Under the Eagle

US imperialism in Central America and the Caribbean

THE U.S. occupation—or re-occupation—of the Caribbean republic of Haiti, coming after the successful U.S.-backed coup in Honduras and the ominous American acquisition of seven Colombian military bases, raises profound questions concerning what Ernesto Herrera calls the “oligarchical-imperialist offensive” against the people of Latin America.1 The invasion of Haiti is part of a chain of military and economic initiatives by the United States in the region to confront challenges to U.S. hegemony in Latin America and the Caribbean. The latest invasion of Haiti is not an isolated incident, nor a product of a humanitarian impulse, but part of a long chain of U.S. interventions in the region to secure strategic and economic dominance that stretches back to the late nineteenth century, when the United States first emerged as a world power.

To put Haiti in perspective, it is necessary to trace the history of the rise of American imperialism in the Caribbean region. Space considerations will compel us to break off the story at the beginning of the neoliberal period in the early 1980s. A second installment will bring us up to the present period. In this article, we will attempt to recover a history that is perhaps less known, stressing in particular the nature of the crises that effected transitions in the policy of imperialism. This seems particularly useful given the manifestly crisis-ridden and transitional nature of the current political moment.

The dusk of the Old World
The American ruling class has traditionally considered the Caribbean its “backyard,” to be subject totally to the will of American military, political, and economic interests. As early as 1823, in response to the retreat of Spain from the New World, U.S. President James Monroe unilaterally declared his eponymous Doctrine, stating that any expansion of European power in the Americas would be regarded as unfriendly to the United States. “It was a bold step,” notes Sidney Lens, “for as everyone knew, Monroe had no navy capable of enforcing the proclamation.”2 This would soon change.

Spain was the first European nation to conquer and plunder the Americas, chiefly by using forced labor and theft to extract Latin America’s rich veins of gold. Yet Spain’s economic underdevelopment meant that most of this wealth ended up in the coffers of other European states to pay Spain’s debts and balance of payments. The defeat of the Spanish Armada by the British in 1588 signaled the beginning of a long decline that culminated in a series of conflicts with other powers and nationalist revolutions in the New World that divested Spain of most of its empire. By the time the United State began to flex its muscles in the late 1800s, Spain’s empire, which had reached from the Northwestern United States to the tip of South America, had been reduced to Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines.

Although the Spanish cultivated sugar first in the Caribbean, it was the Dutch, British, and French who in the eighteenth century developed the slave-worked sugar plantations producing for mass export. The plantation was the pivot of the “triangular trade” of sugar, industrial goods, and African slaves. Tiny colonies such as Barbados and San Domingue (modern Haiti) became fantastically important to the development of capitalism in Europe. As the Trinidadian historian and statesman Eric Williams points out, by the end of the eighteenth century, “[Barbados] was more valuable to Britain than Carolina, New England, New York, and Pennsylvania together.”3 The wealth of French San Domingue was even more impressive: Paul Farmer writes, “By 1789, the colony supplied three-fourths of the world’s sugar. San Domingue was, in fact, the world’s richest colony and the busiest trade center in the New World.”4

The San Domingue slave uprising led by Toussaint L’Ouverture resulted, after a protracted war that pitted the slave armies against France, Britain, and Spain, in victory for the slaves and Haitian independence on January 1, 1804. The momentous event struck terror in the hearts of the states in the region, which, from the Southern United States to Brazil, were still slave societies, and gave spirit and hope to Black would-be rebels throughout the colonies. The “course of things in the neighboring islands of the West Indies,” wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1802, “appears to have given considerable impulse to the minds of the slaves…. a great disposition to insurgency has manifested itself among them.”5 To set an example, the big powers subjected the world’s first Black republic to crippling diplomatic and economic strangulation, symbolized by the exaction of steep reparations by France. Yet the ripples that the Haitian Revolution produced led eventually to the undoing of the slave system in the New World.

In the face of the increasing social, political, and economic costs associated with slavery, Europe gradually became disenchanted with the Caribbean. The slaves became less governable, and the system became less profitable as planters piled on debt upon debt. Williams calculates that the Caribbean share of world sugarcane production dropped from 51 percent in the 1850s to 41 percent in the 1890s.6 Leading metropolitan politicians openly questioned whether “West India” was worth the trouble.

The eagle rises
The emergence of the United States as a world power begins with the conquest of the continent from its native inhabitants. By 1848, the United States had seized territory from Spain and Mexico, giving the U.S. control of the North American continent south of Canada. The period between the Civil War and the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898 witnessed the emergence of the United States as the world’s leading economic powerhouse. Between 1850 and 1900, the value of U.S. manufactured products grew from $1 billion to $11.5 billion, making it the world’s number one manufacturing economy. This gave a strong impulse to overseas expansion. “Our prosperity will be permanent,” observed the Bankers Trust Company of New York, “only when a market can be found for all the goods we produce.”7

Political, diplomatic, and ultimately military power—in conflict with other established and rising powers such as Britain and Germany—was required to make the world safe for American investments and products.

