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U.S. Regional Imperialism: Big Sticks, and Even Bigger Guns

Our history in Latin America is marked by arrogance and aggression. Is what's happening in Venezuela any different?

Uncle Sam straddles the Americas while wielding a big stick labeled 'Monroe Doctrine.' American cartoon by Louis Dalrymple, 1905. (public domain)

Uncle Sam doesn’t have the best track record in Latin America. Few foreign policy elites seem to care. Yet, in what the regional proconsul, Admiral Craig Faller of Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), recently called “our hemisphere” and “our neighborhood,” the actual residents haven’t forgotten. Odds are, the U.S. will be even less welcome after the latest local adventure, the bizarre foiled American mercenary-led coup meant to topple President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela. 

It is tempting and not unreasonable to dismiss the recent folly as an incompetent one-off. No doubt, by any practical measure it must be judged—an appropriate term since “Operation Gideon,” was named for a biblical Hebrew jurist—a total failure. Karl Marx famously intoned that “history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce.” Seen thus, the disastrous 1961 CIA-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion of Fidel Castro’s Cuba counts as the tragedy; and the newest escapade as farce. Neat though the analogy be, this would be a mistake.

The broad contours of the coup attempt are widely reported. Combat-seasoned former U.S. green berets from the private military company Silvercorp, allegedly negotiated a lucrative contract with the Venezuelan opposition to violently replace Maduro with Juan Guaidó. The mission fell apart for a variety of reasons: incompetence, internecine division, and regime infiltration. Yet, for all the drama involved its occurrence wasn’t a total shock. 

President Trump recently steamed warships towards Venezuela’s coast and his DEA literally placed a $15 million bounty on Maduro’s head. One would expect mercenaries or amateur adventurers to try and collect such lucrative rewards. Maduro is no saint, but this seems a rather vigilante brand of foreign policy.

Full details remain unavailable, especially regarding the degree of government foreknowledge or complicity, but Operation Gideon may prove profound. First, the mercenary meddling itself is of a piece with the sordid U.S. backstory in the region. The operation’s contours, and consequences should be framed accordingly. Second, the coup’s shadowy, outsourced nature, the blurred lines between public and private policy, reflects the prevailing American “way of war.”  Today’s mercenary machination contains as much foreboding as farce.

Past as Prologue

America’s most underrated president, John Quincy Adams, presciently warned that a prudent America “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy,” lest in “imperial diadem…She might become the dictatress of the world.” However, as Secretary of State he also conceived the Monroe Doctrine —announcing the Western Hemisphere henceforth closest to new European colonization. Tragically, Monroe’s pronouncement was soon twisted to justify chauvinistic American interventions which violated his broader rejoinder.

In the High Age of U.S. regional imperialism (1898-1934), Washington repeatedly deployed the military to pick electoral winners, topple uncooperative regimes, bolster favored dictators, and protect American business interests. These generally revolved around what might be called “Big Fruit”—hence the label “Banana Wars“—in Central America, as well as Standard Oil in Mexico. 

Major extended regime change (or regime “choice”) interventions included Cuba (1898, 1906), Panama (1903), Nicaragua (1912, 1927), Mexico (1914, 1916), Haiti (1915), and the Dominican Republic (1916). Many operations dragged on; U.S. marines occupied Haiti for 19 years!  American casualties, at least, were low, sparing such imperialism much public ire. Again, during the nearly two-decade Haiti campaign, only 31 U.S. troops (but thousands of locals) were killed.

Furthermore, several incidents illustrate that the latest hired-gun fiasco isn’t so singular either. Memorable highlights include:

  • In 1856, William Walker and his 57 mercenary “immortals” so deftly intervened in Nicaragua’s civil war that Walker himself became president. Eventually toppled, he tried again in 1860 and ended up executed by firing squad.
  • In 1894, Lee Christmas, a former railroad engineer turned general de brigada, colluded with the Guatemalan despot in a failed invasion of Honduras. It was widely believed Christmas operated on behalf of United Fruit. Should the recent Venezuelan incident appear uniquely far-fetched, the Christmas-coup was allegedly plotted in a New Orleans brothel under federal agent surveillance.
  • In 1909, sundry American “entrepreneurs and soldiers of fortune” threw-in with a violent power-claimant in the Nicaraguan Revolution, and defended coastal towns full of expatriates with significant mining interests. This time, U.S. marines—including a decidedly frustrated Smedley Butler—landed in support.

Jumping forward to the Cold War: to counter or exploit the perceived monolithic communist threat, Washington kicked off a round of far bloodier interventions in Latin America. First and famously, in Cuba (again), after Fidel Castro took power. In addition to the aborted Bay of Pigs invasion, Washington subjected Havana to a prolonged campaign of sabotage and economic strangulation. It also invaded the Dominican Republic (1965) and fomented a Chilean coup (1973) to enthrone a murderous dictator. Other putsches were crafted or backed in Guatemala (1954) and Brazil (1964).

