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Essay: U.S. Foreign Policy: Latin America

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by Nicholas Klar

'On the reefs of roast beef and apple pie, socialistic utopias of every society are sent to their doom'

- Werner Sombert, Why is there no socialism in the U.S?

American foreign policy toward Latin America has been generally justified on the basis of U.S. "national security" interests. This has meant an emphasis on promoting and supporting ‘stable’ governments, a flexible definition of democracy, and until the collapse of the USSR, a war on Soviet influence and expansionism. In this paper we will discuss these contentions, along with the change of emphasis since the end of the Cold War. The conclusion will deal with problems of U.S. policy, and a look forward to expectations of the new Clinton administration.

U.S. policy has gone through what Lowenthal refers to as cycles of concern and neglect. These range from the Alliance for Progress of JFK, to the almost apathy of Nixon/Ford, to the human rights concerns of Carter, to the military solutions of Reagan. At all times the U.S. has sought to keep just enough controlling influence over the states of Latin America, in an effort to prevent change. [Daly Hayes p.619] Much of the policy has been framed by the Truman Doctrine, and the self appointed role of the U.S. as ‘global policeman’.

These cycles helped cause confusion over what exactly were ‘security interests’. Blasier defined them as military threats, which always involved Soviet influence, and access to raw materials. The two top priorities were stability and the exclusion of Soviet influence, which had the effect of dropping democracy down the list. [Blasier pp.525,27,46, also Klare p.408] The U.S. was always used to exemplary cooperation from Latin American dictators. That this was now being challenged was a threat in itself to America. There was, and still often is, no idea of Latin American sovereignty on Capitol Hill.

The world of post WWII was viewed by the Americans as being under threat from communist aggression. Most security crises until the 80’s were linked to international communist threats. [Blasier p.523] The Russians were supposedly intent on destroying everything that America had fought for. Therefore it was up to the U.S., as leader of the free world, to counter Soviet aggression wherever it was needed. The ‘domino theory’ came to prominence, justifying intervention in third world ‘power vacuums’. [Ibid] However, this often led to nationalism being mistaken for communism, and the continued support for many repressive regimes.

The U.S. adopted a ‘two-track’ policy, giving different priorities to large and small countries, particularly in the western hemisphere. The overthrow of Arbenz in Guatemala was to be the benchmark of U.S. policy toward small Latin American states for many years to come. Also important was the role of domestic policy where no president, either Democratic or Republican wanted to be seen as ‘soft’ on Communism. This was still a major point by 1980 when Reagan accused Carter of ‘losing’ Nicaragua. His support for the Contras evoked images of Soviet tanks massing on the Rio Grande.

After the coup in Guatemala the U.S. had to shape policy on how to react to socialist revolution movements in it’s own backyard. The inequality rampant in Latin America was seen as fertile ground for communism. America’s foremost security interest was to ‘...encourage and maintain a compatible political order.’ [Daly Hayes p.621] The Alliance for Progress, and other programs, were therefore seen as essential to protection of American interests at home and abroad. John F. Kennedy wished to promote evolutionary change, not revolutionary. He, and other administrations to follow, did not want ‘anymore Cuba’s’.

Unfortunately this program only strengthened the status quo, which was to exacerbate the problems of the 70’s and 80’s. George Cabot Lodge observed that ‘...the total effect of the Alliance [was] to solidify the status quo, to entrench the oligarchy, and to heighten the obstacles to change.’ [Lowenthal p.214] More coups took place during the 15 years of the AFP than there had ever been previously.

U.S. administrators had thought there was no conflict of interests between those of the U.S. and Latin America. Their thinking was often colored by what Lowenthal refers to as the different ‘Liberal’, ‘Radical’, or ‘Bureaucratic’ perspectives. [Ibid] As stable conditions were needed for foreign investment military rulers, often trained by the U.S., took office forcibly. The poor and dispossessed were quick to see the incompatible interests of themselves, and the ‘Yankee imperialists’.

The ‘Vietnam Syndrome’ led to a pulling back of previous aggressive policy, as the U.S. looked to accommodate the USSR with some kind of detente. This is the policy utterly repudiated by Ronald Reagan, particularly with regard to Central America. Whereas Carter had pursued a policy of ‘containment’ regarding communism, Reagan sought it’s ‘rollback’ through military might. Reagan viewed that the U.S. needed to re-assert it’s credibility, and fight Soviet expansionism. [Blasier pp.553,4]

Control of the Caribbean Basin was strategically vital in this. The Grenada invasion proved the Republicans were prepared to place ‘political bets’ that would win over public support.[Hernandez pp.632,3] As the war in Central America continued, many neighboring states saw the fight as harmful and destabilizing to their own countries. The Contadora initiative was the first time Latin American governments had openly acknowledged that their interests were somewhat different to those of the U.S.

