United States–Latin American Relations

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United States-Latin American Relations

United States-Latin American Relations encompass not only the political relationship between the United States and governments of the continent but also those political, economic, social, and cultural exchanges that often profoundly influence the conduct of diplomacy. Historically, political, economic, and security concerns have dominated U.S. policy toward Latin America. A parallel development has been the evolution of an inter-American system and its capstone institution, the Organization of American States (OAS, 1948), largely dominated by the United States. In modern times, however, the relationship between the United States and Latin America has become more complicated. Thus, such diverse issues as immigration of Latin Americans into the United States, tourism, the role of U.S. companies in Latin America, and the spread of Protestant evangelicalism among Latin America's indigenous populations have indirectly impacted on the shaping of the "new hemisphere" and its prospects for democracy.

FORMATIVE ERA (1776–1830)

The United States won its independence with Spanish assistance, but relations with Spain were uneasy because of U.S.-Spanish conflict in the trans-Appalachian West and the lower Mississippi Valley. After 1803, when Louisiana became U.S. territory, U.S. pressure on Spanish Florida escalated and set the general pattern of U.S. policy toward the Spanish-American Wars of Independence after 1810.

President Thomas Jefferson (1801–1809) expressed doubts about Haitian independence in 1804, fearing that the antislave revolutionary contagion would spread to the United States. President James Madison (1809–1817) sent agents to several of the new revolutionary camps in 1810. In the War of 1812 (1812–1814) he exploited Spanish defensive weakness by encouraging private Americans to intrude into Spanish Florida. By 1813 U.S. forces had occupied Spanish Florida from the Perdido River to the Mississippi River, and in 1819 the United States acquired the entire Spanish province.

Though many Americans sympathized with the Spanish-American revolutionary struggles, strategic issues dictated a U.S. policy of official neutrality. Also, U.S. leaders, notably Secretary of State John Quincy Adams (1817–1825), expressed concern about Simón Bolívar's 1816 slave emancipation decree and the numbers of colored troops in the patriot armies. Nonetheless, revolutionary agents operated in the United States and procured aid and weapons. After 1821 (when Mexico won its independence), U.S. policy, in part inspired by changes in British policy after the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815), moved toward recognition of the new republics. Both perceived a threat of a Spanish reconquest. The United States began extending formal diplomatic recognition to the new republics, and in December 1823 (in response to a British proposal for a joint statement) President James Monroe (1817–1825) announced what became known as the Monroe Doctrine. Its most important principle declared U.S. opposition to further European territorial aggrandizement in Latin America. A second professed the U.S. hope in the future of republican, not monarchical, governments in Latin America (though the United States readily acknowledged the independence of imperial Brazil). The Monroe Doctrine established a unilateral policy. Under the leadership of Simón Bolívar, several of the new republics crafted a defensive hemispheric structure (excluding all save Spain's former colonies) at the Panama Congress of 1826, but only Gran Colombia ratified it.


In the period 1830–1900 U.S. strategic and economic concerns gave priority to the promotion of commerce (especially in the Caribbean), interest in a transisthmian passage, and the "North Americanization" of the Monroe Doctrine in the 1840s. In the 1840s and 1850s, when dissident Cubans and U.S. slave interests fostered revolution in Spanish Cuba, the U.S. government tried to purchase Cuba. The Texas Revolution (1835–1836) and the annexation of Texas as a state in 1845, U.S. strategic and economic interests in California, and the vigorous U.S. commercial expansionism in the 1840s brought the Mexican War (1846–1848) and diplomatic confrontation with rival Great Britain in Central America. In 1846, in a treaty with New Granada (Colombia), the United States guaranteed transit rights across the Isthmus of Panama. In 1850 the United States and Great Britain signed the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty, providing for a jointly constructed and controlled canal across the Isthmus of Panama. In the 1850s U.S. attention turned to Nicaragua, where filibusters led by William Walker (who had reintroduced slavery in Nicaragua) held power until ousted by Central American armies. Fears of U.S. territorial ambitions in Latin America prompted meetings of hemispheric states at Lima in 1847 and Santiago de Chile in 1856.

