The Not-so Invisible Hand of Uncle Sam

The United States has spent over a century meddling in Latin America. Recent crusades against corruption in Latin America are only the latest chapter. Today Brazil is on the front lines of the US battle to re-establish its hegemony in the region.

by Bryan Pitts

When you study Latin American history, as I have for well over a decade, you learn to recognize some of the common themes that tie Latin America together. Colonization, indigenous genocide, African slavery, bloody wars for independence, debates over the boundaries of citizenship, and economic dependency are only a few of the commonalities that unite a vast and diverse continent. But there’s another theme, and that’s the meddling of the United States, whether politically, economically, militarily, or a combination of all three. Few Latin American countries have escaped US invasions, electoral manipulation, or economic pressure. The US seized over half of Mexico’s territory in 1848; placed restrictions on Cuban independence after intervening in its war for independence in 1898; sent the Marines to most of Central America in the first third of the 20th century; helped overthrow democratic governments of Guatemala, Brazil, and Chile (among many others) during the Cold War; trained insurgents to fight revolutionary governments in Cuba and Nicaragua; and invaded Panama, Grenada, and Haiti in the last two decades of the 20th century to replace their leaders with US stooges. The famed quote from Mexico’s 19th century dictator, Porfirio Díaz, rings true for the entire region. “Poor Mexico [or Latin America]. So far from God, so close to the US.”

In the wake of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the tried and true method of sending an invasion force is a bit out of style among the American public, leaving the US to find other means of getting its way. This has been especially true after the appearance of the “Pink Tide,” when leftist governments were elected in much of the region. These governments charted an independent foreign and economic policy for their countries, most notably when they rejected the U.S. proposal for the Free Trade Area of the Americas. Countries like Brazil helped forge the BRICS area, which sought to bypass US and Northern European economic hegemony. Latin America’s leading trade partner became China. Regional integration was on the rise, with the expansion of the Mercosur bloc. At home, economic inequality plummeted anywhere the left came to power in a way that it never had under the US-sponsored neoliberalism of the preceding decades. In response, U.S. government and economic interests (which are becoming ever more indistinguishable anyway) have intervened in more subtle ways, but always with the goal of restoring U.S. political and economic hegemony or, to put it another way, to slap uppity Latin Americans back down where they belong.

Today the US waxes eloquent about its support for democracy in Latin America – and then does everything short of actual military action to undermine it. One of the earliest examples was in Venezuela in 2002, when the George W. Bush administration found itself with pie on its face after prematurely recognizing a coup attempt in Venezuela. In 2009, the Obama administration, led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, stood by when the Honduran military and Congress sent leftist President Manuel Zelaya into exile. They turned a blind eye as the new right-wing government repressed social movements and changed the constitution to keep itself in power – the very attempted sin that had been used to justify Zelaya’s ouster. In 2012, the US remained silent as Paraguay’s Congress hastily impeached Fernando Lugo on flimsy charges. In both cases, the new governments have created friendlier investment climates for US and other foreign corporations, reduced worker and environmental protections, and done pretty much whatever the US tells them when it comes to foreign policy. For a recent example of the latter, Paraguay and Honduras, along with Guatemala, announced plans to move their embassies in Israel to Jerusalem within days of the US announcement.

But Paraguay and Honduras, with combined GDPs just slightly more than that of North Dakota, were never the true prize. The jewel in the Latin American crown all along was Brazil, with its vast lands for agricultural production and timber and mineral extraction and, most importantly, its offshore oil reserves, which the leftist Workers’ Party (PT) had stubbornly insisted on keeping under national control, with the profits reserved for education and healthcare. There was money to be made for US corporations and the politicians whose interests are inseparable from theirs, and if there is one thing we have learned from the last century and a half it’s that the US will not let something as trivial as democracy get in the way of profits. And this is particularly true when the people who are hurt when right-wing authoritarians take control are black or brown.

