Moving into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, however, the two regions' commonality has significantly diverged. Latin America's political pendulum has swung between authoritarianism and democracy. North America's political system, in general, has remained stable and become gradually more egalitarian. In economic terms, during its colonial era Latin America was the wealthier region; however, with the industrialization of the late nineteenth century, North America quickly surpassed its southern neighbors.
The first major U.S. foreign policy pronouncement regarding Latin America was the Monroe Doctrine (1823), which declared the Western Hemisphere off-limits to further European colonialism. Viewed by many as a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy, the doctrine was cast in negative terms, emphasizing what outside powers could not do in the Western Hemisphere. But it was nonetheless reinterpreted by subsequent U.S. leaders in more proactive terms, providing justification for U.S. intervention in Latin American affairs. A second turning point occurred in the 1880s, when American officials, most notably Secretary of State James G. Blaine, called for increased economic cooperation between the two regions.
Increasing U.S. investments in Latin America spawned anti-American sentiments. U.S. military intervention, and later cultural imperialism, confirmed the worst fears of the Latin American nationalists south of the Rio Grande River. Nineteenth-century military intervention, with only one major exception (the U.S. intervention in Brazil in 1893), was confined to the Caribbean region. Washington employed its military forces first in the brief Spanish-American War of 1898. By 1903 the United States had offered support to rebels in Panama (then a renegade province of Colombia), which they accepted, helping them to achieve independence from the South American nation. This also facilitated the construction of the Panama Canal, a U.S. project.
During the Great Depression, sources of capital and finished goods from the industrialized countries were unavailable. To jump-start their own industrialization, the Latin American nations implemented a policy of import-substitution industrialization by raising tariffs on imported items. This flew in the face of what had come to be known in Washington as the inter-American system: a free flow of capital, goods, and ideas between North and South America that would foster harmonious relations between the regions.
Even though U.S. leaders disliked Latin American economic policies that restricted the flow of trade and investment, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in his first inaugural address on 4 March 1933, promulgated the Good Neighbor policy. Because various U.S. military interventions in Latin America had strained relations between North and South America by the 1920s, Roosevelt very much wanted to strengthen ties between the regions. The backbone of the Good Neighbor policy was Roosevelt's nonintervention pledge, and it seemed to usher in a new era of friendly relations between the two regions. Moreover, hemispheric solidarity during World War II increased Latin American acquiescence to heavier doses of U.S. cultural imperialism via such media as radio and movies. In retrospect, this period proved to be the high point of hemispheric solidarity.
As the Cold War intensified in the aftermath of World War II, Washington began to fear communist insurgencies taking root in the hemisphere. In 1947 the United States and Latin American nations signed an alliance, the Rio Pact, to ensure that the Americas would remain anticommunist. In 1948, the Organization of American States (OAS) implemented the Rio Pact, providing collective security for the Americas. In addition, President Harry S. Truman increased U.S. bilateral assistance to Latin America that had first been given during World War II. The Point Four Program assisted Latin America and other third world areas with infrastructure needs.
Fearing a communist takeover, Washington reneged on the Good Neighbor policy with a covert Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) intervention in Guatemala in 1954 that organized and supported a band of anticommunist military leaders who opposed Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán's regime. Arbenz, who was portrayed as a communist—or at the very least, a communist sympathizer—was ultimately forced from power that same year. The U.S. effort in Guatemala proved to be a harbinger in that the CIA went on to employ covert activity in the 1960s in Cuba and British Guiana (later Guyana), and in the 1970s in Chile, all in an attempt to undermine governments that allegedly threatened American interests.
With Fidel Castro's 1959 rise to power in Cuba, the Latin American Left grew in prominence. Traditionally, the Left worked to stimulate and focus antiyanqui (anti-U.S.) sentiment, and the 1960s proved no different. Castro, who declared in December 1961 that he was a communist, stated categorically that he would attempt to foment revolution in Latin America and other third world areas. The United States responded to Castro's threats by breaking relations with Cuba in January 1961, initiating a propaganda campaign against Castro, secretly trying to undermine his government, invading with a paramilitary force of Cuban nationals in the April 1961 Bay of Pigs debacle, and placing a total trade embargo on Cuba. Cuba soon proved to be a Cold War flash point with the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, which brought the world to the brink of nuclear war.
To prevent the spread of hemispheric communism, the administration of John F. Kennedy organized the Alliance for Progress, a multilateral assistance effort aimed at Latin America to promote economic, social, and political reforms. Although not the first assistance program aimed specifically at the Latin American region—the Inter-American Development Bank dated back to 1958—the program proved historic in its size and goals. Through the program, the Latin American countries agreed to pledge an investment of $80 billion, while the United States pledged $20 billion in aid over the next decade. Observers disagree on why the goals of the program were not achieved, and by the late 1960s the Alliance for Progress had played itself out. Despite this failure, the U.S. policymakers' ideas of granting assistance to promote social and economic reforms and to promote democracy lived on. The Caribbean Basin Initiative of 1981–1982, although it relied significantly less on grant aid, demonstrated that U.S. leaders shared the same assumptions regarding growth and stability as their 1960s predecessors.
