By Robert Valencia
Fifty years ago, President John F. Kennedy mapped out a plan for Latin America, called the Alliance for Progress. It was meant, originally, to foster development and strengthen diplomatic ties between the U.S. and the rest of the Americas for ten years. Signed in Uruguay’s Punta Del Este at an inter-American conference, the $22.3 billion plan sought to eliminate adult illiteracy, enhance price stability, and ensure the establishment of democratic governments.
While largely forgotten in the U.S., the Alliance for Progress had a lasting impact in Latin American countries, and though it failed to meet Kennedy’s lofty goals, the Alliance embodies a vision of social justice that should point the way for U.S.-Latin America relations today. Instead, the U.S.’s futile attempts to fight a global war on drugs is shifting the focus away from the ideals of democracy and widespread economic growth—much like the U.S. obsession with Communism veered the U.S. off course in the 1960s.
The Alliance didn’t transform Latin America the way Kennedy had hoped. Today, Latin American health systems cannot handle the rapid population growth; farmers struggle with land right violations, and weak minimum wage laws have led to low-paying jobs. But the Alliance did help expand education to disadvantaged communities; nine countries (including Mexico and Brazil, Latin America’s largest economies) saw their GDP grow by 2.6 percent (0.1 percentage point higher than the 2.5 percent established by the Alliance) during the decade the agreement was in effect and, thanks to the Alliance, local initiatives provided more affordable housing and access to financial institutions.
Case in point: Ciudad Kennedy, one of the largest neighborhoods in Bogotá, Colombia was founded when President Kennedy visited the South American nation in 1961. Other projects such as hospitals, highways, and electrical grids were built in Venezuela and other South American countries while Peace Corps programs—also launched fifty years ago—were implemented all over the region.
Early on though, the Alliance’s good intentions were overshadowed by a fear of communism. With the Kennedy administration dealing with the Cuban Missile Crisis and the failed invasion of the Bay of Pigs, people in the U.S. began to see the policy as an interventionist move rather than a pan-regional New Deal. As a result, the U.S. supported military dictatorships like the regime that ruled in Brazil from 1960-1985 and instituted an ineffective embargo on Cuba that is still in effect today.
At the onset of the Nixon administration, there was little support left for the Alliance. An assessment conducted by then-New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and commissioned by President Nixon led to a reduction of funds. After multiple trips to 20 Latin American countries, Rockefeller concluded that the governments that received funds did not meet their own population’s needs and argued that economic aid should not be used as a political tool to change the growing anti-U.S. sentiment in the region.
The way the United States currently carries out its relationship with Latin America resembles the perversion of the Alliance in the 60s. Again, the U.S. is joining forces with right-leaning countries to undermine the influence of left-leaning ones—like U.S. efforts to reduce the regional clout of Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela.
The Alliance became a tool to fight communism in the 1960s; today two of the most important U.S. aid packages in the Americas are being used for another war—the War on Drugs. And just like the Alliance for Progress funds, these plans are mired with controversy.
Plan Colombiais a program whose budget hovers around $7.5 billion. Initiated by the Clinton administration in 1999, it aims at curbing drug smuggling while fighting against guerrillas and investing in social development. Meanwhile, the Mérida Initiativeis a multi-year, $1.6 billion agreement between the United States, Mexico, and several Central American nations that intends to combat the Mexican drug cartels, money laundering, and organized crime.
But as Plan Colombia comes into force, the herbicides used to kill illegal coca crops have caused farmers exposed to aerial fumigation to suffer from pneumonia, gastro-intestinal problems, miscarriages, and lung enlargement, to name a few. Meanwhile, the Mérida Initiative has been powerless to stop the flow of drugs to the United States and the gun influx into Mexico.
Today, the U.S. leadership role in Latin America has weakened. Chávez’s growing influence over several Central American and Caribbean countries, the emergence of Brazil as a prominent regional player, the increasing participation of China in Latin America’s economy, and the emergence of the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) as the ruling entity for South American issues (in lieu of the Washington-backed Organization of American States) have all taken a bite out of U.S. hegemony in the region. This doesn’t mean that a new Alliance is impossible, only that it would require mutual and honest commitment from both sides. The U.S. can no longer simply impose its policies on countries.
Fifty years later, the Alliance for Progress provides a valuable lesson for the U.S. Washington needs to stay focused on the region’s real threats: land rights, employment, and government accountability. With the drug war, the U.S. is falling into the same trap as it did in the 1960s—spending on a futile war, exacerbating regional violence, and putting already-corrupt institutions into unwinnable quagmires. It’s time for a new Alliance for Progress, but this time, it needs to stay true to Kennedy’s original vision of economic and social justice for all Americans, not just those living in the U.S.
Robert Valencia is a Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs and is a contributing writer for Global Voices. He also has a personal blog called My Humble Opinion.