Is Latin America Still the US’s “Backyard”?

  • Español
  • English
  • Français
  • Deutsch
  • Português
  • Opinión
-A +A

In late spring of 2008, the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations published a report titled “US-Latin America Relations: A New Direction for a New Reality.” Timed to influence the foreign policy agenda of the next US administration, the report asserted: “the era of the US as the dominant influence in Latin America is over.” At the Summit of the Americas in April the following year, President Barack Obama appeared to be on the same page as the report’s authors, promising Latin American leaders a “new era” of “equal partnership” and “mutual respect.” Four years later, Obama’s second secretary of state, John Kerry, went a step further, solemnly declaring before his regional counterparts at the Organization of American States (OAS) that the “era of the Monroe Doctrine is over.” The speech ― heralding the end of a nearly 200-year-old policy widely seen as a blank check for US intervention in the region ― was warmly applauded, and perhaps earned Kerry some forgiveness for having referred to Latin America as the US’s “backyard” a few months earlier.


In its approach to Latin America, President Donald Trump’s administration has struck a decidedly different tone from that of the Obama administration. Soon after moving into the White House, Trump announced he would roll back Obama’s widely praised policies normalizing relations with Cuba. Instead of confirming the demise of the Monroe Doctrine, President Trump’s first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, declared that it “clearly has been a success.” Lest anyone think him unknowledgeable regarding the doctrine’s history, he proudly echoed the sentiments of its original authors (President John Adams and Secretary of State James Monroe) by noting, with regard to China’s growing relations in the region, that “Latin America does not need new imperial powers” and “our region must be diligent to guard against faraway powers…”


Given these and other pronouncements by Trump and his team, it is tempting to consider that the current US administration is intent on derailing a progressive and enlightened Latin America policy initiated under Obama. But closer scrutiny of the policies underway suggests that, for the most part, the Trump administration is pursuing essentially the same political, economic, and security objectives in the region as Obama, albeit at times in a more brazen and aggressive manner. Similarly, it is worth noting that Obama’s Latin America agenda ― with the important and late exception of the Cuba opening ― didn’t diverge significantly from that of his predecessor, George W. Bush.


In fact, US administrations have been pursuing roughly the same agenda in Latin America since at least the early twentieth century, though the tactics employed have changed significantly over time. The overarching goal remains the same: maintaining US hegemony throughout the region. But, although right-wing, pro-US regional actors have staged a major comeback in recent years, maintaining US strategic control in Latin America may be difficult to sustain in the long term, due in part to the progressive displacement of the US as the hemisphere’s dominant economic player. And Trump’s extreme nationalism may contribute to a reawakening of nationalist and anti-imperialist impulses, as has recently occurred in Mexico.



Though often cloaked in a rhetoric of democracy promotion and human rights, Washington’s political playbook in Latin America can be summarized as follows: coddle the governments and movements that support US economic, security, and foreign policy objectives and try to eradicate those that don’t. In this regard, Obama succeeded in passing on a very strong hand to Trump. Whereas at the time of Obama’s 2009 inauguration the majority of Latin Americans lived under progressive governments that, by and large, sought greater independence from the US, by the time he left office, only a small handful of countries still had left-leaning governments.


Obama played no small role in bringing about this tectonic political shift. In 2009, he and his first secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, helped a right-wing military coup succeed in Honduras by stymieing efforts to restore the elected, left-leaning president Manuel Zelaya. The next year, the US intervened in the Haitian elections, successfully pressuring the country’s authorities to arbitrarily change the electoral results in order to ensure the victory of a right-wing, pro-US candidate. In 2011, the US State Department thwarted regional efforts to reverse a “parliamentary coup” that removed the left-wing president of Paraguay through a widely contested process.


During the summer of 2016, the Obama government threw all its diplomatic weight behind corrupt, right-wing political actors in Brazil that removed left-leaning president Dilma Rousseff through a flawed and controversial impeachment process. Around the same time, the US administration was opposing multilateral loans to the left-wing government of Cristina Kirchner, thereby aggravating a tumultuous economic situation that helped seal the victory of right-wing multimillionaire Mauricio Macri in the 2015 presidential elections. The defeat of the left in Brazil and Argentina meant that two pillars of Latin America’s progressive integration movement of the early twenty-first century had been removed. One pillar remained, stubbornly resisting the US’s repeated attempts to dislodge its government: Venezuela.


