A tragic vignette of American history flickers to life in the current film "The Good Shepherd" when Matt Damon as the CIA operations director succeeds in overthrowing Jacob Arbenz, the first Guatemalan president elected in a universal-suffrage vote.
The coup actually occurred, and the CIA's role in it is well documented. It led to more than 30 years of violence in which some 200,000 people, mostly peasants, died.
Arbenz had to go because his government in 1952 sought to buy uncultivated land for redistribution to peasant farmers.
The country's landowners, particularly U.S.-based United Fruit, reacted badly. Other American interests were equally alarmed by Guatemala's determination to take over -- also with compensation -- the foreign owned electricity system and railways.
Two icons of American foreign policy had a direct interest in the issue. U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and his brother, CIA Director Allen Dulles, had both worked for United Fruit's law firm and both had stock in the company.
Dulles' clients at Sullivan & Cromwell were a "guide to the biggest multinational corporations" of early 20th century America, a historian notes.
The brothers engineered a campaign to unseat the president. To justify the coup, they inflated the threat of Arbenz's political dealings with Guatemala's Communists, who held four seats in the 58-seat governing party. Arbenz was forced to resign in 1954.
The Guatemalan coup followed the CIA's 1953 overthrow of Iran's prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh. He had nationalized his nation's oil industry, much to the dismay of the British, who refused to accept compensation and sought our help.
In both cases, the U.S. administration cloaked its interventions in a heavy fabric of lies and disinformation. Each "regime change" and others the United States organized in the 20th century disrupted nascent democratic movements.
History records the bloody consequences of these interventions.
The military dictatorships and authoritarian leaders who succeeded Arbenz presided over the endless civil war that erupted.
Happily, we Americans never suffered a disruption of our supply of cheap bananas.
The Iranian coup returned the shah to power as the CIA had plotted. It kept Iranian oil flowing until his royal excesses sparked that nation's revolution, creating what is now portrayed as such an enormous threat to U.S. interests that some of our leaders seem to think a nuclear attack might be necessary.
In March 2000, then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright regretted the Iranian coup.
"The coup was clearly a setback for Iran's political development and it is easy to see now why many Iranians continue to resent this intervention by America," she said.
Indeed, what would have happened in all these years had the United States actually encouraged and supported the democratic ideals Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, et al so often mouthed and so rarely furthered?
One chapter in this sad saga of utmost folly seems about to conclude. Fidel Castro soon must pass from the scene, leaving his tiny island nation enticingly adrift just 90 miles off our coast.
What a burr under the saddle he has been for our scheming strategists and foaming ideologues.
What, we wonder, does the CIA plan?
Cuba might have taken a different course. When we declared war on Spain in 1898, Cubans had been in continual revolt against colonial rule for more than 30 years.
Contrary to the racist, jingoist views of the time and the simplistic history of school textbooks now, the Cubans fought hard and successfully to defeat the Spanish.
The United States immediately confounded their aspirations -- and our clear promises -- for a new nation when it set up a puppet government friendly to U.S. economic interests, the new colonial power.
"When people ask me what I mean by stable government, I tell them 'Money at six percent,'" the newly installed U.S. military governor wrote in a note to President McKinley in 1900.
Stephan Kinzer tells of the exchange in his excellent book, "Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq" (Times Books, 2006). Dictatorship, turmoil, oligarchy, poverty, extraction of wealth and an offshore center for organized crime dominate the next 50 years of Cuban history.
Stripped of secrecy, the false claims of threats, the patriotic mumbo-jumbo and the appeals to American goodness, we see a century-long drive to deny democracy and to control people for our own economic purposes.
We waged propaganda wars to demonize leaders who in themselves and their movements presented little or no threat to Americans. To the contrary, they often had been educated in and espoused American values.
We waged neocolonial campaigns to gain or retain private control over natural resources and markets, installing and maintaining brutal, corrupt dictators. We trained and armed their armies, units of which to this day persist in death squad activities.
Militarily powerful nations throughout history have dominated weaker nations for the same economic reasons as ours. The rise of the Roman empire and consequent collapse of its republic offer useful lessons.
Kinzer summarizes the U.S. problem: We cannot promote democracy if it means nations "would begin acting in accordance with their own interests rather than the interests of the United States."
As a corollary, Americans might consider the possibility that some elements of our nation might not tolerate democracy at home if it threatens their interests.
Another corollary: Americans can dreamily accept the myth of a beneficent nation spreading its values only so long as the material wealth flows back to them. Who cares about bloody tragedies and thwarted aspirations of oppressed peoples so long as coffee and gasoline stay cheap?
But what happens when the supranational corporations with their distaste for democracy come knocking on our door? Can we defend our self-interest any better than the Guatemalans, Cubans or Iranians?
Look at the shambles of the social safety network, the political subservience to corporate interests, the high-level corruption and ineptitude in government and business, the "anti-terror" attack on constitutional liberties, the concentration of wealth as wages stagnate. Could these be elements of a neocolonial experience?
Like peasants around the world, we might find ourselves without health care or pensions, with little education and low pay, without power or much hope of a future.
Events suggest that what we have done in the world could come back as a beast slavering over our freedom and wealth.
McGall is an assistant metro editor at the Times.
© 2006 The Contra Costa Times