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Foreign Policy in Latin America[]

Throughout the continent's history, foreign policies have been imposed upon Latin America that have consistently sought to keep its countries in a subservient position, allowing the exploitation by more powerful countries of their natural resources and cheap labor. From colonization by Europe, beginning in the fifteenth century, to the more subtle forms of foreign control of the present, the countries in Latin America have been taken advantage of or restrained for the benefit of the colonizers. Other countries take advantage of Latin America's extensive land and labor resources without aiding development. The United States and Spain have some of the best economic, health, and labor programs, while Latin America is struggling against problems with poverty, disease, civil rights, land reform, and labor. Many Latin American countries have a long history of political and economic hardship that has shaped their current status as struggling nations subordinate to the world's superpowers.


Latin American dependency began during the Colonial Rule. Conquistadores were sent from Spain and Portugal to the New World to discover the resources it offered. Francisco Pizarro and Hernando Cortes both gained an extreme amount of riches during their conquests, culminating in the colonization of the "New World" for Spain, Portugal, and several other European countries. Spain soon established the encomienda system over the native people, and sent some of their own people to manage their colonies.

The encomienda system and the addition of new diseases brought over by the Europeans proved to be brutal to the natives. The unjust system gave power over the natives to an encomendero who could use them for labor and demand they pay tribute. These tributes fattened the pockets of the few Conquistadores, adding to the already considerable wealth of this small foreign minority. In return for the money and labor, the Spanish were required to offer the natives baptisms, protection, and access to the services of the Catholic Church. At best, this might mean an attempt to convert unwilling indigenous people to what the devout Catholic considered the only way to salvation. Far more common, however, were the Europeans who saw this supposedly 'give-and-take' system as a way to increase their own power by demanding labor and tribute, while offering in return only something that the workers did not want. Thus the encomienda was the first form of slavery in the Americas, and became the foundation for the huge divide between the peasant and elite classes. This societal gap has changed little since then, and is still very common in parts of Latin America today (Meade, 27).

The natives became slaves to the Spaniards, much like the Moors were slaves back in Spain. The settlers of Spain arrived hoping to reap the wealth of the New World, and they accomplished this using this labor and tribute system. The Spanish would negotiate for these things with the Cacique, or Indian leader, and Caciques who refused to help were disposed of and replaced by someone more useful to the Spanish - an attitude which is echoed even today by US desires to replace Huge Chavez with someone more favorable to the US government. Though Indian slavery was outlawed in 1544, partially thanks to the Friar Bartoleme de las Casas' exposing maltreatment, it still remained in effect for many years. Even though it wasn't called slavery, many Indians were still debt peons working off the debt they had accumulated due to their need to buy tools and seeds or to finance baptisms and funerals. To do this, they had to work extensively on haciendas, latifundias, and fazendas. Unfortunately, the more land acquired by the Spanish, the less left to the Indian populations. Since they were required to work another’s land, as well as being unable to pay for seeds and tools necessary to work the small amount of land they did own, the Indians had little hope of escaping the cycle.

The Indians weren't accustomed to the Europeans, as the Africans had become, and many were struck by the diseases brought to the New World. The Friar realized the death rate was quite high, as nearly entire populations were wiped out of many areas such as the Caribbean, and he believed the Indians to be worked to death even before being baptized and converted to Christianity. Despite such recognitions by people like de las Casas, Indians continued to die at alarming rates due to disease and being overworked byf the brutal encomienda system. African slavery soon became the more accepted form of slavery, improving things slightly for indigenous peoples. However, this still meant the exploitation of large groups of people and large amounts of Latin American land for the benefit of people who did not belong on that land. The Europeans, for the most part, were only trying to take what they could get their hands on and make money for themselves without regard to the welfare of others (Meade, 24-32).

