In watching events unfold in Egypt, and Mubarak fleeing, from Cairo at least, I can’t get the Clash’s Sandinista out of my head, that great album released in late 1980, where one song after another predicted a global wave of true democracy washing away the world’s dictators, warlords and petty fascists, none better than “Washington Bullets”: 

Oh! Mama, Mama look there!
Your children are playing in that street again
Don’t you know what happened down there?
A youth of fourteen got shot down there
The Kokane guns of Jamdown Town
The killing clowns, the blood money men
Are shooting those Washington bullets again

As every cell in Chile will tell
The cries of the tortured men
Remember Allende, and the days before,
Before the army came
Please remember Victor Jara,
In the Santiago Stadium,
Es verdad—those Washington Bullets again

And in the Bay of Pigs in 1961,
Havana fought the playboy in the Cuban sun,
For Castro is a colour,
Is a redder than red,
Those Washington bullets want Castro dead
For Castro is the colour…
…That will earn you a spray of lead

For the very first time ever,
When they had a revolution in Nicaragua,
There was no interference from America
Human rights in America

Well the people fought the leader,
And up he flew…
With no Washington bullets what else could he do?

‘N’ if you can find a Afghan rebel
That the Moscow bullets missed
Ask him what he thinks of voting Communist…
…Ask the Dalai Lama in the hills of Tibet,
How many monks did the Chinese get?
In a war-torn swamp stop any mercenary,
‘N’ check the British bullets in his armoury
Que? Sandinista!

Twentieth-century Latin America has seen its share of US supported strongmen topple by popular uprisings—Jorge Ubico in Guatemala in 1944, Marcos Pérez Jiménez in Venezuela in 1958, Batista in Cuba 1959, and Somoza in Nicaragua 1979, among others.   

The standard narrative then, as it is now re Egypt, is of an anxious US administration watching “history unfold,” as Obama put it yesterday, while worrying that the revolution would radicalize. This fretting is deeply ingrained in US political culture, for at least since the guillotine relieved Louis XVI of his head in 1793, one key element of American exceptionalism is that only the United Sattes knows how to have a responsible revolution, knows where to draw the line to prevent the radicals—be they Jacobins, the Bolsheviks, the Castro brothers, the Sandinistas, the Mullahs or now the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt—from coming to power and betraying the promise of democracy.

What’s missing of course from this narrative is the US role in making radicalization and militancy inevitable.   

In Guatemala, a decade after the democrat revolution, the US coup (carried out by Frank Wisner Sr, the father of the would-be US envoy to Egypt), kicked off a nearly four-decade civil war that resulted in genocide. In Cuba (as Lars Schoultz shows in his excellent new book, That Infernal Little Republic), Washington’s refusal to accept the fact that Cubans took the ideal of sovereignty seriously drove political polarization and anger. It didn’t help that the United States, even before the infamous Bay of Pigs invasion, supported a campaign of terrorism against the island. In Nicaragua, whatever “antidemocratic” currents existed in the revolutionary coalition were sure to be reinforced by the illegal war waged by the most powerful nation in world history on a desperately poor country of a few million people (the Clash was overly optimistic, to put it mildly).      

Less well known is Venezuela 1958. It’s doubtful that Vice President Joe Biden, after his imprudent remarks supporting Mubarak, will be visiting Egypt anytime soon. But in 1958, shortly after Venezuelans overthrew a US-backed dictator, Eisenhower’s vice president, Richard Nixon, took a tour of Latin America, with Caracas his last stop. There, he and his wife Pat were spit on, stoned, his car was stomped on, and the Nixons came close to being killed by a crowd angry not just at the long US support of Pérez Jiménez but because Washington had granted political asylum to many of the old regime’s torturers.  

Check out this You Tube newsreel of Nixon’s near-escape. This was the first time that the US media depicted the serious foreign-policy criticisms driving third world nationalism as a mass and irrational “anti-Americanism”—an early expression of George W. Bush’s insistence that “they hate us because we are free.”  Those Washington Bullets are never mentioned.