Deconstructing the “Good Neighbor” Myth: Barack Obama, Evo Morales, and the State of U.S.-Latin American Relations :

In his March 4, 1933 inaugural address, Franklin D. Roosevelt opened his remarks on foreign policy by introducing a plan that Herbert Hoover would later term the “Good Neighbor Policy” towards Latin America. Roosevelt emphasized that the United States must serve as a neighbor that “resolutely respects himself, and because he does so, respects the rights of others …” Yet more than eighty years after Roosevelt articulated those words, the United States’ relationship with Latin America remains tenuous, even as President Barack Obama has claimed a readiness to discuss, “human rights, freedom of the press, political prisoners, everything.”

The grounding of Bolivian President Evo Morales’ plane in Vienna in early July  2013 serves as yet another reminder (and for historians of Latin America an all too familiar one) that American policymakers continue to defy the principles of the “Good Neighbor Policy” by interfering in the region, despite President Obama’s public statements. Morales, who in 2006 became the first Bolivian president of indigenous heritage, has worked to implement leftist policies, combat poverty, and restrict the influence of the United States and transnational corporations in Bolivia. Following the grounding of his presidential plane, Morales excoriated the United States for instructing European nations to forbid his plane from flying through their airspace—believing that Edward Snowden might have been aboard. Portugal, Spain, Italy, and France all refused to allow Morales’ plane to pass through their airspace on its way back from Moscow where Morales had met with Russian officials. Morales’ comments following the incident invoked Latin American leaders’ frustration with American foreign policy since the inception of the “Good Neighbor” doctrine and foreshowed a potential new age in U.S.-Latin American relations, one where the United States could no longer bully the region. Morales declared:

Americans think that we are living in the era of empires and colonies. They are wrong. We are free people. They think that by interfering in our affairs, staging coups, installing neoliberals or military dictatorships they can suck out our resources. But this is in the past, they can no longer do this.

As a student of contemporary Argentine history, the plane-grounding incident seems eerily reminiscent of the way the American government approached another controversial Latin-American political ruler, President Juan Domingo Perón (1946-1955). Perón’s populist rhetoric frightened American policymakers and journalists to such an extent that Time placed Perón on its cover in 1944, two years before he won the presidency. Time ended its feature article on the future populist ruler by declaring that “the brat from the Río de la Plata” was ready to “stand up and sass back the Colossus of the North.” American policymakers made every effort to ensure that Perón would never have that opportunity, even going as far as to print and distribute 40,000-word blue books across Argentina prior to the election which incorrectly claimed Perón had ties to the Axis cause during WWII. These efforts failed, however, as young Argentine voters turned out in record numbers for the February 1946 election.

Angered by American interference in their country’s presidential election, young voters helped Perón win a narrow victory—one that shook the United States to its roots. In 2009, President Obama discussed past American abuses in Latin America, and, despite infuriating those on the right, acknowledged that “at times we sought to dictate our terms … we could be wrong. We admit it.” Obama seemed to raise Latin Americans’ expectations of American foreign policy, and the President even shook hands with then Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez at the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad in 2009.

Yet these overtures of friendship from President Obama proved to be short lived. Evo Morales and other Latin-American leaders, especially Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, have been quick to express their disappointment and displeasure with current American foreign policy and the lack of common ground between the two regions’ policymakers. The Bolivian people have made their displeasure with U.S. interference known, but unlike the political activism seen in the case of Perón, Bolivians voiced their dissatisfaction in the streets, not the ballot box. Shortly after the grounding of Morales’ plane, Bolivians flooded the streets of La Paz outside the American embassy. Waving Bolivian flags and holding hand-made signs, the protesters proceeded to burn a coffin with a replica of Uncle Sam—alerting the world that this time things would be different, that the region would no longer sit quietly and accept American intervention. Yet as troubling as the Morales plane-grounding incident was to Bolivians and the entire Organization of American States, the episode represents a relatively small infraction compared to past American abuses in the hemisphere.

Despite the international outcry it sparked, the grounding of Morales’ plane did not engender productive diplomatic discussions between President Obama and Latin-American rulers in an effort to curb the friction between the hemispheres. Rather, it was just the beginning of a new chapter in the acerbic diplomatic history between the regions. After the Obama administration refused to let Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro fly over Puerto Rico on his way to China in September of 2013, Evo Morales declared that he intended to sue the United States for “crimes against humanity.” Morales, appearing more dejected and less angered than he had in July explained, “[t]he U.S. cannot be allowed to continue its policy of intimidation and blocking international flights.” While plane-grounding does not seem to fit Morales’ charge of “crimes against humanity,” it nonetheless shows that President Obama has not yet begun to improve U.S-Latin American relations as he promised in 2009, and as Latin American leaders so eagerly hoped he would.  

Before the 2009 U.S. presidential election, then President of Brazil Lula da Silva (2003-2011) optimistically remarked on the possibility of Barak Obama winning the presidency. Silva stated, “Just as Brazil elected a metal worker, Bolivia elected an Indian, Venezuela elected Chávez, and Paraguay a Bishop, I think that it would be an extraordinary thing if, in the largest economy in the world, a black man were elected president of the United States.” Lula da Silva saw in Obama the “hope” and “change” he so ambitiously promised, not just at home, but also abroad.

However, recent events suggest that President Obama has decided to change U.S. foreign policy as little as possible. The American media has long presented Latin America through a Cold War lens and President Obama’s recent actions seem to suggest that, like the media, he views the leftist movements in Latin America as mere shifts of a pendulum that will, eventually, allow the United States to once again exert its influence in the region. In the coming years there may indeed be positive changes to U.S.-Latin American relations. As recent events suggest, however, these initiatives will come from the south, not from Washington, despite President Obama’s stated desire to make the United States an example of equality and uprightness for the rest of the modern world.

Suggested Readings:

Chasteen, John Charles. Born in Blood & Fire: A Concise History of Latin America. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2011.

Frank, Gary. Juan Perón vs. Spruille Braden: The Story Behind the Blue Book. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1980.

Gott, Richard. Hugo Chavez and the Bolivian Revolution. New York: Verso Press, 2005.

Grandin, Gregg. Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2006.

Raymont, Henry. Troubled Neighbors: The Story of U.S.-Latin American Relations, from FDR to the Present. Cambridge, Mass: Westview Press, 2005.

Rosen, Fred. Empire and Dissent: The United States and Latin America. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008.  

Smith, Joseph. The United States and Latin America: A History of American Diplomacy, 1776-2000. New York: Routledge, 2005.

Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States. New York: Harper-Collins, 1980.