During the U.S. Civil War (1861–1865), the French empire of Napoleon III (supported by Mexican conservatives) imposed the monarch Maximilian in Mexico, precipitating a guerrilla war led by the ousted civilian leader, Benito Juárez. The administration of Abraham Lincoln supported Juárez and after 1864 pressed the French to leave with threats of intervention. Juárez's forces brought down Maximilian's empire in 1867, and U.S. economic interests in Mexico—particularly mining, ranching, and railroading—increased rapidly from the 1870s. Elsewhere, the United States tried to mediate the war between Cubans and Spaniards that raged from 1868 to 1878. Afterward, U.S. business interests expanded in Cuban sugar. The French commenced to dig a canal across Panama, and in 1885 a revolt in Panama prompted U.S. military intervention. In 1881 U.S. Secretary of State James G. Blaine proposed a Pan-American conference to end the War of the Pacific (1879–1884) between Chile and the allies Bolivia and Peru and to promote closer commercial ties. Blaine's efforts collapsed under Chilean opposition, but when he again became secretary of state (1889), he hosted such a conference in Washington, D.C.

In the 1890s heightened U.S. economic and strategic interests brought confrontation with Chile, a war scare with Great Britain in 1895 during the Venezuela-British Guiana boundary dispute (during which Secretary of State Richard Olney boasted that the United States was "practically sovereign" in the Western Hemisphere), and culminated in the Spanish-American War (1898). Most Americans believed that U.S. intervention was humanitarian, but it actually stemmed from economic and strategic concerns, to prevent the collapse of the Cuban sugar economy and to fulfill a historic U.S. quest to absorb Cuba as U.S. territory. From a cultural and social perspective, the war served also to illustrate the differences between the "America" defined by Theodore Roosevelt and the continental vision of America articulated by the Cuban revolutionary José Martí.

IMPERIAL ERA (1900–1933)

The U.S. victory over Spain in 1898 commenced a tremendous expansion of U.S. power and influence in Latin America, especially in the Caribbean. In 1902 U.S. forces departed Cuba but left in their wake an independent republic beholden to the United States and, by terms of the Platt Amendment, subject to U.S. intervention. U.S. interests in a canal across the Isthmus of Panama increased. When the Nicaraguan leader José Santos Zelaya refused to yield sovereign rights over a passage across Nicaragua, President Theodore Roosevelt (1901–1909), who favored the route across Panama, turned his attention to negotiation of a canal treaty with Colombia. The terms ran afoul of Colombian nationalist sentiment, and the U.S. government threw its support to a successful revolutionary movement by Panamanian dissidents and signed a canal treaty with Panama.

In the 1902–1903 Venezuelan debt crisis, in which Germany, Great Britain, and Italy blockaded the Venezuelan coast, Roosevelt voiced concern over European intervention in the hemisphere. He used the Venezuelan debt imbroglio as justification to meddle in the debt-plagued Dominican Republic and announced the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, whereby the United States upheld the doctrine by intervening in Latin America to "prevent European intervention." Citing the persistent unrest in Cuba, Roosevelt dispatched an army to the island in October 1906. For three years, Americans ruled Cuba. In Central America, the United States supported the isthmian peace treaties of 1907, and Roosevelt's successor, William Howard Taft (1909–1913), pushed U.S. financial intrusion, known as dollar diplomacy, as the means of avoiding the use of troops. Dollar diplomacy presumably offered the United States yet another means of asserting its own variation of "enlightened" administration over unruly and warring governments. The approach rarely worked, however. In 1912 Taft dispatched a military force to Nicaragua, and a U.S. military presence remained in that country until 1925.

President Woodrow Wilson (1913–1921) condemned "gunboat diplomacy" and dollar diplomacy as imperialism, but his determination to advance U.S. economic interests, preserve U.S. security interests in the face of German operations in the region, and especially to "teach" Latins to "elect good men" transformed him into the biggest interventionist of all U.S. leaders. Though pledging to seek no territorial concessions from Latin American republics, Wilson tried to influence the course of the Mexican Revolution (1910–1917), dispatched an occupying force to Veracruz in April 1914, and, following the raid by the revolutionary Pancho Villa on Columbus, New Mexico, in 1916, sent the Pershing Expedition deep into northern Mexico. In 1915 the Wilson administration launched a nineteen-year de facto military occupation of Haiti and in 1916 established an eight-year military governance of the Dominican Republic.

