A cartoon of a person and a child behind a fence

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[Source: teachinthrive.com]

[Authors Note: This Friday, June 28, will mark the fifteenth anniversary of the U.S.-backed coup in Honduras (June 28, 2009), that ushered in twelve years of corrupt and repressive government that many Hondurans called a narco-dictatorship.. Resolution 943 is a pushback to that kind of disaster. In part 2 of the article, I discuss an example of how the new Honduran government of Xiomara Castro is trying to reverse some of the damage of the past years.]

Last December, U.S. Representative Nydia Velázquez (D-NY) introduced Resolution 943 in Congress, to have the United States formally renounce and annul the Monroe Doctrine. Meanwhile, the government of Honduran President Xiomara Castro has withdrawn Honduras from an arbitration mechanism in the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) that allows foreign corporations to sue countries such as Honduras for trying to limit or annul contracts with corporations in order to protect the resources of their countries.

A person in orange suit with a flag behind her

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Nydia Velázquez [Source: politicalopedia.com]

These events challenge a deeply ingrained ideology and mindset that has pervaded the way the United States relates to the countries of Latin America for more than two hundred years.

This article offers context for understanding the broad significance of these events and why Res. 943 is important. Part 1 shows how the Monroe Doctrine has evolved to the needs of an expanding United States empire. There were at least four important steps in this evolution: (1) the Monroe Doctrine; (2) the (Teddy) Roosevelt Corollary; (3) the “Good Neighbor” Policy; and (4) the Doctrine of National Security. The mentality that runs through this evolution has an antecedent in the early expansion of European empire in Latin America, shaped by the so-called Doctrine of Discovery.

Mr. Monroe’s Doctrine

What came to be known as the Monroe Doctrine was first expressed in a speech by President James Monroe (1817-1825) in 1823. Monroe warned the imperial powers of Europe—Britain, France and Spain— against any further intervention in Latin America and the Caribbean region.

In the previous two decades, various countries in the region had declared their independence from European powers. In 1811, Mexico rose in revolt against Spanish rule. Then Simón Bolívar and others expelled Spain from large areas of South America and declared independent countries.

A slave uprising in Haiti in the 1790s had already driven out the French colonial rulers, and Spanish colonists in neighboring Santo Domingo (today the Dominican Republic) drove out their Spanish governors in 1822.

What are today the five Central American republics declared their independence in the early 1820s. The war of independence from Britain that had given birth to the United States in the 1770s and 1780s was cited by some of these independence movements as an inspiration.

Then, the so-called War of 1812, a war provoked by a half-hearted and failed U.S. attempt to invade British Canada, resulted in Britain waging war against the young U.S. and, in 1814, burning the Capitol and White House in Washington, giving rise to a determination that the U.S. would never again allow such a thing.

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James Monroe [Source: thoughtco.com]

These events were fresh in Monroe’s experience as he became president. At first, newly independent countries in the hemisphere greeted Monroe’s Doctrine as a declaration of protection against the imperial reach of Europe. But it soon evolved into a declaration of the exclusive right of the United States to guard and intervene in Latin America.

The Monroe Doctrine initiated a way of thinking, an ideology for all following U.S. administrations that was in essence an imperial mentality and a rationale for intervention. What made the Monroe Doctrine even more audacious was that the United States at the time was both economically and militarily weak. From one perspective, the Monroe Doctrine can be seen as an attempt to propel the United States into the ranks of the premier imperial powers of Europe.

During the following decades there were several clear indications of this imperial mentality, an assumption that the United States had the obvious right to intervene anywhere in the region for its own purposes. Members of Congress openly discussed the possibility of seizing Cuba from Spain and making it a U.S. slave state.

Cuban sugar plantations had long been worked by African slave labor. Slavery in the U.S. and in Cuba—the subjugation of human beings to make them serve one’s purposes—was simply a part of the same way of thinking as the right to subjugate other countries to make them serve U.S. needs. That Cuba was still a Spanish colony only meant that the U.S. must free the Cubans from Spain’s “tyranny,” but keep the tyranny of slavery.

In the 1850s, the (in)famous Walker Affair also revealed how the Monroe Doctrine and its ideology could influence the actions of U.S. citizens. William Walker, a Californian, gathered with him a small army, invaded Nicaragua by taking advantage of a political conflict there, and conquered much of the country. He soon declared slavery legal, English the official language, and Protestantism the religion—all contrary to Nicaraguan culture and institutions. Walker’s invasion had some financial support from prominent U.S. economic investors. The Nicaraguans drove out Walker, but he returned the next year to invaded the north coast of Honduras, where a contingent of British soldiers handed him over to Honduran authorities who promptly shot him.

