doing to Russia in that light.’ ”
The rebuttal, made by a former NATO official, is that Mexico feels no need to join a foreign alliance because it does not feel threatened by its northern neighbor. Russian imperialism is so uniquely noxious — or at least so much more noxious than the U.S. variety — that Central/Eastern Europe is naturally clamoring for outside help, proponents of NATO say.
Neither of these sides are seriously engaging with Latin American history, and the reality of what a “sphere of influence” looks like.
Latin America looks different from Central/Eastern Europe because U.S. power has been so thoroughly successful. Central/Eastern Europeans have plenty of reasons to hate the Russian sphere of influence, and plenty of examples of nations successfully leaving. Latin Americans do not have a similar choice to stay or exit the U.S. sphere of influence; that was decided for them decades ago.
The Puerto Rican rapper Residente put it well in his interview with the BBC:
I said in the song Latinoamérica, “I forgive but I never forget.” They are forgiven, but we cannot forget the root of why things happen…You can forgive it, live in peace with it, but not forget it…
We are pointing out how the U.S. government has indoctrinated many people to believe that the United States is [all of North and South] America, and how it has colonized all of the countries and been involved in the majority of atrocities that happened in Latin America. It's the same with Russia and its neighbors. It's the same with China, big countries always do this.
Washington has not only contained the few states in the region that challenged it, but also prevented any potential challengers from winning power in their own country. Only two Latin American countries during the Cold War pulled off something like Ukraine’s 2014 revolution: Cuba and Nicaragua.
After Cuba’s 1959 revolution, the CIA attempted to incite a counterrevolutionary uprising. When that failed at the Bay of Pigs, the United States then threatened to invade outright. The Soviet Union jumped to Cuba’s defense by stationing nuclear-armed forces on the island — the brief part of the standoff known as the “Cuban missile crisis” — and even then some U.S. military brass wanted to risk nuclear war.
That is quite similar to Moscow’s post-2014 strategy towards Ukraine. Russia destabilized and threatened its restive neighbor, and when that neighbor turned to outsiders for help, Russian president Vladimir Putin used that as an excuse to threaten harder. The difference is that, while the U.S. strategy succeeded at isolating Cuba, the Russian gambit only pushed more neighbors into Ukraine’s corner.
Sounding a bit like the future Russian head of state, U.S. president John F. Kennedy warned Latin Americans in 1962 that the Cuban revolutionaries were “puppets and agents of an international conspiracy which has turned Cuba against your friends and neighbors in the Americas.”
The United States did succeed at fomenting civil war in Nicaragua after that country’s 1979 revolution. (Like the Russian attempt to wreck Ukraine in 2014, that intervention involved both proxy warfare and direct military operations.) The revolutionaries won the decade-long war that followed, but at the cost of hollowing out their revolution. The Nicaraguan government today is an oligarchy that has eaten many of its own former supporters.
In most other countries, any potential revolutionaries were stopped long before it got to that point. Sometimes they were jailed by secret police, other times they were killed in military coups, and sometimes they were simply “disappeared.” Oftentimes there was no direct U.S. order, because there didn’t have to be. A nod from from the U.S. Embassy and continued military aid was enough.
Many of the Soviet satellite states had independent governments, too. Of course, even when there wasn’t a direct order from Moscow, the local leadership knew who buttered their bread and what the boss wanted.
In some cases, indirect rule didn’t work. U.S. forces directly intervened in Guatemala, Colombia, and El Salvador to put down rebellions. These are not ancient history. The Salvadoran and Guatemalan wars continued until the early 1990s. The armed Colombian opposition finally laid down its arms in 2015, and some factions are still fighting in the countryside.
The picture above shows the U.S. Army training with the Kaibil unit, a Guatemalan force that was known for its atrocities during the civil war. (Note the euphemism for looting in the caption: “the Guatemalan special forces prefer to utilize found sources” of supplies.) Here is an example of one atrocity the Kaibiles committed at the village of Los Dos Erres in December 1982 — and just a warning, it is very graphic — in the words of two former soldiers:
César Ibáñez: They said that a unit from our brigade had been ambushed by the guerrillas, and they had taken 21 rifles. And they told us that our mission was to recover the 21 rifles that had been taken. And so the plan was we'd go in in the dead of night for a surprise.
