Nicaragua: Might Trump See Opportunity?

By Fulton Armstrong and Eric Hershberg

Donald Trump and Daniel Ortega

U.S. President Donald Trump (left) and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega (right). / Flickr (edited) / Creative Commons

There is no evidence that President Trump is contemplating any sort of military action in response to the political conflict in Nicaragua, but precedents set by previous U.S. administrations frustrated with challenges at home and abroad suggest he could conceivably see opportunity in throwing the United States’ diplomatic and military weight to finally boot out a government that Washington has never liked.

  • The White House last week issued its most forceful condemnation yet of the government of President Daniel Ortega for “brutalizing” the Nicaraguan people with “indiscriminate violence” that has resulted in 350 deaths. Vice President Pence recently accused Ortega of “virtually waging war on the Catholic Church.”
  • The Trump team also announced it was increasing U.S. financial support to Ortega’s opponents – adding $1.5 million to an ongoing $30 million annual program to support “democracy and governance.” Visa and financial sanctions have been put in place against three officials the administration blames for human rights violations during the four-month showdown between Ortega and opponents.  The State Department earlier had condemned the violence and issued a warning to U.S. travelers to “reconsider” travel to Nicaragua – another blow to the country’s image and its reeling tourism industry.

But there is pressure on the administration to do more.  U.S. Senator Marco Rubio – widely seen as the most influential congressional voice on U.S. policy toward Latin America – has led the way.  “As Nicaragua follows Venezuela’s dangerous path,” Rubio recently said, “the U.S. should be prepared to take further action with our regional allies to address the threat of Ortega’s regime.”

  • Rubio did not specify what “further action” he desired, and the reference to “regional allies” – all of whom would presumably oppose U.S. military action – may temper options. But President Trump’s own rhetoric, and that of senior officials, suggests the full array of options may be on the table.  In August 2017, the President publicly floated the idea of invading Venezuela to end the years-long crisis there.  According to amply-sourced press reports, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson opposed the intervention, but both moderating voices have since left the administration.  (Tillerson in February trumpeted the Monroe Doctrine, under which the United States arrogated to itself the right to intervene where it wished, as a guiding principle of U.S. policy for the western hemisphere, saying “it clearly has been a success.”)
  • Subsequent press reports based on purportedly high-level sources indicate that Trump’s invasion comment was not as spontaneous as it appeared; he’d argued with senior staff that military action against Venezuela could be a success as were, he reportedly claimed, the invasions of Grenada (1983) and Panama (1989). Those interventions gave a political bounce to two previous Republican Presidents, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, respectively, as did President George W. Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Donald Trump’s polls among his political base are extremely high, and his broader approval rating has risen slightly, but nervousness about the various investigations into his campaign and presidency, and about his prospects in upcoming congressional elections, may tempt him to seek a distraction.

U.S. military action of any kind – albeit a remote possibility at this time – cannot be ruled out entirely.  The Trump administration’s policies have been highly impulsive and, in many analysts’ view, have been driven by political factors rather than considered analysis based on deep knowledge of international affairs.  Ortega has been the bane of two generations of Republicans’ efforts to forge a consistently pro-U.S. Central America, thumbing his nose at Washington repeatedly and even co-opting traditional U.S. allies in Nicaragua such as the business community.  Some analysts’ predictions that Ortega’s control over the electoral apparatus could result in his victory in early elections – a key opposition demand – also may feed Washington perceptions that bolder action is necessary.

  •  With the 72-year-old erstwhile revolutionary on the ropes and resorting to increasingly ugly tactics to remain in power, Ortega may look ripe for toppling with a little nudge from Washington. The intervention need not be a full-fledged invasion, and the pretext need not be elaborate – the Grenada invasion was supposedly a rescue mission for U.S. medical students on the island.  The administration may believe, moreover, that the Nicaraguan military, many of whose officers have appeared more comfortable with a non-partisan institutional role than with backing Ortega to the hilt, would not muster a strong reaction.  It is all hypothetical at this point, but, while Secretary of State Tillerson is gone, perhaps the Monroe Doctrine is not, and there is a long history of Washington’s treating Central America as a convenient place to “send in the Marines.”

August 7, 2018

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.

Return of the Monroe Doctrine: Making Latin America Irate Again

By Max Paul Friedman*

monroe_doctrine

Uncle Sam stakes his claim in the Western Hemisphere in a political cartoon outlining the basic tenants of the Monroe Doctrine (1912). / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

A vigorous resuscitation of the Monroe Doctrine may well be at hand under U.S. President Donald Trump, even though history shows us that it will contradict another favored policy – “America First” – which signals a desire to return to the most notorious isolationist organization in U.S. history.  The Monroe Doctrine, first articulated in 1823 as a means of blocking external interference in the Western Hemisphere, was the central pillar of U.S. policy toward Latin America until Barack Obama’s Secretary of State, John Kerry, told a roomful of Latin American diplomats in 2013 that “the era of the Monroe Doctrine is over.”  The statement was part of an effort to rehabilitate the U.S. image in a region long accustomed to seeing the United States as seeking to control it through persuasion when possible, and force when necessary.  In a policy paper published last December, Craig Deare, a dean at the U.S. National Defense University and now Trump’s top Latin America advisor on the National Security Council staff, denounced Kerry’s statement “as a clear invitation to those extra-regional actors looking for opportunities to increase their influence.”  He specifically mentioned China.

A revitalized Monroe Doctrine, however, contradicts the Administration’s other strong impulse, present in its statements far beyond Latin America, toward isolationism.  Trump is promising to build a literal wall between Latin America and the United States, but the Monroe Doctrine was decisively unilateral and interventionist.  It stated that the United States would not intervene in European affairs if European powers did not intervene in the Americas, but Monroe carefully did not state that the United States would not intervene in the region.  Indeed, Presidents James Monroe (1817-1825) and John Quincy Adams (1825-1829) and other U.S. leaders desired and expected the future annexation of parts of what was then Spanish or Latin American territory in Cuba, northern Mexico (later Texas), and beyond.  Later, even in the “isolationist” early decades of the 20th century, the United States was vigorously engaged in military intervention and outright occupation of several countries in Latin America.  The Marines were in Nicaragua (1912-33), Haiti (1915-34), and the Dominican Republic (1916-24).

  • Latin American resistance prompted Franklin Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor Policy,” which supplanted the Monroe Doctrine’s unilateralism with respect for national sovereignty, but during World War II, FDR threatened Latin American governments with economic embargoes and other measures if they didn’t round up and intern thousands of Germans, Italians, and Japanese. After the tide in the war turned in 1943, the Latin American deportation and internment program was continued by U.S. officials seeking to turn the program to economic advantage by crushing commercial rivals.

Even Obama had difficulty reversing the United States’ longstanding desire to guide political and economic developments in Latin America – continuing, for example, Washington’s “democracy promotion” efforts in Cuba and elsewhere – but steps toward normalization of relations with Cuba and other initiatives made important strides toward assuaging Latin American irritation with U.S. imperiousness.  Obama went further than any president since FDR in restoring good relations, and ended the Cold War in Latin America.  Donald Trump’s competing impulses – the interventionism of Monroe and the isolationism of “America First” – will keep U.S.-Latin America relations on edge.  His unilateralist style has already hit its first victim, Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto, and is likely to claim more soon.  If Trump revives the Monroe Doctrine’s unilateralism more broadly in response to a perceived threat from China throughout the region, he is likely to succeed only in making Latin America irate again.

February 2, 2017

* Max Paul Friedman is a Professor in the History Department at American University and author of Rethinking Anti-Americanism: The History of an Exceptional Concept in American Foreign Relations.