by Greg Grandin
"neglect," "Washington," and "Latin America," and you will be led to
thousands of hand-wringing calls from politicians and pundits for
Washington to "pay more attention" to the region. True, Richard Nixon
once said that "people don't give one shit" about the place. And his
National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger quipped that Latin America is
a "dagger pointed at the heart of Antarctica." But Kissinger also made
that same joke about Chile, Argentina, and New Zealand -- and, of the
three countries, only the latter didn't suffer widespread political
murder as a result of his policies, a high price to pay for such a
reportedly inconsequential place.
Latin America, in fact, has
been indispensable in the evolution of U.S. diplomacy. The region is
often referred to as America's "backyard," but a better metaphor might
be Washington's "strategic reserve," the place where ascendant
foreign-policy coalitions regroup and redraw the outlines of U.S.
power, following moments of global crisis.
When the Great
Depression had the U.S. on the ropes, for example, it was in Latin
America that New Deal diplomats worked out the foundations of liberal
multilateralism, a diplomatic framework that Washington would put into
place with much success elsewhere after World War II.
1980s, the first generation of neocons turned to Latin America to play
out their "rollback" fantasies -- not just against Communism, but
against a tottering multilateralist foreign-policy. It was largely in a
Central America roiled by left-wing insurgencies that the New Right
first worked out the foundational principles of what, after 9/11, came
to be known as the Bush Doctrine: the right to wage war unilaterally in
highly moralistic terms.
We are once again at a historic
crossroads. An ebbing of U.S. power -- this time caused, in part, by
military overreach -- faces a mobilized Latin America; and, on the eve
of regime change at home, with George W. Bush's neoconservative
coalition in ruins after eight years of disastrous rule, would-be
foreign policy makers are once again looking south.
Goodbye to All That
era of the United States as the dominant influence in Latin America is
over," says the Council on Foreign Relations, in a new report filled
with sober policy suggestions for ways the U.S. can recoup its waning
influence in a region it has long claimed as its own.
America is now mostly governed by left or center-left governments that
differ in policy and style -- from the populism of Hugo ChÃ¡vez in
Venezuela to the reformism of Luiz InÃ¡cio Lula da Silva in Brazil and
Michelle Bachelet in Chile. Yet all share a common goal: asserting
greater autonomy from the United States.
Latin Americans are
now courting investment from China, opening markets in Europe,
dissenting from Bush's War on Terror, stalling the Free Trade Agreement
of the Americas, and sidelining the International Monetary Fund which,
over the last couple of decades, has served as a stalking horse for
Wall Street and the Treasury Department.
And they are electing
presidents like Ecuador's Rafael Correa, who recently announced that
his government would not renew the soon-to-expire lease on Manta Air
Field, the most prominent U.S. military base in South America. Correa
had previously suggested that, if Ecuador could set up its own base in
Florida, he would consider extending the lease. When Washington balked,
he offered Manta to a Chinese concession, suggesting that the airfield
be turned into "China's gateway to Latin America."
past, such cheek would have been taken as a clear violation of the
Monroe Doctrine, proclaimed in 1823 by President James Monroe, who
declared that Washington would not permit Europe to recolonize any part
of the Americas. In 1904, Theodore Roosevelt updated the doctrine to
justify a series of Caribbean invasions and occupations. And Presidents
Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan invoked it to validate Cold War
CIA-orchestrated coups and other covert operations.
have changed. "Latin America is not Washington's to lose," the Council
on Foreign Relations report says, "nor is it Washington's to save." The
Monroe Doctrine, it declares, is "obsolete."
Good news for
Latin America, one would think. But the last time someone from the
Council on Foreign Relations, which since its founding in 1921 has
represented mainstream foreign-policy opinion, declared the Monroe
Doctrine defunct, the result was genocide.
Enter the Liberal Establishment
would be Sol Linowitz who, in 1975, as chair of the Commission on
United States-Latin American Relations, said that the Monroe Doctrine
was "inappropriate and irrelevant to the changed realities and trends
of the future."