U.S. involvement in World War I brought an expansion of U.S. political, and especially economic, involvement throughout Latin America. Latin American intellectual and literary figures decried the North American cultural threat to Latin traditions. The United States emerged in the 1920s as the overwhelmingly dominant economic presence in Latin America and, relying on its economic strength, began to dismantle its empire in the Caribbean, send financial advisers to Latin America, and negotiate more positively with Mexico in petroleum disputes brought on by the Mexican constitution of 1917. In late 1926 the United States commenced a large-scale intervention in Nicaragua against the guerrilla army of Augusto César Sandino that lasted until 1933, when U.S. forces had been largely supplanted by the Nicaraguan national guard under Anastasio Somoza García.


In the 1930s President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933–1945) professed a new policy toward Latin America based on nonintervention, noninterference, and reciprocity. At the inter-American conference at Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1933, the Roosevelt administration pledged nonintervention, though at the time Roosevelt's emissary to revolutionary Cuba, Sumner Welles, was effectively charting Cuba's internal political affairs. Roosevelt signed new economic agreements with Latin American governments in an effort to restore U.S. trade in the hemisphere. After 1935, U.S. concerns over German economic and political influence in Latin America brought efforts to create a hemispheric defense agreement, partially achieved at Lima in 1938. There was a serious crisis with Mexico over that nation's expropriation of foreign petroleum companies in 1938.

From September 1939, when World War II broke out in Europe, the United States intensified its efforts to create an anti-Axis front in Latin America and to subordinate Latin America's economies to the U.S. war effort. Though anti-American sentiment remained strong throughout Latin America, especially in Argentina and Mexico, U.S. policy was largely successful. The United States obtained defense sites, critical in Brazil, and virtually incorporated the Mexican economy into the U.S. war economy. Latin American rural workers, especially in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean, migrated to urban factories. Mexicans worked on U.S. farms, ran the railroads, labored in defense plants, and served in the U.S. military. U.S. economic and political pressures on Southern Cone nations, reluctant to jeopardize their neutrality, intensified, and by the end of the war even defiant Argentina had declared war on Germany. At the Chapúltepec meeting of March 1945, Latin America opted for a regional security arrangement, though the United States was already shifting to the global trajectory symbolized by the United Nations. The formal culmination of the regional approach was the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance (1947) and the Organization of American States (1948).

In the postwar era, the United States shifted its political and economic concerns to Europe and Asia and tried to break down hemispheric economic barriers to U.S. exports and private investments. Latin American leaders pressed for increased U.S. public support and protection of their domestic markets, modeled on the U.S. Marshall Plan for war-torn Europe. After the Korean War erupted, the United States emphasized regional and bilateral security agreements and became increasingly concerned about Communist influence in Latin America. In 1954 the Central Intelligence Agency brought down a non-Communist leftist government in Guatemala; in 1959, following several years of civil strife and a protracted guerrilla struggle, Fidel Castro toppled the government of dictator Fulgencio Batista in Cuba.


Castro vowed to restructure Cuba along Marxist lines and to de-Americanize the island's political culture. The severity of revolutionary reforms brought a conflict with the United States (where anti-Castro Cubans had fled) culminating in the abortive Bay of Pigs Invasion of April 1961, President John F. Kennedy's (1961–1963) first hemispheric crisis. U.S. opposition to the Cuban Revolution inevitably stunted the purpose of the Alliance for Progress, a vast and ambitious social and economic reform program commenced early in the decade. By the time of Kennedy's death in November 1963, U.S. security concerns were already overriding its commitments to "peaceful revolution" through democratic means in Latin America. When President Lyndon Johnson (1963–1969) dispatched twenty thousand troops to the Dominican Republic in the spring of 1965, on the pretext that the rebellion there would create "another Cuba," Latin Americans were persuaded that Washington's commitment to social justice had dissolved.

