The Sleeping Giant
When Forbes named Carlos Slim Helu, a Mexican businessman invested in technology, communications and retail, as one of the wealthiest people in the world, US interests in Central America perked up after more than a decade long sleep. The emerging countries had been allowed to blissfully go about their own business since 1990, when the revolutionary struggles finally came to an end. Global humanitarian efforts to remove all foreign intervention from regional conflicts sent the last of CIA contra-revolution instigators packing.
The outcome of the wars wasn’t exactly what the US was aiming at. Many of the newly liberated countries had leftist leanings, and were entirely sympathetic with Cuba. Twenty years of war, with thousands of lives lost did not change this tendency, even with the complete diligence of US mercenaries to persuade them to the higher grounds of American democracy. In the end, the number of El Salvador’s dispossessed was 90% by the year 1990 and Nicaragua was completely bankrupt. All for the sake of keeping dictators in place who were hand-shaking with US corporations; corporations that failed to retain their stranglehold on Latin American resources as the newly independent countries chose their leaders.
During those undisturbed years, the Central American countries began exploring their new-found freedom, shaping governments that were at once democratic, with peaceful elections, and at the same time, reflecting strong Socialist views. The economic platform concentrated mainly around the ways and means of improving a uniform standard of living throughout their governing regions. Following the example of Cuba, a great deal of emphasis was placed on country-wide education and health care.
Breaking away from Cuba’s example, the Central American countries began scrutinizing tourism as one of their greatest economic assets. Tourism was certainly a practical choice. Closer to the United States than Hawaii, with the same tropical climate and far lower travel expenses, it was a pretty soft sell to budget conscious travelers.
Tourism, however, has a trickle down effect. The primary beneficiaries are the hotels and restaurants that are able to cater to the American life style. The more traditional establishments wait for the grin-and-bear-it crowd that will suffer through cold showers turned on at intervals, and somehow manage to ignore the mustard yellow or drab green paint on the concrete walls. Anyone not involved in selling foods, toiletry items, trinkets, handcrafts or services doesn’t really see much trickle at all.
The recession in the Western World added a new dimension to Central American economic possibilities. The middle class, scrambling to keep their heads above water, began desperately looking around for some place to go just to remain middle class. Central America, with its all around lower cost of living, beckoned.
The New Deal Perspective
The enticement of the Central American countries certainly has a lot of appeal. The countries have become banking and Internet friendly, offer easy terms for investment and middle class prices on upper middle class styled retirement homes. For many ex-pats view Central America as a pioneering adventure.
There is a lot of pioneering involved, but with a twist. U.S. pioneering has typically resolved in US settlements committed to the social enterprise of the U.S. Government. This is largely because of the absorption of the Monroe Doctrine, either consciously or unconsciously, that assumes the special virtues of U.S. Americans and their virtues made them a superior force. It was both their duty and their kindness to instill American democracy.
The Monroe Doctrine has worked two ways: It has become the means by which successful trade has been established along US shores, uniting the American settlements into a single cause, and it has miserably failed to recognize the rights of other existing cultures.
Before the Monroe Doctrine was introduced into US policy in 1823, there was a celebration in land-grabbing as European countries flooded in to the North American Continent to carve out their pieces of real estate. The Monroe Doctrine sought to put an end the steady migration that could ultimately result in new, rivaling countries, with a statement of its democratic resolve. It declared all future efforts by European countries to establish new colonies in the America’s would be viewed as an act of aggression. It did stipulate, however, that it would not interfere with already established colonies.
Even though the US had no navy at the time, England agreed to the terms of the Monroe Doctrine and in fact, agreed to help enforce it, lending its own navy to patrol the waters. The Doctrine’s intent served England quite well. It did not want any European competition with its own established ports, and it worried about trade with the newly independent Latin American Colonies should Spain try to regain control.
The Monroe Doctrine was used to stop Russian expansion into the west coast, and in the campaign to annex Texas. By the time James Knox Polk took the presidency during the years 1845 – 1849, the document meant to control European intervention and had taken on its own power as the Manifest Destiny of the US people.
There are three main principles involved in Manifest Destiny. It believes in the virtues of the American people and their institutions. The mission of the believers is to spread these institutions, thereby saving the world and remaking it in the US image. This mission is the destiny of the believers who have been sent to do God’s work.
While this solidified the United States as a culture, its effect on Native American tribes was crushing. Already largely viewed as heathens, the westward traveling migration of American settlers had very little sympathy with extending the same liberties they claimed for themselves to the inhabitants of the land they were settling on. The Native American tribes were encouraged to sell or forced to give up, vast areas of land, turn to farming instead of hunting, and for society to be formed around families instead of clans. Missionaries arrived, replacing their religion with Christianity and introducing them to formal education. The message, delivered through conflict and resistance, was “be like us or you’ll not survive”.
Most people know and are uncomfortable with the history of aggression against Native American tribes. As though to wash themselves of their sins, at least sixty percent of all Americans who trace their citizenship back three or four generations, claim a Native American ancestor. It has become a point of pride instead of shame, and yet active discrimination continues against cultural Native Americans. Not even by incorporating a Native American ancestor, have the principles of Manifest Destiny changed to reflect an expanding cultural awareness.
