As Robert Pastor explains in

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Over the past two centuries, the complicated process of formulating foreign policy towards Latin America has been guided by strategic, economic, and political factors. While each of these factors formed the building blocks of United States policy, the governing ideology of a particular moment in history served as the foundation upon which these factors rested. The resulting structure formed by this delicate relationship was the platform upon which government leaders, individuals as diverse as the times in which they lived, devised policy based on their perceptions of a world in which the United States was confronted with both threats and opportunities.

As Robert Pastor explains in Exiting the Whirlpool, difficult policy decisions cannot be made by simply employing one uniform method of determination. If such a method existed, policy could easily be dictated by a computer program.1 Instead, it is a non-linear process influenced by competing views of the world, dominated by the notion that perceptions govern reality, even if this “reality” was based on something other than fact. It is a process often influenced by prejudices and inflated notions of superiority, described by Jorge Dominguez as a belief that the United States is “ and large much less in need of them (Latin Americans) than they are in need of us.”2 Despite these seemingly dismissive sentiments towards what William LeoGrande refers to as “our own backyard”, Latin America has served as the staging ground for a young nation trying to flex its political muscle on the world stage, the focus of an ideological and military struggle between two Cold War superpowers, a marketplace for expanding investment and economic development, and the focal point for political debates that have influenced the landscape of United States domestic politics.

In this paper, I will describe how ideological, economic, and political factors have helped shape United States foreign policy towards Latin American over the past two centuries. By highlighting specific examples, I will argue that ideology has had the most significant impact on the course of U.S.-Latin American relations because of its influence on national security policy, the classification of threats to United States interests and the “appropriate” responses needed to address these threats. In addition to ideology, the influence of domestic political and economic factors in guiding policy will be outlined. While both of these serve as important policy determinants, they have historically played a secondary role when challenged by conflicting, dominant ideologies, especially during the Cold War. As Lars Schoultz describes in his work Beneath the United States, what results from this combination is “…a distinctive mental orientation that officials use to interpret the bewildering array of incidents and problems that constitute the raw data of international relations.”

Ideology and U.S. National Security policy towards Latin America

The concept of national security policy has evolved throughout history and varied from administration to administration. It has always served as an influential framework for United States foreign policy. As the nation grew in size, wealth, and power, and as its domestic institutions became more secure, leaders began to look beyond national borders. With an expanded view of national interests came an expanded view of national threats. How the nation reacted to these new responsibilities and took advantage of this increasing global influence was largely dependent on the governing ideology. The security interests of the United States in Latin America have been significantly influenced and guided by the varying ideological beliefs of those leaders responsible for shaping this policy and moving the U.S. from a fragile, insecure country to its role as a global hegemon.

With a new found national confidence, foreign policy shifted from responding reactively to outside threats to proactively engaging in a hemisphere filled with both potential threats and a wide range of opportunities. From the Monroe Doctrine to the Roosevelt Corollary, the United States responded to both perceived and actual European engagement in Latin America with trepidation, viewing such involvement as a clear threat to U.S. security and overall national interests. David Dent in The Legacy of the Monroe Doctrine writes that while the original intent of James Monroe was to create “…an isolationist policy opposed to extra hemispheric intervention in the Americas, as the U.S. became more powerful it was amended through various corollaries…” and used to legitimize Washington’s direct involvement in the affairs of Latin America.3 One of these additions, the (Theodore) Roosevelt Corollary, gave the United States “…the right to preemptive military intervention (in Latin America), not to enforce claims of its citizens, but to forestall European intervention…”4 Such a considerable shift represents the ideological transformation of a rapidly developing country maturing into a nation more confident, militarily capable, and strategically inclined to protect what both LeoGrande and Molineu refer to as the “sphere of influence” from the threat of outside European interests.

During the Cold War, the dissimilar national security priorities of the Reagan and Carter administrations were the result of two ideologies on the opposite end of the political spectrum. Pastor describes the conservative and liberal ideological “lenses” that guided foreign policy towards Latin America. In his view, the “former tend(ed) to see threats more intensely and the latter tried to understand and be more responsive to the Latin Americans.”5 While this can be interpreted as the biased opinion of someone who played an intricate role in the “responsive” Latin American policy of the Carter administration, the basic principle accurately highlights the obvious distinctions between the Reagan and Carter policies.

