Foreign Intervention in Latin America

U.S. mounted Marines entering Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, during occupation of 1916

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One of the recurring themes in Latin American history is that of foreign intervention. Like Africa, India, and the Middle East, Latin America has a long history of meddling by foreign powers, all of them European and North American. These interventions have profoundly shaped the character and history of the region.

The Conquest

The conquest of the Americas is probably the greatest act of foreign intervention in history. Between 1492 and 1550 or so, when most native dominions were brought under foreign control, millions died, entire peoples and cultures were wiped out, and the wealth gained in the New World propelled Spain and Portugal into golden ages. Within 100 years of Columbus' first voyage, most of the New World was under the heel of these two European powers.

The Age of Piracy

With Spain and Portugal flaunting their newfound wealth in Europe, other countries wanted to get in on the action. In particular, the English, French, and Dutch all tried to capture valuable Spanish colonies and loot for themselves. During times of war, pirates were given official license to attack foreign ships and rob them. These men were called privateers. The Age of Piracy left profound marks in the Caribbean and coastal ports all over the New World.

French Intervention in Mexico

After the disastrous “Reform War” of 1857 to 1861, Mexico could not afford to pay off its foreign debts. France, Britain, and Spain all sent forces to collect, but some frantic negotiating resulted in the British and Spanish recalling their troops. The French stayed, however, and captured Mexico City. The famous Battle of Puebla, remembered on May 5, took place at this time. The French found a nobleman, Maximilian of Austria, and made him Emperor of Mexico in 1863. In 1867, Mexican forces loyal to President Benito Juárez retook the city and executed Maximilian.

The Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine

In 1823, American President James Monroe issued the Monroe Doctrine, warning Europe to stay out of the western hemisphere. Although the Monroe Doctrine did keep Europe at bay, it also opened the doors for American intervention in the business of its smaller neighbors.

Due in part to the French intervention and also to a German incursion into Venezuela in 1901 and 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt took the Monroe doctrine one step further. He reiterated the warning to European powers to keep out, but also said that the U.S. would be responsible for all of Latin America. This frequently resulted in the U.S. sending troops to countries that could not afford to pay their debts, such as Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua, all of which were at least partially occupied between 1906 and 1934.

Halting the Spread of Communism

Gripped by fear of spreading communism after World War II, the U.S. would often intervene in Latin America in favor of conservative dictators. One famous example took place in Guatemala in 1954, when the CIA ousted leftist president Jacobo Arbenz from power for threatening to nationalize some lands held by the United Fruit Company, which was owned by Americans. Among numerous other examples, the CIA later attempted to assassinate Cuban communist leader Fidel Castro in addition to mounting the infamous Bay of Pigs invasion.

The U.S. and Haiti

The U.S. and Haiti have a complicated relationship dating back to the time both were colonies of England and France, respectively. Haiti has always been a troubled nation, vulnerable to manipulation by the powerful country not far to the north. From 1915 to 1934, the U.S. occupied Haiti, fearing political unrest. The U.S. has sent forces into Haiti as recently as 2004, ostensibly to stabilize the volatile nation after a contested election. Lately, the relationship has improved, with the U.S. sending humanitarian aid to Haiti after the destructive 2010 earthquake.

Foreign Intervention in Latin America Today

Times may have changed, but foreign powers are still very active in meddling in the affairs of Latin America. France still colonizes mainland South America (French Guiana) and, the U.S. and U.K. still control islands in the Caribbean. Many people believed that the CIA was actively trying to undermine the government of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela; Chávez himself certainly thought so.

Latin Americans resent being bullied by foreign powers. It is their defiance of U.S. hegemony that has made folk heroes out of Chávez and Castro. However, unless Latin America gains considerable economic, political, and military might, circumstances are unlikely to change very much in the short term.