‘A New Alliance of the Americas’? Reflections of 1961 for Obama in 2008

In 2008, as the new regional dynamic of the Left continues to develop, now most often from within the seats of national power, the political rhetoric of re-engaging the region could end up looking a lot like the largely failed attempts at "paying attention" to Latin America through economic assistance programs, the Alliance for Progress of the 1960s being the prototype. Or worse yet, "paying attention" could transform itself into a replay of the bloody 1980s.

Only steps away from Uruguay’s most chic seaside destination, Punta del Este, lies another community likely never seen by the hundreds of thousands of tourists who visit the resort town each year. Built during the Uruguayan construction boom of the 1970s and 1980s, Barrio Kennedy is a precarious shantytown settlement,(1) whose name and condition embody the social aspirations of shared growth, largely unrealized, of a United States president who entered office in 1961 and sought to stem the affects of the Cuban Revolution by using U.S. economic development assistance to reinvigorate broader U.S.-Latin American relations.

In his unveiling of an "Alliance for Progress" to Congress in March of that year, President John F. Kennedy argued that "if we are not willing to commit our resources and our energies to the work of social progress and economic development, we will find ourselves with a serious danger that desperate peoples turn to communism and other forms of tyranny as their only hope for change. Well organized, capable, and strongly financed forces are constantly pressuring them to continue down this path."(2) In August, the Charter of Punta del Este would be signed by representatives from around Latin America, with the notable absence of Cuba, beginning Kennedy’s bold vision of a largely U.S-funded, anti-communist assistance program for development within the Americas.

Nearly 40 years later, much has changed. Internationally, the Cold War, which predicated Kennedy’s plan for a new union of cooperation in the Americas, now seems to be distant history. Nationally, Uruguay, like much of Latin America, is also experiencing a moment of relatively high growth, in contrast to the stagnation of the 1960s. Moreover, this growth is now predominantly directed by governments who brand themselves as part of a new unified, yet diverse, regional ‘Left.’

Nonetheless, at the same time much remains the same. Social inequality on the continent remains among the highest in the world, forcing questions of alternative economic and social development to remain center-stage. Regional solidarity has entailed a renewed emphasis on integration of Latin America through a variety of initiatives. And now such developments are transpiring in the midst of what the current United States administration and its followers have dubbed the next transcendent global struggle our age—a rhetoric often too reminiscent of the Cold War past, this time against a growing list of so-called fundamentalisms, "rouge terrorists," and those whose actions simply disrupt the current balance of global power and stability.

ImageAll of this defines part of foreign relations in the present, added with the fact that the next great hope for a "changed" U.S. foreign policy, Senator Barack Obama, appears to have a plan for Latin America, a "new alliance of the Americas" as he has called it, whose presumptions and prescriptions reflect those of another inspiring young candidate in the early1960s.

It is worth revisiting that period to examine what came of the last ambitious project of U.S.-financed economic development—a memory that today is paradoxically brandished in the naming of shantytowns on the outskirts of the lavish city in Uruguay where Kennedy’s plan was launched and first implemented.

An Alliance for Progress: Reflections from Uruguay Circa 1960

Reactions to the prospects of a Kennedy presidency in 1960 were met with mixed feelings of anticipation and skepticism in the region, particularly within sectors of the new political ‘Left.’

"A breath of fresh air that reminds one of the brilliant promises of the New Deal of Roosevelt in 1933," wrote a columnist in 1960 for Marcha, the weekly newspaper of a nascent, pluralistic left in Uruguay, adding, "the bankers, conservative businessmen, the generals and retired admirals, all the old, fatigued practitioners of the Eisenhower era, are packing their bags. In their place are installed young and brilliant university professors."

However, rejecting the paternalistic aspects of Kennedy’s proposal, another columnist in the same weekly cautioned that the "affirmation of democracy in the South ought to be the result of our own work. It is in our own hands and not in the eventual results of the elections of the grand country of the North where our destiny is located."

In this context of hope and apprehension, the Alliance for Progress would be signed, and Uruguay would become its first test-case via the partially Alliance-financed Commission for Investment and Economic Development (CIDE). The Kennedy Administration envisioned the Alliance, and the web of national development projects that were to be launched from its initiation, as a bulwark against further Communist encroachments in Latin America and in line with a history of grand revolutions which the two Americas supposedly shared.

