Defining and Refocusing US Policy Toward Latin America

By Wesley A. Fryer

Completed 24 August 1993. A 1992-93 Fulbright-Garcia Robles grant administered by the U.S.-Mexico Commission for Educational and Cultural Exchange supported this research. Opinions expressed in this paper are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the position of the U.S. Government, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. Air Force. Thanks to Michael L. Dziedzic, Jose Thiago Cintra, Guadelupe Gonzalez, Rodney Propst and C.J. Polk for their generous assistance which made this research possible. Please contact the author if quoting. Comments are welcome!

Section Jumpstation:
I II III IV V Footnotes

The nations of the Western hemisphere south of the United States are estimated to have a population of 416 million people. U.S. exports to the region exceeded $100 billion in 1992, making Latin America's contribution to the U.S. budget deficit negative, rather than positive, an anomaly in current North American international trade patterns. Latin America's external debt exceeds $330 billion, however, and a large percentage of the $2 billion in monthly service on this debt is owed to United States lending institutions. Latin America is inextricably tied to the United States economically, but when hearing Ross Perot speak during the 1992 presidential election campaign, an observer might have concluded that the region is more a threat than a vital economic partner of the United States.

This relationship demonstrates a historic imbalance, and the importance of the United States to Latin America continues to outweigh the importance of the region to its powerful northern neighbor. Many Latin American governments are largely dependent on the U.S. for their economic well-being, and an economic decline in the United States is virtually certain to trigger a recession in Latin America. This cause and effect relationship is summarized by the phrase "When the U.S. economy sneezes, Latin American economies catch pneumonia." The economic, political, and military influence of the United States in the region has historically been tremendous. Many governments south of the U.S./Mexican border have traditionally defined their foreign policies by opposition to the United States, and virtually all the citizens of the region harbor some resentment for past meddling and interventions of "the ugly Americans" in Latin American internal affairs.

Since the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the strategic context of international affairs has been dramatically transformed. Changes in Latin America contributing to this new environment include transitions to democratic governance in virtually all the nations of the region and the growing acceptance of the free market economic model. Latin American protectionism and overt resentment of the United States are giving way to privatization, lowered tariffs, and expectations of a positive future relationship with the United States embodied in former President George Bush's "Enterprise for the Americas Initiative."

The greatest risk faced by the United States in the post-cold war era is that the U.S. will declare victory against communism and fail to fundamentally reassess its foreign policy toward Latin America and the rest of the globe. It appears that a historic characteristic of international relations, during and before the cold war, was the United States' consistent support of third world regimes presiding over unjust economic orders. The U.S. government has historically supported the status quo in foreign countries to promote political stability and thereby protect U.S. economic interests. In the current period of dramatic change in the global balance of power, it is imperative for the United States to consider whether or not this historic trend must inevitably continue, or whether the U.S. can become a more active agent for positive change and reform in the Third World.

Following the victory of the West over the Soviet communism, policymakers should not ignore the viable lessons Marxism and socialist critiques of international relations offer. As Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari has observed, "Experience has taught us that a state without a market leads to inefficiency, but present reality proves that a market without a state leads to injustice."1 The global gap between rich and poor continues to widen, and it is within the moral as well as self-interest of the United States to aggressively address this trend, as well as other pressing non-economic issues facing the nations of the world.2

This paper attempts to assess U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America, examining what that policy has been before, during, and after the cold war. Its aim is to not only present an objective summary of this policy, but also highlight the focus U.S. policy toward Latin America should have in the future. United States priorities in the region can predominantly be categorized as economic and national security interests, but a moral category exists as well that demands increased attention. It is my hope that as U.S. policymakers reassess our national interests and policies toward Latin America in the post-cold war era, the moral element in these policy calculations can take more priority than it has in the past. Thankfully, changes in the global strategic environment and within the Western hemisphere suggest that refocusing U.S. foreign policy in this way is a realistic possibility.



To begin this assessment, it is helpful to examine several past criticisms of U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America. It is also important to understand the two basic approaches the United States has adopted toward Latin American governments, the motives for each policy, and their respective results. Finally, the changed conditions and new opportunities presently existing in the international system and the Western hemisphere should be examined more closely.

When President John F. Kennedy delivered his inaugural address in 1960, U.S. citizens were captivated by his vision of the United States heroically "bearing the burden" to fight for freedom and democracy worldwide. Yet frequently during the cold war, the United States was not the defender of freedom, democracy, and justice as many Americans wanted to believe. Rather, the United States was the supporter of the conservative status quo in the Third World. In numerous instances, the leaders which the United States chose to support in the name of capitalism, stability, and anticommunism repeatedly acted against moral principles the U.S. rhetorically emphasizes. Preservation of their own power was the most important interest of these leaders, not the institutionalization of democracy within their respective nations, well distributed economic growth, or respect for human rights.

