On February 13, 2019, the newly appointed United States Special Envoy to Venezuela, Elliott Abrams testified to the Congressional Committee on Foreign Affairs. Abrams, a convicted felon for his role in the Iran-Contra Affair, was appointed by the Trump Administration to lead in what they describe as inevitable regime change in Venezuela. U.S. Representative from Texas and member of the Committee on Intelligence, Joaquin Castro questioned Abrams’ role and objectives given his record: “In Nicaragua, you were involved in the effort to covertly provide lethal aid to the Contras against the will of Congress. You ultimately pled guilty to two counts of withholding information from Congress in regard to your testimony during the Iran-Contra scandal.”
In understanding the U.S. imperialist and paternalistic meddling in Latin America over the past two centuries, Abrams appears to be the right man for the job, as American foreign policy in Latin America has historically benefited the U.S. at the cost of impoverished communities that have struggled and continue to struggle for stability, survival, and dignity. This has forced millions of Latin Americans to leave their homeland in search of new opportunities in the U.S. and in other countries. Today, a segment of Americans is concerned over the high number of immigrants seeking asylum and new beginnings in the U.S., yet many have limited understanding on why Central Americans are fleeing their home countries. Due to the political divisiveness of the topic, a rational conversation based on substantive argument and logic cannot occur in a country that presumptuously touts itself as being the most advanced in the region.
With the signing of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, the U.S. positioned itself for influence, power, and control in the Americas, while opposing further European colonization of Latin America. By 1826, these nations, with the exceptions of Cuba and Puerto Rico, had achieved independence from their European overseers. Weakened and ravaged by warfare and stunted by political infighting and other growing pains that debilitate young nations, Latin American countries became subject to U.S. influence and control. U.S. actions with its Latin American neighbors ranged from humanitarian efforts, to economic exploitation, to outright occupation. In 1848, Mexico lost over half of its territory to its northern neighbor. This allowed the U.S. to partially fulfill its quest for Manifest Destiny, controlling from Atlantic coast to Pacific coast. Yet, cleverly masking U.S. imperialist notions, Manifest Destiny also called for the U.S. to rule from North Pole to South Pole.
In 1893, U.S. historian Fredrick Jackson Turner in his Frontier Thesis argued that U.S. democracy was born out of the frontier experience which had not been corrupted by the European mentality of the Eastern U.S. Turner forced Americans and historians alike to wonder what was to follow given that there was no frontier left on the mainland for Americans to expand to. Losing no time, the U.S. shifted attention and expanded its influence beyond continental North America during the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. Puerto Rico became a U.S. colony as a result of the Spanish-American War in 1898. Also resulting from this conflict, Cuba under the Platt Amendment became subjugated politically, militarily, and economically by the U.S. This relationship lasted until the 1959 Cuban Revolution and the rise of Fidel Castro’s regime. Both islands, along with the acquisition of Guam, the Philippines, and Hawaii, became home to important military installations and symbolic of U.S. imperialism in Latin America and beyond.
In 1901, William Sydney Porter, known by his pen name O. Henry, coined the term “Banana Republics” after living in Honduras and witnessing the exploitation perpetrated by the United Fruit Company and the Standard Fruit Company. American foreign policies such as the Roosevelt Corollary signed in 1904 ensured that “the U.S. would intervene as a last resort to ensure that other nations in the Western Hemisphere fulfilled their obligations to international creditors, and did not violate the rights of the U.S. or invite ‘foreign aggression to the detriment of the entire body of American nations.’” These U.S. fruit corporations exploited natural resources and workers, while receiving tax exemptions and contributing very little to local economies. The same was true in Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, and Panama, among other nations. Through military interventions in what are known as the “Banana Wars,” and by coopting and corrupting political systems, the U.S. brought these young nations under its control. When these countries resisted and challenged these abusive U.S. relationships, democratically elected governments were overthrown by U.S.-led interests.
American foreign policy in Latin American affairs during the Cold War prioritized the preservation of a communist-free region subject to oppressing any movement regarded as leftist or that challenged the status quo which ensured U.S. capitalist agendas and investments. After fifty years of exploitation by the United Fruit Company, Guatemala democratically elected Jacobo Arbenz in 1951 who called for the redistribution of land. Without credible evidence based on any remote intelligence, the heads of United Fruit Company convinced President Eisenhower that Arbenz was to align Guatemala with the Soviet Union, prompting a CIA-led overthrow in 1954. Honduran President Ramon Villeda Morales faced removal by military coup as well in 1963 after being democratically elected and creating policies that favored the working class and the poor at the cost of U.S. interests. One of the most notable military coups occurred in 1973 in Chile where democratically elected President Salvador Allende was overthrown by a CIA-aided operation that led to the installation of brutal neoliberal dictator Augusto Pinochet. In Nicaragua, the U.S. supported dictators such as Anastacio Somoza and terrorist groups such as the Contras to suppress political mobilization of the masses. Under the Reagan Administration, Elliott Abrams was involved in the Iran-Contra Affair and, under the guise of preserving human rights, unleashed lethal tactics against leftist groups in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua.
Over the last three decades, the international recession deeply impacted Latin America allowing the International Monetary Fund to step in and demand countries seeking loans to adopt policies that promote free-market fundamentalism that consequently widened the wealth gap between the rich and the poor throughout Latin America. As Latin American economies have struggled, youth have turned to the lucrative drug underworld. Coincidentally, the rhetoric in U.S. foreign policy in Latin America has shifted from preserving and promoting democracy in the region to fighting the war on drugs, which continues to produce further instability in Latin America. In turn, the American appetite for drugs has given rise to drug cartels and gangs throughout Latin America. Likewise, the production, potency, and affordability of drugs in Latin America has also contributed to the growing drug demand in the U.S. This has led to a drug war in Mexico that accounts for an estimated 200,000 dead and disappeared persons, and which has given rise to lawlessness not only in Mexico, but in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, countries where local gangs have been recruited to work for drug cartels.
Over the past century and a half, the U.S. has extended its power and influence throughout Latin America while benefitting from their weaknesses as dependent nations. Mexican dictator and U.S. ally Porfirio Díaz described it best when explaining Mexico’s relationship to the U.S., “¡Pobre México, tan lejos de dios y tan cerca de los Estados Unidos!” (“Poor Mexico, so far from God yet so newar to the United States!”) The same can be said about the rest of the Americas and if the immigration issue is to be solved the U.S. must address the negative effects of centuries of oppressive policies and actions that have depleted Latin American nations of their natural resources, wealth, and human potential.