Barack Obama has quite a presidential legacy to deal with as he plots his course in Latin America. His first test is the coup in Honduras and he has passed it well, so far. Obama has rightly denounced the ouster of the democratically elected leader and is now seeking the re-establishment of democracy in the country
But nonetheless he still has to overcome a sad and addled history of U.S. interventionism in the region. Up until Franklin Roosevelt's presidency, the U.S. had, under the Monroe Doctrine, exercised a free hand throughout Central America and the Caribbean. It intervened in Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Panama, among others, sometimes to protect U.S. citizens from violence, sometimes to collect debts, sometimes to install friendly regimes. A Democratic President, however, fortunately upended this egregious record.
FDR introduced the "Good Neighbor" policy in which America agreed to forgo the Monroe Doctrine and acknowledge the independence of Latin nations, treat Latin leaders with respect, and refrain from heavy-handed meddling in the internal affairs of the hemispheric states. But the Eisenhower Administration soon repudiated that policy by using the CIA to overthrow a democratically-elected government in Guatemala, claiming it was Marxist-influenced.
Our next president, JFK, however, tried to return to the FDR notion of sovereign equality with his "Alliance for Progress" initiative -- but nonetheless permitted US intrusion into Cuba, Guyana and Brazil. Lyndon Johnson, following JFK, sent US marines into the Dominican Republic to crush a so-called "Communist" uprising. His successor, Richard Nixon, supported a coup against the democratically elected president of Chile, Allende. Gerald Ford mercifully had little to do with Latin lands. Providentially, the next chief executive, Jimmy Carter, returned to the FDR path and pushed a "human rights" agenda which forced military regimes like those in Argentina and Uruguay to spare the lives of many imprisoned "subversives." But our subsequent leader, Ronald Reagan unleashed the CIA in Central America once again, supporting the Contras against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and next invaded Grenada to toss out a Marxist regime.
Thereafter, George H.W. Bush invaded Panama to oust the dictator, Noriega. Bill Clinton, though, re-established the FDR approach by treating Latin lands with respect and reinforced the trend toward democracy in Central and South America. But George W. Bush, in his turn, though he neglected Latin America, did briefly support a coup attempt against Chavez in Venezuela, thereby helping to besmirch America's reputation once more throughout the hemisphere. Obama has, as we know, returned firmly to the FDR/Carter/Clinton multilateral approach. Let's hope our country stays on that course.