The cold war emerges as significantly distinctive in U.S. relations with Latin America because ideological considerations acquired a primacy over U.S. policy in the region that they had lacked in earlier moments. From the late 1940s until about 1960, ideology was just one of the important factors in the design of U.S. policy towards Latin America. In its subsequent conduct of the key aspect of its policy towards Latin America, the U.S. government often behaved as if it were under the spell of ideological demons.
Since the end of the cold war, U.S. presidents have all placed Latin America at the center of their foreign policies arguing that the region is integral to the role of the U.S. interests (Smith 2). However, the truth of the matter is that the U.S. gestures towards Latin America have been a continuity of its Cold War ideologies in the region (Stokes 2).
In order to understand the nature of U.S. relations with Latin America in a better way, it is important to first understand what really caused the Cold War. In his book titled Talons of the Eagle, Peter Smith observes that the Cold War was an ideological struggle and not just a contest between superpowers.
To that end, the U.S. was prepared to pay any price and bear any burden to deal with what it perceived to be an evil empire. Actually, most U.S. elites and much of the public believed profoundly in the righteousness of their cause and deeply feared and loathed what they understood as communism.
This ideology explains U.S. military intervention, direct and indirect, and other belligerent U.S. actions during the Cold war. Actually, the Cold War as Smith (8) explains did not give birth to the significance of ideological themes either in U.S. foreign policy generally or in U.S. relations with Latin America specifically.
Smith says that this was all a part of the Monroe Doctrine, which had sought to quash any attempt by the surrounding powers to “extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere” thus posing danger to the peace and safety of the U.S (Smith 8). Actually, Smith notes that it was not just their power but also their system, which was essentially different that Monroe sought to keep in check (Smith 9).
From these facts, it now becomes easy to see how the U.S. has continued its policies in the Latin region. After the Cold War, Latin American politics quickly became ideological as dictators wrapped themselves in the cloak of anti-communism to be accepted by a Washington, which was at that time more concerned with carrying out its ideologies than promoting democracy.
This conflicted expediency is crystallized in John F. Kennedy’s assessment of the situation of the Dominican Republic in 1961. In trying to access the situation, President Kennedy observed that “there are three possibilities in descending order of preference: a descent democratic regime, a continuation of the Trujillo regime, or a Castro regime.
We ought to aim at the first but we cannot renounce the second until we are sure we can avoid the third” (Smith 142). What this means is that no matter the actions taken by the Dominican State, America was willing to do anything within its power to restore what it believed to be a functional government.
Indeed, the range of dynamic interaction between the United States and what Smith would call collaborationist regimes is as broad as between the United States and regimes of resistance. According to Smith (194), President Kennedy approved the Bay of Pigs operation in 1961 even before Castro had declared his revolution to be Socialist and admitted his own Marxism. In fact, Smith is not alone in his claim that the U.S. is continuing its Cold War ideologies in the Latin American region.
In her book titled Predatory States: Operation Condor and Covert War in Latin America, American author Patrice McSherry argues that the invasion on Condor was an organization of “paramilitary and parapolice groups operating in the nebulous zone between military command and partial autonomy, creating terror, eliminating democratic rights, and keeping the population fearful and politically inert” (McSherry 243).
McSherry’s story compellingly relates how the Latin American paramilitary operations of the mid-to-late-1970s represented a shadowy covert war, significantly aided by U.S. military assistance to fight individuals or groups deemed to be a threat to the United States (McSherry 18).
As the global realities around the globe have been changing, America has also changed its mode of operation in dealing with Latin American countries (McSherry 2). In December 1989, President Bush ordered a military invasion of Panama to overthrow its government accused of participating in drug trafficking.
The ‘restoration’ of democracy to Panama was also cited as a goal of the U.S. invasion. In the years that followed, not much progress was made towards ending Panama’s role in international money laundering-the main role Panama had long had in this international trade.
However, the U.S. destruction of the Panamanian military did make a direct and powerful contribution to setting a sounder basis for democracy in Panama. The same scenario was replicated in September 1994 when President Clinton ordered the U.S. invasion to occupy Haiti and overthrow its government (Smith 130).
Apart from using direct military invasions, America has also been trying other means to ensure that it keeps the Latin American region under subordination. In his book titled America’s Other War, author Doug Stokes notes the case of Colombia, which is used by the U.S. to carry out its foreign policies in the region.
Over the years, Colombia has been receiving financial assistance and military assistance from the U.S. Although this might be a welcome move, the motivation behind it has not been lost to critics like Stoke. Currently, Colombia finds itself in the precipice of civil war entrenched in a model of neoliberal economics and general subordination to the United States. According to Stoke, 3% of the wealthiest Colombians own over 70% of the farming land, while 57% subsist on less than 3% of the same land (129).
Stoke notes that the ratio of income between the wealthiest and poorest 10% was 40:1 in 1990 and rose to 80:1 a decade later. In this manner, Stoke (130) concludes that America has succeeded in shelving all political and legal events in Colombia and all that the people now think of is the economy.
U.S. relations with Latin America during the Cold War exhibited important continuities with preceding U.S. policies. The Cold War years proved distinctive, however, because anti-communist ideological objectives overwhelmed other U.S. foreign policy goals towards Latin America in each case when the United States chose to deploy its military or chose to overthrow a Latin American government through some other means.
When the ideological fear of communism was absent, the United States did not deploy its military forces but used other covert means to destabilize Latin American governments with a view of ensuring that they have the upper hand in the region, as it is currently the case in Colombia. Indeed, America took the Cold War so seriously such that its gestures towards Latin America are a continuity of its Cold War ideologies in the region.
The only difference in these ideologies is that the latter is currently being turned into constructive ways due to the changing global realities. As McSherry rightly puts it in her book, if the American government is not in the battle front line, then it is behind the scenes with the Latin American military and intelligence forces providing resources, administrative assistance, intelligence and financing.
McSherry, Patrice. Predatory States: Operation Condor and Covert War in Latin America. Roman and Littlefield, 2005. 18-243. Print.
Smith, Peter. Talons of the Eagle: Latin America, the United States, and the World. Oxford University Press, 2007. 2-194. Print.
Stokes, Doug. America’s Other War: Terrorizing Colombia. Zed Books, 2005. 2-130. Print.