This is why they hate us: The real American history neither Ted Cruz nor the New York Times will tell you

We talk democracy, then overthrow elected governments and prop up awful regimes. Let's discuss the actual history

Published November 18, 2015 11:11PM (EST)

  (AP/Reuters/Jason Reed/Photo montage by Salon)
(AP/Reuters/Jason Reed/Photo montage by Salon)

The soi-disant Land of the Free and Home of the Brave has a long and iniquitous history of overthrowing democratically elected leftist governments and propping up right-wing dictators in their place.

U.S. politicians rarely acknowledge this odious past -- let alone acknowledge that such policies continue well into the present day.

In the second Democratic presidential debate, however, candidate Bernie Sanders condemned a long-standing government policy his peers rarely admit exists.

"I think we have a disagreement," Sanders said of fellow presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. "And the disagreement is that not only did I vote against the war in Iraq. If you look at history, you will find that regime change -- whether it was in the early '50s in Iran, whether it was toppling Salvador Allende in Chile, or whether it was overthrowing the government of Guatemala way back when -- these invasions, these toppling of governments, regime changes have unintended consequences. I would say that on this issue I'm a little bit more conservative than the secretary."

"I am not a great fan of regime changes," Sanders added.

"Regime change" is not a phrase you hear discussed honestly much in Washington, yet it is a common practice in and defining feature of U.S. foreign policy for well over a century. For many decades, leaders from both sides of the aisle, Republicans and Democrats, have pursued a bipartisan strategy of violently overthrowing democratically elected foreign governments that do not kowtow to U.S. orders.

In the debate, Sanders addressed three examples of U.S. regime change. There are scores of examples of American regime change, yet these are perhaps the most infamous instances.

Iran, 1953

[caption id="attachment_14219274" align="aligncenter" width="583"]A tank in the streets of Tehran during the 1953 CIA-backed coup (Credit: Public domain) A tank in the streets of Tehran during the 1953 CIA-backed coup
(Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Public domain)[/caption]

Iran was once a secular democracy. You would not know this from contemporary discussions of the much demonized country in U.S. politics and media.

What happened to Iran's democracy? The U.S. overthrew it in 1953, with the help of the U.K. Why? For oil.

Mohammad Mosaddegh may be the most popular leader in Iran's long history. He was also Iran's only democratically elected head of state.

In 1951, Mosaddegh was elected prime minister of Iran. He was not a socialist, and certainly not a communist -- on the contrary, he repressed Iranian communists -- but he pursued many progressive, social democratic policies. Mosaddegh pushed for land reform, established rent control, and created a social security system, while working to separate powers in the democratic government.

In the Cold War, however, a leader who deviated in any way from free-market orthodoxy and the Washington Consensus was deemed a threat. When Mossaddegh nationalized Iran's large oil reserves, he crossed a line that Western capitalist nations would not tolerate.

The New York Times ran an article in 1951 titled "British Warn Iran of Serious Result if She Seizes Oil." The piece, which is full of orientalist language, refers to Iranian oil as "British oil properties," failing to acknowledge that Britain, which had previously occupied Iran, had seized that oil and claimed it as its own, administering it under the auspices of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, which later became the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, and eventually British Petroleum and modern BP.

The Times article noted that the U.S. "shares with Britain the gravest concern about the possibility that Iranian oil, the biggest supply now available in the Near East, might be lost to the Western powers." The British government is quoted making a thinly veiled threat.

This threat came into fruition in August 1953. In Operation Ajax, the CIA, working with its British equivalent MI6, carried out a coup, overthrowing the elected government of Iran and reinstalling the monarchy. The shah would remain a faithful Western ally until 1979, when the monarchy was abolished in the Iranian Revolution.

Guatemala, 1954

[caption id="attachment_14220521" align="aligncenter" width="620"]A CIA cable documenting Guatemalan dictator Castillo Armas' plan to overthrow the elected government (Credit: CIA FOIA) A CIA cable documenting Guatemalan dictator Castillo Armas' plan to overthrow the elected government (Credit: CIA FOIA)[/caption]

Less than a year after overthrowing Iran's first democratically elected prime minister, the U.S. pursued a similar regime change policy in Guatemala, toppling the elected leader Jacobo Árbenz.

