Your support keeps us publishing. Follow this link to subscribe to our print magazine.

Britain’s Cold War in Latin America, Then and Now

Despite styling itself as a bastion of international fairness, newly declassified documents reveal Britain's involvement in abuses and coups across Latin America – an involvement which continues today.

While the US has a notorious history of interventions across the Americas, British involvement in the region has remained relatively unknown, its regional foreign policy immune from serious public scrutiny. Newly declassified documents in the UK National Archives, however, have shed important light on Britain’s Cold War in Latin America.

Despite Britain’s considerable loss of trade and influence in Latin America during the twentieth century, British intervention in the post-war era was significant. Between the 1950s and 1970s, Britain covertly intervened in several Latin American states with the goals of promoting British business interests, supporting US foreign policy objectives, and keeping the region on the ‘right side’ of the Cold War.

In practice, this meant interfering in democratic elections and institutions, providing training in torture, cultivating leading journalists, and supporting military dictatorships.

Covert Propaganda Offensive

In 1948, a secretive propaganda unit—innocuously named the Information Research Department (IRD)—was created within the British Foreign Office. According to early planning documents, the IRD was designed to distribute unattributable propaganda in order to ‘check the inroads of communism, by taking the offensive against it’.

IRD work in Latin America began shortly after the unit’s creation, but it was not until the 1960s that covert operations ‘considerably increased’ in the region. The change was prompted by the visit of diplomat Ronnie Burroughs in 1961 who, according to historian Rory Cormac, named Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela, Colombia, and Peru as strategic priorities.

Three years after Burroughs’ visit, a Foreign Office file re-emphasised that Latin America had become ‘a vital area in the Cold War’, and that ‘checking a Communist takeover [there was] at least as important a British national interest as negotiating trading and stepping up exports’.

Stop Allende

As Declassified UK revealed, recently released official documents show that Britain covertly interfered in Chile’s 1964 and 1970 presidential elections.

During the early 1960s, Chile entered IRD’s radar with the rise in popularity of Salvador Allende, a socialist politician and leader of the country’s Frente de Acción Popular (Popular Action Front).

In the lead-up to Chile’s 1964 election, Cabinet Office officials advised IRD that ‘it will be important to prevent significant gains by the extreme left’ in Chile, ‘now and later’. As such, IRD distributed its ‘more serious material to reliable contacts’ and secured ‘the publication of certain press articles’ in Chile designed to discredit Allende and favour his Christian Democrat opponent, Eduardo Frei.

After Frei won the election convincingly, senior IRD officer Elizabeth Allott declared Chile a priority, noting that ‘there are surely few places which have a better claim on our resources and where there is such scope for us’.

By 1970, Allende—then-leader of Chile’s Popular Unity coalition—looked likely to win the presidency with a radical plan for structural economic reform. IRD planners reacted with concern, noting in 1969 that ‘Chile is in the front line as far as communism in South America is concerned’.

In the months leading up to the election, Allott wrote that IRD was thus ‘concentrating on preventing an extreme left alliance from gaining power […] and on helping suitable organisations which are likely to continue in existence whatever happens’.

Britain also collaborated with Washington’s infamous propaganda campaign in Chile, even assisting a CIA-funded media organisation which visited the country in 1970. After Allende was overthrown by military coup in 1973, the Edward Heath government moved swiftly to recognise General Augusto Pinochet – a close relationship that was notoriously rekindled by Margaret Thatcher.

Britain and Brazil’s Dictatorship

Recently declassified documents also expose IRD operations in Brazil during the country’s military dictatorship (1964-1985), and provide additional details of British training in torture.

As well as working to keep the Brazilian armed forces ‘informed about Communist policies and methods, with a view to making its opposition to Communism rational and well-informed’, British officials attempted to shape Brazil’s media landscape and even discussed targeting Brazilian president João Goulart.

As Cormac found, British officials wanted to make the president ‘fear that his own personal position with the Trade Unions movement was being undermined. This could be best done by suggesting that the movement was being taken over by communists and the extreme left’ by way of a ‘a “black” document which would seek to prove this was the case’.