But the Alliance for Progress fueled Latin America's economic modernization at the expense of democratic government and social justice for the poor, thus perpetuating the dual society of rich and poor. This was most evident in such countries as Mexico and Brazil, which enjoyed impressive economic growth from the 1950s but where social inequities were severe. By the 1970s, with the U.S. distracted by Vietnam, Latin America appeared to be veering back to authoritarian governments, in Brazil, Argentina, and (with the U.S.-supported coup against the socialist Salvador Allende) Chile. Latin American leaders increasingly supported a hemispheric economic agenda diverging from that of the United States and also backed Panama's call for a new canal treaty. President Jimmy Carter (1977–1981) identified with the "North-South" as opposed to the "East-West" vision of Latin America's place in U.S. foreign policy. He signed a canal treaty with Panama, criticized violations of human rights in Latin America, and initially supported the Sandinista revolution that brought down Anastasio Somoza Debayle in Nicaragua. By the end of his administration many Americans believed that such reformist approaches to Latin America distracted from the real security risks the United States confronted in the region.

Following his resounding victory in the 1980 election, President Ronald Reagan (1981–1989) committed U.S. efforts to toppling the leftist Sandinista government of Nicaragua and supporting the rightist government of El Salvador in its war against Communist guerrillas. After initially following a neutral line, Reagan sided with the British against Argentina in the Falkland Islands conflict of 1982, and in 1983 he dispatched the military to bring down the leftist government in Grenada. Such hard-line policies were accompanied by modest amounts of nonmilitary aid (the most publicized was the Caribbean Basin Initiative of 1983) and expressions of support for democracy and social justice in strife-torn Central America. The 1984 Kissinger Report on the isthmian condition meshed reformist and strategic arguments.

By the late 1980s it was clear that the U.S. efforts to mold Latin America in its own political and economic image had failed. The U.S.-backed Contra rebellion in Nicaragua collapsed under Latin American efforts for a negotiated settlement, and the United States joined Latin America as a debtor nation. Yet, mostly because of internal pressures, authoritarian governments succumbed to democratic regimes, and Latin America strengthened its economic ties with European and Asian nations. Americans increasingly turned to new "security" concerns, especially in regard to the large numbers of undocumented aliens (many from Latin America), a problem addressed in the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, and the social crisis wrought by narcotics trafficking. President George H. W. Bush (1989–1993) commenced an ambiguous approach to Latin America. With the Christmas 1989 invasion of Panama, aimed at bringing down the dictator Manuel Noriega, he revived charges of U.S. imperialism. His proposal for closer economic ties, especially free trade with Mexico, however, promised a new era in the long and often troubled relationship between the United States and Latin America.


The approval of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) by the United States Congress in 1993, following a debate riddled with warnings about the loss of jobs to Mexico and loss of control on the U.S.-Mexican border, culminated an economic integration that took its basic character in World War II, when the United States tried to incorporate not only Mexico but most of Latin America and the Caribbean into its economic system. In the 1990s the coincidence of several changes in the U.S.-Latin American relationship—the resurgence of democratic governments, the widespread acceptance of neoliberal economic formulas, and the much-heralded Summits of the Americas—signaled the possibility of a more pacific and prosperous era in hemispheric affairs. The optimism reminded some observers of the promise identified with the Alliance for Progress in the 1960s.

Regrettably the euphoria was short lived, as the social and economic inequities some critics identified with the shift to market economies prompted a resurgence of the Left. Relations with Cuba worsened when the U.S. Congress tightened the embargo against the island's government with the Cuban Democracy Act in 1992. Four years later Congress affirmed its growing control over Cuban-U.S. affairs in the Helms-Burton law, which punished those countries trading with both Cuba and the United States. Though the U.S. government heartened at the election of National Action candidate Vicente Fox in Mexico in 2000, the political winds in Latin America continued to shift against professed U.S. wishes, notably with the election of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela in 1998. At the Third Summit of the Americas at Quebec City in April 2001, delegates responded to the growing dissension and pessimism about the social costs of the neoliberal economic agenda—the so-called "Washington consensus"—by reaffirming a determination to create a prosperous and democratic hemisphere.