All throughout the colonial period, as colonizers and their descendants exerted their new social-hierarchical power over the indigenous and African slaves in Latin America, the Spanish Crown grew uneasy about the amount of authority held by leaders in the New World. Through the latifundia system, those who owned large tracts of territory ended up monopolizing nearly every aspect of their surrounding towns, including, but not limited to, religion, economics, and local government. Partly through the intermarriages of wealthy elite families, those of Spanish-descent -- known as Creoles -- developed tremendous power. This made the Spanish monarchy increasingly worried that these families would grow mutinous and desire autonomy, especially because Creoles, through generations, were becoming less attached to the memory of Spain. As an attempt to prevent a rebellion from occurring, the Crown began to send loyal Spanish-born Peninsulares to regulate the American territories at religious, military, and governmental levels. The Crown favored the Peninsulares, allotting them enough power to be at the peak of the aristocracy - a development that the Creoles resented. The presence of the Peninsulares only created more tension in an increasingly complicated system of rule in which power from the Crown was broken up into multiple parties. One of these was the viceroy, who ruled in the Americas in place of the Spanish king. Next, there was the Council of the Indies, which retained loyalty to Spain as an extension of it. The Council of the Indies ensured the smooth transfer of natural resources and wealth from the colonies to Spain, oversaw all aspects of colonial trade, and imposed taxes. After the Council, there were the prestigious audiencias, the term for the regional courts of appeal that administered justice from Europe to Latin America. This was the group that was constantly at odds with the cabildo, the town councils in the colonies composed of Creoles. Although the Creoles had the wealth, the audiencias had the authority, which explains the Spanish phrase: "Obedezco pero no cumplo," or in English, "I obey but I do not comply." This phrase highlights the idea that Creole sympathies were no longer with the Crown; instead, many Creoles felt they should have more power over colonized territory, foreshadowing the elite-led rebellions that were to come near the end of the eighteenth century. As can be seen, Indians had no representation in this system and therefore had no political power.

Latin American countries finally began gaining their political independence in the 19th century, beginning with the Haitian Revolution in 1804. This particular revolution is a good example of foreign policy keeping a nation dependant and impoverished. Slaves in Saint-Domingue revolted by declaring freedom from both those who enslaved them and those who controlled their country from overseas. More powerful nations responded to this new-found Haitian independence by enacting trade embargoes and other boycots to punish the tiny nation of freed slaves. Since gaining its independence, Haiti has suffered miserably at the hands of foreign nations such as France, England, and the United States for refusing subservience, and to this day is one of the poorest countries in the world (Meade, pp. 63-65).

Although popular discontent manifested itself and new leaders came forward (particularly from among the military) at various points in the subsequent independence struggles, the poverty of the masses remained essentially unchanged. Moreover, independence did nothing to alter the unequal economic relations between Europe and Latin America, which were at the root of the area's impoverishment in the first place. Britain quickly replaced Spain as Latin America's most important trading partner, but in most other respects Latin America's role in the global market underwent little change.

Most Latin American countries have a long history of political and economic hardship. Now in association with the more advanced European countries, Latin America felt pressure to follow in their steps and gain similar levels of economic prosperity. This lessened when they learned that the European countries did not believe that liberty and equality were meant for the masses (Meade 81-82). This was evidence that although the European countries might respect the Latin American countries enough to associate with them, they did not really want them to be sovereign or grow on their own. Ironically, with the initial colonization it was the Latin American countries who relied on Europe for prosperity, but once Latin America gained their own power it was Europe who began to rely upon Latin America for their valuable natural resources.

In this Neocolonial Period, Latin America still remained at the mercy of Europe and is now at the mercy of the United States. Economically, this is illustrated best by the boom-bust periods experienced by several countries, the Anglo-Argentine Alliance, and the Bracero Program. Politically, Latin America has been continuously bombarded with outside intervention, especially from the United States. This started with the Monroe Doctrine, passed in 1823 by President James Monroe, and has continued to this day through policies like the School of the Americas, NAFTA, and the Washington Consensus (See Neoliberalism). Also in 1904, Theodore Roosevelt passed the Roosevelt Corollary.

As the phase of revolution ended in Latin America, there was a major change in the balance of power. The reigning power of dictators began to decrease as the countries of Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Brazil and Peru began to subside to the left sided type of government. Mexico remains in a difficult position regardless of being so close to the relatively stable US, and approaches an economic depression. Mexico is stable politically but fails to reform their government like many other Latin American countries. The 1917 Constitution that was drafted during the revolution is still used today. This document has helped frame the political and social backdrop for the entire century.