Obama did make a valiant effort to remove Venezuela’s chavistas from power. His administration refused to recognize the 2013 electoral victory of Nicolás Maduro, despite no evidence of fraud. In 2015, just as he was taking steps to normalize relations with Cuba, Obama declared Venezuela an “extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States” in order to justify the imposition of targeted sanctions against senior government officials. But in August 2017, Trump one-upped Obama, imposing broad economic sanctions that sharply restricted Venezuela’s access to international financial markets, thereby exacerbating the country’s ongoing economic crisis. White House sources revealed that Trump has also been considering a military invasion of Venezuela.


Why this obsession with Venezuela, a country that poses no security threat to the US? As is frequently pointed out, Washington’s Latin America policy is often a product of domestic politics, and the Venezuela obsession ― nurtured in part by wealthy, far-right sectors of the Cuban and Venezuelan diaspora in Florida ― is an example of this. But, more significantly, a left government in Venezuela poses a unique challenge to US hegemony given its vast oil wealth and its consequent ability to project influence far beyond its borders (as exemplified by the Petrocaribe agreement and other Venezuelan regional initiatives). While both these factors have, for years, contributed to Venezuela’s status as the number one enemy in the hemisphere, the Trump foreign policy team includes a particularly virulent cast of characters that have taken the Venezuela obsession to a new extreme.


Trump’s foreign policy “dream team” includes National Security Advisor John Bolton, a notorious neoconservative who fixated on the Venezuela “threat” while in the George W. Bush administration. Tillerson has been replaced by foreign policy hawk Mike Pompeo. While Tillerson sparked controversy with his praise for the Monroe Doctrine, he was in some regards more cautious than his successor, having reportedly opposed the financial sanctions against Venezuela recommended by then CIA director Pompeo.


Finally, Cuban-American Florida Senator Marco Rubio ― who has strong relations with the most hard-line sectors of the Cuban and Venezuelan diaspora ― has by all accounts become Trump’s main advisor on Latin America. Among other things, he lobbied successfully for economic sanctions against Venezuela and called for a military coup there.


Though Trump’s team appears to be particularly focused on Venezuela, there is little doubt that it also has its sights on the few other remaining left-leaning governments in the region: Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and perhaps even Uruguay’s very moderate left government. At their disposal is a full arsenal of “soft power” tools to advance the US “democracy and governance” agenda. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the government-funded National Endowment for Democracy (NED) have “democracy promotion” programs that provide training and funding to, primarily, pro-US organizations that often have links to political parties. In a number of countries ― such as Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and El Salvador ― the US has used these programs to provide material and tactical support to violent and antidemocratic right-wing movements.



Trump has also embraced his predecessor’s regional security agenda, which itself was built on antidrug and counterinsurgency strategies developed under Clinton and George W. Bush. Both presidents poured billions of dollars into Plan Colombia, which supported vast military offensives that led to the displacement of millions and contributed to thousands of civilian deaths while having virtually no impact on cocaine production.


Despite its questionable results, Plan Colombia was applauded by much of the foreign policy establishment and touted as a model for the Bush-backed Mérida Initiative in Mexico (2008), which supported a militarized “War on Drugs” that has seen tens of thousands of deaths. Mérida originally included a Central America component, but the Obama administration splintered it off and created the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), which mobilizes tens of millions of dollars of security assistance primarily for Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. In recent years, each of these countries has adopted its own militarized approach to law enforcement and each has experienced surges in violence that rank them among the most violent countries on earth. Studies show that this violence has been a major factor in the sharp uptick in the number of migrants from these countries that flee to Mexico and the US.


Of course the US government has had a robust security agenda spanning much of Latin America since well before Teddy Roosevelt famously declared the US the region’s “international police power.” During the first decades of the twentieth century, the US carried out numerous military interventions in Latin America and the Caribbean, including long military occupations of Nicaragua, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic.


