US Financed Dictatorships in South America Killed Thousands

Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo (Buenos Aires) denounce the kidnapping of their grandchildren

by Rafael Freire

Originally published in Averdade (July 2019)

Translated by Red Star Publications

“In 1964, Che Guevara showed me, in his office in Havana, that Batista’s Cuba was not merely sugar: the Imperium’s blind fury against the revolution was better explained, he thought, by Cuba’s big deposits of nickel and manganese.”

In this short passage from the classic Open Veins of Latin America, the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, starting from Che’s Marxist view, reinforced the point that the economic basis of the capitalist system ultimately determines politics. That is, behind the political-ideological action of the ruling classes are their nefarious financial interests, the unrestrained pursuit of profit, and the exploitation of the natural resources of the oppressed nations and the labor power of the working class.

It was with these objectives that the United States, after World War II, financed coups d’état to overthrow democratically elected governments and to establish military dictatorships in South and Central America.

Please excuse us for a longer quote from Galeano, so that there will be no doubt about what we want to say about the coups in Brazil and our neighboring countries:

“The wealth of iron beneath Brazil’s Paraopeba valley overthrew two presidents – Jânio Quadros and João Goulart – before Marshal Castelo Branco, who made himself dictator in 1964, graciously handed it over to the Hanna Mining Company. An earlier friend of the U.S. ambassador, President Eurico Dutra (1946-1951), had handed Bethlehem Steel the 40 million tons of manganese in the state of Amapά – one of the world’s biggest deposits – for 4 percent of the income from exporting it. Since then Bethlehem has been moving the mountains to the United States so enthusiastically that in fifteen years’ time Brazil may have no manganese for its own steel industry. Furthermore, thanks to the generosity of the Brazilian government, $88 of each $100 Bethlehem invests in mineral extraction are tax exempt, in the name of ‘regional development.’

“In Bolivia, the Matilde mine contains lead, silver, and abundant zinc twelve times more pure than that in U.S. mines; between massacres of miners, dictator René Barrientos, who seized power in 1964, handed it over to Phillips Industries. The firm was authorized to remove the crude zinc for processing in its refineries abroad, paying the state no less than 1.5 percent of the sale value. In Peru in 1968, page 11 of the agreement which President Fernando Belaúnde Terry had signed with a Standard Oil affiliate was mysteriously lost; General Juan Velasco Alvarado overthrew Belaúnde, took the reins, and nationalized the firm’s wells and refinery. In Venezuela, the largest U.S. military mission in Latin America sits on Standard and Gulf’s great petroleum take. Argentina’s frequent coups d’état erupt before or after each offer of oil concessions. Copper was a far from minor factor in the Pentagon’s disproportionate military aid to Chile before the electoral victory of Salvador Allende’s left coalition; U.S. copper reserves had fallen by more than 60 percent between 1965 and 1969.” (Op. Cit., p. 135-136)

A History of Dictatorships

The first dictatorship [after the Second World War – translator’s note] in South America with U.S. fingers on it was that of Paraguay in 1954, with Alfredo Stroessner toppling President Federico Chavez, an anti-IMF populist politician. Stroessner was elected through fraud, which prevented an opposing slate in the election. Once in power, all parties were closed down and only the Colorado Party ran the sole candidate for president, Stroessner. He remained in power until 1989, the longest dictatorship on the continent, lasting 35 years. His base of support was the agricultural oligarchy. The United States made Paraguay a laboratory for its National Security Doctrine.

In 1959 came the victory of the Cuban Revolution the United States tightened its grip on the Americas. It would not allow a new Cuba to arise by any means, the profits of the industrial monopolies had to be increased and the natural wealth appropriated.

In 1946, U.S. imperialism had already created the School of the Americas, with the objective of training instigators of military coups and dictators. In 1961, under the pretext of building cooperation in order to develop Latin America and combat communism, the Alliance for Progress was created, whose real objective was to closely control possible revolutionary movements or any workers’ actions that contradicted the interests of the capitalists.

In 1964, two dictatorships came to power in South America, both with direct intervention by the armed forces and the U.S. government: in Brazil and Bolivia. These military governments then adopted policies of privatization, eliminated labor rights, banned strikes, massacred students, criminalized communists and invited in foreign companies interested in cheap labor.

Attempts at resistance by Bolivian miners and workers were harshly repressed. In October 1967, in the region near the village of Vallegrande, the revolutionary Ernesto Che Guevara, who commanded a guerrilla struggle to liberate Bolivia from the dictatorship, was arrested and executed.

In one of the short-term successes of military presidents in Bolivia, General Juan Jose Torres, a democratically oriented military officer, took over. In August 1971, Brazil’s then-dictator president Emilio Garrastazu Medici offered General Torres’ opponents all logistical support for a coup (weapons, planes, mercenaries, places to set up military training areas on Brazilian soil near the border, etc.). The coup, led by General Hugo Banzer, overthrew Torres and ncreased repression against the people, banning the trade union movement, suspending all civil rights and sending troops to the mining centers to stifle strikes.

