Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election stunned many Americans. But it shouldn’t have. This interference was consistent with the way that both the U.S. and Russia have behaved for decades. Many thought the end of the Cold War marked the end of such acts. But it didn’t — on either side.
Some reporters and boosters of the U.S. government argue that current American efforts, unlike both U.S. meddling during the Cold War and Russian interference today, aim to support friends of democracy. But this claim is untrue. In reality, the U.S. has continued its longtime practice of working to destabilize democratically elected, leftist governments throughout Latin America right up to the present day.
While CIA covert operations undoubtedly play a role in this interference, the spy agency is far from the only one working to destabilize foreign governments. Most notably, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and the International Republican Institute (IRI) play an immense role in influencing political outcomes throughout the world. And they do it openly — under the guise of “democracy promotion.”
Three contemporary cases of U.S. “democracy promotion” expose that this practice is little more than outright interference in other countries’ elections, aimed not at ensuring functional democracies, but rather at installing governments friendly to U.S. interests. Rather than seeking to perpetuate democracy across the globe like a global superpower, the U.S. behaves like an imperial power that attempts to cultivate governments supporting U.S. economic and security interests, regardless of their democratic credentials.
Should the U.S. continue this practice, it shouldn’t be surprised that other global powers will push back against the U.S., often through their own covert actions.
We don’t know whether the CIA supported a coup d’état that temporarily removed former president Hugo Chávez from power in 2002. But we do know that an integrated and consistent effort existed across U.S. agencies to depose the leftist Venezuelan government throughout Chávez’s time in office, from 1999 until his death in 2013.
After Chávez returned to power after the coup, the opposition attempted to remove him through a recall referendum. In the run-up to the vote, U.S. Ambassador Charles Shapiro hosted prominent opposition leaders, including Julio Borges and Henry Ramos, for a strategy dinner.
During this dinner, Shapiro and Peter DeShazo, another high-ranking U.S. diplomat, advised the opposition on how to better contest Chávez and his allies, including counseling that for “the opposition to be effective, it needed to reach out to public opinion with a coordinated, coherent, and positive public message, put forward a program or plan of action, and reach out not only to oppositionists but also to independents and chavistas.”
Chávez won the recall referendum, but faced a presidential election in 2006. In preparation for that election, the IRI organized basic training seminars for opposition political parties and their leaders throughout Venezuela, which included political advice from U.S. politicians. One former IRI contractor, who helped to run some of these seminars, told me that their ultimate purpose was to help the opposition “get [their] s— together, so they could defeat Chávez.” Another high-ranking U.S. diplomat repeatedly tried in meetings to prod the opposition to unify because “there were 50 opposition parties registered!”
So desperate were the Americans to topple Chávez that when former governor Manuel Rosales became the opposition front-runner during the campaign, the IRI specifically “brought in five technical specialists” to assist his campaign.
Beyond this training, USAID explicitly worked to diminish domestic support for Chávez throughout civil society. The U.S. Embassy reported that USAID’s Office for Transition Initiatives, for example, held more than 3,000 events aimed at “delivering alternative values” and giving opposition activists an opportunity to pull “hardcore Chavistas” away from Chávez.
Some of these events in poor Caracas neighborhoods were disguised to appear organic and authentic — even as they disseminated propaganda critical of the Chávez government in an attempt to push residents toward the opposition. While these events were designed to look “very neutral in the eyes of the government,” as one USAID contractor described them to me, with no affiliation with a political party and hosted by “people from the neighborhood,” they were funded by the U.S. government with logistical assistance from opposition political parties.
Despite these efforts, Chávez again succeeded at the ballot box, easily defeating Rosales. But the U.S. did not give up; on the contrary, the contractors got bolder, furnishing a burgeoning, anti-Chávez student movement with grants, organizational resources and training. Eventually, the Venezuelan government began to investigate USAID funding in the country, prompting some contractors to destroy their files and flee Venezuela.
In the end, these efforts to unseat Chávez ultimately failed, and he reigned until his death.
USAID operated in a similarly aggressive manner in Bolivia after the election of President Evo Morales in 2005, a fierce anti-imperial critic of U.S. foreign policy.
Shortly after Morales’s victory, he met with U.S. Ambassador David Greenlee. Greenlee threatened the new Bolivian president and sought to demonstrate “the crucial importance of U.S. contributions to key international financial [institutions] on which Bolivia depended for assistance, such as the International Development Bank (IDB), the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. “When you think of the IDB, you should think of the U.S.,” the ambassador said. “This is not blackmail, it is simple reality.”
In case Morales defied these threats, USAID also went to work. The agency moved from funding economic development projects and assisting the government to supporting local opposition strongholds and aiming to block Morales’s political agenda. In one case, USAID even bankrolled an array of groups opposed to Morales’s efforts to construct a new Constitution that would have further fostered a participatory democracy.
As in Venezuela, however, these efforts ultimately failed, and Morales continues as president.
In Central America, the same U.S. agencies desperately tried to prevent the election of former revolutionary leader Daniel Ortega in 2006.
Shortly before the election, recently retired longtime U.S. diplomat Tom Shannon brought together U.S. ambassadors from throughout Central America. During this meeting, U.S. Ambassador to Nicaragua Paul Trivelli told Shannon that an Ortega victory “would give Chavez a foothold in the region.” Shannon agreed and underscored the importance that neither Ortega nor another candidate who he influenced win.
In a separate meeting, USAID personnel asserted to U.S. Embassy staff that “timing is crucial for the receipt of election and other financial assistance to bolster chances for a reform-minded, democratic candidate to win the elections” over Ortega. The IRI also moved to counteract Ortega’s electoral prospects, working with a private Nicaraguan university to provide training for members from four political parties, all of whom opposed Ortega.
However, as in Venezuela and Nicaragua, the U.S.-preferred candidates were defeated by those they sought to punish.
The failed efforts in these three countries against different popularly elected candidates show that the United States hasn’t stopped trying to undermine leftist Latin American leaders. But even failed efforts undoubtedly generate conditions more conducive to a pendulum shift to the right. And indeed, we have recently witnessed leftist governments displaced in Argentina, Brazil and Honduras.
As evidenced by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent praise of the Monroe Doctrine, many U.S. leaders still view Latin America through a paternalistic and imperial lens. Many U.S. diplomats do not believe that Latin Americans are capable of properly selecting their own leaders. Therefore, the U.S. implements “democracy promotion” programs to show Latin American citizens whom they ought to select.
But these efforts are nakedly self-interested. The U.S. pushes leaders that embrace, or at least do not seriously challenge, U.S. economic and security interests — namely neoliberal economic policies like free trade, privatization of industry and deregulation; liberal democratic rather than participatory democratic efforts; and counterterrorism and counternarcotics programs.
These U.S. efforts to undermine Latin American leaders make it hard for the United States to cry foul as Russia moves to ensure that countries have governments favorable to its interests. Until the United States renounces electoral meddling, it cannot expect other countries to respect U.S. elections.