Synthesis – U.S. Democracy to Latin America

Uncle Sam Latin AmericaU.S. Democracy to Latin America: A ‘Counterproductive’ Export?

In a 1979 article for the journal Commentary, Former UN Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick states that there is a belief among educated Americans that the U.S. can transform any autocracy in the world into a democracy.[1] This has evolved into somewhat of an ideological mandate in recent years (Bush 43 Administration) to push democracy onto other countries overtly.  Even Kirkpatrick does not go against this notion.  She does indicate, however, that timing and type of autocracy are important to achieve U.S. interests.  In other words, she prefers to deal with less violent authoritarian governments than revolutionary governments.  There are two key fundamental flaws to this neocolonial realism: the definition of what democracy is to Latin American people and the destabilization manifested from rapid democratization attempts by the United States.[ihc-hide-content ihc_mb_type=”show” ihc_mb_who=”2,3,4,5″ ihc_mb_template=”1″ ]

First, this position assumes that Latin American countries share the same rationalities as the U.S. when it comes to governance.  It assumes that these countries were both ready for democracy and viewed democracy as the best institution.  Yet, when considering the historical context of Latin America’s evolution from early colonialism to the end of the Cold War, it is easy to see that Latin American countries were too premature socially, economically and politically for the U.S. form of democracy.  As a result, they could not grasp the full scope of democratic institutions, much less the definition of what it means to have ‘democracy’.  Nor could they perceive the value of democracy in the same way as Americans, given the way the U.S. supported violent regimes for its personal interests.

The simplest example of democratic experimentation is “Fordlandia”.  In the 1920s, automaker Henry Ford sets up a modern rubber plantation in the Brazilian Amazon with housing, communities and a middle class wage scale.  Yet, his lack of understanding of cultural differences and traditions causes epic failure.  In addition, a fundamental lack of understanding of the region causes Henry Ford to face planting and soil issues, land valuation problems, land ownership disputes, chronic labor shortages, mass firings, riots and shortages.  In the end, trying to replicate the ‘U.S. way’ resulted in $20mil lost, seventeen years wasted and no tires produced.[2] Extrapolating this micro-level experimental failure clearly reveals the same future fundamental problems of U.S. democratization attempts in Latin America.

Internal factors within Latin America stopped the adoption of democracy.   Specifically, this includes the lack of political, economic and social capacity to absorb the rapid shock to their traditional governing and economic systems.  Even the Truth Commission in 1996 determined this when studying Guatemala.  According to the report, “the anti-democratic nature of the Guatemalan political tradition has its roots in economic structure, which is marked by the concentration of productive wealth in the hands of a minority.” Further, “the absence of an effective state social policy, with exception of 1944-1954, accentuated this historic dynamic of exclusion.”[3]

Land and ownership rights are primary drivers, historically, of tension within many Latin American countries.  As indicated by the Truth Commission, there is no level playing field in Guatemala. Democracy cannot flourish if land and wealth are in the hands of the powerful few.  Continual economic interference using The Alliance for Progress or United Fruit (a CIA front) is certainly not helpful.[4] This scenario is similar in Chile, where the productive wealth of industries such as Yarur Mill rests in the hands of a few.  Workers wanted reform, leading to tensions between the unions and Yarur.

These tensions spilled over onto the political arena, exposing the lack of sophistication of early Latin American political systems.  The absence of toleration for opposing views is one of the main reasons why we see so much sway back and forth across the left-center-right political spectrum in countries such as Chile, Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador.   The lack of political participation by the masses is another weakness.  Corruption, within political party structures, also prevents the growth of democracy.  The corruption of Vargas’ power in Mexico is but one example.[5]

Many Latin American leaders were also historically resistant to rapid liberalism and change.  Chile is but one example of resistance to liberalism and rapid modernization. In Mexico, Rosalie Evans clings to a traditional concept that landowners should have rights over the laborers and retain control of large landholdings.  In Argentina, Rosas also detested liberalism due to his Hobbesian approach to societal stability.  “If there was anything more abhorrent to Rosas than democracy, it was liberalism.”[6] The historical clash between the liberal embrace of modernity versus the conservative need to maintain traditions created the rise of dictatorial environments that decimated the lower, middling and rural classes in countries such as Chile, Guatemala, Argentina, El Salvador and Nicaragua.  Class differences, discrimination, killings, disappearances and numerous human rights violations occurred against many lower Latin American social groups during the twentieth century.

Stopping liberalism and restoring traditional order is a bloody business in Latin America. One needs to look no further than the numbers. In Nicaragua: 50,000 dead from civil wars after the fall of Samoa in 1979.[7] In Chile: 3,000 dead and a military coup.[8] In El Salvador: murders within the group of “the 14 Families”, civil war and massive numbers of refugees.[9] In Argentina: 30,000 killed and 1 million refugees.[10] In Peru: 70,000 killed or disappeared.[11] In Guatemala: 10,000 or more killed and 100,000 refugees due to the 1981-1982 Scorched Earth Policy led by the military dictatorship of General Efrain Rios Montt.[12]

The other fundamental flaw is the notion that the U.S. could mold Latin America into its own democratic image overnight. To do so is laughable at best.  Again, note the example of “Fordlandia”.  Additionally, the overall U.S. neocolonial influence within Latin America works in a counterproductive fashion throughout the twentieth century.  Instead of encouraging the slow spread of democracy, U.S. actions actually exacerbate the stifling of democracy.  Destabilization by external U.S. policies, while initiated with the best of intentions, were more helpful to communist revolutionary movements than to democracy.  Economic meddling and covert operations destabilized authoritarian regimes.  Once weakened, these regimes fall prey to military coups and juntas that created stability through force and fear, so much so that it fueled the fire of communist revolutionaries and increased their popular support among the masses of powerless citizens.

