U.S. Foreign Policy: The Caribbean Basin
by Robert A. Pastor*
Scholars of inter-American relations have devoted considerable efforts to try to locate
the motive for U.S. involvement in the internal affairs of its neighbors. Instead of a
single answer, they have amassed a collection of explanations that range from security
(keep out rivals, maintain stability), political/ideological (promote democracy, prevent
Communism or "alien" ideologies), economic (imperialism, access to investment or
trade), to psychological (an impulse to dominate, a fear of insecurity, misperception). A
particular explanation might be cogent for a case, but in trying to understand what moves
the United States over time, one needs to look for patterns in the history of U.S.
relations with the region.
One pattern is the way in which U.S. attention to the region has fluctuated between
obsession and disinterest. I have referred to this pattern as a "whirlpool," a whirling eddy, which occasionally sucks the United States into a
vortex of crisis where it becomes preoccupied by small neighbors or their leaders. U.S.
presidents react to these crises with security, political, and economic programs that have
their historical antecedents even if the policymakers of the time are not aware of them.
Then, almost as suddenly, U.S. interest and resources shift away from the region, and many
Americans can hardly recall either their nemesis or the reason for their intervention.
Americans then feel they have escaped the whirlpool, but history suggests that they are on
the rim, only to be pulled into the vortex with the next crisis.
Although the history of U.S. relations with the Caribbean Basin is replete with
examples of America's drive to extract resources, uproot "alien" ideologies,
implant a political philosophy, or prescribe an economic orthodoxy, this whirlpool pattern
suggests that the dominant motive over time has been U.S. security. The United States has
been motivated not so much to control the region but to keep things from veering out of
control where they could be exploited by others viewed as hostile. The line separating a
policy of control and a need to keep things from veering out of control is not always easy
to locate, but the moment to look would be after the passing of a crisis. If the U.S.
motive was to control the nation, it would retain a military presence after the crisis; if
the U.S. wanted just to keep rivals out, then it would withdraw after the crisis, as it
has usually done in the Caribbean Basin.
The nations in the Caribbean Basin are too small and poor to merit an acquisitive
policy or to constitute a direct threat to the United States; the threat that has moved
the United States was that more powerful adversaries from Europe or Asia could forge a
relationship with a small nation that would permit it to be used as a base to attack or
harass the United States or its neighbors. When the threat diminishes, U.S. interest
diminishes. That accounts for the apparent cycle between preoccupation at moments of
intense geopolitical rivalry and neglect at times of geopolitical calm.
The end of the Cold War raises, once again, the question as to whether the United
States has escaped the whirlpool of unproductive relations or whether it is just at its
rim. Interest in the region has declined, but is it permanent? That question can only be
addressed satisfactorily after we review the history of U.S. policy toward the Caribbean
Basin and examine the changes that have occurred in the last two decades.
A Survey Of U.S. Policy
U.S. foreign policy toward the Caribbean Basin has been the sum of the answers to
questions as to whether the United States ought to have a "special relationship"
with the region and what that means; questions of how to preclude instability, discourage
foreign penetration, defeat anti-American revolutionaries, promote peaceful political
change, foment economic development, defend human rights, reinforce democracy, gain
respect for U.S. investment, the American flag, and U.S. citizens, and maintain good
relations with our neighbors. Answers to these questions have differed from one
administration to the next, and particularly when there is a change in the party in power.
But the differences have never been as much as the administration claims at its beginning,
nor as little as it suggests when its power is waning or its policy is wanting, and it
seeks strength by asserting continuity or bipartisanship. Nonetheless, in identifying the
threads of continuity that have tied presidents as different as Carter and Reagan, one can
better appreciate the elusive concept, "national interest." In discerning the
changes in policy toward similar problems, we might better establish the boundaries of
In the twentieth century, U.S. foreign policy toward the Caribbean Basin can be divided
into four periods: (1) the protectorate era, 1898-1933; (2) the Good Neighbor Policy,
1933-1953; (3) the Cold War, 1953-1990; and (4) the post-Cold War era.
The Protectorate Era
The United States has always been of two minds--realistic and idealistic--on how to
relate to the Caribbean Basin. It has aimed to prevent foreign rivals from getting a
foothold, but it has also sought ways to embody its idealism in policy. The tension
between these two sides was captured in two Congressional amendments passed within three
years of the other. The Teller Amendment to the Declaration of War against Spain in 1898
declared that the United States would not annex Cuba, the main prize of the war. In an age
of imperialism, this was an unusual act of self-denial, and some leaders, notably Theodore
Roosevelt, took pride in the amendment as proof that U.S. motives were different and purer
than those of Europe.
The Platt Amendment was passed in 1901 to grant the United States rights to intervene
in Cuba's internal affairs to protect lives and property and preserve Cuban independence.
This amendment not only appears self-contradictory--how can U.S. intervention preserve
Cuban independence?--but it also appears to negate the Teller Amendment. In actuality, the
amendments represented the two sides of the American perspective on Cuba and, more
broadly, the Caribbean area. The United States wanted Cuba to be free, but it feared that
too much freedom could cause instability and foreign--i.e., non-U.S.--intervention, and so
it imposed limits.