U.S. economic interests in the Caribbean grew in this same period. Greg Grandin notes that even by the early nineteenth century, “Cuba [stood] behind only Great Britain and France as the United States’ largest commercial partner.”8 After the American Civil War, U.S. trade with the Caribbean exploded: from 1863 to 1873, import tonnage from the British colonies climbed nearly tenfold, and in the next ten years more than quadrupled (from 3,260 to 30,440 to 115,105 tons). From the French colonies, import tonnage increased nearly a hundredfold from 1863 to 1873, and in the next ten years nearly tripled (from 130 to 12,173 to 33,610 tons).9

The U.S. had already begun in the 1820s to build up a navy that it sent around the world, violating the sovereignty of weaker nations in defense of its interests. This process took a qualitative leap with the outbreak of the Spanish-American War. Washington’s interests in the Caribbean were not purely economic, but also strategic. The Caribbean’s proximity to the United States, its importance as a source of raw materials and as a market for its products, as well as being an important transit chokehold for international commerce, especially after the United States gained control of Panama and built the canal, were all key reasons for intervention to secure it as an “American lake.”

The Spanish colonies of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines were low-hanging fruit—easy to pluck from the weakened Spanish imperial tree—and therefore a good starting point in Washington’s eyes to announce to the European powers—Britain, France, and Germany—its emergence as a world player.

Cuba was indeed a well-chosen target: rich, extensively penetrated by U.S. capital, and under the control of Europe’s weakest colonial power, Spain. It was at the heart of American imperialist designs on the Caribbean. As one American financier elegantly wrote in 1895, “It makes the water come to my mouth when I think of the State of Cuba as one in our family.”10

Although the Spanish-American War was justified to the U.S. public as a selfless intervention in support of the Cuban national struggle, Washington had, in previous decades and as recently as 1896, offered to simply purchase the island from Spain. If Spain had not refused, the Cuban War of Independence might have been fought against the U.S., instead of being exploited by it. As often happens, this imperial triumph was not due to any great foresight on the winning side, but the weaknesses and epic stupidity of the loser.

Cuba’s battle for independence from Spain began in 1895, but the U.S. withheld its military intervention until 1898, after a certain mutual exhaustion had set in (a model of American “heroism” that would be repeated in the two world wars). Although the Cuban nationalist leader José Martí had warned of the danger that “the United States with the independence of Cuba [would extend] itself through the West Indies,” this is precisely what occurred.11 A humiliated Spain also handed over Guam and Puerto Rico, both of which became U.S. military posts, in addition to the infamous base at Guantánamo Bay. The U.S. would occupy Cuba itself from 1898 to 1902. Before the U.S. military departed, it demanded as a condition of withdrawal that the Platt Amendment—a congressional bill that committed Cuba to keep its debt low, granted the U.S. naval and coaling stations, as well as the right of the U.S. to intervene in Cuba at will—be approved. Although Puerto Rico became one of a handful of U.S. colonies (the most important other one being the Philippines, which the U.S. seized from Spain and secured only after a protracted war against a Filipino national liberation movement), Cuba became a protectorate, nominally independent, but under the sway of Washington.

Jenny Pearce discusses the historic importance of the acquisition of Cuba:

Cuba emerged as a model for United States imperialism. American economic and political domination had been secured without the seizure of a colony. The United States could continue to boast its anti-colonial traditions and beliefs despite having transformed Cuba into a virtual dependency. “Sphere of influences” became an internationally palatable euphemism for neo-colonialism.12

Alongside maintaining the fiction of independence for the region came incessant military intervention; as Table 1 shows, scarcely a year passed from 1898 to 1933 in which U.S. troops were not deployed in the Caribbean or Central America. Indeed, Major General Smedley Butler would later characterize his role in the Marines during the period as “being a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street, and for the bankers.”13

Teddy Roosevelt’s famous declaration in 1904 made perfectly clear Washington’s assumption of the Western Hemisphere as its “sphere of influence”:

Chronic wrongdoing, or an impotence which results in the general loosening of the ties of civilized society, may in America, as elsewhere, ultimately require the intervention by some civilized nation, and in the Western Hemisphere the adherence of the United States to the Monroe Doctrine may force the United States, however reluctantly, in flagrant cases of wrongdoing or impotence, to the exercise of an international police power.14

The first thirty years of U.S. intervention in the region was characterized by what has been described as “gunboat diplomacy” and “dollar diplomacy”—the use of economic muscle (primarily loans), the threat of military intervention, and outright military intervention—to bend the nations of the region to the dictates of U.S. interests. Teddy Roosevelt’s motto was, “Speak softly, and carry a big stick.” Though nominally independent, virtually every state in the region fell under the neocolonial dominance of the United States.

The methods by which the U.S. asserted its control are illustrated well by a couple of examples—Panama, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti.

The U.S. was interested in building a canal under its control that linked the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, for obvious economic and strategic reasons. The seizure of Cuba and Puerto Rico only heightened U.S. enthusiasm for the project. The opportunity came in 1903, after Colombia, of which Panama was a state, refused to sign a treaty granting the U.S. the right to build a canal across the isthmus. Taking advantage of a plot to split Panama off from Colombia, hatched by local Panamanian and international business interests keen on the canal plan, the U.S. promptly recognized Panama as an independent state when the rebellion was completed.  The day before the rebellion, carried out in large part by paid mercenaries, the United States, fully apprised of the unfolding events, instructed the Navy to prevent the landing of Colombian forces in Panama. The U.S. signed a treaty handing it control over the Canal Zone, and making Panama a virtual U.S. protectorate, and construction on the canal began almost immediately. “I took the Canal Zone and let congress debate,” boasted Roosevelt. “And while the debate goes on, the canal does also.”16

The U.S. first seized control of the Dominican Republic (DR) financially, and later militarily. In 1893, a New York investment company bought a large loan to the DR from a Dutch company, and with it “the right to collect all custom’s revenues to satisfy this claim.”17 In 1905, the company appealed to the U.S. government, which intervened and pressured the Dominican government to purchase the debt for $4.5 million. The deal gave the U.S. government the right to seize customs houses if the DR failed to pay.