Examples of this policy trend within Latin America included José Napoléon Duarte in El Salvador, Manuel Noriega in Panama, Fulgencio Batista in Cuba, General Anastasio Garcia Somoza in Nicaragua, and Francois Duvalier in Haiti. Third World demands for land reform and more equitable distribution of the benefits of economic growth were consistently equated with communism during the cold war. These demands were often forcibly opposed by Latin American governments as well as the United States, covertly and sometimes overtly as well. In many ways, U.S. policy in Latin America during the cold war was a significant obstacle for economic, political and social progress. U.S. opposition of communism supported the traditional economic and national security interests of the United States, which were the cornerstone of U.S. policy toward Latin America before the cold war as well.

As noted critics of U.S. foreign policy like Noam Chomsky have observed, human rights and democratization have not historically taken top priority among the list of U.S. national interests in Latin America or in any other part of the world. Economic growth and prosperity is the foundation of U.S. national security, and helps guarantee the continued existence of the United States as a free, democratic country. The financial liquidity and status of U.S. financial institutions is an important national interest, as is political stability in foreign countries which attract the dollars of U.S. investors and businesses. The criticism raised by many authors, like Chomsky, is that promotion of the economic and national security interests of the United States has frequently produced negative effects on "moral U.S. national interests" like the promotion of human rights and democratization.

The challenge presently facing U.S. policymakers is to not merely support existing economic, political and social relationships within Latin America by unconditionally supporting existing governments, but rather to encourage nonviolent reform and progress within these societies. The disappearance of anti-communism as the guiding principle of U.S. foreign policy and the new opportunities brought about by a variety of international changes open the door for the United States to become a more effective agent for positive change within the Third World.

The United States has taken two basic foreign policy approaches toward Third World countries: engagement or confrontation. Engagement policy has historically been applied to nations considered "allies" of the United States. In a policy of engagement, the United States usually supports the foreign country with economic and military aid, and encourages the nation to adopt or maintain policies favorable to U.S. interests. During the cold war, U.S. interests for Third World countries included opposition to the Soviet Union and refusual of their "communist" assistance, legal protections guaranteeing the safety of private U.S. investments from nationalization or expropriation, and a politically stable environment favorable for investment. The United States has historically pursued a policy of engagement toward most nations within Latin America, but with varying success. Countries that were past "failures" became subject to the second basic approach of U.S. foreign policy in the Third World: confrontation.

During the cold war, a policy of confrontation was applied to countries demonstrating opposition to United States interests and its capitalist economic system. Public declarations of a government's socialist or communist leanings were certain to elicit a negative U.S. response. Under a confrontational foreign policy, the United States used the economic, political, and military resources at its disposal to convert the will of the foreign government to become amenable to U.S. interests, so a policy of engagement could be reinstated. Means employed by the United States to achieve this objective have included limiting economic investment in the country (sometimes through an official embargo), blocking multilateral loans sought by the nation, supporting opposition political candidates and parties, and cutting off all economic or military assistance that was previously extended to the regime. In its most extreme forms, a confrontational U.S. strategy toward a Third World country has covertly supported the violent overthrow of the government, or included an open U.S. military invasion of the country. The primary objective of such invasions has been to "restore order" and install leaders approved by the United States who will cater to U.S. interests, allowing re-establishment of an engagement policy. Examples of U.S. supported coup d'états in Latin America included Guatemala in 1954, Chile in 1973, and most recently Bolivia in 1982 [MORE?]. Open U.S. invasions took place in Haiti in 1915, Nicaragua in 1927, Cuba in 1933 and 1962, Grenada in 1982, and Panama in 1989.

These confrontational policies in Latin America met varied "success" defined by the standards of U.S. policymakers. U.S. support of a CIA led invasion and coup d'état in Guatemala in 1954 toppeled the "communist" administration of Jacobo Arbenz, and installed a military government friendly to U.S. economic and security interests. Adoption of a confrontational strategy several years after the 1959 Cuban revolution drove Fidel Castro into the open arms of the Soviet Union, however, and continued support of this strategy has thus far failed to convert the will of Cuban leaders to "see the light" and orient themselves toward accomodating U.S. interests. U.S. support of the Contra rebels during the 1980s was unsuccessful in its ultimate goal of violently overthrowing the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua, but played a role convincing voters to elect Violetta Chamorro as the Nicaraguan President in 1990.

Foreign policy practicioners and most scholars concede that an engagement policy is generally superior to a confrontational foreign policy approach. The theory of engagement policy holds that conditions in a Third World country can be managed and influenced more effectively when the United States is active in different ways within the nation. The important roles played by U.S. aid and investment dollars allow the United States government to have more leverage upon a Third World government than it would have absent these activities.

Economic and national security interests of the United States are not the only concerns that can drive policymakers to switch from an engagement to a confronational strategy, although they are the primary reasons. The moral component of U.S. interests, including the promotion of human rights and democracy, has also conviced decisionmakers at times that a confrontational foreign policy approach was necessitated.