Those limits were enunciated in President Theodore Roosevelt's "Corollary to the
Monroe Doctrine," a message to Congress in December 1904. Roosevelt wrote that
"chronic wrongdoing, or an impotence which results in a general loosening of ties of
civilized society . . . may force the United States, however, reluctantly . . . to the
exercise of an international police power." Just three years before, Roosevelt
allowed three European governments to intervene to collect debts from Venezuela provided
no territory was acquired. His position changed for three reasons: the American public
reacted very negatively to the European bombing of a fellow American republic; in 1903,
the United States signed a treaty to build a Canal in Panama; and in 1904, the country
with a debt problem was the Dominican Republic--a lot closer than Venezuela--and the
Germans were the ones that wanted to collect the debt.
The construction of the Panama Canal--with an investment equivalent to one-third of the
U.S. budget in 1914--was a sign of U.S. expansion and a motive for widening its arc of
defense. U.S. presidents became preoccupied with protecting this strategic asset from the
region's instability and other foreign powers--to the extent that some historians referred
to our entire policy toward the Caribbean Basin as "the Panama policy."
Still, there were many different ways to defend the Panama Canal and U.S. interests in
Latin America during the 20th century. Theodore Roosevelt and Elihu Root, his secretary of
state, tried to preclude revolution by international treaties. William Howard Taft used
Marines, dollars, and customs receiverships to help the countries remain solvent and
stable. Woodrow Wilson replaced "dollar diplomacy" with the promotion of liberty
but, like his predecessors, he continued to use the Marines. During the protectorate
period, U.S. Marines intervened more than 20 times in the Caribbean area--repeatedly in
Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Panama, Nicaragua, and Mexico.
On the eve of the First World War, U.S. fears of German activities in the region
intensified. On July 29, 1915, President Wilson ordered U.S. Marines to occupy Haiti.
"Though it [the United States] did not need and it did not want such a coaling
station [in Haiti], it could not permit a European government to secure one," wrote a
former secretary of state to a Senate committee investigating the intervention. "The
indications were that Germany intended to obtain one unless she was prevented from doing
so by the United States."
In 1916, the United States occupied the Dominican Republic, and on March 8, 1917, one
month before the United States declared war against Germany, American forces intervened
again to prevent civil war in Cuba. The stated cause of these interventions was
instability in each country, and the purpose was to promote democracy, but the sense of
urgency in the United States related more to events in Europe than in the Caribbean.
If the Spanish-American War heralded the arrival of the United States as the preeminent
power in the Caribbean Basin, then the end of the First World War signaled that the United
States had become the leading power in the world. The European powers, preoccupied with
their own recovery, withdrew or sharply reduced their already limited economic and
diplomatic presence in the Caribbean Basin. No power stood in the way of the United
States. Realist theories would argue that the United States would maintain and expand its
presence in the region and around the world, but the opposite happened. The U.S. Senate
rejected involvement in the international institutions that Woodrow Wilson helped
construct, and the 1920 election confirmed an America yearning for "normalcy"
and isolation. The United States also disengaged gradually from the Caribbean, although
this was also due to interventions in the region proving more costly and less effective.
Just as the interventions tended to follow a similar pattern so too did the exits. The
Marines first helped establish an "apolitical" military guard. Then, with some
difficulty and military assistance, U.S. diplomats supervised elections that legitimized a
government. Most U.S. diplomats recognized the shallowness of the new
"democracies" and the threats that the new armies might try to seize power, but
Washington decided to withdraw the Marines, and with one momentary reversal--in Nicaragua
in 1925--U.S. soldiers went home, beginning in 1921 and ending in 1934.
The Good Neighbor Policy
In an article in Foreign Affairs in 1928, Franklin D. Roosevelt criticized the
interventions of the previous decades: "By what right . . . other than the right of
main force, does the United States arrogate unto itself the privilege of intervening alone
in the internal affairs of another sovereign Republic? . . . Single-handed intervention by
us in the internal affairs of other nations must end." Elected
president four years later, Roosevelt used his inaugural address to repeat his promise to
Latin America to dismantle the old protectorate system and replace it with a new
"good neighbor" policy.
In practice, Roosevelt's policy had three components. First, he
pledged non-intervention in the internal affairs of Latin America. He withdrew the Marines
from the remaining countries in which they were still based and repealed the dreaded Platt
Treaties. Although Secretary of State Cordell Hull's statement on non-intervention at the
Montevideo Conference is often cited as the beginning of the policy, the real test was
passed by Hull and Roosevelt in 1933 when they rejected at three different times the
recommendation of U.S. Ambassador to Havana Sumner Welles to land Marines in Cuba,
allegedly to protect American citizens, but really to control political events. One of the consequences of accepting the principle of
non-intervention, however, was that it removed the principal impediment--the United
States--from the path to power by military dictators like Anastasio Somoza of Nicaragua,
Fulgencio Batista of Cuba, and Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic.
