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The United States and Latin America from the Monroe Doctrine to the War on Terror
By Grace Livingstone
Zed Books LtdCopyright © 2009 Grace Livingstone
All rights reserved.
The United States' standing in the world was never so low as during the presidency of George Walker Bush (2001–9). The goodwill and sympathy extended to the US after the attacks of 11 September 2001 were squandered. More than at any time in history, the outlook of US leaders was at odds with global opinion. This disjuncture, this divergence of views, was acutely felt in the Americas. Latin America was pulsing with revolt against US-imposed neoliberal economics. The drumbeat of street protest sounded from Brazil to Guatemala – against privatization, spending cuts, job losses, free trade: the agenda of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and big corporations. At its apex, the swell of popular protest was so great that presidents were forced to flee ignominiously from Argentina, Bolivia and Ecuador. A 'pink tide' of progressive governments swept the Americas, promising to reverse decades of miserable poverty and entrenched privilege.
While Latin America swung left, the US was governed by hardline right-wing ideologues. Even conservatives in Latin America felt alienated by an administration whose gaze was fixed on the Middle East and which, after 9/11, paid little attention to Latin America, except to paint it as a haven for criminals, drug smugglers and extremists ready to snake across the border at any time. US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld warned a Summit of the Americas in 2004 of the
terrorists, drug traffickers, hostage takers and criminal gangs ... [who] find shelter in border regions or areas beyond the effective reach of government ... They watch, they probe looking for areas of vulnerability, for weakness and for seams in our collective security.
Meanwhile General John Craddock, Commander of all US forces in South and Central America, spoke of 'under-governed sovereign territory and porous borders' creating an environment conducive to 'threats such as narco terrorism, illicit trafficking, urban gangs [and] organized crime'.
The influential neoconservatives in the Bush administration were hardline right-wingers, but they professed democratic principles. They used the 'war on terror' as a new pretext for intervention in Latin America and tried to associate left-wing presidents with terrorism. They also used the threat of terror to justify an ever growing military involvement in Colombia's counter-insurgency war. The Bush administration revived the scaremongering of the Cold War, but replaced the spectre of communism with 'radical populism', a term it adopted to describe the presidents of Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador: 'Anti-globalization charlatans and the false prophets of populism [who] are trying – and, in some cases, succeeding – to undermine responsible policies and discredit responsible political leaders,' in the words of Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega. It was not only the language that was reminiscent of the past: the Bush administration's support for an attempted coup against Venezuela's president Hugo Chavez in 2002 revived memories of one of the darkest days of the Cold War: General Pinochet's overthrow of elected president Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973. The tool of intervention most frequently used by Bush was the International Republican Institute (IRI), the international arm of the Republican Party (see Chapter 8). The IRI invited to Washington prominent Venezuelan opposition leaders who went on to play a key role in the short-lived coup against Chavez just weeks later; it also gave funds to organizations backing the coup. The IRI also worked with supporters of the old Haitian military regime who were plotting to unseat elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. The chairman of the IRI at that time was John McCain, the Republican Party's candidate for president in the 2008 presidential elections.
The United States has interfered in the affairs of Latin America for more than 180 years: dispatching marines, installing dictators, backing military coups, training repressive armed forces and destabilizing progressive governments. The US regards Latin America as its sphere of influence: a source of land, labour, raw materials and markets. It wants the strategic use of military bases, airstrips and ports throughout the Americas. To achieve its economic and geopolitical aims, the United States has sought pro-market, anti-communist governments. It has traditionally allied itself with Latin America's privileged elites, however reactionary or repressive they have been, and has regarded popular unrest or radical governments as a threat to its economic interests and hemispherical dominance. It has shaped Latin American history, intervening at key moments (Guatemala 1954; Chile 1973; Nicaragua 1979; El Salvador 1979–82), when reformers or revolutionaries were trying to uproot privilege and plant fairer societies. By protecting the rich and powerful, it has helped condemn Latin America to poverty and inequality.
Nowhere was this more evident than in Central America, home to the so-called 'banana republics', named for the disproportionate influence that US fruit companies wielded in these states, usually in collusion with corrupt dictators. When, in the 1980s, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Guatemala and to a lesser extent Honduras were convulsed by broad-based movements for change, US President Ronald Reagan (1981-89) declared, 'there must be no Soviet beachhead in Central America', and unleashed such terror – an illegal mercenary war, CIA airstrikes, the toleration of death squads and massacres, training and arming of repressive militaries – that the memory still haunts those countries now. The depths to which Cold War governments sank to ward off communism or 'maintain stability' are chilling. The totalitarian dictatorships of the Southern Cone (Argentina, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay), which became infamous for the 'disappearance' of thousands of their citizens, had the sympathy of Richard Nixon (1969–74), Gerald Ford (1974–77) and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, the latter telling the Argentine junta soon after the 1976 coup, as details of barbaric torture filtered out, 'We would like you to succeed. I have an old-fashioned view that friends ought to be supported.'
