Last year, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice proposed that the Organization of American States (OAS) expand its Cold War mandate as a mutual-defense alliance against external threats to hemispheric security, and begin to “monitor” the internal politics of member nations to ensure they adhere to the norms of democratic procedure. Latin Americans voted down the proposal, understanding it to be a U.S. attempt to isolate Venezuela, but it is now part of Rice’s stump speech on Latin America. Her emphasis on “democracy promotion” is part of what she calls “transformational diplomacy”—the use of the State Department to restructure the internal institutions of nations. “I don’t believe there are different kinds of democracy,” she warns. “We know it when we see it.”
Rice’s certainty notwithstanding, “democracy” is a highly contested concept, around which it is difficult to establish a consensus beyond its most minimal scholastic requirements. In fact, setting aside the social scientific penchant for typologies, historians have located its power and appeal exactly in its normative dissonance, which in any number of 20th-century conflicts has provided traction to socially and economically disenfranchised groups to make claims on the powerful. A similar incongruity can be applied to U.S.-Latin American relations, which in many ways can be understood as a long war of maneuver over what, exactly, democracy means. In fact, the history of U.S. intervention in Latin America provides a much needed corrective to Bush’s “global democratic revolution.” In the Western Hemisphere, it has been resistance, often violent, that has led to both the democratization of social relations and the liberalization of the inter-state system that began in the early 20th century and gained force after World War II.
Throughout the first decades of the 20th century, U.S. policy in Latin America was made increasingly untenable by the Mexican Revolution; anti-occupation insurgencies in the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and Haiti; and more diffuse working-class violence directed at U.S.-owned plantations, factories and mines in Colombia, Bolivia and Venezuela. In no small part due to the discontent Augusto Sandino’s Nicaraguan insurgency provoked throughout the Americas, there emerged a new thinking among U.S. foreign policy and business leaders that Washington could no longer afford to play catch-up diplomacy, responding to one emergency after another either caused or inflamed by direct military interventions. Nelson Rockefeller, who would later play a central role in shaping Washington’s postwar Latin American policy, lectured his peers that “we must recognize the social responsibilities of corporations” after he witnessed widespread poverty and labor unrest during a 1937 tour of Latin America. “If we don’t,” he warned, “they will take away our ownership.”
In response to this crisis, President Franklin Roosevelt famously proclaimed the Good Neighbor Policy—the policy and principle of nonintervention in both the domestic and foreign affairs of sovereign nations—leading to the withdrawal of occupation forces, the abrogation of the Platt Amendment in Cuba’s constitution and the abandonment of a series of treaties giving Washington special rights in a host of Central American countries. Washington even occasionally backed Latin American nationalists in the struggle against U.S. corporations.
The backbone of the Good Neighbor Policy was, in fact, the central plank of a long-evolving effort by Latin American jurists to remake the philosophical foundations of international law. In the late-19th and early-20th centuries, Latin American legal theorists, communicating with liberal internationalists in the United States, began to advance legal precedents that restricted the right of European nations to collect debts through military means. The most famous of these jurists, the Chilean Alejandro Alvarez, began to advocate what he called “American International Law.” In place of the excessive “individualism” implied in the notion of state sovereignty, Alvarez and others began to insist that nations recognize the importance and legitimacy of values such as interdependence, cooperation and solidarity in international relations. Alvarez firmly believed in American exceptionalism, arguing that the common experience of the Americas—constitutional, republican, liberal, democratic, equalitarian, founded on the ideal of popular suffrage—provided a unique opportunity to forge a new system of hemispheric governance, one built on multilateral cooperation and mutual dependence.
Of course, the ideal of absolute nonintervention, based as it was on the principle of sovereignty, contradicted the notion of interdependence. Latin American jurists resolved this contradiction by proposing to establish pan-American institutions that could mediate conflicts among American nations. With the financial support of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Alvarez founded the American Institute of International Law in 1911, establishing franchises in each of America’s 21 republics. The Institute, along with a series of ad hoc pan-American committees, advocated not just codifying international law but “judicial progress,” that is, creating new precedents that would legitimate the principles of “American International Law.”