The second element of the policy was freer trade by Reciprocal Trade Agreements. As
Congressman and Senator, Cordell Hull had been a vigorous advocate for free trade for many
years, and he gave it highest priority when appointed secretary of state. With much of the
world divided into trading blocs, the one region with the most countries eligible for such
agreements was Latin America, and, as a result, by 1945, 16 of the 22 bilateral trade
agreements signed by the United States were with hemispheric governments.
The third element of the Good Neighbor Policy was a systematic effort by the United
States to consult with its Latin neighbors. Even before the storm clouds of war gathered
over Europe, Roosevelt and Hull took the inter-American conferences seriously. The
investment paid off when war began. Except Argentina, the region gave virtually complete
support to U.S. war aims.
After Roosevelt died and the war ended, the broad outlines of the Good Neighbor Policy
were maintained by President Harry Truman. Truman made a few changes, e.g., experimenting
briefly with a more active policy to promote democracy and distance the United States from
dictators. The Truman administration also took the lead in establishing a collective
security structure, first in the Rio Pact of 1947, and the next year with the Pact of
Bogota that established the Organization of American States (OAS). These institutions
formalized the consultative process that Roosevelt and Hull had pursued in the pre-war
The Cold War
While some U.S. government officials were concerned about the spread of Communism in
Latin America in the 1940s, the first serious intrusion of the Cold War occurred in
Guatemala where the Eisenhower administration covertly tried to unseat the leftist Arbenz
government in June 1954. As a colonel in the army, Jacobo Arbenz and several of his
colleagues overthrew dictator Jorge Ubico in 1944. A free election brought Juan Jose
Arevalo to power as president, and he undertook a program of reforms that unsettled the
conservative establishment in the country. Arbenz was elected in 1951, and with the
support of the Communist Party, he accelerated reforms into ever more sensitive areas,
including the inequitable land tenure system.
The Truman administration was worried about Communist influence, and at one time the
president had approved a covert plan coordinated by United Fruit Company officials to
overthrow Arbenz. When Secretary of State Dean Acheson learned of the plan, however, he
convinced Truman to drop it. The Eisenhower administration pursued a more vigorous
anti-Communist posture both at home and abroad, and its officials saw the threat more
seriously than its predecessor. The U.S. ambassador urged Arbenz to dismiss Communist
party members from his government. A proud nationalist, who was dependent on the leftists
for ideas and political support, Arbenz refused. The United States
imposed an embargo on arms sales to the regime, and when a shipment of arms sailing to
Guatemala from Eastern Europe was discovered, Eisenhower authorized a covert plan to
overthrow Arbenz. The plan failed, but it catalyzed the Guatemalan military, already
suspicious and alienated from the president, to take action against him.
The coup's significance was the message it conveyed across Latin America that the
United States would not tolerate leftists--even if they came to power by free
election--and that it would work closely with right-wing dictators like Somoza in order to
stop Communism. This had the unfortunate effect of reducing the political space for
democrats, encouraging leftists to revolt, and rightists to suppress any dissent.
Fidel Castro learned another lesson from Guatemala, one that the Central Intelligence
Agency (CIA) Director Allen Dulles did not grasp until the failure of the Bay of Pigs.
After coming to power, Castro replaced the military with his own guerrilla army. Within a
year, the U.S. government began a program aimed at overthrowing or assassinating Castro.
These failed, and Castro consolidated power.
Nonetheless, the fear of "more Cubas" led President Eisenhower and then
Kennedy to propose "Marshall Plan-type" schemes to facilitate the region's
development. After resisting the idea of international commodity agreements and the
establishment of the Inter-American Development Bank, Eisenhower finally accepted both in
his last year in office. Kennedy's bold ten-year, $10 billion foreign aid program to Latin
America, the Alliance for Progress, was aimed to foster development, support social and
land reforms, and reinforce democracy. While it did not achieve its high expectations, it
did energize the region in important ways.
The fear of Communism also led President Kennedy to pursue projects begun in the last
year of the Eisenhower administration to try to remove dictators who were near Cuba and
felt to be vulnerable to Cuban-backed insurgencies. In Haiti, "Papa Doc"
Duvalier outlasted President Kennedy. In the Dominican Republic, CIA-supported
conspirators assassinated Rafael Trujillo in May 1961. Within a year, an election was
held, but the new President Juan Bosch was overthrown seven months later. In April 1965,
civil war broke out as Bosch's followers tried to retake power. President Johnson sent
22,000 soldiers. While the Dominican Republic did not become another Cuba, most scholars
of the intervention conclude that this was never likely; the only outcome with a high
probability was that U.S. intervention would severely damage U.S. relations with Latin
America, as it did.
Within a year of the intervention, and for more than a decade, American attention was
diverted away from the Caribbean to war in Vietnam and the Middle East, and detente with
the Soviet Union. By 1977, however, the United States could no longer ignore the
resentment in Panama over obsolete Canal treaties, and Jimmy Carter took the unpopular
decision of revising those treaties and modernizing U.S. relations with that small
country. Carter also reoriented U.S. relations with the third world
to place a high priority on human rights. The policy impelled dictators to release
thousands of political prisoners in Haiti, Cuba, and elsewhere, and helped consolidate
democracy in the Dominican Republic. An attempt to engage the Cuban government made some
progress, particularly in the release of 3,000 political prisoners, but Cuba's
expansionist ambitions in Africa precluded any further progress in the relationship.
