Last week, the redacted version of the Robert Mueller investigation into possible Trump collusion with Russia to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential elections was released, and seemingly all of the U.S. — particularly its media — took the opportunity to find new ways to be aghast, disgusted, horrified by the idea that a foreign government could be involved in dictating our leadership, our way of life.
It’s disturbing, certainly. I’ve been among those enamored with fury, too.
But lately, I’ve instead been thinking back to a conversation I had a few months ago in a bar in Belize.
My Belize City friend, Ian, chuckled then as we shared a glass of wine, talking politics in a small bar in Placencia. At some point the Mueller investigation came up.
“Americans are outraged that Russia helped choose your president,” he mused, “even though it’s what your country has done with leaders of countries all over Central America for decades.”
Despite knowing the history, foggily, the statement hit like a 2×4 block of concrete to the face.
Because, well, let’s face it: as U.S. natives, we don’t like to think of ourselves that way.
Perhaps in some vague sense, many of us realize of how extended our influence has become, especially since the Cold War. We’ve gotten involved in conflicts as close to home as Central America and as far flung as Asia, Africa and the Middle East. Still, somehow, we’ve managed to think of ourselves as mostly benevolent — imparting the branch of democracy; offering the promise of freedom. We’ve convinced ourselves that the people in these places must somehow appreciate our interference, or at the very least need it.
And the consequences? We’ve mostly put those out of our minds.
This case with Russia taking on our own precious democracy, is different, surely.
Actually, history says no.
From 1946 to 2000, the U.S. government was involved in affecting the elections of at least 85 different countries. Eighty-five. That includes Guatemala, where I spent about four months, and where the CIA was involved in the 1954 ouster of President Jacobo Árbenz, whose land reforms threatened the holdings of the U.S.-owned United Fruit Company, as was later revealed in previously confidential documents.
A Guatemalan friend of mine recently commented to me that it’s only the tip of the iceberg in terms of U.S. involvement in his elections. He referred to a WiKiLeaks article summarizing how the overthrow of Guatemala’s president previous to the current, Pérez Molina, was in part dictated by U.S. influences.
“It’s not the only time that has happened,” Jose said. “Our presidential candidates [regularly] have to go to the U.S. embassy to get the consent of the ambassador.”
The 85-government number also includes, welp, Russia, as recently as 1996, when the Clinton administration helped push for a $10 billion IMF loan — that’s billion with a B — and a team of U.S. political consultants to prop up incumbent Boris Yeltsin, who was unpopular in his own country thanks to economic reforms that ultimately increased unemployment and inflation. It was meant to be a democratic election; what the U.S. has always publicly goaded. In this case, though, the will of the people was deemed inconvenient; believing that Yeltsin offered Russia’s best hope for embracing democracy, the U.S. stifled the process itself.
After distributing those funds to entice voters, Yeltsin — who started his campaign with an approval rating of 6 percent — won and the Americans publicly touted their role in the comeback win.
One country claiming influence on the election of another. Imagine if that were to happen in the U.S!
Oh wait, it has now, kind of.
And yet, we’re still somehow thinking about our situation as the exception to the rule. We’ve ignored our own history of interference in order to be properly outraged about our particular plight.
On Sunday night, I watched a 60 Minutes feature on the Russian government’s dangerous relationship with a “cyber mafia” of hackers that helped garner secrets in return for avoiding detection and arrest. What the government gets out of it is this: intelligence not easily tracked back to the state. The indication is clear, and true: that the Russian government, is a dangerous and rogue entity willing to do just about anything to get what it wants.
Still, it seemed a prime time to mention our own hazy endeavors in persuading elections, and that angle was entirely absent. Even if it’s not the entire conversation, it’s fairly part of it.
Here’s more food for thought: what that number of U.S. election persuasions doesn’t include is interferences in at least dozens of countries such as Honduras, where the U.S. pumped guns into a military that ultimately overthrew the democratically-elected government in 2009, a coup that was recognized around the world, except within our supportive borders.
“They gave us guns in exchange for control,” my San Pedro Sula friend Eduardo commented recently, remarking on the long U.S. history of involvement and current support for dictator Juan Orlando Hernandez. “The U.S. owns us.”
For me, as most (white, particularly) Americans, this education has been a trial. Partly thanks to a cultural society that omits these particular pieces of history, I’m still learning of just how meaningful — and harmful — the hand of my home country has been in other places.
I often recall a conversation in Cuba, years ago, that I didn’t think much of at the time, but which lives with me now.
“This need for the U.S to get its military involved in every place is crazy,” a woman commented to me there. “As if democracy, sans all other motivations, is all that matters.”
I defended my country then, sure that we were saving peoples in “undeveloped worlds” from their own monsters.
I really believed, then, even as I walked through empty stores and ventured with my host families through necessary black market purchases of things like razor blades and brillo pads, that Cuba had essentially executed its own fate. I didn’t really think of how the U.S. embargo repressed the economy or how the U.S. power of decision affected so many other trading partners. I didn’t really think, then, about how U.S. influence played a role, in this backyard country’s demise, in the people’s way of life.
These conversations didn’t factor into what I wrote.
Since then, though, I’ve reflected on that conversation, in Havana, poignantly. And I’ve felt deep guilt in now understanding some of the ways in which my own country has overriden the very tenet it so often boasts.
So perhaps at least some the questions regarding Russian interference that we should be now be asking are those I’m asking myself:
Are we upset about the basic principles of democracy being broken? Or are we simply angry it happened to us?
Can we imagine, work up the same level of incense, over citizens in other countries feeling the same disgust and humiliation with our government as the perpetrator? Can we possibly understand how people in those places could be similarly aghast at foreign involvement in dictating their leadership, their way of life?
And if not, can we consider the reasons why? Can we not fathom that people in these countries might also be capable, urgently motivated, to cast their own fate, regardless of the political system?
Being horrified with the comprehension that Russia was probably involved in the last U.S. election is one thing.
But without understanding our own role, we can’t have the full conversation.