United States foreign policy towards Latin America during the Carter administration was largely dominated by the Panama Canal Treaty and the promotion of human rights. As Stephen Rabe explains, “only in the case of Carter’s human rights campaign did a president launch a significant initiative in Latin America that did not have strong Cold War overtones.”6 Jimmy Carter, a deeply religious man, strongly believed that it was his responsibility to send a message to foreign governments, even Cold War ideological allies, that the United States would not tolerate human rights abuses and would restrict and potentially deny economic and military support to those governments that sanctioned such acts. In Carter’s view, this was a valid, gentler policy for a nation still recovering from the scandals of Watergate and the horrors of the Vietnam War.

Since the Panama Canal was completed in 1914, it was both a strategic and symbolic asset for the United States because of its geographic location. It opened up new trade routes and represented U.S. dominance in the region. As Pastor describes, “presidents became pre-occupied with protecting this strategic asset from the region’s instability.”7 While previous presidents strongly believed that the canal should be kept on a very tight leash by the United States government (and military), President Carter felt that events in Panama and, in his opinion, the maltreatment of the Panamanian people, constituted substantial threats to the overall security of the Panama Canal. The signing of the Panama Canal Treaty in 1977, which mandated the transfer of the canal to Panama by the year 2000, was interpreted by many as a sign of weakness and a threat to a vital national interest. However, Carter did not have to be reminded of the importance of national security and, as Pastor recalls, Carter clearly “opposed intervention in the internal affairs of other countries unless (author’s italics) U.S. security interests were directly threatened.”8

For Carter, what constituted a “threat” and what defined “intervention” were influenced by his ideology and view of the United States role in world affairs. U.S. security interests could best be achieved by expressing empathy towards a country historically mistreated by United States policy. Carter’s goal was not to compromise the position of the United States in the world, but to preserve its position of power and influence. Carter felt, however, that this could not be achieved by shaking a clenched fist at the rest of the world. The dominant hemispheric position of the United States could be maintained through understanding and flexible, not rigid, policies towards the people and governments of Latin America.

The election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 brought about a dramatic shift in United States foreign policy towards Latin America. The Reagan administration’s categorization of national security interests in this region was dictated by a hard line ideology defined, as LeoGrande articulates, “primarily through the prism of the East-West struggle.”9 Not only was this a conflict motivated by ideology, it was a battle between ideologies-democracy versus communism. From this perspective, the new administration considered the human rights policy of Carter as “not only ineffectual, but down right dangerous.”10 During this period, Molineu explains Latin American countries served a unique strategic purpose because they “…were not important in and of themselves, but they could be used to send a signal to Moscow that a new team was in charge.”11 The fight against Soviet expansionism was viewed as a zero sum game. A gain for one side anywhere in the world was nothing less than a loss for the other. From this perspective, the Reagan administration implemented policies towards Latin America that established partnerships with rightist dictators opposed to communism, no matter what their human rights record, and covertly funded “contra” groups to topple leftist governments, which were seen as a threat to the hemisphere. If the United States could not defend its interests in its “own backyard” then how could it expect to lead the fight against communism anywhere in the world?

These types of ingrained ideologies at the source of foreign policy decisions have their own foundations which can be traced back to singular life experiences, moral and religious beliefs, and the notion American “exceptionalism”, strong feelings of national, cultural, and spiritual superiority intertwined with a sense of duty and responsibility to be the guiding light for a world longing for the freedom and democracy.

A young John Quincy Adam’s unpleasant trip to Spain greatly influenced his negative opinions of Hispanic individuals, characterizing them at the young age of twelve as “…lazy, dirty, nasty…”12, a sentiment which continued into his adult political life and was shared by many of his colleagues. Theodore Roosevelt was also motivated by a desire to teach the “jingos” a lesson. These types of prejudiced beliefs helped to enforce the notion of American “exceptionalism”, which often led to the mistreatment of those deemed culturally and morally subservient, relative to civilized American standards.

Religious and moral convictions rigidly mold perceptions of the world and the role that one must play in carrying out a “higher” mission. Schoultz describes President McKinley’s enthusiastic description of a divine message which conveniently served as “…a perfect justification-exactly what was needed to induce public support for imperialism.”13 Molineu argues that the Reagan administration possessed “…an unshakable ideological and moral view of the world that once put into place made it nearly impossible to consider any compromise.”14 Through these experiences and feelings of confident righteousness, rigid ideologies were formed and leaders emerged who strongly believed they had an obligation and moral responsibility to share and implement their visions of the world.

