Kerry declares end of Monroe Doctrine: Is it for real?

In 1897, American humorist Mark Twain, correcting an erroneous news report that he had died, said, “Reports of my death have been exaggerated.” Likewise, a recent declaration of the death of the Monroe Doctrine is not borne out by the facts, thus far.

The famous doctrine was declared by President James Monroe on December 2 1823, in the context of the independence wars of the former Spanish and Portuguese colonies in Central and South America. It basically asserted the new United States had vested interests in the countries of the region, replacing European nations as the dominant powers.

The statement that the Monroe Doctrine is now defunct came from Secretary of State John Kerry, who, speaking to a meeting of the Organization of American States on Nov. 18, is quoted as saying:

“The doctrine that bears (Monroe’s) name asserted our authority to step in and oppose the influence of European powers in Latin America … Today, however, we have made a different choice. The era of the Monroe Doctrine is over.”

President Monroe, in his 1823 declaration, said, “[We] declare that we should consider any attempt on [the part of European powers] to extend their system to any part of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and security. With the existing colonies and dependencies of any European power we have not interfered and shall not interfere. But with the governments that have declared their independence and maintained it, and whose independence we have, on great consideration and on just principles, acknowledged, we could not view any interposition for the purpose of oppressing them, or controlling in any other manner their destiny, by any European power in any light other than as the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition to the United States”.

At the time, the anti-colonial liberation forces in Latin Americas were at first cheered by this. But in there were already storm clouds on the horizon. The United States, at the insistence of Southern slave owners like Monroe, had refused to recognize the independence of Haiti, because it had a Black government formed by rebel slaves. Plans were already being discussed for taking over Cuba, still a Spanish colony at that time. In fact the only major occasion in which the United States employed the threat implied in the Monroe Doctrine to the benefit of a Latin American nation and people was when, after the U.S. Civil War, the U.S. successfully pressured France to withdraw its army from Mexico.

In the late 19th century, U.S. interventionism in Latin American affairs grew more blatant, with unsuccessful attempts to buy the Dominican Republic, and a self-interested intervention in Cuba’s independence war.

In 1904, President Theodore Roosevelt, commenting on a crisis that had Germany and other European powers threatening Venezuela because of non-payment of debts, pronounced the “Roosevelt Corollary” of the Monroe Doctrine. Roosevelt “reasoned” that if the United States had to exert itself to stop European intervention in Latin America, it also had the right to intervene in Latin America to prevent actions of Latin American governments that might provoke such European interventions.

Through the first third of the 20th century, there were multiple U.S. interventions in Latin American countries, leading to vast abuses of rights of their citizens and entrenchment of U.S. corporate interests. Thus the Monroe Doctrine came to be deeply resented regionally, not as a U.S. policy to protect hemispheric neighbors against European imperialism, but as a mainstay of U.S. imperialism.

Some of us were taught in school that the Monroe Doctrine was a great thing and many people in the United States actually think it is part of international law. But throughout Latin America and the Caribbean it is hated as an oppressive mechanism whereby the U.S. claims the unilateral right to limit the national sovereignty of area nations.

Nothing is seen as more clearly epitomizing the negative aspects of the Monroe Doctrine than U.S. hostility to Cuba. Under U.S. laws that have nothing to do with international law (the Trading with the Enemy Act, the Torricelli Act and the Helms-Burton Act), the U.S. still claims the right not only to punish the Cuban people for choosing socialism with trade sanctions, but also to punish other sovereign nations and their citizens for trading with Cuba. In response to the recent 188-to-2 (with three abstentions) vote in the United Nations Security Council condemning U.S. Cuba policy, the U.S. representative declared that the U.S. would keep up the policy until Cuba moved toward capitalism.

But does Kerry’s stated demise of the Monroe Doctrine augur a change in U.S. policy toward Cuba? This was asked at a press conference; the official response was vague and convoluted.

One thing is clear: To get a new policy toward Cuba and the hemisphere, we can’t rely on bland State Department pronouncements; we have to fight for it.

Image: Newspaper cartoon from 1912 about the Monroe Doctrine. Wikimedia Commons



Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.