In 1823, when most of Latin America achieved its independence, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams drafted a foreign policy declaration that would have repercussions in the region for a long time to come. Named after the sitting President, the Monroe Doctrine specified that the US would not tolerate foreign (i.e. European) encroachments in the Americas and that the US would become the guardian of the region’s interests. Although it was very doubtful that the US would act on those words, the declaration had a major motivation: Almost 10 years after signing the treaty that ended the War of 1812, the US still had the existential fear of being taken over by an anti-republican European monarchy. Untrusting and even disdainful of the ability of the new sovereign states of Latin America to contain those European encroachments, the US thought it had to step in. The story since puts Latin America inside the American sphere of political and economic influence, which in practice meant that the US interfered in Latin America at will.
The end of the Cold War brought a significant change, according to Peter Smith: Since US interests in the region were no longer threatened by the Soviet Union, the emphasis was no longer on geopolitical matters. Although the 12-year period between 1989 and 2001 saw the implementation of Plan Colombia and democratizations by force in Panama and Haiti, among other events, the main driving force of foreign policy in Latin America at that time was geoeconomics (e.g. NAFTA). Ironically, Smith also mentions that at the same time trade took second place to soft power as the main avenue for the US to maintain its sphere of influence intact; and, most importantly, that Latin America was not as strategically crucial as it was during the Cold War. By 1998, Latin American countries took advantage of the latter point to blaze their own domestic and international paths without the possibility of US intervention — virtually unheard of until then. After 9/11, despite the implementation of the Mérida Initiative, the signing of DR-CAFTA, and acquiescence to the Venezuelan coup of 2002, the US paid the most attention to Central Asia and the Middle East and Latin America decreased even further in strategic importance.
Today, the talk in academia is that Latin America is “no longer Washington’s backyard“, or that the essence of US ties with the region has changed. Which brings us to November 18, 2013: In a speech delivered to the Organization of American States, Adams’ successor, John Kerry, declared the end of the Monroe Doctrine and added that the relationship with Latin America that the US now seeks is not one of unilateral imposition, but one of equal partnership. Some have criticized President Obama for not having a clear strategy for Latin America (meaning that there is no real foundation to form equal partnerships on), but there are a handful of themes that seemingly fill the alleged void, along with the more recent issue area of energy cooperation: democracy promotion, economic cooperation, and the management of trans-sovereign issues (primarily, stopping transnational crime and controlling migration flows, and now reversing climate change). Yet regardless of what can be said about a strategy or lack thereof, two major points cast reasonable doubt on Kerry’s words. First, it would be naïve to think that the US wants to get rid of its sphere of influence even for the sake of pressing an imaginary “reset” button. Indeed, exerting some influence over your immediate neighborhood goes a long way in preserving your existential security (which is why, for instance, Russia gets mad when either NATO or the European Union expand eastward). That logic was the main thrust of the Monroe Doctrine and there is no pragmatically justified reason for the US to think any different in 2014. Otherwise, chew on this: Uncle Sam gets the proverbial ants in his pants every time Venezuela gets too cozy with Russia or Iran. The bottom line is that there is, after all, a US strategy for Latin America: To make sure the region does not leave its sphere of economic and political influence, which will undermine in turn the existential security of the US. What is different now is that covert operations, friendly military rulers, allied autocrats or death squads are no longer the preferred means to achieve it. The toolbox now consists of (liberal) democracy promotion programs, free trade agreements, and transnational partnerships.
The second point is that the perennial asymmetry between the US and Latin America has not disappeared, even if its degree diminished over the years. For that reason, Ariel Armony critiques Kerry’s speech by raising the point – and rightly so – that one thing is for the US to say that it now seeks equal partnerships and another, very different, is actually treating Latin American countries as equal partners; and that we are yet to see the latter. Whatever partnerships the US wants do with Latin America will not only aim to the realist goal of preserving existential security in an anarchic world, but may also have to be tailored to the convenience of the US more than Latin America’s. Brazil did not want to jump onto President George W. Bush’s Free Trade Area of the Americas partly because the US was not friendly to the idea of Brazilian crops competing with (the heavily subsidized) US crops, and any continental agreement against drug crime cannot incorporate any nation-wide decriminalization of marijuana (like Uruguay did) because the US does not think it is the right move.
The love-hate character of Latin America’s relationship with the US is therefore not unfounded. Although different countries have different capabilities to deal with the US, the truth is that the region does demand to be treated as a peer to the continental hegemon and not as a yes man or an afterthought. According to Peter Smith, any transformation of the existing Latin America policy will require a fundamental change in goals, strategies, and the policymaking process itself, which is easier said than done. Yet the challenge the US faces, whether it knows it or not, is to demonstrate to its next door neighbors south of the Río Grande that genuine partnerships are not limited to the one between Donald Duck, José Carioca, and Panchito, but a fact of international relations.