A person in a suit and tie next to a map

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[Source: history.howstuffworks.com]

Teddy Roosevelt’s Corollary

By the last decades of the 19th century, the United States had expanding interests in Latin America that included mining concessions and the expansion of banana, fruit, and sugar plantations in Central America and the Caribbean. It was the age of the “banana republics.” It was also the era of “gunboat diplomacy,” when the U.S. used the threat of military intervention to expand, not just to protect, its economic interests.

Sometimes the U.S. gunboats were literally offshore, as they were off the northern coast of Honduras when U.S. diplomats “negotiated” with a weak Honduran government to expand U.S. corporate fruit operations. The Monroe Doctrine offered a rationale for this expansion of U.S. economic interests in Latin America, but the use of military threat in place of real diplomacy required its own rationale.

Enter President Theodore (Teddy) Roosevelt who, in 1904, proclaimed what came to be known as the Roosevelt Corollary. Roosevelt declared openly that the United States had the right to intervene in any country in Latin America in order to protect and expand U.S. interests. This provided a rationale for the gunboat diplomacy that was already well under way. Roosevelt said that the U.S. claimed the “police power” to stop the “bad behavior” of any government in the region. Bad behavior meant trying to act independently of the U.S., and especially acting to curb the unfettered operations of U.S. investments and corporations. Any government that did this, or allowed its people to do this, was to be punished and set straight. Military intervention was the backbone of this “police power.”

Before he became U.S. president, Teddy Roosevelt had been Police Commissioner in New York City, where the many recent immigrant groups were widely assumed to be responsible for much of the crime. They had to be policed. He also became famous as the hero of San Juan Hill, the storming of a hill in Cuba to dislodge Spanish troops during the Spanish-American War of 1898, a war that forced Spain to cede to the United States its possessions in the Caribbean—Cuba and Puerto Rico—and the Philippines in Asia. This war was entirely fomented by the U.S. news media that spent months creating a negative picture of Spain and promoting the need for some U.S. “policing” of the region.

[Source: walmart.com]

Cuba was “given” its independence, but only after an amendment (the so-called Platt Amendment) was written into the new Cuban Constitution acknowledging the right of the United States to intervene in Cuban affairs any time to protect U.S. interests. Puerto Rico remains to this day a U.S. possession. Teddy Roosevelt was an unabashed promoter of U.S. imperial reach and military intervention. He was seen as a hero by some, but criticized by others as one who enjoyed war and the killing of people of color—a racist sociopath.

What followed were decades of direct U.S. military interventions in Central America and the Caribbean, always in the interest of protecting U.S. economic interests against governments or popular movements that exhibited “bad behavior.” (The text of Resolution 943 provides a long, but still only partial, list of these interventions.)

Perhaps the most (in)famous of these was the long U.S. military occupation in Nicaragua. In the early 1900s, U.S. soldiers intervened in support of the Conservatives against the Liberal reformist government of José Santos Zelaya. Witnessing the tortured body of Benjamin Zeledón, a Nicaraguan lawyer and schoolteacher who was a leader of an abortive 1912 revolution, being dragged through the streets of his town, a young Augusto Cesar Sandino vowed to rid Nicaragua of the U.S. military presence. As an adult, Sandino led his “army of free men” against U.S. Marines in the Segovia Mountains of northern Nicaragua.

The Marines departed, but not until they had trained a military unit of Nicaraguans, the National Guard (la Guardia), and named Anastasio Somoza as commander. Somoza promptly deposed the civilian Nicaraguan President, assassinated Sandino, and began a dictatorship that ensured his re-election as President, or the election of his hand-picked candidates. This kind of electoral dictatorship became a common practice to maintain the appearance of a democracy but the reality of a dictatorship. Military dictatorships in Latin America held elections, the outcomes of which were foregone conclusions.

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Anastasio Somoza Garcia, left, and Augusto Cesar Sandino, right, in the early 1930s, before Somoza had Sandino killed. [Source: laprensani.com]

Franklin Roosevelt, the Good Neighbor

Even as he was presiding over the U.S. installation of the Somoza regime in Nicaragua, President Franklin Roosevelt (Teddy’s fifth cousin) tried to give U.S. intervention a kinder face. He announced that, going forward, the United States would be governed in its relations with Latin America by a “Good Neighbor” policy. In reality, this meant that the United States would make greater use of economic domination and intervention in Latin America, with secondary reliance on military enforcement. This was a small shift, not a real change of policy and practice. The Good Neighbor Policy relied heavily on dictators like Somoza to act as agents of U.S. interests in their respective countries, making them, rather than the U.S., the region’s frontline “policemen.”

