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 could care less about it. Latin Americans, in contrast, not only can describe the Monroe Doctrine, but 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 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 region’s reality.
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.
Philip Brenner is a professor of international relations at American University. His most recent book is A Contemporary Cuba Reader (Rowman and Littlefield, 2008).
Saul Landau is vice chair of the Institute for Policy Studies board of trustees. His most recent bbok is A BUSH AND BOTOX WORLD (CounterPunch / AK Press).
This essay was originally published by Foreign Policy in Focus.