The Uruguayan ambassador to the Organization of American States, Carlos Clulow, for one, would echo this last point, maintaining at the August 1961 Punta del Este conference that "the transformations that signal the grand moments of history for the Americas have always been produced by revolutionary ways."

But was this notion of a singular narrative, shared history, and a common revolutionary spirit at odds with the new alignment of social forces in contraposition to their northern neighbor? Was it the yearning for the ideal of Pan-America, first outlined in the late 1950s by Brazilian president Juscelino Kubitschek–or, rather, a unified Latin America–which marked the transnationalism of the day, particularly within a "new" Left and its adherents?

In Uruguay, the United States would very soon see preliminary answers to these rising doubts.

The Alliance-financed CIDE would carry out the first economic diagnostic in Uruguay’s history and issue volumes of proposals through the first half of the 1960s, outlining necessary structural reforms in nearly every sector of the economy. The project’s reports, largely inspired by structuralist Latin American thought of Raúl Prebisch and the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL), were to put the Uruguayan economy on new footing and jumpstart social and economic growth. However, while marketed as a "middle way" alternative to exhausted import-substitution industrialization and the neoliberal model which would engulf the region in later years, these recommendations largely fell upon deaf ears.

CIDE was overtaken by political and social changes sweeping through the region and appeared to be ignored by both a Left and Right who depicted one another as little more than pawns of the two respective empires of the day—the United States or the Soviet Union . As these opposing forces fell inside the two dueling global narratives—capitalist democracy vs. real socialism—CIDE, as a comprehensive alternative, regional in origin, had trouble finding a constituency. The complexity of national developments was suffocated by a bi-polar international struggle, emitted outwards from the United States and the Soviet Union to all corners of the periphery. The breakdown of traditional political party legitimacy, a persistent national economic crisis, a newly mobilized labor movement, the formation of right-wing anti-communist death squads, and the arrival of armed guerrilla groups were all national mirrors of a changing regional reality. However, rather than understood within the historical processes that marked the development of Latin America, such happenings were too often forced into the binaries of the Cold War.

An anti-communist Pan-America built upon the universality of economic development was proving itself distinct from the region called Latin America, unified in that moment in its popular determination to construct an endogenous path to national and regional development but lacking the necessary political space to do so.

Latin America vs. Pan America: The Sequel?

Fast forward to the year 2008. As has happened in nearly every election year since 1960, presidential candidates turn toward Latin America, pledging to end the neglect that marked US-Latin American relations in a prior presidency. Thus far, little appears to be out of its natural order in 2008.

In his first Latin America policy speech in May, Senator Obama followed this script and argued that George Bush had pledged to make Latin America a ”fundamental commitment’". Yet, Obama maintained that, "almost eight years later, those high hopes have been dashed."

John McCain’s foreign policy advisor Randy Scheunemann countered, arguing Obama’s Latin American policy prescriptions are just more uniformed, lofty rhetoric. "It’s very hard to argue you’re going to pay more attention to a region you’ve never bothered to visit," Scheunemann was quoted as saying in the Washington Post, arguing, without irony, that McCain has been to foreign policy backwaters like the Amazon rain forest and the Galapagos Islands. Thus, Scheunemann asserted, "for him (McCain), the relationship with our southern neighbors is not just a series of briefings by an outside policy adviser because he needed to have a policy position on Latin America."

At the same time, the liberal establishment Council on Foreign Relations, in the midst of presidential politicking, recently issued its comprehensive assessment of and recommendations for U.S. policy toward the region in the coming era. The report’s authors write there is hope for a changed relationship if the United States truly begins to "engage Latin America on its own terms."

The report argues that over 150 years of the Monroe Doctrine interventionism on the part of the United States, has "over the last two decades, become increasingly obsolete…," and so "U.S. policy can no longer be based on the assumption that the United States is the most important outside actor in Latin America. If there was an era of U.S. hegemony in Latin America, it is over," the Council maintains.

Intelligent advice, but as historian Greg Grandin has written, similar rhetoric about the end of Monroe Doctrine came out of the 1970’s and the post-Vietnam period of national reflection. However, what followed, namely the U.S.-sponsored dirty wars of the 1980s in Central America, was little less than more of the same.

