Reasons for US involvement in Central America?

This week a left-wing coworker of mine mentioned how thrilled he was that Pope Francis declared Oscar Romero a Catholic martyr. Never having heard of Romero before, I googled him. Apparently, according to the Wikipedia article:

I know pretty much nothing about the history of El Salvador, so I don’t really understand what the above was all about. But it brought to mind memories of my parents watching the news in the eighties, with Peter Jennings mellifluously pronouncing “Nicaragua” and talking about the Sandinistas and the Contras.

This brought to mind the question: why was the USA interfering in Central America? I realize in some instances it may have to do with the drug trade, but that doesn’t seem to have been the case in El Salvador. Was it akin to the Vietnam War, i.e., to stop the spread of communism?

To be frank, because of Imperialist desires dating to the late 1800s, crystallized in the McKinley and Roosevelt administrations. We established that the Western hemisphere was our playground, and we were willing to fight to keep it so–we nearly came to war with the Kaiser over his trying to involve Germany in the Western hemisphere for example. Read about how the country of Panama exists (it did not, always) and how the Panama Canal was built. Read about the Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, and you’ll have an idea of the history.

When the Cold War started we were most aggressive with trying to limit the Soviet’s influence in our hemisphere, as we saw it, which lead to us doing a lot of pretty regrettable things. Primarily supporting extremely repressive right-wing dictators as long as they weren’t communists aligned with the Soviets. [Note I’m not condemning Theodore Roosevelt, my favorite President. Imperialism was the rule of the day and he was just working to make America as strong as the European Great Powers and was running the play book they used.]

Oops, meant to post this in GQ. I’m really hoping for factual answers.

FWIW my answer was about as factual as one gets in terms of the (abridged) history of U.S. involvement in Central America. You’ll find it in any pretty much any textbook. Specifically during the Cold War period you’re talking about in El Salvador, we supported right wing dictators to counteract left wing revolutionaries which were highly active in much of Central and South America. The policy of the clandestine services and the top leadership of the United States was centered on a belief that supporting democracy wouldn’t work since the leftists would seize power, so the only alternative was to help right wing strong men control countries in Central/South America. That is the reason behind of our support of several right wing dictators who ruled in that region during the Cold War.

It’s complicated, but the short answer is that the US felt that it had a vested interest in the region in opposition to the Europeans, who had established empires all through the Americas. That’s pretty much what the Monroe Doctrine was all about:

You are looking at things from a Cold War perspective when the US was involved in the region in opposition to the Soviet Union, but historically the US has felt it has vital interests not just in the region but in opposing European expansion into the region. And, of course, we also had a lot of vested economic interests, especially corporate vested interests, which also has driven policy there (often, um, unwisely, to put it mildly).

Since the OP contacted me and said he’s looking for factual answers, let’s just move this over to GQ.

Also beyond the whole Cold War politics and Monroe Doctrine symbolism, the US did have substantial business interests in those countries which would be put at risk by nationalization and other economic reforms favored by the left-wing groups. Some people will tell you that the US’s Cold War meddling in Latin America was entirely the US government protecting corporate interests and while I don’t think that’s particularly accurate, it was certainly a factor in why the US was much more interventionist in Latin America than elsewhere in the third world.

Corporate interests weren’t the WHOLE answer, but they were certainly a large part. Check out the Wikipedia entry for United Fruit Company, for one. Central America was big money and American corporations weren’t intending to let go of any of it.

Ever hear of a “Banana Republic”?

Common American name for any of the small countries of Central America - we didn’t bother to differentiate them.

The US Marine Corp was the ultimate political power in the area - it would decide who was “El Presidente”.

In a word: entitlement.

Also, Reagan had to rid central America of the movement for democracy.

The Drug War. Don’t forget the Drug War.

There are people in Central American who realize that crops can be grown in their soil that could become raw materials used in the production of certain mind-altering substances, that will eventually wind up in the US, where there’s a high demand for them.

The United States government will have none of that, thankyouverymuch.

