Americans everywhere are heading to the beach and firing up the grill to celebrate the Fourth of July: a day that not only signals the birth of the United States, but celebrates everything America. During this patriotic holiday we often overlook the diplomatic relations that have helped the U.S. keep its standing as the most powerful country in the world. Diplomatic relations are key to achieving major foreign policy and national security goals, and up until recently the use of U.S. soft power has helped broaden its sphere of influence. But as Donald Trump celebrates his first Independence Day as President of the United States, his proposed budget cuts and overall attitude towards foreign relations has put into question America’s role in foreign policy, especially toward Latin America and the Caribbean. This Fourth of July we at Global Americans would like to take a look back at U.S. foreign relations with Latin America.
Often overlooked, Latin America is more than just a bunch of neighboring countries at the south of the border with exotic beaches and loud festivities. With an unquestionable cultural richness and a biodiversity ranging from the Patagonian plateau to the desertic borderland, Latin America remains as one of a unique region in the world, not only in terms of its diversity, but rather in terms of what this land means for U.S. interests in the hemisphere and the world.
Justifications to make the case of Latin America’s good neighbor profile are infinite, but here are a few. As of 2015, according to the Global Attitudes and Trends report from the Pew Research Center, five out of the six countries surveyed in Latin America hold a favorable opinion of the U.S., above 50 percent. The region’s consumer market has grown hand in hand with a rising middle class, the result of solid economic growth in the first decade of the new century—though that middle class, we are discovering, was more fragile than many believed. The region has engaged in the global scene through trade agreements, its natural resource advantages, industrial diversification and diplomatic ambition—all made possible the region’s democratization—albeit imperfect—that has made it a safer place for both the U.S. and the world. And most important, for U.S. national security purposes—despite severe challenges of domestic security, drug trafficking and migration—Latin America is considered one of the safest regions in terms of terrorist threats compared to other parts of the world.
Part of this transformation is drive of the region’s people to advance economically and politically. (One need only point to the success of their migrants in the U.S. to see their natural potential.) But another significant part has been an open and friendly U.S. foreign policy that has helped expand economic opportunities and helped governments address security challenges, in places like Colombia, Peru, Mexico, Central America, and the Dominican Republic—though there is still a long way to go. And some countries have taken further steps—aided by geography and policy consistency—to construct healthy, friendly and prosperous relations through trade agreements or other commercial or investment agreements, foreign aid cooperation and coordination in multilateral bodies.
Without prioritizing one over the other, we have selected a few key countries to recount the history of U.S.-Latin American relations, taking into consideration the size of the country, the issues at hand or the risks and implications of dismantling relations. The truth is that the entire region, including the Caribbean, has an important role for U.S. interests and security, and for the mutual benefit of the two sides. But all of this takes diplomacy, economic cooperation, and trust.
Celebrating independence today means celebrating the land of the free and the home of the brave, and all those that have lent a hand for this land to become and remain so.
Though it’s often been defined by its contentious nature, the official relationship between Brazil and the U.S. dates close to 200 years. In 1824, the U.S. became the first country to recognize the newly independent state. During World War II, Brazil was the only South American country to send troops to Europe in support of the allies.
In the second half of the 20th century, the U.S.-Brazil relationship took a tumultuous turn. The U.S. government secretly supported the 1964 military coup that overthrew Brazil’s democratically elected government. In the 1970s and 1980s, however, the relationship over the two countries cooled over the Vietnam War, conflicts concerning Israel and its policies, and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Beginning in the 1990s and continuing through the beginning of the 21st century, U.S.-Brazilian relations improved as the pro-business, democratically elected governments came to view each other as important regional allies. Recently, however, the relationship between the two countries has been less friendly, especially since Edward Snowden’s leaks revealed American mass surveillance programs in Brazil. The relationship most recently made headlines last month, when the chief Brazilian General Sérgio Westphalen Etchegoyen, the country’s chief intelligence officer, revealed the identity of a U.S. spy. Tensions also developed as the government under successive Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) sought to pursue a more independent foreign policy, often in alliance with less-than-democratic Global South partners such as China, Russia, and Turkey. The result was often the deterioration of liberal international norms in the name of a global re-balancing. Sadly, the challenge to the liberal order was only a precursor to the situation today.