Throughout these overtakings of leftist government in many Latin American countries, a different kind of foreign policy was enacted upon quite a few in the mid-to-late twentieth century. The United States, with the creation of the School of the Americas, the tendency to help put in place and support Latin American leaders loyal to the US, and the practice of sending the CIA into nations governed by leaders in disagreement with American policy to create unrest and dismantle them, was imperialistically attempting to control Latin American governments for their own benefit. This was exemplified in the Guatemalan coup, when the CIA, United Fruit Company, and the US State Department plotted to overthrow Jacobo Arbenz Guzman, the first elected president of Guatemala, in 1954. Arbenz sought agricultural reform and the expropriation of land into the hands of the poor, but the United Fruit Company, which held 85% of Guatemala's land at the time, protested this. The UFCO was connected with both the Secretary of State at the time and the director of the CIA. These three forces, with the help of some members of the Guatemalan military, forced Arbenz out of his presidency in June of 1954. Only Rafael Trujillo and Anastasio Somoza Garcia, rulers of the Dominican Republic and Nicaragua and, coincidentally, allies of the United States, supported the new regime, headed under General Castillo Armas. Despite widespread civil and human rights violations and civil war, the United States found this Guatemalan government sufficient and did not overthrow it. This trend also shows itself in Nicaragua, when the CIA funded counter-insurgents, or Contras , attempt to disturb the Sandinista government in place there. This was later made clear when it was discovered that the Office of National Security devised a plan to sell weapons to Iran at a marked-up rate to create enough profit to fund the Contras. These kinds of foreign policies - somewhat covert plans to maintain power in the hands of those favored by the United States - have played significant and detrimental roles in the US's fight for political and economic sovereignty in Latin America.

Once the Soviet Union collapsed at the end of the cold war the United States became a single superpower with unrivaled influence. The U.S. used it to persuade Latin American countries to adopt its own views on trade and globalization called Neoliberalism. Also known as the "Washington Consensus," it is an economic approach stressing the efficiency of private companies. The most notable example of neoliberalism in Latin America is the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). NAFTA reduced tariffs between Mexico and the U.S. to allow “Free Trade” between the two countries. Eduardo Silva offers an explanation of why some Latin American countries went along with neoliberal movements, “Neoliberals expected that the economic power of international and national

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business sectors would then take over. Macroeconomic stability, investment, and rapid sustained economic growth would boost employment and real incomes. These improvements would generate broader societal support for contemporary market society, or at least quiescence, making it easier to isolate and control protestors” (Silva, 45). What the neoliberals failed to see was that by entering into the NAFTA they opened the flood gates to highly subsidized U.S. goods. Highly subsidized corn grown in the United States was exported to Mexico where it was cheaper and higher quality than the domestic corn in Mexico. As a result Mexican farmers were unable to compete with the foreign corn, forcing many farmers to go to urban centers in search of work. Instead of increasing economic growth and real income NAFTA destroyed the agribusiness in Mexico while the U.S. profited from a new unregulated market for its goods.

Although most of Latin America’s history is filled with domestic and foreign oppression there are several positive movements occurring in Latin America today. In 1988 Eduardo Galeano wrote a speech to persuade the public to vote against extending the current president’s term another eight years. Galeano writes, “We say no to fear. No to the fear of speaking, of doing, of being. Visible colonialism forbids us to speak, to do, to be. Invisible colonialism, more efficient, convinces us that one cannot speak, cannot do, cannot be” (H., and Zolov, 316). It is clear in Galeano’s speech that he realizes that while Latin American countries are no longer colonies of foreign countries they are still under their control. By saying no to Augusto Pinochet and his free trade policies, Galeano was trying to convince the public to move away from oppressive foreign policy. The proposition was defeated which opened presidential elections for the first time in 15 years, enabling the movement to a new government, a left-leaning one. This movement is known as the pink tide.

The pink tide has gradually grown to include most of the countries of Latin America, including one of the most influential leaders in Latin America right now: Hugo Chavez, the president of Venezuela. Chavez has proposed an alternative to the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) called the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA).

Every US policy towards Latin America was denied by the leaders in the South. They considered it a form of control and exploitation from rich countries to poor countries. It is not like that in Latin America; the domination culture of the West is not suitable down there. Interestingly, this can be explained in a sociological view. Different from the US's individual society (Gesellschaft) Latin American countries surround each other geographically and create a sense of community (Gemeinschaft). In short, there'd rather be brotherhood and cooperation than competing to be the big boss.

The Future of Latin America is changing at every moment, growing in ways they could only imagine ten years ago. Seemingly forgotten by the United States, who is occupied with the Iraqi War, Latin America has finally been able to grow, to learn to stand on its own feet. Will this continue in years to come? Or will America once again dominate these countries? Only time will tell.


H., Robert, and Eric Zolov. Latin America and the United States: a documentary history. Oxford University Press, USA, 2000. Print.

Meade, Teresa A. A History of Modern Latin America: 1800 to the Present. Chichester, West Sussex, U.K.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. Print.

Silva, Eduardo. Challenging Neoliberalism in Latin America. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. Quintana, Carlos. Development Problems in Latin America. Austin, TX: University of Austin Texas, 1970. http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Image:Jamesmonroe-npgallery.

Isbester, Katherine. Paradox of Democracy in Latin America. Toronto: University of Toronto, 1962: