US Support of Coups in Latin America Video

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  • 0:01 Why Did the U.S.…
  • 1:47 Guatemala
  • 3:46 Nicaragua
  • 5:41 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Many find it hard to believe that the United States would sponsor a coup against another country, especially one with the support of the people. However, that's exactly what happened in Latin America.

Why Did the US Support Coups?

For those of us who grew up in the United States, learning about American history being a never-ending fight to extend more rights to more people, it's both shocking and more than a little sickening to think that America has sponsored coups in other countries that did the exact opposite. However, during the Cold War, this was the case, both around the world and in our own backyard.

Some of the most ardently fought of those cases come from Central America, where Communist leaders threatened to push the United States away in favor of a closer relationship with the Soviet Union. Of course, a lot of this was popular politics; the Soviet Union was willing to pay significant amounts of cash, whereas the United States had not always had the best reputation in those countries.

After all, it was American businessmen who had financed the so-called Banana Republics, which were effectively dictatorships set up to streamline the production of certain tropical agricultural products. These governments had kept wealth out of the hands of the masses, and the Communists were offering a bright future to the people.

However, a fair amount was also geopolitics. Central America was right between the most valuable stretch of artificial waterway in the world - the Panama Canal. With control of the Canal, the United States and its Western allies could move their fleets and material much more effectively than without it. The United States already had a Communist government in Cuba, and did not want any others close to the Canal.


By 1944, Guatemalans had put up with enough of their government being run by a dictator. As a result, the military led a coup against Jorge Ubico Castañeda, the dictator at the time. Within months, the military leadership was overthrown by another coup, this time promising free elections. Juan Jose Arevalo Bermejo was an intellectual living abroad at the time. He won the vote by running on a similar platform as American president Franklin Roosevelt. As FDR was still the American president and the US was embroiled with World War II, this did not ruffle that many feathers.

His successor, Jacobo Arbenz, was more left-leaning, and by this point, the United States was engaged in the Cold War. There was serious apprehension about anything that could be considered socialist or communist and Arbenz's feelings about land reform certainly fit the criteria, as he intended to take land from the rich and give it to the poor. Also worth noting is that the biggest loser of the land reform was an American agricultural concern, which would have seen its fields taken by poor peasants.

As a result, the CIA led a coup in 1954 to replace Arbenz. The president who followed, Carlos Armas, was unpopular and assassinated by his own bodyguards. By 1960, the country was in open civil war, with CIA-funded groups preventing any left-leaning entities from gaining real power in the country. Finally, by 1996, a peace treaty was reached in which the socialists gave up their weapons in exchange for land, but this was not before acts of genocide had been committed against native populations.

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