United States Vice President Kamala Harris visited Guatemala on a White House trip in June 2021 to explore solutions to the migration crisis on the southern U.S. border. Harris called out Guatemalan corruption and the state of its democracy, and urged migrants to forgo the perilous journey to the United States (NBC News, 2021). But liberal media outlets reporting on this story and the Biden Administration frame Latin American migration in a limited historical context, providing little information about the U.S. role. They claim that migrants flee because of widespread corruption and economic misfortune that further proliferate violence. They cast the United States as a savior for global victims of adversity, bypassing its role in destabilizing the region through centuries-long policies. Placing blame on individual leaders like Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei rather than recognizing the destructiveness of America’s neocolonial legacy does not solve these perpetual issues.
To understand today’s crisis, we must analyze historical U.S. interactions with Latin America that highlight the pervasiveness and consequences of U.S. neocolonial actions in Latin America. The Monroe Doctrine of 1823 established American hegemony over the Western Hemisphere and self-anoints the United States the sole guardian of its newly (mostly) independent southern neighbors (Office of The Historian); by that time, the United States had become powerful enough to start infiltrating foreign markets like its British forefathers. To become an economic powerhouse, the United States needed to penetrate and exploit markets worldwide.
Thirst for economic growth made the vast “empty” lands of Latin America a playground for economic investment for the United States and others. The Mexican-American War (1846-1848) gave the United States 55 percent of Mexico’s territory and its penultimate continental shape (the country later added a strip of land in southern Arizona and New Mexico) (National Archives). In 1856 American William Walker invaded and took over Nicaragua with his own army and ruled it for several years. In 1898 the United States went to war with a very weak Spain and took control of Cuba and Puerto Rico (not to mention major Pacific islands like the Philippines). In 1904 the United States relinquished control of Cuba, but only after its government added the Platt Amendment to their constitution, which stipulated that the United States would intervene at any moment deemed necessary (Becker, 2017).
By the turn of the 20th century land ownership in Latin America was assumed by a small percentage of the population, in tandem with mostly American- and British-owned companies siphoning profits from natural resources and agricultural products to their home countries. Profits made in Latin American economies mostly went to the upper class, the United States and Western Europe rather than being reinvested into the economic development of Latin America itself.
Having established the economic ethos of the United States in Latin America, let us examine its 20th century interventions in the region. First and foremost, while the United States did not invade every Latin American country, it wanted to ensure countries cooperate with its economic interests. With this being the priority, the United States often supported overthrowing democratically-elected leaders in favor of violent dictators because they served U.S. economic interests.
In Guatemala, “2% of the population owned 72% of all arable land whereas 88% of the population was crowded on to only 14% of the land.” In cases where Latin American leaders declared that land nationalization and agrarian reform so that millions of landless peasants could once again lead a stable life, the United States took steps to contain such efforts. Political candidates and leaders seeking to curtail socioeconomic inequality in their countries faced orchestrated coups, assassinations and pressure to back down. After World War II, the CIA helped replace democratically-elected leaders with brutal military dictators in Guatemala, Chile and other countries. When democratically-elected President Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán came into power in Guatemala and targeted the American-owned United Fruit Company’s land holdings in the country, brothers U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and CIA director Allen Dulles, who had close relations with the company, authorized a military coup in 1954 that installed a military dictatorship which engaged in ethnic cleansing and stripped citizens of their civil rights . The dictatorships and highly-militarized society led to the genocide of as many as 250,000 indigenous Maya (Becker, 2017).
In other parts of Latin America the United States engaged in policies and tactics to install governments that kept their economies wide open to American business. In 1973 Chile, General Augusto Pinochet overthrew democratically-elected Salvador Allende in, disbanded the constitution, committed mass human atrocities and let unfettered capitalist interests come in: “[they] implement[ed] an unfettered capitalistic economy without having to bother with any of the checks that a functioning democratic system might present” (Becker, 2017). Creating or sustaining democracy in Latin America has never been an American priority.
Chile and Guatemala fell under American neocolonial policies, exemplifying its exploitative influence. The Reagan Administration overtly granted U.S.-friendly leaders massive arms deals, like the ruthless Argentine military dictatorship that kidnapped and killed thousands of leftists (NSA Archives, 2006). They also used covert ways to provide weapons to regimes they supported such as in the Iran-Contra scandal. And after the fraudulent 1988 election of Mexican President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, favored by the Americans, he privatized public landholdings called ejidos which had provided millions of Mexicans a livelihood (The New York Times, 1991). The list goes on and these are just a few examples of how pervasive U.S. economic and political pressure was and is in Latin America.
Of course, it’s not simply Americans coming in from afar to exploit these countries. Latin American elites also do the dirty work for foreign capitalist interests and collude with foreign businesses to get a slice of the pie.
The leaders that the United States chose to support in the 20th century were as corrupt as the ones that Vice President Harris called out in June. The Biden Administration cannot ignore the United States’ destabilizing and economically extractive policies that led to the ever-deteriorating social conditions we currently see in regions like Central America, where gang violence and fear run rampant and thousands of people flee violence and economic instability.
What the Biden Administration and past administrations hide is that in many ways the roots of these problems trace back to U.S. neocolonial actions. The United States cannot in good faith continue shaping its policies on Latin America and the southern border without acknowledging its own role in destabilizing the very same countries from which they are trying to curtail migration. How dare U.S. officials cry foul at Guatemalan corruption and undemocratic rule when they played a part in initiating and reinforcing them.
This is not to say that the United States is the sole cause of a giant umbrella of Latin American issues. Democratic governments that pursue socioeconomic equality over inequality should replace the corrupt leaders most responsible. But the Biden Administration would do well to acknowledge the United States’ part in perpetuating economic inequality and instability in the region, and support local democratic organizations in creating policies that undo this historical legacy.