In Brazil, the U.S. helped Brazilian prosecutors develop strategies that have been used to target only certain political parties – those most opposed to U.S. hegemony – and the Department of Justice has collaborated with the Brazilian prosecutors to achieve spurious convictions. As early as 2009, the State Department was organizing training sessions in Rio de Janeiro for Brazilian judges, prosecutors, and police, helping them incorporate some of the same strategies that the U.S. has used against organized crime – coerced plea bargains, prosecution for relatively minor and vaguely-defined financial crimes. One of the keynote speakers at a training session in Rio was Judge Sérgio Moro, who would later take a leading role in corruption investigations against leftist politicians and eventually embark on a tour of the U.S. to tout his accomplishments. Although ostensibly these techniques were to be used to fight terrorism, in Brazil they have been used to selectively prosecute left-wing politicians for alleged corruption, while allowing demonstrably corrupt centrist and right-wing politicians to go free.

At the same time, the Obama administration remained silent as President Dilma Rousseff was removed in 2016 via a parliamentary coup, convicted for budgetary maneuvers that have been used by every other recent president and most governors. Many of the groups that organized street protests in support of her impeachment had ties to US investment firms, or to businesspeople like the Koch brothers.

By July 2017, acting attorney general Kenneth Blanco boasted of the “strong relationship built on trust” between U.S. and Brazilian prosecutors and touted the legally shaky conviction of presidential front-runner Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva for corruption as an example of the fruits of that cooperation. Lula was convicted for receiving uncompleted renovations on an apartment that he had never been proven to set foot in, after he left office, with no discernible quid quo pro for the construction firm that was to carry out the renovations. No matter: as far as the Department of Justice was concerned, this was a victory for democratic accountability. How odd that the Department of Justice never seems concerned about corruption when the corrupt politicians in question are from the right. And of course there is the rank hypocrisy of a country that propped up corrupt dictators like Fulgencio Batista and Papa Doc Duvalier lecturing anyone about corruption. Not to mention the utter absurdity of a country that allows unlimited corporate campaign contributions and incarcerates more of its citizens than any other country claiming to have anything useful to teach about democracy.

In Brazil, the result has been a bonanza for U.S. businesses, who have moved in to take advantage of the wave of privatizations enacted by the new president, Michel Temer, particularly in Brazil’s massive offshore oil reserves. In president-elect Jair Bolsonaro, the US has an even more obsequious boot-licker to implement its desired economic policies. Bolsonaro has already announced that he will combine the Ministry of the Environment with the Ministry of Agriculture, which sounds a lot like saving space at the zoo by housing hens with foxes. His Minister of the Economy, Paulo Guedes, is perhaps the most grotesque proponent of neoliberal, market-friendly policies who the US has ever had in Latin America. (It may be noteworthy that Bolsonaro selected Guedes as an economic advisor shortly after a meeting in New York with corporate think tank Americas Society/Council of the Americas – AS/COA.) Worst of all, only this week Bolsonaro announced that his Justice Minister will be none other than Sérgio Moro, the judge with numerous and well-documented links to US political interests who did Bolsonaro the favor of removing Lula, his main competitor, from the race.

The United States has a shameful record in Latin America and has for over a century. Which is more likely? That the US has suddenly changed its ways and is simply standing aside, allowing Brazil’s democratic institutions to work and taking advantage of investment opportunities as they spontaneously appear? Or that the US has had a hand in this process since the beginning, in yet another chapter of unending pursuit of power and money for its own elite? You be the judge.

Bryan Pitts is associate director of the Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies at Indiana University. He is completing a book on the overlooked role of civilian politicians in the demise of Brazil’s 1964-85 military dictatorship.


By Bryan Pitts

Bryan Pitts is assistant director of the UCLA Latin American Institute. His book, Until the Storm Passes: Politicians, Democracy, and the Demise of Brazil's Military Dictatorship, was published in 2023 by University of California Press.