Economic factors

With an emergent national economy and increasingly saturated domestic market, producers and manufacturers began to contemplate the economic benefits of expanding beyond national borders. Understanding this reality, the United States sought to establish economic ties with its newly independent neighbors in Latin America. As governments sought to protect these new markets from the interference of other nations, these economic relationships quickly became influenced by ideologically defined notions of national security and the need for hegemonic power to ensure regional stability. According to Schoultz, “the nation’s leaders had convinced the public that prosperity depended upon trade (and) expanded trade required dominance.”15

In order to rebuild a severely crippled post Civil War economy, a healing nation expanded its foreign trade in search of new markets. It was almost immediately confronted with the daunting obstacle of competing with foreign, mainly British, competitors for access to these new trade opportunities. In order to effectively compete and protect these new investments, the government, as Shoultz describes, initiated an ambitious plan to exponentially expand its naval force.

Promoting strong economic ties with Latin American has been a priority for the United States largely due to the potential impact on the strength of our national economy. Both President Taft’s “dollar diplomacy” and Theodore Roosevelt’s corollary to the Monroe Doctrine were motivated by a desire to insure economic stability in Latin America in order to preserve the strength and accessibility of increasingly vital markets for U.S. products. At the same time, these new markets were viewed by some as a threat to the national economic strength because of competition between foreign and domestic goods and services. The debate over the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement centered around the potential threats to domestic labor when faced with less expensive alternatives in Mexico.

Despite concerns over what H. Ross Perot referred to as the “giant sucking sound” of jobs leaving the United States, economic trade between the United States and Latin America has flourished. The continuation of this relationship is an important component of U.S. policy towards the region. As Professor Brenner explained, the need for a global hegemon to ensure regional and global economic stability is important in this era of globalization and increased economic interdependence.16
Domestic Political Influences of U.S. Foreign Policy

Domestic factors have also impacted United States relations with Latin America. These factors are the result of the growing activism of citizens hoping to influence policy and politicians willing to respond to the extent that it insures their political future, often without the need for a substantial shift in ideology.

An anxious public, dealing with the effects of what Brenner and Plague refer to as both the “Vietnam syndrome” and the prevalence of illegal drugs, “…one of the most publicized issues in the U.S. during the 1980s,”17 earned the attention of politicians who were both guided by ideology and at the same time cognizant of the fragile nature of political life and survival.

The influence of interests groups grew with the end of the Cold War, an event which Brenner, Haney, and Vanderbush explained “…generated a relative decline in the importance of traditional security interests…” and “…opened the door to greater interest group activism over foreign policy.”18 During the 1992 presidential campaign, candidate Bill Clinton’s endorsement of the Cuban Democracy Act, which was supported by the influential Cuban American lobby in Florida, caused President George H.W. Bush to alter his position and lend his support to the act as well.19 In the 2000 campaign, George W. Bush’s support for Cuban Americans and his hard line position toward Castro was essential for not only his own political ambitions, but also for his brother, Jeb Bush, the governor of Florida.

While domestic political concerns have directly impacted several Latin American policy decisions, there are many examples where ideology only temporarily took a backseat to the dynamics of electoral politics. Public sentiment opposed to the perceived imperial interests of the United States impacted President McKinley’s decision to advocate for Cuban independence during the presidential campaign. While permanent occupation was no longer an option, the passage of the Platt Amendment still insured a continuing U.S. presence in order “…to maintain control over people whom they were convinced were unfit for self government.”20 During the 1904 campaign, Roosevelt was also concerned about being labeling an imperialist by his opponents. As Schoultz described “…it was only with the election behind him that the Roosevelt Corollary…became a formal part of U.S. foreign policy.”21 In both cases, ideology returned to dictate policy, while domestic concerns were adhered to long enough to ensure political survival and convince wavering constituencies.

Although opinion polls suggest that public support for Ronald Reagan’s policies towards Latin America, specifically El Salvador, was considerably low, LeoGrande writes that “…yet, there was a deep reluctance among the Democratic leadership to do battle…” with the president. Polls were “considered unreliable, especially in foreign policy” because of the president’s inherent ability to cause a “surge in patriotism.”22 Therefore, while public opinion was on their side, many democrats feared to challenge the ideologically driven hard line position of a president who was overall very popular with the American people. The most important poll is on election night and as Molineu emphasizes, President Reagan’s “electoral mandates in 1980 and 1984 were generally interpreted as supporting hard lines against communism”23, which was at the core of Reagan’s ideologically driven policy towards Latin America.

The influence of interests groups and other domestic constituencies has always been acknowledged by politicians intent on ensuring their own political longevity. However, when these interests directly challenged a leader’s dominant ideological agenda, especially during the period of the Cold War, every step was taken to temporarily disguise this agenda from public scrutiny.

