Friday, June 25, 2010

America's Backyard

America’s Backyard

Andrew Bacevich, a professor at Boston University, and a self-proclaimed conservative is one of the most reasonable and thought-provoking observers of American foreign policy. He has written a number of  important books, he writes Op-Ed pieces for newspapers and is a frequent guest on radio talk shows. In his latest contribution, he raises the question why we are fighting in the Mideast and neglecting problems close to home such as the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico or the bloody drug war in Mexico.

He recommends that we return to the foreign policy perspective of 19th century American leaders who focus their attention primarily on what they called the “near abroad,” what--in the years since Ronald Reagan--we refer to as “our backyard.”

It is, indeed, important to redirect the main focus of our government to problems close to home. But such a recommendation remains seriously incomplete unless accompanied by a clear recognition that the US has paid very different kinds of attention to our hemisphere at different times.

In 1823, Pres. Monroe promulgated the so-called “Monroe doctrine” which denies any European nation the right to interfere with nations in our hemisphere. This doctrine supported the emerging new nations in Latin America who were emancipating themselves from Spanish colonization. Pres. Monroe promised to help these nations protect their newly won independence. Since the United States had no navy or army to speak of at the time, the Monroe doctrine was more a gesture of goodwill than a genuine offer of military protection.

But the original Monroe doctrine displayed a spirit of neighborliness and mutuality in our relations to Latin America. By the end of the century, the Monroe doctrine had mutated into a justification for US interference in the countries in Latin America. The history of US Latin American relations in the 20th century is an extended history of US meddling in the internal affairs of various countries. All of these interventions where designed to benefit the US regardless of the damage they did to the Latin countries when they destroyed Latin American economies and replaced democratic governments by dictatorships.

Especially since World War II and the beginning of the Cold War, our government has steadfastly supported military regimes and brutal dictatorships in Latin America as long as countries promised to be anti-Communist and to open their economies to US investment. From being good neighbors in the early 19th century, sharing the hemisphere as well as the history of liberating themselves from colonial masters, Latin America has mutated into “our backyard,” a space where we can do pretty much as we please.

Here are some of the US actions in Latin American countries since World War II:

In the early 1950s, Bolivia experienced two military coups from left-leaning generals. The US responded by selling its very large reserves of tin, left over from World War II, thereby depressing world prices of tin. This metal was then one of the chief exports of the desperately poor country of Bolivia. The US action created huge economic problems and increasing poverty in Bolivia and de-stabilized their government.

In 1964, the Guatemalan people elected a president suspected of left sympathies. The CIA engineered a coup deposing him and inaugurating 20 years or more of bloodletting by military regimes. The will of the Guatemalan people was thwarted and their very life endangered.

  In 1965,  20,000 US troops landed in the Dominican republic to obstruct a National Liberation Movement. This intervention had been preceded by the assassination of Rafael Trujillo, longtime dictator supported by the US. There followed a serious political conflict bordering on civil war pitting anti-Communist military officers against the left-leaning opposition. When the anti-Communist military seemed to be losing the war, Pres. Lyndon Johnson sent in 20,000 Marines.

In 1970, Chilean voters elected Salvador Allende, an avowed socialist, president of Chile. The CIA managed to undermine the Chilean economy and to foment a military coup led by Gen. Pinochet. Many Chileans were forced into exile or killed in the aftermath of this military takeover

Nicaragua had long been the fiefdom of the Somozas, father and son, bloody dictators both; both generously supported by the US. When in 1979 a left-leaning Sandinista movement managed to drive out the dictators, the US government under Pres. Ronald Reagan instigated a civil war against the Sandinistas, even though such actions were forbidden by Congress at the time.

In the 1980s El Salvador was torn apart by civil war. The US generously supported the conservative troops, once again interfering in the internal affairs of a Latin American country.

In 1983, President Reagan invaded Grenada, a tiny Caribbean island -- which most US citizens would have difficulties finding on the map -- in order to unseat a left-leaning government.

These are just some of the high points of US interference in Latin America. Our government has consistently undermined governments that seemed to threaten US investments and profits in Latin American countries. That many of these governments were elected by majorities did not matter to our government at all.
Any recommendation that our government pay more attention to our neighbors and their difficulties must immediately be qualified by saying that they should be conducted in a way that respects the sovereignty of other countries and the wishes of their citizens.

 In our dealing with Latin America we must, at last, show ourselves to be the freedom loving nation and champion of democracy that we think we are. We must no longer support dictators or bloody coups against democratically elected government for the sake of protecting the investments of US or global companies.