The Impact of the Monroe Doctrine in Mexico and Central America and How We Can Change It

The panel “Two Hundred Years is Enough!: Moving Past the Monroe Doctrine Toward a New Era in US-Latin American Relations” held in Washington DC on December 12, 2023 offered a deep look at what needs to change in US policy in the region and how to change it. The briefing was presented in the House Rayburn Building to a packed room of Congressional staffers, leaders of non-governmental organizations, media and academics, with opening remarks from Congressional representatives, Nydia Velázquez, Jesus Garcia and Greg Casar.

In this special package, Mira, an In-Depth Look at the Monroe Doctrine, we are pleased to publish the panel papers. Mira director Laura Carlsen offers a close-up of the impacts of U.S. policy in Mexico and Central America. Juan González, of the Great Cities Institute and Democracy Now!, examines immigration, US policy and the links between forced immigration and sanctions, and Gimena Sánchez of WOLA looks at policy in Colombia and the Andean region. Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research discussed the history and the impact of U.S. economic sanctions.

Shortly after the briefing, on Dec. 21, Rep. Nydia Velázquez introduced a history-making resolution calling for the annulment of the Monroe Doctrine to end 200 years of hegemony and initiate an era of mutual respect and peace. In her statement she writes: “The 200th anniversary of the Monroe Doctrine presents the U.S. and the hemisphere with a chance to move past an outdated and ineffective foreign policy strategy. From drug trafficking to mass migration to climate change, the many shared challenges between the United States and Latin America cannot be addressed by the antiquated Monroe Doctrine. These are some of the most pressing issues of our time, and they call for a process that stresses respect and cooperation.” At Mira, we welcome this initiative to correct centuries of U.S. intervention and build a common path to a better future for the people of all the nations in the region.

1. From “America’s Backyard” to Good Neighbors, Laura Carlsen

For decades, certainly since Plan Colombia, US security policy in Mexico and Central America has been focused on the war on drugs–with devastating results for those countries and for the United States. The drug war has been a primary instrument of US hegemony in the region.

We’ve been tracking this closely in Mexico since the 2008 Merida Initiative promoted the drug war proclaimed by then-president Felipe Calderon. The Merida Initiative is a case study on the disaster of prohibition and supply-side drug enforcement. The $3.3 billion dollars spent in US public funds just in Mexico has resulted in levels of violence we never imagined. Homicides shot up, and when the homicide rate became a political liability, organized crime and corrupt security forces began hiding bodies, creating a terrible limbo for the growing number of families of the disappeared. The families organized one of the nation’s largest grassroots movements, led by mothers, searching for the more than 110,000 disappeared persons on record. They’ve repeatedly called on the US to end the drug war. 

The Merida Initiative, like the Monroe Doctrine, has been declared dead on several occasions and, despite its failure, always comes back.  The Initiative changed names in late 2021 to the Bicentennial Framework, supposedly with greater emphasis on reducing violence. But the basic DEA model of the kingpin strategy remains in place. Lately, with fentanyl there has been more pressure on the Lopez Obrador administration to use military forces to block supply to the multibillion-dollar US market. 

At Mira: Feminisms and Democracies we use a feminist international relations perspective to analyze dynamics of violence and public policy.  It’s well-documented why the drug war model causes increased violence. Security forces assassinate or arrest a cartel leader. A turf war with other cartels ensues to take control of the route or production area, and/or the first cartel fragments into smaller groups that maintain territorial control through armed occupation. These smaller groups move beyond drug trafficking into extortion and human slavery, posing a far greater risk to civilians. Due to the dynamics of a macho brute force mentality among both the organized crime and security forces, in addition to more generalized violence there has been a sharp rise in femicides and sexual abuse.

in the US, resources, policies and rhetoric have been misplaced on foreign supply in an opium crisis detonated by domestic prescription drugs, rather than attending to the real causes of national demand and overdose deaths. This only generates violence, while failing to control flows of illicit drugs or reduce mortality rates.

There is no time and nowhere in the world where supply-side strategies have worked for anything other than the enrichment of arms dealers and drug traffickers and the perpetuation of DEA funding.  

Blaming Mexico or any other foreign country for overdose deaths in the United States is not only a flawed analysis of cause, but a xenophobic smokescreen for really solving the tragic crisis of loss of life. 

