The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Latin America:
The “Front Yard” of the United States

Jun 30, 1981

During the first weeks of the Reagan Administration, Reagan and some of his top aides

made a series of statements threatening that the U.S. might go to war against the people of El Salvador. They issued a “White Paper” claiming to document the massive shipments of Soviet bloc arms to the guerillas in El Salvador, which they called a “textbook case of indirect armed aggression by Communist powers.” To emphasize that it would not tolerate such so-called aggression, the Administration suspended payment of $75 million in U.S. economic aid to Nicaragua while it supposedly looked for evidence of an alleged Sandinista role in arms shipments to the Salvadorean insurgents. Reagan said, “The situation here is ... (in) our front yard. ... (We’re trying) to halt ... terrorists ... aiming at the whole of Central and possibly later South America and, I’m sure, eventually North America.”

Certainly, there is an “indirect armed aggression” in Latin America today, but it comes from the U.S. itself. There is not way that the Salvadorean junta, or virtually any of the other repressive regimes in Latin America, could long survive without the money, arms, equipment, and training they have been provided by the U.S.

Today U.S. imperialism looks at Latin America as its “private property.” This domination is the product of the whole historical development of U.S.- Latin American relations.

The Monroe Doctrine and Its Corollary

By the early 1820s, when Latin America was engaged in an independence struggle, the

U.S. had been free of European colonialism for several decades. The military defeats of European colonialism in Latin America opened the possibility for special opportunities for the U.S. bourgeoisie.

By 1823, the bourgeoisie of the U.S. indicated its aspirations for hegemony in the Americas in the Monroe Doctrine:

... (it is) a principle in which the rights and interests of the United States are

involved, that the American continents ... are henceforth not to be considered

as subjects for future colonization by any European powers.

... we ... consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any

portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety... .

... nor can anyone believe that our southern brethren, if left to themselves,

would adopt it of their own accord. It is ... impossible, therefore, that we should

behold such interposition in any form with indifference.

The Monroe Doctrine was never a treaty among the American nations. It was a unilateral statement of U.S. government policy, in effect, proclaiming the intention of the U.S. bourgeoisie to establish and defend its own hegemony in the hemisphere. In stating the impossibility of the “southern brethren” establishing on their own any regime incompatible with U.S. interests, it anticipated the real opposition of the U.S., that is to the Latin American peoples.

The expansion of U.S. capitalism in the next decades led to the war against Mexico in 1846, as a result of which the U.S. seized Texas and most of the rest of what later became the southwestern United States. By the late 1800s, the enormous growth of capital in the U.S. pushed the U.S. bourgeoisie to look beyond its close neighbors to the northern part of Latin America. U.S. corporations began to have substantial investments in the Caribbean and in Cental America, extracting minerals and planting crops for export. The United Fruit Company began its empire in this period.

By 1898, the U.S. was ready to challenge European colonialism in the Caribbean. The U.S. declared war on Spain in 1898 and rather easily obtained Puerto Rico, as well as the Pacific islands of Guam and the Philippines. In addition, the Spanish were forced out of Cuba which was then occupied by U.S. forces allegedly sent to defend Cuban independence. By the turn of the century, the U.S. had become the predominant force in the Caribbean and had begun to establish significant outposts in the Pacific.

It was U.S. designs in the Pacific which made Central America of particular strategic importance to the U.S. The U.S. sought to buy a strip of land from Columbia for a canal linking the Pacific and Atlantic, but the Columbian government refused the terms they offered. In 1903, a “rebellion” in the isthmus of Panama organized by Philippe Bunau-Varilla (a leader of the company which sought to build the canal) and supported by the appearance of a U.S. warship at the isthmus, led to the formation of the independent state of Panama (independent of Columbia, but clearly a creature of U.S. design). The canal was completed in 1914 on land leased to the U.S. without limit.

Meanwhile, U.S. investment in Latin America began to grow rapidly. Objections of any sort from the Latin American peoples were dealt with harshly. President Theodore Roosevelt’s 1904 “Corollary” to the Monroe Doctrine announced that the U.S. intended to use its own military forces to maintain order throughout the Americas. He explained that “... the adherence of the United States to the Monroe Doctrine may force the United States, however reluctantly ... to the exercise of an international police power.”

The U.S. began a protracted series of military interventions in Latin America: in Cuba in 1906 and again in 1912, in Nicaragua in 1908 (which lasted until 1933!), in the Dominican Republic in 1912, and in Haiti in 1915. Mexico was invaded in 1916. The U.S. Marines were sent to restore “order” in labor disputes in the 1920s in Nicaragua, Haiti, and Santo Domingo.

During this period, Britain was the major imperialist rival of the U.S. in Latin America. In the late nineteenth century, British investment still outstripped that of the U.S. By the 1920s, although the investments of both powers had grown, their positions had reversed, in part due to the involvement of Britain in Europe during the World War.

U.S. investment in Latin America grew from $304.3 million in 1897 to $5.37 billion in 1929. This change was not only quantitative. In 1897, nearly 90 per cent of this investment was in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean. By 1929, it had spread so much that more than 56 per cent was in South America. In addition, while railroad construction and mining had dominated U.S. investment before the turn of the century, by 1929 they had been replaced by agriculture and oil as the chief imperialist operations.

