Since 1944, Latin American countries have continually sought closer economic ties with the United States, only to be rebuffed time and again. Successive U.S. administrations, for their part, have signaled varying degrees of indifference to the region to their south.
U.S. engagement, when it came, was piecemeal and narrowly restricted toward security ties in an attempt to inure the United States – first from communist insurrection and, more recently, from the corrosive effects of the drug trade. However, for a brief time in the 1960s, Latin America and the United States came close to sharing a unified vision of the future.
In March 1961 President John F. Kennedy called for a hemisphere-wide effort “to complete the revolution of the Americas,” by stressing that “political freedom must accompany material progress.” Termed the Alliance for Progress, or Alianza para el Progreso, the program sought a region of healthy democracies, where social goals such as literacy and the elimination of malnutrition went hand-in-hand with political reforms and economic growth that did not stoke inflation. It was the most ambitious effort to build modern democratic institutions launched in the Americas.
By some metrics, the Alliance delivered progress. Literacy rates increased and malnutrition decreased. But the Alliance struggled to surpass core objectives. Latin America’s economic growth was 2.6% annually through the 1960s, just above the goal set by the Alliance. Signs of clear progress, such as the trebling of college enrollment over the course of the decade, were only loosely related to Alliance goals. Despite the growth in U.S. aid, the Alliance failed to deliver a hallmark achievement; no country grew at a miraculous pace, nor did a specific program wildly eclipse 1961 expectations. Economic growth and social improvements accrued broadly, but slowly, across much of the region.
Unfortunately, the political winds shifted direction in the late 1960s. After Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, U.S. foreign policy became more heavily interventionist while foreign development aid decreased. And instead of heartier democracy in Latin America, much of the region fell under the rule of military dictators. President Richard Nixon dispatched his Republican foe Governor Nelson Rockefeller to Latin America in 1969. Rockefeller reported a “general frustration” that living standards had not improved more rapidly in recent years. For Latin American governments that had failed to deliver growth, Rockefeller wrote, the Alliance for Progress became a convenient foil: “The United States, because of its identification with the failure of the Alliance for Progress to live up to expectations, is blamed.”
Nixon worked to undermine Chilean president Salvador Allende in the early 1970s. Thereafter, U.S. foreign policy to Latin America cocooned for a decade until Ronald Reagan took office and fomented civil war across Central America. Out of the mire of civil war and dictatorship that spread across Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s, historians and political scientists have softened the harsh initial assessment of the Alliance for Progress, highlighting the breadth of its gains.
Now, the 50th anniversary of the Alliance has given voice to optimism that once again the United States might adjoin Latin American efforts to create prosperity. Fortunately, many of the Alliance’s goals seem dated: Latin America is a democratic region, though clearly some democracies are more impressive than others. And Latin America is coming off a decade where annual economic output grew by roughly 5%. These gains delivered major social improvements, so that today the eradication of extreme poverty is at hand in the region.
A twenty-first century Alliance would most likely entail a re-launching of talks for a free trade agreement that encompasses nearly all of the Americas. That may sound unrealistic given that President Obama has expended his limited appetite for free trade by prioritizing negotiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. But emanating from Chile, Colombia, Mexico and elsewhere is a growing recognition that trade with the United States is preferable not just because of the country’s size and proximity when compared to China, but because the United States and Latin America share a vision of prosperity that is more democratic than that found in Asia. Hopefully, the United States will wake up to the partnership potential that Latin America offers.
The letter of the Alliance is stale, as is the insistence on measuring progress by a limited set of quantitative goals. Rather, it is the optimism of the Alliance that warrants revival.