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Latin America: The Forgotten Neighbor

The recent national obsession with the Mexican border has obscured a fact of even greater significance for American public attention. Within a general malaise in foreign policies since the end of the Cold War, the overall neglect of Latin America as a central focus has obscured an area which, from the beginning, played a central role in American external relations. The neglect of Latin America, in fact, may well provide a critical background causation for the unrest which now threatens American cultural stability.

Over half-a-century ago (1962), Soviet missiles in Cuba presented an immediate challenge to America’s existential survival. The missiles and their nuclear threat were quickly removed, while the subsequent preoccupation with Vietnam, the Soviet Union, the Cold War, and now Islam and the Middle East, has left attention south-of-the-border on the back burner. Today, the new threat is human and cultural and has, once again, focused public concerns back to where they used to be. Unlike weapons, however, this issue will not go away quickly, or quietly.

There was once a time, and a long one, when Latin America was the singular area of U.S. interests. The first major assertion of any U.S. foreign policy goes back to President Monroe’s Doctrine (1823) which defined the entire hemisphere as under American strategic jurisdiction.  Originally, Monroe made only a statement of interest against foreign “meddling” in the region. Subsequently, the shield became a sword, as subsequent presidents, from Polk to McKinley, used it as an excuse for expansion and conquest. Theodore Roosevelt’s “corollary” (1904) justified U.S. “police power… in flagrant cases of wrongdoing or impotence.” America had become, in effect, the arbiter of the foreign relations of the Western Hemisphere.

Between the Spanish-American War (1898) and the last intervention into Nicaragua (1926), the United States intervened militarily in Central America and the Caribbean on twenty-five occasions. By the end of this period, Washington had become frustrated with the overall lack of finality of these occupations and the unpopularity they had aroused both here and abroad. The Coolidge Administration began a tentative withdrawal from these places (including two expeditions into Mexico), while Herbert Hoover, even before his inauguration, made a historic “good will” tour of Latin America. But the cause was then taken up systematically by Franklin D. Roosevelt.    

FDR’s first Inaugural Address has been hailed as the greatest in history (or Lincoln’s second inaugural). Devoted almost entirely to the Great Depression, it contained a single sentence on foreign affairs, “In the field of world policy, I would dedicate this nation to the policy of the good neighbor.” What followed was a flurry of diplomatic activity that, upon reflection, should be recognized as one of the most successful and long-serving foreign policies in U.S. history.

By a series of military withdrawals and policy agreements, FDR enrolled the entirety of Latin America behind the U.S. for both the oncoming world war and subsequent Cold War. Moves were swift and timely. Troops were withdrawn from earlier occupations. A multilateral non-intervention pledge was signed in Buenos Aires (1936). The Declaration of Lima (1938) pledged hemispheric solidarity should a new war occur. The Act of Panama (1939) declared the Western Hemisphere a neutral zone in the world war. The Havana Declaration (1940) defined the security of all states in the region together as one unit and announced the “no transfer” principle against any foreign intrusion. In September 1940, the U.S. began occupying British possessions in Bermuda and the Caribbean in exchange for U.S. naval destroyers. During the war, the U.S. signed bilateral treaties with sixteen regional countries for base rights and provided “lend-lease” aid to nineteen. In 1942, Washington enrolled both Canada and Mexico into the North American Joint Defense Board.

By the war’s end, the entire hemisphere (including pro-fascist Argentina) had been enrolled as a single strategic system unique to world political history. The Rio Treaty (1947) affirmed that an attack “upon one is an attack upon all” (followed by the NATO alliance in 1949) and led the next year to the formation of the Organization of American States, the most successful regional body in modern history.

The Cuban missile crisis (1962) was the greatest threat faced by the hemisphere in modern times. President Kennedy invoked the unity of the region by announcing that the U.S. would consider any missile from Cuba “against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack by the Soviet Union against the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response on the Soviet Union.”

The immigration crisis that has engulfed this country is not immediately existential, and certainly not nuclear. Whether it is long-term existential can be argued. Nevertheless, it is still a crisis and has provoked the longest government shutdown in history. The infamous wall that is in the center of the debate, while important, is hardly the real issue. Any wall, under any circumstance, is both decidedly short-term and last-resort. Something strategic, and long-term, is needed.

The immigration crisis from Mexico and Central America is not new; it goes back generations. President Eisenhower dispatched troops and armed vehicles to round up illegals and send them packing, a policy   called “Operation Wetback.” He had the full cooperation of the Mexican government (but they didn’t pay).

Older solutions are outdated. The root cause of the crisis, in any case, resides in Mexico and Central America, not here. Still, the United States alone has the capacity and resources to arrive at imaginative and constructive answers to the current problems down south. We have a history. We need to be “good neighbors” again, and we need something on the scale of the Marshall Plan (1947) that saved western Europe (in a crisis may times greater than this).

 Open up the government and go to work! This means both sides of the “aisle” and both sides of the “border.”