America’s Front Yard
According to Joe Biden Latin America is "America's front yard," not its "backyard." History shows that it would be better for the region to escape Washington's yard altogether.
This column is free to everyone. To receive more in depth analysis of US foreign policy and international affairs, sign up for Foreign Exchanges’ email list today! Better yet, please consider subscribing to support the newsletter and help it continue to grow:
“The people of South America are the most ignorant, the most bigoted, the most superstitious of all the Roman Catholics in Christendom…[attempts to establish democracy in the region] always appeared to me as absurd as similar plans would be to establish democracies among the birds, beasts, and fishes.”
— John Adams, 27 March 1815
In late January, during a press conference to mark his first year in office, President Joe Biden took a question about Latin America. Did he plan to travel to South America and other countries “in the Western Hemisphere, given the fact that China has gained a lot of influence in the region?” After highlighting his long experience in shaping policy in the region and castigating Donald Trump’s approach, Biden decided to update a particularly toxic metaphor in the long history of US-Latin America relations. “It’s not America’s backyard,” the president stated, “everything south of the Mexican border is America’s front yard. And we’re equal people. We don’t dictate what happens in any other part of that—or this continent or the South American continent.”
And just like that, Biden “upgraded” Latin America to front yard status.
Of course, the crux of the problem remains even with the so-called metaphorical upgrade. Backyard or front yard, Latin America remains subject to the US “homeowner” who imagines its chauvinistic regional interests as shared universal values; a homeowner who tends to pay close attention mostly in relation to the perceived “infiltration” of threatening outside forces. Indeed, Biden responded to a question that framed the region in relation to China’s growing economic influence in the Western Hemisphere. China is now the largest trade partner for South American collectively (and for all of Latin America if Mexico is excluded). The implication, particularly when contextualized with years of “new Cold War with China” rhetoric, is that the East Asian country is trespassing in an exclusive US sphere of influence deemed to be the legitimate, necessary, and properly hierarchical order of things.
“We are not merely the leading, but the controlling power on this continent” (New York Times, 4 May 1858)
China joins—again—a long list of backyard trespassers. Cold War trespassers included the Soviet Union, “Red China’s” alleged narco-trafficking during the 1950s, and Cuba as the Soviet “insider-outsider” proxy. Even before the Cold War, 1920s Mexican “Bolshevism”—or rather Mexican state efforts to implement a form of economic nationalism inconvenient for foreign capital—caused consternation in Washington DC.
The interminable War on Terror resuscitated the early 1980s charge of alleged nexuses between left Latin American governments and transnational terrorist organizations, substituting the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) for al-Qaeda. This latest iteration even managed to combine terrorism with the trespassing figure that has animated US white supremacist revanchism since the mid-nineteenth century: racialized migrants and refugees. In 2013, the ever-imaginative Congressman Louie Gohmert added another ingredient to this toxic stew when he told C-SPAN that “we know al-Qaeda has camps over with the drug cartels on the other side of the Mexican border. We know that people are now being trained to come in and act like Hispanic when they’re radical Islamists.”
Such trespassing can trigger a national version of the Castle Doctrine laws currently on the books in some US states: shoot the “invader” in a legitimate act of self-defense to protect US interests. Indeed, the “original” national-level Castle Doctrine even has a name: the 1823 Monroe Doctrine, which demarcated the Americas as a region vital to US security. “We should consider any attempt on [Europeans’] part to extend their system to any position of this hemisphere,” Monroe warned, “as dangerous to our peace and safety.” A limited, paradoxical statement promulgated in the midst of Latin American independence movements by a relatively weak US, the Monroe Doctrine promised US neutrality in those ongoing conflicts (after recognizing the independence of five nations in 1822) while foreclosing any future European colonial adventures in the region—for the sake of US security logics.
The doctrine exemplified the dynamic in early US history that historian William Appleman Williams famously termed as “imperial anticolonialism”: anticolonialism for European polities, imperialism and settler colonialism for the Americas. Bolívar quickly discovered this dynamic when Secretary of State John Quincy Adams warned against spreading independence to Puerto Rico and Cuba. The Monroe Doctrine, Adams told him, “must not be interpreted as authorization for the weak to be insolent with the strong.”
