Greg Grandin (

Google “neglect,” “Washington,” and “Latin America,” and you will be led to thousands of hand-wringing calls from politicians and pundits for Washington to “pay more attention” to the region. True, Richard Nixon once said that “people don’t give one shit” about the place. And his National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger quipped that Latin America is a “dagger pointed at the heart of Antarctica.” But Kissinger also made that same joke about Chile, Argentina, and New Zealand — and, of the three countries, only the latter didn’t suffer widespread political murder as a result of his policies, a high price to pay for such a reportedly inconsequential place.

Latin America, in fact, has been indispensable in the evolution of U.S. diplomacy. The region is often referred to as America’s “backyard,” but a better metaphor might be Washington’s “strategic reserve,” the place where ascendant foreign-policy coalitions regroup and redraw the outlines of U.S. power, following moments of global crisis.

When the Great Depression had the U.S. on the ropes, for example, it was in Latin America that New Deal diplomats worked out the foundations of liberal multilateralism, a diplomatic framework that Washington would put into place with much success elsewhere after World War II.

We are once again at a historic crossroads. An ebbing of U.S. power — this time caused, in part, by military overreach — faces a mobilized Latin America

In the 1980s, the first generation of neocons turned to Latin America to play out their “rollback” fantasies — not just against Communism, but against a tottering multilateralist foreign-policy. It was largely in a Central America roiled by left-wing insurgencies that the New Right first worked out the foundational principles of what, after 9/11, came to be known as the Bush Doctrine: the right to wage war unilaterally in highly moralistic terms.

We are once again at a historic crossroads. An ebbing of U.S. power — this time caused, in part, by military overreach — faces a mobilized Latin America; and, on the eve of regime change at home, with George W. Bush’s neoconservative coalition in ruins after eight years of disastrous rule, would-be foreign policy makers are once again looking south.

Goodbye to All That

“The era of the United States as the dominant influence in Latin America is over,” says the Council on Foreign Relations, in a new report filled with sober policy suggestions for ways the U.S. can recoup its waning influence in a region it has long claimed as its own.

Latin America is now mostly governed by left or center-left governments that differ in policy and style — from the populism of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela to the reformism of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil and Michelle Bachelet in Chile. Yet all share a common goal: asserting greater autonomy from the United States.

Latin Americans are now courting investment from China, opening markets in Europe, dissenting from Bush’s War on Terror, stalling the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, and sidelining the International Monetary Fund which, over the last couple of decades, has served as a stalking horse for Wall Street and the Treasury Department.

And they are electing presidents like Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, who recently announced that his government would not renew the soon-to-expire lease on Manta Air Field, the most prominent U.S. military base in South America. Correa had previously suggested that, if Ecuador could set up its own base in Florida, he would consider extending the lease. When Washington balked, he offered Manta to a Chinese concession, suggesting that the airfield be turned into “China’s gateway to Latin America.”

In the past, such cheek would have been taken as a clear violation of the Monroe Doctrine, proclaimed in 1823 by President James Monroe, who declared that Washington would not permit Europe to recolonize any part of the Americas. In 1904, Theodore Roosevelt updated the doctrine to justify a series of Caribbean invasions and occupations. And Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan invoked it to validate Cold War CIA-orchestrated coups and other covert operations.

But things have changed…


Greg Grandin teaches history at New York University. He is the author of Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism and The Last Colonial Massacre: Latin America in the Cold War.

Copyright 2008 Greg Grandin

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