In this light, today there are few signs of the U.S.-Brazil relationship improving in the near future. The Trump administration has proposed budget for 2018 cuts yearly aid to Brazil from almost $13 million to under $1 million and has loudly and repeatedly denounced win-win free trade just at a time when Brazil is looking to shift its economic model.
When Colombia declared independence from Spain in 1810, the U.S. was one of the first countries to recognize the new state. Relations remained friendly until 1903, when Colombia backed out of the Hay-Herran Treaty that would grant the U.S. use of the Isthmus of Panama in exchange for compensation. In response, President Theodore Roosevelt encouraged the Panamanian uprising that gave Panama its independence from Colombia.
After signing the Thomson-Urrutia Treaty in 1921—the U.S. compensated Colombia $25 million in return for Colombia’s recognition of Panama’s independence. Despite the potential for ill will, Colombian president Marco Fidel Suárez, pursued a shift in his country’s foreign policy toward the United States under the respice polum doctrine or “follow the North,” a doctrine that strengthened under Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy.
In the 1970’s and 1980’s, Colombia was the major source of cocaine and marijuana smuggled into the United States. But as President Ronald Reagan declared the war on drugs, by the end of the 1970’s Colombia owned seventy to eighty percent of the cocaine reaching the U.S. from abroad. The U.S. focused on eliminating drugs at the source by promoting eradication, crop substitution, interdiction and enhanced law enforcement.
Since 1948, Colombia has had a long history of violence between the government and rebel forces. The U.S. has provided military and economic aid to Colombia for counterinsurgency and counterterrorism efforts. In 2001, the U.S. launched Plan Colombia, a sixteen year, ten billion dollar effort—in mostly military aid but also state building and economic assistance—to end the armed conflict in Colombia. Though U.S. involvement was initially controversial, the U.S. played an important role in the peace negotiations that led the main guerrilla group FARC and the Colombian government to sign a peace agreement, ending more than fifty years of conflict. Today under President Trump the peace process is threatened. With a proposed aid cut of 16.1 percent, reintegration and state building programs in conflict areas would most likely suffer.
A relationship that has its origins in the Cold War, U.S.-Cuban relations have been tumultuous since its start. In January 1959, Fidel Castro took control of Havana, overthrowing U.S. backed Fulgencio Batista’s repressive and corrupt regime. As Castro’s regime increased trade with the Soviet Union, the U.S. fought back with an escalating number of economic sanctions that under John F. Kennedy would become a full economic embargo.
Hostilities remained and the U.S. continued efforts to overthrow Castro. The Bay of Pigs invasion, a failed Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) sponsored military invasion set to overturn Castro, encouraged his government to allow the Soviet Union to secretly install nuclear missile sites on the island. The situation escalated when in 1962 the U.S. revealed its knowledge of the the missiles and the threat of nuclear war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union seemed imminent.
In 1992 and 1997, the U.S. embargo became law, thanks to two separate bills, thereby requiring an act of Congress to lift it. While the policy shifted from the administration of presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, the embargo and lack of formal diplomatic relations between the two countries remained.
In December 2014, after a series of changes to loosen the Bush-era policies toward Cuba, President Barack Obama announced that he would seek to normalize relationships between the U.S. and Cuba. In parallel, a few years earlier, the Cuban government after Fidel Castro had yielded power—began to liberalize parts of its economy, albeit tentatively.
In 2016, Obama again took a significant step in normalizing relations by becoming the first sitting president to visit Cuba since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. As a last effort to continue the normalization process in January 2017, Obama repealed the “wet foot, dry foot” policy that allowed Cubans who reached U.S. shores without authorization to pursue permanent residency.
Now under President Trump relations with Cuba have started to cool. Last month, Trump reinstated some restrictions on travel and trade that had been eased by Obama, citing that the outcome of normalization between the two countries had only led to more repression. Unfortunately, recent events haven’t proven his assumptions or rhetoric correct. On the Fourth of July the Cuban government arrested and held incommunicado 50 members of the dissident group Ladies in White.