A helpful comparison between the abilities of the U.S. government to exert influence on a foreign country through a policy of engagement versus confrontation is provided by Guatemala and El Salvador. After the United States decided to "confront" the Guatemalan government in 1977 by cutting off all aid in protest of the military's continued human rights violations, approximately 70,000 Guatemalan civilians were killed in military campaigns which followed. U.S. policymakers were virtually powerless to stop this genocidal race war, since the leverage provided by an engagement policy had been removed. In El Salvador's civil war during the 1980s, however, the United States chose to maintain its engagement policy toward the nation despite well publicized human rights abuses perpetrated by military elements. A large percentage of the political killings in El Salvador during this period were carried out by right wing death squads, which were allegedly not under the complete control of the Salvadoran government. None-the-less, by the mid to late 1980s, the United States succeeded in moderating death squad activity in El Salvador. Thousands of people were unfortunately killed in the Salvadoran civil war, but the U.S. could not have realisticly prevented all this bloodshed. The engagement policy pursued by the United States in El Salvador appears to have been preferable to the confrontational policy adopted by the Carter administration toward Guatemala in the late 1970s, in part because of the leverage it afforded the United States to moderate violence.

The case of Guatemala, where U.S. confrontational policy was motivated by a moral concern for human rights, was a historical anomaly in U.S. foreign policy. Before and during the cold war, the United States consistently supported established regimes in Latin America, irregardless of how legitimate the claims of opposition groups were for economic or political reform. The main U.S. priority in the region was political stability to promote economic interests, and this policy required forceful opposition to groups seeking destabilizing change through violent means. This past tendency was unfortunate in many cases. Rather than being a proactive agent for reform and change, U.S. policy toward Latin America and other parts of the world kept corrupt, undemocratic, and often brutal leaders in power and actively opposed forces supporting political, economic, and social reforms.

The world has changed dramatically, however, and these changes offer exciting opportunities for a historic refocus of U.S. foreign policy. Within Latin America, political observers have witnessed a broad return, and in some cases the establishment for the first time, of democratic governments. Military regimes which dominated the region during the 1960s and 1970s were discredited by widespread human rights abuses and their failure to generate sustained economic development. The theories of Argentine economist Raul Prebish, which led to protectionist tariff barriers in Latin America under policies of import substitution industrialization (ISI), produced uncompetitive national industries and stagnated economic expansion. Latin American regimes became economically handicapped by overwhelming debt burdens, and government bureacracies became even more bloated and inefficient. Governments printed more money in an attempt to meet financial obligations, which exacerbated runaway inflation. Latin America courted bankruptcy and financial disaster in the 1980s, and threatened to pull global lending institutions into its downward spiral of negative economic growth.

The failure of protectionist economic policies and ISI has forced Latin America to re-examine the economic alternative supported by the United States: privatized national economies fueled by export led growth. The "four tigers" of the Pacific rim; Japan, Tiawan, South Korea, and Singapore, have empirically demonstrated the potential for small nations to achieve remarkable rates of economic growth despite limited national resources. Beginning in the mid-1980s, Mexico began to adopt market reforms that have transformed the national economy under the administration of President Salinas. Argentina, under the leadership of President Carlos Menem, has also privatized industry and encouraged increased levels of foreign investment boosting economic recovery. Inflation has been drastically reduced in both nations, and hopes are high for continued economic growth in the future following the Western capitalist model.

Latin American attitudes toward the United States are more favorably today than they have ever been before in history. Latin Americans envy the materialistic culture and widespread prosperity perceived to exist in the United States, and want to enjoy these benefits of a market economy for themselves. Virtually every nation within the region is officially a democracy, or defines itself to be in a transition stage of democratization. The failure of communism to produce a just, classless society within the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe has had a powerful demonstration effect in Latin America, reinforcing the view that capitalism and democracy are the most viable economic and political alternatives available to regional governments.

During the cold war, domestic debate about U.S. foreign policy was virtually frozen by anticommunist ideology and its staunch refusal to recognize the legitimate claims of many Latin Americans for economic and political reform. When considered alongside the economic and political transformations occurring in Latin America, the elimination of anticommunism as the guiding principle of U.S. foreign policy can be recognized to present sizeable opportunities for historic change in United States engagement policy toward Latin America and the rest of the globe.

The challenges faced by Latin America in its present context are tremendous, however, and make the success of free market economic theory and democracy in the region far from inevitable. There is an extreme difference between the macroeconomic performance of many Latin American economies, which appear statistically impressive, and the microeconomic realities faced by the citizens of the region on a daily basis. Mexico was considered in 1993 for acceptance into the Organization for Cooperation and Economic Development, whose members include the 26 most developed nations in the world. In contrast to this honor based on Mexico's macroeconomic accomplishments, a Mexican can make more money washing car windshields in the streets of the capital than a factory employee can earn working an eight hour day for the minimum wage. Human history has created a vast gap between the rich and the poor in Latin America, and this social structure is often defended by the small number of business elites controlling the reins of government. Transformation of the economic, political, and social realities of Latin America into more just future forms is almost an overwhelming challenge, but must be aggressively pursued by regional leaders for the promises of liberty and prosperity to be secured for future generations.