In 1968, it was Peru’s turn. General Velasco Alvarado led the coup that overthrew President Fernando Belaunde and took power. This was the response of the elites to the growth of the popular movements, such as “Tierra o Muerte” (”Land or Death”), with more than 300,000 peasants who since 1963 had occupied the land that had been taken over by the landowners. Only in the late 1970s would the country return to presidential elections, from which successive victorious corrupt governments emerged.

In 1973, Uruguay and Chile suffered coups d’état. In Uruguay, the coup was already planned due to the possible electoral victory of General Liber Seregni, candidate of the Broad Front (formed by left and center left parties). But Juan Maria Bordaberry was elected, who as president on June 27 closed the Senate and the Chamber of Deputies with the support of the Armed Forces, announcing the creation of a State Council to replace the parliament.

This was followed by years of intense repression of the people and their organizations, such as the Tupamaros National Liberation Movement (MLN-T), which recently had its story told in the film A Night of 12 Years. Only in 1985 would the country return to a democratic transition.

In Chile, the democratically elected president Salvador Allende, supported by the Popular Unity (an alliance of several leftist parties), was trying to implement some reforms in order to reduce the extreme inequality of the country. Allende, however, was not a revolutionary; he defended “socialism by the democratic road”.

However, on the “accusation” that the president was a communist, on September 11, 1973, the Palacio La Moneda [the president’s residence] was bombed by the military, resulting in the death of President Allende himself, who resisted with a rifle in his hand. General Augusto Pinochet seized power and implemented a genocidal policy, which included, for example, mass shootings in football stadiums.

Only in 1990 would the military retire from power, leaving behind a trail of blood and almost two decades of faithful application of the neoliberal economic project ordered by the U.S., which keeps Chile subordinated to the United States to this day.

In Argentina, the coup took place on March 24, 1976. Until 1983, thousands of militants were thrown alive into the sea from airplanes (the “death flights”); 340 concentration camps were created in which “subversive” workers were punished and condemned to slavery; nearly 2,000 people have been proven killed and 30,000 others are missing, leaving behind orphaned children, desperate fathers and mothers. As if that were not enough, more than 500 babies were taken from their families to be handed over to the military and then given a “good” education. To this day, the “Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo” and “Grandparents of the Plaza de Mayo” movements have struggled to identify the kidnapped babies, having succeeded in 126 cases.

The first president of the Argentine military dictatorship was General Jorge Rafael Videla. On November 22, 2010 he was tried and sentenced to life imprisonment for crimes against humanity and died in jail at age 87 on May 17, 2013.

Brazil: fascism never again!

On December 10, 2014 (World Human Rights Day), the National Truth Commission (CNV) presented its final report to Brazilian society. The CNV officially declared that there were 434 people killed (of these, 210 are still missing) by the military dictatorship in Brazil, but the list is much larger.

According to the Commission’s own survey, it is estimated that more than 8,350 indigenous people were killed in massacres, land grabs, forced evictions, contagion from infectious diseases, arrests, torture and ill-treatment, all in a study that only looked at ten ethnicities. There was also a massacre of peasants: the CNV counted almost 1,200 dead, surely less than the real number. Even within the Armed Forces there was a great deal of repression: about 6,600 military personnel were arrested or expelled from their units; some were killed. More than 1,200 unions were taken over by the state and dozens of student organizations, including the UNE [National Union of Educators], were closed and outlawed.

All these events proven today could have been investigated and judged after the end of the dictatorship, as the historian José Levino pointed out in the article “A Long Night of Terror” (A Verdade, No. 169):

“Ignoring the struggle of the streets, the bourgeois opposition, represented by the MDB, negotiated the Amnesty Law (Law No. 6.683 / 79) with General Joao Baptista Figueiredo, which also benefitted the agents of repression, engaged in the apparatus of ‘political and related crimes ‘, leaving out those condemned ‘for the practice of crimes of terrorism, assault, kidnapping and personal attack’….

In Argentina, for example, in 1983, the same year that the dictatorship fell, the government of Raul Alfonsin set up a commission to investigate the violations that had occurred. This allowed for the condemnation of military commanders and generals who became president (dictators) Jorge Rafael Videla and Reynaldo Bignone to 50 years in prison and life imprisonment, respectively.”

The struggle for an effective Transitional Justice (right to memory, truth, justice and institutional reparations) in Brazil is therefore a current and necessary campaign. If today the President of the Republic is an apologist for the 1964 coup, by contrast, all those who defend freedom, all democrats, progressives, socialists, communists, must keep alive the slogan of punishment for the agents of dictatorship.


Eduardo Galeano, Open Veins of Latin America, Monthly Review Press, 25th anniversary edition, 1997.

José Levino, A Verdade, No. 169, February 2015.

Memories of Dictatorship Project

Categories: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, History, Imperialism, International, Panama, Peru, Revolutionary History, Uruguay, Venezuela

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