The United States versus Latin America
By Immanuel Wallerstein
November 2005

The severe rebuff to Bush's diplomacy at the Summit of the Americas in Mar de la Plata, Argentina, November 4-5, was in some sense the culmination of almost two centuries of difficult relations between the United States and the rest of the Americas. It did not come out of nowhere, and it is by no means the end of the story which, from a U.S. point of view, is going downhill steadily.

The United States proclaimed the Americas to be its private reserve as early as 1823 in the Monroe Doctrine. By it, the United States hailed the independence from Spain of its many former colonies, and told European powers not to try to intrude themselves further in the Americas. Of course, a similar recognition was not extended to Haiti, a state dominated not by White settlers but by Black ex-slaves and free "Coloreds." The United States refused to recognize Haiti until 1862 (when the secession of its slave states lifted some of the pressure on the U.S. government). To be sure, the U.S. did not have an entirely free hand in Latin America. Great Britain was still the dominant economic (and political) force there throughout the nineteenth century.

But slowly, the United States established its primacy in Mexico (after various military encounters), in the Caribbean (especially after the Spanish-American War), and eventually in South America as well. In the beginning of the twentieth century, the United States felt free to wrest Panama away from Colombia (to build its Canal) and to send marines to establish its order (and defend its corporate interests) in various Central American and Caribbean presumably sovereign states.

The "big stick" policy of overt imperial intrusion was basically the only U.S. policy until 1933, when Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed the "good neighbor" policy in its stead, applying this to Cuba, Mexico, and Puerto Rico among other places. After that, the big stick was not altogether abandoned (the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba under Kennedy, the marines sent into the Dominican Republic under Johnson, the invasion of Grenada under Reagan, and the invasion of Panama under George H.W. Bush). Nor should one forget to include the innumerable times the U.S. covertly supported military coups (notably in Guatemala, Brazil, Chile, and - unsuccessfully - in 2002 in Venezuela). But the big stick alternated with suaver diplomacy. And it was suaver diplomacy that George W. Bush was trying to use in his clumsy manner in Mar de la Plata.

It didn't work. Why? While in a sense Bush is trying nothing new in Latin America, merely continuing the policies of his predecessors there, his Iraq adventures have crimped the ability of this policy to work. By trying to push - most unsuccessfully - his policy of machisto intimidation in the Middle East, he has undermined radically the level of world support for the United States at the same time that he has tied down the instruments of strength (military, financial, and political). The culmination of two centuries of dominance in Latin America is the picture of the United States as a giant with feet of clay. We need only look at the series of blows to U.S. power and prestige registered at and before Mar de la Plata.

The president of Argentina, Nestor Kirchner, opened the meeting with a speech in which he said that the United States has the "inescapable and inexcusable" responsibility for policies that have led to poverty and a social tragedy in Latin America. He specifically cited the Washington consensus and the structural adjustment policies of the IMF. While this is traditional language of the left in Latin America, it is probably the first time that the host of an interstate meeting said this publicly with the U.S. president in the audience. Did Bush walk out? No, he held this tongue and merely praised Kirchner for the improvements in the Argentine economy that he has accomplished.

Meanwhile, Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela who has now become the great nemesis of the U.S., spoke to a vast public assemblage, denouncing the perfidies of the U.S. He was joined, among others, by Argentina's (and Latin America's) great soccer hero, Diego Maradona, who used the occasion to say that "Fidel [Castro] is a god, and Bush is an assassin." Soccer stars may not be qualified political analysts, but they are very influential with public opinion.

The U.S. reaction to Kirchner and even to Chavez was mild because the U.S. was concentrating on the one thing it wanted out of the summit - a commitment, a recommitment, to achieving the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA). Here the U.S. ran into a granite bloc: the four states that comprise Mercosur - Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay - plus Venezuela just said no. President Fox of Mexico tried to rally the others, but without Brazil, Argentina, and Venezuela, FTAA is, as Chavez proclaimed, "dead, and we are burying it here." Meanwhile, these same countries have been strengthening their economic ties with Europe and China to the detriment of the U.S.

Bush has pushed two things in Latin America - FTAA, now dead; and isolating Cuba. While Cuba was still not invited to the summit (Bush would not have come had it been), just days later, the U.N. General Assembly voted once again, and with the highest vote ever (182-4, with 1 abstention and 4 states not voting) to call for an end to the U.S. blockade of Cuba. The best the U.S. could get in Latin America were two "non-votes" from Honduras and Nicaragua.

Finally, although at Mar de la Plata one of the U.S.'s few public defenders concerning FTAA was Mexico, Mexico just days earlier had ratified the International Criminal Court treaty, and specifically refused to sign the so-called bilateral non-surrender agreement the U.S. has been insisting on everywhere for its own soldiers.

The Monroe Doctrine is dead. And there are few mourners.