There has been a remarkable degree of continuity in US foreign policy despite the differing outlooks of presidents and their political affiliations. All administrations have had a bottom line: they have sought to defend strong, orderly, capitalist states; democracies if possible, dictatorships if necessary. The Good Neighbor Policy of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933–45) ended an era of repeated direct military intervention, but he relied on 'friendly dictators' in Central America to maintain order. The Alliance for Progress, launched by President John F. Kennedy (1961–63), was an ambitious plan to promote economic development and democracy in the region, but it also had a corresponding 'hard' side which entailed dispatching hundreds of US special forces to train Latin American militaries to combat 'subversives'. Kennedy, in fact, took a personal interest, reading guerrilla manuals to keep up to date with the latest counter-insurgency warfare techniques. Even the 'soft' side of the Alliance for Progress soon disintegrated because the intellectuals who designed it underestimated the resistance of the Latin American upper class to even moderate wealth redistribution, and were also alarmed at the raised expectations of the lower classes. When faced with peasant or labour unrest, which appeared to threaten stability or give the communists a foothold, the governments of Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson (1963–69) chose to tolerate or openly support the old elites. Within two years of the launch of the Alliance for Progress, six coups had taken place in Latin America.
The making of US foreign policy is a complex process and involves numerous actors: the White House, the Pentagon, the intelligence services, Congress and, indirectly, private companies. President Bill Clinton (1993–2001) was a popular figure in Latin America and impressed Latin American intellectuals such as Gabriel García Márquez with his cultured appreciation of Latin American literature. But he allowed the Pentagon and the corporations to shape his policy in Latin America. It was under Clinton's presidency that Plan Colombia, a heavily militarized counter-narcotics campaign, which raised the US military presence in Colombia and embroiled US forces in that country's counter-insurgency war, was launched. Clinton signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and pushed for free trade throughout the Americas. Free trade suited the needs of large US corporations that were trying to compete with cheap imports, particularly from China, in the US domestic market. Corporations needed to use low-wage Latin American labour to manufacture goods which they could then send back to the US duty-free. They also wanted to tear down the barriers to investment as they aggressively sought out new markets for services, driving the privatization of basic amenities such as water and electricity in Latin America.
Clinton may have believed his own rhetoric that increased economic growth and trade would relieve poverty, but if so he underestimated the problems stemming from both the imbalance of power between rich and poor countries, and the deep structural problems within Latin America itself. It is not the poorest region in the world, but it is the most unequal. A minority own most of the wealth, while many more live in shacks on the outskirts of burgeoning cities, subsisting with no formal job, paying no tax and receiving no welfare. As Chapter 10 of this book shows, twenty years of free market economics (neoliberalism) has increased, and not diminished, the proportion of people living in poverty in Latin America.
The extent to which rich countries have shaped (or stunted) the development of poorer countries has been the subject of rich debate in Latin America. In the 1950s, modernization theorists had argued that all nations simply had to reach take-off point to become advanced capitalist economies. Nevertheless, after more than a decade of industrial growth following the Second World War, Latin Americans discovered that they were still reliant on the First World for financing and the most advanced technology. Academics began to investigate the structural barriers to growth and whether the rich countries themselves were responsible for inhibiting Third World development. The economic historian Andre Gunder Frank argued that the rich 'metropolis' devoured the resources of the 'periphery', enriching itself while keeping the poor impoverished. Implicit in this argument is the idea that the metropolis's wealth stems from exploiting poor countries. Critics such as Nigel Harris pointed out that most global trade and investment took place between rich countries, so their wealth could not primarily come from the Third World. He argued that a country's economic status was not static; poor countries were not destined to remain dependent and that many (for example, the Asian economies, Mexico and Brazil) were moving into the First World. Decades later, however, Mexico and Brazil might be industrial giants, home to a sizeable middle class, but the majority of the population still have not reached First World living standards. Much of Mexico's manufacturing industry is made up of maquiladoras (assembly plants), where all of the inputs are imported by foreign companies and simply assembled by the Mexican labour force. Even in powerful Brazil, the most dynamic, high-tech sectors of manufacturing industry are foreign-owned, with the exception of the country's world-class aerospace industry, Embraer.
