Is Latin America still the US's 'backyard'?

November 30, 2018
US soldiers in Colombia.

In 2008, the prestigious Council on Foreign Relations published a report titled US-Latin America Relations: A New Direction for a New Reality. Timed to influence the foreign policy agenda of the next US administration, the report asserted: “the era of the US as the dominant influence in Latin America is over.”

Then, at the Summit of the Americas the next year, then-president Barack Obama promised Latin American leaders a “new era” of “equal partnership” and “mutual respect”.

Goodbye Monroe Doctrine?

Four years later, Obama’s second secretary of state, John Kerry, went a step further. He declared before his regional counterparts at the Organization of American States (OAS) that the “era of the Monroe Doctrine is over”.

The speech ― heralding the end of a nearly 200-year-old policy widely seen as a blank check for US intervention in the region ― was warmly applauded.

In its approach to Latin America, President Donald Trump’s administration has struck a decidedly different tone. Soon after moving into the White House, Trump announced he would roll back Obama’s widely praised policies normalising relations with Cuba.

On the Monroe Doctrine, Trump’s first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, openly declared it “clearly has been a success”.

Given such pronouncements, it is tempting to view the Trump administration as intent on derailing a progressive and enlightened Latin America policy initiated under Obama. But closer scrutiny of its policies suggests that, for the most part, the Trump administration is pursuing essentially the same political, economic and security objectives in the region as Obama, albeit in a more brazen and aggressive manner.

Similarly, it is worth noting that Obama’s Latin America agenda ― with the important and late exception of the Cuba opening ― did not diverge significantly from that of his predecessor, George W Bush.

In fact, US administrations have been pursuing roughly the same agenda in Latin America since at least the early 20th century. Although the tactics employed have changed significantly over time, the overarching goal remains the same: maintaining US hegemony throughout the region.

But, although right-wing, pro-US regional actors have staged a major comeback in recent years, maintaining US strategic control in Latin America may be difficult to sustain in the long term. This is due in part to the progressive displacement of the US as the hemisphere’s dominant economic player.

And Trump’s extreme nationalism may contribute to a reawakening of nationalist and anti-imperialist impulses, as has recently occurred in Mexico.

Rolling back the left

Though often cloaked in a rhetoric of democracy promotion and human rights, Washington’s political playbook in Latin America can be summarised as follows: coddle governments and movements that support US economic, security, and foreign policy objectives, and try to eradicate those that don’t.

In this regard, Obama succeeded in passing on a very strong hand to Trump. At the time of Obama’s 2009 inauguration, most Latin Americans lived under progressive governments that, by and large, sought greater independence from the US. By the time he left office in 2016, only a small handful of countries still had left-leaning governments.

Obama played no small role in bringing about this tectonic political shift. In 2009, he and his first secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, helped a right-wing military coup succeed in Honduras by stymieing efforts to restore the elected, left-leaning president Manuel Zelaya.

The next year, the US intervened in the Haitian elections, successfully pressuring the country’s authorities to arbitrarily change the electoral results to ensure the victory of a right-wing, pro-US candidate.

In 2011, the US State Department thwarted regional efforts to reverse a “parliamentary coup” that removed Paraguay’s left-wing president through a widely contested process.

In 2016, the Obama government threw all its diplomatic weight behind corrupt, right-wing political actors in Brazil that removed left-leaning president Dilma Rousseff through a flawed and controversial impeachment process.

Around the same time, the US administration was opposing multilateral loans to the Argentine government of Cristina Kirchner. This aggravated a tumultuous economic situation that helped seal the victory of right-wing multimillionaire Mauricio Macri in the 2015 presidential elections.

The defeat of the left in Brazil and Argentina meant that two pillars of Latin America’s progressive integration movement of the early 21st century had been removed. One pillar remained, stubbornly resisting the US’s repeated attempts to dislodge its government: Venezuela.


Obama did make a valiant effort to remove Venezuela’s chavistas from power. His administration refused to recognise the 2013 electoral victory of Nicolás Maduro, despite no evidence of fraud. In 2015, just as he was taking steps to normalise relations with Cuba, Obama declared Venezuela an “extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States” in order to justify imposing targeted sanctions against government officials.

In August last year, Trump one-upped Obama, imposing broad economic sanctions that sharply restricted Venezuela’s access to international financial markets. This exacerbated the country’s ongoing economic crisis. White House sources revealed that Trump has considered a military invasion of Venezuela.

Why this obsession with Venezuela, a country that poses no security threat to the US?

Washington’s Latin America policy is often a product of domestic politics. The Venezuela obsession ― nurtured in part by wealthy, far-right sectors of the Cuban and Venezuelan diaspora in Florida ― is an example.

But, more significantly, a left government in Venezuela poses a unique challenge to US hegemony given its vast oil wealth and consequent ability to project influence far beyond its borders. This has been exemplified by the Petrocaribe agreement, whereby Venezuela offers discounted fuel to Caribbean nations, and other Venezuelan regional initiatives.

Both these factors have long contributed to Venezuela’s status as the number one enemy in the hemisphere. But Trump’s foreign policy team includes a particularly virulent cast of characters that have taken the Venezuela obsession to a new extreme.

There is little doubt, however, that Trump’s team also has its sights on the few other remaining left-leaning governments in the region: Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and perhaps even Uruguay’s very moderate left government.

At their disposal is a full arsenal of “soft power” tools to advance the US “democracy and governance” agenda. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the government-funded National Endowment for Democracy (NED) have “democracy promotion” programs. These provide training and funding to, primarily, pro-US organisations that often have links to political parties.

In a number of countries ― such as Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and El Salvador ― the US has used these programs to provide material and tactical support to violent and anti-democratic right-wing movements.


Trump has also embraced his predecessor’s regional security agenda, which itself was built on anti-drug and counterinsurgency strategies developed under Bill Clinton and George W Bush. Both presidents poured billions of dollars into Plan Colombia.

This supported vast military offensives that led to the displacement of millions and contributed to thousands of civilian deaths in the South American nation, while having virtually no impact on cocaine production.

Despite its questionable results, Plan Colombia was applauded by much of the foreign policy establishment. It was touted as a model for the Bush-backed Mérida Initiative in Mexico (2008), which supported a militarised “War on Drugs” that has lead to tens of thousands of deaths.

The Obama administration also created the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), which mobilises tens of millions of dollars of security assistance primarily for Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.

In recent years, each of these countries has adopted its own militarised approach to law enforcement. Each has experienced surges in violence that rank them among the most violent countries on Earth. Studies show this violence is a major factor in the sharp uptick in the number of migrants from these countries fleeing to Mexico and the US.

The US government has had a robust security agenda spanning much of Latin America since well before Teddy Roosevelt famously declared the US the region’s “international police power”.

The Cold War may have officially ended in 1991, but US training programs continued. US-trained military personnel were involved in military coups in Haiti (1991), Venezuela (2002), and Honduras (2009), as well as bloody counterinsurgency campaigns in Guatemala, El Salvador and Colombia.

US training programs, along with other forms of security assistance, have allowed the Pentagon to maintain a strong, ongoing influence within Latin America’s military forces. The US has also expanded its direct military presence in the region through formal and informal agreements for US military bases in several countries, including Peru, Guatemala, Honduras and Colombia.

The aggregate result of US training programs, and basing and other logistical agreements is the consolidation of the US military’s strategic control over much of the region. Maintaining this control is an ongoing priority for the US, irrespective of the administration in place.

[Extracted from a longer report published at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Alexander Main is the CEPR’s director of international policy.]

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