United States Interventions in Postindependence Latin America

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United States Interventions in Postindependence Latin America

Great Britain formally acknowledged the independence of the United States in the Treaty of Paris on September 3, 1783. Surrounded by the New World empires of Britain, France, and Spain, the United States was concerned about its weakness and isolation. The second successful independence movement in the Western Hemisphere occurred in the French Caribbean colony of Saint Domingue on the island of Hispaniola. The French colonists appealed for help and received, in addition to volunteer soldiers, U.S. federal and state government aid in the form of loans, provisions, and weaponry. Despite U.S. assistance, the French were unable to suppress the slave revolt that devastated Saint Domingue and led to the creation of the sovereign nation of Haiti in 1804. Due to its origins in slave rebellion, Haiti was subsequently denied U.S. diplomatic recognition until 1862. Yet U.S. leaders who believed the extension of republicanism would ensure their government's stability and survival sought to attract the hemisphere's European colonial subjects to republican ideas.


One of the earliest advocates of Spanish-American independence, the Venezuelan Francisco de Miranda, was inspired by the American Revolution (1775–1781). Miranda believed that the rebellion that created the United States was a prelude to independence in the entire Western Hemisphere. With the assistance of private U.S. citizens, Miranda outfitted a ship in 1806 and launched the first expedition against royalists in South America. Miranda's attempt proved unsuccessful, but when the Spanish-American wars of independence began in earnest in 1810, there was sympathy in the United States for the colonial rebels.

The rebels were fighting the Spanish Catholic monarchy, which, despite having aided rebellious North Americans in their independence struggle from Britain, remained an object of U.S. hatred and contempt. U.S. leaders relished the prospect of the loss of European influence and hoped for increased trade in the hemisphere. In July 1815 U.S. president James Madison announced that rebel ships would be treated on the same basis as other foreign ships in U.S. ports, thereby granting belligerent rights to the Spanish-American rebels. The following year, Venezuelan patriots bought gunpowder from the administration on credit, but this was the only time the U.S. government proffered a loan or grant to the insurgents.

As the wars of independence progressed, the noncommittal attitudes and policies of the U.S. government frustrated Spanish-American independence leaders like Simón Bolívar, who complained of U.S. indifference toward what he believed to be the just conflict for Spanish-American independence. Bolívar later came to view U.S. power as a threat to Spanish-American sovereignty. As speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, Henry Clay argued that the liberation of Latin America from European colonial rule was an ongoing aspect of the American Revolution and urged an active policy of support for the wars of independence. But most U.S. leaders wanted the United States to remain uninvolved. In a test vote in the House of Representatives in 1818 on the possible recognition of the United Provinces of the Rio de la Plata, the Clay faction lost by a vote of 115 to 45.

Many U.S. leaders doubted that the principles of the American Revolution were applicable to Latin Americans, who were deemed ill-prepared for republicanism. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams did not believe in a community of interests between North and South America. Like many of his contemporaries, Adams inherited negative attitudes toward Catholic Spaniards from his Protestant English forbears. Adams and former U.S. president Thomas Jefferson doubted Latin Americans had the right religion, laws, manners, customs, and habits for good independent republican governance. The Spanish Americans were also of dubious whiteness and considered racial inferiors by their North American neighbors. Those who were white were considered to come from degraded Spanish stock mixed with Indian and African blood.

Many U.S. observers were uneasy over the presence of men of African descent in the Spanish-American liberation armies. Another issue for concern was the rebel privateers in Caribbean and South American waters who sought loot under the pretext of independence, thereby hurting U.S. shipping. But when Spanish-American rebels sought privateers to attack Spanish shipping, U.S. ship owners and sailors, enticed by economic gain, contributed to the cause of Spanish-American independence. Volunteers from the United States served in the rebel government navies. U.S. merchants were also eager to profit. When they were able to pay, the Spanish American rebels received military and other supplies that were of great importance to their struggle.

Official U.S. opinion changed in response to the successes of the Spanish-American wars of independence after 1820. As president of the United States, Adams now optimistically asserted that Latin American independence spelled the end of the European mercantilist system of commercial restrictions on U.S. trade. The United States recognized the independence of Spanish-American nations in 1822, three years before any European government. In December 1823, U.S. president James Monroe boldly asserted that the Western Hemisphere was henceforth closed to both Europe's political system and future European colonization. The Monroe Doctrine declared any European threat to the new nations of Latin America would be viewed as a threat to the United States. After the liberation of the Spanish-American mainland, colonists who remained loyal to Spain retreated to the islands of the Spanish Caribbean.


In the first half of the nineteenth century, the United States progressively expanded its frontiers west and southward. Believing that the United States was divinely ordained to extend across the continent and overseas, advocates of manifest destiny argued that northern Europeans were superior peoples fated to spread their social, political, economic, and religious culture. While many of the prejudices of manifest destiny can be found among early British North American settlers, the term was coined in 1845 by the Irish-American intellectual John L. O'Sullivan, who used his United States Magazine and Democratic Review to help win the vote for James K. Polk, the U.S. Democratic presidential candidate in 1844. Polk won on a platform of U.S. acquisition of Texas.

Since independence in 1821, Mexican authorities had increasingly attracted thousands of U.S. colonists into the once sparsely populated region of Texas, where Stephen F. Austin founded the first legal settlement of U.S. immigrants, who by and large refused to adapt to Mexican society. By the 1830s, U.S. immigrants living in Texas far outnumbered Mexicans.