We’ve heard the extreme proposals from Republican candidates, including launching US missiles at labs south of the border or invading Mexico (again) and we can dismiss them as fringe grandstanding, but they’re being fed by Biden and other Democrats pressuring Mexico to crack down, and by this continued DEA-led supply-side policy that pretends to locate the source of the problem—and, ludicrously, the solution– outside US borders. 

Effective foreign policy stems from solid, facts-based domestic policy: we can decrease violence by abandoning the punitive, military-police model and building a new paradigm based on human health and well-being on both sides of the border. 


The Central American countries have also suffered increased violence from the US-backed drug war, anticrime and anti-immigration programs that that have drawn military forces or militarized police forces, such as Honduras’s, into domestic policing. Across the board this has led to a rise in extrajudicial executions, civilian deaths, human rights violations, use of military forces to repress social movements and gender-based-violence.  

Honduras deserves special mention since it provides lessons, new challenges and an excellent opportunity to unravel the damage done by previous US policy. 

The US government has a long history of intervention in Honduras. The Obama administration denounced the 2009 military coup there, but then maneuvered behind the scenes to prevent the return of the constitutional president, Manuel Zelaya. With U.S. backing, the coup regime then staged spurious elections that ushered in a series of governments considered narco-dictatorships, including two terms of Juan Orlando Hernandez who will be tried in New York on drug trafficking and firearms charges that have also implicated many in his National Party.

These governments had US support s they converted Honduras into the homicide capital of the world and a major drug trafficking hub, despite the fact that much of U.S. aid was supposedly for counternarcotics.  

The democratic election of President Xiomara Castro with broad popular support marked a new era. The government that took office in 2022 is making serious efforts at restoring rule of law, but has faced resistance from elements of the old regime still in power, especially in the judiciary and legislative branches. 

There is grave concern over the openly interventionist actions of US Ambassador Laura Dogu in support of elements of the old regime and corrupt business class. She has publicly spoken against efforts to clean up the notoriously corrupt Attorney General’s office, criticized reform of fraudulent contracts entered into under the narco-dictatorship, especially in energy, and supported the notorious economic development and employment zones, or ZEDES, that were repealed in 2022 as unconstitutional, even going so far as to indicate support for investors who have filed an 11 billion-dollar lawsuit against the Honduran government for protecting its national laws and sovereignty that could leave the entire nation destitute.

These zones essentially cede Honduran resources and territory to transnational corporations and are widely opposed as an affront to sovereignty. They’re a source of violent repression against local communities (especially Afrohonduran and Indigenous) that oppose them. 

Another attack occurred just a few days ago, prompting Afro-indigenous leader Miriam Miranda to tweet: “With 200 years of the Monroe Doctrine, the Black community of Crawfish Rock is under siege by US investors in the PROSPERA Zede, which has generated a crisis and now an attack on our fellow community member Vanessa Cardenas. Prospera was never consulted with the community.” The lack of consultation is a clear violation of national and international law. and the violence caused by the illegal investments continues to affect local communities. 

Last November 29–International Day of Women Human Rights Defenders—the State Dept issued a statement lauding their work, while Honduran groups denounced the attacks on women defenders, including on Miriam herself and the 2016 assassination of the feminist indigenous environmental leader Berta Caceres. But policies that strengthen abusive security forces and foreign investment that denies human rights, indigenous and women’s rights in particular, virtually guarantees further attacks. 

The US government is actively obstructing efforts in Honduras to eliminate corruption, rollback illegal land grabs, and reform the legal system, including the criminal and tax codes. The result is greater instability, impunity and poverty with the subsequent rise of out-migration. Contradictory US policies create greater human suffering and stymie national efforts at reform.

Juan talked about immigration so I´ll just describe what that looks like south of the border. It doesn’t look like a “surge” or an “invasion”. It looks like the failure of states to provide for vulnerable populations and a human tragedy of epic proportions. 

Health officials in Mexico report that as many as 6 in 10 women, many fleeing sexual abuse, will be raped en route. We don’t even know the number of disappeared and assassinated migrants. Whole families with nothing more than hope in their pockets are piling up in dangerous border towns. 

Democrats and republicans alike have been calling for stricter measures to block immigration and asylum. Pulling immigration into the militarized border-control model further criminalizes migrants, enriches organized crime and encourages government corruption. 

In fact, the more iron-fist immigration policy becomes a priority for US foreign policy toward the region, the more it fails—it’s failing the US economy where jobs go vacant, it is failing US communities torn apart by persecution and deportation, and it is failing by all measures of human decency. 