A more nuanced version of dependency theory was put forward by Fernando Henrique Cardoso and Enzo Faletto in Dependency and Development in Latin America. They argued that long-standing structural problems hindered Latin American economic development and that rich countries tend to reinforce these structural inequalities by allying with the reactionary elites. Poor countries are forever playing catch-up trying to acquire the latest technology, while rich countries use their dominant position to maintain their advantage. It was a sophisticated and dynamic argument that did not set out rigid precepts, but said that the interplay of classes within and between rich and poor countries should be studied.
Dependency theory was associated with the anti-imperialist movements of the 1960s and 1970s, the fidelistas (followers of Fidel Castro), the guerrilla movements, and the left-leaning reformist governments, both democratic (Chile) and military (Peru). Indeed some academics argued that only revolution could break the dependent structures. The popularity of dependency theory declined with the fortunes of the Left. Right-wing totalitarian dictatorships took over most countries, crushing the popular movement, and in the 1980s the debt crisis further drove down living standards, leading to drastically reduced political and economic aspirations. An updated version of modernization theory took hold: 'neoliberalism', the ethos of the free market, vigorously promoted by the United States and embraced as the only realistic solution by many Latin American leaders (including former dependency theorist Cardoso, who became President of Brazil).
Left-wing academic research splintered into a number of avenues; a minority continued to elaborate structural theories (world systems theory, modes of production theory), but the majority, particularly Latin Americanists in the United States, rejected grand narratives and moved the magnifying glass closer to the ground to look at individual social movements, indigenous communities, women's history, and gay issues, with a heavy emphasis on subjective viewpoints, influenced by the schools of postmodernism, cultural theory and post-colonial studies. While these studies have greatly enriched our knowledge of Latin America, there is a danger of losing the sight of the wood for the trees, and the need for an explanatory framework remains.
Dependency theory at its most crude was too rigid and reflected a specific moment in history; nevertheless the emphasis on the international context and the interplay of classes within and between countries was vital. It highlighted the barriers to equitable growth for countries shaped by colonialism and competing in a world where the rules are made by the powerful nations. One only needs to consider the power of US multinationals, the sway of the IMF and World Trade Organization (WTO) or the rich countries' double standards on agricultural subsidies to see that the argument still has relevance today.
In recent years, the neoconservative-led military campaigns in the Middle East, as well as the resurgence of the Left in Latin America in the late 1990s and the 2000s, have led to the re-emergence of the term 'imperialism' in academia, the media and on the political left. But there remains a problem of definition. For some, 'imperialism' refers only to nineteenth-century colonial empire-building, while others simply use it as a loose term for a powerful nation seeking to dominate other countries. Some in the Marxist tradition still adhere to Lenin's thesis that imperialism is the highest stage of capitalism, while others have tried to differentiate between formal imperialism (colonies) and 'informal' imperialism (economic control). In this book, the term 'imperialism' has only been used to describe the US's mid-nineteenth-century territorial expansion and early twentieth-century Rooseveltian policy of repeated military intervention and occupation. I have preferred to use the term 'hegemony', which implies that the US's military, economic and diplomatic power is vastly superior to that of its neighbours and can shape, but not necessarily control, their destinies.
That early period of US imperial expansion brought with it a colonial mentality that the US establishment has never shaken off. Exaggerated fears of what lurks beyond the border have been stoked: from the nineteenth-century terror of 'Latin Indians' to today's panics about drugs gangs and migration. A hundred years ago, eugenicists wrote treatises on the superiority of Anglo-Saxon blood and the innate laziness of the 'Indian'; today Hollywood blockbusters treat us to unshaven corrupt Mexican policemen and gyrating latinos. US leaders chide Latin American politicians as if they were children, exhorting them to act 'responsibly' and 'maturely'. The term 'America's backyard' is an example of this colonial mindset. What is a backyard if not a place where you send the children to play; a wilderness that needs to be tamed; an extension of your property, that you can walk into and out of as freely as you please? The term is, of course, inaccurate: 'America' comprises both the United States and Latin America, as well as Canada and the Caribbean; 'American' describes all inhabitants of the Americas. The usurping of the title 'America' by the United States is symptomatic of an enduring imperial arrogance.
Excerpted from America's Backyard by Grace Livingstone. Copyright © 2009 Grace Livingstone. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
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