Minding the Backyard: Washington's Latin America Policy After the Cold War

September 25, 2007

In what for lack of a better term has come to be dubbed the post-Cold War era, progressives seeking to understand the "new world order" have found themselves grappling with a paradox. With the end of the Cold War, something definitive had clearly changed. The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent break-up of the Soviet Union transformed international politics. No longer would world affairs be dominated by superpower rivalry and a succession of Third World "proxy wars"; there would be no more Vietnams, no more El Salvadors. Nor would there be a need for Washington to support two-bit dictators and brutal military regimes because they were reliable allies in the battle against Communism; there would be no more Mobutus, no more Pinochets. "Containment" was replaced by "enlargement," a policy favoring the expansion of "free trade and free elections." There was even talk of a "peace dividend" and the forging of a "new world order."

Yet there has been something disturbingly familiar about the post-Cold War era. Behind the dropping of the Cold War veil and all the very real changes that would follow, another key aspect of the international order remained very much in place—the global capitalist system enshrined at the end of World War II and codified in institutions like the IMF, GATT and the World Bank. From the late 1940s to 1980s, this aspect of the international order remained largely obscured by the more tangible clashes between the two superpowers, the perils of bipolarity, and the nuclear stalemate. But Washington and its European allies were hard at work forging the relationships and institutions that would oversee this order, establishing mechanisms that would ensure the global dominance and domestic tranquility of the Western liberal democracies by securing an open, capitalist world economy.

So, even as the superpower rivalry that so dominated the post-World War II period evaporated just a few years after the razing of the Berlin Wall, this less obvious, less dramatic aspect of the international order remained very much in place. Indeed, the postwar economic order created by the United States and its European allies to ensure hegemony of the liberal Western democracies and capitalist world economy remains at the core of the international system in which we live today. And assuring this world order remains the defining aspect of U.S. foreign policy. It is this paradox of change and continuity that has confused observers of the post-Cold War era, leading many—a few skeptical progressives aside—to assume that international conflict was a thing of the past, and that Washington would cease its imperial ways.

Now, ten years after the end of the Cold War, when so many pundits still champion the "end of history" and the "sole superpower" status of the United States, it is a good time to examine in depth how Latin America fits into this novel yet familiar new world order, and how Washington looks at Latin America. The United States may no longer support dictators and may champion the virtues of democratic governance, but the U.S. drive for global dominance remains firmly entrenched. And in Latin America, U.S. interventionism is alive and well; it has simply taken on new forms and new ideological justifications. Unraveling these forms and laying bare these new justifications is the purpose of this NACLA Report, the first of a three-part series to critically examine U.S.-Latin American relations in the post-Cold War era.

We should not be fooled, Michael Klare tells us in the opening article of this issue, by the lack of vigorous public debate on U.S. strategic policy. A new military and strategic blueprint for the post-Cold War era is being forged, and its goal, says Klare, is "to maintain U.S. global preeminence forever." This is the ultimate bipartisan issue, one on which "there is absolutely no disagreement in Washington." Klare outlines the contours of this blueprint, highlighting the military dimension as well as the philosophical underpinnings of what U.S. officials see as the "rightness" of U.S. global dominance. Understanding this blueprint sets the stage for us to better grasp the implications of this newly assertive hegemony for Latin America, the focus of the remainder of this Report.

Coletta Youngers and J. Patrice McSherry point out that despite its pro-democracy rhetoric, Washington has devised a series of new rationales to support the region's armed forces, even when they engage in brutal acts, as in Colombia, or when they threaten to undermine democratic governments, as in Peru. Youngers analyzes what has become the central ideological justification for U.S. military presence—and increasingly, intervention—in Latin America: the so-called war on drugs. She outlines how, in the face of declining budgets and a drifting sense of mission, first the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) and then the Pentagon adopted the war on drugs as its defining task in the region. And by using the dubious "narcoguerrilla" theory to link the war on drugs with the war against "terrorism," the interests of U.S. politicians wary of being deemed "soft on drugs" became inextricably tied to those of the Pentagon, SOUTHCOM, military suppliers, and a host of other security-related outfits that stood to make a tremendous amount of money fighting a nebulous drug war.

What about the U.S. defense of democratic governance in Latin America? Surely this is a dramatic shift from the days when Washington happily supported dictators (like Somoza and Batista) and brutal military regimes (including those of the Southern Cone in the 1960s and 1970s), conspired to overthrow progressive governments engaged in reform (as in Guatemala in 1954, the Dominican Republic in 1965, Chile in 1973, and Grenada in 1983), and intervened directly to defeat revolutionary governments and movements (successfully in Central America in the 1980s and unsuccessfully in Cuba since 1959). Yet intervention has taken on new forms—forms at times so subtle that they barely seem like intervention at all. Take U.S. "democracy assistance"—the promotion of democracy by financing independent groups in political and civil society, including political parties, media outlets and non-governmental organizations. Seems innocuous enough. But on closer view, such assistance tends to be directed toward groups championing a pro-United States, free-market agenda, and can substantially reshape the region's politics. This is hardly a new phenomenon—Washington has been engaged in such low-intensity interventionism since the end of the Cold War (as in Italy, when it financed the Christian Democrats to crowd out the Communist Party). But it has taken on new dimensions in U.S. Latin America policy.

How can we understand these shifts and the underlying continuities therein? William Robinson and Doug Henwood both offer insights into the paradox of the post-Cold War order. Ultimately, both suggest, Washington's promotion of democracy—defined narrowly as free elections—is little more than a mask for the pursuit of transnational economic interests. As Robinson argues, free markets make the world available to capital, and free elections make it safe for capital, by creating a more stable, predictable world environment.

This first of three Reports over the next year on U.S.-Latin American relations in the post-Cold War world is meant to provide crucial context for understanding the changes and continuities of this new, as yet unnamed era. In the second issue, slated for late 2001, NACLA will analyze the new U.S. presidential administration and its policies toward Latin America. For the final issue, we have invited prominent Latin American progressives to analyze the changing face of U.S. domination in Latin America since the end of the Cold War, the impact of that domination on the region, and the ways Latin Americans today understand—and are resisting—the colossus of the North.

Jo-Marie Burt is Assistant Professor of Politics at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia and a member of NACLA's Editorial Board. NACLA thanks her for her collaboration on this report.

Tags: US foreign policy, Cold War, democratization

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