The opportunity exists for the United States to avoid its past tendency of unquestionably supporting Latin American governments and the unjust economic orders they maintained, and rather become a more assertive force for positive change in the region. Latin America currently looks to the United States as model for economic and political development. The U.S. government not only has a moral obligation to lead the hemisphere in these areas, but also a self-interest to do so. The underlying social and economic inequalities of Latin America have been historic well-springs of conflict, and a failure to address these issues will inevitably lead to similar problems in the future. To understand the potential for the United States to focus more upon the moral element of its national interests in Latin America, it is necessary to examine the three basic elements of U.S. foreign policy toward the region individually. The economic, national security, and moral components of United States interests and policy in Latin America should be thoroughly understood so the relative priorities assigned to these different elements can be effectively amended to adapt to transformed conditions in the international system.



Economics is clearly the primary driver of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America and elsewhere in the globe. Without a vibrant and growing economy, the security and continued existence of the United States as a democratic nation could become seriously threatened. Latin America is economically important to the U.S. as a market for exports, and is home to borrowers of billions of dollars in private and government U.S. loans. The region is a major U.S. source for raw materials and other resources, and is an expanding investment region for U.S. businesses. As international trade makes the world an increasingly smaller place and nations become more focused on regional economic trade zones, the importance of Latin America to the United States can only increase.

U.S. relations with Latin America presently face a critical turning point. Mexico has led regional attempts to abandon ineffective policies of protectionism and ISI, by embracing privatization, foreign investment, and debt reduction. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) holds the promise of making these Mexican reforms permanent, by writing them into bilateral law. The success or failure of Mexico in applying free market economic principles will have a powerful demonstration effect in the rest of the hemisphere, and the potential failure of NAFTA to be ratified by the U.S. Congress risks disaster in this regard. If the United States slams the door to future economic growth and progress in Mexico's face by rejecting NAFTA, expectations throughout Latin America for economic progress through free trade will be dealt a serious negative blow. Ratification of NAFTA is the first major test of post-cold war U.S. policy in Latin America, and will set the tone of Inter-American relations for years to come.

Declaring that NAFTA will produce a "loud sucking sound in Mexico" as U.S. jobs are shifted south was a memorable sound-byte for Presidential candidate Ross Perot, but unfortunately oversimplified and misinterpreted the wealth of issues at stake in NAFTA. If inexpensive labor was the only criteria for factory location; Haiti, the poorest and most economically desperate nation within the Americas, should lead the hemisphere in job creation from newly relocated factories. This is obviously not the case. The United States is a member of the global village, and its economic future is inextricably tied to its neighbors. Protectionism is a discredited policy of the past, and free trade through export led growth is the only viable economic alternative the United States can pursue. Success of this economic model requires international partners supportive of free trade practices, making NAFTA a clear U.S. priority.

Unfortunately, however, free trade does not spontaneously produce well-distributed economic growth or convert an unjust economic order into a more just structure overnight. This is a basic problem facing Latin American governments presently embracing or on the verge of embracing free market economic policies. The protectionism of Third World governments during the past two hundred years produced societies sharply divided into economic "haves" and "have-nots." The size of Latin American upper, middle, and lower classes is very different from those existing in the United States and other developed nations. The middle class in Latin America is extremely small, as is the rich, governing elite at the top of the socio-economic ladder. The vast majority of the region's population live in poverty, and have in most cases been systemically prevented from rising above their condition. A critical question which must be answered is whether or not laissez faire capitalism within the Third World can transform its societies into just economic orders, or if the inevitable, natural tendency of free trade is to further widen the gap between rich and poor.

As Francis Fukuyama has observed, fundamental contradictions within past political and economic systems led to their eventual downfall.3 Totalitarianism ignored the inherent need of human beings to be recognized, and gave way to democracy after World War II, which meets this basic need better than other political systems. Communism tried to deny the fundamental drive within human beings to improve their economic condition, and excluded an incentive system which is the key to growth within capitalist economies. Just as past political and economic systems contained inherent contradictions, Western capitalism has its own contradiction: the natural tendency of the unregulated marketplace to produce economic exploitation and injustice. Like other basic contradictions in past economic systems, it has the potential to destroy our society if it is not addressed and corrected.

Recognition of this contradition in capitalist systems forms the basis of socialist and communist economic theories. The mixed economy of the United States, with its assorted protective regulations and welfare net, tacitly recognizes the existence of this problem also. Marxism, communism, and protectionism have been invalidated on a global scale as alternatives for Third World economic development. Free trade appears to be the only remaining economic option. But if privatized economies and export led growth do not result in more just economic outcomes in the Third World, conflict will be inevitable.