While ideology has been a dominant influence, especially in the area of national security policy, it is rational to argue that there is not one singular causal factor that can explain the complicated nature of United States policy towards Latin America over the past two centuries. Many of the factors outlined are also dependent on each other. Ideology not only influenced the notion of national security, but the existence of these security threats also had the effect of molding and solidifying hard line ideologies. Economic factors were often intertwined with domestic political concerns. A strong economy is an important issue on Election Day, so the ability to open new markets, thereby strengthening the domestic economy, was both a sound economic and political strategy. Overall, this has been a relationship influenced by a wide range of historical events that have themselves been shaped by the responses of complex, politically ambitious personalities driven by ideological visions of world order.

An additional influence that has unfortunately shaped and continues to shape United States policy towards Latin America (and many other regions of the globe) is ignorance. The unwillingness to understand and learn about (and from) different peoples who are directly impacted by our often misguided policies has been pervasive throughout our nation’s short history. As David Dent describes, “the Monroe Doctrine was a unilateral pronouncement of foreign policy principles designed to confirm to the interests of the United States in a hemisphere it hardly understood.”24 Throughout the decades that followed, Dent continues to argue that “those who found this spirit of Monroe useful did not worry about the need for accuracy of information about Latin America.”25

As Schoultz explains, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, Ambassador to the United Nations during the Reagan administration, who was very influential in formulating policy towards Latin America, “...never visited El Salvador before writing about its political culture” and instead relied on second hand information that was based on historical Anglo prejudices towards the Hispanic culture.26 Foreign policy, while obviously guided by multiple, often competing interests, should always strive to attain a certain level of understanding. Being empathetic towards a country’s culture, customs, and history will not always guarantee mutually beneficial diplomatic relations. However, it is an important step towards implementing policies that address issues and concerns based on fact and not mere perceptions of reality or feelings of prejudice.

While recalling his service as a staff member on the National Security Council during his guest lecture, Robert Pastor strongly felt the presence of a historian would have been a valuable asset when difficult policy decisions needed to be made.27 It is now important for our nation to learn from the lessons of our relationship with Latin America and use this knowledge of history as a reference guide for future foreign policy decisions.


Brenner, Philip and Geoffrey Plague, “Congress and Latin American Policy” in David

Dent, ed., US-Latin American Policymaking: a reference handbook. Westport,

Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1995.

Brenner, Philip, Patrick Haney and Walt Vanderbush, “The Confluence of Domestic

And International Interests: US Policy Toward Cuba, 1998-2001”,

International Studies Perspectives, May 2002.
Dent, David. The Legacy of the Monroe Doctrine: a reference guide to U.S. involvement

in Latin America and the Caribbean. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press,

Dominguez, Jorge. “The Future of Inter-American Relations: States, Challenges, and

Likely Responses”, in The Future of Inter-American Relations (2000) ed., Jorge


LeoGrande, William M. Our Own Backyard: the United States in Central America,

1977-1992. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1998.
Molineu, Harold. “Making Policy for Latin America: Process and Explanation” in

David Dent, ed., US-Latin American Policymaking: a reference handbook. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1995.

Pastor, Robert. Exiting the Whirlpool: US Foreign Policy Toward Latin America and the

Caribbean. 2nd edition. Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 2001.
Rabe, Stephen. “The Presidency”, in David Dent, ed., U.S. Latin-American Policymaking: a reference handbook. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1995.
Shoultz, Lars. Beneath the United States: A History of US Policy Toward Latin America.

Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1998.

1 Pastor, Robert, p. 27

2 Dominguez, Jorge. The Future of Inter-American Relations: States, Challenges, and Likely Responses.

3 Dent, David. The Legacy of the Monroe Doctrine.

4 Schoultz

5 Pastor, p.27

6 Rabe, Stephen. The Presidency.

7 Pastor, p. 25

8 Pastor, p. 44

9 LeoGrande, p. 5

10 Jeanne Kirkpatrick quoted in LeoGrande, p. 54.

11 Molineu, p. 226

12 As quoted in Schoultz, page 1.

13 Schoultz, p. 89

14 Molineu, p. 236

15 Schoultz, p. 88

16 Brenner, Phil. US-Latin American relations. March 28, 2003.

17 Brenner and Plague

18 Brenner, Haney, and Vanderbush, p. 199.

19 Brenner and Plague

20 Schoultz, p. 148

21 Schoultz, p. 184-185

22 LeoGrande, p.217

23 Molineu, p. 232

24 Dent, David. P. 4

25 Dent, David. P. 5

26 Schoultz

27 Pastor, Robert. US-Latin American relations class, 2/28/03.

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