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President Enrique Peñaranda of Bolivia, and President Roosevelt of the United States. They are shown looking at the United Nations pact, in which Penaranda pledged his country’s tin-producing resources against the Axis. [Source: thoughtco.com]

By the 1960s, this reliance on economic domination through investment and corporate expansion had a new and more gentle sounding name: development. Latin American governments were told that there was no alternative to this development that relied on foreign aid and investment, and that it must be safeguarded even from opposition by a country’s own people. Development usually came to mean increasing wealth concentration and wealth extraction for some and increasing poverty for the general population.

The Somoza dictatorship lasted 45 years (1934-1979), with Somoza and then his two sons enjoying the constant support of eight U.S. Presidents, from Franklin Roosevelt to Jimmy Carter.

The Somoza family and its associates amassed thousands of acres of the most fertile lands in Nicaragua and grew wealthy on the production and export of cotton and other agricultural products, while brutally repressing any interference or popular opposition to this arrangement. But opposition grew, and a Sandinista-led popular insurrection overthrew the dictatorship in 1979. From then on, every U.S. administration, from Reagan to the present, has targeted for destruction both the Sandinistas and the popular revolution they helped create. It is no coincidence that the period from 1930 to 1970 was also a time of dictatorship in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, all supported by the United States. The dictatorships provided safe territory for U.S. corporations.

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1979 Sandinista Revolution. [Source: lhistoria.com]

The God of National Security

The Monroe Doctrine had thus evolved through several iterations, each more exacting than the last. But an increased dependence on dictators to do the dirty work of protecting U.S. interests in their countries now demanded another doctrine to rationalize their repressive behavior as they violated human rights, militarized their countries, and repressed democratic voices, all in support of their own and U.S. economic and political interests. They found what they needed in the Doctrine of National Security.

In the years after the Second World War in the late 1940s, as the so-called Cold War was emerging, the Truman administration formed the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). More than simply intelligence-gathering units, these entities were enabled to use “dirty tricks” to interfere with, influence and alter the politics and policies of foreign countries, operating quietly, allowing the U.S. president to claim ignorance of what these agencies were doing. The idea embodied in these developments was that anything is acceptable if it promotes the security and interests of the state. So the CIA was soon active in fomenting the overthrow of the Arbenz government in Guatemala in 1954, using Honduras as a staging ground, and initiating many plots to kill Fidel Castro and reverse the Cuban Revolution.

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Diego Rivera painting (“The Glorious Victory”) depicting the 1954 CIA coup in Guatemala; President Eisenhower’s face is in the bomb. [Source: ici.radio-canada.ca]

To overthrow the government of Cheddi Jagan in Guyana in 1964, the CIA worked through its own creation, the AFL-CIO’s American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD), to foment labor unrest and make it appear that the U.S. labor movement was in favor of intervention. Using high-sounding names for subversive quasi-governmental front organizations became a favorite tactic for U. S. intervention. Jagan’s offense was that he was a Marxist and had nationalized the bauxite industry in Guyana, angering some large foreign aluminum corporations. Guyana was also known to be rich in diamonds, timber, gold and even oil. Jagan later detailed this entire episode in his book, The West on Trial: My Fight for Guyana’s Freedom. He implicated both the U.S. and Britain, the former colonial ruler of Guyana. (Today, British Petroleum and other corporations are pushing to gain a large portion Guyana’s substantial oil reserves.)

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[Source: inpubnyc.com]

Where there were opportunities to work with and through dictatorships, the U.S. supported the National Security Doctrine. The military dictatorships of South America—Argentina, Brazil and Chile—in the 1960s and 1970s were especially zealous in adopting the ideology of the National Security Doctrine, combining it with elements of European fascism of the Mussolini and Franco variety. They fashioned this doctrine to fit perfectly with the needs of an absolute dictatorship. They referred to the Doctrine of National Security simply as nationalism. General Golbery do Couto e Silva (known as Golbery), a member of the Brazilian military dictatorship, wrote:

To be nationalist is to be always ready to give up any…feelings, passions, ideals, and values as soon as they appear incompatible with the supreme loyalty which is due to the Nation above everything else. Nationalism is, must be, and cannot possibly be other than an Absolute One in itself, and its purpose is, as well, an Absolute End. There is no place…for nationalism as a simple instrument of another purpose that transcends it.

Theologian José Comblín was expelled from Brazil by the military dictatorship. In his book, The Church and the National Security State (1979), Comblín critiques Golbery’s statement, writing that, in the National Security Doctrine, the nation takes the place of God, while the God whom the nationalists claim to worship by establishing a “Christian nation” is only a cultural symbol.

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José Comblín [Source: redescristianias.net]

The Doctrine of National Security supplied the ideology for the dictators of Latin America to suppress all dissent that threatened their idea of security, including local popular protests against “development” projects and foreign investment. Thus, nationalism became nearly synonymous with U.S. investment and development.

