U.S. Policies Towards Latin America: A Historical Analysis

U.S. Policies Towards Latin America: A Historical Analysis

U.S. Policies Towards Latin America: A Historical Analysis


The relationship between the United States and Latin America has been a complex and multifaceted one, marked by a history of shifting policies and their profound impact on the nations of the region. This essay aims to delve into the historical evolution of U.S. policies towards Latin America, providing a comprehensive analysis of key moments, ideologies, and consequences.

Latin America, with its rich cultural diversity and abundant natural resources, has long been a focal point of U.S. foreign policy. From the early 19th century to the present day, the United States has pursued a range of objectives in the region, including territorial expansion, economic interests, ideological battles, and security concerns.

This essay will trace the historical trajectory of U.S. involvement in Latin America, examining how early interactions, such as the Monroe Doctrine and territorial expansion, laid the foundation for subsequent policies. It will also explore how the Cold War era shaped U.S. interventionism in the region, with a focus on key countries like Guatemala, Chile, and Nicaragua.

Early U.S. Interactions with Latin America

During the early 19th century, the United States began to assert its influence in Latin America through various means. One of the most significant developments was the Monroe Doctrine, articulated by President James Monroe in 1823. This doctrine declared that the Western Hemisphere was off-limits to European colonization and that any attempt by European powers to interfere in the affairs of newly independent Latin American nations would be seen as a threat to the United States.

The Monroe Doctrine laid the groundwork for U.S. hegemony in the Western Hemisphere and signaled a commitment to protecting and expanding American interests in the region. It was, in many ways, a reflection of the growing sense of American exceptionalism and a desire to secure territory and resources.

Manifest Destiny, another influential concept of the time, fueled westward expansion and territorial acquisition. The belief that it was America’s destiny to stretch from coast to coast drove the annexation of Texas, the Mexican-American War, and the acquisition of vast territories such as California, New Mexico, and Arizona. These actions not only expanded the United States but also brought it into closer proximity with Latin American nations.

Furthermore, the United States was not a passive observer of Latin American conflicts during this period. U.S. involvement in wars and disputes in the region, such as the Spanish-American War and the Mexican Revolution, showcased its growing influence and its willingness to use military force to protect its interests.

The Era of Dollar Diplomacy

As the 19th century transitioned into the 20th century, U.S. policy towards Latin America took on a new dimension with the advent of Dollar Diplomacy. This policy, often associated with President William Howard Taft’s administration, sought to advance American economic interests in the region through diplomatic means.

Under Dollar Diplomacy, the United States aimed to encourage American businesses to invest in Latin American infrastructure and industries. This was done with the belief that by exerting economic influence, the U.S. could maintain stability and prevent European nations from gaining a foothold in the region. American banks and corporations became instrumental in funding projects such as railways, ports, and mining operations.

While Dollar Diplomacy was portrayed as a means of promoting economic development in Latin America, it often had adverse effects. Critics argued that it amounted to economic imperialism, as U.S. financial interests sometimes took precedence over the sovereignty and well-being of Latin American nations. This tension between economic interests and national sovereignty would be a recurring theme in U.S.-Latin American relations.

The Cold War and U.S. Interventionism

The onset of the Cold War in the mid-20th century brought a new dimension to U.S. policies in Latin America. The ideological struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union led to a heightened focus on containing the spread of communism worldwide. In Latin America, this translated into a policy of active interventionism.

During this period, the United States supported a series of anti-communist regimes in Latin America, often at the expense of democratic processes. Notable cases include the 1954 overthrow of the democratically elected president of Guatemala, Jacobo Árbenz, by a U.S.-backed coup. Árbenz’s land reforms were seen as a communist threat, leading to U.S. support for the coup and the installation of a pro-American regime under Carlos Castillo Armas.

Similar interventions occurred in countries like Chile and Nicaragua. In Chile, the CIA played a role in the overthrow of President Salvador Allende in 1973, leading to the rise of General Augusto Pinochet. In Nicaragua, U.S. support for the Contras in the 1980s fueled a civil war against the leftist Sandinista government.

