With Tillerson in Latin America, Monroe is back

According to the Monroe Doctrine, “any attempt by a foreign power to extend its system to any nation in the hemisphere must be considered as dangerous” by the United States. Español

Juan Gabriel Tokatlian
14 February 2018

Colombia's President Juan Manuel Santos, left, listens to U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during a press conference after a meeting in Bogota, Colombia, Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018. Photo by Daniel Garzon Herazo/NurPhoto/Sipa USA. PA Images. All rights reserved.

Paradoxically, the most relevant feature about the recent journey of the US Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, to Latin America did not happen in the region, but in the United States.

When his visit to Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Colombia and Jamaica was announced, the prominent points in his political agenda were already known: the very grave socio-economic and political-institutional situation in Venezuela and the search for a treatment combining stronger diplomatic pressure on Caracas from several countries of the region and the threat of US sanctions.

Also, as is often the case with the trips of US presidents and secretaries of State, his aim was to seek more open markets for US exports to the region and to soften the claims arising from the difficulties that products from Latin America experience in accessing the United States.

As history shows, all great powers promote outward openness and inward protectionism. In times of hegemonic decline, superpowers raise the level of internal protection, while powers on the rise - such as, currently, China - promote free trade. Besides some specific issues, such as the question of drugs in Colombia, Peru and Mexico, apparently nothing new or promising was worthy of note during Tillerson's tour.

In my view, the really interesting novelty happened before he embarked on his trip, in Austin, where the Secretary of State gave an address on Latin America at the University of Texas. One would be hard-pressed to find a piece of oratory on contemporary inter-American relations in which a sitting US Secretary of State would rely more heavily and candidly on the Monroe Doctrine and its deployment in Latin America.

In his original message to the US Congress in 1823 and when mentioning inter-American affairs, President James Monroe had fundamentally Europe in mind. Monroe said that the United States would "consider any attempt on its part (Europe) to extend its system to any portion in this hemisphere, as dangerous to our (the United States’) peace and security". Tillerson, in Austin, identified two counter-parts threatening US interests in Latin America.

On the one hand, he referred to Russia, whose "growing presence in the region is alarming." On the other, he spotlighted China, the projection of which in the region "offers the appearance of an attractive path", but leads in fact to "long-term dependency." Consequently, according to him, "our region must be diligent to guard against faraway powers that do not reflect the fundamental values shared in the region."

In addition, Tillerson tried to provide an overview of the historical links between the United States and Latin America. For this he used some typical examples of Monroism. On the one hand, he evoked the first inter-American conference in Washington, in 1889, where Pan-American conclaves to affirm the influence of the United States on the continent and to avoid interference in the area by other extra-regional actors got started.

It is obvious that, from a Latin American perspective, several political expressions have sought, in different circumstances, to limit and even reverse Pan-Americanism.

President Donald Trump's "America First" strategy is probably, concerning Latin America, the last attempt to restore an obsolete doctrine for the 21st century.

On the other hand, he recalled that Teddy Roosevelt was the first sitting US President to travel abroad: he went to Panama in November 1906. The memory of the region about Teddy Roosevelt is, of course, quite different: he is remembered for his role in the separation of Panama from Colombia in November 1903, and for the so-called "Roosevelt Corollary" - a variant of the Monroe Doctrine – which he formulated in 1904 and became the rationale for American interventionism in the region to protect US economic interests and ensure its political dominance (Dominican Republic and Panama in 1904, Cuba in 1906, Honduras in 1907, Nicaragua in 1910, Honduras in 1911, Honduras, Panama, Nicaragua and Cuba in 1912, Haiti and the Dominican Republic in 1914, and so on).

Tillerson’s nostalgia for Monroe was such that answering the question put by the moderator of the event, historian William Inboden, about his assessment of the Monroe Doctrine - which will be 200 years old in 2023 -, the Secretary of State said: "I think it clearly has been a success ... It was an important commitment at the time and I believe that, over the years that has continued to frame the relationship (between the United States and Latin America)."

Inadvertently, the Secretary of State was quite candid: President Donald Trump's "America First" strategy is probably, concerning Latin America, the last attempt to restore an obsolete doctrine for the 21st century. 

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