Other Military Operations and Peacekeeping Missions: U.S. Relations and Operations in the Caribbean and Central and South America

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Other Military Operations and Peacekeeping Missions: U.S. Relations and Operations in the Caribbean and Central and South America

For a period of time spanning about two decades—beginning with the Spanish-American War (1898) and ending with the Woodrow Wilson presidency (1913–1921)—the United States came closer to building a colonial empire in Latin America than at any other time in its history. After World War II, the Cold War and the subsequent “War on Drugs” kept the destiny of Latin America and the Caribbean closely bound up with the United States. Even as the memory of the past U.S. interventions in Latin America fade away, new issues such as immigration and oil rights continue to cause tension between the United States and its southern neighbors.

The Nineteenth Century and the Monroe Doctrine

As early as 1798, the young American Navy was fighting the so-called Quasi-War against France (1798–1800) and participated in several naval engagements throughout the Caribbean and even a Marine landing in the modern-day Dominican Republic to capture a French ship at port. Antipiracy raids continued throughout the next two decades, with troops landing on Cuba and Puerto Rico to eliminate pirate bases.

Throughout the opening decades of the nineteenth century, the former Spanish colonies of Latin and South America declared their independence. U.S. troops repeatedly landed in Argentina, Nicaragua, Uruguay, and Panama to protect American interests throughout this turbulent time. These landings were the practical expression of the Monroe Doctrine, first developed in 1823 by President James Monroe and John Quincy Adams. In its original form, the doctrine was a moral statement against European colonialism in the Americas, but it did not take long for other interpretations to become attached to it. Protection of U.S. investments in Latin and South America was one of the earliest of such unofficial addendums.

Some businessmen, such as railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt, even provided covert support to American adventurers who dreamed of carving out personal kingdoms from Latin American countries. The most well known of these men, William Walker, was initially backed by Vanderbilt, but then turned against his sponsor upon achieving the presidency of Nicaragua after a brief coup. Angered, Vanderbilt used his considerable influence to stir up Nicaragua's neighbors and to foment war. An invading Honduran army was able to depose Walker, who was captured three years later and executed.

The “filibusters,” as adventurers like Walker were called, were an expression of a rapidly developing American philosophy in the mid-nineteenth century: manifest destiny, the concept that it was the duty of the United States to expand westward and spread its culture throughout the Western Hemisphere. The Monroe Doctrine was invoked in the name of manifest destiny and such conflicts as the Mexican-American War (1846–1848) and the Spanish-American War (1898), which saw the United States acquiring, respectively, fifty-two percent of Mexican territory and the islands of Cuba and Puerto Rico.

The Roosevelt-Taft-Wilson Years

The Spanish-American War marked a shift in U.S. policy in the Americas. A vocal movement within the United States began agitating for colonial expansion. Although an overt colonialist policy was never formally adopted, the two decades following the Spanish-American conflict saw extensive intervention in Latin America and the Caribbean.

One of the most obvious physical American interventions in Latin America was the construction of the Panama Canal, a shipping channel across the Isthmus of Panama. This marvel of engineering was of huge military and economic importance to the United States, as it allowed easier and safe passage of American ships between the east and west coasts (before the canal was built, ships had to round the dangerous southern tip of South America). The United States began construction on the canal in 1904; it was opened in 1914. Of course, the United States could not simply go in and start digging. Acquiring the necessary land required some military wrangling, as what is now Panama was at the time part of Colombia. Colombia was reluctant to let the United States have its way, so President Theodore Roosevelt covertly stirred up and backed a Panamanian revolt. The Republic of Panama was soon declared, and Roosevelt got the necessary treaty allowing construction of the canal.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many Latin American nations were unstable, and the United States feared European colonial expansion along its borders (with justification—various European powers were flexing their muscles off the Atlantic coast of South America at the turn of the twentieth century). The threat of European interferences prompted the development of the Roosevelt “Corollary” to the Monroe Doctrine and “Dollar Diplomacy,” so-called for the idea that economic investment in other countries could be used to influence their governments. Together, these new policies constituted the most radical interpretation of the Monroe Doctrine to date. In essence, the Roosevelt Corollary stated that the United States had the right to intervene militarily in any country in the Western Hemisphere that appeared too weak to fend off European intervention.