The Carter administration also sought to fill the security vacuum that opened as the
British departed the Caribbean. Beginning in 1962 and continuing through the 1980s, twelve
small English-speaking islands or territories in or on the Caribbean became independent.
The new nations were vulnerable, and Carter responded by launching the Caribbean Group for
Cooperation in Economic Development under the auspices of the World Bank. The Caribbean
Group was composed of 30 nations and 15 international institutions, and within four years
it quadrupled the aid given to the region and coordinated it to encourage integration.
Nonetheless, a leftist coup occurred in 1979, almost by accident, in the small,
English-speaking country of Grenada. The National Security Council met the day after the
coup and decided to reinforce Grenada's uneasy neighbors. When Great Britain and the other
islands decided to recognize the new regime based on its pledge to hold early and free
elections, the United States accepted their approach, but decided to keep a watchful eye
on the regime. Relations soon deteriorated because the regime did
not keep its pledge and imported arms covertly from Cuba, but the Carter policy aimed to
help Grenada's neighbors rather than to try to undermine or overthrow the regime.
The Carter administration anticipated the revolution in Nicaragua, but, despite
considerable efforts, failed to prevent it. The Sandinista guerrillas were viewed by the
administration as Marxists and anti-American, but the Somoza regime was indefensible and,
indeed, was viewed as the cause of the problem. Therefore, the Carter administration first
tried to liberalize the regime; then it mediated differences with the opposition under an
OAS multilateral umbrella. When Somoza rejected the mediation, the Carter administration
The Sandinistas enjoyed widespread support throughout Latin America, and when the
United States in June 1979 tried to gain agreements in the OAS to depose Somoza but
interpose an inter-American peace force, most of the Latin American leaders accepted the
first and rejected the second. Carter decided not to act alone, and the Sandinistas took
power on July 20, 1979. The United States then worked with its friends in the region to
provide aid to the Sandinista regime in the hope of moderating it. This strategy showed
mixed results until the fall of 1980 when the Sandinistas decided to ignore warnings from
Washington and support the leftist insurgency in El Salvador. When this was discovered in
the last days of the Carter administration, the United States suspended economic aid to
The Nicaraguan and Grenadian revolutions were joined in the minds of some Americans
with the Iranian revolution and the taking of American diplomats as hostages, the Soviet
invasion of Afghanistan, and the Soviet-Cuban intervention in Ethiopia. These events
increased America's frustration, and no one articulated the apprehension better than
Ronald Reagan in the 1980 campaign.
The change in policies toward the Caribbean Basin from Carter to Reagan was as dramatic
a shift as the United States had seen between two presidents in the twentieth century.
While the Carter administration started with an interest in promoting economic development
in the Caribbean but eventually returned to a concern for national security, the Reagan
administration, reflecting a more traditional approach, made the same journey in the
opposite direction. But this understates the different points of departure of the two
The Carter administration placed a high priority on multilateral approaches to security
problems and respecting the sovereignty of small nations. President Reagan believed that
the East-West struggle was paramount, and the small nations were important only to the
extent that they were allies or enemies in this wider struggle. Reagan viewed
"instability [as] being inflicted on some countries in the Caribbean by Cuba and the
Soviet Union." As he told the Wall Street Journal in 1980: "The Soviet
Union underlies all the unrest that is going on. If they weren't engaged in this game of
dominoes, there wouldn't be any hot spots in the world."
Reagan adopted a very confrontational approach to Grenada, and in October 1983, when
one faction of the revolutionary government attacked another, he joined with six Caribbean
nations to invade the island, arrest the revolutionaries, and restore a democratic
government to power. The centerpiece of his East-West strategy in the region was his
support for the Salvadoran government and the Nicaraguan contras. As with President
Kennedy, however, Reagan was sensitive to criticism that his anti-Communist strategy
lacked a positive component, and so he fashioned a development program, the Caribbean
Basin Initiative, and institutions, such as the National Endowment for Democracy, to
George Bush adopted a less ideological and belligerent approach than his predecessor.
The Bipartisan Accord, negotiated by Secretary of State James A. Baker and Speaker of the
House Jim Wright stopped military aid to the contras long enough to permit real
negotiations to move forward. With the support of the Central American presidents, and the
active mediation of the OAS, the United Nations (U.N.), and the Council of Freely Elected
Heads of Government, chaired by former U.S. President Carter, Nicaragua held a free
election in February 1990, which foreclosed the contra war and permitted the first
peaceful transfer of power in Nicaragua from an incumbent to his adversary in the
The Post-Cold War Epoch
In the Caribbean Basin, no conflict was solved automatically as a result of the
implosion of the Soviet Union. The Nicaraguan conflict was resolved because the U.S.
