U.S. Interventions in Latin American

U.S. Interventions in Latin American
U.S. Interventions in Latin American

On September 20, 2006, the president of Venezuela, Hugo Chávez, addressed the United Nations General Assembly and spoke of the "hegemonic pretensions of the American empire." In a speech that also referred to the president of the United States as a devil, Chavez gave voice to what many Latin Americans may have felt at one time or another in the nearly 200 years of U.S. - Latin American relations.

Those relations have been characterized by the dynamic of a much stronger nation imposing its will on a collection of states that, in most instances, had no choice but to comply. Making the situation more complex, American intervention, while frequent and used to gain political, military, and economic benefits for itself, has also been frequently mixed with an honest desire to improve life for Latin Americans.

Latin America, including South America and the Caribbean, which have Spanish, Portuguese, and French as their native languages, achieved its independence from Europe a generation after the United States. By the 1820s, most of these nations were independent, but that was in jeopardy when a group of European powers styling themselves as the Holy Alliance embarked on a program of undermining U.S. influence and exploiting the newly independent nations of Latin America. The American response was issued in 1823 in a statement by the American president in what has since been referred to as the Monroe Doctrine.

The Monroe Doctrine, which stated that European powers were not to intervene in the affairs of the Western Hemisphere, was the point at which the United States began to exert a sometimes indirect, sometimes interventionist, policy of exercising control over the economics and politics of Latin America.

Through the years the imperative behind America's action as well as the corollaries or interpretations of the Monroe Doctrine have changed, but the willingness of the United States to intervene in Latin American affairs has been a constant.


Mexico, "so far from God, so close to the United States," was the first Latin American nation to be fully affected by American diplomacy and military action. After winning its independence from Spain, Mexico took possession of a large portion of what would become the southwestern part of the United States.

In order to secure its northern border from the Indians, Mexico in the 1820s invited American settlers to come to Texas. The results of that policy finally resulted, in 1836, with the loss of that part of Mexico when Texas seceded and became an independent republic. Mexico could tolerate, though just barely, this independent entity on its border, but the likelihood of Texas becoming part of the United States was unacceptable.

Another US intervention
Another US intervention

Texas did become a state in 1845, and a border clash between Mexican and U.S. troops sent to guard the border in 1846 began the Mexican-American War. The American army, by a series of brilliant campaigns, won that conflict and as a result took approximately one-third of Mexico's territory.

While the victory was total, it was not without difficulty, and the victory of the United States had not been a foregone conclusion. The war demonstrated that the very high technical and tactical proficiency of the Americans and their ability to project their forces over great distances made them the most significant force in the Western Hemisphere.

In the last part of the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries, Mexico remained fairly stable until a revolution in 1914. To keep Europeans from intervening on the side of the Huerta government, President Woodrow Wilson sent military forces to capture the port city of Veracruz. This was done, and when American troops left they turned warehouses with arms over to the Carranzista, anti-Huerta forces.

In 1916, the Mexican leader Pancho Villa attacked the American town of Columbus, New Mexico. This attack met with the response of an American expeditionary force unsuccessfully attempting to capture Villa. The expeditionary force stayed until January 1917.

Just prior to World War I, Germany offered Mexico the opportunity to retake the land it had lost in the 1840s if it would assist Germany against the United States. This offer, known as the Zimmermann Telegram, alienated U.S. relations with Germany, helping lead to America's entry into the war.

In the years after the war, Mexican and American relations were brittle until Franklin Roosevelt's Good Neighbor Policy of 1934 was tested by the Mexicans. In 1938, the Mexican government took possession of all private petroleum company holdings.

Franklin Roosevelt did not intervene militarily or diplomatically to retrieve American assets that had been nationalized. The significance of this action, so different from prior American actions, raised the credibility of Roosevelt's policy in Latin America as well as improving America's image in the region.


America's expressed interest can be dated to at least as far back as the 1850s. The Ostend Manifesto, a document drawn up by three American diplomats in 1854, was a plan to either purchase Cuba or take it from Spain.

The plan never came to fruition because, among other reasons, the assumption underlying its annexation was that it would become a slave state. American interest waned in the following years but by the 1880s and 1890s had revived.

Many members of Congress were on record as desiring to go to war with Spain to take Cuba. The president at that time, Grover Cleveland, stated that if Congress declared war nothing would happen because he would not mobilize troops to gain Cuba, an interesting and rare instance of deliberately not seeking to influence a Latin American region.

By the William McKinley administration, however, popular opinion in America, encouraged by the prowar "Yellow Press," was in support of just such a venture. All that was needed was a pretext, and when the U.S. battleship Maine blew up in Havana harbor, Americans had their war.