These interventions, while framed as anti-communist measures, often resulted in human rights abuses and political instability in Latin America. The Cold War era left a legacy of mistrust and resentment in the region, as many Latin American nations felt that their sovereignty had been undermined by U.S. interference.

The Rise of Neoliberalism and Economic Policies

During the latter half of the 20th century, Latin America witnessed a significant shift in economic policies with the rise of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism, influenced by Western economic thought, advocated for free-market capitalism, deregulation, and reduced government intervention in the economy.

The Washington Consensus, a set of policy prescriptions, became a cornerstone of U.S. economic engagement in Latin America. This consensus encouraged Latin American governments to adopt market-oriented reforms, privatize state-owned enterprises, and open their economies to foreign investment. Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs), often imposed as conditions for loans from international financial institutions, led to drastic austerity measures and social spending cuts in many Latin American countries.

While proponents argued that these policies would stimulate economic growth and attract foreign investment, critics pointed to their negative consequences. Neoliberal reforms often exacerbated income inequality, weakened labor rights, and left vulnerable populations without adequate social safety nets. The impacts of these economic policies would continue to shape the economic landscape and political discourse in Latin America.

Human Rights Violations and U.S. Support

During various periods in Latin American history, U.S. support for authoritarian regimes led to severe human rights violations. The pursuit of anti-communist goals often resulted in alliances with governments that engaged in repression and violence against their own citizens.

For example, in the 1970s and 1980s, the United States supported military dictatorships in countries like Argentina, where the “Dirty War” resulted in the disappearance and torture of thousands of dissidents. Similarly, in El Salvador and Honduras, U.S. military aid and training were provided to governments accused of human rights abuses and extrajudicial killings.

The U.S. response to these allegations of complicity in human rights violations varied, with some officials defending the regimes as bulwarks against communism, while others called for greater scrutiny and accountability. These actions raised ethical and moral questions about the United States’ role in supporting governments that violated basic human rights, leaving a lasting legacy of distrust in Latin American nations.

Shifts in U.S. Policies: The Post-Cold War Era

With the end of the Cold War, U.S. policies towards Latin America underwent significant changes. The collapse of the Soviet Union reshaped the global geopolitical landscape, and the United States began to reevaluate its priorities in the region.

One of the key shifts during this period was the promotion of democracy and human rights. The United States actively supported the transition to democracy in many Latin American countries, emphasizing the importance of free and fair elections. Trade agreements, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), sought to strengthen economic ties between the United States and its southern neighbors.

However, challenges remained. The legacy of past interventions and the perception of U.S. influence continued to strain relations with some Latin American nations. Additionally, economic disparities persisted, and issues like drug trafficking and immigration became prominent concerns. The post-Cold War era marked a period of both cooperation and contention in U.S.-Latin American relations.

The Contemporary Landscape

Today, the relationship between the United States and Latin America is characterized by a complex interplay of political, economic, and social factors. Diplomatic ties have evolved, with a focus on addressing shared challenges such as climate change, transnational crime, and economic development.

U.S. immigration policies have garnered significant attention, particularly with regard to Latin American migrants. Debates over border security, DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), and immigration reform have had profound implications for both sides of the border.

Drug trafficking remains a persistent issue, leading to ongoing cooperation between the U.S. and Latin American nations in counternarcotics efforts. Additionally, trade relationships continue to shape the economic landscape, with trade agreements and partnerships affecting industries and livelihoods on both sides.


In conclusion, the historical analysis of U.S. policies towards Latin America reveals a complex and often tumultuous relationship. From the early 19th century to the present day, U.S. interactions with Latin American nations have been shaped by a variety of factors, including economic interests, ideological battles, and geopolitical considerations.

Throughout this essay, we have explored key moments in this relationship, from the Monroe Doctrine and Dollar Diplomacy to the Cold War interventions and the rise of neoliberal economic policies. We have also examined the human rights violations associated with U.S. support for authoritarian regimes.