When the government in Santo Domingo had difficulty paying its debts, with French and Italian warships on their way to take payment by force, the U.S. “suggested” that the Dominican government ask the U.S. to take over the country’s customs houses. The U.S. signed a treaty with the DR giving it control over the country’s customs houses, financial system, and debt repayments. A 1907 treaty granted the U.S. the right to appoint Santo Domingo’s customs collector; the right to “protect” the nation; and required the DR to gain U.S. consent to increase its debts or lower taxes.

Washington proceeded to use its clout to ensure political outcomes to its liking. In 1911, for example, it sent 750 marines along with two special commissioners, who forced a provisional president to resign. Two years later, Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan “notified Santo Domingo that the influence of the United States would be exerted to discourage revolutions and to support the ‘lawful authorities.’”18 More gunboats were sent to enforce new elections under U.S. supervision when it became clear that the earlier elections might put the radicals in power.

Finally, after an insurrection, the U.S. sent troops in 1916. The U.S. refused to recognize an interim president officially approved by the Dominican Congress after the previous one resigned, unless he signed a new treaty granting the U.S. control over Dominican customs, treasury, army, and police. The Dominican people closed ranks and organized passive resistance to the occupiers and their demands. Writes Scott Nearing and Joseph Freeman in their classic 1925 study of U.S. imperialism:

This deadlock was finally broken by the flourish of American rifles. Capitan H.S. Knapp, in command of the marines, declared martial law on November 29, 1916. He ousted the Dominican officials, dissolved the national legislature, forbade elections and declared himself “supreme legislator, supreme judge, and supreme executor,” established a regime of military force and courts martial, set up a rigid censorship, levied taxes and increased the public debt. This military dictatorship was, according to the official proclamation of martial law, set up under instructions from Washington because the “United States government….has urged upon Santo Domingo certain necessary measures that a government has been unwilling or unable to adopt.”19

The dictatorship, which lasted until 1924, replaced the old cabinet with ministers made up of officers of the U.S. armed forces. According to a 1922 congressional inquiry held on the occupations of Haiti and the Dominican Republic,

[T]housands of marines were spread over the country and with unlimited authority over the natives; public meetings were not permitted;…. Destructive bombs were dropped from airplanes upon towns and hamlets; every home was searched for arms, weapons, and implements; homes were burned; natives were killed; tortures and cruelties committed; and “Butcher” Weyler’s [the notorious Spanish general who fought the Cuban independence movement] horrible concentration camps were established…. When protests were made the protestants were fined heavily and also imprisoned, and when resistance or defense attempted bullets and bayonets were used. Criticism of the acts of the military were not permitted…and those who violated the order were severely punished by fines and imprisonment…. The Dominican people have been “taxed without representation” and the money so raised expended recklessly and without in any way consulting them.20

Haiti experienced a similar fate. Independent until 1915, Haiti was forced by the U.S. to sign United States forced it to sign a treaty even more stringent than the one forced on the Dominican Republic. The U.S. had been demanding in 1914 that Haiti hand over its customs collections, a proposal that two Haitian presidents turned down. A small contingent of U.S. Marines marched to the headquarters of the National Bank in Port-au-Prince, promptly seized $500,000 and turned it over to be deposited in the vaults of the National City Bank in New York.

Using the pretext of internal unrest—but in reality because the Haitians continued to refuse to let the U.S. take over its customs houses—the expedition was sent in March of 1915. Occupying the customs houses of Haiti’s ten port cities, and seizing funds intended for the government, the occupying forces used economic blackmail to force the Haitian Congress to ratify a treaty similar to the one signed in Santo Domingo, which included forbidding Haiti to sell or lease any land to states other than the United States. In 1919, the Haitian national bank fell under the complete control of the National City Bank of New York. Haiti was forced to seek a national loan of $40 million lasting thirty years, and revenue to pay the loan was to be collected by U.S. appointees.

More than three thousand Haitians were killed during the occupation—many in an armed resistance known as the Caco rebellion. The marines built a highway from Port-au-Prince to Cap Hatien using the forced labor of thousands of Haitians. According to one report:

The occupation seized men wherever it could find them, and no able-bodied Haitian was safe from such raids, which most closely resembled the African slave raids of past centuries…. By day or by night, from the bosom of their families or while trudging peacefully on the country roads, Haitians were seized and forcibly taken to toil for months in far sections of the country. Those who protested or resisted were beaten into submission…. Those attempting to escape were shot.21

The occupation ended in 1934, but only after a great deal of social unrest convinced the United States that there were more effective, indirect methods of rule.