“Good Neighbor” Policy

By the time the Great Depression hit, U.S. imperialism was well-entrenched in Latin

America. Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy, including a supposed non-intervention pledge, reflected the fact that the U.S. had established its domination. The previous series of military invasions had put in place enough regimes directly tied to the U.S. to exert a pressure on the whole continent, making most of Latin America open to U.S. imperialism’s wishes.

Protective tariffs were practically done away with, turning the whole of Latin America into a U.S. market. A series of U.S. “development” loans to Latin American nations in fact primarily developed the indebtedness of these nations to the U.S. Taking advantage of the strain of the depression, the U.S. financiers could virtually name their own terms. These loans deepened the long-term integration of the Latin American nations in the U.S. economic system. In addition, the loans went toward developing the roads, ports, and shipping facilities needed by U.S. imperialism. In some cases they were directly handed over to U.S. industrialists to construct their factories. These loans never were granted for the purpose of developing projects for an independent economy in the Latin American countries. For example, a steel industry was built up in Brazil, designed not as the basis of a national economy, but distorted toward producing only certain kinds of steel for export, to serve the needs of the U.S. firms in Latin America. Thus, with the Good Neighbor Policy, just as with the Monroe Doctrine, te U.S. government employed a rhetoric of aid and mutual interest to mask imperial designs.

By the end of World War II, given the preoccupation of the U.S. with other areas of the world, there had developed a number of regimes in Latin America, such as those of Vargas in Brazil and Peron in Argentina (and later that of Paz Estenssoro in Bolivia), which tried to take a certain distance from U.S. imperialism. Under the guise of the Cold War rhetoric, the U.S. began to reinforce the Latin American military to use it against such regimes, and even openly to organize military interventions, as in 1954 against Arbenz in Guatemala.

By 1951, the Truman Administration convened a meeting of American foreign ministers which called for “swift action (against the ) aggressive activities of international communism (which) disturb the peace ... and threaten freedom and democracy.” The talk of confronting communism became the code word for repressing all signs of independence.

Alliance for Progress

With the Cuban revolution and the subsequent increase in the nationalist movement in

many of the countries of Latin America, the U.S. stepped up its opposition to all signs of independence.

Kennedy’s “Alliance for Progress,” proposed in 1961, was promoted as a sort of Marshall Plan for Latin America. In fact it was a proposal of some loans and small grants designed to cover the basic mechanisms of U.S. policy during this time period: the Alliance which was proposed in March was followed by the Bay of Pigs invasion in April. Johnson continued the Alliance while his administration invaded the Dominican Republic to remove Juan Bosch. More important than these invasions was the fact that both Administrations built up the Latin American military, making them into almost open extensions of the imperialist military system. Put another way, it is the C.I.A. rather than the Marines through which the U.S. government has been more likely to intervene in this period. The overthrow of governments which create some problems for imperialism is characteristic of this period. The better known examples are Goulart in Brazil in 1964, and Allende in Chile in 1973, bu the whole period was dominated by military coups and organized in Washington.

The military regime characteristic of many Latin American nations today reflects the long-term inability of a native bourgeoisie to develop any strength independent of imperialist domination. These regimes which are nominally independent, in reality serve their own bourgeoisies less than they serve U.S. imperialism. The officer corps in many of these nations is trained in the U.S. to serve the interests of U.S. imperialism. The armies depend extensively on the U.S. for military material and money.

Kennedy’s proposal of the Alliance for Progress acknowledged, in effect, what was completely obvious: that decades of U.S. investment in Latin America had not benefitted the population, but, to the contrary, had maintained and even deepened their poverty and had made the economies of these countries increasingly tied to and dominated by the U.S.

The concerns of imperialism – to find profitable investments, cheap labor, raw materials to extract, and markets for its goods – totally distort the economies of the nations it victimizes.

For example, Latin America had tremendous agricultural potential, but it does not feed itself because so much of the land in use has been turned over to producing export crops. In fact, by the 1970s, Latin America, which previously had always been a net exporter of food grain, became a consistent importer of grain, because so much of its productive land is involved in monocrop agriculture.

Or another example of the distortion is the loans. These loans, given originally to pay for a superstructure serving U.S. investments, are now burdening Latin American government to the extent that much of their expenditures go to debt servicing; the end result is to aggravate in a serious way the underlying inflation. In recent years, 20 per cent is a low rate of inflation in Latin America. In Argentina, the rate was 140 per cent in 1979; in 1980 it was still 100 per cent!

The situation in Latin America today is marked first by the fact that the regimes of Latin America are in fact little more than puppets of U.S. imperialism, while their economies are completely subjected to the domination of U.S. capitalism.

This situation makes clear what Reagan means when he pretends that there is a threat to Latin America. In fact, this threat he speaks of is a threat against U.S. interests in Latin America. Moreover, it is not a threat from outside Latin America; it is a threat that the population of Latin America, oppressed as it is by U.S. imperialism, could once more oppose itself to that domination.