Murder, Theft, Exploitation: How American Imperialism and Neoliberal Economics Conquered Latin America

The effrontery of the powerful often leaves one virtually speechless.

Photo Credit: nostri-imago/Flickr CC

The following is an excerpt from the book Year 501 by Noam Chomsky, part of a series of twelve new editions of Chomsky's classic works recently published by Haymarket Books: 

A novel idea was implemented in Colombia, where security guards of a medical school murdered poor people and sold the bodies to the school for student research; reports indicate that before they were killed, organs that could be sold on the black market were removed. These practices, however, scarcely make a dent in one of the worst human rights records in the continent, compiled by security forces that have long benefited from US training and supply and have now become one of the hemisphere's top recipients of US military funding. As elsewhere, the main targets for mutilation, torture, and murder are priests, union activists, political leaders and others who try to defend the poor, form cooperatives, or otherwise qualify as "subversives" by interfering with the neoliberal economic model implemented under instructions from the US and the World Bank.

These development programs have other features, among them, an epidemic of pesticide poisoning that has reached the few corners of our little region over here that, for a time, escaped the deadly impact of the neoliberal doctrines. In Costa Rica, "legal pesticides -- many of them imported from the United States -- are making people sick, injuring them, even killing them," Christopher Scanlan reports in the Miami Herald from Pitahaya, where a 15-year-old farm worker had just died of poisoning by a highly toxic American Cyanamid product. The village cemetery of Pitahaya, he continues, "is a stark symbol of a global death toll from pesticides estimated at 220,000 a year by the World Health Organization," along with 25 million incidents a year of illness, including chronic neurological damage; the Guaymí Indians who die from pesticide poisoning cleaning drainage ditches at US-owned plantations in Costa Rica and Panama are unlikely to make it to a village cemetery. More than 99 percent of deaths from acute pesticide poisoning occur in Third World countries, which use 20 percent of agricultural chemicals.

With "markets closed at home" by regulations to protect the population and the environment, "chemical companies shifted sales of these banned chemicals to the Third World where government regulations are weak." The corporations have also devised new "nonpersistent" pesticides that "are generally much more acutely toxic" to farm workers and their families, including some "first developed as nerve gas by the Germans before World War II." Physicians in Costa Rica are calling for removal of killer chemicals from the Third World market, but "the Bush administration sides with the industry," Scanlan reports. Its position is that the solution does not lie in interference with the market -- to translate to English: profits for the rich. Rather, in "educating people about the risk," William Jordan of the Environmental Protection Agency explains. Progress has its problems, he concedes, but "you cannot simply ignore progress." An American Cyanamid executive says "I sleep at night very comfortably." So do leaders and ideologists generally, except when their rest is disturbed by the faults of official enemies and their retrograde doctrines.

The United States has never been very happy with Costa Rica, despite its almost total subordination to the wishes of US corporations and Washington. Costa Rican social democracy and successes in state-guided development, unique in Central America, were a constant irritant. Concerns were relieved in the 1980s, as the huge debt and other problems gave the US government leverage to move Costa Rica closer to the "Central American mode" lauded by the press, but the Ticos still don't know their place. One problem arose in November 1991, when Costa Rica renewed its request to the US to extradite US rancher John Hull, who was charged with murder in the La Penca bombing in which six people were killed, as well as drug running and other crimes. This renewed call for extradition was particularly irritating because of the timing -- just as the US was orchestrating a vociferous PR campaign against Libya for its insistence on keeping to international law and arranging for trial of two Libyans accused of air terrorism either in its own courts or by a neutral country or agency, instead of handing them over to the US. The unfortunate coincidence did not disrupt the Washington-media campaign against Libya, thanks to the scrupulous suppression of the Costa Rican request.

Yet another Costa Rican crime was its expropriation of property of US citizens, for which it was duly punished by the freezing of promised economic assistance. The most serious case was the confiscation of the property of a US businessman by President Oscar Arias, who incorporated it into a national park. Costa Rica offered compensation, but not enough, Washington determined. The land was expropriated when it was found that it had been used by the CIA for an illegal air strip for resupplying US terrorist forces in Nicaragua. Arias's expropriation without adequate compensation is a crime that naturally calls for retribution by Washington -- and silence by the media, particularly as they are railing against Libyan terrorism.

The effrontery of the powerful often leaves one virtually speechless. 


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Noam Chomsky is institute professor emeritus in the Department of Linguistics and Philosophy at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. His most recent books are Who Rules the World? (Metropolitan Books, 2016) and Requiem for the American Dream: The 10 Principles of Concentration of Wealth & Power (Seven Stories Press, 2017). His website is