In subsequent decades, the territorial and commercial expansion of the settler colonial US empire added power and heft to the evolving Monroe Doctrine—and to its numerous offspring (e.g. Manifest Destiny, Roosevelt Corollary). Invocations repeatedly occurred in the late 19th and early 20th century, when British and German forces tried to intervene in several South American and Caribbean countries. The conclusion of the 1898 Spanish-American War produced a more specific version of the Monroe Doctrine for the newly independent Cubans. Forced into the Cuban Constitution as a condition for the departure of US troops, the Platt Amendment legalized direct US intervention to maintain “a government adequate for the protection of life, property and individual liberty.”
In a searing critique, Afro-Cuban liberation fighter-turned-politician Juan Gualberto Gómez argued that the amendment fatally undermined Cuban sovereignty and independence. “To reserve to the United States the faculty of deciding for themselves when independence is menaced,” he argued, “and when, therefore, they ought to intervene to preserve it, is equivalent to delivering up the key of our house, so that they can enter it at all hours, when the desire takes them, day or night, with intentions good or ill.”
Gómez’s comment captures the dissonance between US rhetoric and practice that characterized its ensuing policies toward Latin America. The Platt Amendment went hemispheric for the next three decades, as US Marines invaded parts of Latin America nearly three dozen times between 1900-1934. Even the subsequent Good Neighbor Policy that renounced direct US military intervention and respected/tolerated national sovereignty—while inventing new forms of “soft power”—had limits. Cuba discovered this in 1933-34, when then-US ambassador Sumner Welles helped stoke regime change alongside a young Cuban military officer named Fulgencio Batista.
In the decades since, policies and practices have ebbed and flowed, succeeded and failed. Outright military invasion proved more the exception during the Cold War than the rule (as in the 1965 invasion of the Dominican Republic). Presidents relied more often on “dark side” covert paramilitary operations—the training and outfitting of local militaries and police forces, diplomatic and economic coercion, and underfunded modernization programs awkwardly doubling as “winning hearts and minds” counterinsurgency—to prevent more Cubas. In countries deemed national security threats, CIA assets worked to exacerbate pre-existing conflict and polarization. The “fuel for the fire,” to paraphrase a CIA cable on Chile during its 1970 presidential campaign, had to come from within. Empire provided some of the matches.
“You have to pat [Latin Americans] a little bit and make them think you are fond of them”—John Foster Dulles
Beyond geography and Great Power Politics, what justifies the US sphere of influence? The backyard/front yard metaphor fundamentally reveals that for more than two centuries, condescending US elite beliefs about Latin American “inferiority”—racial, cultural and social—has shaped thinking and policy toward the region. Political elites have used one specific manifestation of this alleged inferiority—a supposed incapacity for democratic self-rule— to justify US support for bloody Latin American dictatorships throughout the 20th century, particularly during the Cold War. In a 1971 conversation with Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Richard Nixon contrasted the ability of “Latins” to maintain stability and “run the damn place…in a miserable way but they do it” to the black “Africans [who] just can’t run things.”
Nixon seemingly updated Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “he may be a son of a bitch but he’s our son of a bitch” quip about 1930s Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza. A decade later, Jeanne Kirkpatrick counseled the incoming Reagan administration to not condition US support for El Salvador’s death squad dictatorial regime on reducing human rights violations or implementing land reform. Rather, she argued for unconditional support for the Salvadoran military because, to quote from historian Greg Grandin’s Empire’s Workshop, “Salvador’s political culture respected a sovereign who was willing to wield violence” to reestablish order. Her evidence? A death squad that took the name of a notorious general who in 1932 massacred more than 30,000 salvadoreños. These killers, according to Kirkpatrick, simply “place themselves in El Salvador’s political tradition and communicate their purpose.”
These Washington elites have generally seen no contradiction between their tangible support for genocidal death squads in Latin America and their rhetorical support for human rights overall. Indeed, at times they’ve argued that reverence for human rights and other liberal values may not even exist within other fundamentally “inferior” political cultures and societies. Kirkpatrick’s prescription for El Salvador echoed George Kennan’s earlier ideas for how to wage Cold War in a Latin America “cursed beyond redemption by geography, history, and race.” Defeat of “the communist problem,” the influential diplomat argued in 1950, required “harsh governmental measures of repression…from regimes whose origins and methods would not stand the test of American concepts of democratic procedures.”
State terror for “inferior” Latin Americans, regional “security” for the US.
