As the saying goes, geography is destiny. Despite Latin America’s proximity with the United States, the latter has struggled to impose a social and political arrangement that would securely place the former under its traditional sphere of influence, beginning with America’s first ever foreign policy pronunciation known as “The Monroe Doctrine.” After World War II, the United States built an extensive alliance network embedded with hundreds if not thousands of U.S. military installations around the world. Among the most notable traditional U.S. allies since World War II have been Great Britain, Canada, Germany, Turkey, Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Japan, and Australia.
Traditional U.S. allies have helped protect U.S. security globally through a strategy known as “defense in depth,” which had been identified inter alia by Melvyn Leffler, an American historian of the Cold War. In return for helping enhance U.S. security globally, traditional U.S. allies have been conferred economic benefits or sweeteners by the United States in the form of either trade agreements that allow goods and products of allied nations to enter the U.S. market, or by receiving economic aid from the United States.
This traditional global alliance of the United States has remained relatively stable since World War II. Latin America’s compatibility with the United States, however, has been shaky due largely to cultural and religious differences. As a result, the relationship between the United States and Latin America has had its ups and downs to say the least. Latin America went from being an isolated and aboriginal region of the world to becoming a new world destination for Europeans when the likes of Christopher Columbus, Hernan Cortes, and Ponce De Leon made their way to the Western Hemisphere for discoveries, markets, and territory in the 15th Century AD.
Latin America’s basic character and identity is the result of Spanish colonization, which is why a post-British and English-speaking United States is often at odds with its southern neighbors. Aside from the cultural divisions between the United States and Latin America, there are also significant religious divisions between the two sides. The United States is a predominantly Protestant and Deist nation from its roots and foundation, whereas Latin America is predominantly Catholic. Why Canada has been able to bridge the divide per se between itself and the United States aside from there being cultural similarities between the two nations is because Canada is areligious and secular, and thus has very little reason to be in conflict with the United States over cultural or religious issues.
Soon after U.S. independence in the late 18th Century, Spain began collapsing as an imperial power in the early 19th Century as a result of losing major naval battles against Britain. The famous Spanish “Armada” was no match for Britain’s growing naval prowess. In reaction to Spain’s demise as an imperial power, a man named Simon Bolivar began a push for Latin America’s independence from Spain. Many Latin American nations like Cuba and Venezuela who are anti-American to this day consider themselves as “Bolivarian” by nature. Whereas Bolivar fought for Latin American independence from Spain in the 19th Century, “Bolivarian” leaders in the 20th and 21st Century like Fidel Castro of Cuba and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela fought for what they argued to be independence from the United States.
Why Latin American leaders deem the U.S. as an imperial force over Latin America as opposed to a partner is the result of the “Monroe Doctrine.” Through the “Monroe Doctrine,” the United States pronounced as its most basic foreign policy pronouncement that the entire Western Hemisphere would serve as the undisputed security zone of the United States, and thus the Western Hemisphere would be the basis and starting point for a U.S. sphere of influence. This basic security policy of the United States would mean that Latin America would have to come to terms with the United States being at the top of the totem pole per se in the Western Hemisphere.
Soon after the United States established the “Monroe Doctrine” in the early 19th Century, the United States would transform from being an isolated regional power in the Western Hemisphere to a major naval power on par with Great Britain and with a global scope. The United States would use its growing naval power to suppress an independence movement in Cuba in the late 19th to early 20th centuries, and it would colonize the Philippines. These displays of force by the United States in Cuba and the Philippines were not only an effort to push Spanish influence out of a growing U.S. sphere of influence, but they also served as a segue for the U.S. into becoming the foremost global power. World War I for Europe proved to be the jab that would open up the final blow that came in the form of World War II to European power and prestige.
The United States, despite suffering a number of casualties in these two World Wars, remained for the most part unhindered and thus was the last man standing in the international arena. Much of what the United States had to deal with in the latter half of the 20th Century was not necessarily competition from Europe, but rather the competition from rising powers like Russia and China, both of whom were Asian countries. Russia was unique in the sense that it was both a European power as well as an Asian power. Since America’s covert operations in Ukraine in 2014 and the subsequent Russian annexation of Crimea, however, Russia made an Asian pivot and has solidified its relationship with China.
Because of Russia’s rise in the latter half of the 20th Century, Latin America became a Cold War battleground. The United States would face off with the Soviet Union virtually everywhere in Latin America, including in Nicaragua, Guatemala, Cuba, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, and even the Dominican Republic. The viability of socialist movements in Latin America, however, would die down as a result of the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991. Latin America in the late 20th Century was therefore at a crossroads. The choice was clear: either die out with the Soviet Union socially, politically, and in economic terms, or open up your heart to the idea of partnering with the neighboring United States and reaping benefits from a relationship with the most powerful nation in the world.
Mexico was the first to open up their hearts to the idea of a broad-reaching relationship with the United States when U.S. President Bill Clinton proposed and forged the North American Free Trade Agreement, otherwise known as NAFTA. One of the key architects and masterminds of NAFTA was Robert Pastor, who was a professor of mine at American University. Pastor served as National Security Adviser for Latin American affairs under U.S. President Jimmy Carter. According to America’s current president, Donald Trump, NAFTA has benefitted Mexico and Canada more than the United States. Nevertheless, the goal of NAFTA for the United States under the Clinton Administration and beyond was to use economic exchanges with its neighbors to forge a lasting social and political relationship that would enhance U.S. power and prestige in the Americas, which again is in line with the first ever U.S. foreign policy, the “Monroe Doctrine.”
