Contesting US-Centric Approaches to Inter-American Affairs: Latin American Responses to US Hegemony, 1880–1955

AHA Session 65
Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 2
Conference on Latin American History 11
Friday, January 8, 2016: 8:30 AM-10:00 AM
Regency Ballroom V (Hyatt Regency Atlanta, Lower Level 1)
Margaret Power, Illinois Institute of Technology
Margaret Power, Illinois Institute of Technology

Session Abstract

More than twenty years ago, Nancy Leys Stepan noted that Latin America was largely neglected in studies of intellectual history. Yet despite her assertion that the region had the potential to contribute to “our knowledge of how ideas become part of the complex fabric of social and political life,” many historians continue to treat Latin America as “a consumer and not a contributor of ideas, and a fairly passive one at that.” One consequence of this neglect is the persistence of portrayals of regional U.S. influence as hegemonic. Though scholars of inter-American relations, especially those focused on the Cold War, have begun to question this narrative, too often Latin Americans are presented as simply imitators or victims of ideologies and policies fostered in the United States. For example, Peter Sánchez has argued that because Latin American nations “did not form alliances to balance America’s rise to power” in the late nineteenth century, the United States enjoyed not only the preponderance of economic and military control, but was “able to compel or persuade subordinate states to cooperate without employing coercive power.”

Our panel challenges this interpretation of inter-American relations by examining Latin Americans’ transnational efforts to contest U.S. hegemony. Specifically, each of the papers examines instances in which Latin American actors not only elaborated original ideologies that countered the U.S. vision of the inter-American system, but succeeded in influencing U.S. policy. Micah Wright and Juan Pablo Scarfi discuss the hemispheric response to Washington’s unilateral interpretation of the Monroe Doctrine, Pan-Americanism, and U.S. interventions in the circum-Caribbean in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They find that intellectuals and writers throughout Latin America formulated anti-imperialist discourses and an Ibero-American alternative to U.S.-led Pan-Americanism. Moreover, they argue that Latin Americans’ transnational organizing succeeded in influencing U.S. foreign policy and contributed to the adoption of the Good Neighbor Policy. Meanwhile, Aaron Moulton turns our attention to the early years of the Cold War, when a network of Latin American officials from the Dominican Republic to Venezuela rejected U.S. definitions of “communism” and “anti-communism” and undermined American allies in pursuit of their own agendas. Generally, our panel concludes that the history of Latin American intellectual production and its political deployment help provide a clearer understanding of power relations in the Western Hemisphere. While acknowledging that the United States was the dominant voice in inter-American affairs, these papers illustrate a multipolar system marked by contestation and negotiation. Our conclusions are relevant not only for historians of U.S.-Latin American relations, but also those interested in U.S. foreign policy, the history of ideas, anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism, and transnational organizing.

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