Early on in his administration, President George W. Bush (2001–2009) declared that his administration would "look south" and that the twenty-first century would be the "century of the Americas." Ironically, the event that might otherwise have been the bellwether for such a prophecy—the signing of the Inter-American Democratic Charter in Lima, Peru, on September 11, 2001—was for most North Americans tragically overshadowed by terrorist airplane hijackings and their incendiary crashes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In the years following, U.S. relations with other hemispheric governments grew increasingly troubled and, in a few instances, confrontational over the issue of Washington's preoccupation with security concerns. In its 2005 report, the prestigious Inter-American Dialogue noted that, despite impressive economic growth and notable achievement in education, Latin America continued to suffer from widespread social inequities, crime, government corruption, and challenges to the democratic promises of the 1990s. In addition to Cuba, whose government remained estranged from the Organization of American States, the report singled out Haiti, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua as countries where anti-United States sentiments had resurfaced. Under President Chávez's administration, oil-rich Venezuela (renamed the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela) had crafted a hemispheric coalition to challenge the historic political and economic presence of the United States in the hemisphere. One consequence of these dramatic changes was the emergence of a transnational militarism in U.S. relations with the hemisphere. The School of the Americas, long under fire for its role in training Latin American officers in counterinsurgency tactics, was renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. Though in 2004 the school created a human rights protection course, the emphasis in the curriculum remained focused on security issues, particularly the drug trade and the vulnerability of elected governments to the enormous power and influence exercised by the drug cartels, especially in Mexico and Colombia. By March 2007 the deterioration of the U.S. image throughout Latin America had become so serious that President Bush set out on a goodwill tour of five Latin American nations—Brazil, Uruguay, Colombia, Guatemala, and Mexico. As if to roil the hemispheric waters, President Chávez followed with appearances in Argentina and Bolivia, both of them recipients of Venezuelan largesse.

Another, arguably more lasting legacy of the dynamic changes in U.S.-Latin American relations has been the dramatic acceleration of the northward Latin American migration and the growth of the Latino population in the United States. According to a Pew Hispanic Center report, Latinos in the United States numbered almost 42 million in 2005 (60 percent of them native born) out of a total population of 288 million. Of the estimated 35.2 million immigrants to the United States from 1980 to 2005, more than 19 million migrated from Latin America and the Caribbean—11 million from Mexico, 3.23 million from the Caribbean, 2.64 million from Central America, and 2.25 million from South America. Estimates of the number of undocumented aliens in the United States in 2005 ranged from 11 million to 13 million, a third of them from Mexico.

The impact of such rapid growth in the Latino population of the United States has brought about what some observers call the "Latinization" of the nation—a catchall term reflecting everything from a Latino cultural nationalism and sense of latent political and economic power to widespread apprehension that the long-cherished ideal of assimilation and Americanization is no longer working. Too often overlooked in such assessments is the vibrant cultural exchange among the peoples of the Americas—the Americanization of Latin American cultural tastes and the growth of U.S.-style shopping malls coupled with a parallel rise in U.S. consumption of Latin American food, beverages, music, and literature and use of Spanish. More critically, as U.S. government aid and private investment have subsided, remittances of Latin Americans in the United States to their home countries have risen exponentially since the turn of the century: $54 billion in 2005, more than a third of which goes to Mexico. These are bonds that may prove more durable than any crafted by governments.

See alsoAlliance for Progress; Clayton-Bulwer Treaty (1850); Drugs and Drug Trade; Fox Quesada, Vicente; Hispanics in the United States; Migration and Migrations; Monroe Doctrine; North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA); Organization of American States (OAS); Panama Canal Treaties of 1977; Platt Amendment; Roosevelt Corollary; World War I; World War II; Dominican Republic.


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                                    Lester D. Langley

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United States–Latin American Relations