The Republic of Texas declared its independence from Mexico in 1836 after rebellious Texans under Sam Houston defeated Antonio López de Santa Ana's Mexican troops. Texas's expansive territorial claims and Mexico's reluctance to acknowledge Texas's annexation to the United States in December 1845 resulted in the outbreak of the Mexican-American War in April 1846. Manifest destiny became a catchphrase in the war, which was terminated by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in February 1848. Mexico gave up all claims to Texas and ceded its land between Texas and the Pacific Ocean. Mexico lost nearly one-half of its territory, including all or parts of the present-day U.S. states of Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Wyoming, and Utah. Army officer Zachary Taylor became a national hero and won the U.S. presidency in the war's aftermath. The military disaster in Mexico deeply impressed Latin Americans, who feared for their national existence in the face of additional U.S. expansion.


The persistent political disorder in Spanish America in the post independence period greatly affected the region's foreign affairs. In the 1850s, private U.S. citizens known as filibusters intervened militarily in Latin American affairs. Always encouraged by instability and sometimes invited by rival national political factions, U.S. citizens joined filibuster expeditions by the thousands in search of private wealth. Yet filibustering is mostly associated with the U.S. South seeking to extend slavery in the face of the North's efforts to halt its expansion in the contiguous United States. William Walker, who succeeded in ruling Nicaragua for a short time in the mid-1850s, is the most famous filibuster. Although unsuccessful, the filibustering expeditions further contributed to anti-U.S. sentiment throughout Latin America. Many Latin Americans identified filibustering as a manifestation of U.S. imperialism and attempted territorial expansion inspired by ideas of manifest destiny.

Several failed filibustering attempts against Cuba began in U.S. ports, and played a significant role in triggering the Spanish-American War. Jefferson was the first U.S. president to consider annexing Cuba, but most U.S. officials opposed the liberation of Cuba from Spanish rule because they feared Cuba's slaves might take advantage of the conflict and seize power, making the island a second Haiti. They also worried that European powers could occupy a weak, independent Cuba and that democratic, self-governing Cubans would resist future U.S. annexation. U.S. leaders who advocated joining the late nineteenth-century European scramble for overseas imperial possessions were given their opportunity in 1895 when José Martí and Cuban rebels renewed their efforts to win Cuban independence from Spain.

As U.S. leaders argued over intervention and fretted about the protection of U.S.-owned property on the island, U.S. president William McKinley sent the battleship Maine to Havana's harbor. On February 15, 1898, the Maine exploded, killing 260 U.S. sailors. A subsequent investigation incorrectly determined that the accidental blast was caused by an underwater mine. The tragedy broke the will of U.S. leaders who had resisted the pressure of those calling for war, including Cuban lobbyists and emotionally charged U.S. citizens captivated by reports in the newspapers of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. The victorious exploits of the Rough Riders fighting in Cuba helped their leader Theodore Roosevelt to win the U.S. vice-presidential nomination in 1900. Roosevelt subsequently became president in 1901 after an anarchist assassinated President McKinley.


Cubans and Puerto Ricans did not participate in the Treaty of Paris of December 1898 that ended both the Spanish-American War and the reign of the Spanish Empire in the Western Hemisphere by calling for Spain's withdrawal from Puerto Rico and Cuba. Puerto Rico became a U.S. possession. Cuba became independent in May 1902, but a special U.S.-Cuban relationship was established. The Roosevelt administration granted Cuban independence while maintaining control over Cubans, whom it considered unfit for self-government, through an amendment to the U.S. Army appropriations bill for fiscal year 1902 known as the Platt Amendment. Named for Connecticut Senator Orville Platt, the amendment severely curtailed the new nation of Cuba's autonomy. U.S. troops left the island only after the Cubans incorporated the amendment's provisions into the Cuban constitution, where it remained until withdrawn with U.S. approval in 1934. The amendment granted the U.S. the right to militarily intervene in Cuban national affairs.

The United States demanded land for a naval base in Guantánamo Bay following U.S. naval officer and historian Alfred Thayer Mahan's recommendation that overseas coaling and naval stations needed to be acquired to assert U.S. power around the world. The amendment provided that the Cuban government would not assume any extraordinary public debt, reflecting the U.S. fear of European intervention in the Caribbean to collect on defaulted debts. U.S. interventions to take over public finances and protect U.S. private capital in Central America and the Caribbean became a major theme in U.S.-Latin American relations at the beginning of the twentieth century.

see also Monroe Doctrine.


Francaviglia, Richard V., and Douglas W. Richmond, eds. Dueling Eagles: Reinterpreting the U.S.-Mexican War: 1846–1848. Fort Worth: Texas Christian University Press, 2000.

Gleijeses, Piero. "The Limits of Sympathy: The United States and the Independence of Spanish America." Journal of Latin American Studies 24 (3) (October 1992): 481-505.

Haynes, Sam W., and Christopher Morris, eds. Manifest Destiny and Empire: American Antebellum Expansionism. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1997.

Johnson, John J. A Hemisphere Apart: The Foundations of United States Policy toward Latin America. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.

LaFeber, Walter. The New Empire: An Interpretation of American Expansion, 1860–1898, 35th anniversary ed. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998.

Smith, Angel, and Emma Dávila-Cox, eds. The Crisis of 1898: Colonial Redistribution and Nationalist Mobilization. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.

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United States Interventions in Postindependence Latin America