Immigration within and from Latin America is a constant reminder of failing economic growth policies within the Third World. Residents of rural areas continue to leave their homes for urban centers in search of better economic opportunities, and many immigrate legally and illegally to the United States for the same reason. U.S. immigration policy must have a fundamentally economic focus, because economic pushes and pulls are the primary motives for these migrations. Increased economic development in Latin America and improved prospects for upward socio-economic mobility are the only realistic policy goals that can potentially relieve mounting immigration pressures throughout the Americas.

Another question relating to U.S. economic interests in Latin America is whether or not the region can sustain simultaneous economic and political reform. The open economy of the free market is complemented by a democratic form of government in most industrialized countries, but the nations of the Pacific rim have demonstrated that successful economic reforms and growth can be achieved under authoritarian rule as well, and perhaps more efficiently. Demands for further democratization are strong within Latin America, but opening relatively stable authoritarian "democracies" in the region may lead to instability that could undermine economic reforms. Mexico is a case in point. Opposition challenges to the ruling political party, the PRI, continue to grow in number and volume. The Mexican government is slowly being forced to make some political reforms, but these changes could potentially threaten the vital interests of the ruling elite that has controlled Mexican politics for decades. Since the late 1980s, Mexico has successfully privatized its economy, but it remains to be seen if the country can simultaneously further democratize its political system.

U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America is encouraging nations to follow this pattern of simultaneous economic and political reform. While economic reforms are openly advocated by the U.S. government in the Third World, political reform generally does not receive the same degree of official, high-profile support. The suspension of U.S. aid following Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori's "autogolpe" on April 5, 1992, demonstrated that in the new world order, the United States cannot publicly support openly authoritarian regimes in Latin America as it did in the past. U.S. policy does not give Latin America much room to follow the Asian model, where an authoritarian government directs capitalist market reforms without the public protests inevitably encouraged by austerity programs. Latin America is faced with the difficult challenge of adopting free market economic principles and simultaneously trying to meet the demands for further democratization, which tend to promote instability.

The role of the United States in this complex situation is pivotal. By ratifying NAFTA and embracing the goal of a future hemispheric free trade zone, the United States can add momentum to the current trend of privatization and market reform within Latin America. The United States must act with the other nations of the hemisphere to adopt policies that address the fundamental contradiction of the capitalist system: unequal economic benefits and injustice. Opportunities for socio-economic advancement must be expanded to give the middle class in Latin America the chance to significantly grow. Support of nonviolent change will continue to be an important element of U.S. national interests in Latin America, but past tendencies of supporting unjust economic orders do not have to be repeated. If U.S. economic policy toward Latin America aggressively attempts to reduce the gap between rich and poor by expanding the middle class, the United States can promote its own long term economic interests in Latin America and simultaneously serve the collective interests of the hemisphere.



U.S. national security interests have been the second primary category of concerns defining U.S. policy toward Latin America. Political stability is the top U.S. national security interest in the region. To support this objective, the U.S. has helped Latin American governments confront and defeat insurgent groups seeking violent change within their borders.

U.S. policymakers have historically placed faith in a "domino theory" of the Americas, even before George Kennan authored the containment policy of the cold war. U.S. leaders have believed that instability, usually spawned by leftist politicians, would infectiously spread to surrounding nations. U.S. strategists have wanted to prevent this instability and its associated violence and mass migrations from directly affecting the United States, theoretically capable of approaching the U.S. border like a line of falling dominoes. During the cold war, U.S. conservatives also feared the establishment of a "Soviet beachead" in Central America, and spent billions of dollars in economic and military assistance to counter these threats.

By preserving Latin American political stability, U.S. policy has tried to promote favorable investment conditions for U.S. businesses in the region. National security policy has thereby supported the primary driving element of U.S. foreign policy: economic interests. U.S. national security policy in Latin America supports the free flow of commerce throughout the region, and for this reason the Panama Canal has been an important focus of U.S. policy since its construction in the early 1900s. Maintenance of sea lines of communication provided the past motive for some U.S. interventions in the Americas. U.S. Marines invaded Haiti in 1915 and occupied the nation until 1934 to secure the strategic Windward Passage between Cuba and Hispañola for the United States. Most recently, the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama was launched, in part to guarantee the continued "neutrality" and open access of the Panama canal.

U.S. national security interests in Latin America continue to primarily support political stability. The long range future vision of U.S. Southern Command, the U.S. military organization responsible for Latin America, is "A community of free, stable, and prosperous nations, throughout the Western hemisphere, acting in concert with one another while respecting the dignity and rights of the individual and adhering to the principles of sovereignty and international law."4 To promote this vision, current U.S. national security interests in Latin America focus upon the "Grey Area Phenomenon" (GAP), drug control, demilitarization, and reducing weapons proliferation.

