The end of the Monroe Doctrine

The Monroe Doctrine – which in 1823 proclaimed all of Latin America to be a zone of exclusive American interest – is withering away.

The Monroe Doctrine – which in 1823 proclaimed all of Latin America to be a zone of exclusive American interest – is withering away.

Globalization and dynamic changes in the economies and politics of its myriad countries is providing Latin America with an opportunity to decrease the scope of its dependency on the United States, and thus to renegotiate, on better terms, its hitherto asymmetric relations with its giant northern neighbor.

Latin America’s increasing integration with the world is the key factor here.

China, the world’s rising power, is eagerly strengthening its trade, investment, aid, and cooperation with the region.

And Russia, deeply dissatisfied with its perceived second-class treatment by the US, is returning to the region with both business and weapon sales.

Russia may not be openly pursuing a renewed Cold War, but, in enhancing its position in Latin America, it sees itself as ending years of implosion and humiliation.

The Kremlin’s huge weapons sales to Venezuela, and the bilateral military exercises held there, as well as the restoration of security links with Cuba, demonstrate that Russia is willing, once again, to challenge US hegemony in the Caribbean.

Iran, too, has joined the game. It is working hard to strengthen ties to South and Central America, both diplomatically and through energy politics. Now it may include a military component in its dealings with Ecuador.

And India and South Africa are forging embryonic and productive trade and political links, especially with Brazil.

Meanwhile, Europe has become the principal source of arms to Brazil and Chile, and some EU countries – notably France – are showing growing interest in the Argentine-Brazilian nuclear agreement of February 2008 and in deepening military contacts.

In 2005, the first South America-Arab summit was held in Brasilia, Brazil, while the first South America-Africa summit was held in 2006 in Abuja, Nigeria. Even Japan is devoting more attention to the region.

Thus, both the political and diplomatic landscape across Latin America has been changing rapidly, which has placed the US on the defensive.

It is not just that several countries have seen center-left and radical parties come to power; US leadership and interests are routinely questioned, and even challenged, not only by Communist Cuba and “Bolivarian” Venezuela, but almost everywhere in the region.

For example, Ecuador, despite its “dollarized” economy and dependence on oil exports to the US, is now curtailing the US military’s use of its Manta Base.

Nicaragua was the first country in the Western Hemisphere to recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia following last summer’s Russian invasion of Georgia.

And President Manuel Zelaya of Honduras has called for the legalization of drug consumption as a means to end the violence related to its production and trafficking. Even longtime friends have taken to poking Uncle Sam in the eye.

President Fernando Lugo of Paraguay (the first non-Colorado party head of state in six decades) named Alejandro Hamed Franco to the Foreign Ministry.

Of Syrian descent, Hamed Franco is an active supporter of Palestine who has been watched by US security agencies because of his alleged links to Islamist groups.

All of Latin America and the Caribbean are demanding an end to the US embargo of Cuba and are enthusiastic about that country’s return to the Organization of American States.  

A specific cause of resentment nowadays is America’s unilateral decision to re-activate the US Navy’s Fourth Fleet, devoted to Latin America, which had been decommissioned in 1950.

The decision has never been properly explained to civilian authorities in Latin America and is widely perceived as an aggressive act.

Unsurprisingly, it has served only to generate fear and mounting anti-Americanism, accelerating a Brazilian proposal to create a South American Defense Board without US participation.

Given this widening regional hostility, and the disruption caused by a financial crisis that was made in America, governments across the region are keen to find new partners and markets as alternatives to the US. The paradox is that a US in crisis now needs Latin America more than ever.

Latin America should seize this moment of diplomatic strength to start a new dialogue with the US aimed at renegotiating the terms of the relationship. The first step must be recognition that the Monroe Doctrine is dead and cannot be revived. Accepting this will be the most encouraging sign that President Barack Obama’s new administration can give to the region.

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian is a professor of International Relations at Universidad de San Andres, Buenos Aires, Argentina. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2009.

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