Congress rejected military aid to the contras, the Arias Plan provided a framework
for negotiations, and Carter, the OAS, and the U.N. mediated a crucial election. The
Salvadoran conflict was resolved because of U.N. mediation with U.S. support. But the
Guatemalan and Colombian conflicts continued long after the Soviet Union disappeared, and
Cuba used all of its energies to survive.
Although there was no longer a Soviet security threat in the hemisphere, the Bush
administration intervened in Panama in 1989, and the Clinton administration intervened in
Haiti in 1994.
General Manuel Antonio Noriega had been an ally of the Reagan administration in its war
against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, but in June 1987 a senior Panamanian military
officer accused Noriega of killing a political leader, manipulating the 1984 election, and
being deeply involved in drug-trafficking. President Reagan suspended aid and imposed
sanctions. In the summer of 1988 the Reagan administration negotiated Noriega's departure,
but it retreated from a deal because George Bush's previous association with Noriega was a
political liability in an election year.
In May 1989, former President Carter observed the elections and denounced Noriega when
he tried to manipulate them. The OAS foreign ministers then met and condemned Noriega's
actions and tried unsuccessfully to negotiate his departure. In October 1989, the Bush
administration hesitated to support a group of rebel officers who tried to seize power
from General Noriega because of uncertainty as to the identity and goals of the coup
plotters. Bush's failure to act proved an embarrassment, however, and so when a second
opportunity presented itself in mid-December, the Bush administration decided to take
advantage of it by intervening on December 20, 1989. There were three goals: to arrest
Noriega and bring him to justice in the United States; to protect U.S. citizens (some of
whom had been attacked by the Panamanian military); and to restore democracy. All three
goals were achieved, but as the first unilateral military intervention in Latin America in
65 years, the invasion in Panama was roundly condemned in the OAS and the U.N., and,
significantly, its impact was felt as far as Moscow. When Secretary of State James A.
Baker visited the Soviet Parliament two months later, a Latvian Deputy told him:
"I don't want to speak about the norms that the United States violated in Panama,
but . . . you must have weighed the positive and the negative in taking these decisions. I
would like to inform you of one negative aspect that you did not take into account.
In this country, we also have our hawks and doves, and the actions of the United States
in Panama provided additional arguments to our hawks, especially after the Summit Meeting
in Malta left the impression that our relations had undergone a qualitative change, and
then all of a sudden your intervention in Panama happened. There is no question that this
will complicate our Parliament's consideration of our proposal to proceed along the road
The circumstances surrounding the question of intervention in Haiti had a few points of
similarity but many more differences with the other post-Cold War case. As in Panama, the
precipitating issue concerned the legitimacy of the government. In December 1990, after
numerous false starts, and in the presence of large numbers of observers from Carter's
Council, the OAS, and the U.N., Haiti held a successful election in which Jean-Bertrand
Aristide won by a large margin. On September 30, 1991, the military overthrew him and sent
him into exile.
The OAS condemned the coup and recommended an embargo and diplomatic isolation.
Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley told Secretary Baker that the Caribbean would
support a military effort to restore Aristide. After stemming the flow of refugees,
however, and in the midst of a presidential election in which his lack of attention to
domestic issues was a liability, President Bush decided to put the Haiti issue aside.
During the presidential campaign, Bill Clinton criticized President George Bush for
repatriating the Haitian refugees, but after the November election, Clinton was persuaded
to maintain the same policy, fearing that a change could unleash a flood of new refugees.
At the same time, he earned Aristide's support for the policy by promising that he would
use all his influence to assure Aristide's return to power. This promise was apparently
made without consideration of its consequences and, as a result, U.S. rhetorical support
for Aristide's return was not supported by U.S. actions. In October 1993, a U.S. ship
bringing U.N. security forces to the island was not permitted to land in Port-au-Prince,
and the embarrassment of turning the ship around compelled the Clinton administration to
consider military action. The president, however, decided against it then.
In July 1994, the U.N. Security Council passed a Resolution permitting the use of force
by member states to ensure Haitian military compliance with past U.N. resolutions calling
for the restoration of constitutional government. On September 15, President Clinton
warned the Haitian military leaders to step down from power immediately. Although he
announced that all diplomatic options were exhausted, none had been explored in the
previous six months, and, at the last minute, he asked former President Carter, Senator
Sam Nunn, and General Colin Powell to negotiate the departure of the Haitian military
The Carter team succeeded in gaining the agreement of the provisional government for
the entry into Haiti of a large multinational force led by the United States. On September
19, the day after the agreement was signed, 20,000 U.S. forces arrived to create a secure
climate that would permit the restoration of President Aristide and the consolidation of
democracy in Haiti.
Patterns of Intervention and Non-Intervention
Let us review seven cases of U.S. intervention in the Caribbean Basin in the post-World
War II period (see Table 1).
To Intervene Or Not in the Caribbean Basin
||Not to Intervene
|3. Dominican Republic
||December 1991; January 1993-July 1994; esp. October 1993
To understand the key patterns, one needs first to distinguish between
direct intervention by U.S. forces and indirect intervention by supporting local or
third-country forces. Secondly, one wants to distinguish between the decision to intervene
and the decision not to intervene.
The question of what motivated U.S. policymakers to intervene in the Cold War period
yields an unsurprising answer--fear of the spread of Communism. Legitimate questions can
be raised as to whether the fear was justified in particular cases, whether the response
was appropriate, and whether other concerns, e.g., business interests or democracy, were
also important. But an intensive analysis of the five Cold War cases suggests that U.S.
policymakers acted to prevent the spread of Communist influence.
There are two more interesting questions, however, than the one of motives during the
Cold War. First, what were the reasons for not intervening during the Cold War?;
and second, what were the motives for intervention in the post-Cold War period?
Table 1 probably omits many moments in the post-war period when the president's
advisors broached the issue of intervention, and the president rejected that option. The
decisions that we know the president made not to intervene occurred in crises in
Guatemala in 1951, Cuba in 1958, Nicaragua in 1979, and Grenada in 1979 and 1981. As one
looks at the broader sweep of U.S. foreign policy, the differences between Democratic and
Republican approaches seem less significant. Democratic presidents chose not to
intervene in Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Grenada; Republican Presidents chose not to
intervene in Cuba in 1958 and Grenada in 1981. A similar pattern holds for the
decision to intervene.
In the cases of non-intervention, the level of perceived threat was quite low, and
there was little public awareness of the crisis. The president evidently believed that it
would be difficult for him to justify military intervention. In each of these cases, the
"enemies" did not describe themselves as Marxists or Communists, but they were
"leftists." Moreover, the countries were small, and far bigger crises were
preoccupying the United States at the time. In the case of Nicaragua, President Carter
knew that his Latin American allies would strongly oppose intervention against the
Sandinistas as they were supporting them at the time. In the other cases, the principal
constraint was simply the president's conscience and the American body politic.
The fact that the issue of intervention was broached made it easier for the president
to consider indirect--and in a few cases, direct--intervention the next time. This was
particularly true in the three most recent cases.
The business of identifying a single motive to a complicated national decision is not
an easy assignment. In the Panamanian case during the post-Cold War era, in December 1989,
the United States had interests in maintaining an open Panama Canal, protecting American
citizens, and restoring democracy, but the Canal was not endangered, and there is reason
to believe that American citizens would be threatened more by the invasion than without.
Certainly, the personal embarrassment felt by President Bush because of his previous
associations with Noriega was a contributing factor.
In the case of Haiti, the United States was initially motivated by a fear of refugees.
When this concern was alleviated, the pressure to intervene diminished. Over time,
however, President Clinton built multilateral support for intervention, and although he
did not favor this option initially, he almost left himself no other option at the end.
Still, the decision to forge an international coalition to restore democracy in Haiti was
an unprecedented contribution to the construction of a collective defense of democracy.
An additional reason for both interventions was presidential credibility and fear of
embarrassment. Both Bush and Clinton had pledged to rid themselves of the problem and a
previous effort (in Panama, in October 1989; and in Haiti, in October 1993) had failed.
Their credibility was at stake.
The factor of presidential credibility was also important during the Cold War. In the
case of Grenada, the interesting question is not: why did President Reagan invade in
1983?; but rather why he did not invade in 1981. There was never any doubt that a U.S.
invasion of that small island would be no more difficult than the takeover of Martha's
Vineyard. But in 1981, a U.S. invasion would have been condemned by everyone, including
Grenada's closest neighbors. In 1983, the execution of several Grenadian political leaders
so repulsed the democratic leaders of the region that they changed their implicit veto of
U.S. actions into an invitation. Still, the decision for the United States to invade
needed other reasons. Although the U.S. medical students were in no danger of becoming
hostages, some in the administration feared that could happen. Half-way across the world,
the suicide bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut provided a need to show that the
United States could "stand tall" again.
Perhaps the motive is less important than the consequence of intervention--both for the
country and the international community. In both cases, the post-Cold War intervention was
positive in terms of improving the lives of the vast majority of the people of Panama and
Haiti. The two interventions had different effects on international law and the wider
community. In the case of Panama, the intervention was condemned as a unilateral violation
of international law; in the case of Haiti, the intervention contributed to a broadening
of international law as it had been sanctioned by U.N. Resolution.
The Ebbs and Flows of the Whirlpool: Defining Ends and Means
The process by which the United States Government makes the decision to intervene or
not to intervene had been restricted generally to the president and his closest advisors
in the confines of the National Security Council. Congress and public opinion are
important to the decision, but in a very indirect manner. The president must calculate the
effect of his decisions on Congress and the American people, but he rarely consults with
more than a handful of Senators or Congressmen.
The decision of whether to go to war is one of those that sit on one end of the
spectrum of Executive-Legislative decisionmaking. At the other end are amendments to the
foreign aid law where Congress has primary responsibility, and the president is often on
the edges trying to find a niche to influence the outcome.
During the 20th century, U.S. policies toward the Caribbean Basin have been anchored to
a set of interests which have changed much less than the strategies formulated to pursue
them. The motive for U.S. engagement sometimes has been altruistic--to promote democracy
or development--but more often it has been fear, a disproportionate fear for such a large
power in such a small sea, but a fear nonetheless that events could turn hostile to U.S.
interests. It follows that American foreign policy in the Caribbean always has seemed to
err on the anxious side. In the 19th century, the United States was anxious to prevent
"another Haiti," an independent black republic. In the early 20th century, the
United States was anxious to prevent governments in the region from defaulting to European
creditors lest that be used as a pretext for European intervention. During the Second
World War, the United States was anxious to keep out Nazi Germany, and after that, Soviet
Russia. After the Soviets turned up 90 miles offshore, the United States became anxious to
avoid "another Cuba."
Beyond this elemental security interest, the United States has also tried, at different
times, to promote human rights, democracy, social reforms, and economic development. U.S.
national interests are not immutable; they have changed over time, sometimes so slowly as
to not be perceptible. For example, the Panama Canal is no longer a vital asset to the
United States, although it remains vital for Panama. With the advent of aircraft carriers,
which are too large to transit the canal, U.S. interests in the canal changed from being
strategic to being primarily economic--from permitting the U.S. fleet to move rapidly
between oceans to providing a marginal economic advantage in the shipment of supplies.
U.S. interests do not change radically from one administration to the next, but the
value and priority that each administration attaches to these interests often changes
quite markedly. Both Carter and Reagan, for example, promoted U.S. interests in human
rights, but Carter gave a much higher priority than did Reagan. Both wanted to prevent
Communist inroads in the hemisphere, but Reagan saw the threat as so dire that he was
willing to support armies that committed atrocities.
Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Jimmy Carter pledged non-intervention and
meant it. Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald
Reagan, and George Bush violated their pledges of non-intervention because they perceived
serious threats to U.S. security. Kennedy, Carter, Reagan, and Bush all proposed
development programs in the area, although none had enough of an impact to lift the region
up to the level of sustainable development.
Presidents defined U.S. interests differently; they also chose different means to
defend them. Carter and Bush were more willing to consider multilateral approaches than
Reagan, while Bush and Reagan gave more emphasis to military aid, invasions, and covert
actions than Carter.
Opening Spheres of Influence
Where colonialism or imperialism were not options, major powers have asserted
"spheres of influence"--areas of vital interest where sovereignty was grudgingly
recognized, deviant behavior was proscribed, and other powers were unwelcome. When
respected, such spheres reduced confrontations between major powers; conflict was not
necessarily diminished, but it was contained within and among small nations.
Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin thought Franklin Roosevelt's vision of a world
order without spheres of influence was quixotic. Privately, the two of them negotiated
quotas of influence in Eastern Europe. Since the late 1940s, both the Soviet Union and the
United States rejected each other's right to a sphere, even while asserting its own
rights. Stalin secured his sphere in Eastern Europe. The United States secured its sphere
in Latin America by negotiating the Rio Pact in 1947, by establishing the OAS in 1948,
and, later, by covert actions.
U.S. critics noted the contradiction, if not the hypocrisy, between condemning Soviet
control of Eastern Europe and asserting it in the western hemisphere, but only after
Gorbachev could a Russian citizen match this self-criticism and write: "We rejected
the concept of a division of spheres of influence in `theory' yet pursued it in
practice." The Brezhnev Doctrine, which asserted the right of
the Soviet Union to compel its neighbors to remain Communist regardless of their
preferences, made the Monroe Doctrine seem modest in comparison.
The Soviets were acutely sensitive to the slightest diminution of their control in
Eastern Europe; the United States allowed more space for internal change but drew a line
to preclude Marxist governments in Latin America. The hotter the Cold War, the more
determined each superpower became to avoid any encroachments.
By letting Eastern Europe go its own way ("the Sinatra doctrine"), Gorbachev
opened the door to the most profound, peaceful transformations in the postwar period.
Within one year, free elections brought democratic, non-Communist governments to power in
Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and East Germany. Though the people in each of these
countries had deep-seated anti-Soviet fears, which had been one of the reasons why
Gorbachev's predecessors had been so loath to let go, the new governments were less
anti-Soviet than his predecessors had expected.
A similar dynamic was at work in Central America. After a decade of U.S.-supported war
in Nicaragua, the Sandinistas and many others thought their best political assets were the
U.S.-backed contras, nationalism, and anti-Americanism. But the Nicaraguan people
voted overwhelmingly for Violeta de Chamorro in part because they expected her to improve
relations with the United States.
This is not to suggest that nationalism and anti-Americanism are spent forces in Latin
America. Hardly. The new wave of democrats in the region have been pragmatists, but the
next wave might very well be nationalists. Much depends on whether the current generation
succeeds and how the United States responds. The history of U.S. relations with Latin
America can be viewed as a grudging acceptance by the United States of the region's
autonomy and a gradual recognition by Latin Americans that they were partly responsible
for their own division and for inviting foreign intervention. The Cold War was just the
most recent episode. U.S.-Russian cooperation has stopped exacerbating the region's
conflicts, but these can only be resolved locally. The long-standing connection between
civil war and foreign intervention will always be a danger in a region of small, open,
vulnerable nations so close to the world's most powerful until definitive steps are taken
to sever that tie.
