Why is Latin America So Dysfunctional? Part Four – Cold Wars, Dirty Wars, Drug Wars, Economic Wars

JB Shreve
April 3, 2019 7 mins to read
Reading Time: 6 minutes

(This is part 4 in my blog series that examines the historical relationship and involvement of the US with Latin America that contributed to the modern dysfunctions of poverty, violence, and instability we frequently observe. Today we look at the excessive degrees of American interference that led to dysfunction in Latin America – and still does. This is how how Latin America was destabilized)

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As communist insurgencies and revolutionaries spread across South America after World War II the US developed the School of the Americas as a means of training the governments and militaries south of the border in the arts of counterinsurgency.

school of the americas

The practice of sponsoring coups and dictators became a prominent feature of US foreign policy in the region.


In 1964 the US backed a military coup against Brazil’s President Joao Goulart. A brutal military regime ruled over the country for the next 21 years. Opponents of the regime, including many university students, were arrested, tortured and sometimes executed in an effort to secure the dictator government.

Meanwhile, Brazil’s economy was pillaged by foreign companies and investors. By the early 1970s, more than half of Brazil’s largest companies were foreign owned. Among the remaining companies, more than half of these were state-owned. The US effort to fight communism in Brazil propped up a dictator and foreign investment system that crushed local markets and free enterprise.

coup in brazil
The American backed coup in Brazil resulted in 21 years of military dictatorship.

The following year as a coup unfolded in Dominican Republic the US sent 24,000 American soldiers out of fear that the country would become another Cuba.


Meanwhile, in a continued effort to counter the threats of communist insurgents, America’s CIA and military specialists trained Latin American militaries in the arts of torture and interrogation. Many of these newly trained specialists became renowned for their anti-Cuban terrorism and anti-insurgency torture methods from Brazil to Venezuela to Paraguay.

coup in chile
An American backed coup in Chile resulted in the brutal rule of Pinochet

In 1973 the United States backed a coup against the democratically elected President Allende out of fears he was becoming socialist. Augusto Pinochet became America’s man in Chile. In the first year of his rule, a government report has documented more than 3,000 deaths and over 29,000 people tortured by the Chilean leader. Political assassinations and the “disappearance” of thousands of individuals all marked the iron grip of oppression with which Pinochet held the Chilean state under his control.


America and Latin America’s Dirty Wars


A period identified as the “Dirty War” consumed South America as the United States backed dictators and tyrants throughout the continent to combat the spread of communism. In this fight, more sympathies and devotees to the communist revolution were created as the people at large living under the brutal order of these regimes buckled against the oppression.


In Argentina between 10,000 and 30,000 people were either killed or disappeared over the course the Dirty War following a military coup. Kidnappings, torture and prison camps were the order of the day. Children were tortured in front of parents. To this day, mothers and grandmother gather in the Presidential Plaza every Thursday to demand the return of their family members. Many of these women are nearing 100 years of age. Years later it was learned that US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger gave the green light to these atrocities of state terrorism in Argentina.

Mothers and grandmothers still look for the “disappeared” of Argentina’s Dirty War

These tactics were exported beyond Argentina through Operation Condor. Operation Condor was a secret agreement and trading of information between Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay to target and eliminate would be communist opponents from their midst. As many as 60,000 people were killed. Torture and detention centers were widespread.


Twenty years later as a new century dawned, documents began to be discovered in the national security archives which strongly suggest the United States was assisting in the communication flow among these conspiring dictators and tyrants in South America.

Freedom Fighters

It was against this backdrop of atrocities that the US began funding anti-communist guerillas in the 1980s. Terms and phrases like the Contras and freedom fighters became familiar throughout the United States as the Reagan Iran-Contra Scandal hearings began to unfold but few Americans realized the extent of chaos and brutality that was occurring in Central American countries like Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua throughout this time period.

The Iran Contra scandal involved US arming revolutionaries in Central America

And the US was, at the very least, complicit in it all. In many instances the US was party to the injustices, having trained many of the interrogators, torturers, and executioners at the School of the Americas.


The end of the Cold War opened up Latin and South America to greater democracy but the warfare and US interference in the region did not stop. The war on drugs provided justification for multiple US invasions that had nothing to do with Communism, from Nicaragua to Panama to Colombia.

Economic Warfare

Economic policy also became a more potent tool which the US and much of the world used to bully the nations south of America’s border. Once again, these were not black and white, good guy and bad guy issues. In many instances corrupt and incompetent governments in Latin and South America rendered enormous economic instability and suffering to their countries and citizens.

However, consideration must be given to the near century’s worth of interference from the United States that helped in producing these corrupt and incompetent regimes.


There is also the reality that the tools of the global economic system are frequently aimed at this region of the world in a very narrow way, and always at the interests of the United States and its allies.


As a closing thought consider the following: After a century of invasions, occupations, corporate imperialism, political imperialism, propping up dictators, endorsing and training in state terrorism, the United States is currently imposing economic sanctions against multiple Latin American countries. (Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba…)


In addition, there are other countries who hold the weaker end of trade agreements with the United States.


There is no communist threat today. The drug wars failed and most of the current opioid crisis in the United States comes from excessive prescriptions from doctors, not drug mules crossing the border.


The United States is not solely responsible for the dysfunction and corruption of the nations and governments south of its borders. But our understanding of the current issues of Latin American immigration to America, poverty, corruption, and unrest cannot be complete until we recognize the large historical role and misbehavior that was exercised by the United States and its leaders.

Read the Entire Series Why Is Latin America So Dysfunctional?:


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