Following World War II, the US government developed strategies of far-reaching engagement with military forces throughout the hemisphere. In 1946, the US Department of Defense launched the School of the Americas (later renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, or WHINSEC), where thousands of military officials from around Latin America received counterinsurgency training, ostensibly so as to defend their countries against Soviet-promoted communism. Direct US military intervention in the region became less frequent, but Latin American military forces would often act in tandem with US intelligence operatives to violently suppress left-wing movements, and ― in many cases ― overthrow left-wing governments.


The Cold War may have officially ended in 1991, but US training programs continued. US-trained military personnel were involved in military coups in Haiti (1991), Venezuela (2002), and Honduras (2009), as well as bloody counterinsurgency campaigns in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Colombia.


US training programs, along with other forms of security assistance, have allowed the Pentagon to maintain a strong, ongoing influence within Latin America’s military forces. In addition, the US has expanded its direct military presence in the region through formal and informal basing agreements in a number of countries, including Peru, Guatemala, Honduras, and, of course, Colombia, the Pentagon’s top strategic partner in the region. These and other agreements allow the US to use military and other government facilities in various parts of Latin America as platforms for launching security operations or carrying out intelligence-gathering activities.


The aggregate result of US training programs and basing and other logistical agreements is the consolidation of the US military’s strategic control over much of the region. Maintaining this control has been a priority for the US, irrespective of the administration in place.


Honduras ― where the US has had hundreds of troops stationed since the early 1980s ― provides a vivid illustration of how a strategic security relationship can, from the US government’s point of view, take priority over any other consideration. In June of 2009, US-trained commanders carried out a military coup against the country’s elected president, Manuel Zelaya, who had, on the domestic front, developed close relations with movements who had campaigned against the US military presence in Honduras and, on the external front, forged a strong alliance with the Venezuelan government. As described earlier, the US helped the coup succeed and later increased security assistance to Honduras despite a surge in human rights abuses, including hundreds of killings of social leaders like the late Berta Cáceres, whose murderers included US-trained former and active military officials.


In late November 2017, right-wing incumbent Juan Orlando Hernández was declared the winner of an election so badly marred by fraudulent activity that even the Washington-aligned Organization of American States called for a do-over. In the weeks that followed, protests broke out throughout the country and were violently repressed by military and police forces using live ammunition, leading to dozens of deaths of unarmed demonstrators. Unfazed, the US State Department recognized the election result and continued to provide robust assistance to the country’s security forces.



With regard to the US regional economic agenda, Trump has, in some respects, veered sharply away from the policies of his predecessors, in particular with his decision to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Negotiated under George H.W. Bush, approved under Clinton, and strongly supported by George W. Bush and Obama, NAFTA has been touted as a model trade agreement by much of the US establishment (in much the same way as Plan Colombia is seen as a model security program). The economic nationalists close to Trump hope to rewrite the agreement in a manner that restores protections for some US-heavy industries and reduces so-called investor rights, but they face stiff opposition from many cabinet members and Trump donors who represent the interests of multinational corporations and Wall Street banks.


However, there is no indication that Trump’s coterie of economic nationalists is seeking to wind down efforts to promote neoliberalism throughout the region, as the US government has been doing since the late 1970s. The US continues to deploy a variety of intrusive tools to advance policies that shift control of economic factors from states to private sectors and that expand the financialization of economies. These policies have been a boon to US multinationals and Wall Street, but have failed to improve the lives of most Latin Americans.


The International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and other international financial institutions (IFIs) in which the US exercises effective control over policy, continue to attach conditions to loans that can lead to economically crippling monetary and fiscal tightening and force governments to abandon development strategies and industrial policies. Meanwhile, US economic aid programs often further weaken the economic role of the state through support for the privatization of public services and utilities, and through technical “assistance” that weakens regulatory frameworks so as to attract foreign direct investment at all costs.


In the ‘80s and ‘90s, Latin America experienced more of these neoliberal “structural adjustments” than any other part of the world, in large part because governments required IFI loans following the debt crises of the early ‘80s. The result was the end of a cycle of vigorous economic development for much of the region and two decades of largely stagnant growth, with declining social indicators and the selling off of public services.


By the end of the ‘90s, Latin Americans had had enough, and began electing left-leaning governments that, to varying degrees, opposed the neoliberal “Washington Consensus.” The result was a period in which heterodox economic policies, including the expansion of public health, education, and housing programs for the poor and the renationalization of strategic industries were implemented in many countries, particularly in South America. The results were largely very positive, with significant upticks in economic growth and a reduction in poverty and inequality levels.