The GAP describes a variety of threats to a nation's security that currently plague many countries in Latin America. According to Max Manwaring, the GAP is defined as "threats to a nation-state's ability and willingness 1) to deal with transnational threats to the control of national territory and 2) to control internal organizations seeking violent change within that territory."5 The GAP includes the activities of narcotraffickers, insurgents, and terrorists, which all pose threats to regime stability and survival.

U.S. security assistance to Latin America has sought to bolster regional military capabilities to combat GAP threats. During the cold war, battling communist insurgents received primary emphasis. In the late 1980s, however, drug control replaced anticommunism as the principal focus of U.S. national security interests in the region. U.S. programs sought to reduce the flow of illicit drugs into the United States by attacking drug production and trafficking in the source and transit countries. U.S. policy toward Latin America supported drug eradication and interdiction campaigns, funded the creation of special anti-narcotics police units, and encouraged further militarization of Latin American drug control efforts.

This policy focus on drug control has been somewhat de-emphasized during the administration of President Bill Clinton for two primary reasons. First, reductions in federal programs including drug control have been necessitated by the U.S. budget crisis. Foreign counter-narcotics assistance funds have been cut by over fifty percent from their highest levels during the Bush administration's declared "war on drugs." A second reason for the de-emphasis of supply-side drug control is the growing awareness in the United States of the absolute ineffectiveness of these programs to accomplish their objectives. The U.S. led drug war in Latin America has neither reduced the availability of illicit drugs or increased their price in the United States.8 Drug control continues to be promoted by the U.S. military and other government agencies in Latin America, but not to the same vigorous extent it was several years ago. The budget of the National Drug Czar has been slashed by more than fifty percent, and its staff has been reduced by eighty percent. Diplomatic relations between the United States and Latin America, which were "narcoticized" in many cases in the 1980s, could potentially begin to focus on bilateral concerns other than drug control.

Demilitarization is not an official goal of U.S. policy in Latin America, but military downsizing is a post-cold war reality for the U.S. military and is a trend many policymakers would like to see copied throughout the region. Arms control strategy has been radically changed by the end of the cold war, and preventing the most industrialized nations of Latin America (like Brazil and Argentina) from pursuing nuclear weapons development programs has become an important U.S. arms control objective. The Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty has been signed by the most industrialized countries of the region, and the imminent acquisition of weapons of mass destruction by a Latin American country is unlikely.

Limitation of conventional arms proliferation by the United States is a more formidable task, however, and is not facilitated by the fact that the U.S. is the leading world arms supplier.6 Many companies within the U.S. arms industry must rely upon foreign sales for their profitability and continued existence. Because the production potential of these manufacturers is deemed a vital U.S. national security interest, they present an unholy paradox to policymakers wanting to promote reduced arms proliferation in the hemisphere and elsewhere around the globe.7

The proposal for fiscal year 1994 (FY 94) U.S. security assistance reveals several changes that were motivated by the altered strategic challenges of the post-cold war era. In the past, aid has been specifically allocated for foreign defense assistance, economic support, international military education, and counter-narcotics assistance. In addition to these categories, the FY 94 proposal includes assistance categories to support non-proliferation and disarmament, peacekeeping operations, and democratic development.9 These changes have predictably been slow in coming, but U.S. security assistance programs are gradually moving away from their cold war focus on the Soviet threat.

Although it has officially lost its guiding principle of anticommunism, U.S. national security policy toward Latin America continues its traditional emphasis on supporting political stability. Several changes in the international environment offer hope that this U.S. policy focus can be amended, however, and avoid its historic tendency to quash Latin American demands for reform. The fact that few groups in Latin America continue to offer armed challenges to regional governments is one reason for hope. The Shining Path in Peru is the hemisphere's only major active revolutionary movement. Rebels in El Salvador and Nicaragua have laid down their arms and are attempting to reassimilate into society, although banditry problems have been exacerbated by some members of these groups. Guatemala's insurgent rebels are continuing negotiations with the government aimed at a lasting peace accord, and remaining Colombian guerrilla groups have replaced their prior interest in changing the government through violent revolution with participation in drug trafficking and kidnapping for profit. Present nonviolent demands within Latin America for political and economic reform will not trigger forceful U.S. opposition as past violent demands did, and the potential success of these reform efforts is therefore much greater.

The absence of extra-hemispheric, aggressive military threats is another factor inviting optimism for the potential success of Latin American reform efforts. The elimination of fears about the establishment of a Central American Soviet beachhead and the reluctance for Latin American groups to support violent change within their societies suggest that the national security emphasis of U.S. policy toward the region can be further reduced. Instead, the United States can more vigorously support regional and global multilateral organizations seeking to promote international goals, including peaceful conflict resolution, democratization, and increased respect for human rights. By respecting international law and working through multilateral institutions, the United States can more effectively encourage other nations to follow suit and also assertively promote its values abroad.