Like a good neighbor...
In his inaugural address of 1933, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt included the following declaration:

In the field of world policy I would dedicate this Nation to the policy of the good neighbor—the neighbor who resolutely respects himself and, because he does so, respects the rights of others—the neighbor who respects his obligations and respects the sanctity of his agreements in and with a world of neighbors.22

Usually such language is purely rhetorical, but in the actual event, the “Good Neighbor” policy heralded a period of relative abstention from direct military intervention that lasted over twenty years. The intersection of a number of social factors led to the Good Neighbor policy. First, the relative decline of some European powers and the rise of U.S. power in the Caribbean made it less necessary for the U.S. to militarily occupy the region.

Second, the U.S. was in the midst of the Great Depression, and the incoming administration was consumed with domestic problems; later, with the onset of the Second World War, the problems of Europe and Asia would weigh far more heavily than those of Latin America.

Third, the epic Mexican Revolution of 1910–20 served as a gigantic object lesson to U.S. capital on the power of nationalism. After the “twentieth century’s first, longest, and bloodiest revolution,” Grandin writes, “Revolutionary leaders enacted a far-reaching land reform, promulgated...the world’s first social-democratic constitution, and nationalized large portions of the economy, including the holdings of Standard Oil.”23 Capital was forced to accept the revolution as a “fact of life,” and key bourgeois figures such as Nelson Rockefeller began to argue for corporations to reform their Latin American operations—in their own interests.

In a similar vein, although the U.S. eventually triumphed in its seven-year (1926–33) dirty war against the Nicaraguan nationalist Augusto Sandino, the costs were high; Grandin calls it “the United States’s first third-world quagmire.”24 Politically the war was embarrassing: Augusto’s brother Socrates went on a U.S. speaking tour with the All-American Anti-Imperialist League, and the 1929 International Congress Against Colonialism in Europe cheered the rebel troops.25 There was also nationalist unrest in Haiti and other parts of the Caribbean against U.S. occupations.

Of course, one should not exaggerate the humanism of the Good Neighbor period. The policy operated in reality like the insurance company jingle: “Like a good neighbor...imperialism is there.” By this point, U.S. had so well established its hegemony in the region that it could exert its political and economic leverage to have its way without direct military intervention—and of course it had also made it quite clear that any “wrongdoing” could be punished by troops waiting in the wings.

In Nicaragua, the U.S. troops departed having created a new U.S.-trained military force, the Guardia Civil, to police the country. The practice was repeated elsewhere. Historian Walter Lefeber writes, “The United States had hit upon a solution to its traditional dilemma of how to inject force to stop revolutions without having a long-term commitment of U.S. troops. The answer seemed to be to use native, U.S.-trained forces that could both pacify and protect the country.”26

These new armies—and the dictators who led them—came to dominate politics in the region. As LeFeber notes (about Central America, but the point applies to the Caribbean also), Roosevelt actually strengthened U.S. control over the region, by backing brutal military dictators beholden to U.S. funds, weapons, and training—among the most notorious were Anastasio Somosa in Nicaragua and Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic. “As long as the regimes maintained order and protected private property, they were perfectly acceptable,” writes LeFeber. Also, Roosevelt replaced private bankers as a source of loans in Latin America with state loans, giving Washington more direct leverage. Finally, in this period the U.S. managed to completely replace Europe as the supplier of military hardware and officer training to Latin America.27

American corporations revolutionized the organization of sugar production in the nations most under the thumb of U.S. control: Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and Haiti. Huge fields were linked to gigantic factories by means of extensive railways—all owned and controlled by a single company. In Cuba, where the process was most advanced, Williams observes that “2,000 factories in 1860 had been reduced to 158 in the 1930s; where the production was 447,000 tons in 1860, it was...2,720,000 in 1939 under crop restriction.”28 American capital left its British competitors in the dust. “In 1939, Barbados produced 133,000 tons of sugar in 32 factories, an average of barely 4,000 tons per factory.”29

Concentration also drove out the small farmer. In the U.S. colony of Puerto Rico, “[f]arms with less than 25 acres in cane were 86 percent of all sugar farms, but only 12 percent of the cane area, while they produced 7.5 percent of the total cane.”30 Although the independent farmer on a mid-size farm could hold his own in efficiency against the large combines,31 the commercial and political advantages of the corporations condemned him to fall ever-downward into the proletariat.

The degradation of labor in the service of “king sugar” was extreme: low wages, seasonal unemployment, scandalous living conditions, lack of education, disease. In Puerto Rico, the worker spent 67–80 percent of income on food—and it was bad food, and not enough of it. Planters responded to the scandal of public exposure with ingenious propaganda: when it was noted that Barbadan workers could not afford milk for tea, the planters claimed they liked dark tea; when confronted with the fact that Jamaican children were denied fresh milk, the planters said that they preferred condensed; when reformers demanded the construction of artesian wells in British Guiana (modern Guyana), the planters replied that workers favored trench water! All in all, the workers evinced, per their bosses, a charming affection for anything that would save king sugar a few cents.32

Let us note before moving on that neighborly sentiments extended not only to the Caribbean toilers, but the “democratic allies” of Europe. In 1940, the U.S. acquired from Britain ninety-nine-year leases for military bases in Trinidad, Guyana, Antigua, St. Lucia, Jamaica, and the Bahamas (plus Newfoundland and Bermuda). In exchange, the U.S. turned over to submarine-harassed Britain some fifty destroyers. The military quality of these armaments was described to President Roosevelt by Attorney General Robert Jackson: “certain over-age ships and obsolescent military materials...and certain other small patrol boats which, though nearly completed, are already obsolescent.”33