The little-remembered Linowitz Commission was
made up of respected scholars and businessmen from what was then called
the "liberal establishment." It was but one part of a broader attempt
by America's foreign-policy elite to respond to the cascading crises of
the 1970s -- defeat in Vietnam, rising third-world nationalism, Asian
and European competition, skyrocketing energy prices, a falling dollar,
the Watergate scandal, and domestic dissent. Confronted with a
precipitous collapse of America's global legitimacy, the Council on
Foreign Relations, along with other mainline think tanks like the
Brookings Institute and the newly formed Trilateral Commission, offered
a series of proposals that might help the U.S. stabilize its authority,
while allowing for "a smooth and peaceful evolution of the global
There was widespread consensus among the
intellectuals and corporate leaders affiliated with these institutions
that the kind of anticommunist zeal that had marched the U.S. into the
disaster in Vietnam needed to be tamped down, and that "new forms of
common management" between Washington, Europe, and Japan had to be
worked out. Advocates for a calmer world order came from the same
corporate bloc that underwrote the Democratic Party and the
Rockefeller-wing of the Republican Party.
They hoped that a
normalization of global politics would halt, if not reverse, the
erosion of the U.S. economic position. Military de-escalation would
free up public revenue for productive investment, while containing
inflationary pressures (which scared the bond managers of multinational
banks). Improved relations with the Communist bloc would open the USSR,
Eastern Europe, and China to trade and investment. There was also
general agreement that Washington should stop viewing Third World
socialism through the prism of the Cold War conflict with the Soviet
At that moment throughout Latin America, leftists and
nationalists were -- as they are now -- demanding a more equitable
distribution of global wealth. Lest radicalization spread, the
Trilateral Commission's executive director Zbignew Brzezinski, soon to
be President Jimmy Carter's national security advisor, argued that it
would be "wise for the United States to make an explicit move to
abandon the Monroe Doctrine." The Linowitz Commission agreed and
offered a series of recommendations to that effect -- including the
return of the Panama Canal to Panama and a decrease in U.S. military
aid to the region -- that would largely define Carter's Latin American
Exit the Liberal Establishment
Of course, it
was not corporate liberalism but rather a resurgent and revanchist
militarism from the Right that turned out to offer the most cohesive
and, for a time, successful solution to the crises of the 1970s.
a gathering coalition of old-school law-and-order anticommunists, first
generation neoconservatives, and newly empowered evangelicals, the New
Right organized an ever metastasizing set of committees, foundations,
institutes, and magazines that focused on specific issues -- the SALT
II nuclear disarmament negotiations, the Panama Canal Treaty, and the
proposed MX missile system, as well as U.S. policy in Cuba, South
Africa, Rhodesia, Israel, Taiwan, Afghanistan, and Central America. All
of them were broadly committed to avenging defeat in Vietnam (and the
"stab in the back" by the liberal media and the public at home). They
were also intent on restoring righteous purpose to American diplomacy.
had corporate liberals, so, now, neoconservative intellectuals looked
to Latin America to hone their ideas. President Ronald Reagan's
ambassador to the UN, Jeane Kirkpatrick, for instance, focused mainly
on Latin America in laying out the foundational principles of modern
neoconservative thought. She was particularly hard on Linowitz, who,
she said, represented the "disinterested internationalist spirit" of
"appeasement" -- a word back with us again. His report, she insisted,
meant "abandoning the strategic perspective which has shaped U.S.
policy from the Monroe Doctrine down to the eve of the Carter
administration, at the center of which was a conception of the national
interest and a belief in the moral legitimacy of its defense."
first, Brookings, the Council on Foreign Affairs, and the Trilateral
Commission, as well as the Business Roundtable, founded in 1972 by the
crÃ¨me de la CEO crÃ¨me, opposed the push to remilitarize American
society; but, by the late 1970s, it was clear that "normalization" had
failed to solve the global economic crisis. Europe and Japan were not
cooperating in stabilizing the dollar, and the economies of Eastern
Europe, the USSR, and China were too anemic to absorb sufficient
amounts of U.S. capital or serve as profitable trading partners.
Throughout the 1970s, financial houses like the Rockefellers' Chase
Manhattan Bank had become engorged with petrodollars deposited by Saudi
Arabia, Iran, Venezuela, and other oil-exporting nations. They needed
to do something with all that money, yet the U.S. economy remained
sluggish, and much of the Third World off limits.
