U.S.-Latin America: Resuscitating the Monroe Doctrine

By Max Paul Friedman*

Two men stand at podiums

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (right) participates in a joint press conference with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos (left) in Bogotá, Colombia on February 6, 2018. / State Department / Public Domain

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent re-embrace of the Monroe Doctrine ignored the accumulated knowledge of the career diplomats in his Department and has reanimated this ghost of empire past.  In 2013, then-Secretary John F. Kerry launched an Obama Administration policy that helped bring the most improvement in U.S.-Latin American relations since Franklin Roosevelt, by announcing that “the era of the Monroe Doctrine is over.”  Speaking at the University of Texas before embarking on his six-day Latin America tour earlier this month, Tillerson proclaimed that the Monroe Doctrine is “as relevant today as it was the day it was written.”

  • Only Americans who are new to diplomacy and Latin America think the Monroe Doctrine was a selfless gesture by the United States to curl a protective arm around a defenseless Latin America. When President James Monroe announced in 1823 that the Western Hemisphere was closed to future European intervention, he had not consulted any Latin Americans.  If he had, they would have pointed out that he was quite deliberately not promising that there would be no U.S. intervention.  Indeed, the United States would go on to claim the right under the Monroe Doctrine to invade and occupy half a dozen countries in the Caribbean Basin in the century that followed.
  • In his remarks, Tillerson invoked President Theodore Roosevelt’s visit to Panama, which to many Latin Americans symbolizes the first covert operation for regime change of the 20th century, when TR conspired to tear the province of Panama away from Colombia. Tillerson echoed President John F. Kennedy’s promise to “eliminate tyranny” from the hemisphere, a pledge that has unfortunate resonance also.  Kennedy made use of economic warfare, assassination attempts, and invasion to try to “eliminate tyranny” from Cuba.  Tillerson also denounced China and Russia for their growing presence in the hemisphere, arguing explicitly that the United States is the only natural partner for Latin American countries.  Of the Monroe Doctrine, the Secretary said: “It clearly has been a success.”

The Monroe Doctrine has rankled in Latin America for two centuries.  Mexico refused to join the League of Nations because its charter incorporated the Monroe Doctrine.  Diplomats and jurists in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay tried unsuccessfully for decades to persuade the United States to convert it from a unilateral claim of hemispheric dominance into a multilateral, mutual security agreement among sovereign equals.  The dispute came to a head at an inter-American conference in Montevideo in 1933.  “This doctrine bothers, disunites and hurts us,” said Mexico’s Foreign Secretary José Manuel Puig Casauranc.  “As long as something is not the result of a reciprocal arrangement or obligation, even if it is a favor, it bothers and humiliates.”  In an effort to hem in U.S. unilateralism, the Montevideo conference passed a resolution declaring that “no state has the right to intervene in the internal or external affairs of another.”  That declaration became the core of Franklin Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy, a rare period of inter-American respect made possible by Washington’s restraint.

Latin American reactions to Tillerson’s speech and visit were tepid, but his rhetoric could not have helped him win friends and influence people.  President Obama and Secretary Kerry’s efforts to follow FDR’s tradition brought accolades and cheering crowds from Havana to Buenos Aires.  Now, in the context of Trump’s boasting in his State of the Union speech of having increased pressure on Cuba and Venezuela for regime change, and his earlier remark that he was preparing a “military option” for Venezuela, Tillerson’s speech suggests that the President’s interventionist instincts will not be restrained by his chief diplomat.  Referring to China and Russia, Tillerson concluded that “Latin America does not need new imperial powers.”  But his resurrection of the specter of Monroe, wittingly or not, signals that he would prefer a return to the old one.

February 22, 2018

*Max Paul Friedman is Professor of History and Affiliate Professor of International Relations at American University.

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