From this perspective, the absolute nationalism of national security was really an instrument to facilitate imperial control by the United States and others. It is little coincidence that the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank were developed in the same period as the rise of the National Security Agency and the CIA in the United States. All of these could be deployed from Washington to exercise economic control with willing (or sometimes less willing) puppet dictators using the Doctrine of National Security to ensure this.

The National Security Doctrine was invoked in brutal fashion in Honduras in the early 1980s as the Honduran elite and the Reagan administration reacted to the triumph of the revolution next door in Nicaragua. In Honduras, the application of the doctrine meant the disappearance of political opponents and human rights advocates, death squad assassinations, the militarization of Honduran society, forcible conscription into the army, and a growing U.S. military presence that continues to the present. The damage this period inflicted on Honduras has shaped the country to this day. In the early 1980s, the Doctrine of National Security also provided a rationale for the Guatemalan military’s genocide of Mayan people and the murders of priests, nuns and others in El Salvador (“Be a patriot, kill a priest”), and many other horrors.

The idea that anything is acceptable if it advances the interests of the country also led the United States to employ criminal gangs and drug traffickers in various ways to keep Latin American governments under control. The drug dealing that helped fund the Contras trying to topple the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua depended on expanding the sale of drugs in U.S. cities such as Los Angeles. The profits were used for the Contras. The people in Nicaraguan rural communities attacked by the Contras, and the people of urban neighborhoods in the U.S. wracked by drug addiction and violence were the victims. It seemed that any misery inflicted on others was unimportant compared to the interests of the state. The National Security Doctrine continues to influence the thoughts and actions of imperial powers such as the United States and many puppet governments today. It has proven to be a highly useful tool of empire.

The Doctrine of Discovery and Christian Nationalism

An obscure set of pronouncements and practices dating from 15th-century Europe was a close ancestor of this evolution of imperial privilege. The so-called Doctrine of Discovery emerged in the early days of the Spanish conquest of Latin America in the late 1400s. In essence, it declared the right of Christian rulers to lay claim to any regions, nations or peoples that were not “civilized” and not Christian. The rationale for this was the “imperative” to bring Christianity to the heathen, but in fact it promoted a massive land grab, complete with the servitude of conquered Indigenous peoples in the Americas.

Fresh from the Reconquista—the reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula from the Moslems in the late 1400s—the Catholic monarchs of Spain began their exploration and conquest of Latin America, introducing into that region a particularly militant form of Catholicism. Saint James (Santiago), the patron saint of Spain, was reshaped in iconography from the humble Galilean fisherman of the Gospels into a sword-waving warrior on a white horse. If the native peoples of the Americas converted to Christianity, they could look forward to virtual enslavement. If they refused to convert, they were considered enemies of God and the Spanish Crown, and they could look forward to death. The European conquerors of Latin America held the cross in one hand and the sword in the other.

Early in the Spanish conquest, a Mayan prophet wrote:

“It was because of the mad time, the mad priests, that sadness came among us, that Christianity came among us; for the great Christians came here with the true God; but that was the beginning of our distress…”

The Doctrine of Discovery—the assumed right of Christians to invade and rule over darker-skinned and “uncivilized” peoples—was well-established long before Monroe uttered his doctrine. This mindset was present in the way in which the United States dealt with the Native tribes of North America, both before and after President Monroe. It informed both the evolution of the Monroe Doctrine over two centuries in Latin America and the ways in which the United States dealt with those who were different within its own borders. This thinking often invoked Christianity, to bolster its assumed right to control others who were not Christian.

What is today called Christian Nationalism, with its racist and anti-immigrant message and its attempt to impose a particular moral order on everyone, is a descendant of this and is alive in the United States. A shallow cultural image of Christianity becomes an adjunct to an extreme and racist nationalism that foments fear of the “other” in order to justify a national security state, dismantle democratic institutions, and establish an authoritarian government to “protect” the nation. The doctrines that were so effective in extending and maintaining U.S. imperial control over much of Latin America were bound to blow back to disrupt life in the United States itself. We were warned about this many times (e.g., Chalmers Johnson, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, 2000).

Another consequence or blowback of the extension of U.S. empire in Latin America is the “crisis” of immigration at the U.S. southern border. The imposition of police power, dictatorships, national security states, and even “development” as instruments of empire have created unlivable conditions for many who see their only way to survival as the journey to the north. The crisis is not—or not only—at the border, but in the countries from which the migrants flee.

The urgent need to change the extremely destructive ideology and mindset that runs through this evolution of the Monroe Doctrine is what makes Resolution 943 so important.

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