I have a minute left for Guatemala: Just a month away from the inauguration of president-elect Bernardo Arevalo, Guatemala faces a political crisis due to the desperate attempts of the group in power, known as “the pact of the corrupt”, to stay in power. The Attorney General’s office has annulled the election despite the fact that their arguments are bogus and they don’t have the jurisdiction to do so. The electoral tribunal is under attack for defending the elections and thousands of Guatemalans are protesting in the streets. The US State Department has so far stood firm in calling for respect for the election results and idetifying some of the ringleaders as “corrupt and antideocratic agnetts”. But we must be vigilant. The Guatemalan people deserve no less.

Recommendations for moving beyond the Monroe Doctrine: 

1. Full investigation into the international activities of the DEA, their impact on overall objectives and their consequences. The GAO has repeatedly called for benchmarks and evaluation. The DEA evaluated itself this year, and recognized “critical incidents”, and problems with compliance, but did not evaluate the effectiveness of its model, the dangerous use of criminal informants, or the lack of internal monitoring. “Critical incidents” include the Ajuas killing of 4 agent, including a pregnant woman and schoolboy, by a Honduran officers and DEA agents in 2012. 

2. Full review and reform of drug war policies at home and in the hemisphere.

3. Anti-militarism measures including controlling arms sales, arms smuggling and military-police aid to the region; encouraging civilian policing according to international human rights standards; and acknowledging the human cost of fighting violence with violence.

4. Non-interference in Honduran efforts to rout out corruption and restore rule of law

5. Immigration reform with respect for human rights: Even without the elusive comprehensive immigration reform that we need, legalizing working members of communities, respecting the right to asylum, complying with children’s right to live with their parents through family reunification, providing work with full labor rights, and opening up paths for legal immigration and citizenship are doable and urgent.

2. Immigration and Renouncing the Monroe Doctrine’s legacy of imperial control over Latin America, Juan González

When President Monroe issued his Doctrine in December of 1823, it was hailed at first by Latin American leaders as a boon to their fight for independence from Spain. But U.S. presidents soon turned the doctrine into a weapon to bully and dominate the region. As thousands of U.S. businessmen and adventurers headed south of the border, Latin America became the birthplace of the first giant American multi-national corporations, enriching some of our country’s most celebrated families. The shameful record of U.S. the extraction of the region’s resources to the detriment of its people has been amply documented by numerous historians.

What were some of those U.S. policies?

  • Repeated military interventions that led to economic dislocation and famine in key countries;
  •  Siphoning an enormous share of the region’s national wealth for our own prosperity – especially through Wall Street debt-financing;
  • Political repression by Washington-sponsored leaders, and civil wars fueled by U.S. arms shipments;
  • Aggressive labor recruitment by U.S. industries of low-cost Latin American labor to meet the needs of those industries.

Moreover, the list of our military interventions during the 20th century is mind-boggling. The sponsoring by Teddy Roosevelt and the U.S. Navy of a whole country, Panama, just so we could secure land from Colombia to build the Panama Canal. Interventions in Nicaragua five different times. Mexico three times. Honduras twice. Cuba three times after 1898, not counting the CIA sponsored Bay of Pigs fiasco. Guatemala and the Arbenz coup in 1954. Chile and the Allende coup in 1973. The Dominican Republic invaded three times, including President Johnson dispatching thousands of U.S. troops in 1965 to squash a people’s revolt that sought to restore a democratically elected president. Haiti in 1915 and again in 1994. Panama again in 1918, 1925 and 1989. And of course, Puerto Rico, where I was born, and which has remained a territorial possession of the U.S. since Gen. Nelson Miles and his troops landed in 1898. Despite claims to the UN by our leaders during the 1950s that the Puerto Rico had become a self-governing territory, my homeland remains under the sovereign control of Congress to this day, as made perfectly clear during the past seven years by Washington’s direct imposition of an outside Financial Control Board. All Latin American nations know that Puerto Rico is a U.S. colony, and several administrations have acknowledged its current status must end, yet Congress has repeatedly failed to pass legislation for true self-determination.