Washington opposed these efforts. Not wanting to give up the right to intervention nor to be tied down by Lilliputian regional restraints, its representatives objected to legal innovation as well as the notion of American exceptionalism. “Let us face the facts,” said Secretary of State Hughes in 1928, providing the script for his successor nearly 80 years later. “[T]he difficulty...in any one of the American Republics, is not of any external aggression. It is an internal difficulty. ...It is a principle of international law that in such a case a government is fully justified in taking action.”
Alvarez equivocated on whether American law was distinct from international law. But his peer diplomats had more than hemispheric ambitions: In September 1932, the Argentine Foreign Minister Carlos Saavedra Lamas invited the nations of the world to sign an “Anti-War Treaty on Non-Aggression and Conciliation,” which, Saavedra believed, would “doubtless mark a new step in the juridical evolution of the world.” Building on the momentum generated by other recently signed international peace and arbitration agreements, such as the League of Nations Covenant and the Briand-Kellogg Pact, the Argentine treaty crystallized many doctrines long advocated by Latin American jurists, particularly the absolute prohibition of “intervention either diplomatic or armed.”
By presenting it to the world for ratification, the Argentine minister did an end-run around Washington’s insistence that the right to unilateral intervention was enshrined in international law. As the Seventh Pan-American Conference, which took place in Montevideo in October 1933, approached, Saavedra obtained the signatures of six Latin American countries on the treaty, thus presenting the convention not as an agenda item but as a fait accompli. In Montevideo, Roosevelt’s envoy not only signed Saavedra’s nonintervention pact but conceded a raft of other long-sought demands, thus institutionalizing FDR’s Good Neighbor Policy.
U.S. wartime and postwar multilateral diplomacy was also influenced by an often unacknowledged source: Latin America’s evolving tradition of social democracy. The roots of this tradition are deep, stretching back to a late-18th- and 19th-century rights tradition that synthesized English and French Enlightenment thought to exalt both individual freedom and a virtuous society. Likewise, Catholic humanism, influenced by the Thomist school of rational natural law, injected a commitment to social solidarity into Latin American political liberalism. This humane intellectual current, though, developed amidst severe exploitation, hierarchy and exclusion, and it was only after a series of violent social revolutions, most notably in Cuba and Mexico, that it became reflected in legal doctrine. Mexico’s 1917 Constitution, for example, adopted after seven years of nearly continuous warfare, became the model for subsequent Latin American charters and prefigured similar social-democratic constitutions put into place decades later in India and Europe. It affirmed personal liberties common to the Anglo-American legal tradition, while guaranteeing a wide array of social and economic rights, including the right to education.
Refracted through their first-hand experience of U.S. preemptive militarism, the destruction that took place during the two world wars confirmed the belief of Latin American jurists that the international order needed to be remade. Dropping the adjective “American,” they produced a large body of work that advanced the reorientation of international law not just toward the recognition of multilateral “interdependence” but also toward social welfare. Brazil’s Jorge Americano argued that the purpose of international law should be to guarantee the rights elaborated by FDR in his Four Freedoms speech, finding the foundation of an international social democratic order in its “freedom from want” plank.
Latin Americans made up nearly half the total delegates—the largest single regional caucus—who gathered in San Francisco in 1945 to found the United Nations. While they willingly allowed themselves to be organized into a voting bloc by Nelson Rockefeller, then Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America, in opposition to the Soviet Union, they also pressed their own concerns, forcing the UN to confront the issue of colonial racism and to adopt a human rights policy. Chile and Panama supplied draft charters on which the new institution modeled its Universal Declaration of Human Rights, while Latin American representatives successfully pushed for the charter’s inclusion of social and economic rights—rights to social security, work, an adequate standard of living, unionization, rest and leisure time, food, clothing, housing, health care and free education—and a provision treating men and women as equals.