Ronald Reagan's 1980 presidential victory, mainstream policymakers and
intellectuals, many of them self-described liberals, increasingly came
to back the Reagan Revolution's domestic and foreign agenda: gutting
the welfare state, ramping up defense spending, opening up the Third
World to U.S. capital, and jumpstarting the Cold War.
after the Linowitz Commission proclaimed the Monroe Doctrine no longer
viable, Ronald Reagan invoked it to justify his administration's
patronage of murderous anti-communists in Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El
Salvador. A few years after Jimmy Carter announced that the U.S. had
broken "free of that inordinate fear of communism," Reagan quoted John
F. Kennedy saying, "Communist domination in this hemisphere can never
Reagan's illegal patronage of the Contras --
those murderers he hailed as the "moral equivalent of America's
founding fathers" and deployed to destabilize Nicaragua's Sandinista
government -- and his administration's funding of death squads in El
Salvador and Guatemala brought together, for the first time, the New
Right's two main constituencies. Neoconservatives provided Reagan's
revival of the imperial presidency with legal and intellectual
justification, while the religious Right backed up the new militarism
with grassroots energy.
This partnership was first built --
just as it has more recently been continued in Iraq -- on a mountain of
mutilated corpses: 40,000 Nicaraguans and 70,000 El Salvadorans killed
by U.S. allies; 200,000 Guatemalans, many of them Mayan peasants,
victimized in a scorched-earth campaign the UN would rule to be
The End of the Neocon Holiday from History
recent Council on Foreign Relations report on Latin America, arriving
as it does in another moment of imperial decline, seems once again to
signal a new emerging consensus, one similar in tone to that of the
post-Vietnam 1970s. In every dimension other than military, Newsweek
editor Fareed Zacharia argues in his new book, The Post-American World,
"the distribution of power is shifting, moving away from American
dominance." (Never mind that, just five years ago, on the eve of the
invasion of Iraq, he was insisting on the exact opposite -- that we now
lived in a "unipolar world" where America's position was, and would be,
To borrow a phrase from their own lexicon,
the neocons' "holiday from history" is over. The fiasco in Iraq, the
fall in the value of the dollar, the rise of India and China as new
industrial and commercial powerhouses, and of Russia as an energy
superpower, the failure to secure the Middle East, soaring oil and gas
prices (as well as skyrocketing prices for other key raw materials and
basic foodstuffs), and the consolidation of a prosperous Europe have
all brought their dreams of global supremacy crashing down.
Obama is obviously the candidate best positioned to walk the U.S. back
from the edge of irrelevance. Though no one hoping for a job in his
White House would put it in such defeatist terms, the historic task of
the next president will not be to win this president's Global War on
Terror, but to negotiate America's reentry into a community of nations.
Parag Khanna, an Obama advisor, recently argued that, by
maximizing its cultural and technological advantage, the U.S. can, with
a little luck, perhaps secure a position as third partner in a new
tripartite global order in which Europe and Asia would have equal
shares, a distinct echo of the trilateralist position of the 1970s.
(Forget those Munich analogies, if the U.S. electorate were more
historically literate, Republicans would get better mileage out of
branding Obama not Neville Chamberlain, but Spain's Fernando VII or
Britain's Clement Richard Attlee, each of whom presided over his
country's imperial decline.)
So it has to be asked: If Obama
wins in November and tries to implement a more rational, less
ideologically incandescent deployment of American power -- perhaps
using Latin America as a staging ground for a new policy -- would it
once again provoke the kind of nationalist backlash that purged
Rockefellerism from the Republican Party, swept Jimmy Carter out of the
White House, and armed the death squads in Central America?
there are already plenty of feverish conservative think tanks, from the
Hudson Institute to the Heritage Foundation, that would double down on
Bush's crusades as a way out of the current mess. But in the 1970s, the
New Right was in ascendance; today, it is visibly decomposing. Then, it
could lay responsibility for the deep and prolonged crisis that gripped
the United States at the feet of the "establishment," while offering
solutions -- an arms build-up, a renewed push into the Third World, and
free-market fundamentalism -- that drew much of that establishment into
Today, the Right wholly owns the current crisis,
along with its most immediate cause, the Iraq War. Even if John McCain
were able to squeak out a win in November, he would be the functional
equivalent not of Reagan, who embodied a movement on the march, but of
Jimmy Carter, trying desperately to hold a fraying coalition together.