The main theme of my book, Harvest of Empire, when I wrote it 25 years ago, is that mushrooming migration from Latin America, Asia and Africa to the rich nations of the world can only be understood – and, ultimately, will only be resolved – by a reckoning with the legacy of the colonial empires the U.S. and other Western nations created in those regions during the previous two centuries. Quite simply, much of the modern immigration crisis of the entire industrialized world is a direct result – an unintended result, but one nonetheless – of the political upheavals and wealth inequalities those empires produced and sustain to this day.

Throughout all these years, the Monroe Doctrine has been the main policy basis for U.S. action toward the region. It has never been renounced except briefly by Sec. of State John Kerry in 2013, a position which the Trump administration subsequently reversed.

This history is directly relevant to our border crisis today. As we all know, record numbers of migrants have been apprehended at our Southwest border the past two years, with officials in New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and many northern cities suddenly facing thousands of asylum seekers in need of shelter. The media invariably highlight residents of these cities who are angry and frustrated at how scarce city resources are being diverted to the newcomers instead of to the needs of their own communities, all of which is stoking greater division between “us” and “them”. Nowhere in those reports do we see attempts to connect the current crisis to the past. Why, for example, have we suddenly seen this unprecedented surge the past couple of years of migrants crossing the Darien Gap from Venezuela? What of our own government’s role in fueling this exodus toward our Southern border?

In late October, I authored a new report on How U.S. Policy Toward Latin America has Fueled the Current Migrant Crisis. You can download the full report and its citations from the website of Great Cities Institute at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

As I noted in that report, Mexican migrants were this country’s main source for cheap foreign labor throughout the 20th century, especially in the West and Southwest, both through legal means such as the Bracero and other guest worker programs, and Mexican nationals still remain the largest percentage of unauthorized entrants into the country each year, but their numbers have been falling, and more undocumented Mexicans have left the U.S. since 2008 than those who have entered and stayed in the country.

 During both the Obama and Trump administrations, a new pattern emerged: the biggest surges in unauthorized migrants at the Southern border shifted to the Northern Triangle countries of Central America – Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.

The migrant flow, however, suddenly changed again during the past few years. Venezuelans apprehended at the border skyrocketed from a tiny 4,500 in FY 2020 to the more than 265,000 in the first 11 months FY 2023! In the same period, Nicaraguans jumped from just 3,164 to 131,831. And Cubans spiraled from just 14,000 in 2020 to more than 184,00 in 2023. Amazingly, more Cubans have sought to enter the U.S. during the past two years than at any time in U.S. history – surpassing the refugee waves in the first years after the Cuban Revolution of 1959, during the Mariel boatlift of 1980, or during the balsero raft crisis of 1994. Of some 412,000 asylum applications filed with Department of Homeland Security during the first 11 months of FY 2023, nearly half came from from just three countries: Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua. All three have something in common. They have been targeted by Washington for regime change through sanctions and economic warfare that has only made life worse for their citizens.

Meanwhile, our government has largely ignored the economic and social needs of the region’s people. For example, U.S. foreign aid to the 33 countries of Latin America and the Caribbean totaled just $3 billion in FY 2023, a big portion of which goes to fighting drug trafficking and for military training. That’s less foreign aid than the U.S. normally gives every year to Israel, which is a small and prosperous nation, while Latin America and the Caribbean are teeming with more than 650 million inhabitants, 32 percent of whom lived below the poverty line in 2022. Moreover, the total foreign aid Washington gave to Latin America last year amounts to less than half of what it provided the region 60 years ago, during the Kennedy-Johnson administrations.

Instead of ramping up development assistance that would assist Latin Americans in staying home, both Democratic and Republican administrations have repeatedly opted for more border enforcement, a policy that, like the drug war, has been a colossal failure. Between 2003 and 2021, the U.S. spent an astounding $333 billion on agencies that carry out immigration enforcement. For the current year (FY 2024), President Biden has requested $25 billion just for the budgets of Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). And he is even asking for another $14 billion in his emergency bill now before Congress.  Despite all that money, migrant encounters at the border are at record levels and our immigration system remains completely broken. While we wait for the long-overdue revamping of our immigration laws, however, we can still address this most recent crisis. To start, we should end the sanctions against Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua. Congress should sharply increase foreign aid to Latin America to address the root causes of why people leave. It should provide increased federal assistance to the northern cities and southwest border towns that are feeding and housing the migrants. And we, as a nation, need to renounce, once and for all, the Monroe Doctrine’s legacy of imperial control over Latin America.

Related Resources: A Global Good Neighbor Ethic for International Relations



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