In 1944, Guatemalans waged a revolution, toppling the U.S.-backed right-wing dictator Jorge Ubico, who had ruled the country with an iron fist since 1931. Ubico, who fancied himself the 20th-century Napoleon, gave rich landowners and the U.S. corporation the United Fruit Company (which would later become Chiquita) free reign over Guatemala's natural resources, and used the military to violently crush labor organizers.

Juan José Arévalo was elected into office in 1944. A liberal, he pursued very moderate policies, but the U.S. wanted a right-wing puppet regime that would allow U.S. corporations the same privileges granted to them by Ubico. In 1949, the U.S. backed an attempted coup, yet it failed.

In 1951, Árbenz was elected into office. Slightly to the left of Arévalo, Árbenz was still decidedly moderate. The U.S. claimed Árbenz was close to Guatemala's communists, and warned he could ally with the Soviet Union. In reality, the opposite was true; Árbenz actually persecuted Guatemalan communists. At most, Árbenz was a social democrat, not even a socialist.

Yet Árbenz, like Mosaddegh, firmly believed that Guatemalans themselves, and not multinational corporations, should benefit from their country's resources. He pursued land reform policies that would break up the control rich families and the United Fruit Company exercised over the country -- and, for that reason, he was overthrown.

President Truman originally authorized a first coup attempt, Operation PBFORTUNE, in 1952. Yet details about the operation were leaked to the public, and the plan was abandoned. In 1954, in Operation PBSUCCESS, the CIA and U.S. State Department, under the Dulles Brothers, bombed Guatemala City and carried out a coup that violently toppled Guatemala's democratic government.

The U.S. put into power right-wing tyrant Carlos Castillo Armas. For the next more than 50 years, until the end of the Guatemalan Civil War in 1996, Guatemala was ruled by a serious of authoritarian right-wing leaders who brutally repressed left-wing dissidents and carried out a campaign of genocide against the indigenous people of the country.

Chile, 1973

[caption id="attachment_14220407" align="aligncenter" width="620"]Pinochet's soldiers burning left-wing books after the 1973 U.S.-backed coup in Chile (Credit: CIA FOIA/Weekly Review) Pinochet's soldiers burning left-wing books after the 1973 U.S.-backed coup in Chile (Credit: CIA FOIA/Weekly Review)[/caption]

September 11 has permanently seared itself into the memory of Americans. The date has also been indelibly imprinted in the public consciousness of Chileans, because it was on this same day in 1973 that the U.S. backed a coup that violently overthrew Chile's democracy.

In 1970, Marxist leader Salvador Allende was democratically elected president of Chile. Immediately after he was elected, the U.S. government poured resources into right-wing opposition groups and gave millions of dollars to Chile's conservative media outlets.

The CIA deputy director of plans wrote in a 1970 memo, "It is firm and continuing policy that Allende be overthrown by a coup... It is imperative that these actions be implemented clandestinely and securely so that the USG [U.S. government] and American hand be well hidden." President Nixon subsequently ordered the CIA to "make the economy scream" in Chile, to "prevent Allende from coming to power or to unseat him."

Allende's democratic government was violently overthrown on September 11, 1973. He died in the coup, just after making an emotional speech, in which he declared he would give his life to defend Chilean democracy and sovereignty.

Far-right dictator Augusto Pinochet, who combined fascistic police state repression with hyper-capitalist free-market economic policies, was put into power. Under Pinochet's far-right dictatorship, tens of thousands of Chilean leftists, labor organizers, and journalists were killed, disappeared, and tortured. Hundreds of thousands more people were forced into exile.

One of the most prevailing myths of the Cold War is that socialism was an unpopular system imposed on populations with brute force. Chile serves as a prime historical example of how the exact opposite was true. The masses of impoverished and oppressed people elected many socialist governments, yet these governments were often violently overthrown by the U.S. and other Western allies.

The overthrow of Allende was a turning point for many socialists in the Global South. Before he was overthrown, some leftists thought popular Marxist movements could gain state power through democratic elections, as was the case in Chile. Yet when they saw how the U.S. violently toppled Allende's elected government, they became suspicious of the prospects of electoral politics and turned to guerrilla warfare and other tactics.

