U.S.-Latin relations: What if we weren’t Christian?

What if approached our relationship with Latin America from an attitude of focusing on what’s best for the United States, rather than trying to approach it as Christians?

I think we’d start by closing down immigration except to the best and brightest. Some countries use point systems to decide who can immigrate, giving more points for education, skills, language ability, etc. No more tired, poor, huddled masses; give us people who have something to offer.

Military bases would be established in key strategic points, allowing the United States to patrol its “backyard” with freedom.

Democracy in other countries would be tolerated as long as leaders were elected who were willing to work with the United States. Should leftist, reform-minded individuals be elected, steps should be taken for their removal, be it through political or military means.

And… you get my drift. Lots of things change if you don’t worry about what’s right, but just think about what’s best for you. Unfortunately, many foreign policy decisions in the past have been made on just such a basis. Not all. There have been honest attempts to help Latin nations advance. Not surprisingly, however, many of these efforts have been viewed with distrust. How do you know if that relief worker or missionary isn’t really a CIA operative seeking to gain access to inside information about your country?

Leaving the hypothetical question, let’s go to the concrete one: since most, if not all, of my readers ARE Christians, what sort of policies should we seek for the treatment of Latin America and its people?

U.S.-Latin relations: What does the past mean?

Let’s try and pick up this series which is begging to be concluded. What’s the point of all of the Latin American history? What does it have to do with any of the topics normally discussed on this blog?

The United States became the dominant player in the Americas during the 19th century. This position has been challenged a time or two, but no outside power has been able to exert real influence in the region for almost two hundred years. (The Soviet Union’s toehold in the region, Cuba, cost them far more than they ever got in return. One of my professors used to say, “People say the U.S. can’t afford another Cuba. Trust me, the Soviet Union can’t afford another Cuba.”)

During this period of dominance, the United States has seen fit to involve itself in the internal affairs of other countries in various ways. There has been outright occupation. There have been U.S.-supported political campaigns and U.S.-supported coups. There have been wars financed by U.S. businesses, and “filibusters” from the U.S. who waged war in Latin America. In myriad ways, the U.S has shaped the fortunes, and the economies, of Latin American countries.

It is therefore quite disingenuous for any U.S. policy makers to pretend that we bear no responsibility for the current state of affairs south of our border. While it may be in the best interests of the United States to let Latinos clean up the mess in their own countries, there is nothing right nor just about it.

We need to be aware of this past in order to understand what’s going on today. We need to be aware of this past in order to comprehend the general animosity that exists in Latin America (and much of the world) toward the U.S. government. We need this awareness to understand why countries distrust offers of aid and even look suspiciously at evangelistic efforts originating in the U.S.

As I repeated last week, trying to whitewash the past does none of us any good. It’s better to accept what’s happened and use that understanding to try and make the world a more just place going forward.

U.S.-Latin Relations: Military interventions, another look

Yesterday I was guilty of what journalists call “burying the lede.” The most important information I wanted to present got put at the end of one of my lengthier, and more opinionated, posts. Not sure how many made it to the end.

So let me present the evidence again about U.S. military intervention in Latin America, by country this time:

  • Argentina: Troops sent in 1890
  • Chile: Marines fought Chilean rebels in 1891; CIA-backed coup in 1973, dictator installed who kills tens of thousands
  • Costa Rica: Troops sent in 1921
  • Cuba: Guantanamo Bay occupied from 1903 until the present; troops sent to oversee elections from 1906-1909; troops sent in 1912; occupied from 1917-1933; unsuccessful CIA-backed invasion in 1961; blockade since 1962; multiple assassination attempts against Cuban president from 1960 until the present
  • Dominican Republic: Troops sent during revolution in 1903; warships attack rebels in 1914; occupied from 1916-1924; marines land during campaign in 1965-1966
  • El Salvador: Warships sent during 1932 revolution; soldiers aid in civil war from 1981-1992, tens of thousands killed
  • Grenada: Invasion in 1983, occupation until next year
  • Guatemala: two-week intervention in 1920; CIA-backed coup in 1954, installing dictator who killed tens of thousands; Green Berets fight rebels in 1966-67
  • Haiti: Troops put down workers’ revolt in 1891; occupied from 1914-1934; blockade and troops restore President Aristide in 1994-1995; troops sent in 2004
  • Honduras: Marines intervened during revolution in 1903; troops sent in 1907; troops sent in 1911; troops sent in 1912; marines land during election campaign; two troop landings during elections in 1924 and 1925; military bases train fighters near Nicaragua border from 1982-1990
  • Mexico: Multiple interventions between 1914 and 1918
  • Nicaragua: Month-long occupation in 1894; troops sent in 1896; troops sent in 1898 and 1899; protectorate set up in 1907; marines sent in 1910; occupied from 1912-1933; U.S. supports rebels during revolt from 1981-90, tens of thousands killed
  • Panama: Troops sent in 1895 plus warships off the coast; troops intervene in election in 1908; marines sent during election in 1912; “police duty” from 1918-1920; troops sent in 1921; marines suppress strikers in 1925; troops kill Panamanian protesters in 1964; U.S. troops aid in ousting Panamanian president in 1989.
  • Puerto Rico: Occupied from 1898 until the present
  • Uruguay: Bombers deployed with nuclear threat in 1947