Relations between the U.S. and Haiti date back to the 19th century. In 1868, President Andrew Johnson suggested the annexation of the island of Hispaniola, present-day Haiti and the Dominican Republic, in order to secure a U.S. presence in the Caribbean. Although the U.S. did not go through with his suggestion, American warships remained in Haitian waters between 1862, when the U.S. recognized Haiti as an independent country (well after it had secured its independence from France) and 1915, when the U.S. occupied the country.
The U.S. feared that European interest would topple American commercial and political influence in Haiti and in the region surrounding the Panama Canal after Haitian President, Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam was assassinated. The U.S. remained in Haiti until 1934, when President Franklin Roosevelt enacted his “Good Neighbor Policy,” which stressed cooperation and trade to maintain stability in the Americas.
During the Francois Duvalier and Jean-Claude Duvalier regimes, Haitians fled to the U.S. At first, the U.S. was accepting of Haitian refugees, but as the numbers continued to increase during the 1970s the policy shifted to efforts to intercept them and return them to Haiti.
In the following years instability in Haiti increased. After the end of the Duvalier era, Haitians elected a controversial, populist former priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Less than a year after taking office, Aristide was removed in a coup d’etat by Brigadier General Raoul Cedras, launching an era of political upheaval and economic collapse that the country has yet to recover from today. President Bill Clinton sent a U.S.-led intervention force to restore order. Ten years later, U.S. force returned to Haiti to airlift Aristide out of the country, after an uprising against his government. After this incident U.S. interest in Haiti lessened and the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTA) took over.
Under Obama, U.S.-Haiti relations have been fairly stable. But with Trump in office, relations might start to get more turbulent. Under Trump’s proposed cuts for Latin America, Trump aims to reduce U.S.’s assistance to Haiti by 17.5 percent. The cut represents not only a dramatic drop in a lifeline to the beleaguered state, it comes at a terrible moment. In October this year, the UN MINUSTA mandate will end, leaving the country without a large international security force.
Naturally (and geographically) Mexico and the U.S. share a long history way before the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) that united the economies of the U.S., Mexico and Canada. Migration has always been an issue between the two countries. The curious fact is that it was actually migration from the U.S. to Mexico (through Texas) that sparked the Mexican-American War, ending in 1848 with the signature of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, a treaty that ceded present day Arizona, California and New Mexico to the U.S. (yes, Mexico contributed to construct present day American territory).
Less than a decade later, the last adjustment to the border was settled through the Gadsden Purchase, which provided the U.S. with an additional thirty thousand square miles from California to El Paso.
It was actually labor shortages in the U.S. that pushed railroad companies to recruit Mexican workers in the early 1900s. Mexican labor remained unrestricted in the U.S. through different exchange programs, and Mexico was even excluded from the Emergency Quota Act of 1921. It was not until fears over labor competition sparked by the Great Depression that sentiment turned against Mexican workers and the Bracero Program that aided the U.S. with shortage of workers in times of war.
In 1947 President Harry S. Truman became the first U.S. President to visit Mexico. In 1951 the first formal agreement between the two governments to provide development assistance was signed through the Mutual Security Act, which later paved the way for the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 and the creation of USAID.
In 1993 U.S. President Bill Clinton signed NAFTA, which went into effect in January 1994, making Canada, the U.S. and Mexico the second-largest trading bloc after the European Union. In 2008, the U.S. passed the Merida Initiative, the largest counternarcotics initiative after Plan Colombia, a plan that hopefully remains alive to strengthen rule of law and human rights.
Although Trump’s presidential campaign targeted the country and made of the migration issue its banner, the entrenched relationship between the U.S. and Mexico is one that is impossible to fully break. America’s birth and territorial establishment was in great part the consequence of its negotiations with Mexico. Targeting a neighboring country out of spite, ignorance and bad politics will only mean neglecting U.S.’s own history and opportunities for keeping its leading position in the hemisphere and the world.
U.S.-Mexican economic, familial, cultural, political, and diplomatic ties extend beyond the free trade deal and immigration that have become political footballs in the United States. But sadly, while they never be cut fully, rhetoric, economic isolationism, reductions in assistance, and “the wall” will harm them irreparably. The U.S. would lose not only an important economic partner but an ally in global politics and in a cooperative partnership in ensuring mutual prosperity and security.