There was great discontent in Latin America when the U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, said to his country’s Congress that Latin America is “the backyard of the United States.”
The comment was aggravated given the context that the United States had not recognized the constitutional and elected government of Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela, and that Kerry had called for a recount of the votes, in the absence of which he would have to question seriously the electoral results. The reaction of President Evo Morales was immediate, rejecting the allusion to the “backyard” as an offense.
As it happens, the expression is for Latin Americans what the “n” word is, in English, for African Americans, or what the “m” word, in Spanish, is for gay men. They offend not just in their intention to diminish and humiliate; they are a psychological abuse that forces the victim to sink again into an adverse reality experienced in times gone by. They remind the African American of slavery, the homosexual of the times in which he was seen as an abomination, and Latin Americans of a nightmare to which they find it very painful to return.
The phrase reminds us Latin Americans of the falsity of the Monroe Doctrine in pretending that United States would protect Latin America from the European empires, for it did not prevent the interventions of Spain in the Dominican Republic, or France in Mexico, or of Great Britain in the Malvinas in 1833, or Nicaragua and Guyana, or Bolivia and Peru, through Chile, in the War of the Pacific; or its second intervention in the Malvinas in 1982 with covert U.S. support.
It reminds us that the United States added to its Monroe Doctrine the “Roosevelt Corollary,” by which it authorized itself to intervene militarily in Latin America in favor of the interests of its citizens and corporations. That is how “America for the Americans” became “American for the North Americans,” beginning a period of aggressive intervention, sometimes violent and sometimes covert, but which in the end subjected the continent to abusive economic policies that favored only U.S. interests.
Latin America remembers that each time the United States offered a friendly hand it hid a big stick in the other, in order to subject the former. During WWII, President Roosevelt promoted its “Good Neighbor” policy in order to subject Latin America to its policy en bloc, and in order to ensure its natural resources for itself. Germany and Japan controlled the raw materials of northern Europe and Asia, and the United States needed to supply its own war industry, plentifully and uninterruptedly, with the resources of Latin America. It forced the latter in many cases to sell at lowered prices. The indigenous people who extracted them were, in large measure, the strategic allies who allowed the United States to win the war, become a world power, and thereby consolidate the Western Hemisphere as its area of influence, or “backyard.”
That domination was later exercised through the Point V program of President Harry Truman, the functions of which were later assigned to USAID. Through these two programs, the United States extended, and still continues to extend, its control with the pretext of administering the economic assistance that it still grants to the countries of the Third World. Beginning in 1969, Richard Nixon unleashed the horrendous massacres of the extreme-right military dictatorships and the crimes of Plan Condor. Subsequently, in the decades of the 80s and 90s, neoliberalism was imposed to force Latin America to turn over its natural resources and productive State enterprises to the transnational corporations, and took away from the State its ability to fulfill its social responsibilities.
Beyond the reassuring speeches from Washington with the theme that U.S. foreign policy is all about solidarity and the defense of freedom, the reality is that it has been fairly destructive to Latin America, a continent that, even so, does not hate the United States and is not anti-United States, but which knows that that is the version of the Republicans meant to continue to justify intervention with new excuses. Latin America is simply anti-imperialist, because it has been subjected and looted by the Spanish and then the British empires; and later fooled by U.S. hegemony, which hides its interventionism behind the mask of humanitarian assistance.
Latin America wants no loner to be the backyard of the United States, for two basic reasons. The first is the sensitive character of the concept, given that the backyard in Latin America, up to the recent past, was where the ruling class hid its garbage, old junk and domestic animals; where the “domestic help” –the Latin version of slaves– lived and worked in isolation, so that the front of the house could remain impeccable for the benefit of the master’s pride. The second, and most important, reason is that, concerning politics and economy, the greater part of the Latin American continent has broken with the scheme of dependency on the United States and no longer accepts its domination.
Only by understanding the past can we understand the justice in the proposal of President Morales when he says “We want partners, not bosses.” Let us be partners and friends, but truly so, and not just in the political speeches of Washington while it maneuvers constantly against the Left governments in Latin America, which have every right to continue to distance themselves from U.S. policies. To call Latin America, well into the 21st Century, the backyard of the United States is a double insult, because the concept reminds us of a past of subjection, looting, death, and exploitation, and because in reality it ignores the economic and political emancipation that the region has achieved.
I dare say that, if the Secretary of State understood the historical, political, and psychological implications of that expression, he would make a public apology and direct his staff to banish that insult forever.