The 70’s and 80’s saw the world changing dramatically. The OPEC oil crisis caused a re-awakening of the developed world to the third world. The debt crisis reared it’s ugly head in Latin America, placing the U.S. under huge economic stress to deal with the problem. America’s support for Britain in the Malvinas/Falklands struggle began a slide of OAS confidence, as the U.S was seen as undependable. To maintain control the Republicans now had to push for the return of forms of civilian government in Latin America. Here the definition of democracy was regarded as very elastic.

Military solutions became less feasible, and the U.S. viewed itself as a mediator, not an aggressor. It helped elect the ‘moderate’ Christiani in El Salvador in an attempt to deal with the FMLN. The Soviets also sought to support efforts for peace in the region. The U.S. public was very concerned about the cost they were paying in Central America. The victory was not coming easily as Reagan had proclaimed it would. Hernandez claims that the opposition in Central America had to use force to enable them to argue from a position of strength. [Hernandez p.639]

As refugees began to filter into the U.S., low cost labor and runaway shops were accused of displacing American jobs. Drugs grown on the hills of Latin America became the main supplier to the failing American inner cities. Latin American policy now became domestic policy. NAFTA and the Drug War were answers to these threats to national interests. Cuba policy, under the influence of CANF, also became domestic policy.

As the ‘lonely’ superpower, the U.S. now views itself even more strongly as ‘world policeman’. But now its enemy is not communism, but instability in the third world that may disrupt the emerging global economy. The U.S. found itself militarily superior in a world that no longer needed its protection. In the intervening years since WWII the U.S. had lost it’s pre-eminent position as an economic power to Europe and Asia, and now had to compete for power in a peaceful world. It attempted to regain prestige through intervention in Panama, Iraq, and Somalia. Despite protestations of ‘humanitarian’ reasons, it was clear that the U.S. was seeking to protect crucial economic interests in the former two states. ‘Democracy’ was used as a tool of interference, as the U.S. has moved policy toward ‘low-intensity warfare’. [Klare p.408]

In conclusion we need to it could be said that the U.S. needs to readjust some of it’s thinking under the new administration. So far it appears that Bill Clinton will not institute much change from the Bush administration.[Burbach p. 1] The new President continues to promote neo-liberal policies that benefit only elites and multi-nationals [Ibid p.10] Perhaps this is verification that U.S. policies only reflect interests of the ruling class in America. This denies the interdependence that the U.S. now shares with Latin America. On Capitol Hill there has been no real idea of state sovereignty, and there needs to be a new respect for Latin America and their political systems. [Blasier p.556] With this there is needed much more diversity in policy, because the needs of the disparate Latin American countries are not the same. [Daly Hayes p.339] The U.S. should be willing to deal with former enemies, particularly Cuba and Nicaragua, in an effort to bolster prosperity in the region. Most importantly America needs to address poverty in it’s neighboring states in a real way, rather than victimizing the refugees who are driven by it to illegally immigrate to the U.S.


C. Blasier "Security: The Extracontinental Dimension" in K.Middlebrook and C.Rico‘The U.S. and Latin America in the 80’s’ Pittsburgh:University Press 1986

R. Burbach ‘Clinton’s Policy’ in NACLA Report on the Americas May 1993

M. Daly Hayes "COMMENT: Security in the Western Hemisphere" in Middlebrook and Rico, Ibid

M. Daly Hayes ‘The U.S. and Latin America: A Lost Decade?’ in Foreign Affairs Vol. 68, #1, 1989 1/6

R. Hernandez "Comment: The United States and Latin America: The Question of Security" in Middlebrook and Rico, Ibid

M. Klare ‘Panama Signals New U.S. Military Mission in Third World’ in Pacific News Service 12.21.89

A. Lowenthal ‘Partners in Conflict’ Baltimore: Hopkins University Press 1987

A.Lowenthal "Liberal, Radical, and Bureaucratic Perspectives on U.S. Latin American Policy: The Alliance for Progress in Retrospect" in Hertfagen ‘Latin America and the U.S.’ Stanford University Press 1974

© 1993-2008, Nicholas Klar, PO Box 280, Brighton SA 5048, AUSTRALIA 

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REF: Nicholas Klar, 1993, "U.S. Foreign Policy: Latin America" - + date accessed


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