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Latin America as US Empire Cracks

The Alliance that Lost Its Way

by Jerome Levinson, by Juan de Onís
(A Twentieth Century Fund Study) Quadrangle Books, 381 pp., $7.95

The Containment of Latin America

by David Green
Quadrangle Books, 384 pp., $10.00

Politics and Social Forces in Chilean Development

by James Petras
University of California, 377 pp., $3.45

Down There

by Jose Yglesias
World, 181 pp., $7.50

The Quest for Change in Latin America

by W. Raymond Duncan, by James Nelson Goodsell
Oxford, 562 pp., $12.50

No empire in our century has been more powerful and apparently unchallengeable than that of the US in Latin America, and no imperialists have pitched their claims higher—though for various reasons most North Americans have persistently disliked being labeled as such. The British long ago recognized the fragility, and eventual impermanence, of their Indian empire, the French the uncertainty of their African one. Both were only too well aware that, where the relationship with their dependents happened to be informal and economic, it called for a considerable degree of political flexibility. Only the US has not merely taken its permanent supremacy south of the Rio Grande and Key West for a fact of nature, but formulated it in terms which exclude the slightest abrogation.

As Jerome Levinson and Juan de Onís point out in their lucid and valuable book,

The US security interest in Latin America, as traditionally conceived, consists of three propositions:

1) (dating from the Monroe doctrine in the early nineteenth century): The United States must keep potentially hostile extracontinental powers out of the hemisphere in order to deny them a geographically convenient basis from which to attack.

2) (dating from the days of Elihu Root in the early twentieth century): The United States, having become a capital surplus nation, must seek outlets for this surplus, generally abroad and particularly in Latin America….

3) (dating from the onset of the cold war in the late 1940s): The political apostasy of a Latin American country would cause the United States to lose face, weaken its influence in other parts of the world, and undermine the confidence of important European countries in the ability of the United States to lead the “free world” struggle against the monolithic communist bloc. [Pp. 321-2.]

The dating, the rationale, and the formulation of these propositions are open to challenge, but not their essential content, which implies that the US can not only keep any power out of the hemisphere but also prevent any Latin American government from doing anything Washington disapproves of. Both these assumptions rest on the overwhelming economic and politico-military domination of the hemisphere. The second predates the century. The first became a reality when US capital and enterprise replaced the British as the dominant factor in this part of the world, and has been steadily reinforced ever since. Everywhere else the US recognizes rivals, though perhaps weaker ones. In Latin America it does not, because none exists or is even visible.

Probably only Latin Americans are fully conscious of the effects of this assumption that the US is supreme, and they inferior, though it sometimes penetrates into the historical record. “They don’t think like us,” Thomas Mann, LBJ’s State Department man on Latin America, is reported as saying. “Their thought processes are different. You have to be firm with them” (Levinson and de Onís, p. 151). Doubtless this public servant thought he was merely stating “the obvious,” just as his well-known support for US business in Latin America merely reflects the normal attitude of his countrymen. It looks different south of the Rio Grande.

However, what is perhaps even more significant and galling than both the persistent assumption that the US knows better and its persistent subordination of Latin interests to its own is the assumption that Latin America is not even worth bothering about, outside the occasional moments of panic that punctuate long periods of neglect. What makes this even more insulting to Latin Americans is the sense that these moments of panic are due less to their own actions than to the possible reactions of more important states about which the US government is really worried, and to the effect upon its situation in other parts of the globe, where the US is more vulnerable. The prestige of Cuba, Fidel Castro, and Che Guevara surely owes much to their being Latin Americans of whom big brother really had to take notice.

The history of US “aid” vividly illustrates this assumption that the US back yard can normally be left unattended. Two excellent books enable us to survey US policy in this area for the past forty years: David Green’s study of the rise and fall of Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor” policy, and Levinson and de Onís’s analysis of the “Alliance for Progress.” Both record the constant tendency to subordinate Latin affairs to the wider interests of the US. During the 1930s and the war years the stimulus to action was Fascism. “At the beginning of the thirties,” wrote the State Department political adviser Laurence Duggan, “the United States Government was doing even less than private organizations; it was doing nothing at all. By the end of the thirties it was white hot with enthusiasm, born of fear of the Nazis. And therein lay the weakness of its new policy” (quoted in Green).

In 1941 an allegedly German-linked plot was discovered in Bolivia. Within a matter of weeks a military mission had been sent and a $25 million aid program announced. The war also made the US willing to settle the dispute over the Mexican nationalization of oil, which had been dragging on since 1937. “The war,” claims Green, “bailed out the faltering New Dealers in Latin America,” providing them with the argument that economic development there was essential to “hemispheric defense” against the Nazis.