In its climactic phase (1979-91) of Cold War interventionism, the U.S. waged proxy wars through right-wing death squads like the Contras in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and to a lesser extent, Honduras and Guatemala. This time body counts surpassed one hundred thousand. Smaller overt U.S. military invasions hit Grenada (1983) and Panama (1989). Such Cold War-era operations were directed by Republican and Democratic administrations alike.

The final collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991 hardly altered Washington’s interventionist penchant. In a rather muddled mission, U.S. landed troops in Haiti (1994) and special forces teams indefinitely waged an unwinnable “drug war” in Columbia. Cuba remained under blockade, but a new nemesis, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, replaced Castro’s atop the pantheon of villainy. 

There, in a sort of dress rehearsal for the latest mercenary run at his successor Maduro, Washington was embarrassingly linked to a failed 2002 coup attempt. Declaring a not-so-covert war on the tinpot, low-threat—if oil-laden—regime predictably backfired. An empowered Chavez became a Yankee-vanquishing folk hero in many regional eyes. Not altogether coincidentally, in the ensuing decade, faintly leftist and more independent leaders were elected in Brazil (2002), Argentina (2003), Uruguay (2004), Bolivia, Nicaragua, Peru, Ecuador, and Chile (2006), as well as Paraguay (2008). 

Undeterred, Washington waged a counter-counter-offensive, and backed or normalized reactionary coups in Honduras (2009) and Bolivia (2019). Recently, in a chilling warning to still intransigent governments —Venezuela, Nicaragua, and Cuba —former National Security Adviser John Bolton lumped them in an absurd “troika of tyranny.”  Such was the prevailing climate the lead-up to the recent mercenary mission.

America’s Evolving “Way of War”

The failed coup in Venezuela must be understood in this historical context. Additionally, while Washington’s precise involvement remains unclear, the U.S. regional record all but ensures that America will be convicted in the Latin American court of public opinion. Furthermore, the backstory also illuminates much about past and present U.S. strategies and methods within and beyond the region.

The Venezuelan debacle’s discomfitingly reflects the current and foreseeable future American “way of war.” Scholars and military analysts have long debated what exactly this constitutes. First came the historian Russell Weigley’s 1973 classic, The American Way of War—positing the “way” as simply the World War II-style strategy of attrition through overwhelming numbers and force. 

Later, in the wake of seemingly miraculous new technologies, neo-imperial visionaries prematurely proclaimed a Revolution in Military Affairs. RMA enthusiasts ash-heaped Weigley’s thesis and redefined America’s “way of war” as inherently tech-savvy, short on troops, brief and bloodless. Such dreams collapsed in the maelstrom of Iraq’s occupation and civil war, and a new crop of martial messiahs led by self-styled military “intellectuals” like General David Petraeus again reframed the paradigm. The key was a tactic masquerading as strategy: counterinsurgency, along with ample troops and time. 

As ways of war go, both the RMA and COIN cults proved wanting. Towards the end of Barack Obama’s first term,  hindsight may date it to his Libyan regime change, blood and treasure-costly Iraq and Afghan-style conventional occupations fell from favor. Gradually and haltingly, Obama and then Trump pieced together a “new” American “way.” Its core tenets and components include drones, special forces raids and local proxies. The mainstays are distance (from war’s realities), deniability, and like the Banana Wars, minimal American casualties. 

Back to the Future

This is war waged “in cold blood” by a nation whose Praetorian Guard-like volunteer military increasingly blurs the line between public and private warriors. Moreover, America’s way of war-recasting is hardly new at all. Here too, recent Venezuelan and Latin American interventions prove illustrative. In a real sense, these harken back to Banana and Cold War mercenaries, coups, and proxy combat. Trump even restored Reagan-holdover Elliot Abrams, this time as Special Representative for Venezuela, sending him back to very region where he previously facilitated war crimes. Only these days, Congress has divested from oversight, so there’s no Boland Amendment (1982) to, however modestly, reign in salacious surrogate sponsorship or other bad behavior.

During the Banana Wars, President Woodrow Wilson told Britain’s ambassador that he intended “to teach the South American republics to elect good men.” Well today, even an electoral veneer is optional, as America and dozens of other states blesses self-appointed presidential coup artist Juan Guaidó. As for its role in the latest madness, Mike Pompeo’s wink-nod hedge tells the story: the U.S. had “no direct involvement.”

Keep an eye on this region and America’s revamped cold-blooded way of war—odds are it’s here to stay. After the U.S. backed Guaidó’s first political coup attempt (2019), Maduro kicked all Yankee diplomats out. Just before the failed putsch Pompeo announced his intent to send them back in. Whatever Washington’s precise role in the latest fiasco, a ubiquitous post-putsch (2009) Honduran joke remains resonant:

“Why are there no coups in the United States? Because there is no U.S. embassy.”

Danny Sjursen a regular TACcontributor, is a retired U.S. Army officer and contributing editor at Antiwar.com. His work has appeared in the NY Times, LA Times, The Nation, The Hill, Popular Resistance, and Tom Dispatch, among other publications. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of  Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge.

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