Modern example: Egypt, 2013

[caption id="attachment_14219277" align="aligncenter" width="620"]Protesters in the August 2013 Raba'a massacre, carried out by Sisi's U.S.-backed coup government (Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Flickr/Mosa'ab Elshamy) Protesters in the August 2013 Raba'a massacre, carried out by Sisi's U.S.-backed coup government (Credit: Wikimedia Commons/Flickr/Mosa'ab Elshamy)[/caption]

These are just a small sample of the great many regime changes the U.S. government has been involved in. More recent examples, which were supported by Hillary Clinton, as Sanders implied, include the U.S. government's overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Muammar Qadhafi in Libya. In these cases, the U.S. was overthrowing dictators, not democratically elected leaders -- but, as Sanders pointed out, the results of these regime changes have been nothing short of catastrophic.

The U.S. is also still engaging in regime change when it comes to democratically elected governments.

In the January 2011 revolution, Egyptians toppled dictator Hosni Mubarak, a close U.S. ally who ruled Egypt with an iron fist for almost 30 years.

In July 2013, Egypt's first democratically elected president, Mohammed Morsi, was overthrown in a military coup. We now know that the U.S. supported and bankrolled the opposition forces that overthrew the democratically elected president.

Today, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, a brutal despot who is widely recognized as even worse than Mubarak, reigns over Egypt. In August 2013, Sisi oversaw a slaughter of more than 800 peaceful Egyptian activists at Raba'a Square. His regime continues to shoot peaceful protesters in the street. An estimated 40,000 political prisoners languish in Sisi's jails, including journalists.

In spite of his obscene human rights abuses, Sisi remains a close ally of the U.S. and Israel -- much, much closer than was the democratically elected President Morsi.

In the second Democratic presidential debate, when Sanders called Clinton out on her hawkish, pro-regime change policies, she tried to blame the disasters in the aftermath in countries like Iraq and Libya on the "complexity" of the Middle East. As an example of this putative complexity, Clinton cited Egypt. "We saw a dictator overthrown, we saw Muslim Brotherhood president installed, and then we saw him ousted and the army back," she said.

Clinton failed to mention two crucial factors: One, that the U.S. backed Mubarak until the last moment; and two, that the U.S. also supported the coup that overthrew Egypt's first and only democratically elected head of state.

Other examples

[caption id="attachment_14220741" align="aligncenter" width="620"]The political cartoon "Ten Thousand Miles from Tip to Tip," published in the Philadelphia Press in 1898 (Credit: Public domain) The political cartoon "Ten Thousand Miles from Tip to Tip," published in the Philadelphia Press in 1898 (Credit: Public domain)[/caption]

There are scores of other examples of U.S.-led regime change.

  • In 1964 the U.S. backed a coup in Brazil, toppling left-wing President João Goulart.
  • In 1976, the U.S. supported a military coup in Argentina that replaced President Isabel Perón with General Jorge Rafael Videla.
  • In 2002, the U.S. backed a coup that overthrew democratically elected Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. Chávez was so popular, however, that Venezuelans filled the street and demanded him back.
  • In 2004, the U.S. overthrew Haiti's first democratically elected president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
  • In 2009, U.S.-trained far-right forces overthrew the democratically elected government of Honduras, with tacit support from Washington.

The list goes on.

Latin America, given its proximity to the U.S. and the strength of left-wing movements in the region, tends to endure the largest number of U.S. regime changes, yet the Middle East and many parts of Africa have seen their democratic governments overthrown as well.

From 1898 to 1994, Harvard University historian John Coatsworth documented at least 41 U.S. interventions in Latin America -- an average of one every 28 months for an entire century.

Numerous Latin American military dictators were trained at the School of the Americas, a U.S. Department of Defense Institute in Fort Benning, Georgia. The School of the Americas Watch, an activist organization that pushes for the closing of the SOA, has documented many of these regime changes, which have been carried out by both Republicans and Democrats.

Diplomatic cables released by whistleblowing journalism outlet WikiLeaks show the U.S. still maintains a systematic campaign of trying to overthrow Latin America's left-wing governments.

By not just acknowledging the bloody and ignominious history of U.S. regime change, but also condemning it, Sen. Sanders was intrepidly trekking into controversial political territory into which few of his peers would dare to tread. Others would do well to learn from Bernie's example.

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By Ben Norton

Ben Norton is a politics reporter and staff writer at AlterNet. You can find him on Twitter at @BenjaminNorton.

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