Well, we were expecting that they were going to shoot at us because we thought that the people in Dos Erres were all communists. And so were expecting them to attack us. We were waiting for them to attack us with heavy armament. And it didn't happen. Nobody shot at us.
This assault group was given the task of getting everybody out of their houses. They put the women and children in the church and the men in the school. And so when they had everyone together, some of the women at the church began to scream for help. And they were raping them. They didn't respect anyone.
Favio Jérez: There was a girl about 12 years old. And a guy grabbed her by her hair and dragged her along. And there in the little field to the side, that's where he raped her.
The first massacre was of a baby. I heard crying. And I looked. And I saw Gilberto Jordan and Manuel Pop Sun carrying the baby. They threw the baby alive into the well. And that's the way the massacre began. The first were the children.
César Ibáñez: And as they were brought to the well, they were asked, "Where are the rifles?" They said nothing about rifles. And they were hit on the back of the head with a sledgehammer and thrown in the well.
According to a Guatemalan truth commission, the full story (again very graphic) was even worse:
In October 1982, guerrillas ambushed an army convoy near Palestina, in the vicinity of Las Dos Erres. They killed 21 soldiers and took 19 rifles. On December 4, a contingent of 58 Kaibiles, 18 of them instructors, were flown into the area. The following day, they received orders to disguise themselves as guerrillas, deploy to Las Dos Erres and kill the inhabitants, who were considered guerrilla sympathizers. Dressed as guerrillas, the Kaibiles arrived in the hamlet at 2:30 a.m., December 6. They forced the inhabitants out of their homes, corralling the men in the schoolhouse and the women and children in the hamlet's two churches. A subsequent search uncovered no sign of weapons or guerrilla propaganda. At 6 a.m., officers consulted superiors by radio, then informed the commandos they would be "vaccinating" the inhabitants after breakfast. In the early afternoon, the Kaibiles separated out the children, and began killing them. They bashed the smallest children's heads against walls and trees, and killed the older ones with hammer blows to the head. Their bodies were dumped in a well. Next, the commandos interrogated the men and women one by one, then shot or bashed them with the hammer, and dumped them in the well. They raped women and girls, and ripped the fetuses out of pregnant women. The massacre continued throughout December 7. On the morning of December 8, as the Kaibiles were preparing to leave, another 15 persons, among them children, arrived in the hamlet. With the well already full, they took the newcomers to a location half an hour away, then shot all but two of them. To maintain the appearance of being a guerrilla column, they kept two teenage girls for the next few days, raping them repeatedly and finally strangling them once they were no longer useful.
That is what happened to people who defied the U.S. sphere of influence, those who associated with them, and anyone in the general vicinity.
Leftists have to address the crimes of the Soviet Union because they are well-known. Those crimes are well-known because the Soviet Union has been destroyed and its former victims have been encouraged to remember what happened. Not so for Latin American repression. There is no “Victims of Anticommunism” museum.
Guatemalans have had to fight tooth and nail to memorialize the over 200,000 killed by their counterinsurgency, as have other Latin American nations. Western hawks don’t have to address those crimes and are often blissfully unaware that some of these countries even had a war. Remembering is the province of left-wing cranks.
When El Salvador’s Atlácatl Battalion tortured and killed a thousand villagers at El Mozote in December 1981, U.S. official Elliott Abrams denied the existence of the massacre. Abrams continued to serve under the Bush and Trump administrations. After Congresswoman Ilhan Omar confronted Abrams about El Mozote, and columnists from The Daily Beast and Washington Post wrote that Omar had made a fool of herself.
