A fascinating theoretical question about the Obama administration's retro policies toward Central and Latin America is simply, "Why?"
Endlessly blockading Cuba. Accepting the Honduran coup. Freezing Aristide in Haiti. Sending troops into Honduras. Expanding the secret drug wars. The list seems endless.
In one view common on the Left, all this is evidence that the imperial Monroe Doctrine has never been ended, only revived. On the other hand, some who think in political terms say that these policies result from Obama keeping Clinton- (neo-liberal) and Bush- era (neo-conservative) holdovers at State, DEA and CIA. Still others theorize that it's all to prop up neo-liberal economics and prevent nationalist takeovers of resources.
All of these explanations carry elements of truth. It's difficult to theorize systems behavior as whole. I would add another view, from my perspective in social movements. The military, corporate and political bureaucracies will remain on auto-pilot unless a massive crisis, combined with a powerful social movement, forces them to adjust in a progressive direction.
Take two historic cases of what I mean. First, the young Congressman Abraham Lincoln criticized the US war against Mexico in the 1840s. It was a time of crisis when slavery was expanding westward, and there was a strong anti-imperialist sentiment at home. Years later, Lincoln again expressed strong support for Benito Juarez, the first indigenous Mexican president, battling against French imperial intervention. Whatever the combination of factors, Lincoln was enshrined as a hero in Mexico for opposing US intervention early on.
Second, during the 1930s Depression with World War 2 on the horizon, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the end of US unilateral military interventions in Latin America, and supported President Lazaro Cardenas' nationalization of Mexico's oil – over the fierce objections of the US oil industry. It was a time when the Left in the United States was powerful in itself, and closely connected with the Mexican Left. The result was the Good Neighbor Policy. Any future progressive policy towards Latin America can and should be built from those historic roots that still resonate today.
What's changed is the current absence of a strong movement against US intervention in Central and Latin America. The immigrant rights' movement is properly fighting for legalization against deportation. In seeking US citizenship, perhaps it is problematic to defend Latin American nationalism at the same time. In addition, the huge solidarity movements that arose during the US wars in Central America have faded away, leaving only smaller networks and policy think tanks. The vast 1990s movement against NAFTA, CAFTA, etcetera, has declined. The Vatican has crushed the institutions of liberation theology as well, though its spirit still lives on. The Cubans and, to a lesser extent the Venezuelans, have managed to build allied networks of supporters, but not on the scale of the 1970s solidarity movements and their congressional allies.
Fundamentalist Cold War anti-communism has easily morphed into drug wars and multiple efforts to sabotage or contain the Venezuelans, the Bolivians, and even Brazil. It is simply astonishing that the US under both Bush and Obama has treated democratic elections in Central and Latin America as a contagion while undertaking "democracy promotion," sometimes armed, in every other region of the world.
At some point, all this has to change, if only for a demographic reason: 50-60 million Latinos in the US constitute 20 percent of the population and decisive voting blocs in many states. Despite a severe backlash and repression in states like Arizona, the tide is turning. Latinos and their allies are likely to become the political fulcrum of both US domestic and foreign policy. A progressive movement cannot ignore that fact and have a future. We live in the Americas, nowhere else.