Even as American officials saw security threats in a number of Latin American nations in the 1960s, economic relations remained an important part of the North American-Latin American relationship. The pre–World War II conflict between Latin American economic nationalism and U.S. free trade reemerged with a new intensity after World War II. Even before the end of the war, at an important inter-American conference held in the castle of Chapultepec in Mexico City in March 1945, Latin American and U.S. delegates clashed over whether the free flow of goods and services should characterize inter-American economic policy or—as some Latin American leaders urged—whether individual nations should exert some control over foreign economic activity within their borders. This conflict would remain a fixture of inter-American relations until the 1980s, when economic liberalization (neoliberalism) helped to foster friendlier North-South relations in the Western Hemisphere.
As Latin American nations moved toward democracy in the 1980s, relations between North America and Latin America warmed. Yet the road to harmonious inter-American relations in the 1980s encountered two very serious roadblocks: crises in Central America, the Caribbean, and Panama and the ongoing drug war. As civil wars erupted throughout Central America in the 1970s and 1980s, U.S. leaders feared that Cuban and Soviet aid was supporting the efforts of the leftist guerrillas, who by 1979 had seized control in Nicaragua. The leftist guerrillas in Nicaragua, the Sandinistas, had broad support, at least at first, among many Nicaraguans. The United States attempted to destabilize Nicaragua through overt means (economic embargoes and anti-Sandinista rhetoric) and covert means (assistance to Nicaraguan rebel groups who wanted to overthrow the government). Washington's actions toward Nicaragua frayed relations with other nations in the hemisphere that opposed U.S. policy, including Canada, the first significant example of Canadian criticism of Washington's inter-American policy. Finally, the Sandinistas lost a critical election in 1990, defusing the crisis.
In 1983 President Ronald Reagan's administration was especially suspicious of Cuban assistance to rebel groups in the Caribbean. In 1983, Reagan therefore sent troops into tiny Grenada to forestall a communist insurgency there. The invasion offered a low-risk way for the Reagan administration to display its credentials as a hard-line anticommunist government.
Just as communism crumbled nonviolently in the autumn of 1989 in Eastern Europe, Washington invaded Panama in December 1989, capturing its unpopular leader General Manuel Noriega. American policymakers insisted that military intervention was the only way to remove the autocratic leader—who was also accused of heavy involvement in the drug trade—so that democracy could take firmer root in the Isthmian nation. To some observers, the U.S. invasion of Panama, coming at the end of the Cold War, showed that the diminishing communist threat would not necessarily mean the end of U.S. intervention in the Americas.
As the international narcotics trade grew and as U.S. imports of illicit drugs from Latin America increased, American leaders searched for ways to crush the drug trade. In this endeavor, U.S. law enforcement officials worked with Mexican government officers in particular. Many Mexicans, however, saw such efforts as an intrusion on their sovereignty. Even more controversially, U.S. military personnel trained members of some of the South American militaries in techniques used for destroying the plants that produced the raw materials for certain drugs (coca leaves in the Andes, in particular). In addition, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) stepped up interdiction efforts, trying to reduce the flow of coca leaves from farms to processing plants. Both eradication and interdiction resulted in casualties among Andean coca growers and their supporters. As a result, U.S.–Latin American relations deteriorated. The drug war waxed and waned but still proved a bone of contention among some Latin American nations and the United States into the twenty-first century.
With the end of the Cold War, two important new topics dominated inter-American relations: economic interaction and immigration. In 1994 the United States, Canada, and Mexico signed the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). U.S. leaders also pursued the plan for a free trade area to embrace South America as well as North America.
Latin American immigration to North America, especially from Mexico, began to change the complexion of U.S. and Canadian society, introducing new food, music, and other aspects of Hispanic popular culture. As Latin American immigration to the United States swelled, some Latinos in the United States, in particular the well-organized Cuban lobby in Florida, managed to influence U.S. foreign policy. In the early twenty-first century, rising numbers of immigrants, particularly Mexican immigrants, spurred some observers, such as Samuel Huntington in 2004, to fear that immigrants from south of the Rio Grande would not assimilate into U.S. society. Moving into the twenty-first century, immigration appeared as increasingly important in shaping the contours of U.S.–Latin American relations.
James F. Siekmeier
Fernandez-Armesto, Felipe. The Americas: A Hemispheric History. New York: Random House, 2003.; Gilderhus, Mark. The Second Century—U.S. Latin American Relations since 1889. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 2000.; Holden, Robert, and Eric Zolof, eds. Latin America and the United States: A Documentary History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.; Huntington, Samuel P. "The Hispanic Challenge." Foreign Policy (March–April 2004): 31–45.; McPherson, Alan. Yankee No! Anti-Americanism in U.S.–Latin American Relations. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003.; Smith, Peter H. Talons of the Eagle: Dynamics of U.S.–Latin American Relations. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.