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The Monroe Doctrine is Dead; Long Live the Monroe Doctrine! The United States' "New" Approach to Latin America

Christy Thornton
Date Published: 
October 01, 2008

In a speech to the Council of the Americas in May, President Bush trotted out the standard hemispheric-relations fare, haranguing Congress for holding up free-trade legislation and announcing new battle strategies for the failed "war on drugs." But he then described what had come to be a new pet focus, a nascent "social justice" agenda for the Americas:

"Social justice requires access to decent health care ... Social justice requires access to decent education, as well ... Social justice also requires institutions that are fair, effective, and free of corruption ... I don't think it's too much to ask a government that receives US aid to fight corruption. Matter of fact, I think it's a request that's long overdue. I don't think it's too much to ask a government that we help to invest in the health and education of their children. Nor do I think it's too much to ask for a government to accept marketplace economics."

As we approach the presidential election in this country, the question of the hour has become, "Has Washington lost Latin America?" But when Washington begins to appropriate the language of social justice for the imposition of market fundamentalism, "lost" doesn't begin to describe the problem.


Selling social justice

Bush's "social justice" agenda, which even the New York Times called a "striking use of the revolutionary language of the Left," was rolled out during his March 2007 weeklong "compassion" tour of Latin America, where he repeatedly complained that the US didn't get enough credit for its assistance to the region. Making sure to stick to the talking points, he was quoted on ABC News as saying, "I fully recognize that money alone is not a sign of compassion or care. But it's money aimed at helping people improve their lives. It's social justice money." Unfortunately for Bush, whose May update of the social justice doctrine was a blatant admission of the quid pro quo of US aid for ideological adherence, even "social justice" money can't buy you love.

But it's not just the Bush administration; the use of "social justice" as a tool of US interests has caught on elsewhere in the foreign policy establishment. Also in May, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) released to the public a special Independent Task Force Report on US-Latin American relations. In the introduction to the report, the task force admonished Washington for its "traditional focus on free and fair elections in its democracy promotion efforts, " saying "Latin America's citizens rightly expect democracy to deliver more equality, social justice, and prosperity-not just formal representation." Leaving aside the baffling assertion that US "democracy promotion" in the region has traditionally been about free and fair elections, rather than about shoring up candidates friendly to US interests regardless of the will of the electorate, we might be heartened that the venerable CFR has recognized the lack of social justice as an integral component of Latin America's dissatisfaction with the neoliberal era. Sadly, however, "social justice" quickly becomes just another hatchet with which to hack away at what they see as the real problem in Latin America: the growing influence of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez.

In a section devoted to addressing "Chávez's potential destabilizing policies within Latin America," the task force laments that "US policy is limited in its ability to sway either the domestic or foreign policy of Venezuela." The report suggests that there are, however, steps the US can take to recoup some of its lost influence in Latin America, including "increasing funding for ‘social justice' programs and policies in Latin America." The report goes on, "Providing a US--backed alternative to Chávez's vision will improve US standing in the region and promote US interests." As historian Greg Grandin recently commented, the task force's use of "social justice" seems to be little more than a "marketing ploy-kind of like ‘New Coke'." If Latin Americans are buying what the other guy (read: Chávez) seems to be selling, why not repackage what we've got and sell it under a new name?


"Losing Latin America"

With the Bush administration desperately trying to make over the United States' image in the region, there is a great deal of concern-some of it rising to the level of hysteria-that Washington is, indeed, "losing Latin America." That fear-which we should read as losing the ability to assert US imperatives at will through friendly elites-began to be loudly voiced after Bush's disastrous reception at the November 2005 Summit of the Americas in Argentina, where hundreds of thousands of protestors made clear their repudiation of US economic policy and the war in Iraq. Following that trip, Peter Hakim, head of the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank comprising corporate and government leaders from throughout the hemisphere, published an essay in the January 2006 issue of Foreign Affairs titled, "Is Washington Losing Latin America?" In it, he argued that US policy toward the region was "drifting dangerously," that "support for Washington's policies has diminished," and that, in a year in which more than 15 major presidential and legislative elections were to be held the region, "democratic progress is faltering." Hakim, who had written just three years earlier in the Journal of Democracy that, "Latin America is not shifting course toward the populist Left. Nor is this region of 20 countries turning its back on the United States," was now sounding the alarm.

Following Hakim's essay, right-wing pundits, think tanks, and publications began a campaign of preemptive finger-pointing, desperately trying to awaken a slumbering US before the blame could be laid at the feet of the conservative movement: "The consequence...may well be the complete undoing of Ronald Reagan's legacy," warned the Center for Security Policy, continuing, "At some point in the not-too-distant future, the question will be asked, probably with political repercussions: ‘Who lost Latin America?'." Similarly, in a Washington Times op-ed, Republican senator Kay Bailey Hutchison warned that the dreaded question was looming and exhorted policymakers to "dust off the Cold War playbook," suggesting that "the Gipper's leadership should serve as a model" in confronting threats to US hegemony.

