Electoral Intervention in the Americas: Uneven and Unanticipated Results

September 25, 2007

“This dispute with the United States demands leadership at the national level...even if that leadership happens to rankle some in the U.S. …I am not going to be dictated to as to the subjects I should raise.”1 Those words from a leading contender to be his country’s chief executive, uttered in December 2005, could have been spoken by many Latin American presidential candidates at various times since the start of the 20th century. As it turns out, however, the speaker was Paul Martin, then the Canadian prime minister, during his unsuccessful reelection campaign. The words were addressed to the U.S. Ambassador who, Martin alleged, was seeking to keep some items relating to relations between the two countries off Canada’s electoral agenda.

Familiar as Prime Minister Martin’s concern may be to observers of the history of U.S.-Latin American relations, it seemed somewhat out of place during the 2005-06 electoral cycle in the Americas. The only public complaint of electoral interference by U.S. ambassadors during this cycle came from Canada, where such complaints have been uncommon, and not from Latin America, where they have been typical. Indeed, the Bush II Administration has shown greater restraint in its instructions to ambassadors during its second term than during the first.

U.S. electoral intervention has a long history in the Americas. In the early 20th century, the U.S. government came to see the holding of elections as integral to U.S. imperialism, which I define as the indirect, albeit effective governance of formally sovereign states. Over the first few decades of the century, electoral politics became one pillar of imperial governance; two others were the maintenance and display of military supremacy and the development of schools and a public health care system. Thus in the first quarter of the 20th century, the U.S. government considered its imperial behavior in the “American Mediterranean” to be benign in its intentions and effects, even if it was generally designed to protect U.S. military, political or economic interests.

During this period, the use of military force as one instrument of “democracy promotion” was not seen to contradict this benign self-image; nor was there a perceived policy conflict between war and democracy. President Woodrow Wilson’s government bombed Veracruz in order, among other reasons, to promote democracy in Mexico against an incumbent military dictator during a phase of the Mexican Revolution. Echoes of that decision, and even of aspects of its rhetoric, became part of the decision to invade Iraq in 2003.

There is also, however, a long-standing history of unanticipated adverse consequences that have led to U.S. policy failures. U.S. interventions have been counterproductive for self-defined U.S. objectives when they have ignited resistance to such meddling in the intervened country. In 1945-46, for example, the U.S. ambassador to Argentina, Spruille Braden, intervened actively and repeatedly in domestic politics, and took many steps to prevent Juan Domingo Perón’s election to the presidency. Braden’s unabashed intervention became one element in Perón’s successful mobilization of Argentine voters, portraying the electoral choice as between “Braden or Perón.”2

More recently, the intervention of U.S. Ambassador Manuel Rocha, under instructions from Washington, against Evo Morales in the 2002 Bolivian presidential election exemplifies the same dramatic failure. In response to the Ambassador’s warning that Bolivians should vote against Morales because of his leadership of the coca growers’ movement, Morales’ support soared, and he came in a close second on election day.

A second pattern of unanticipated adverse consequences of U.S. intervention might be called the excess of success. Cuba’s 1906 presidential election was the first of this kind. The U.S. government designed an exit strategy from Cuban domestic politics in 1902, which relieved it from daily responsibility over Cuban affairs while protecting key U.S. interests in Cuba. The U.S. government “observed” the 1906 election in Cuba and, to its horror, discovered fraud, intimidation and eventually a political breakdown. The opposition revolted, knowing that this would invite U.S. intervention under the Platt Amendment, in the belief that it would receive better treatment from a U.S. occupation than from the incumbent Cuban government. Meanwhile, the government itself, for its own reasons, tricked the United States into an intervention that Washington did not at that moment desire: Cuba’s President and Vice President and the entire Council of Ministers resigned, and the governing party’s senators and deputies in Congress prevented a quorum. Absent a government, and in the face of armed revolt, the United States reoccupied Cuba. The web of control that Washington had spun for Cuba entrapped the U.S. government into seemingly unending intervention. Democracy promotion in a failing state was a path back to empire.

Electoral intervention, with a new set of characteristics, was reborn during the Cold War. The U.S. government sponsored, through its embassies, the transfer of Central Intelligence Agency funds to local actors, election observation and, at times, force in order to grant electoral legitimacy to allied political regimes, expecting that voters would choose a U.S. ally to govern the country. In some instances, Washington accepted elected democrats who were not U.S. allies, provided they were not adverse to other U.S. interests; in these cases, a subpar electoral outcome seemed superior to promoting a coup. Elements of this policy remained in place to the end of the Cold War in Europe.

The United States bred mistrust, however, because it often undermined democratic procedures by acting as a partisan promoter of its own goals. Covert funding of the Christian Democrats in Italy in the late 1940s or in Chile in the early 1960s are illustrations. So too was the U.S. endeavor to sabotage Nicaragua’s presidential election in 1984.

During the 1980s, however, as many competitive albeit partisan democratic actors used financial leverage to support democratic procedures and institutions along with their desired outcomes, the international climate of democracy promotion changed. Germany’s Ebert and Adenauer Foundations, for example, along with many other nongovernmental or quasigovernmental actors, began to systematically promote favored political parties in Latin America and, in the process, contribute to democratic transitions in various countries.

By the start of the 1990s, the Cold War had ended in Europe, freeing the United States from most of the anticommunist demons that had designed its Latin American policies in the recent past. Latin American democrats, for their part, were able to rein in U.S. power by working through the United Nations and the Organization of American States (OAS) to end the Central American wars and open up political space in those countries. And, starting with the 1991 Santiago Declaration, the American states began to cooperate to defend democratic governments in the face of coup attempts. Many Latin Americans, empowered at long last by the United States as a team player, came to welcome cooperative international democracy promotion.