Revolution and reaction
The Good Neighbor period, which spanned from 1933 until the U.S.-backed coup in Guatemala in 1954, altered the class structure of Caribbean society in a way that would drive forward the drama of revolution and reaction in the subsequent period. The urban working class and its trade unions became important in politics: by 1960, urbanization in the Caribbean already outpaced the world level, at 38.2 percent versus 33.9 percent.34 The peasantry was being transformed into an agricultural proletariat; although still living near the plantation where they worked, the peasants-cum-workers strengthened their trade and family ties with the city. Alongside the needs of integrated capitalist production, this created by the 1950s a series of “strong symbiotic flows between the urban and regional zones.”35

Economic linkages produced, in turn, political alliances between workers and peasants, with a section of the middle class—enjoying a cosmopolitan education necessary to the management of world trade—providing intellectual leadership. Hence the rise of nationalist movements, which were also spurred on by the evident decay of European power after the Second World War, symbolized by the “loss” of India and China at the end of the 1940s. The very success of “peaceful” development during the Good Neighbor days made inevitable the agitations to come. “The development of Modern Industry...cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products.”36

On the other hand, U.S. and Caribbean elites had enjoyed fat profits and political monopoly. Furthermore, the regoin’s ruling class felt, not unrealistically, that it could bring the awesome military and economic might of U.S. imperialism into play whenever it got into serious trouble—this accounts for legendary inflexibility and anti-reformism of the Latin American oligarchies. Finally, the paranoid myopia of the Cold War could be cynically exploited—or, in fact, sincerely believed—to paint any reformer as an agent of the USSR.

Although it is not a Caribbean state, the case of Guatemala is so important that it merits discussion. A period of cautious liberal reform was brought to a head in 1952, when President Jacobo Arbenz introduced a badly needed land reform law. The law was not at all radical—it redistributed idle cultivable land with compensation to the owner—but it created a fury among the landed oligarchy and the American multinational, United Fruit.

Colonel Castillo Armas led a military coup against the Arbenz government in 1954; the coup was entirely a construction of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), itself founded only seven years earlier. This was the CIA’s first—but certainly not last—major covert operation in Latin America. In the aftermath, virtually all the land distributed to the peasants was retaken by the oligarchs—to lay in splendid disuse—while the trade union and peasant movements were viciously suppressed.

Top U.S. planners were not unconscious of the break with previous policy. “Assistant Secretary of State [Thomas] Mann, for example, admitted in a private memo that CIA efforts to oust Arbenz represented Washington’s first full-scale ‘violation of the Non-intervention Agreement,’ the ‘first of its kind since the establishment of the Good Neighbor Policy.’”37 The Cuban Revolution of 1959 showed that the Guatemalan coup was no aberration, but a sign of things to come.

The origins and course of the Cuban Revolution have been extensively studied and discussed, including in this journal.38 The only point that need be stressed here is that Cuba in roughly two years (1959–61) went from being the crown jewel of U.S. imperialism in the Caribbean to a nation that had broken free from the yoke of U.S. imperialism (though it soon became dependent on Soviet aid); U.S. capital lost virtually all its investments. This, despite Fidel Castro’s remarkable willingness to deal with the U.S. until the latter had spurned every reasonable accommodation. These years, culminating in the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of 1961, comprised perhaps the greatest foreign policy fiasco in U.S. history to that point.

The “Alliance for Progress” (of big business)
The disaster of the Cuban Revolution convinced U.S. planners of the need for a more “multidimensional” approach to combating left-wing nationalism. But in fact there were just two dimensions: carrot and stick. And the carrot was rarely employed.

The “Alliance for Progress” was supposed to be the carrot. The idea was to promote reform from above to prevent revolution from below. President Kennedy himself explained it quite clearly: “Those who possess wealth and power in poor nations...must lead the fight for those basic reforms which alone can preserve the fabric of their own societies.”39

Fine words notwithstanding, the carrot was only to be offered on one condition: that the rich man did not want to gobble it himself. “The oligarchies,” Pearce explains, “would not relinquish one iota of their economic power.”40 The call for agrarian reform, a plank of Alliance Charter, was reinterpreted to mean increasing agricultural yield, not the redistribution of land. Poverty reduction was meant to be accomplished through economic growth, a strategy that intersected with the so-called “Green Revolution” technologies promoted by American agribusiness and non-governmental organizations. Financing for the Green Revolution was provided by the U.S.-dominated International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, giving the U.S. powerful fiscal leverage.

But the lynch-pin of U.S. strategy in this period, and the truly lasting achievement of shimmering Kennedy liberalism, was the vastly expanded use of secret (low-intensity) warfare. “Kennedy,” explains Grandin, “ordered the military to create a branch of the Special Forces that could operate with more flexibility in the third world and set up a ‘Special Group’ in the White House, headed by General Maxwell Taylor, to coordinate special-warfare policy at the highest echelons of government.”41 In 1963, the U.S. Army Caribbean Training Center in Panama was expanded and became the infamous U.S. Army School of the Americas; counter-insurgency doctrine was introduced into the curriculum in the same year.