Initially, Latin America considered the stand the United States was taking against further European colonization as welcome news. Their own emancipation was on shaky ground, with anxieties that at any time Spain would try to retrieve the territories it had claimed. For them, the Monroe Doctrine came as a declaration that the Americas had become independent, with the right to develop and profit from their own resources. It was not so pleased however, when by the 1840’s the Doctrine had evolved into Manifest Destiny and was used as a banner for a war against Mexico.
For the next 150 years, the Monroe Doctrine would be used repeatedly to justify US interventions into Latin American politics. In 1904, Theodore Roosevelt added a corollary to the doctrine, stating intervention was necessary when there was evidence of “flagrant and chronic wrong-doing by a Latin American nation”.
It was invoked in 1954 against Guatemala for the spread of Soviet Communism, stating the policies were generated by a foreign entity. It was used again by John F. Kennedy in his stand against Cuba, with the same objections to foreign influence. It was used to justify spies, covert operations and mercenary soldiers throughout the 1960’s -1980’s.
A Matter of Culture
Although by 1990 human rights activists had put an end to US military intervention in Latin American affairs, there is a markedly slanted viewpoint. The countries that receive the least amount of criticism for corruption are the countries with which the US does the greatest amount of trade.
There are a number of issues involving changes in government administration, and consequent policies and contracts. These can alter with each new president. The Latin American countries are rising up out of smoke and ruin, political upheaval and changing fortunes. Many of the countries had been ruled by dictators, creating an economic disparity that left thousands below poverty level in any given region. Some continue to rumble with unrest as they seek a balance in their economic resources. Changes have and will take place, Their direction will be largely dependent on the popularity of the programs that were introduced.
What the statistics fail to provide is the social treatment of its people. The US statistics are very happy to tell us that Guatemala is among our largest trade partners; ranking 47th as the largest supplier of imported goods and receiving a whopping 37% of US exports. What it doesn’t tell us is that Guatemala has one of the highest disparities between the wealthy and the poor of all countries, with over twenty percent of the people living in extreme poverty, and another thirty percent living at global poverty levels.
According to the US Department of State, Ecuador is a very corrupt place, stating “government officials and Ecuadorian businessmen have used regulatory schemes and questionable legal maneuvers to affect foreign company operations within the country.” Of course, this might have to do with Ecuador’s pre-emptive strike; throwing American oil companies out on the ears; but to bring this up could be distasteful to the purists of American democracy. Ecuador is currently suing Chevron for treating its rainforest like a dump, leaving behind 16 billion gallons of untreated toxic production water that was admittedly dumped into the streams.
The View from Latin America
When seen from the perspective of social programs, one has to wonder about the true definition of corruption. Even within Nicaragua, the poorest of the Central American countries, there is a health care program to meet the needs of all its people. It has also sunk in a great deal of its limited funds for improving educational standards, state-of-the-arts communications, and upgrading its road system.
Latin American politics are merging in a way that is both healthy and progressive. They have taken a renewed interest in their environment, realizing that their rainforests and eco-systems play a vital function in global environmental health. They support eco-friendly landscaping, renewable energy and forest replanting.
Most of the countries hold democratic elections. The popular choice of governance, however, nearly always swings toward socialized viewpoints. Anyone who has spent much time in a Latin American country knows the decidedly social aspects of the people. They are openly friendly and affectionate toward each other. They are tolerant of groups; even noisy ones; and rarely complain of loitering, beggars or traffic violations; if violations are discernable at all. More disputes are resolved through neighborly discussions than by legal interventions; even petty crime such as theft or swindling.
The United States has a highly structured system of law. This law making body removes the responsibility of decision making from the citizen, giving a guideline of exacting responses to make in order to remain within the letter of the law. Latin American social life truly reflects a law of the people.
Let the past rest. The Monroe Doctrine deprived us of the excitement of developing into a nation of merging cultures, each one with special gifts that help us become aware of ourselves as individuals with choices and personal direction. It deprived us of building good relationships with Latin America for over a hundred years.
We need to get over it. We do not have a special destiny to give the world, although the world has been moving steadily forward while we were enthralled with our own antiquated enlightenment. It’s not surprising so many of the Latin American countries have told the US Government to butt out of their affairs when government intervention into our affairs are exactly what we all complain about.
Central America has opened the doors to ex-pats and ex-pat businesses. What it has not opened its doors to though, is doing things the U.S. American way. Those who thrive best in the Latin American countries are those who have not only accepted; but absorbed the culture. The ex-pat communities of retirees will eventually stagnate; even die out; as retirement communities have a habit of doing. Businesses centered mainly around ex-pats and tourism will remain just that, little islands of English speaking colonies that have never tasted the full flavor of Latin America. They may or may not be affected by changes in government and policy. Those, however, who have chunked the Monroe Doctrine out the door and embraced Central America as their home land have a wonderful, exciting future as a citizen of an emerging country.