Despite the successes of NAFTA in providing a platform and template for U.S. integration with Latin American nations, NAFTA would soon be offset and overshadowed by an economic giant, namely, China. America’s luck with Venezuela went from bad to worse when Hugo Chavez and the Bolivarian “Chavistas” rose to power in the early 21st Century. Oil-rich Venezuela is believed to possess greater oil reserves than Saudi Arabia. Under the “Chavistas,” Venezuela would forge relationships with staunchly anti-American regimes like the Iranian regime, the Castro regime in Cuba, as well as Putin’s regime in Russia in order to become a thorn in the side of the United States both socially and politically. After Chavez’s death, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro worsened the relationship between his country and the United States, and as a result Venezuela is on the brink of civil war between a pro-American opposition led by Juan Guaido and the “Chavistas” who are totally opposed to U.S. corporate and social influence in their country.
The administration of George W. Bush did very little to sustain the few ties that the United States had with Latin American nations, given that the United States became embroiled in the wars and the chaos of the Middle East and Afghanistan. As a result, Russia and China saw an opening. Up until now, China has amassed trade deals and arrangements with Latin America that amount to at least 250 billion U.S. dollars. Russia is believed to have established security and intelligence units in key strategic locations in Latin America. Russia in 2016 went as far as discussing a security pact with Cuba that would enable Russian forces to establish a military presence in Cuba, which would have prompted a replay of the historic “Cuban Missile Crisis” that occurred during John F. Kennedy’s tenure as president.
Barack Obama, however, proved to be the counterbalance against what appeared to be a growing push by Russia and China to establish a footprint in Latin America. All that Russia and China were doing in Latin America, after all, was in direct contravention to the famous “Monroe Doctrine.” Through Barack Obama’s efforts, NAFTA took on both a social and political dimension in addition to its economic dimension. Cuba opened up to the United States diplomatically with the Castro regime beginning in 2015, and Obama had a relatively civilized relationship with the Chavistas. Brazil under Lula and Dilma Rousseff were extremely friendly towards a United States led by Obama, and Argentina actually improved its ties with the United States despite the transition from a left-leaning Kirshner government to a right-leaning government led by Mauricio Macri. And in Colombia, the government and FARC rebels signed a historic peace deal while Obama was in power. Colombia happens to be one of the main sources of illegal drugs flowing into North America, and a peace settlement there may actually help address the issue of the Latin American drug trade. Latin America’s drug trade is largely the result of America’s regime change policy in Latin America during the Cold War. Nevertheless, with Afghanistan producing over 90 percent of the world’s opium, the Afghan drug trade far overshadows that of Latin America.
The ability of the United States to woo Latin American nations during the Obama era is now dying rapidly with Donald Trump as president. But to his credit, Donald Trump has tried to offset his campaign rhetoric with both direct and indirect outreach to Latin American leaders. For one, Donald Trump made an unexpected visit to Mexico during his campaign and promised a “hemispheric” effort to align U.S. interests with those of Latin American nations. And despite his rhetoric and histrionic visit to Miami in 2017 where he met with folks from the Cuban-American community that is largely anti-Castro, Donald Trump has refrained from reversing the gains made as a result of Barack Obama’s diplomatic efforts with Cuba. Ultimately, if the United States wishes to bring changes to the political system in Venezuela and bring it into the American sphere of influence, it will have to engage in a quid pro quo with Russia and China that would transfer Ukraine and Taiwan to the Russians and Chinese respectively.
The major difference between the Obama era relationship with Latin America and the Trump era relationship with Latin America thus far is that Obama’s relationship was based on charm and courtship whereas Trump’s relationship is based on pragmatism and crude interests. One can argue that the relationship Obama enjoyed with Latin America bodes better for the United States. Trump has largely soured the relationship between the United States and Latin America through his call for a wall between the United States and Mexico, in addition to the rescinding of the DACA program, otherwise known as the “Dreamers” program, by the Trump administration.
The DACA program was an effort by the Obama Administration to provide reprieve for hundreds of thousands of young people of Latin American origin who came to the United States as minors and through no fault of their own. To rescind the DACA program may have been seen as pragmatic by the Trump Administration in order to satisfy his nativist base, but it was also heartless and it could serve as the pitfall for U.S. power and influence over Latin American nations. Trump’s agenda is not about making America great again. Rather, it is about keeping America predominantly white. Yet, social and economic wealth stems from diversity, and ultimately it is diversity that is America’s greatest asset.
A large proportion of American laborers are of Latin American origin, and without laborers from Latin America, the American economy would collapse. In fact, more immigration from Latin America as well as other parts of the world is needed to ensure that America’s economy remains functional. In order for the Western Hemisphere to prosper as a whole, Americans must demand that there are more efforts made in order to advance regionalism in the Western Hemisphere and ensure that there is not only economic integration, but also social and political integration between the United States and its Latin American neighbors. After all, geography is destiny.