“The Cascading Dominion”: U.S. Regime Change Operations Examined Using the Sand Pile Theory

By Alan C. Cunningham


Regime Change is a topic that generates much discussion in the United States. While most military operations do not begin with the stated goal of overthrowing one’s government, many of those combat operations have the effect of changing a foreign nation’s form of governance. Regime change is defined as “the overthrow of a government considered illegitimate by an external force and its replacement with a new government according to the ideas or interests promoted by that force,”.[i] This type of activity can be performed through regular military and covert operations or come in the form of diplomatic, economic, and political actions. Often, military operations and covert tactics are utilized extensively in certain cases to try and bring about serious change in a foreign land.[ii] Despite the long history of taking on these types of military operations[iii], the U.S. still fails to execute them properly.[iv]

Most operations have short-term success and long-term destabilization of a country overall, as well as, when considering its application by Western powers, promotes an anti-Western narrative that results in a foreign nation that is antagonistic towards the United States for past abuses. By using case studies of individual operations and missions, one is able to see exactly how regime change missions are often poorly conducted and result in disastrous events occurring in the intervened country. A good way to explore these operations as well is by utilizing the Sand Pile Theory, developed by Per Bak, Chao Tang, and Kurt Wiesenfeld.

The Sand Pile Theory and the Definition of Regime Change

The Sand Pile Theory (also called the BTW Experiment) was first theorized by Dr. Per Bak, a Danish theoretical physicist, in the 1980s as a way of understanding how various fields of science (physics, biology, mathematics) experience complexity, further expanding upon this theory in a 1996 book which “extended the concept beyond simple sand piles to other complex systems: earthquakes, financial markets [etc.],”.[v] Naturally, these principles and the theory overall have extreme benefits in learning about the national security structure of the United States and other nation-states.

The sand pile theory is described as, “[imagining] a sand pile formed by dropping grains of sand onto a flat surface and observing the pattern of landslides that inevitably occurred. As the grains of sand accumulate, the angle of repose of the cone-shaped pile increases until reaching a tipping point. Sections of the sand pile would then cascade down the side of the cone, and then the process of buildup and collapse would repeat…When a sand pile reaches a critical state, the addition of a single grain of sand may lead to avalanches of unpredictable size – even extreme avalanches that completely destroy the sand pile,”.[vi]

These grains of sand, too, are instances of instability or some factor that, normally, would not be cause for massive geopolitical change, but are in these instances when a system is under stress. This theory is immensely helpful in determining how regime change operations are planned and executed in addition to determining how successful they are.

To better understand regime change operations, though, the best tactic is to explore military and covert operations that had the express goal of removing a foreign government from power, determining just how the Sand Pile Theory applies and where exactly the grain of sand tipped to cascade and resulted in disastrous consequences for the populace and surrounding region in addition to causing more problems for the United States government. To do this, I will be exploring U.S. intervention in Cuba during the early 20th century (following the 1898 Spanish-American War), the Korean War of the 1950s, and U.S. efforts to change the country of Somalia in the early 1990s. These cases are reflective of U.S. military action in various corners of the globe (Latin American, Asia, and Africa) and all hold forms of covert action and regular military, direct action tactics in reformulating a regime.

U.S. Intervention in Cuba (1898-1959)

America has long been involved in the internal affairs of Cuba. This began in 1898 with the beginnings of the Spanish-American War. Cuba had been a Spanish colony since 1510 and endured years of strife, subjected to Spanish slavery and repression while also trying multiple times to gain their freedoms in the 1800s.[vii] America had long been eyeing Cuba and desired to take hold of the island, becoming more resentful of the Spanish empire as the 1800s progressed.[viii] Eventually, in 1898, tensions boiled over with the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine, an American battleship, killing, “more than 250 of the Maine’s 355 sailors and officers,”.[ix] The public almost automatically believed that the Maine was sunk by either Spanish or Cuban personnel and a U.S. Navy investigation confirmed this (though a more thorough, 1976 investigation found problems with this theory[x]). The end result was war between the U.S. and Spain, with the United States gaining the upper hand in a period of two weeks of actual combat.[xi]

The end result was that an American occupation was put in place, a brutal military dictatorship under the command of Gen. Leonard Wood, and was marked by disease, racism, and famine.[xii] Eventually, the U.S. passed the Platt Amendment in 1903 which provided the United States, “the right to intervene for the preservation of Cuban independence, the maintenance of a government adequate for the protection of life, property and individual liberty,”[xiii] and essentially, “represented a considerable abridgement of Cuban sovereignty,”.[xiv] The military dictatorship ended and was replaced with a puppet government under the control of a series of American backed leaders, each of whom was either corrupt or marred by scandals[xv] and had to deal with rebellions and insurrections that required the American military to reassert their power.[xvi]

In the mid-1930s, Fulgencio Batista, a Sergeant (and later General) in the Cuban military, staged a coup (with U.S. support) and removed the dictatorship then in power before eventually being elected president in 1940 after ruling for a time with puppet administrations.[xvii] His first rule has been described as that of a democratic-socialist and he found support from left-wing members of Cuban society. Upon leaving office in 1944, however, his successors became more repressive and corrupt.[xviii] Taking power again in 1952, his second term as President was more like his successor’s terms, Batista ruling with an iron fist, “controlling [education], the press, and the Congress and he embezzled huge sums from the soaring economy,”[xix] along with executing “thousands of political opponents,”.[xx] This in turn sparked numerous resentments and upsets amongst the Cuban public who, eventually, overthrew Batista being led by Fidel Castro, ushering in a Marxist-Leninist Socialist government.[xxi]

The Sand Pile, as one can see, had been building over time for decades. The multiple wars of independence, the atrocities placed upon Cubans by the Spanish Empire, the Americans denying Cubans the right to be their own country, multiple U.S. invasion forces, a largely U.S. controlled economy, and the installation of puppet and U.S.-backed dictators who abused their positions of authority and were highly corrupt all were grains of sand the built up in the minds of many regular Cuban citizens. However, the final grain of sand seems to be a suicide.

Eduardo Chibás was an influential Cuban political commentator, is widely regarded as an honest politician who saw corruption as the largest issue facing Cuba and was both anti-Communist and anti-American imperialism, making it popular nationwide.[xxii] A Senator in addition to having a weekly radio show, he frequently accused public figures of corruption (oftentimes, these were exaggerated or falsified).[xxiii] In one such August 1951 broadcast, he accused the Minister of Education of embezzling funds, yet was unable to prove his claim. The following broadcast, he went live on the radio and made an impassioned plea before shooting himself with a handgun, dying days later and placing Cuba in a state of mourning.[xxiv]

While odd, it appears that Chibás’ death was the final grain of sand that motivated the Cuban populace towards revolution, removing corruption from their public sector, and ridding themselves of dictatorships. It is known that, in the wake of Chibás’ death, Batista (losing in the polls) performed another coup and took control of the country, installing repressive measures.[xxv] This, in turn, solidified in the minds of many young Cuban students (Chibás’ primary demographic), the working class, and Indigenous peoples that significant change was needed. His suicide in some ways can be seen as a call to arms and many historians view Chibás’ death as a turning point in Cuban history.[xxvi] To quote journalist Richard Gott on Chibas’ death, “[this] marked the end of the era [which began with Batista],”.[xxvii]