BURYING 200 YEARS OF THE MONROE DOCTRINE FORUM
American University, Washington DC
April 29, 2023
Presentation by Steve Ellner
200 years since the issuing of the Monroe Doctrine. Washington politicians, policy makers and pundits are divided into 2 camps with regard to the Monroe Doctrine and foreign policy in general, that of the hard liners and the soft liners. Some say, myself included, that this divide is really an expression of the good cop / bad cop duo in that they work together and are on the same page. But in any case, the leadership of the Republican Party along with some Democrats such as Senator Bob Menendez, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who many say is a Republican on foreign policy (and I would say if the Democrats really believed that they represent an alternative to the Republicans, that he never would have been given that key position). The hard-line position is best formulated by the neo-cons who explicitly say that the Monroe Doctrine is alive and well. Those aren’t my words, they’re the exact words of John Bolton who as National Security Advisor under Trump said “in this administration we’re not afraid to use the phrase Monroe Doctrine.”
The second position was formulated by Secretary of State John Kerry in 2013 who declared that the Monroe Doctrine was no longer U.S. policy. His exact words were "The relationship that we seek… is not about a United States declaration about how and when it will intervene in the affairs of other American states. It’s about all of our countries viewing one another as equals, sharing responsibilities cooperating on security issues and adhering not to doctrine but to the decisions that we make as partners to advance the values and the interests that we share."
In other words Kerry was not saying that the U.S. will not intervene in the affairs of other countries but that it will not do so unilaterally. The same issue confronted Monroe in 1823 since at the time some felt that the doctrine should be issued as a joint statement with Great Britain.
But on what basis did Kerry make that statement? Under Obama, the sanctions against Cuba were not lifted even though the vast majority of nations throughout the world have voted in the UN against the use of sanctions against Cuba. Indeed, the Obama administration began to impose sanctions on Venezuelans and at the time of the executive order of 2015 declaring Venezuela “an extraordinary threat” to U.S. national security, 7 individual Venezuelans were sanctions. This regime set the stage for the harsh measures under Trump which were basically designed to strangle the Venezuelan economy.
But has the system of sanctions been significantly softened under Biden? And has Kerry’s pronouncement that the U.S. no long abides by the Monroe Doctrine and will no longer intervene unilaterally been upheld under the Biden administration? There is no evidence that the Biden administration is phasing out, or has any intentions to eliminate, the system of sanctions. In the case of Nicaragua, in 2022 and up to the present, the sanctions were actually intensified especially in the key area of mining with regard to exports, imports and investments. Second, one can say that Biden’s policy on sanctions is even more hypocritical than that of Trump. Some of you are certainly wondering, how can I say such nasty things about Uncle Joe? But the fact of the matter is that while Trump was set on regime change with a narrative of promoting democracy, Biden’s policy on sanctions is not designed to achieve regime change because after 4 years of trying to do that under Trump in the case of Venezuela and 60 years in the case of Cuba, Washington knows full well that regime change by those means is not in the cards. That’s what Senator Chris Murphy (also a member of the Committee on Foreign Relations) recognized even before the 2020 elections.
The foremost objective of the Biden administration’s policy is to wrest concessions in accordance with U.S. interests and that’s hypocritical since it has nothing to do with democracy (as if it ever did have to do with democracy). Biden’s approach is blatantly opportunistic and self-serving, that is, serving U.S. economic, political and geopolitical interests. It amounts to horse trading – you make so many concessions to us and we’ll lift so many sanctions, depending of course on the importance of the concessions. It also has to do with geopolitics interests. With regard to economic interests, Bloomberg News, among other news outlets has presented considerable detail as to Washington’s insistence that Maduro make greater economic concession. Maduro already has implemented some business-friendly policies which he considers (and I do not disagree with him on this) as necessary for the sake of political survival, but Washington insists on going further on that front. And with regard to geopolitics, it’s been made explicitly clear, that a major concession on the part of the Maduro government that would go a long way toward lifting certain sanctions would be if Maduro moved away from the Russian camp on the Ukraine conflict. And with regard to political interests, that refers to Washington’s efforts to bolster the position of those political forces that Washington is closest to. For a long time the U.S.’s closest ally was the Voluntad Popular party of Juan Guaidó and Leopoldo López (Guaidó was just kicked out of Colombia and now the Miami crowd doesn’t want to have anything to do with him – and that’s saying a lot). The U.S. is aligned with the Plataforma Unitaria, consisting mostly of the so-called g-4, the four larger and older parties which are very much discredited in Venezuela, at the expense of the moderate ones which criticize the sanctions and recognize the legitimacy of the Maduro government. The “radicals” on the right, include María Corina Machado, our woman in Caracas, who now replaces Guaidó who was our man in Caracas, that is, Washington’s favorite. The Plataforma Unitaria is being given a special role in that they will be in charge of the opposition’s team of negotiators in Mexico, which is what the State Department is pushing for.
Another example of hypocrisy is that Washington completely refuses to recognize Russia’s security concerns with regard to NATO expansion and missiles close to its borders and yet Washington attempts to counter what it considers to be hostile economic encroachment of China in U.S. territory south of its border. Furthermore, Blinken made clear to the Chinese that the U.S. would not tolerate their setting up of an espionage center in Cuba, which was most likely a complete fabrication on the part of Washington. But the point is that we can have security concerns, the Russians can’t. In other words, “do as I say not as I do.”
Another point I want to make with regard to unilateral intervention is that a new crop of progressives beginning with André Manuel López Obrador in Mexico in 2018 have come to power in Latin America, encompassing as many countries as the first wave of the Pink Tide which began with Hugo Chávez in 1998, but the second wave tends to be a bit more moderate. Gustavo Petro himself is a moderate and is outflanked to his left by other groups some of which just reluctantly endorsed his candidacy, and at the time he hadn’t had nice things to say about Maduro. But now he is making clear that all the sanctions have to be lifted and he is strongly supported by other progressive governments in Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Honduras, etc. Even Peru under the conservative banker Lasso, when it looked like Biden would be lifting the sanctions at the outset of the Biden administration indicated that he favored a rapprochement. All this puts the lie to Kerry’s claim that Washington, at least the Democratic Party, had ruled out unilateral intervention.
The last point I wanted to make is that in many ways the U.S. is shooting itself in the foot. The rejection of the system of sanctions has created momentum in which more and more countries are engaging in commercial activity in other currencies including their own. Lula committed himself to this during the presidential campaign and subsequently pushed for the appointment of Dilma Rousseff to head the New Development Bank of the BRICS with its headquarters in Shanghai, which has announced that 30% of its loans will be in local currency.
In short, there are multiple reasons for abolishing the system of unilateral sanctions and even multilateral sanctions except in the case of sanctions approved by the General Assembly of the United Nations. History has shown that the system of sanctions is detrimental to the interests of people throughout the world. Now it’s demonstrating that it’s also detrimental to the interest of the people of the United States.
Steve Ellner, a retired professor at Venezuela's Universidad de Oriente, is an associate managing editor of Latin American Perspectives and editor of the book Latin American Extractivism: Dependency, Resource Nationalism, and Resistance in Broad Perspective.
Read the recap: Burying the 200-year-old Monroe Doctrine