There’s an old saying: “When the United States sneezes, Latin America gets pneumonia.”
In many ways, it captures the United States’ tendency to exert its economic, political and military influence over its neighbors to the south.
Like the Middle East, Africa and India, Latin America has a long-standing experience with meddling by foreign powers. However, U.S. interference in the region is a well-established tradition that seems to continue today.
The relationship has been tumultuous and bloody, peppered with imperialism, revolts, interventions, and crises, with the United States holding on as the region’s top investor.
We take a closer look at some of the biggest U.S. interventions in Latin American internal affairs that did more harm than good:
1. 1823: The Monroe Doctrine
Created by U.S. President James Monroe in 1823, the Monroe Doctrine stated that Latin America was within the United States’ “sphere of influence,” and that European powers were no longer allowed to colonize or interfere with the affairs of the region. Any attempt to do so would be seen as a sign of aggression toward the nation and the United States.
This basically served as justification for the United States to intervene and impose its will on “America’s backyard,” and made foreign intervention acceptable, so long as it was the United States doing the intervening. It also underpinned the first century of U.S. involvement overseas, making the United States a dominant player in the newly independent Americas.
When President John Tyler cited the doctrine to justify seizing Texas in 1842, a Venezuelan newspaper responded, saying: “Beware, brothers, the wolf approaches the lambs.”
2. 1904: “Big stick” ideology
“Speak softly and carry a big stick; you will go far.”
Popularized by Theodore Roosevelt, the phrase is associated with the American president’s imperialistic foreign policy, the “Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine.” It basically states that the U.S. could freely intervene in any nation in the Western Hemisphere found guilty of “brutal wrongdoing,” and was seen as a license for the U.S. to intervene in the region’s internal affairs as it saw fit.
The policy soon became “the justification for interventions in Central America and the Caribbean and the creation of a series of semi-protectorates.”
3. 1846-48: The Mexican-American War
As the United States’ first armed conflict primarily fought on foreign soil, the Mexican-American War resulted from American President James K. Polk’s belief that the nation had a “manifest destiny” to expand its borders across the continent to the Pacific Ocean.
When Mexico rejected Polk’s offer to buy California, New Mexico and what is now the American Southwest, he sent troops toward the disputed zone of Coahuila. Following the initial battles with the Mexican cavalry, Polk told Congress that the “cup of forbearance has been exhausted, even before Mexico passed the boundary of the United States, invaded our territory and shed American blood upon American soil.” The U.S. declared war two days later.
After the war, Mexico lost about one-third of its territory, including Arizona, Nevada, California, Utah, and New Mexico.
4. 1910-1920: The Mexican Revolution
What started off as an attempt to overthrow authoritarian President Porfirio Díaz soon evolved into a multi-sided, bloody conflict with an estimated 1 million casualties.
Mexico’s northern neighbor was quick to intervene several times during the conflict after the Taft administration came to believe that the revolution was harming commercial interests in the United States.
Convinced that General Victoriano Huerta would be a better fit for Mexico, Henry Lane Wilson, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, personally helped the general’s rise to power in the region. Huerta proved to be an even fiercer authoritarian than Díaz and is considered one of the worst villains in Mexican history.
When U.S. President Woodrow Wilson assumed office in 1913, he started backing Huerta’s opponents. However, following an arms blockade attempt in Veracruz, which resulted in about 90 U.S. casualties, the United States blasted the city with shells, killing hundreds of Mexicans in the process.
5. Sept. 11, 1973: Coup in Chile
Supported by the Nixon administration, the Chilean Coup of 1973 is one of the most horrific military coups in Latin American history.
The Chilean air force bombed La Moneda, the presidential palace in Santiago, while the democratically elected, socialist President Salvador Allende and the conservative Congress of Chile were overthrown. This ushered in a 17-year dictatorship under U.S-backed Augusto Pinochet, who was head of the Chilean army. An estimated 35,000 people were abused, tortured and killed during Pinochet’s regime, and thousands of Chileans were driven into exile.
The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) has long been a controversial trade policy. Launched in January 1994, the agreement was supposed to ease the trading of goods between the United States, Canada, and Mexico.
However, critics in the United States warned that the deal would result in the loss of manufacturing jobs to Mexico and lower wages for U.S. workers. Mexico’s once-self-sufficient corn and bean production industries, on the other hand, suffered as Mexican farmers struggled to compete “with capital-intensive United States agribusiness, which continues to enjoy generous government subsidies.”
Nearly 3 million tons of harvested Mexican corn is left to rot every year because it is too expensive to sell. In 2008, tariffs on U.S. corn and beans and subsidies given to Mexican farmers were eliminated, while the larger subsidies allocated to the American agricultural sector remain as is.
7. Panama Canal
After building a railroad across the Isthmus of Panama (which was, at the time, in Colombia) in 1855, the United States was eager for an artificial waterway across Central America. However, Colombia gave the rights to French entrepreneur Ferdinand de Lesseps, who had completed the Suez Canal in 1869. After disease among workers and financial problems dragged Lesseps’ company down, French engineer Philippe-Jean Bunau-Varilla took over.
The United States jumped at the opportunity and signed the Hay-Bunau Varilla-Treaty with Colombia in 1903, which granted the United States use of the territory for a price.
“I took the Isthmus, started the canal and then left Congress not to debate the canal, but to debate me,” President Theodore Roosevelt boasted.
When the Colombian senate backed out of the agreement, Roosevelt approved a Panamanian independence movement “which was engineered in large part by Philippe-Jean Bunau-Varilla and his canal company.”
The Hay-Bunau-Varilla Treaty was eventually signed with the newly independent Republic of Panama in November 1903. It granted the United States “exclusive and permanent possession of the Panama Canal Zone.” The canal would not officially be turned over to Panama until Dec. 31, 1999.