Reasserting Autonomy: Latin Americanism in the 21st Century

In 2008, as the new regional dynamic of the Left continues to develop, now most often from within the seats of national power, the political rhetoric of re-engaging the region could end up looking a lot like the largely failed attempts at "paying attention" to Latin America through economic assistance programs, the Alliance for Progress of the 1960s being the prototype. Or worse yet, "paying attention" could transform itself into a replay of the bloody 1980s to which Grandin alludes.

If the principle of engaging the region on its own terms does not remain the central tenant of United States foreign policy toward the region, unwanted and unwarranted intervention will remain a looming fear.

Democratically elected governments now lead every nation in the region, outside of Cuba, and their decisions, no matter how disagreeable to the United States, ought to be respected. More often than not, the positions of new Latin American governments of late—which would determine the issues around which the United States would engage with Latin America—have tended towards both increased autonomy vis a vis the United States, and increased regional unity through economic initiatives like the Venezuela-inspired Bank of the South, the new Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), or even the recent Brazilian proposal of a common defense council of the South .

Further, the entrance of new regional partners for Latin American countries, such as Russia and China, is illustrative of a region whose global aspirations are moving away from their historical dependence on the North. Such happenings should not be interpreted as requiring the United States to re-assertively force itself upon the region, but rather as paradigmatic of a region who is being allowed to exercise its newly found, and ever-evolving, democratic autonomy.

This is a positive development and one that should not be stunted by the U.S. due to the economic or social results procured by the experiments of democracy. Now is the time when conversation and cooperation can finally be disaggregated from a history of coercion, which many in Latin America unfortunately see as central to the past relationship of the two Americas.

Whose Revolutionaries? Understanding and Respecting the South

Barack Obama, who has proven to inspire international fanfare around the globe, must heed such positive long-term democratic developments in the region, rejecting coercive methods in favor of dialogue on the region’s own terms. This alone would be a marked change in United States policy toward the region. But, he, or whoever the next president is, must be careful not to force himself upon those who may desire little more than symbolic inspiration from the North.

In his May Latin America policy unveiling, Obama ended by attempting to link the common cause and history of Americas, from North to South, with a reference to the Cuban revolutionary poet, José Martí. "It is not enough to come to the defense of freedom with epic and intermittent efforts when it is threatened at moments that appear critical. Every moment is critical for the defense of freedom," Obama quoted.

At the signing of the Alliance for Progress agreement in Punta del Este, Uruguay, in 1961, United States delegate and then-Treasury Secretary, Douglas Dillon, attempted to use a similar rhetorical tactic to link North and South, also employing Martí as his regional figure of reference. "It was a great American, José Martí, who reminded us that: ‘We Americans are one in origin, in hope, and in danger,’" Dillon began.

Following Dillon’s discourse, Cuban delegate Ernesto "Che" Guevara would be given the floor, refuting the American delegate’s words while "answering Martí with Martí." But, in the words of Guevara, he would counter the American delegate’s quotation by citing "the anti-imperialist, anti-feudal Martí who died facing bullets of the Spanish, fighting for freedom for his fatherland and trying to prevent, with the freedom of Cuba, that the United States not engulf Latin America…"

The process of radical change, revolutionary or otherwise, is never implemented upon a blank page, nor is it realized simply through a rhetoric that attempts to transcend all particularities of a nation or region’s evolution. That was the lesson learned in the 1960s.

The unique struggles and history of a cultural and social bloc called Latin America–for which Martí’s actions, more than simply his words, were symbolic–continue to evolve, most often as a notion distinct from that of "Pan America." Understanding and respecting this fact is central to any about-face in US-Latin American relations.

If not, the potential for the next United States president to revolutionize United States-Latin American relations could be relegated to the paradoxical position of high hopes and lofty rhetoric, transformed once again into social development shortcomings and new rounds of political violence.

Joshua Frens-String, a freelance writer, currently lives and studies in Montevideo, Uruguay, where he is a Fulbright Research Scholar.

1 See Raul Zibechi, "Entre la exclusion y la opulencia" in Brecha. Montevideo, Uruguay. 6 June 2008.

2 Translations, from Spanish to English, of texts in Spanish are of this author.