Tragically the American labor movement, shipwrecked by Stalinism, routed by McCarthyism, and in the hands of a conservative anticommunist bureaucracy, actively participated in right-wing subversion overseas. The American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD), founded in 1962, was, according to former CIA agent Philip Agee, a “CIA-controlled labor center financed through AID [the U.S. Agency for International Development].”42 Among its earliest contributions to “free labor development” was the promotion of racial divisions in the Guyanese working class to bring down the Cheddi Jagan government in 1964.

The Dominican Republic serves as a case study in U.S. imperialism in the Alliance period.43 In 1961 the Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo was assassinated. Trujillo, who had ruled the Dominican Republican for thirty years like an evil caricature of a tyrant come to life (the capital city, Santo Domingo, was renamed Ciudad Trujillo under his rule), came to personally control between 65 and 85 percent of the national economy. According to the CIA’s country report on the Dominican Republic, “The United States had long tolerated Trujillo as a bulwark of stability in the Caribbean; some in Washington still saw him as a desirable counterforce to the Castro regime. Others, however, saw in Trujillo another Fulgencio Batista—the dictator Castro deposed in 1959—ripe for overthrow by radical, potentially communist, forces.”44 Increasingly seen as a liability and resented by the local elites, these elites, organized by the CIA, killed Trujillo—one of a very exclusive list of CIA assassinations that bothered no one but the victim.

Kennedy, still perhaps basking in the glow of his own speeches, supported the reformist Juan Bosch in the 1962 elections, which Bosch duly won. President Bosch, however, infuriated the oligarchy by refusing to privatize Trujillo’s former holdings, preserving them as national property instead. Washington subsequently threw its support to a military coup that overthrew Bosch in 1963, leading to the presidency of Donald Reid Cabral. Cabral, a CIA agent known as “el americanito,” moved to privatize Trujillo’s property and invited the U.S. Agency for International Development into the country.

Bosch was able to mobilize anti-Trujillo elements in the army in a counter-coup, taking power in 1965 with strong support from the popular sectors. Colonel Pedro Benoit established an alternative junta, exercising sovereign rule over San Isidro Air Base. Seeking U.S. intervention, Benoit initiated a comic exchange with the U.S. ambassador. Benoit requested U.S. military intervention “because a Communist takeover threatens.” The U.S. knew from its own intelligence that this was substantially false; the ambassador informed Benoit that troops could only be called in to protect American lives. To which Benoit replied: “Regarding my earlier request, I wish to add that American lives are in danger.”45

President Lyndon Johnson dispatched four hundred marines to the Dominican Republic that very day, followed by a further 20,000. In the battles that followed, some 2,500 civilians were killed. The invasion was overshadowed by Johnson’s escalation of the war in Vietnam. The occupation came to an end in 1966 with the stage-managed election of Joaquín Balaguer, formerly Trujillo’s vice president. Balaguer virtually handed the country over to U.S. capital, including its significant mineral reserves—by the 1970s, the export of minerals, overwhelming to the U.S., began to compete with the export of sugar in importance throughout the Caribbean. Due to the relatively late development of Caribbean mining, which only began in the 1950s, the sector has always been dominated by a small handful of North American multinationals.

Labor conditions were terrible under Balaguer. Hourly wages ran a third to a quarter of those in Puerto Rico in 1973, and unemployment was estimated at 30 percent in 1978. That was in spite of—or rather, because of—the actions of AIFLD, which intervened extensively in the labor movement. Militant, independent, trade unions were suppressed.

The interregnum
The Alliance for Progress would come undone not in Latin America, but in Vietnam. U.S. economic leadership over the West was called into question with the collapse of the Bretton Woods system in 1971 and the oil embargo in 1973. Soldiers in the U.S. military were in open revolt. The U.S. public was deeply discontented, and the two capitalist parties strained to contain things as the New Left began to explore revolutionary alternatives.

In the wake of the Watergate scandal, the public demanded that the secret government come under scrutiny. The Church Committee of the U.S. Senate began its investigations in 1975; its reports contained bombshell revelations about the CIA, FBI, and other state agencies. According to Grandin, “The 93rd Congress (1973–75) was perhaps the most anti-imperial legislature in United States history.”46 The Ford and Carter administrations did not dare to employ the secret government with the same freedom (or addiction) enjoyed by Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon.

The Alliance for Progress era was over, having been deprived of its main tool. However, there was no clear alternative strategy for the ruling class. From the mid–1970s to the early 1980s, American policy entered a kind of interregnum.

The picture of U.S. imperialism under Carter was incoherence. While the U.S. tried out liberal policies in the Dominican Republic and Jamaica—backing two social-democratic presidents—it simultaneously supported the right-wing dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in Chile. Carter played both the cosmopolitan “trilateralist” (after the Trilateral Commission comprised of leading Western European, Japanese, and American capitalists) and the Cold Warrior. His desultory policy reflected the uncertainty of U.S. foreign policy in the wake of the Vietnam defeat.