Even though Latin America is now full of middle and even upper income nations, does the US still influence the region? I thought the US spent a lot of money to try to prevent leftist politicians from winning in Mexicos presidential election.

With the pink tide and the fact that Latin America is worth several trillion you’d assume this would backfire now.

It had nothing to do with the “drug war.” In my lifetime, it was all about Cold War proxies for the US vs USSR. In this hemisphere the main proxy was Cuba, but it was the same in various parts of Africa, not to mention Vietnam, etc. The US set up its own proxies by supporting right-wing juntas, etc.

Prior to this is was economic interests such as United Fruit (mentioned above).

And the name actually comes from the case of Costa Rica, whose railway works produced the plantations which in turn gave rise to United Fruit. Costa Ricans consider themselves “the original banana republic” with a rolleye and a sigh. That story is also behind such issues as the introduction of a sizeable black population in CR and of the peculiar racial tensions: they were brought over from Jamaica, as foremen for the train company first and United Fruit later, you could not become a foreman if you were local. This caused a lot of ill wish towards the very-visible foremen, which is exactly what the Americans hiring the Jamaicans had intended.

The excellent post by Martin Hyde has an ever shorter version: “the Monroe Doctrine: America for the Americans; and the rest too.”

It was all about stealing resources, and was all of Latin America, not just central America. In 1973 we overthrew the government of Chile so we could get cheap copper.

What comes to mind when you think of the California Gold Rush? Miners, perhaps, rushing west on mules and in covered wagons to get to the gold?

Nope, most miners traveled through Central America. Before the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, the fastest way to get from East to West, by far, was to take a boat to Panama, get across the isthmus by hook or by crook, and then take another boat to San Francisco.

At first, travel was by canoe and by mule, and the Panamanians made a lot of money. Then in 1854 an American company paid the Colombian government for right of way, and laid a railroad across the isthmus. It was a license to print money. Travel became even faster and easier, but a lot less lucrative for the locals.

The US government took a keen interest in these matters, since the trans-isthmus route was the lifeline linking east and west. Boatloads of California gold flowed from west to east during the Civil War, helping to finance the Union war effort. The “stability” of Colombia and Panama–that is, the existence of a government which would honor the railroad contract, and suppress any local distrubances–became a vital US interest. Likewise with Nicaragua, which offered an alternate trans-isthmus route.

Much of this was forgotten after the Transcontinental Railroad (1869), and most Americans associate our involvement in Central America with either the fruit companies or the Panama Canal. It began long before.

To be fair, the invasion of Panama was at least partially about the drug war. But my recollection is that this was the exception rather than the rule; the Cold War was winding down by that point anyway.

The name actually originated with the fictional state of Archuria from the short stories of O. Henry, and was based on his experiences in Honduras. So Costa Rica may be the first banana republic, but Honduras was the first Banana Republic, if you will.

O. Henry’s experiences in Honduras came from working in a situation spawned in Costa Rica, though, and that piece of shit with the Jamaicans is what most American companies do nowadays, too. It’s a very frequent complaint of the locals, that “no matter how good we are, American-owned factories only want us as peons”.

I wasn’t implying your answer wasn’t factual. Paradoxically, several of the answers given after the move to GQ feature just the kind of snarky tendentiousness I was trying to avoid. For example:


So, based on the answers so far, there were several factors: limiting the drug trade, the Cold War and the effort to stop the spread of Communism, the legacy of the Monroe Doctrine, and business interests, such as our ability to have cheap fruit. Am I right?

I still have two more questions:

  1. Several posters in this thread, along with my left-wing coworker, described the groups the USA supported in Central America as “right-wing.” What specifically was right-wing about them?

  2. Oscar Romero, the figure who sparked me to wonder about this topic, was El Salvadoran. The Wikipedia articles on him and on El Salvador mention that the USA supported the Revolutionary Government Junta, which came to power in 1979 and which Romero opposed. However, based on a quick perusal of both those articles, I can’t find any mention of why specifically we supported the Junta nor what our interests there were. So why specifically did we care about El Salvador in 1979?