U.S. support of United Nations and Organization of American States activities within the Western hemisphere in the post-cold war era has led to successes in several countries. The UN mediated end to the Salvadoran civil war continues to receive strong financial and political support from the United States. In part thanks to an OAS deployed election observer team, Paraguay held democratic elections in July, 1993, which were followed by a peaceful transition of power. UN efforts to negotiate the return of Jean Bertrand Aristide, the democratically elected President of Haiti ousted by a military coup in November 1991, began to bear fruit in July 1993 after the United States won support for a tightened embargo on the island nation. Such cooperative efforts are obviously more diplomatically challenging than unilateral U.S. actions, but serve the long-term interests of the hemisphere much better.

The Inter-American Defense Board (IADB) was founded in 1942 following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, to coordinate the defense of the hemisphere against an external invasion. U.S. proposed acceptance by the OAS of the IADB as an official advisory body could further advance hemispheric collective security goals. This multilateral foreign policy approach can help reduce regional fears of continued U.S. hegemony, and also allow more priority to be assigned to the moral element of U.S. national interests in Latin America.


U.S. "moral" interests in Latin America have historically been given rhetorical emphasis, but in reality were consistently subordinated to economic and national security concerns. The United States has been an example to other nations in the hemisphere of a capitalist democracy providing a wealth of freedoms and rights to its citizens, but has not historically emphasized these values in its Latin American foreign policy. A Jamaican Prime Minister remarked in the 1970s that "under capitalism, property is more important than people."10 The United States is a nation based on ideals beyond capitalism, however. As a result, foreign policy actions of our government should be made in reference to our basic values and founding principles, not merely in support of economic and national security interests. The moral interests of the United States in Latin America include promotion of respect for human rights, democratization, equitable economic growth, humanitarian aid, and environmental protection. As the U.S. emphasis on cold war national security concerns subsides, it is my hope that U.S. moral interests within Latin America can gain more priority in U.S. policy.

The ratification of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on December 10, 1948, was a landmark event in the course of human history. Nations of the world rhetorically affirmed that the rights of individuals are not culturally relative, but rather, absolute. Freed from its cold war preoccupation with anticommunism, U.S. foreign policy can potentially place increased emphasis on global respect for human rights. During the 1980s in Central America, official concern for human rights was dwarfed by the U.S. political drive to prevent communist dominoes from falling. A report by the Congressional Research Service released in July 1993, documented U.S. adminstration testimony to Congress on the civil war in El Salvador. The report suggests that U.S. policymakers purposely ignored human rights abuses committed by the Salvadoran government and attributed most violence to guerrilla forces, in an attempt to secure continued Congressional support for military aid programs.11 Elimination of anticommunism from the U.S. foreign policy agenda will hopefully reduce the likelihood of similar deceptions in the future and permit human rights to be a primary focus of U.S. policy toward Latin America, rather than an obstacle to that policy.

U.S. leaders should strive to consistently demand the same standard of respect for human rights from all nations in the hemisphere. U.S. economic aid to many countries is important enough that it provides a powerful carrot or stick to encourage compliance with U.S. demands. Respect for human rights should lead this list.

Democratization is a U.S. moral interest that received extensive rhetorical emphasis from U.S. policymakers during the 1980s, but in actuality carried little importance on a U.S. agenda emphasizing anticommunism as its first priority. "Demonstration elections" were supported by the United States in El Salvador and Honduras during the 1980s to win Congressional approval for continued military assistance programs. U.S. financial support for opposition electoral campaigns in Panama and Nicaragua helped sway foreign voters to support U.S. backed candidates during the decade. Neither of these actions was motivated purely by an altruistic desire to promote real democratization. Rather, they were carried out to further U.S. national security and economic interests.

The United States has a moral imperative to promote the spread of democracy throughout the hemisphere, as the political system best equipped to protect individuals against tyranny and insure government respect of basic human rights. Development of fair, corruption free judicial systems is essential to insure that the rule of law is enforced and respected within fragile Latin American democracies. By supporting international election observer teams and demanding respect for democratic principles as a precondition for U.S. aid, the United States can support Latin American self-determination through concrete actions rather than merely rhetorical declarations.

The holding of democratic elections cannot be considered a policy end-point, however. Elections are but one stage in a continuing process of democratization that should continually expand the voice of the electorate in politics and force the representative compliance of national leaders to the will of the majority. Minority rights must be simultaneously protected, and toleration for different points of view must become institutionalized within the nation's political culture. Freedom of the press must be stubbornly defended by official and private U.S. efforts, since the unrestrained voice of the media is likely the greatest safeguard a nation's inhabitants can enjoy against an abuse of power. Democratization in the Western hemisphere seems to have taken on universal appeal for the diverse nations of the region, but vigilant efforts will be required to maintain its continued existence and institutionalization.

