The influence of the United States on Latin American political systems

How the American Revolution, the Monroe Doctrine, and the Roosevelt Corollary shaped democracy in Latin America

The influence of the United States in Latin American affairs can be broken into three broad chronological stages: its early history from revolution to stability; its position as a regional power in the nineteenth-century; and its rise as a global power in the twentieth-century.

During the first stage, for perhaps its first fifty years, the United States was far from the centre of power and it had little direct influence outside its borders. Its stature grew during the second stage — from around 1820 onwards — as the country gained people, land, money, and confidence. In the final stage, from the turn of the twentieth-century onwards, the United States began to practise direct intervention around the world as it grew into the military, political, and economic superpower we see today.

We can think of each of these stages as having a defining event in relation to Latin America and its political systems: the first stage saw the American revolution, the second the declaration of the Monroe Doctrine, and the third the addition of the Roosevelt Corollary.

In the first stage the European colonies of Latin America watched as the United States was born out of revolution. In this period, the United States had a small and indirect influence on Latin America when it showed not only that revolution could be successful in removing imperial power but that it was also possible to flourish in the long-term without falling back into Europe’s arms. The United States proved that an independent nation-state could prosper in the Americas. This surely had an immense effect on the nascent independence movements of Latin America: self-government was a valid political system on the continent.

The second stage was ushered in by the Monroe Doctrine of 1823. At the time the United States took a favourable view of the Latin American independence movements — it was the first country to recognise an independent Brazil — and the then-president of the United States, James Monroe, decreed that the Americas should ‘henceforth not be considered as subjects for future colonisation by any European powers’ and that the United States ‘shall not interfere’ with the existing colonies and newly-independent nations.

As in the first stage, the influence here was indirect. Latin American leaders like Simón Bolívar knew that the United States could not offer military support, but it did give weight to the argument that Latin American states had the right to self-government and self-determination. The influence here was that Latin America had the right to choose its own political systems. Many chose to follow the United States in creating a republican government with an emphasis on the separation of powers.

Latin America saw indirect influence become direct influence in the third stage, beginning with Theodore Roosevelt’s supplement to the Monroe Doctrine, the Roosevelt Corollary. This stated that the United States should exercise military force in Latin America to keep it free of European influence. An early example of this, although starting before the Roosevelt Corollary was set forth, was Cuba’s period as a United States protectorate — after Spain relinquished its claim of sovereignty — from 1898. When Cuba gained independence four years later, the right of the United States to intervene in Cuban affairs was specifically written into the new country’s constitution. Twentieth-century Latin America saw military interventions a further twenty-three times in Cuba (1906–9, 1912, 1917, 1961), the Dominican Republic (1905, 1916–24, 1965), Guatemala (1954), Honduras (six times between 1911 and 1925), Mexico (1914, 1916–17), Nicaragua (1912–25, 1927–33, 1981–90), Panama (1903, 1989), and Haiti (1915–34, 1994).

The United States also used its secret services heavily throughout Latin America, as typified by its involvement in the overthrow of Chile’s first democratically-elected government and its replacement by Pinochet’s military dictatorship in 1973. In this we see the United States abandon its early support of Latin American democracy and its promise of non-involvement replaced with a policy of both direct involvement and putting its own interests before that of Latin America’s.

This was originally submitted as an essay for Latin American Culture, a course provided by the Tecnológico de Monterrey on Coursera.