Right's decay as an intellectual force is nowhere more evident than in
the fits it throws in the face of the Left's -- or China's -- advances
in Latin America. The self-confidant vitality with which Jeane
Kirkpatrick used Latin America to skewer the Carter administration has
been replaced with the tinny, desperate shrill of despair. "Who lost
Latin America?" asks the Center for Security Policy's Frank Gaffney --
of pretty much everyone he meets. The region, he says, is now a "magnet
for Islamist terrorists and a breeding ground for hostile political
movementsâ€¦ The key leader is ChÃ¡vez, the billionaire dictator of
Venezuela who has declared a Latino jihad against the United States."
just because the Right is unlikely to unfurl its banner over Latin
America again soon doesn't mean that U.S. hemispheric diplomacy will be
demilitarized. After all, it was Bill Clinton, not George W. Bush, who,
at the behest of Lockheed Martin in 1997, reversed a Carter
administration ban (based on Linowitz report recommendations) on the
sale of high-tech weaponry to Latin America. That, in turn, kicked off
a reckless and wasteful Southern Cone arms race. And it was Clinton,
not Bush, who dramatically increased military aid to the murderous
Colombian government and to corporate mercenaries like Blackwater and
Dyncorp, further escalating the misguided U.S. "war on drugs" in Latin
In fact, a quick comparison between the Linowitz
report and the new Council on Foreign Relations study on Latin America
provides a sobering way of measuring just how far right the "liberal
establishment" has shifted over the last three decades. The Council
does admirably advise Washington to normalize relations with Cuba and
engage with Venezuela, while downplaying the possibility of "Islamic
terrorists" using the area as a staging ground -- a longstanding
fantasy of the neocons. (Douglas Feith, former Pentagon undersecretary,
suggested that, after 9/11, the U.S. hold off invading Afghanistan and
instead bomb Paraguay, which has a large Shi'ite community, just to
"surprise" the Sunni al-Qaeda.)
Yet, where the Linowitz report
provoked the ire of the likes of Jeane Kirkpatrick by writing that the
U.S. should not try to "define the limits of ideological diversity for
other nations" and that Latin Americans "can and will assess for
themselves the merits and disadvantages of the Cuban approach," the
Council is much less open-minded. It insists on presenting Venezuela as
a problem the U.S. needs to address -- even though the government in
Caracas is recognized as legitimate by all and is considered an ally,
even a close one, by most Latin American countries. Latin Americans may
"know what is best for themselves," as the new report concedes, yet
Washington still knows better, and so should back "social justice"
issues as a means to win Venezuelans and other Latin Americans away
That the Council report regularly places "social
justice" between scare quotes suggests that the phrase is used more as
a marketing ploy -- kind of like "New Coke" -- than to signal that U.S.
banks and corporations are willing to make substantive concessions to
Latin American nationalists. Seven decades ago, Franklin Roosevelt
supported the right of Latin American countries to nationalize U.S.
interests, including Standard Oil holdings in Bolivia and Mexico,
saying it was time for others in the hemisphere to get their "fair
share." Three decades ago, the Linowitz Commission recommended the
establishment of a "code of conduct" defining the responsibilities of
foreign corporations in the region and recognizing the right of
governments to nationalize industries and resources.
Council, in contrast, sneers at ChÃ¡vez's far milder efforts to create
joint ventures with oil multinationals, while offering nothing but
pablum in its place. Its centerpiece recommendation -- aimed at
cultivating Brazil as a potential anchor of a post-Bush, post-ChÃ¡vez
hemispheric order -- urges the abolition of subsidies and tariffs
protecting U.S. agro-industry in order to advance a "Biofuel
Partnership" with Brazil's own behemoth agricultural sector. This would
be an environmental disaster, pushing large, mechanized plantations
ever deeper into the Amazon basin, while doing nothing to generate
decent jobs or distribute wealth more fairly.
representatives from the finance sector of the U.S. economy, the
Council recommends little beyond continuing the failed corporate "free
trade" policies of the last twenty years -- and, in this case, those
scare quotes are justified because what they're advocating is about as
free as corporate "social justice" is just.