So why fret about supporting terror, especially when US supremacy in the region is at stake? As the neocoversative Committee of Santa Fe put it in their influential 1980 A New Inter-American Policy for the Eighties, the notion of human rights is “culturally and ethically relative.” What matters is that “the Americas are under attack,” Latin America “is being penetrated by Soviet power,” and revolutionary movements in the region represent a “threat to the security interests of the United States.”The presupposition that the security interests and geopolitical designs of the US are the same—or should be made the same—as those of more than two dozen sovereign Latin American nations is an imperialist one, cloaked by a discourse of hemispheric security.
Indeed, the covert and overt historical efforts that make that presupposition a reality help explain why the US government has consistently sided not with Latin American popular movements in search of sovereignty, democracy, and social justice, but with terror regimes and brutal oligarchic elites. It bears repeating that this is a systemic feature of US empire in the Americas, not an aberration. Actions on the ground—like politically, militarily and economically supporting genocidal death squad regimes in 1970s-80s Central America—belie highfalutin discourses about democracy promotion, human rights, and an á la carte international “rules-based order.”
The Irresponsibility of its Own People
To argue that the US exercises an outsized imperial role in the region is not to neglect or minimize how Latin Americans themselves have shaped, reacted to and/or rejected this role. Rather, it is to signal an asymmetrical relationship of power, an imperial relation, past and present, that continues to especially animate the thinking and actions of US political elites.
Recent scholarship emphasizes limits to US influence and dictates after WWII, even as the “Colossus of the North” became a global empire. Throughout the 20th century, Latin American government officials and economists proved critical in efforts to create a more just and fair international economic order. The “Inter-American Cold War” involved ideological struggles and conflicts between Latin American governments and beyond them in the form of transnational anti-communist networks animated by a wide range of violent reactionary imaginaries. At times local reform efforts and moments of “forgotten peace” briefly took hold in spite of broader Cold War imperial logics. Power did not simply flow uncontested from the north to the south.
Nor is the US government a singular monolithic entity. Pushed by a powerful grassroots Central American solidarity movement, some Congressional Democrats consistently challenged—if woefully ineffectively—Ronald Reagan’s horrific policies in Central America during the 1980s. The same decade witnessed rivalry and competing objectives between DEA agents who at times investigated the very narco-trafficker assets and corrupt state officials who worked with the CIA. And yet, the basic structural premise of US dominance in the region remains unchallenged regardless of minor policy differences. Democrats ultimately endorsed the illegal invasions of Grenada and Panama in 1983 and 1989, respectively. Empire works as a bipartisan project with minimal differences in style and rhetoric.
Days after Biden’s front yard comments, Senators Bob Menendez and Marco Rubio introduced the bipartisan Western Hemisphere Security Strategy Act of 2022 to “enhance U.S. engagement in our region” and counteract “the harmful, malign influence of China and Russia.” While Menendez spoke using more neutral terms, Rubio resorted to old-reliable: the bill sought security cooperation and increased trade with Latin American and Caribbean nations “in order to deter malign actors from coercing countries in our own backyard.” What Rubio and Menendez see as coercion and malign influence, Latin American nations doing business with China would likely call the negotiation of more favorable, advantageous trade agreements. The hardline senators are like the king’s chef in Eduardo Galeano’s fable, who calls a group of birds to a summit to ask them what sauce they want to be cooked in. When one of the birds responds by saying that they do not want to be eaten at all, the chef barks, “that is out of the question!”
From this perspective, it matters little whether Latin America becomes Washington’s front yard or remains ever its backyard; its self-determination and sovereignty remain subsumed by and subject to US security dictates. Biden is simply the latest president to preach equality between American nations while in practice maintaining a long-held unequal, imperial relationship. What happens to this rhetorical equality if or when the US fails—to quote Congresswoman Lisa McClain—“to get [Latin American nations] off of China and our adversaries?” Henry Kissinger proved more honest about this relationship decades ago. Prompted by a historic presidential campaign in Chile in 1970, he argued, “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist because of the irresponsibility of its own people.” To Kissinger, “the issues are much too important for the Chilean voters to be left to decide for themselves.”
That is out of the question.
Gaddis Smith, The Last Years of the Monroe Doctrine, 1945-1993 (New York: HarperCollins, 1994), 67.
Greg Grandin, Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism (New York: Holt, 2010 ed.), 76-77.
The Committee of Santa Fe, A New Inter-American Policy for the Eighties (Council for Inter-American Security 1980), 3, 21.