The Roosevelt Corollary was put into action as the United States intervened extensively in Nicaragua. Nicaragua had long been considered by other powers as a potential site for a second (non-U.S. controlled) canal. Under President William Howard Taft, troops were sent into Nicaragua to back an insurgency funded by U.S. mining corporations. The revolution was successful and American investors flooded into the country, creating a significant U.S.-backed national debt. A U.S.-backed regime was installed in Nicaragua, but it proved unpopular, and soon more troops were sent in to protect it. The U.S. Marines remained in Nicaragua until 1925.

Although President Woodrow Wilson repudiated “Dollar Democracy” upon taking office, his administration saw some of the most extensive U.S. military involvement in the region, particularly in the Caribbean, as U.S. troops occupied Cuba, the Dominican Republic and, most notably, Haiti. In 1915, amid growing concerns of German influence in Haiti and of threats to U.S. business interests there, President Wilson sent marines into Haiti. They remained until 1934, during which time Haiti was essentially under the control of the American military.

The American military also made repeated incursions into Mexico during Wilson's presidency in response to threats and attacks by Mexican revolutionaries (the Mexican Revolution lasted from 1910 to 1921). General John “Black Jack” Pershing's pursuit of revolutionary hero Pancho Villa is perhaps the most well known, but American troops were sent into Mexico several times after that. Furthermore, in the wake of the “Tampico Affair,” in which two American soldiers were arrested in Veracruz, President Wilson sent U.S. troops into the city. The troops took the city after pitched street battles and occupied it for six months, from April to November 1914, nearly touching off war between the two countries.

The Cold War and “Hemispheric Defense”

The Great Depression and World War II put a temporary damper on U.S. military activity in Latin America, and the Cold War brought about a new strategy: “hemispheric defense,” the dispatching of operatives and troops to various hot spots that threatened U.S. political and economic interests.

The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) was involved in the overthrow of the democratically elected Guatemalan government in 1954, the assassination of the Dominican president in 1961, the 1961 invasion of Cuba by exiled dissidents (the so-called “Bay of Pigs” invasion), and innumerable plots aimed at assassinating Cuba's Communist dictator Fidel Castro. The CIA was also behind Operation Condor, a multinational effort in South America aimed at suppressing leftist political movements, most notoriously in Chile, where a CIA-backed coup put the notorious dictator Augusto Pinochet into power. Pinochet's repressive reign was marked by economic recovery at the expense of extensive human rights violations, a price for stability that the CIA seemed willing to accept.

The 1980s and the Ronald Reagan presidency marked the final decade of the Cold War and the last of the CIA-backed operations in Latin America, as well as a new groundswell of controversy over such activities. American backing of the right-wing “contra” rebels fighting against the leftist Sandinista government in El Salvador brought vocal condemnation at home.

The War on Drugs

The final decade of the Cold War saw a new facet of American involvement in Latin American affairs: the “War on Drugs.” In an effort to stop the export of illegal drugs (mostly marijuana and cocaine) into the United States, American agents were dispatched to drug-producing countries such as Panama, Colombia, and Bolivia. In addition, the largest U.S. military intervention in sixty years, Operation Just Cause (1989), was motivated in part by the war on drugs.

Operation Just Cause was aimed at deposing Panamanian president Manuel Noriega, whose increasingly totalitarian regime was seen as presenting a threat to the American-controlled Panama Canal Zone. Noriega was also suspected of involvement in drug-related money laundering and trafficking. In total, more than 27,000 U.S. troops took part in the operation, which achieved its goals in less than a month, toppling the Noriega government and bringing him back to the United States for trial.

The years since Operation Just Cause have seen little American military action in Latin America. However, some tensions between North and South remain, from continuing debates over illegal Mexican immigration—which has led some in the United States to propose building a wall along the border—to continuing conflicts with Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, an outspoken critic of American foreign policy, whose country controls vast oil reserves.

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Other Military Operations and Peacekeeping Missions: U.S. Relations and Operations in the Caribbean and Central and South America

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