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Why Bolton’s Revival Of The Monroe Doctrine Is Misguided – OpEd


By Yossi Mekelberg*

You’ve got to envy John Bolton, US President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, at least a bit and at least on some occasions. Where others see complexity, he (over) simplifies. When most people in such an influential position as his struggle with the myriad shades of world politics, he reduces everything to black and white. When most professionals who deal with the world of diplomacy understand the value of subtlety, he is the equivalent of a bull in a china shop.

While taking such an approach might make his job somewhat easier for himself, it is menacing to the interests of his own country and the rest of the world, especially as he has the ear of the person who is the commander in chief of the world’s strongest military force. This inevitably raises the question: How dangerous is it, in an already volatile world, for a trigger-happy, single-minded hawk to be serving at the heart of the US administration?

A case in point is Bolton’s view of Latin America, as he outlined in his remarks to veterans of Brigade 2506, which fought in one of the most futile and failed attempts at regime change, the one in Cuba in April 1961. Bolton couldn’t find a more receptive audience than the Bay of Pigs Veterans Association for his criticisms of anything that recalls or resembles socialism. However, while either completely distorting history or demonstrating his utter ignorance of it, he articulated a policy that is nothing short of declaring war on Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua, announcing that: “The Monroe Doctrine is alive and well.”

It has become customary in US foreign policy to pronounce this seminal 1823 stance toward Latin America as dead and buried, only for another administration to resuscitate it, and vice versa. In November 2013, then-Secretary of State John Kerry declared: “The era of the Monroe Doctrine is over.” Hence, its latest resurrection by Bolton might be partly to do with the current administration’s obsession with banishing every policy associated with the Obama White House.

But all those who want to either vanquish or revive Monroe need their memory jogged, since the essence of that doctrine was to keep colonial powers out of the Western Hemisphere. It states: “The American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers.” It was not about allowing another power to take over the role of colonizer.

In those days, the US was a young and vulnerable nation in the vanguard against European imperialism and monarchism. Fast forward two centuries and the US is a superpower, more associated in the minds of Latin American people with how the European colonialists were perceived back then. Not for nothing have the terms “Yankee imperialism” or “anti-yanquismo” become closely associated with resistance to US intervention in Latin American countries’ domestic affairs when those countries’ policies don’t align with US interests.

The more blunt Bolton is in attacking what he calls the “Troika of Tyranny” — Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua — and encouraging their people to get rid of their leaders, the more he demonstrates his own and the US’ hypocrisy. He has no reservations about dealing with Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Vladimir Putin’s Russia, or Xi Jinping’s China, who are not renowned for being shining lights of democracy or defending human rights, and never calls on their citizens to topple them. It is also the lumping together of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua as bastions of socialism that demonstrates Bolton’s oversimplification of three very different cases. It might be convenient to do so when one speaks in Miami to Cuban expats who passionately hate the current government in Havana and everything and anything that smacks of socialism, but it is dangerous to generalize about several very different situations that require different approaches.

Moreover, the lessons he is drawing from the Bay of Pigs invasion, which was one of the most embarrassing fiascos in US Cold War history, are completely distorted. To refresh Bolton’s memory: Back in 1961, Fidel Castro enjoyed wide popular support and, at the time of the invasion, Castro and the Cuban Revolution were only toying with socialism; it was more about social justice than communism. But US policies toward the island — first under President Dwight D. Eisenhower and later under John F. Kennedy, including the misconceived Bay of Pigs operation, when a counter-revolutionary invasion comprised mainly of Cuban exiles was roundly defeated by Castro’s forces — pushed Castro and Cuba toward communism and into the arms of the Soviet Union.

There is no denying that large parts of Latin America are in need of reform, and one can only hope that, in Venezuela, the days of Nicolas Maduro in power are numbered — not because he is a socialist, but because of his incompetence and corruption.

Cuba might need to accelerate the pace of change, but it has recently ratified a new constitution that cautiously takes the country in a promising direction and is quite a big leap forward. This includes restricting the president to no more than two consecutive five-year terms and introducing the post of prime minister to run the day-to-day operations of government. In addition, private property is now allowed within the communist system and foreign investment is permitted, in recognition that free market activities are part of the new reality in Cuba.

Despite the economic hardships, universal education and health care remain absolutely free. It is worth reminding Bolton that the maiden debt of a medical graduate in the US is $200,000, while in Cuba, which produces many thousands of doctors, including from the developing world, graduates are completely free of debt, serving their communities and many more around the world. Moreover, according to the World Bank, life expectancy in Cuba is higher than in the US, though income per capita is just a fraction of that of its northerly neighbor.

Instead of invoking the Monroe Doctrine, the US should rethink its Latin American policies. Instead of treating the region as its playground and as subservient to US economic and political interests, it should be investing in the people there, improving their living conditions and prospects. Had President James Monroe been alive today, he would probably have told Washington to stay away from the affairs of its southern neighbors, or at least to approach them through diplomacy, negotiations and mutual respect. Unfortunately, such terms are completely alien to the vocabulary and thinking of Bolton.

  • Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations at Regent’s University London, where he is head of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program. Twitter: @YMekelberg

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