We haven’t had a foreign military intervention in about 200 years, so it’s hard to imagine what it’s like to have foreign troops walking down the streets of your city. It’s hard to imagine having outsiders say, “No, we don’t like your election results; we’re taking over.” Try to put yourselves in their shoes.

Full chart can be found at History of U.S. Interventions in Latin America

U.S.-Latin Relations: Military interventions

This series has gone long enough that we risk losing the focus. I was going to take more time with this point, but maybe it will have more impact if I lay it out in one single post.

In the 20th century, the United States declared Latin America to be its “backyard,” claiming the right to not only defend against external powers but also to intervene in the internal affairs of Latin countries. This was done to preserve U.S. “interests.” In the first half of the 20th century, that usually meant protecting U.S. business interests. In the second half, it focused more on the Cold War, fighting against any movements that could be seen as favoring the Soviet bloc. Unfortunately, this more often than not found the United States fighting against democracy… in the name of democracy.

Racism played a big role in all of this. U.S. political cartoons typically portrayed Latinos as “poor black Sambos” needing guidance from kindly Uncle Sam. It was the white man’s burden to lead these people in the direction they needed to go. Orville Platt, author of the infamous Platt Amendment we saw earlier, said of the Cubans: “In many respects they are like children.” Since Washington considered that Latinos were incapable of governing themselves properly, there was no need to respect democratic elections, treaties, sovereignty nor the like; Uncle Sam knows best.

We saw earlier the words of Juan Gualberto Gómez, specifically referring to Cuba, but effectively summarizing what would happen throughout Latin America in the 20th Century:

To reserve to the United States the faculty of deciding for themselves when independence is menaced, and when, therefore, they ought to intervene to preserve it, is equivalent to delivering up the key of our house, so that they can enter it at all hours, when the desire takes them, day or night, with intentions good or ill. If it belongs to the United States to determine what Cuban government merits the qualification ‘adequate’… only those Cuban governments will live which count on its support and benevolence.

Gómez’ words rang true as the United States intervened in Latin America time and again, typically choosing big business over workers rights, tyrants over democratic movements and, above all, the good of the United States over the good of the countries affected.

Here’s a partial list of what went on:

History of U.S. Interventions in Latin America (compiled by Marc Becker)