It is no surprise that Kirkpatrick shares the same basic philosophy as John F. Kennedy.  In a 1961 speech, Kennedy stated, “those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”[13] Based on fears of “another Cuba” manifesting within destabilized Latin American countries, the U.S. ironically perpetuated destabilization, positioning it in support of violent coups and overthrows.  Kirkpatrick is preaching the similar refrain of the old Cold War containment policy in her proactive desire to side with authoritarian regimes within Latin America where necessary.  Yet, there is more going on here.

Both Kirkpatrick (R) and Kennedy (D) share this flawed view of Latin America as the foundation for U.S. policy.  Rather than deferring to the people of Latin America to choose their destinies, their democratization policy perpetuates the idea of some sort of inferiority and dependency upon the U.S. on the part of Latin America.  In other words, without the outside help of a more modern U.S., Latin America cannot find its way.  Perhaps this stems from the view that the U.S. way of life is more modern and civilized than that of Latin America.  Therefore, the U.S. is inclined to ‘civilize them’. This is nothing new. Early American colonists set out into the western frontier to ‘civilize’ the Indians.   In Mexico, Rosalie Evans also sets out to be the harbinger of order to save “the Indians from their own bestial nature.”[14] Such has been the view of many economically developed countries (EDCs) towards less developed countries (LDCs) in recent decades.  This view also traces back to British and Spanish colonialism early in Latin America’s history.

Further, the belief that the U.S. can “democratize governments, anytime, anywhere, under any circumstances” also implies that democracy spreads and grows rapidly.[15] Democracy is not a tent, packaged in a box and shipped to a foreign land, easily removed upon arrival and erected within a couple of hours. To think so is ludicrous, considering it has taken the U.S. over two centuries to shape and refine its own democracy into an acceptable form.  Why the surprise, then, when the U.S. fails to export democracy to Latin America?  It certainly has not worked in other corners of the world such as Vietnam, Iraq or Afghanistan.

While short-term security concerns drive U.S. containment policy during the Cold War, these policies undermine the meaning of liberty and democracy within Latin America.  The fact that the U.S. has to justify its questionable positions with violent regimes bears this out.  How can Latin American people love democracy when the U.S. democracy financially and militarily backs oppressive dictatorships?  For example, in Argentina, the IMF offered $127mil in credit to ‘Dark Era’ government of General Videla.  This does not include another $50mil in military aid from U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.[16] The U.S. not only overlooks these atrocities for the ‘greater good’ of global interests but also openly embraces these dictators with checkbook in hand.  Ironically, these U.S. backed regimes serve only to encourage, rather than restrain, the potential embrace of Communism by various ensuing guerrilla movements.

Attempts to keep traditional order all result in cycles of violent revolutions and counterrevolutions.  Since the first colonial ships landed from Britain and Spain, outsiders have tried to shape and define social, economic and political realities within Latin American countries. The only difference in recent history is the identity of the colonial outsider, the United States.  Only today are signs emerging that democracy may yet bloom in Latin America.  Regardless of the specific existing types of regimes, Latin American countries were not ready for the kind of democracy the U.S. was exporting during the Cold War.  Left well enough alone, many Latin American countries may have had a better chance of evolving into democracies without the ‘help’ of the United States.  The flaws of Jeanne Kirkpatrick’s argument completely slam the door on the necessity for Latin American containment policy, they ‘disappear’ the Communist ‘boogie man’ and they reveal the true nature of neocolonial realpolitik policy perpetuated by the United States during the twentieth century.

[1] Dictatorships and Double Standards – Commentary Magazine – 11/1979

[2] March 15 Lecture: Ford, U.S.-Latin American Relations and the Guatemalan Revolution

[3] April 21 Lecture: Central America in Crisis – Comparison: Guatemala

[4] March 17 Lecture: Three Stages of Intervention: Guatemala

[5] Estrada, Luis.  La Ley de Herodes, (Bandidos Films, 1999)

[6] Lynch, pg. 75

[7] April 19 Lecture: Central America in Crisis

[8] April 19 Lecture: Central America in Crisis

[9] April 19 Lecture: Central America in Crisis

[10] April 12 Lecture: Counterrevolution and Democracy

[11] April 12 Lecture: Counterrevolution and Democracy

[12] April 19 Lecture: Central America in Crisis

[13] March 22 Lecture: JFK and the Alliance for Progress

[14] Henderson, pg. 71,72

[15] Dictatorships and Double Standards – Commentary Magazine – 11/1979

[16] April 12 Lecture: Counterrevolution and Democracy – Argentina


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

error: Content is viewable only and Copyright protected by law. For reprints or sourcing, please contact me. Thank you.