Revolutions in Grenada, Nicaragua, and Iran in 1979 finally set the Democratic administration on a right-wing course that would grease the skids for Reagan, especially in the context of the collapse of the New Left.47 In October of that year, Carter announced the formation of a permanent Caribbean “contingency task force” commanded from Key West. He also announced an increase in economic aid to the Caribbean to “ensure the ability of troubled peoples to resist social turmoil and possible communist intervention.”48 The friendliness towards Jamaica’s center-left government was terminated when the U.S. backed the anti-communist Edward Seaga in the 1980 elections, which Seaga won.

The eagle reloaded
If Carter’s foreign policy was characterized by incoherence sliding into conventional anti-communism, Reagan’s was defined by paranoid anti-communism. Reagan’s anti-communist crusade in Central America was, in reality, about smashing the threat of revolution in the region. Reagan’s emphasis on fighting the “evil empire,” and using American military might and aid to save the world from the Russian and Cuban communist threat was part of an effort by the United States to reestablish U.S. military power and credibility in the wake of the defeat in Vietnam, as well as preventing the success if revolutionary movements in El Salvador and Guatemala in the wake of the Sandinistas successful insurrection in Nicaragua against the hated Somoza dictatorship in 1979.

Yet the Vietnam syndrome remained strong, and polls showed majority opinion against support, for example, of U.S. military aid to the El Salvadoran junta. The U.S. was at this time still not in a position to engage in any large-scale military interventions.

The contours of Reagan’s policy in Latin America would be illuminated by the invasion of Grenada in 1983 that toppled the left-populist regime of Maurice Bishop. The tiny nation of 110,000 people stood no chance against 2,000 marines backed by the world’s greatest imperial power. Grenada’s key industry, nutmeg production, had no strategic importance—the purpose of “Operation Urgent Fury” was primarily political: to rehabilitate the idea of U.S. military intervention with a victorious (because easily won) battle; and to send a signal about American ruthlessness.

After the invasion, U.S. “aid” flooded the country, with Grenada ranking second only to Israel in per capita receipts. As usual, this was used to force a reactionary economic restructuring—but this time, with a financial twist befitting the new mode of American dominance. Quoting a Wall Street Journal article, Chomsky explains, “The economy may [have been] ‘in terrible economic shape’...[b]ut the capital ‘has become the Casablanca of the Caribbean, a fast-growing haven for money laundering, tax evasion, and assorted financial fraud,’ with 118 offshore banks, one for every 64 residents.”49

Aside from the easy and quick take-down of the tiny island of Grenada, U.S. intervention in the region was indirect, though no less lethal. The U.S. funded, armed, and trained friendly dictatorships and, in the case of Nicaragua, counterrevolutionary armies, whom Reagan called “freedom fighters,” against radical and revolutionary movements.

Keeping Congress in the dark, the CIA started a clandestine operation organizing Nicaraguan counterrevolutionaries into a paramilitary force. Reagan kept up this “secret war” throughout his eight years as president. Honduras—which shared common borders with Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador, all three of them countries with internal conflicts—became the springboard for regional military operations. Although Reagan did not discount the possibility of direct military intervention in those countries, his strategy was that of “low-intensity conflict,” giving multi-million dollar military aid and sending Green Berets without involving his regular troops.50

Facing off against brutal dictatorships defending extreme inequality, backed to the hilt by the United States, the popular movements faced devastating casualties that ran into the tens of thousands in each country. In El Salvador alone, 75,000 died in the fight, ultimately unsuccessful, to overthrow the country’s military junta. Thirty-thousand died in the contra war against Nicaragua. The Sandinistas, after several years of war that exhausted the country and wrecked its economy, signed a peace treaty with the contras in which they made serious concessions.

On the economic front, Reagan’s critical foreign policy success was not due to his New Right peanut gallery, but rather Chairman Paul Volcker of the Federal Reserve, a Democrat and Carter appointee (and current economic adviser to President Obama). This key policy was the “Volcker Shock,” a period of extremely tight monetary policy, peaking at 21.5 percent prime interest in 1981.

The Volcker Shock detonated a deep economic depression in the U.S., compelling a massive restructuring of capital as inefficient firms (and ordinary homeowners) went to the wall. But high interest rates and dollar appreciation made Wall Street king, especially in international finance. “Since both third-world debt and currency reserves were denominated in dollars,” explains Grandin, “for every point the U.S. Fed raised its rate, $2.5 billion was added to the interest of outstanding loans; for every 20 percent the dollar appreciated, 20 percent was added to the balance.”51 On the other hand, the U.S. recession killed the market for Latin America’s exports: commodity prices plummeted, and the “debt trap” was set.

Conclusions
Unfortunately we must break off the history at this point. There are a few general themes arising from our survey that seem worthy of reemphasis.

We should note that the policy of U.S. imperialism, while thought through consciously in the minds of individual policy intellectuals, is never arrived at via a conscious collective process, but through crisis and empirical response. In this sense, the capitalist statesman in a political crisis is no wiser than the “ordinary” capitalist navigating half-blind through a market crisis—though the individual capitalist is likely to have a narrower focus than a statesman. In the period discussed, U.S. national and business interests often coincided directly. In those cases where they didn’t, as LeFeber notes, “the business interests usually gave way, as indeed it had to if a system was to be maintained.”52

Imperial policy is never determined solely by the aims and desires of U.S. capital, but by the overall strategic interests of the national ruling class as determined by its “executive committee”—the state. Moreover, those plans aren’t hatched in a vacuum. The total interaction and antagonism of all the classes and their political organizations—including and especially the working class, the oppressed, and the left—are also important factors shaping the dynamics of imperialism. As long as capitalism is not overthrown, capital will find a way to benefit from any policy, generating the retrospective illusion that the policy was intentional and “wise.” Activists should not be deceived by such “necessary illusions.”