Location Period Type of Force Comments on U.S.
Role
Argentina 1890 Troops Buenos Aires interests
protected
Chile 1891 Troops Marines clash with
nationalist rebels
Haiti 1891 Troops Black workers revolt
on U.S.-claimed
Navassa Island
defeated
Nicaragua 1894 Troops Month-long
occupation of
Bluefields
Panama 1895 Naval, troops Marines land in
Colombian province
Nicaragua 1896 Troops Marines land in port
of Corinto
Cuba 1898- Naval, troops Seized from Spain,
U.S. still holds Navy
base at Guantanamo
Puerto Rico 1898- Naval, troops Seized from Spain,
occupation continues
Nicaragua 1898 Troops Marines land at port
of San Juan del Sur
Nicaragua 1899 Troops Marines land at port
of Bluefields
Honduras 1903 Troops Marines intervene in
revolution
Dominican Republic 1903-04 Troops U.S. interests
protected in
Revolution
Cuba 1906-09 Troops Marines land in
democratic election
Nicaragua 1907 Troops “Dollar Diplomacy”
protectorate set up
Honduras 1907 Troops Marines land during
war with Nicaragua
Panama 1908 Troops Marines intervene in
election contest
Nicaragua 1910 Troops Marines land in
Bluefields and Corinto
Honduras 1911 Troops U.S. interests
protected in civil war
Cuba 1912 Troops U.S. interests
protected in Havana
Panama 1912 Troops Marines land during
heated election
Honduras 1912 Troops Marines protect U.S.
economic interests
Nicaragua 1912-33 Troops, bombing 20-year occupation,
fought guerrillas
Mexico 1913 Naval Americans evacuated
during revolution
Dominican Republic 1914 Naval Fight with rebels over
Santo Domingo
Mexico 1914-18 Naval, troops Series of interventions
against nationalists
Haiti 1914-34 Troops, bombing 19-year occupation
after revolts
Dominican Republic 1916-24 Troops 8-year Marine
occupation
Cuba 1917-33 Troops Military occupation,
economic protectorate
Panama 1918-20 Troops “Police duty” during
unrest after elections
Honduras 1919 Troops Marines land during
election campaign
Guatemala 1920 Troops 2-week intervention
against unionists
Costa Rica 1921 Troops
Panama 1921 Troops
Honduras 1924-25 Troops Landed twice during
election strife
Panama 1925 Troops Marines suppress
general strike
El Salvador 1932 Naval Warships sent during
Faribundo Marti
revolt
Uruguay 1947 Nuclear threat Bombers deployed as
show of strength
Puerto Rico 1950 Command operation Independence
rebellion crushed in
Ponce
Guatemala 1954-? Command operation,
bombing, nuclear
threat
CIA directs exile
invasion and coup
d’Etat after newly
elected government
nationalizes unused
U.S.’s United Fruit
Company lands;
bombers based in
Nicaragua; long-term
result: 200,000
murdered
Panama 1958 Troops Flag protests erupt
into confrontation
Cuba 1961 Command operation CIA-directed exile
invasion fails
Cuba 1962 Nuclear threat, naval Blockade during
missile crisis; near-war with Soviet Union
Panama 1964 Troops Panamanians shot for
urging canal’s return
Dominican Republic 1965-66 Troops, bombing Marines land during
election campaign
Guatemala 1966-67 Command operation Green Berets
intervene against
rebels
Chile 1973 Command operation CIA-backed coup
ousts democratically
elected Marxist
president
El Salvador 1981-92 Command operation,
troops
Advisors, overflights
aid anti-rebel war,
soldiers briefly
involved in hostage
clash; long-term
result: 75,000
murdered and
destruction of popular
movement
Nicaragua 1981-90 Command operation,
naval
CIA directs exile
(Contra) invasions,
plants harbor mines
against revolution;
result: 50,000
murdered
Honduras 1982-90 Troops Maneuvers help build
bases near borders
Grenada 1983-84 Troops, bombing Invasion four years
after revolution
Bolivia 1987 Troops Army assists raids on
cocaine region
Panama 1989 Troops, bombing Nationalist
government ousted by
27,000 soldiers,
leaders arrested,
2000+ killed
Haiti 1994-95 Troops, naval Blockade against
military government;
troops restore
President Aristide to
office three years after
coup
Venezuela 2002 Command operation Failed coup attempt to remove left-populist president Hugo Chavez
Haiti 2004- Troops Removal of democratically elected President Aristide; troops occupy country

U.S.-Latin relations: The neocolonial period

Continuing our look at Latin American history, I want to touch on a period that didn’t directly involve the United States, except through companies like United Fruit Company. The half-century from 1880 until 1930 was what was known as the neocolonial period in Latin America. As the industrial revolution transformed Europe and the United States, the new Latin American countries chose not to industrialize. At least, those governing made such choices. There was far more money to be made by selling goods to the industrialized countries: coffee, sugar, rubber, wheat, beef, minerals, and, of course, bananas.

Who benefitted from this practice? Large landowners and urban merchants. The average person gained nothing from this “progress.” As we saw in the article “Why Can’t People Feed Themselves,” colonialism destroyed the means by which native populations could sustain themselves. Neocolonialism followed the same path. Railroads displaced small farmers, who found themselves forced to work for the large landowners. Governments supported and subsidized the growing of “cash crops,” rather than the production of food for the people. Large corporations kept wages low and working conditions inhumane. The rich grew richer and the poor grew poorer.

As large landowners made their money via exports, they spent that money in the cities. Latin America’s population began to move to the cities; there just wasn’t a way to make a living in rural areas. The only way to survive was to work on one of the large plantations, but that was subsistence level at best.

For those in power, the neocolonial period was a wonderful time. For the bulk of the population, it meant a new form of servitude. Instead of serving foreign powers, they were now under the rich and powerful from their own country.