The violence was not as intense after the Cold War ended, because it didn’t have to be. Latin American revolutionaries had no possible outside backers left. Societies that had risen up were now thoroughly brutalized. Any future dissident politics would happen firmly within the economic and security rules set by Washington, because there was no other choice.
The few leaders who really tried to buck the consensus found themselves losing power as they ran up against the invisible constraints of the system and local pro-U.S. elites. (Venezuela’s socialists managed to stay in office by ignoring voters and plunging the country into a mega-crisis.) Washington was already so deeply embedded in regional politics that moves such as green-lighting a coup d’etat felt like a gentle nudge.
It’s possible to imagine the Soviet bloc turning out this way, had Communism won. Moscow could have loosened the leash of satellite states like Poland and East Germany. The dissidents could have even won important offices, as long as they didn’t do anything rash, like kick out Soviet troops or cut off key resource flows. Eventually the Soviet system — and all the injustice and brutality holding it up — would have felt like the most natural thing in the world.
And maybe a Chechen rapper would have been allowed to write a song like this,* honoring the innocents killed in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, as long as it was just a song about the past and not a call for revolution in the present:
That didn’t happen. The Soviet satellite states went their separate ways, and the ones who were allowed to join the European club did pretty well for themselves. Ukrainians believed in 2014 that they could do the same thing. Unfortunately, they underestimated how much more Moscow wanted to hold onto their country, and how murderously vindictive the Russian leadership was willing to be.
As one Twitter commentator wrote, “the fundamental thing that we get in [Central/Eastern Europe] — we were only allowed to break free, because Russia was weak, and there was never any guarantee that [Russia] wouldn't return once it grew stronger again.”
It’s also possible to imagine America turning out like today’s Russia and its neighbors. A wave of revolutions could have overwhelmed the region’s repressive capabilities. Washington would have found itself alone in a sea of new regimes that hated capitalism and resented North Americans for foisting it on them. Perhaps a paranoid U.S. government would try to prevent any further losses — say, the secession of Puerto Rico — with ham-fisted brutality.
That is the sort of world where Mexico joins the Chinese bloc and the United States lashes out. You can’t blame Pentagon officials for failing to consider such a scenario. It’s been made impossible for us.
*If you don’t speak Spanish, here are the lyrics:
A long time before you arrived
The footprints of our shoes were already there
You stole even the cat food
And you're still licking the plate
Super pissed off with this ungrateful bunch
Today I hit the drums hard
Until they accused me of mistreatment
If you don't understand the fact
Well, I throw it at you as cumbia, bossa nova, tango or vallеnato
As calabó or bamboo [dances], highly defiant
With blood as hot as Timbuktu
We're insidе the menu
2Pac is called 2Pac, because of [the last Peruvian king] Túpac Amaru
America isn't just the USA, daddy
It’s from Tierra del Fuego [in Argentina] up to Canada
You have to be so stupid, such an airhead
It's like saying that Africa is only Morocco
These scoundrels forgot that the calendar they use
Was invented by the Mayans
With the pre-Columbian Valdivia [an ancient civilization] a long time ago
This continent walks
But even with all the U.S. Marines
They can't get the peasant pests out of the window
This goes for the boss of the company:
The machete isn't just for cutting sugarcane
It's also for cutting heads
Here we are, we always are
We haven't left, we won't leave
Here we are, so that you remember
If you want, my machete can bite you
The paramilitaries, the guerrillas
The children of the conflict, the gangs
The blacklists, the false positives
The murdered journalists, the disappeared
The narco-governments, everything they stole
Those who are here and those who are forgotten
The persecutions, the coups d’etat
The bankrupted country, the exiles
The devalued peso
The drug trafficking, the cartels
The invasions, the immigrants without papers
Five presidents in eleven days [in Argentina]
Point-blank shootings at the hands of the police
More than a hundred years of torture
The Nova Trova [leftist folk music] in the midst of a dictatorship
We are the blood that blows
The atmospheric pressure
Gambino, my brother:
This really is America!
The song was a response to Childish Gambino’s “This is America.”
Thanks for reading Matthew's Notebook! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.