But while the debate continues on who lost Latin America, commentators of all political stripes seem united on how: the US has been neglecting its backyard. "While the United States is preoccupied with the war on terrorism and promoting democracy in the Middle East, Latin America has drifted out of the US sphere of influence, seeking an increasingly independent political course," worried the Heritage Foundation's Stephen Johnson in March 2006. What's more, this narrative that the US has ignored or neglected Latin America is combined with an emerging consensus that, as the task force report states, "Latin America has never mattered more for the United States." The United States imports 30 percent of its oil from Latin America (and just 20 percent from the Middle East); trade with Latin America has grown faster over the last decade than with any other region; and people of Latin American descent account for almost half of the population growth in recent years within the United States itself. So, in the areas of national security, immigration, trade, and energy, Latin America is suddenly, "more important ... than at any point since the Cold War," as Hutchison's Washington Times editorial declared. That opinion comes from the other side of the aisle as well: if the US continues to ignore Latin America, it is "at our own peril," as Barack Obama said ominously in a campaign speech in February.


Back in the game

The neglect narrative isn't just outsiders pointing figures at the Bush Administration, it has now reached the highest levels of Bush's foreign policy team in the Americas. Answering a question about Venezuela and the perceived lack of US attention to the region at a speech at the Americas Society in April, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Thomas Shannon said that there had been a period in which US "involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan created an environment in the Americas in which there was an awful lot of space, and nobody was occupying the space." (You might have trouble convincing the 500 million Latin Americans who live there of that fact.) Chávez, he argued, had been able to take advantage and fill a void. But, he reassured the audience, "we're kind of back in the game."

And it's the attempt to get "back in the game"-on the part of both the Bush Administration and the two major candidates vying to succeed him-that should be cause for concern among activists here in the US. The argument that the United States has neglected Latin America and has therefore lost its influence in the region-that while we were looking away, Chávez and his friends squatted our backyard-misses two obvious realities. First, more and more Latin Americans, not just Chavistas but citizens from Argentina to Mexico, have actively rejected policies that marry representative democracy to neoliberal economics, and have begun to construct alternatives, from the community to the national and regional level. Second, the US has made very real interventions during the Bush administration, in the name of "democracy promotion" and the "war on drugs" and the "war on terror." It seems highly unlikely that the people of Haiti, Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Colombia, or Mexico-just to name a few-feel that they've been "neglected" by a United States that is actively funding right-wing movements and arming military, paramilitary, and police forces.

Of course, the very idea that the US could be losing Latin America implies that the region is Washington's to lose in the first place: explicit in the Monroe Doctrine, which says that the US will never allow a rival power to challenge its hegemony in Latin America, is a paternalistic disbelief that Latin America might have the ability to run its own affairs-in Shannon's term, to occupy its own space. And this is the most crucial point in understanding the "losing Latin America" debate: even within the fairly reasonable framework of the CFR task force report, which argues that "Latin America's fate is largely in Latin America's hands," the inherent challenge being put forth is how to reoccupy that space-how to bolster the United States' rapidly diminishing sphere of influence. But in more and more cases across the region, the Latin American people have risen to defend their own space through powerful social movements and through electing leaders as diverse as Evo Morales of Bolivia, Rafael Correa of Ecuador, Fernando Lugo of Paraguay, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina, Michelle Bachelet of Chile, Lula Da Silva in Brazil, and, yes, Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. Despite their differences, these leaders have all made independence from the United States part of their agenda in an assertion of economic and political sovereignty, regardless of Washington's interests. As Latin Americans seek not just formal representation but social and economic justice from their democracies, there is less and less space for the imposition of the upwardly redistributive neoliberal policies that have defined Washington's interests since the 1970s. It is imperative that, as activists in the United States, we take notice of this trend-solidarity today means defending this right to sovereignty.

With the Empire in disarray after the disastrous failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, and with a change of administration looming here in the United States, it should not be surprising that Washington is suddenly turning to Latin America, once again, to assert itself in the world. From the announcement of the Mérida Initiative to the redeployment of the Navy's Fourth Fleet, from the publication of the CFR task force report to Obama's recent speech at the right-wing Cuban American National Foundation-it is clear that the foreign policy establishment, from center to right, intends to rejuvenate an ailing Monroe Doctrine (or perhaps more appropriately, rejuvenate the Roosevelt Corollary to that doctrine, which asserts the right of the United States to intervene when Latin American nations become too unruly) and reclaim the backyard. After Russia invaded Georgian territory in August, President Bush sternly rebuked Russia, saying that the "days of ... spheres of influence are behind us." Behind us, that is, unless you've got some "social justice" for sale.

Christy Thornton is the Director of the North American Congress on Latin America and Publisher of the NACLA Report ( She lives in New York City.