After the war, the inter-American system that emerged from the Good Neighbor Policy provided the model used by U.S. diplomats in their construction of a multilateral regional alliance system: a blueprint for how to establish non-territorial political authority, gain access to raw material and trade routes, create markets for U.S. products and spread U.S. cultural influence. The inter-American system also allowed Washington to undercut the authority of the new United Nations. Even as Harry Truman’s envoys were working with delegates from around the world to create the structure and define the purpose of the UN, the United States was negotiating a mutual defense treaty with Latin America, empowering signatory nations to act collectively against outside aggression. A military pact, formalized in Rio de Janeiro in 1947, provided a precedent for the creation of a regional organization bound by its own set of rules and procedures outside of UN oversight, paving the way for both sides in the emerging Cold War to formalize their respective spheres of influence. The Rio Pact, in turn, served as the model for the North Atlantic and Southeast Asian Treaty Organizations, NATO and SEATO.
The irony is obvious: it took decades of “anti-Americanism” to force Washington to accept a framework of international relations that it then used in the second half of the century to attain unprecedented global power. But even as Washington was extending to Europe and East Asia the ideas and institutions it had adopted in the Western Hemisphere, allowing it to accumulate considerable “soft power” to solidify its authority and establish its leadership in the emerging Cold War, it quickly moved toward rehabilitating militarism in Latin America itself. Unlike the gunboats and Marine occupations that marked the late-19th and early-20th centuries, however, Washington now was able to use its close ties with the region’s security forces established during World War II to cloak its “hard power” behind allied dictators, military regimes and, beginning in the mid-1960s, death squads. This led to the radicalization of postwar social democracy, as well as waves of political terror.
Cold War political terror did more than simply contain revolutionary nationalism. It destroyed, at least for the time being, the broader, social notion of democracy that prevailed after the war. Following this first violent phase of the “transition,” armies of social scientists funded by the U.S. government and U.S. corporations descended upon the region, urging politicians to move the fulcrum of civic life away from mass rallies in the central plaza to televised campaign ads and backroom elite negotiations. They advised Latin Americans to set their sights lower, to seek fulfillment not at the point of production but through consumption, to define democracy not as the advance of social justice but as the protection of individual freedoms. It was the political corollary to the Washington Consensus, an effort to replace Latin America’s social democratic populism with a more narrowly defined market democracy.
The success of such a campaign hinged on the Consensus’ ability to raise living standards and foster development. But the 1990s witnessed a spectacular increase in inequality, as millions were thrown not just into poverty, but extreme destitution. In response, activists across the continent built new alliances between grassroots social movements and political parties, laying the groundwork for today’s left resurgence.
Over the last few years, mass protests have brought down presidents in Argentina, Ecuador and Bolivia and, after the 2002 coup attempt against Hugo Chávez, restored one in Venezuela. And at the polls, Evo Morales became the first candidate to win more than 50% in a first-round vote since Bolivia’s return to democratic rule in the 1980s, with the bulk of his support coming from impoverished rural communities.
Hence we’ve come full circle, from Secretary of State Hughes’ belief that hemispheric security threats are “not of any external aggression” but of “internal difficulty,” to Secretary of State Rice’s insistence that “the greatest threats now emerge more within states than between them.” Needless to say, radical free-market absolutism is never identified as one of those threats. On the contrary, George W. Bush’s most recent National Security Strategy anoints “economic freedom” a “moral imperative” and makes mention of it more than twice as many times as it does “political freedom.” Yet Latin Americans also know what democracy is when they see it, and it is not the orgy of wealth accumulation, inequality and dispossession that Washington has been selling for the past quarter century.
Greg Grandin is Associate Professor of History at New York University. His latest book is Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism, published by Metropolitan Books as part of its American Empire Project.