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As the chattering classes prematurely credit the United States with fostering democracy in the Middle East, they have ignored the old habits of empire that continue to fester in our own hemisphere. Amid the fuss over ANWR and steroids, the Washington Post reported recently that Hugo Chvez, the twice-elected president of Venezuela, has renewed cause to look over his shoulder.
Evidently, a former CIA operative told a Spanish-language news program in Miami that the United States may be considering "military measures" to induce political change in Venezuela. It could, Felix Rodriguez surmised, "do it with a military strike, with a plane," drawing comparisons with the attempted assassination of Libya's Mohamar Khadafi in 1986. Rodriguez, an old friend of the Bush family, knows how these things go; the Cuban exile trained right-wing terrorists in El Salvador during the cold war and ran the illegal operation to arm the contra squads in Nicaragua under Ronald Reagan.
Chvez survived a spring 2002 coup that was enthusiastically supported if not directly assisted by the United States, and he has never shrouded his feelings toward the current administration. He recently castigated Condoleezza Rice as an "illiterate" whom he regards as unfit for marriage. Rice, for her part, describes Chvez as a "negative force in the region," while administration officials have been less than discrete in formulating a strategy of Venezuelan containment and eventual "regime change."
Never mind the rhetoric of democracy and human rights, which is typically reserved to scold the uncooperative (Venezuela) rather than the compliant (Colombia). Venezuela possesses immense oil resources, upon which the United States depends for 15 percent of its imports. (Indeed, U.S. imports from Mexico, Venezuela, Colombia, and Ecuador exceed those drawn from the Middle East.) Chvez, to the unyielding fury of Washington, maintains good relations with Fidel Castro and has become the key figure in a bloc of rogue Latin American nations whose heresies include increased public spending on education and health care - a clear rejection of the pro-privatization consensus urged by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
Whether or not the assassination rumors are plausible, the conceptual legacy of U.S.-Latin American relations is worth recalling in an era of preventive war and celebrations of national virtue. In 1823, President James Monroe announced that the United States would view as "unfriendly" any European interference with Latin America. A spectral assertion with no standing in international law, the Monroe Doctrine was more valuable as myth than policy. It distinguished the corrupt, Old World nations of Europe - mired in superstition, monarchy and sin - from the Western Hemisphere, a wholly exceptional world where reason and republican virtue reigned supreme, and where the United States enjoyed special providence.
By 1904, the United States had stripped the carcass of the Spanish Empire, adding (officially or informally) the Philippines, Cuba, and Puerto Rico to its roster of possessions. With a renewed and strikingly familiar imperial confidence, Theodore Roosevelt expanded the Monroe Doctrine, converting it from a fable of hemispheric virtue into a blunt declaration of national power. His "Roosevelt Corollary" insisted that Latin American nations abide by certain norms of "civilization" or face the wrath of el Norte. Nations acting with "reasonable efficiency and decency," Roosevelt explained, need not worry. Yet "chronic wrongdoing," however defined, could require "the exercise of an international police power." No Latin American nation ever formally acknowledged the Monroe Doctrine, though most of them, Haiti, Mexico, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras, Chile, Colombia, and Argentina among them, have known its effects.
As I occasionally suggest to my students, we live in a nation that has globalized the Monroe Doctrine, with consequent disregard - to say nothing of its outright disdain - for the discomforts of international law. But while the Monroe Doctrine has been updated for the new millennium (and our new Middle Eastern "backyard"), the old claims upon Latin America still apply, a reminder of virtue's limits. So while the United States continues to insist that it will only support legal, democratic means to dispose of Hugo Chvez, more traditional scenarios - rooted, of course, in the virtuous pursuit of stability and order - are not difficult to imagine.
David Noon is an assistant professor of history at the University of Alaska Southeast.