Over the last few years, economic turbulence ― resulting in part from falling commodity prices and other external factors ― has contributed to neoliberal, right-wing actors retaking power. As examined previously, US-backed antidemocratic offensives have contributed to the rightward shift as well. As a result the US neoliberal economic agenda is again dominant in most of Latin America. Yet the US government fears that the region could slip out of its control yet again. And these fears may be well founded.


For one, there is little appetite in the region for more neoliberal reforms. It is interesting to note, for instance, that massive protests have taken place in three countries where the IMF has recently become involved in economic policymaking: Argentina, Haiti, and Nicaragua (though in the latter the protests appear to have received additional support from US-backed entities). In Brazil, extreme austerity measures are being applied with support from the IMF and the powerful financial sector, and the ratings of the country’s unelected president have sunk to 5 percent.


In other words, despite the US government’s best efforts to keep the left out of power, elections are likely to favor anti-neoliberal movements in the long run. Though the risk of a return to dictatorial regimes is no longer a far-fetched possibility, particularly when one considers recent developments in places like Brazil (where a popular former president has been jailed on unproven charges), or Honduras (where the US supported a fraudulent and unconstitutional reelection).


But the current US administration has more than just democratic elections to worry about. When Tillerson spoke of the need to “guard against faraway powers,” he wasn’t speaking in an abstract manner; he was referring primarily to China, which he accused of “using economic statecraft to pull the region into its orbit.” The White House’s 2017 National Security Strategy uses similar language to describe the Chinese “threat,” as do senior members of Congress from both major parties.


What they all seem to fear is China’s growing economic ascendancy in Latin America. Total trade between China and Latin America has gone from $12 billion in 2000 to nearly $280 billion in 2017. China has also become a major investor in the region, and its credit lines, mostly for energy and infrastructure projects, now surpass the combined financing of the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank.


Tillerson and other officials have warned that China is promoting a nefarious “state-led model of development,” while the NED recently published a report warning that China is capitalizing “on its economic strength to enhance its political influence across the region.” In reality, there is no evidence suggesting that China isn’t adhering to its policy of nonintervention in other countries’ internal affairs. Contrary to the lending practices of the IMF, World Bank, and other US-backed IFIs, Chinese financing is not contingent on the application of orthodox economic policies by governments, nor on any other macroeconomic policies.


From the perspective of senior US policymakers, this is in fact the problem. China, by not imposing policy prescriptions in its commercial and financial dealings, provides its Latin American partners with policy space to advance their own economic and political alternatives, including “state-led” practices that clash with the US agenda. Though US officials are sounding increasingly menacing vis-à-vis the Chinese “threat” in Latin America - most recently with intense attacks against the government of El Salvador following its decision to break relations with Taiwan and normalize relations with Beijing there is little they can really do to halt China’s inexorable advance in the region.



Trump’s aggressive, interventionist agenda in Latin America, like the very similar agendas of his predecessors, is largely uncontroversial within the US mainstream (barring the demand for a border wall paid by Mexico and a few other outrageous pronouncements). For many decades, much of the country’s foreign policy elite has quietly accepted the idea that the US must maintain hegemonic political, military and economic influence in the region. Even liberal international relations experts John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt ― who embrace the notion of a multipolar world ― have argued that “preserving US dominance in the Western Hemisphere” is “what really matters.” For many, it is a question of securing US international credibility as a superpower.


But the Latin American resistance to the US regional agenda will undoubtedly continue, abetted by the relative decline of the US as an economic power, along with the inevitable anti-Americanism generated by Trump’s xenophobic antics. The latest sign of resistance comes from Mexico, where decades of neoliberalism and a failed and devastating US-backed drug war spurred the landslide victory of a left-wing candidate for the first time in the country’s contemporary history. At a time when most of the region’s governments are beholden to Washington, the remarkable political transformation underway just south of the US border provides a beacon of hope for the peoples of Latin America and their quest for true independence. 



Alexander Main is Director of International Policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC.


A version of this article is being published in French by La Revue internationale et stratégique in its September issue.&&&
Subscribe to America Latina en Movimiento - RSS