President Barack Obama could swiftly improve
U.S. relations with Latin America by announcing the death of the Monroe Doctrine
and then presiding over its funeral. Such a statement would cost him little
domestically and win him praise and appreciation throughout Latin America and
much of the world.
Most Americans don't know the details of this 185-year-old policy and couldn't
care less about it. Latin Americans, in contrast, can not only describe the
Monroe Doctrine, they revile it. In effect, it has become nothing more than
hollow rhetoric that offends the very people it purports to defend.
In 1823, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams wrote, and President James Monroe
proclaimed, a doctrine that asserted the U.S.' political character is different
from Europe's. The United States, President Monroe declared, would consider
the extension of Europe's monarchical political influence into the New World
"as dangerous to our peace and safety." European powers should leave the Americas
for the Americans, he warned, and he strongly implied that there existed a
U.S. sphere of influence south of the border.
At the time, Europe shrugged. After all, the United States possessed neither
a formidable army nor navy. But three serious problems fundamentally vitiated
this apparently noble gesture to protect newly independent republics in South
America from European re-colonization.
First, Washington proclaimed it unilaterally. Latin Americans didn't ask us
for protection. U.S. diplomats didn't even consult their counterparts. That
was ironic, since the doctrine's "protection" involved placing the United States
between Latin American countries and supposedly malevolent European states.
Second, its paternalism – the claim that "our southern brethren" lack the
ability to defend themselves – raises hackles in Latin America. Even if the
implication had some validity at one time, it no longer corresponds to the
The third and most problematic issue Obama faces from the outmoded doctrine
relates to its legacy. For more than a century, the United States has periodically
intervened in the domestic affairs of Latin American countries. Typically the
United States invoked the Monroe Doctrine – without threats from Europe – to
justify self-serving intrusions that have inflicted heavy damage on Latin American
dignity and sovereignty.
Under President Theodore Roosevelt, the doctrine
stood for the informal colonization of most "independent" Caribbean Basin countries.
The so-called Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine claimed Washington's
right to preemptively intervene and occupy a Latin American nation, even if
no European power had yet threatened to impose its power there. Roosevelt asserted
that by virtue of going into debt to a European bank, a Latin American country
weakened itself sufficiently to be vulnerable to re-colonization. Ergo, anticipatory
military intervention became a necessity from 1900 to 1933.
U.S. troops invaded Colombia in 1901 and 1902; Honduras in 1903, 1907, and
1911; and the Dominican Republic in 1903, 1904, 1914, and 1916, occupying the
island nation until 1924. U.S. troops landed in Nicaragua on multiple occasions,
occupying it for some 20 years, and occupied Cuba for three years (1906-1909)
and Haiti for 20 years. U.S. forces also made incursions into Mexico, Panama,
Guatemala, and Costa Rica.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower used the doctrine in 1954 to justify the overthrow
of a democratically elected government in Guatemala. President John F. Kennedy
embraced it from 1961 to 1963 in attacking Cuba, and President Lyndon B. Johnson
raised its banner in 1965 when he sent 23,000 Marines into the Dominican Republic
in support of generals who tyrannically governed the country over the next
13 years. President Ronald Reagan said it was the basis for the CIA wars he
pursued in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala, during which more than 200,000
Central Americans died, as well as the U.S. attack on Grenada.
For these historic reasons, "Monroeism" carries a deeply negative meaning
in Latin America and the Caribbean. Throughout the region, the mere mention
of the Monroe Doctrine hints at impending U.S. aggression.
Nearly two decades after the Cold War's demise, U.S. policy elites still cling
to this doctrine as an axiom of U.S. policy. In recent years they added as
the latest corollary a demand that Latin American governments adopt neoliberal
economics. No wonder Latin Americans have elected leaders – in Argentina, Brazil,
Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Guatemala, Honduras, Uruguay,
and Venezuela – who repudiated not only the doctrine's implied hegemony, but
the economic rules that accompany it today. Notably, not one Western hemispheric
country supported the United States in October, when the UN General Assembly
voted 185-3 to end the U.S. embargo against Cuba.
The Ballots Did It
Over the last decade, citizens in Venezuela,
Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and other Central American
nations have declared their opposition to U.S.-backed neoliberal economic policies
and voted for candidates who eschew the notion of perpetual U.S. hegemony.
Ballots, ultimately, killed the doctrine. This new wave of leaders is challenging
U.S. supremacy. Last year, Bolivian President Evo
Morales did what would have been unthinkable two decades ago: He evicted
the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. Ecuador
has kicked out a U.S. military base.
Most Latin American nations now defy the United States on some major policy.
Chile and Mexico, both Security Council Members, voted against Washington when
the key UN resolution arose that would have sanctioned Bush's invasion of Iraq.
And U.S. influence has been further eroded by the stronger diplomatic, economic,
and military ties with China, Russia, and Iran that several countries in the
region are developing.
Given the facts, President Obama should announce as soon as possible – and
no later than the mid-April Summit of the Americas in Trinidad that he's slated
to attend – that the Monroe Doctrine is dead and buried. This move could
serve as a rhetorical catalyst for developing real partnerships that acknowledge
Latin America's new status. Only the funeral of this 19th-century canon will
enable the United States to birth a healthy policy.
Reprinted courtesy of Foreign Policy in