As already discussed, it is imperative that the United States join other regional governments in aggressive programs to reduce the hemispheric gap between rich and poor. Citizens of the Americas have a moral obligation to address the injustices produced by capitalism, and through the interventions of the state as well as private organizations, improve the opportunities of impoverished individuals to work their way up the socio-economic ladder. Systemic restraints to social mobility must be attacked and brought down, so that as many people as possible can enjoy the benefits of free market economic growth and expansion.

Humanitarian aid is another important element of U.S. moral interests in Latin America. The prevention of disease through immunization and safe drinking water systems, and the provision of disaster relief in cases of natural catastrophes are important forms of humanitarian assistance that can make life or death differences in times of crisis. Efforts to slow rapid population growth within Latin America and programs to combat illiteracy and improve education are also humanitarian concerns which should be promoted by U.S. policy as well as private efforts.

"Sustainable development" is a concept that postulates economic growth can take place without the wholesale destruction and rape of the environment and the globe's natural resources. Regulation and control of environmental pollution, reduction of environmental degradation like the destruction of South American rain forests, and the protection of endangered animal and plant species are moral concerns important not only to the United States, but also to the other citizens of the globe. The Earth Summit in Brazil in 1992 brought increased attention to the environmental challenges facing nations today, but government efforts to address these problems continue to be enacted slowly and be extremely limited in scope. Persistent efforts by private environmental interest groups in the United States have focused greater attention on the environmental effects of increased trade and industrialization between Mexico and the United States. Government concern for these types of issues will hopefully be maintained as the moral component of U.S. policy toward Latin America receives additional emphasis in the future.

It is unrealistic to hope that U.S. government policy toward Latin America could, by itself, transform regional government's actions regarding human rights, democratization, environmental protection, and other humanitarian concerns. Taken together with private efforts within the United States and the other countries of the Americas, however, U.S. emphasis on the moral aspects of our national interests in Latin America can produce positive effects. Economic and national security concerns have historically dominated the U.S. policy agenda toward Latin America, but hopefully in the future our moral interests can enjoy significant emphasis as well.



At the end of the cold war, the United States was most likely at the pinnacle of its global power. Shifts in international power balances are presently underway, and the relative influence of economically powerful nations like Japan and Germany is certain to increase. Despite this predictable "decline" in U.S. power, citizens of the United States have the good fortune of having their economic and political systems copied by virtually all the nations of the Western hemisphere. Nations of the Americas appear to be integrating into a universal culture, defined by capitalism and democracy.

The role of policymakers during this transitional era is extremely critical, as momentous changes in economic and political policies are attempted. Mistakes, like the rejection of NAFTA by the U.S. Congress, a unilateral U.S. military intervention in the hemisphere, or a Latin American government's resort to violence to restore order in a nation destabilized by democratic protest could have dramatic, long term effects for the collective future of the Americas.

Economic interests and political stability will continue to primarily define U.S. interests in Latin America. Hemispheric trends as well as changes in U.S. strategic priorities can potentially allow the moral component of U.S. policy in the region to receive increased emphasis, however. "Perpetual Peace" envisioned by Immanuel Kant or "The End of History" postulated by Fukuyama will never be realized if eighty percent of the world's wealth is controlled by twenty percent of its population. Nations of the Americas must address and remedy economic injustices within their societies, in addition to pursuing democratic and other economic reforms, to prevent future conflict and fulfill moral imperatives. It might seem politically popular in the United States to jump on the protectionist bandwagon, but it is clearly not internationally pragmatic. As citizens of the global village in the Americas, our economic and political future is inextricably tied to Latin America. Only by cooperatively advancing our mutual economic, security, and moral interests can we secure the peaceful and prosperous future we envision for ourselves and our posterity.



(Return to the Top)

1 Speech before the Third Ibero-American Summit. Salvador, Brazil. July 1993.


2 William Pfaff. "Redefining World Power." Foreign Affairs: America and the World 1990/91. p. 45.


3 Francis Fukuyama. The End of History and the Last Man. New York: The Free Press. 1992.


4 U.S. Southern Command Theater Strategy. December 1992.


5 Max Manwaring. "Beyond the Cold War: Toward a Theory of Engagement to Confront the Grey Area Phenomenon." Paper presented to the 34th Convention of the International Studies Association, Acapulco, Mexico, 23-28 March 1993.


6 "U.S. Dominates Big Arms Market in Third World." Reuters. Reprinted in the Mexico City News. 21 July 1993. p. 35.


7 Congressional Presentation for Security Assistance Programs. Fiscal Year 1994. Jointly prepared by the U.S. Department of State and the Defense Security Assistance Agency.


8 U.S. News and World Report. [complete cite]


9 Ibid.


10 "Title of show." Americas, shown on public television.


11 Jim Abrams. "U.S. Deceived Its People On Salvador, Lawmaker Says." Associated Press. Reprinted in the Mexico City News. 21 July 1993. p. 8.

Return to the Top

Mexican Security | Drug Policy | US-Latin American Policy | Collective Security

Return to the vitae of Wesley Fryer

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.