In the end, Cuba received its freedom, but the United States exercised considerable control for the first third of the 20th century. A written statement known as the Platt Amendment to the Cuban constitution gave the United States financial control as well as the right to intervene in Cuba's affairs.

In 1934, as part of Roosevelt's Good Neighbor Policy, the Platt Amendment was revoked. Until that time, however, U.S. control was exercised on a number of occasions to include the deployment of American troops from 1906 to 1909 and again in 1912 and 1917.

Cuba operated as a dictatorship through the 1920s through 1950s, but toward the end of this period there started to be serious opposition. Fidel Castro, a Cuban revolutionary who had been imprisoned earlier and then left for exile in Mexico, returned to Cuba in 1956 and by January 1, 1959 had established control over the government.

Haiti and the Dominican Republic

The island of Hispaniola in the Caribbean is the location of two nations that have seen U.S. interventions on many occasions: the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Haiti was originally a French colony on the western part of the island that won its independence from France in 1804.

The Dominican Republic won its independence in 1844, returned voluntarily to Spanish rule for two years in the 1860s, and reestablished its independence in 1865. Both nations are highly agricultural and since the 19th century have been of great interest to the United States.

In the 1870s, there was some interest on the part of the United States in annexing the Dominican Republic, an idea that died when faced by the prospect of integrating an area with a Spanish culture into the U.S. political system.

The United States maintained a high degree of economic interest and sent troops to keep order in 1904, 1905, 1912, 1914, and 1917 through 1924. From 1917 to 1922, the U.S. military used aircraft for the first time to support counterinsurgency operations. Stability was maintained with the rise of Rafael Trujillo, who ruled from 1931 until his assassination by the CIA in 1960.

Haiti's liberation was led by a former slave named Toussaint Louverture. In the 19th century the government was not stable, but the unrest was sufficiently low in intensity to allow substantial foreign investment. A combination of wishing to safeguard investments and curbing European influence led the United States to intervene in 1915. In that year the president of Haiti was overthrown and killed.

Woodrow Wilson sent in both ships and ground troops to keep order. Through 1918, the marines were very busy in stabilizing operations and managed to impose a degree of stability, although they remained in that country until 1934. U.S. troops departed the country, but the United States would control the country's finances until 1947.


What is now the nation of Panama was originally part of Colombia. The U.S. interest in this region dated back to the time of the California gold rush, which had commenced in 1849. With the flood of Americans traveling to find gold, crossing through Panama (or Nicaragua) became one of the main ways to get to the West.

By 1855, the United States signed a 20-year agreement with Colombia to allow Americans to cross without paying fees. There was soon a railroad running from Panama's east coast, where passengers would leave ships to cross the isthmus and then embark on ships docked on the west coast to continue the journey.

Rosevelt in Panama
Rosevelt in Panama

Nicaragua had also been a transportation link, but Panama was where the first attempts at a canal were made. An attempt to dig a canal in Panama in the late 19th century added to this interest. In 1903, the United States encouraged a revolt and assisted by sending 10 warships to the area.

The effect was to keep the Colombians from sending help to their army fighting the rebels. The canal itself was bounded on each side by land under U.S. administration and known as the Canal Zone. There were also forts in the area to safeguard the canal from internal or external attack and as bases for counterinsurgency operations.


Nicaragua, the focus of so much U.S. attention and intervention in the 1980s, was also an area of American political and economic interest in the 19th century. Like Panama, crossing Nicaragua was relatively easy and served as a way for gold seekers on their way to California to reach the gold fields without taking the long and dangerous journey around Cape Horn.

William Walker briefly set up a government there and tried to get Nicaragua admitted to the union. Nicaragua, while it never entered the union, was treated as an area in which Americans could do as they wished.

On one occasion in 1853, an American gunboat commander, having a disagreement with a village on the coast, fired upon it on his own authority. His action was approved by Franklin Pierce, the president of the United States at the time.

By the beginning of the 20th century, the stability of Nicaragua, particularly as an area of American investments and other economic activity (such as the United Fruit Company) justified intervention in the minds of Americans. American troops were sent into Nicaragua in 1909–10, 1912–25, and 1926–33.

In the latter intervention, the United States assisted the Nicaraguan government against the rebel leader Augusto Sandino, who would become the namesake not only of his contemporary rebels but also of a later generation of foes to American policy in the 1980s.

In the 1930s, the U.S. government supported the Somoza family (who had executed Sandino in 1934), which ultimately ruled Nicaragua from 1936 until the late 1970s.


The economic interests and dollar diplomacy were replaced after World War II by the concern that Latin America could come under control of the Soviet Union. That cold war imperative has since become dominated by concerns with terrorism, illegal immigration, and the drug cartels. Based on past history, it may be safe to assume that any relations between the United States and Latin America will not be a meeting of equals.