The notion that history tends to favor the hegemonies that would write it is nothing new. This is especially the case for the United States today. Take US-Latin American international relations, for example: they are indelibly stippled with gunboat diplomacy and seditious coups; even the many perverse trade agreements and subsequent growing poverty belie the neoliberal overtures that America continually makes. Yet, in spite of a most basic realpolitik approach to assessing America’s litany of hegemonic aggression, history is still quick to cite the anarchic nature of international relationships in general, and in doing so, it excuses fratricidal US ‘diplomacy’ throughout Latin America by simply referencing a manifest ‘self-help’ system amongst states.
America, in other words, is not to blame; rather, the anarchy of inter-state relationships is to be understood as a given, and its inherent culpability, understood.
This road, of course, is too easily taken. Though it may explain the what, it does not explain the why apropos general US meddling in Latin America. And while polemical inter-state issues between the US and its closest neighbors are well documented and investigated with some frequency, an “empire for empire’s sake” argument does not suffice as a believable impetus for such aggressive behavior in Latin America—at least, not any more than a phenomenon like self-interest can or does. No. To truly understand these international affairs, one must look beyond hackneyed tautologies. One must weigh the interest that runs the state, the lifeblood of the state’s moneyed organs, the whip that drives the imperial mule. Then, the raison d’être for America’s imposition and coercion in Latin America becomes clear.
From 1947 to 1973, Latin America experienced a 70% rise in real wages per capita. States had the capacity to both distribute wealth and sustain growth. They showed no need to subscribe wholesale to the capitalism that dominated the American economic scene. Many of the Latin American intelligentsia even thought their region’s economic momentum portended a powerful trading bloc would emerge. Some international economists speculated the same. What did occur, however, was quite to the contrary.
Between the Reagan and Clinton administrations (1980 to 1998), Latin America’s average per capita income did not increase at all. In the same two decades, US multinational corporations and Latin American elites grew awfully rich through the sale of virtually entire Latin American state industries. Thousands were sold; American multinationals assumed ownership of rails, energy, ports, mining, agriculture, mail, infrastructure, factories, communication, education, healthcare, jails, waste, water, television, pensions, etc. Indeed, Latin American states themselves commanded a lot of economic power when they co-operated these industries. As a result, the region boomed.
Looking at Latin America’s poverty from the 1960s on evinces something more: about 10% of the region’s denizens were destitute by today’s subsistence standards of less than 2$ a day; however, by 1996, a third of Latin America was poor by the same standards. After just two decades of changes in international trade, ownership and sundry laws, 165 million Latin Americans were impoverished. Unfortunately, by 2005, regional poverty had increased from its 1996 levels, numbering 220 million poor.
Given these developments, the glaring question is: If Latin America effectively employed viable alternatives to economic alignment with the US for twenty solid years, then why the abrupt turnaround in the 80s and 90s? In truth, much of the industry that drove Latin America’s unprecedented economic boom between the 40s to the 70s was technologically important. This fact in and of itself is key, and with “regard to global affairs”—writes Stefan Fritsch in ‘Technology and Global Affairs’—“certain weapons systems…as well as communication, transportation, and energy systems” were absolutely vital to “global economics, security, and culture.” Thus, the ability of private US interest to control and to own many of the most socio-technologically important industries in Latin America allowed it to shape the future.
Importantly, the aforementioned alterations to the international political landscape happened not because different collectives of peoples realized that they had naturally occurring interests, or mutual interests that precluded war between states—a basic pillar of neoliberal apologetics. Instead, this new control of the Latin American regional economy was engineered in order to commandeer the sovereignty of its states. Establishing new laws to govern trade and to secure the ownership of property further lead to an increase in poverty for an entire region, even though it enriched the American economy and thereby excluded the US from having to brook a similar fate. The asymmetry in development history here broaches further circumspection about the reality and condition of mutual financial interests between the US and Latin America.
As the US developed its own technological advancements and secured technologically relevant industry a place at the economic table, Latin American nations demanded greater access to rich world technology (by the 1981 Cancun Conference, at the latest). Like Latin American nations, the US most certainly understood the importance that technology would have in shaping future international relations developments. This understanding especially included those key industries that once boomed under state control in Latin America. And, as transnational corporations proved to hold sway in international affairs, they sought control over these technologically influential elements of Latin America’s regional economy. All the US needed to do was secure legal access for them, its private firms, whose very wealth of fuels American empire.
Mateo Pimentel lives on the Mexican-US border. You can follow him on Twitter @mateo_pimentel.