While the post-Cold War era brought about shifts in U.S. policies, challenges and controversies persist in the contemporary landscape. The history of U.S. engagement with Latin America serves as a reminder of the complexities and consequences of foreign policy decisions.

As the United States continues to navigate its relationship with its southern neighbors, it faces the ongoing task of balancing its interests with the aspirations and sovereignty of Latin American nations. The lessons of history provide valuable insights for shaping a more equitable and cooperative future between the United States and Latin America.

Class Outline and Notes – United States Policies to Latin America

The Monroe Doctrine

During the early 19th century, the inhabitants of Spain’s colonies in Latin America revolted and began a series of wars for independence.

In 1823, President Monroe was faced with two threats of foreign intervention in the Western Hemisphere. Both threats were organized from several of the great European powers such as Austria, France, Prussia and Russia. To combat such foreign intervention, President Monroe issued the following policy now known as the Monroe Doctrine.

It included the following points:

1. The Western Hemisphere was closed to further European colonization.

2. U.S. would not interfere with the existing colonies of Europeans.

3. The U.S. would not interfere in the internal affairs of any Europeans.

4. Any attempt by the European powers to intervene in the Western Hemisphere would be regarded as “dangerous to our (U.S..) peace and safety.

U.S. Latin American Relations (1845-1933)

1. Since 1900, U.S. invades Cuba 4 times. It proclaims it has the right to go into Cuba to preserve Cuban independence. The US justified it’s actions because it had inserted the “Platt Amendment” into the the Cuban Constitution after the Spanish American War.

2. President Theodore Roosevelt convinces Great Britain, Germany and Italy not to invade Venezuela in 1902, to collect debts owed to them by the Venezuelan government. Instead they submit the matter for international settlement. This was part of America’s “Dollar Diplomacy.”

3. 1903–the U.S. provokes Panama to revolt against Colombia, and the U.S. warships blockade Colombia to prevent the country from putting down the revolution. As a result the US gained the Panama Canal Zone.

4. 1904–T. Roosevelt claims the U.S. is the “Policeman of the Western Hemisphere” and can intervene in the affairs of any nation in the hemisphere if it affects the U.S. THIS BECAME KNOWN AS THE ROOSEVELT COROLLARY (ADDITION) TO THE MONROE DOCTRINE. Roosevelt says the US should “Speak softly but carry a big stick.” He then sends the US “Great White Fleet” on an around the world cruise to show of its power.

5. 1905-1933–American Marines maintain order and control over Nicaragua, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. They also protect U.S. investments in most of Latin America. This was also part of America’s “Dollar Diplomacy.”

6. Good Neighbor Policy 1933

President Franklin Roosevelt and his Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, labored to win Latin American good will by a following policy that included the following objectives:

Friendship–respecting the rights of others. Americans hoped to overcome the hostility that many Latin Americans felt toward the U.S.

Trade–with the U.S. in the midst of the Great Depression, American hoped to increase trade with Latin American and spur economic recovery.


1853 – Commodore Matthew Perry leads an armed expedition to Japan. The Japanese, a xenophobic nation, has traditionally been isolated and closed to foreigners. It is Perry’s goal to “open” Japan.

1905 – Newly industrialized Japan takes on and defeats Russian in the Russo Japanese War thus signaling the arrival of Japan as a world power. President Theodore Roosevelt successfully mediates the end to the Russo Japanese War. He wins the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1906 for his efforts


1838 – 1842 – After China fails in the Opium Wars to end European sale of opium (drugs) to its citizens they are forced to open ports to foreign trade and extend special rights to the citizens of other nations that they would not ordinarily offer. Each nation received these extra rights in an area they would control known as a sphere of influence. America received these rights along with other nations.

1899 – America suggests an Open Door Policy for China. The effect of the Open Door Policy was to open China up for trade and end the policy of spheres of influence allowing competition.