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Obama in Latin America

Many are watching to see if Obama is ready to reverse course with Latin America—as Roosevelt did more than three-quarters of a century ago.

| Tue Apr. 14, 2009 3:18 PM EDT

Introduction by Tom Engelhardt

[Note for TomDispatch Readers: Here's a scheduling update. I'll be out of town and largely off-line Wednesday through Sunday, though it should barely affect the TD send-out schedule. I will, however, be unlikely to respond to letters, requests, admonitions, or anything else that comes in. As I've said before, I think of the TD email box as the university of my later life, regularly filled with surprises and fascinations, and I read everything that arrives with some care. I do my best to answer all of you, however briefly, but as I'm usually the only one here and regularly drowning in my complicated life, it's a hit or miss matter. Don't think, because no reply comes back, that I don't appreciate hearing from you. In addition, I'm truly appreciative of those who so generously have used the "Resist Empire. Support TomDispatch" button and sent in contributions (including recurring ones). They allow us to offer a little extra money to young writers, to be a bit more adventurous in thinking about future pieces, and to build up a modest rainy-day fund for… sigh… bad times. Think of this, then, as my collective bow to all of you, since I don't thank contributors individually. Tom]

Leaving London's March fog for the Caribbean's balmy tropical breezes, Barack Obama this week continues his administration's efforts to push the "reset" button on U.S. foreign relations. On Friday, he will attend the Summit of the Americas in Port-of-Spain, the capital of Trinidad and Tobago. More than five centuries ago, that archipelago nation was one of Christopher Columbus's first stops. It's safe to say that, as in London and Paris, Obama will be greeted with fervor there.

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After eight disastrous years of George W. Bush, Latin Americans are ready to breathe an enormous sigh of relief. The new U.S. president is wildly popular. Even Fidel Castro asked a visiting delegation from the Congressional Black Caucus how he could "help President Obama" succeed—though Cuba is the only American nation excluded from the meeting.

Keep an eye on how Obama's new policies begin to play out this week in Latin America, since—as historian Greg Grandin has written in his superb book Empire's Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism—previous administrations have regularly sorted out their future global policies in "our backyard." (Coming in June, by the way, is Grandin's newest book, Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford's Forgotten Jungle City, a deep dive into another hubris-ridden American experiment in Latin America.) History isn't exactly an American strength, but understanding where we've been is a great, underused tool when it comes to grasping where we might be heading. No writer at this site does that better than TomDispatch regular Grandin. So prepare to take a remarkable tour of our south-of-the-border past, all in the service of illuminating our unsettled and potentially unsettling future. Tom 

How The Nation Magazine Saved the American Empire

What Can Obama Do in Latin America?
By Greg Grandin

What if Barack Obama had picked the Nation's Katrina vanden Heuvel or Democracy Now! anchor Amy Goodman to advise him at the upcoming Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago this week? Unlikely, to say the least, but 75 years ago President Franklin Delano Roosevelt did something just like that, tapping a former Nation editor and fierce critic of U.S. militarism to advise his administration on Latin American policy. As a result—consider this your curious, yet little known, fact of the day—anti-imperialism saved the American empire.

FDR took office in 1933 looking not just to stabilize the U.S. economy, but to calm a world inflamed: Japan had invaded Manchuria the year before; the Nazis had seized power in Germany; European imperialists were tightening their holds over their colonies; and the Soviet Union had declared its militant "third period" strategy, imagining that global capitalism, plunged into the Great Depression, was in its last throes.

When, soon after his March inauguration, Roosevelt put forward a call to the "nations of the world" to "enter into a solemn and definitive pact of non-aggression," the colonialists, militarists, and fascists who ruled Europe and Asia balked. Because the new president's global reach came nowhere near his global ambitions, the London Economic Conference—convened that July by the equivalent of today's G-20—broke up rancorously over how to respond to that moment's global meltdown.

Luckily for Roosevelt, the Seventh Pan-American Conference was scheduled to take place that December in Montevideo, Uruguay. Admittedly the very idea of pan-Americanism—that the American republics shared common ideals and political interests—was then moribund. Every few years, in an international forum, Latin American delegates simply submitted to Washington's directives while silently seething about the latest U.S. military intervention—in Panama, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico, Venezuela, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, or Haiti. (Take your pick.)

Momentum was then building among Latin American nations for a revision of international law, which effectively granted great powers the right to intervene in the affairs of smaller republics. Venezuelan diplomats, for instance, were insisting that the U.S. affirm the principle of absolute sovereignty. Argentines put forth their own "non-aggression" treaty codifying non-intervention as the law of the hemisphere. Caribbean and Central American politicians insisted that detachments of U.S. Marines, then bogged down in counterinsurgencies in Nicaragua, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic, get out.

FDR dispatched his Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, to the summit, but instructed him not to offer anything more than a promise to build a few new roads. The demand that the U.S. give up the right of intervention was "unacceptable."

Yet Roosevelt, who had a way of mixing and matching unlikely advisors, also asked Ernest Gruening (recommended by Harvard law professor and soon-to-be Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter) to accompany Hull. In 1964, as a senator from Alaska, Gruening would become famous for casting one of only two votes against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which President Lyndon Johnson would use to escalate the Vietnam War, but in the 1930s, he was already a committed anti-imperialist.

In the pages of the Nation and other left-wing journals, he had helped expose the use of torture, forced labor, and political assassinations that took place under Marine occupations in the Caribbean, atrocities he likened to European brutality in India, Ireland, and the Congo. After touring Haiti and the Dominican Republic, he lobbied Congress to cut off the funding of counterinsurgency operations in the region, and he excoriated the "horde of carpet-bagging concessionaires that are the camp-followers of American militaristic imperialism." That such an uncompromising critic of U.S. diplomacy would be chosen to advise the Secretary of State reflects the strength of the left in the 1930s—and Roosevelt's willingness to tap it.

Burnin' and Murdewin'

As the delegation set sail for Montevideo, Gruening was shocked to learn that the U.S. had "no program except to be friendly with everyone and radiate goodwill."

"Mr. Secretary," he reported himself telling Hull, "the one issue that concerns every Latin-American country is intervention. We should come out strongly for a resolution abjuring it."

Hull, whom Gruening later described as speaking in the thick accent of a born and bred member of the Tennessee gentry, dropping g's and wrestling with r's, replied that that would be a hard sell.

"What am Ah goin't to do when chaos breaks out in one of those countries and armed bands go woamin' awound, burnin', pillagin' and murdewin' Amewicans?" Hull asked. "How can I tell mah people that we cain't intervene?"

"Mr. Secretary," Gruening responded, "that usually happens after we have intervened."

Hull was, however, afraid of bad press. "If Ah were to come out against intervention," he said, "the Hearst papers would attack me fwom coast to coast... Wemember, Gwuening, Mr. Woosevelt and Ah have to be weelected."

"Coming out against intervention would help you get reelected," Gruening replied. It would, he insisted, help the New Deal jump off the merry-go-round of invasion, occupation, and insurgency that had badly crippled U.S. prestige throughout Latin America and much of the world.

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