Back to
Crossing the river before summiting 17,500 Pico Austria. Photo by Ella Williams (2016 Fall Semester Photo Contest, 2nd Place), South America Semester.

US/Latin America Relations

Since the creation of the United states in 1776 there have been 56 official US interventions in Latin America and the Caribbean. Many of these interventions such as Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic (to name just a few) resulted in actual US troops on the ground. Even more of these conflicts have been carried out by local operatives and “freedom fighters” trained in the School of the Americas (now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation) which is still based at Fort Benning in Georgia.

In 1823, two years before Bolivia officially gained its independence from Spain after 16 years of fighting, America’s 5th president James Monroe created the Monroe Doctrine.  The policy was designed to prevent European powers from trying to recolonize newly independent nations in the Americas. It stated that further efforts by European nations to take control of any independent state in North or South America would be viewed as “the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States.” The UK got onboard with the Monroe Doctrine and the rest of the European powers quickly followed suit. The Western Hemisphere was officially under the “protection” of the US.

1840s- James K. Polk, 11th president of the US, during his tenure, America’s territory expanded by more than one third and extended across the entire continent for the first time. Under the propaganda campaign romantically referred to as “Manifest Destiny” the states now known as California, Arizona, Texas, Nevada, Colorado, Utah and the most ironically named New Mexico were forcefully taken from the Mexicans as a result of the US victory in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). 60,000 Mexicans residing in these newly acquired territories became US citizens overnight.

1895- The first time the Monroe Doctrine was officially used to settle a border dispute between Venezuela (backed by US) and Guyana (backed by UK). The US has and continues to be heavily invested in Venezuela due its immense oil and natural resources reserves. Venezuela was one of the US’s closest allies in the Americas until the election of socialist president Hugo Chavez in 1999 (The US tried to overthrow Chavez in a failed coup attempt that last about 47 hours on April 11th 2002).

1898- Spanish American War. Spain loses and is forced to give Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines to the US. The US still owns control over Guam and Puerto Rico. In 1946 the US recognized the Philippines as an independent state and established diplomatic/economic ties with it, before that it was under US administrative rule since the Treaty of Paris on December 10th, 1898 following the Spanish American War. Cuba is still home to the infamous Guantanamo Bay Detention Center, which saw a dramatic uprise of use post 9/11 and remained in use throughout the Obama administration despite campaign claims to shut it down.

1904- The Roosevelt Corollary, created by President Theodore Roosevelt, was used to forcefully (two US warships were dispatched) restructure the debt ridden failed state of the Dominican Republic. Further military intervention took place in the Dominican Republic from 1916 to 1924. The Roosevelt Corollary was used to justify U.S. interventions in Cuba (1906-1909) Nicaragua (multiple dates) and Haiti (1915-1934).

For sake of time we’ll jump ahead to Guatemala (we’ve skipped over a lot of interventions). A place I was blessed to spend a year of my life.

A progressive land reformer named Jacobo Arbenz started breaking up large tracts of land in Guatemala which were once privately owned by the United Fruit Company (UFC, not to be confused the Ultimate Fighting Championship which would be an ironically/tragically accurate name for it). The UFC (currently called Chiquita) lobbied the US Government to overthrow the Guatemalan government. The CIA led a coup which overthrew Arbenz. Right wing military dictators took his place which lead to a 36 year war starting in 1960, leaving over 250,000 dead. Wiping out entire villages of indigenous Mayans. Literally entire villages disappeared, all the men, women and children killed.

Bolivia 1967- CIA backed killing of Che Guevara

Bolivia July 1971- Nixon: What does Karamessines think we need? A coup?

  • Kissinger: We’ll see what we can, whether—in what context. They’re going to squeeze us out in another two months. They’ve already gotten rid of the Peace Corps, which is an asset, but now they want to get rid of USAID and military people. And I don’t know whether we can even think of a coup, but we have to find out what the lay of the land is there. I mean, before they do a coup, we would—
  • Nixon: Remember, we gave those goddamn Bolivians that tin.
  • Kissinger: Well, we can always reverse that. Then we—
  • Nixon: Reverse that.

These are just a sampling of so many US interventions in Latin America. The current political climate in the US is all about immigration. The news around the midterm elections was saturated with “Caravans of Bad Hombres with possible ties to Al Qaeda.”  Around 800,000 US citizens went 35 days without pay due to the longest government shutdown in US history due to a wall of racism along our southern border. A few days ago Trump stated that he would be cutting all aid to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. His rational being that, “We were paying them tremendous amounts of money and we’re not paying them any more because they haven’t done a thing for us.” -Trump.

Putting all empathy for your fellow human beings aside this argument could make sense, from a very nationalistic perspective. What’s not factored into this argument is how direct US intervention in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador has led to the destabilization of their governments and unequal trade deals (+subsidized US crops being sold in Latin America) has destroyed local economies. We created the immigrant crisis in Latin America. By cutting aid we are just going to make the crisis grow exponentially, creating more unsafe conditions for our brothers and sisters of the Northern Triangle, thereby creating more necessity for people to make the dangerous journey to the US.

We are a nation of immigrants. Currently Latinxs make up about 15% of the US population. By 2050 it is forecasted that they will make up one third of the total population of the US.

We just watched a film with our students called Harvest of Empire. If you are interested in learning more about this topic I highly recommend you watch it. It’s available for free on YouTube. Here is a link to it:

Some recent articles from different perspectives regarding what’s going on with Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras:

New York Times

Fox News


Santiago Times (Chile English Paper)

Special thanks to Matt Lynn, one of the Bolivia Princeton Bridge Year instructors, for sharing this knowledge with me and my students.