What is immediately clear from this brief overview is that U.S. intervention in the Caribbean does not fit into the story told in our history textbooks about American foreign policy. What Sidney Lens calls the “myth of morality”—that the United States fights wars “only for such high principles as freedom of the seas, the right of self-determination, and to halt aggression” and that it is “guided by a selfless concern for the less fortunate”—is belied by more than a century of arrogant and violent interference into the affairs of these weaker nations.

The United States is again using the intervention in Haiti to reinvigorate this myth of morality by presenting the armed forces that turned the Caribbean into an American lake as benevolent deliverers of aid. The refrain of the labor movement when presidents attempted to use troops to replace striking coalminers was that “bayonets can’t mine coal.” The same can be said of Haiti—aid cannot be delivered on the tips of bayonets.


  1. Ernesto Herrera. “Colombia: The right-wing counter-offensive,” International Socialist Review 64, March–April 2009.
  2. Sidney Lens, The Forging of the American Empire (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2003), 98.
  3. Eric Williams, From Columbus to Castro: The History of the Caribbean 1492–1969 (London: André Deutsch Limited, 1970), 142.
  4. Paul Farmer, The Uses of Haiti (Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 1994), 63.
  5. Quoted in Henry Louis Gates Jr., “The curse on Haiti,” The Root, January 25, 2010.
  6. Williams, From Columbus to Castro, 378.
  7. Lens, The Forging of the American Empire, 152.
  8. Greg Grandin, Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006), 16.
  9. Williams, From Columbus to Castro, 386.
  10. Quoted in Jenny Pearce, Under the Eagle: U.S. Intervention in Central America and the Caribbean (Boston: South End Press, 1982), 9.
  11. Quoted in Ibid., 10.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Quoted in Ibid., 20.
  14. Quoted in Parker Thomas Moon, Imperialism and World Politics (New York: MacMillan, 1926), 414.
  15. Extracted from Pearce, Under the Eagle, 6–7.
  16. Lens, The Forging of the American Empire, 203.
  17. Scott Nearing and Joseph Freeman, Dollar Diplomacy: A Study in American Imperialism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1969), 125.
  18. Ibid., 128.
  19. Ibid., 129.
  20. Ibid., 130.
  21. Ibid., 146.
  22. Franklin D. Roosevelt. “First Inaugural Address,” March 4, 1933.
  23. Grandin, Empire’s Workshop, 29.
  24. Ibid., 31.
  25. Ibid., 31–32.
  26. Walter LaFeber, Inevitable Revolutions: The United States in Central America, 2nd edition (New York: W.W. Norton & co., 1993), 67.
  27. Ibid., 82–84
  28. Williams, From Columbus to Castro, 433.
  29. Ibid., 434.
  30. Ibid., 432.
  31. Williams cites a U.S. Tariff Commission study of Puerto Rico showing that the independent small farmer achieved costs of $4.79 per ton, while the plantation came in at $5.60 per ton (432). It is, generally speaking, a myth that extremely large scale in agriculture is necessarily more efficient. See Karl Kautsky’s The Agrarian Question for further discussion of this problem.
  32. See Williams, From Columbus to Castro, Ch. 26.
  33. Ibid., 426.
  34. Robert B. Potter, “From plantopolis to mini-metropolis in the Eastern Caribbean: Reflections on urban sustainability,” Resource Sustainability and Caribbean Development (D.F.M. McGregor, D. Barker, and S. Lloyd-Evans, eds.), (Kingston, Jamaica: The Press, University of the West Indies, 1998), 51.
  35. Ibid., 55.
  36. Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto, Ch. I, Marxist Internet Archive.
  37. Grandin, Empire’s Workshop, 44.
  38. See, for instance, Hector Reyes, “Cuba: The crisis of state capitalism,” International Socialist Review 11, Spring 2000.
  39. Quoted in Pearce, Under the Eagle, 41.
  40. Ibid.
  41. Grandin, Empire’s Workshop, 47.
  42. Today the AIFLD is the American Center for International Labor Solidarity, better known as Solidarity Center. It still receives the vast majority of its funding from the government—and for the same purpose.
  43. This account is adapted from Pearce, Under the Eagle, 61–66.
  44. “The era of Trujillo,” http://countrystudies.us/dominican-repub....
  45. Pearce, Under the Eagle, 63.
  46. Grandin, Empire’s Workshop, 62.
  47. This story cannot be told here, but see Geoff Bailey, “The rise and fall of SDS,” International Socialist Review 31, September-October 2003; and Max Elbaum, Revolution in the Air, New York: Verso, 2002.
  48. Quoted in Pearce, Under the Eagle, 153.
  49. Noam Chomsky, Year 501: The Conquest Continues (Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 1993), 84.Clara Nieto, Masters of War: Latin America and U.S. Aggression from the Cuban Revolution through the Clinton Years (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2003), 316.
  50. Grandin, Empire’s Workshop, 183.
  51. LeFeber, Inevitable Revolutions, 82.

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September 2012

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