In 1823, 5th president of the United States James Monroe outlined the Monroe Doctrine, which “stated that further efforts by European countries to colonize land or interfere with states in the Americas would be viewed as acts of aggression requiring U.S. intervention … The doctrine put forward that the New World and the Old World were to remain distinctly separate spheres of influence, for they were composed of entirely separate and independent nations.”
In 1823 the US drew this line in the sand. Most countries didn’t care because the US was a young country with no power. But later the Monroe Doctrine would shape regional history.
The countries of Latin America were just gaining their independence, so revolutionary leaders including Simon Bolivar and Francisco de Paula Santander embraced Monroe Doctrine with open arms as a key endorsement of their legitimacy.
From Monroe’s speech:
We owe it, therefore, to candor and to the amicable relations existing between the United States and those powers to declare that we should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety. With the existing colonies or dependencies of any European power we have not interfered and shall not interfere. But with the Governments who have declared their independence and maintain it, and whose independence we have, on great consideration and on just principles, acknowledged, we could not view any interposition for the purpose of oppressing them, or controlling in any other manner their destiny, by any European power in any other light than as the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States.
In 1861 France, Spain, and England sent forces into Mexico because the country had suspended debt payments due to bankruptcy. Spain and England quickly left, but France stayed to bring down the government and install a monarchy. The United States was in the heart of its civil war. But as soon as the Civil War ended, President Andrew Johnson sent 50,000 American troops to the Mexican border. “In 1866, the US demanded the French withdraw their forces from Mexico, moved soldiers to positions along the Rio Grande, and set up a naval blockade to prevent French reinforcements from landing” (American perspective). The Mexicans retook their capital and executed the French-appointed emperor. There’s a comment or two on My Ugly American Rant implying that Mexico’s independence from France is partly due to American help. I’m not going to argue either way.
Towards the end of the 19th century, American politicians cited the Monroe Doctrine in arguing for war against Spain to liberate Cuba and Puerto Rico. In the ensuing Spanish-American War, the Americans thumped the Spaniards and gained the respect of the world as a military power. The US also gained Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. In my American history classes, I remember the Spanish-American War for (1) the use of “yellow journalism” to incite public outrage and (2) Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders storming San Juan Hill.
Theodore Roosevelt, one of the most interesting US presidents in history, would later take the Monroe Doctrine in a new direction. In response to the Venezuela Crisis of 1902-1903, in which England, Germany, and Italy blockaded Venezuela over its refusal to pay its debts, Roosevelt added to Monroe Doctrine the Roosevelt Corollary.
This cartoon is actually misleading as to what the Roosevelt Corollary meant. The cartoon depicts Spain (or any European power) trying to muscle in on the Dominican Republic to pay its debt, and Roosevelt not having it. But that’s what the Monroe Doctrine was about before the Roosevelt Corollary.
Roosevelt aimed to preempt having to deal with the Europeans. His amendment to the Monroe Doctrine allowed the US to intervene in mismanaged or incompetent Latin American countries to prevent Europe from coming over in the first place. So this was the first time public policy officially justified intervening in Latin American countries without a European presence being necessary.
This is an astonishingly insulting argument now. But even today many Latin American governments are still corrupt, inefficient, and incompetent. Back then they ran the risk of losing independence for it and Teddy didn’t want to see that.
Just a few decades later the Roosevelt Corollary was effectively repealed by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy. In FDR’s own words:
The American republics to the south of us have been ready always to cooperate with the United States on a basis of equality and mutual respect, but before we inaugurated the good-neighbor policy there was among them resentment and fear because certain administrations in Washington had slighted their national pride and their sovereign rights.
In pursuance of the good-neighbor policy, and because in my younger days I had learned many lessons in the hard school of experience, I state that the United States was opposed definitely to armed intervention.
Read FDR’s whole speech.
The Good Neighbor policy of non-intervention ended with the Cold War. The US conducted covert and non-covert operations in attempts to defeat Soviet-backed or organic socialist movements. The ugliest of these were Iran-Contra and the Guatemala coup.
Recent analysis of Monroe Doctrine isn’t wholly negative. Some criticize the US for moving away from Monroe Doctrine, implying the US doesn’t care about Latin America since the War on Terror and economic emergence of China. Hence the title Forgotten Continent in Michael Reid’s book.
The future of US influence in the region is best summed up by selections from this 2009 The New Republic (the best liberal pub) article, Adios, Monroe Doctrine:
The ouster of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya has provided Latin America with a revelatory moment. Beginning with the Monroe Doctrine–and extending through countless invasions, occupations, and covert operations–Washington has considered the region its backyard. So where was this superpower these past few months, as Honduras hung in the balance? More or less sitting on its hands … For the first time in centuries, the United States doesn’t seem to care much what happens in Latin America.
It has grown increasingly difficult for certain regimes to blame Washington for their failures. From Venezuela to Argentina to Bolivia, populist governments have pursued economic and social policies, as well as geopolitical alliances, that can scarcely help their people. When these policies inevitably fail, these governments won’t be able to replicate the rhetorical trickery of the Cubans or the Sandinistas. They cannot hold Washington responsible for their setbacks. At best, they can argue that the peasants in the Andes are still hungry because of the presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, but that is not an easy sell.
This U.S. stance is also a positive development for symbolic reasons. Too much is made about the imperative for U.S. atonement or humility; they are both overrated. Nonetheless, the United States does carry baggage in the region, and the history of its engagement with Latin America is not a proud one. Breaking with that past, at least by not repeating it, is a good idea and wins points in most quarters of the hemisphere.
While the region has reason to cheer this turn in U.S. policy, it simply can’t afford for the United States to disappear. On matters such as immigration, free trade, and the battle against corruption, almost nothing can be done without U.S. cooperation or leadership.
Economic development in Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America is hardly conceivable, let alone possible, without a significant U.S. contribution, both monetary and conceptual. Building up infrastructure, stabilizing currencies, and establishing effective and transparent antitrust institutions are tasks that countries cannot carry out alone, given their integration with the U.S. economy.
Many of the region’s traditionally anti-interventionist nations–Mexico, Brazil, Argentina–are coming to understand the need to anchor Latin America’s democracy in a strong, intrusive, and detailed legal framework, the same way that free-trade agreements, as well as World Bank and IMF programs, have solidified economic policies that are finally yielding results. The United States must be part of this framework, to coax these countries along and to bestow credibility upon whatever is built.
The end of the era of intervention should be hailed by the region. Washington’s less intrusive presence will broaden the leeway certain governments have and force others to assume their responsibilities. But world events do not seem likely to permit an indefinite U.S. disengagement from the region, nor would that be desirable.