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)

LocationPeriodType of ForceComments on U.S.
Argentina1890TroopsBuenos Aires interests
Chile1891TroopsMarines clash with
nationalist rebels
Haiti1891TroopsBlack workers revolt
on U.S.-claimed
Navassa Island
occupation of
Panama1895Naval, troopsMarines land in
Colombian province
Nicaragua1896TroopsMarines land in port
of Corinto
Cuba1898-Naval, troopsSeized from Spain,
U.S. still holds Navy
base at Guantanamo
Puerto Rico1898-Naval, troopsSeized from Spain,
occupation continues
Nicaragua1898TroopsMarines land at port
of San Juan del Sur
Nicaragua1899TroopsMarines land at port
of Bluefields
Honduras1903TroopsMarines intervene in
Dominican Republic1903-04TroopsU.S. interests
protected in
Cuba1906-09TroopsMarines land in
democratic election
Nicaragua1907Troops“Dollar Diplomacy”
protectorate set up
Honduras1907TroopsMarines land during
war with Nicaragua
Panama1908TroopsMarines intervene in
election contest
Nicaragua1910TroopsMarines land in
Bluefields and Corinto
Honduras1911TroopsU.S. interests
protected in civil war
Cuba1912TroopsU.S. interests
protected in Havana
Panama1912TroopsMarines land during
heated election
Honduras1912TroopsMarines protect U.S.
economic interests
Nicaragua1912-33Troops, bombing20-year occupation,
fought guerrillas
Mexico1913NavalAmericans evacuated
during revolution
Dominican Republic1914NavalFight with rebels over
Santo Domingo
Mexico1914-18Naval, troopsSeries of interventions
against nationalists
Haiti1914-34Troops, bombing19-year occupation
after revolts
Dominican Republic1916-24Troops8-year Marine
Cuba1917-33TroopsMilitary occupation,
economic protectorate
Panama1918-20Troops“Police duty” during
unrest after elections
Honduras1919TroopsMarines land during
election campaign
Guatemala1920Troops2-week intervention
against unionists
Costa Rica1921Troops
Honduras1924-25TroopsLanded twice during
election strife
Panama1925TroopsMarines suppress
general strike
El Salvador1932NavalWarships sent during
Faribundo Marti
Uruguay1947Nuclear threatBombers deployed as
show of strength
Puerto Rico1950Command operationIndependence
rebellion crushed in
Guatemala1954-?Command operation,
bombing, nuclear
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
Panama1958TroopsFlag protests erupt
into confrontation
Cuba1961Command operationCIA-directed exile
invasion fails
Cuba1962Nuclear threat, navalBlockade during
missile crisis; near-war with Soviet Union
Panama1964TroopsPanamanians shot for
urging canal’s return
Dominican Republic1965-66Troops, bombingMarines land during
election campaign
Guatemala1966-67Command operationGreen Berets
intervene against
Chile1973Command operationCIA-backed coup
ousts democratically
elected Marxist
El Salvador1981-92Command operation,
Advisors, overflights
aid anti-rebel war,
soldiers briefly
involved in hostage
clash; long-term
result: 75,000
murdered and
destruction of popular
Nicaragua1981-90Command operation,
CIA directs exile
(Contra) invasions,
plants harbor mines
against revolution;
result: 50,000
Honduras1982-90TroopsManeuvers help build
bases near borders
Grenada1983-84Troops, bombingInvasion four years
after revolution
Bolivia1987TroopsArmy assists raids on
cocaine region
Panama1989Troops, bombingNationalist
government ousted by
27,000 soldiers,
leaders arrested,
2000+ killed
Haiti1994-95Troops, navalBlockade against
military government;
troops restore
President Aristide to
office three years after
Venezuela2002Command operationFailed coup attempt to remove left-populist president Hugo Chavez
Haiti2004-TroopsRemoval 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.