British propagandists also targeted Ultima Hora, a mainstream, left-wing Brazilian newspaper founded in 1951 by journalist and author Samuel Wainer. In 1964, Ultima Hora was the only mainstream Brazilian newspaper to defend the government of João Goulart and oppose the military coup.

Attempts to influence Ultima Hora began within six months of the coup. In a letter sent from British ambassador RJD Evans to IRD official JE Jackson dated 30 September 1964, Evans discusses ‘unofficial arrangements’ for IRD meetings with ‘the directors of the Jornal do Brasil and a vice-president and editor of Ultima Hora’.

By 1968, British officials in Brazil boasted that the nurturing of Ultima Hora was a fait accompli. As one IRD file reads, ‘Our material goes to senior members of the armed forces, the National Intelligence Service, the press including the left-wing Ultima Hora, the editor of which, Samuel Wainer, was assiduously cultivated by [information officer] Mr Wellington; the church, students, and trade union leaders’.

British officials were triumphant. ‘The transformation of Ultima Hora from a quasi-communist, extreme left, newspaper into a respectable and respected opposition daily’, reads another declassified document, ‘has been helped by the special relationship between the IRD officer and the newspaper founder and president, Dr Samuel Wainer’.

One file adds that ‘the supplement produced at the time of the visit of HM the Queen by Ultima Hora was considered to be the best produced by any Brazilian newspaper and the Americans even asked us how much we had paid the newspaper for it. Not a penny, is of course the answer’.

Brazil’s degenerating human rights situation in the late 1960s evidently did not concern the British.

In his annual review from December 1972, UK ambassador to Brazil David Hunt was dismissive of human rights concerns. Absolving leadership, he blamed poor policing and bad foreign press, malicious organisations such as Amnesty International, and gave his enthusiastic support to the bloody rule of Dictator Médici, calling him ‘a genuinely popular President who is patently honest and sincere in his desire to promote the welfare of every section of the Brazilian people’.

As well as assisting in propaganda, Britain provided ‘a fortnight’s training course in June 1969 to two members of a special intelligence group within the [Brazilian] Ministry of Foreign Affairs’, as well as advice on ‘sophisticated methods of interrogation [torture]’.

Writing in 1970, British defence attaché PB Winstanley concluded: ‘Despite the obtuse apathy of the people, the country is advancing as fast as, perhaps, the nature of its mulato millions will allow’.

Canning Agenda

Since November 2010, the UK’s relationship with Latin America has been directed by a foreign policy initiative called the Canning Agenda, launched with a speech by then-Foreign Secretary William Hague. Ten years later, we can assess the direction of British foreign policy from Brazil to Bolivia, Honduras to Venezuela, and find it has served to undermine democracy and assist those responsible for major human rights abuses.

In Bolivia, the UK openly recognised and supported the regime headed by Jeanine Añez which came to power by way of a bloody coup in 2019. The same year, Britain also rushed to recognise Venezuela’s self-declared President Juan Guaidó, later freezing almost $2bn of Venezuelan gold held in the Bank of England, setting up a secret ‘Venezuela Reconstruction Unit’ within the Foreign Office, and funding pro-opposition anti-corruption initiatives.

Britain evidently had a side in Brazil’s own democratic crisis. According to files obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, British officials also held secret meetings with neo-fascist candidate Jair Bolsonaro before, during, and after the Brazilian 2018 election campaign. Months before the vote for instance, British ambassador Vijay Ringarajan sent an invitation to Bolsonaro regarding a secret meeting with British ‘Strategic Partners’ – a lobby of pharma, extractive, and arms companies including BP, AstraZeneca, and mining giant Anglo American.

Britain also maintains the Falklands Islands and Belize as imperial possessions. As Declassified UK revealed, the British army is still ‘using one-sixth of Belize’s total landmass for jungle warfare training’.

Now as then, Britain views Latin America in both geostrategic and commercial terms. In the context of a new Cold War, with North Atlantic powers seeking to prize the continent away from alliances with Russia and China, we observe Britain’s relationship with the region as more akin to the dark days of the mid twentieth century than is imagined.