Was the Cold War a distinctive moment for U.S.–Latin American relations? The answer can be no. The United States had faced military, political, and economic competition for influence in the Americas from extracontinental powers both before and during the Cold War. The United States pursued ideological objectives in its policy toward Latin America before, during, and after the Cold War. And the pattern of U.S. defense of its economic interests was not appreciably different during the Cold War than before. And yet, this article argues that the Cold War was a distinctive moment because ideological considerations acquired primacy over U.S. policy in the region to an extent unparalleled in the history of inter–American relations. As a consequence, this ideologically–driven U.S. policy often exhibited nonlogical characteristics because the instruments chosen to implement U.S. policy were too costly, disproportionate, or inappropriate. The article focuses on those instances when the United States used military force to achieve its aims or when the United States promoted or orchestrated an attempt to overthrow a Latin American government.
Never before in the history of Latin America have so many countries had constitutional governments, elected in free and competitive elections under effective universal suffrage, that also pursue market–based economic policies. Early in the twentieth century, many Latin American governments favored open economies, but rulers were chosen either by narrow oligarchies or by military officers. By the middle of the century, many Latin American governments were democratically chosen, but pursued statist policies that sought, as far as possible, to sever the links between their nations' economies and the world market. Thus the combination of the 1990s — an era of free politics and free markets - is truly without precedent.
Despite various electoral reforms enacted in Mexico between 1988 and 1994, large numbers of Mexicans doubted the honesty of elections and the general integrity of their country's policy making process. Such doubts did not automatically lead, however, to support for the opposition parties that called for greater democratization. Rather, voter preferences were largely dependent on judgments about the opposition's viability and competence. Widespread suspicions about fraud and corruption in Mexico did affect electoral outcomes by making it less likely that potential opposition supporters turned out to vote. Data are drawn from seven national public opinion surveys conducted in Mexico in 1986, 1988, 1991, 1993 (3 polls), and 1995.
The prospects for peace and security in the Americas improved as the cold war ended in Europe. Peace settlements were reached in the civil wars in Nicaragua (1989–90), El Salvador (1992), and Guatemala (1996). The Cuban government stopped providing military support to revolutionaries in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Chile. And Colombia's M–19 movement, El Salvador's Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, and Guatemala's National Revolutionary Union transformed themselves from guerilla organizations into political parties. Nonetheless, as David Mares [has shown], Latin American countries have been involved in a militarized interstate dispute with a neighboring country on average nearly once a year for the past century.
"Men make their own history," Karl Marx wrote in 1852, "but they do not make it just as they please." Scholars of Latin America have spent much energy understanding the second half of that sentence, namely, the importance of structures and their legacies... [W]e are mindful of that second half but call attention to its first half: the conscious choices made by some political actors in the 1980s and 1990s in Latin America to foster freer politics and freer markets and, in that way, to reinvent Latin American history.
Hundreds of thousands of Cuban troops deployed to nearly every corner of the globe – that seemed to be the nightmare of every US administration from the mid–1970s to the end of the 1980s. From its own perspective, President Fidel Castro's government attempted to use its activist foreign policy first to protect itself from hostile US policies, and second to leverage support from the Soviet Union and other communist countries for Cuba's own domestic development.
The first proposition had been articulated by Ernesto "Che" Guevara in the 1960s when he called on revolutionaries to create "two, three Vietnams" in order to confront and weaken the United States and its allies. Even as the Cuban government gradually edged away from ample support for many revolutionary insurgencies, the strategy of global engagement as the best defense against US offense persisted. The second proposition developed in the 1970s. Although Cuba's decisions to deploy troops or to undertake other internationalist missions were characteristically its own, it also furthered a long–term tendency to coordinate such policies with those of the Soviet Union, demonstrating thereby that Cuba was the Soviet Union's most reliable foreign policy ally in the Cold War, and providing a basis for a substantial claim on Soviet resources.
Shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall it became common in Washington and Miami to bet on the date that Fidel Castro would fall. Those bets were based on the premise that the Cuban regime could not survive without Soviet support. Gone was the Soviet economic subsidy worth no less than one–sixth of the island's total gross product; gone were the weapons transfers free of charge. From 1989 to 1992 the Cuban economy contracted sharply, with imports shrinking from $8.1 billion to $2.2 billion. Yet the Cuban regime remains with Fidel Castro firmly at its helm. How has Cuban communism managed to survive?
Since the early years in their histories as independent nations, the United States and its southern near–neighbors have been linked through their foreign policies and the movements of their peoples. In the nineteenth century, the acquisition of the Floridas and the conquest of northern Mexico by the United States led to substantial movements of people. Later in the same century, the U.S. conquest of the remnants of Spain's American empire contributed to the hispanization of the population of the United States.
In the twentieth century, U.S. immigration policy turned generally restrictionist. Foreign policy concerns, however, led the government to permit and even, for a time, to stimulate Mexican immigration to the United States. Consistent with its policies toward the Soviet bloc, the U.S. government also stimulated migration from Cuba for a certain period. These U.S. policies have been supplemented by those determined and ingenious people who, drawn by the promise of the words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty, have entered the United States illegally. As a result, the United States is already the fifth largest Spanish–speaking country in the world.