In two major speeches in the last month, he has spun a fairy tale.
At the National Archives on May 21, Obama claimed, "From Europe to the Pacific, we've been the nation that has shut down torture chambers and replaced tyranny with the rule of law." And in Cairo, Egypt, just two weeks later, Obama said, "America is not the crude stereotype of a self-interested empire. ... America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election."
These assertions ring entirely hollow in Latin America, where the reverse is true: Washington propped up tyrannical leaders and bankrolled murderous armies. Under the iron fist of these U.S.-backed regimes, the region's torture chambers rang with the cries of innocent victims.
As Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza ruthlessly ruled his country like a colonial coffee plantation, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt reportedly said of his ally: "Somoza may be a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch."
Intervention sometimes came at the behest of influential U.S. companies, as in Guatemala. In 1950, President Jacobo Arbenz won a landslide election and moved ahead with a land reform program aimed at breaking up large landholdings.
The reforms sat uneasily with executives from the United Fruit Co. (today, Chiquita), which owned vast, feudal-like fruit plantations throughout the country. The company collaborated with the CIA and the State Department to orchestrate Arbenz's overthrow in 1954. What followed were a succession of military governments and a crescendo of violent conflict that ultimately claimed more than 200,000 Guatemalan lives.
After the socialist Salvador Allende won the presidency of Chile in 1970, national security adviser Henry Kissinger declared, "I don't see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist because of the irresponsibility of its own people."
Three years later, Chile's Gen. Augusto Pinochet overthrew Allende with the support of the U.S. government. Pinochet then helped band together his fellow South American dictators. They formed a coordinated campaign of state terrorism, called "Operation Condor," against leftist sympathizers. The U.S. ambassador to Paraguay at the time suggested the campaign was receiving key intelligence support from the Pentagon.
A common tactic practiced by the military in these dirty wars was to throw drugged, yet alive and conscious, prisoners out of aircraft over the ocean. Not even pregnant women were spared from electric shocks to genitalia and waterboarding.
As Congress became concerned over the intensifying repression carried out by U.S. allies, Kissinger assured his nervous Argentine counterparts: "Look, our basic attitude is that we would like you to succeed. I have an old-fashioned view that friends ought to be supported." Those "friends" killed 30,000 innocent people in Argentina alone.
In Central America, where civil wars broke out, the destruction was even greater. The CIA and the Pentagon worked with death squads in the name of U.S. national security. In El Salvador, where Washington spent $6 billion trying to defeat rebels, 75,000 lost their lives.
Today, Washington still disregards human rights abuses in its military alliances. Colombia's army is drenched in scandal over its execution of 1,600 innocent civilians, who were later claimed as rebels killed in combat. The United Nations has called political murder at the hands of the army "widespread and systematic." Nevertheless, Obama's first foreign appropriations budget has slated $270 million in military aid to Colombia.
At the National Archives, Obama made a veiled criticism of the Bush administration's policies.
"We went off course," Obama said.
As U.S. involvement in Latin America shows, the truth is that the ship went off course a long time ago. Acknowledging this would be the first step toward steering it straight again.
The re-election of Bolivian President Evo Morales to a third term is a stark reminder of Washington’s self-inflicted irrelevance south of the border. His life history is itself a story about U.S. policy blunders in Latin America.
Washington stood on the wrong side of history when it overthrew Guatemala's democratically elected president on June 27, 1954. To this day, the U.S. government has failed to learn the lessons of its Cold War interventions in Latin America.
For peace negotiations underway between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Colombian government to break the country's cycles of violence negotiators must address land inequality and the drug trade as interconnected problems.
Twenty years ago this month, U.S. authorities helped bring down Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar, but Washington’s global war on drugs has not let up. In fact, it has become costlier, bloodier, more widespread and futile.
The backlash from revelations that the United States spied on world leaders once again shows the dangers of our runaway surveillance state. The Obama administration has got to rein it in. This time, it's our most important diplomatic alliances on the ropes.
Hugo Chavez proved that Venezuela and the rest of Latin America could chart an independent path in the world. Chavez was the first in a steady stream of left-leaning leaders elected to office in a region that Washington had once claimed as its backyard. Chavez was the most vocal advocate of this growing autonomy.