On the other hand, it became increasingly clear that where Latin development failed to contribute to the US war economy (i.e., did not serve the direct mobilization of the raw materials which the US had to acquire in the hemisphere), it was sacrificed, except in so far as the US used the opportunity to freeze out European—and especially British—business and to make the continent entirely dependent on the US market. The fact that most of us would at the time have agreed with Roosevelt’s scale of global priorities, and would probably still do so, should not obscure the resentment of Latins, who did not feel themselves to be threatened by Germany and Japan, and who were in any case not asked. The only country which retained some freedom of maneuver, Argentina, took a very different view of its economic and political interests at the time.

The German danger was short-lived, and in any case the US claim to global empire, though anticipated by Henry Luce in 1941, was not yet formally established. Hence the “Alliance for Progress” period demonstrates the subordination of the continent to Washington’s world policy even more clearly. The “Alliance” was a response to Fidel Castro, the first Cuban statesman within living memory to resist the habitual economic blackmail from the north. Guevara, at the Punta del Este conference of 1961, pushed the US into committing itself to hard figures (Levinson and de Onís, p. 66). Fidel got it to resign itself to the signature of the International Coffee Agreement of 1960, to halt the price slide of this commodity which put the governments of Brazil, Colombia, and various central American republics at risk.

Conversely, the Soviet retreat in the missile crisis of 1962 immediately made social reform, adventurous planning, and the subordination of individual business interests to national interests less urgent. “The United States stopped feeling that it was one minute to midnight in Latin America” (Levinson and de Onís, p. 83). From 1964 the businessmen were back in force, from 1965 Vietnam took priority. “Take it out of the Alliance,” said the administrator of AID when asked by the Bureau of Budget where cuts should be made (p. 115). By 1968 his view was that Latin America had always had more funds than it could effectively use. The truth is that, as an official joked in the early years of the “Alliance”:

We all know that there are only three categories of loans in the Alliance for Progress: very high priority, hysterical, and if-you-don’t-make-this-loan-the-Communists-will-take-over-the-country. [p. 113.]

After the initial shock of Castro had been absorbed, it never looked as though the communists would take over any country.

This is no doubt the reason why the sheer amount of US aid to Latin America remained relatively modest in monetary terms and very small in real ones. As the director of AID’s Office of Programming and Planning pointed out in 1967, before 1960 the net flow of official funds there was less than half the per-capita level for other regions. The Alliance brought it almost—but not quite—up to this average, “but this is a much smaller percentage of development expenditures than in other areas…. Since more than half of foreign longterm lending is offset by amortization of past loans, the net resource contribution of foreign capital to Latin America has been relatively small” (p. 140). In the words of Levinson and de Onís, it has at best staved off economic disaster rather than stimulated economic development.

The US attitude to Latin America has therefore normally been based on the belief that, without the intervention of global factors, US power is virtually absolute, and Latin American forces alone are feeble to the point of being negligible. Yet a more careful analysis of hemispheric relations, and occasional bitter experience, suggest the opposite. US power is limited, and any attempt to exceed these limits leads to defeat or failure. To be more accurate, while the power of the US economy is overwhelming and remains decisive, its political (and military) power is not. Moreover, even the immense force of US capital is to some extent at the mercy of political forces which Washington cannot override.

Both the record of the “Good Neighbor” policy and that of the “Alliance for Progress” demonstrate these limitations, the latter more dramatically than the former, because US political megalomania was so much greater in the era of JFK than in that of FDR. There is indeed, in spite of David Green’s argument to the contrary, a sharp difference in tone between the two periods, although there is some continuity of personnel and ideology. We may grant that in both the US put its interests first, saw Latin development in the light of its own advantage, economic and political, and opposed “militant revolutionary economic nationalism.” Yet there is a substantial difference between the New Frontiersmen of the 1960s and the New Dealers of the 1930s.

It is illustrated above all by Mexico. This was a test case, since the revival of revolutionary and anti-imperialist dynamism in that country under Cardenas coincided with the New Deal and, through the nationalization of the oil companies, came into flat conflict with American capital. The US might well have wielded the big stick, as it had done in 1933 over Cuba, and was to do again (with disappointing results) over Argentina, admittedly moved by the fear of Nazi victory. (Mr. Green suggests that the anti-fascist arguments were not seriously held, but his material suggests otherwise.)

In fact, Washington handled the Mexican situation, by and large, with tact and a marked absence of hysteria. It is hard to avoid the impression that influential New Dealers, headed by FDR himself, felt that, whatever the dangers to the US position, they could hardly blame Latins for demanding for themselves what the New Deal was demanding for North Americans. The oil companies, wrote the US ambassador from Mexico to FDR, “are as much against fair wages here as the economic royalists at home are against progressive legislation.” The President himself was to say, in tones which no doubt grated on Latin ears, but express a genuine, if paternalistic, good will: “Give them a share. They think they are just as good as we are, and many of them are.”

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