The international election observation industry grew rapidly, and the early experiences were dramatic. In May 1989, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, the U.S. National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the U.S. Republican Institute (IRI) election observation missions in Panama reached the same conclusion: General Manuel Antonio Noriega’s government had committed massive fraud in the elections. Six months later, this election observation finding was part of the legitimating mantle for the U.S. invasion of Panama—echoes of Woodrow Wilson in Veracruz in 1914.

A less problematic and highly successful result occurred in the Dominican Republic presidential election in 1994. Observers from the OAS, NDI and the U.S. government revealed the substantial fraud committed by President Joaquín Balaguer’s government, and were able to mobilize political support to compel Balaguer to step down in 1996. The Panamanian and Dominican cases both illustrate the opposition’s skill in making use of international resources—a course of action pioneered by the Cuban opposition in 1906.

The early 1990s, under the Bush I and Clinton Administrations, turned out to be the golden years of U.S. engagement with democracy promotion, an engagement in which Washington worked with Latin Americans, frequently with the consent of governments and opposition parties. In 1988, former U.S. Vice President Walter Mondale and U.S. Ambassador Harry Barnes played valuable roles in compelling General Augusto Pinochet to accept the results of the plebiscite that forced him to relinquish power. U.S. engagement in peace processes and associated elections in Nicaragua in 1989-90, El Salvador in 1991-92 and Guatemala in 1995-96 also advanced democratic goals.

That such U.S. behavior began during the second term of the Reagan Administration, and continued during the Bush I and Clinton Administrations, indicated that the United States had, for the first time in its history, settled on a bipartisan policy of democracy promotion that approximated the “impartial intervention” concept: Act multilaterally under international agreements, with the authorization of UN or OAS resolutions and in concert with Latin Americans, even in circumstances that risk empowering forces of which the United States disapproves.

The Bush II Administration broke with the democratic consensus of the preceding dozen years. U.S. ambassadors intervened in the Nicaraguan election in 2002 to scare the public from voting for the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN); in Bolivia in 2002, from voting for Evo Morales; and in El Salvador in 2004, from voting for the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). The Nicaraguan and Salvadoran cases were temper tantrums left over from the Cold War, which the new team in the State Department—former staffers of former Senator Jesse Helms (R-NC)—had not yet outgrown. In this regard, the 2002 intervention in Bolivia was more important, mostly because it signaled that the U.S. government would intervene over new issues, coca growing in this instance, and not just over Cold War legacies.

Despite its unleashing of Cold War ghosts in Central America, the Bush II Administration innovated in its approach to the Brazilian presidential election in 2002. In supporting an agreement between the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and most presidential candidates, the U.S. government sealed opposition candidate Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva’s march from the left to the center of Brazil’s political spectrum and removed the principal set of issues that had frightened middle-class voters from supporting him in the past. The Bush II Administration contributed to Lula’s election as president of Brazil through an agreement between the IMF and the political opposition—the only one of its kind in Latin America.3

The second Bush II term, however, has retreated from the policy of electoral interventions by ambassadors and has emphasized the more proper role of supporting democratic election outcomes. An early test came in Uruguay in 2005. The United States did not oppose the left’s election victory and quickly developed cordial relations with President Tabaré Vázquez.

In December 2005, when the candidate of Honduras’ governing party lost the presidential election but seemed unwilling to accept the result, U.S. Ambassador Charles Ford privately conveyed U.S. support for the decision made by Honduran citizens and publicly praised the electoral process, thus ensuring that the Honduran government would abide by the result.

More dramatically, on December 18, 2005, U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia David Greenlee publicly congratulated Evo Morales upon his election as president, and did so even before the official results were fully announced. The U.S. Ambassador and the U.S. embassy in Bolivia conducted themselves not only with professionalism but also with appropriate democratic sensibilities during and after the election.

U.S. democracy promotion has always been difficult because Washington has well-known interests and motivations. Many Latin Americans have thus feared that the United States would abuse its power, regardless of its declared intentions. Moreover, domestic oppositions of the right and the left have learned to skillfully manipulate the U.S. government’s bumbling electoral interventions.

Nevertheless, the continental shift toward democratization during the 1980s reflects a genuine pro-democratic shift in the international milieu. The U.S. became engaged in this endeavor and, through nearly four presidential terms, behaved as a powerful but self-restrained member of the inter-American community of states.

In more interventionist times, the United States typically intervened to support just one side, and the temptations of partisanship and control have never disappeared entirely. That is why the decisions to resort to one-sided ambassadorial interventions during the first term of the Bush II Administration, even if partially reversed during the second term, have been costly. The Bush Administration tainted democracy promotion efforts, making them appear little more than a fig leaf to hide its exercise of power. The United States can become a credible member of the international democracy promotion community only if it learns its own lessons from the early 1990s: Do it multilaterally under UN or OAS auspices, and always in concert with Latin Americans themselves.

Jorge I. Domínguez is Clarence Dillon Professor of International Affairs, Director of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, and Chairman of the Harvard Academy for International and Area Studies at Harvard University.


1. The Boston Globe, December 15, 2005, p. A34.

2. For a discussion of Braden’s extensive intervention, see Bryce Wood, The Dismantling of the Good Neighbor Policy (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1985), chapter 6.

3. The first IMF agreement akin to this one was signed in South Korea in 1997 and included the IMF, the South Korean government and all presidential candidates.

Tags: democracy, elections, US foreign policy, US intervention, politics

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.