In September 1989, Eduard Shevardnadze, then Soviet foreign minister, outlined a world
without spheres in a speech to the U.N.:
"It is no secret that we were not enthusiastic about the election setback of the
Polish Communists. . . . Nevertheless, we see nothing threatening in the fact that in
accordance with the will of the Polish people a coalition government has been formed . . .
Tolerance is the norm of civilized behavior. But if it is obligatory for us in our
attitude toward the Government of Poland, why are others so intolerant toward, for
example, Cuba? . . . The days of traditional demarcation lines are numbered."
The Soviet Union long trailed behind the United States in its lack of respect for
self-determination on its periphery. In denying that his country had any moral or
political right to interfere in the affairs of its East European neighbors, however,
Gorbachev leaped far ahead of the United States. Before Gorbachev's daring move, President
Bush took two steps backwards, stating his intention to help "the Soviets understand
that we have very special interests in this hemisphere, particularly in Central America,
and . . . I don't think they really have substantive interests in this part of the world,
certainly none that rival ours."
Like the aftermath of the first and second world wars, the end of the Cold War provides
an opportunity for the international community to build new institutions and invigorate
old ones. The aim should be to develop rules that restrain unilateral intervention but
strengthen collective responsibility and action on behalf of peace and democracy. If the
rules can secure each nation from outside intervention or inside subversion, then
instability would no longer become a cause for tension by outside powers. Rather it would
trigger collective mediation and action.
The heavy, negative weight of the Cold War has been lifted. But the hemisphere won't
escape the whirlpool until it understands that the central dilemma was not a function of
the East-West conflict; more than anything, it was due to the chronic instability and
vulnerability of the small nations of the region. If a group felt that its access to power
was blocked, it would almost always seek support from outside. In the Caribbean, that
meant either the United States or, if it were already supporting the government, then its
enemy. Thus, internal strife was connected to international intervention.
Many condemned Washington, Moscow, or Havana for this predicament, but the real culprit
was the absence of a framework for securing peaceful political change and the lack of
resources to help nations improve the lives of their people. The way to untie the gordian
knot connecting internal conflict with international intervention is by forging a new
collective defense of democracy within a broader arrangement that will assist the process
of development and the pursuit of social justice.
If governments in the region do not realize they are currently on the rim of the
whirlpool, then they will find themselves recaptured someday. If they develop a strategy
to preserve democracy and sustain development, then they can escape to a truly new world.
[*]Robert A. Pastor is a professor of political science at Emory
University, and director of the Latin American and Caribbean Program at The Carter Center.
He was director of Latin American affairs on the National Security Council from 1977-1981.
 Robert A. Pastor, Whirlpool: U.S. Foreign Policy Toward Latin
America and the Caribbean, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992.
 Samuel Flagg Bemis, The Latin American Policy of the United
States, New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1943, pp. 185-89.
 Letter from Robert Lansing, former secretary of state, to Senator
Medill McCormick, chairman of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Haiti and Santo Domingo,
May 4, 1922, in James W. Gantenbein, ed., The Evolution of Our Latin American Policy: A
Documentary Record, New York: Octagon Books, 1971, p. 636.
 Franklin D. Roosevelt, "Our Foreign Policy: A Democratic
View," Foreign Affairs, July 6, 1928, pp. 584-85.
 See Irwin F. Gellman, Good Neighbor Diplomacy: United States
Policies in Latin America, 1933-1945, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979;
and Bryce Wood, The Making of the Good Neighbor Policy, New York: Columbia
University Press, 1961.
 For an excellent account of U.S. policy toward Cuba when Welles
was ambassador, see Bryce Wood, The Making of The Good Neighbor Policy, New York:
Columbia University Press, 1961, Chapters 2 and 3.
 The literature on the Guatemalan revolution is diverse in
interpretation. The best recent book that incorporates much of the evidence of the
previous works is by Piero Gleijeses, Shattered Hope: The Guatemalan Revolution and the
United States, 1944-1954, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.
 See Abraham F. Lowenthal, The Dominican Intervention,
Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1972.
 For an analysis of the Carter, Reagan, and Bush administrations,
see Robert A. Pastor, Whirlpool: U.S. Foreign Policy Toward Latin America and the
Caribbean, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992, Chapters 3-5.
 For a full description of U.S. policy and U.S.-Grenadian
relations during the Carter and Reagan administrations, see Chapter 8 of my book, Whirlpool:
U.S. Foreign Policy Toward Latin America and the Caribbean.
 For a full development of U.S.-Nicaraguan relations, see my Condemned
to Repetition: The United States and Nicaragua, Princeton University Press, 1987.
 Quoted in Thomas Friedman, "Baker Braves the Gauntlet in
the Moscow Parliament," New York Times, February 11, 1990, p. 20.
 During the Missile Crisis, the Kennedy administration made a
tentative decision to invade Cuba if the quarantine failed.
 Andrey V. Kozyrev, "What Soviet Foreign Policy Went
Sour," New York Times, January 7, 1989, p. 17.
 Excerpts in New York Times, September 27, 1989.
 "President's News Conference," reprinted in New
York Times, February 7, 1989, p. 34.
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