An Obama Doctrine?
far, Barack Obama promises little better. A few weeks ago, he traveled
to Miami and gave a major address on Latin America to the Cuban
American National Foundation. It was hardly an auspicious venue for a
speech that promised to "engage the people of the region with the
respect owed to a partner."
Surely, the priorities for humane
engagement would have been different had he been addressing not wealthy
right-wing Cuban exiles but an audience, say, of the kinds of Latino
migrants in Los Angeles who have revitalized the U.S. labor movement,
or of Central American families in Postville, Iowa, where immigration
and Justice Department authorities recently staged a massive raid on a
meatpacking plant, arresting as many as 700 undocumented workers. Obama
did call for comprehensive immigration reform and promised to fulfill
Franklin Roosevelt's 68 year-old Four Freedoms agenda, including the
social-democratic "freedom from want." Yet he spent much of his speech
throwing red meat to his Cuban audience.
not-exactly-radical advice of the Council on Foreign Relations, the
candidate pledged to maintain the embargo on Cuba. And then he went
further. Sounding a bit like Frank Gaffney, he all but accused the Bush
administration of "losing Latin America" and allowing China, Europe,
and "demagogues like Hugo ChÃ¡vez" to step "into the vacuum." He even
raised the specter of Iranian influence in the region, pointing out
that "just the other day Tehran and Caracas launched a joint bank with
their windfall oil profits."
Whatever one's opinion on Hugo
ChÃ¡vez, any diplomacy that claims to take Latin American opinion
seriously has to acknowledge one thing: Most of the region's leaders
not only don't see him as a "problem," but have joined him on major
economic and political initiatives like the Bank of the South, an
alternative to the International Monetary Fund and the Union of South
American Nations, modeled on the European Union, established just two
weeks ago. And any U.S. president who is sincere in wanting to help
Latin Americans liberate themselves from "want" will have to work with
the Latin American left -- in all its varieties.
ominous than Obama's posturing on Venezuela is his position on
Colombia. Critics have long pointed out that the billions of dollars in
military aid provided to the Colombian security forces to defeat the
FARC insurgency and curtail cocaine production would discourage a
negotiated end to the civil war in that country and potentially provoke
its escalation into neighboring Andean lands. That's exactly what
happened last March, when Colombia's president Alvaro Uribe ordered the
bombing of a rebel camp located in Ecuador (possibly with U.S.
logistical support supplied from Manta Air Force Base, which gives you
an idea of why Correa wants to give it to China). To justify the raid,
Uribe explicitly invoked the Bush Doctrine's right of preemptive,
unilateral action. In response, Ecuador and Venezuela began to mobilize
troops along their border with Colombia, bringing the region to the
precipice of war.
Most interestingly, in that conflict, an
overwhelming majority of Latin American and Caribbean countries sided
with Venezuela and Ecuador, categorically condemning the Colombian raid
and reaffirming the sovereignty of individual nations recognized by
Franklin Roosevelt long ago. Not Obama, however. He essentially
endorsed the Bush administration's drive to transform Colombia's
relations with its Andean neighbors into the one Israel has with most
of the Middle East. In his Miami speech, he swore that he would
"support Colombia's right to strike terrorists who seek safe-havens
across its borders."
Equally troublesome has been Obama's
endorsement of the controversial Merida Initiative, which human rights
groups like Amnesty International have condemned as an application of
the "Colombian solution" to Mexico and Central America, providing their
militaries and police with a massive infusion of money to combat drugs
and gangs. Crime is indeed a serious problem in these countries, and
deserves considered attention. It's chilling, however, to have Colombia
-- where death-squads now have infiltrated every level of government,
and where union and other political activists are executed on a regular
basis -- held up as a model for other parts of Latin America.
however, not only supports the initiative, but wants to expand it
beyond Mexico and Central America. "We must press further south as
well," he said in Miami.
It seems that once again that, as in the 1970s, reports of the death of the Monroe Doctrine are greatly exaggerated.