The national anthem declares that the United States of America is “the land of the free” – but historically the U.S. has not solely put its mighty power behind worldwide democratic leaders. Indeed, America has backed many ruthless autocrats and military regimes, particularly when they’ve served its financial and strategic interests during the period in question. Here, then, are 20 examples of times when the U.S. installed, backed or otherwise aided the most brutal dictators in history.
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20. Fulgencio Batista
In 1952 Fulgencio Batista gained power in Cuba for a second time – on this occasion via an illegal military coup. The U.S. was happy to have him in place, too, though his six-year dictatorship was understandably unpopular due to its corruption and secret police terror. The White House withdrew its support in late 1958, just before the Fidel Castro-led Cuban Revolution deposed Batista.
19. Augusto Pinochet
In September 1973 then-military commander-in-chief Augusto Pinochet seized total power in Chile when his U.S.-encouraged junta ejected the socialist president Salvador Allende – a dark day known as the “other 9/11.” In excess of 3,000 Allende followers were ultimately murdered or “vanished,” while an untold number were persecuted or banished. The U.S. turned on Pinochet in 1986, and he stepped down as president in 1990.
18. Manuel Noriega
The de facto ruler of Panama from 1983 to 1989, General Manuel Noriega was a significant U.S. partner for almost half a century. He was a CIA informant in the 1950s and during his rule aided the U.S.’ support of the Contras. However, by 1989 Noriega had become too disobedient and openly brutal for Washington and was overthrown by a U.S. invasion.
Indonesian tyrant Suharto presided over the murder and torture of at least half a million citizens during his horrendous three-decades-long reign. Suharto seized power in a bloody coup in 1965, aided and encouraged by the U.S., U.K. and Australia – countries whose business interests received access to a great abundance of natural resources. The despot was ejected from office in 1998 and died in 2008.
16. Anastasio Somoza García
In 1936 Anastasio Somoza García led Nicaragua’s National Guard in a coup that saw him ultimately seize control of the country. His two decades of U.S.-supported anti-communist rule saw political opponents exiled and the dictator enrich himself at the expense of his people. Somoza’s two sons were also dictators of the Central American country after their father’s assassination in 1956.
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15. Hugo Banzer
Hugo Banzer took power in Bolivia in a 1971 coup that ousted a U.S.-worrying leader. Banzer’s brutal seven-year presidency received American military support, and yet the regime was responsible for in excess of 400 deaths. This tyrant was himself overthrown in 1978, although he was voted in as president in 1997. He died of cancer in 2002.
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14. Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi
Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi was installed as Shah – or king – of Iran by U.S. and U.K. forces in both 1941 and 1953. The reason for this was that Mohammad Reza was a pro-Western autocrat – and he allowed foreign interests in Iranian oil to benefit. His Westernization regime, backed by the secret police, was deposed by the Islamic Revolution in 1979.
13. Georgios Papadopoulos
The leader of a military coup that took power in Greece in April 1967, Georgios Papadopoulos endeared himself to Washington with his fierce anti-communism – and the fact that he worked for the CIA. His government, though, routinely suppressed free speech and oversaw the murder of numerous student protesters. Papadopoulos was overthrown in 1974.
12. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq
In 1977 Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq took power in Pakistan in a nonviolent coup, ruling as president between 1978 and 1988. Zia-ul-Haq executed the outgoing prime minister in 1979, and Pakistan was a one-party country with martial law in place for much of his rule. In the late ’70s he used U.S. money to grow his army in the face of Soviet aggression.
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11. Ferdinand Marcos
Ferdinand Marcos was the ruthless and hated dictator of the Philippines from 1965 to 1986. Moreover, despite the despot declaring martial law in 1972 and overseeing an administration rife with corruption, several U.S. governments supported him, largely because of important Philippines-based American military bases and Marcos’ anti-communist position. He finally stepped down amid widespread discontent.
10. Humberto de Alencar Castelo Branco
In 1964 Marshal Humberto de Alencar Castelo Branco came to power in Brazil by way of a U.S.-backed military coup. Indeed, he was firmly in the U.S.’ corner with his pro-alignment and anti-communism policies and received monetary support in return. Yet his three years of undemocratic rule set the template for the next 18 years of Brazil’s harsh political repression.
9. Jorge Rafael Videla
The atrocious Jorge Rafael Videla was the president of Argentina from 1976 to 1981 and is remembered for his regime’s “dirty war” – essentially the abduction, persecution and often murder of political dissidents and opponents. Still, Ronald Reagan saw Argentina as an “important” ally and as president cooperated with the anti-left Videla in the training of the Contras.
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8. Syngman Rhee
Syngman Rhee had worked extensively in the political scene in the U.S. before he was voted in as Korea’s inaugural president in 1948, taking over from the U.S. military. But by 1950 Rhee had grown to be increasingly autocratic, particularly after communist North Korea invaded. A rigged election, a quashed student uprising and martial law further sullied his reputation.
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7. Hamad bin Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa
The current King of Bahrain, Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa is a descendent of the long-ruling Al Khalifa dynasty, which has held power in the country since 1783. Al Khalifa is a tactical partner of the United States in the Gulf region, yet his reign since 2002 has nonetheless administered violent repression of anti-monarchy activists.
6. Mobutu Sese Seko
Mobutu Sese Seko was the crooked if colorful leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo – which he renamed Zaire in 1971 – for 31 years following a coup in 1965. This despot pilfered roughly $5 billion from his country’s economy while routing opposition and watching infrastructure fail. U.S. president Ronald Reagan, however, labeled him “a voice of good sense and will.”
5. Nguyen Cao Ky
Flashy anti-communist figure Nguyen Cao Ky was supported by the United States during his South Vietnam military dictatorship stretching from 1965 to 1967. Indeed, American finances had helped Ky swell his forces to around 10,000, and according to The New York Times , he “ruled South Vietnam with an iron fist.”
4. Islam Karimov
Islam Karimov has held the position of president of Uzbekistan since 1990. He’s also been derided by human rights and democracy advocates as an authoritarian whose government suppresses, tortures and exiles political opponents while heavily impeding civil liberties. Still, for the four years following 9/11 the U.S. supported and financed the country, as it was a strategic ally.
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3. King Abdullah
King Abdullah enjoyed support from the U.S. in the wake of 9/11, with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia representing a significant base from which to launch war on Afghanistan and Iraq. Abdullah formally became the monarch there in 2005; it was a human rights-abusing tenure that oversaw beheadings and the imprisonment of anti-government activists and lasted until his death in 2015.
2. Efraín Ríos Montt
In 1982 U.S. president Ronald Reagan claimed that Efraín Ríos Montt was “a man of great personal integrity.” However, Ríos Montt has been accused of having overseen the deaths of around 2,000 indigenous Maya during his brief dictatorship of Guatemala lasting from 1982 to 1983. As of July 2015, the 89-year-old Ríos Montt was deemed mentally unable to stand trial for his alleged crimes.
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1. Saddam Hussein
Saddam Hussein was the formal ruler of Iraq from 1979 to 2003 – the year in which an invading U.S. military deposed his brutal regime. Yet Washington had aided Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War, and a 1988 U.S. national security order said that staying close to Hussein “would serve [their] longer-term interests.” This was six years after Hussein had ordered the murder of 148 Shi’ites.