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U.S. and Latin American Relations


Second Edition


Gregory B. Weeks





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Between fiscal years 2013 and 2014, United States Customs and Border Protection reported that the number of unaccompanied children apprehended at the border had risen 88 percent, from 35,209 to 66,127.1 The number from Central America alone had spiked even more dramatically and by early 2014 it had sparked a media storm. But who or what was to blame? Several members of the United States Congress pointed their fingers directly southward. As one colorfully and angrily put it:

We need to whack them, our neighbors, to understand that they are just not going to keep taking our money and we are just going to be sitting here like this—we’re not the ATM machine.2

This sentiment was widely shared by U.S. policy makers. It held that the problem was primarily due to mismanagement in the sending countries, the leaders of which needed prodding—or “whacking”—from the United States to correct the error of their ways.

Not surprisingly, the view in Latin America was quite different. As Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández put it:

Your country has enormous responsibility for this… The problem of narco-trafficking generates violence, reduces opportunities, generates migration because this [the United States] is where there’s the largest consumption of drugs. That’s leaving us with such an enormous loss of life.3

Other Central American presidents agreed. Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina added that Central America had suffered for years because of U.S. Cold War policy, and so should provide more resources to combat this particular problem.4 From that perspective, by virtue of its considerable power the United States had helped create many of the very issues that it faced.

This disconnect has spanned many decades and tells us something important. There are often gaps between the expectations of U.S. policy makers, the responses and actions of their Latin American counterparts, and the reaction from the Latin American (and in some cases the U.S.) public to policy initiatives. Why do such gaps exist? What kinds of similar historical continuities still exist? Where and when do we see different kinds of policies emerging from Latin America? As this book went into production in December 2014, President Barack Obama announced historic changes in U.S. policy toward Cuba, which had been problematic since the administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower. This book will help students to understand why policies are put in place and why they might persist for many years.

U.S. and Latin American Relations argues that greater understanding requires a focus on power and, more precisely, the imbalance of power. For this reason, I employ realist theory from the scholarly literature on international relations, though I also explain how two other major theories—dependency theory and liberal institutional theory—can shed light on the relations between the United States and Latin American countries. I pay particular attention to the strengths and weaknesses of each theoretical approach. Students can therefore link political history and current events to theories that serve as guides to explain the motivations of policy makers in different states, how political and economic power are used in the international system, and probable outcomes when interstate disputes arise.

Many books have been written on this topic, to the degree that reading all of them would be impossible, especially since plenty of previously forgotten tomes are now being revived digitally, so more and more are becoming available. What sets this particular book apart is its integration of theory, scholarship, history, and pedagogy. It serves not only as a theoretically and historically oriented analysis, but also as a springboard for further learning and research.


The introductory chapter establishes a theoretical context for studying relations between the United States and Latin America; the remainder of the book is split into two parts, one on historical background and one on current issues. Chapters 2 through 7 in Part I cover the period from Latin American independence in the early nineteenth century to the Cold War, highlighting the development of U.S. hegemony and shifts in relations that took place, in terms of both U.S. policy and the actions and perceptions of Latin American political leaders. It includes a case study of the Cuban revolution, which had a dramatic impact on policies in Latin American countries and in the United States. Chapters 8 through 12 in Part II detail critical contemporary issues: the politics of debt and trade, the challenges to U.S. hegemony, immigration, human rights and democracy, and drugs and terrorism. They go beyond the headlines to analyze how these issues have been addressed, the conflict and cooperation, and how U.S. power has been wielded and resisted. This book goes beyond mere discussion and analysis. Each chapter includes a number of additional features that will help students dig deeper into the points being covered:

The book also incorporates:



I really enjoyed writing and revising this book and I want to thank Peter Coveney at Wiley for giving me the opportunity to do a second edition.

Thanks to all the readers and commenters on my blog Two Weeks Notice, where I write regularly on Latin American politics and U.S.–Latin American relations. I’ve had many ideas stem from blog posts and the comments they receive.

For comments and sometimes corrections, I appreciate the help of Russell Bither-Terry, Alan McPherson (who pointed out some errors in a review of the first edition), and Benjamin Goldfrank. Special thanks go to the three anonymous reviewers, all of whom provided thorough and constructive suggestions. The book is better as a result.

As always, my family was a source of great encouragement. My wife Amy was always there for me, while my children Benjamin, Julia, and Elizabeth helped me recharge after hours of work. Finally, my parents John and Deanna Weeks could easily commiserate with the process of revision, having worked on a textbook with many editions. As with the first edition, I dedicate this book to them.