CIPR | Center For Inter-American Policy & Research

Tulane University

Central America & the Circum-Caribbean

Central America & the Circum-Caribbean

The Central American and circum-Caribbean region is an ecological, human, and material corridor of great relevance to hemispheric exchanges, both historically and contemporarily. A point of transition between north and south, the region literally bridges the two parts of the continent, allowing for their distinctive characters, while establishing its own. The implications are multiple, biological as well as political, social as well as economic.
For Tulane University, Central America and the circum-Caribbean have long held historical relevance. It was in this area that the University first established Latin American expertise through archaeological and anthropological research and exploration dating back to the early part of the twentieth century. This in turn reflected the region’s connection to New Orleans and its port, a natural gateway for the region thanks to its strategic location at the mouth of the Mississippi. Trade and transportation routes have long generated flows of goods and people from the region, contributing to the development of business and the establishment of migrant communities with significant transnational ties.

To the U.S. as a whole Central America and the circum-Caribbean have also had longstanding historical relevance. In the nineteenth century the region was seen as coextensive with national interests, not merely as a part of the U.S.’s sphere of influence, but perhaps even as a frontier for the fulfillment of its “manifest destiny” of continental expansion. This led to unfortunate incidents of filibustering, most notoriously under William Walker, who lived briefly in New Orleans, and later, intervention in Cuba and Puerto Rico in the aftermath of the Spanish American War. The U.S. continued to assert its preeminence in the region throughout the twentieth century, starting with the 1903 intervention that led to the independence of Panama, followed a year later by the takeover of the transoceanic canal project, a global strategic asset that it developed and then controlled until the end of the century. The U.S. intervened militarily throughout the region over the ensuing decades, including in Nicaragua, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Panama, and Haiti, with covert operations also occurring in Guatemala and Cuba, and later in Nicaragua and El Salvador. Such a level and kind of intervention has had longstanding implications for how the region views the United States.

U.S. foreign policy towards Latin America in general, and Central America and the circum-Caribbean in particular, has consistently posited the strategic relevance of the area on the basis of its location and proximity to the U.S.. The Monroe Doctrine claimed the area as its exclusive sphere of interest, and its subsequent restatements–the Platt Amendment, the Roosevelt Corollary, the Truman and Johnson Doctrines–served as justifications for intervention, military or otherwise, to protect the U.S. from external threats, perceived or real. U.S. leaders constantly reasserted the strategic significance of the region, including President Johnson, who justified intervention in the Dominican Republic by referring to it as “our doorstep”, and President Reagan, who did the same by labeling Central America as “our own backyard”. More positive policy responses, like Kennedy’s Alliance for Progress, or Reagan’s Caribbean Basin Initiative, were premised on the notion that the U.S. would benefit by addressing the structural causes of regional social and political unrest, fostering economic and political development.
Regional conflicts receded at the end of the 1980s and countries completed their transitions to democracy and market economies as the Cold War and the economic shocks of the 1970s retreated and finally ended. This created new opportunities and challenges. Economic growth increased with trade and investment, driving improvements in general wellbeing. But poverty and inequality levels remained high and state capabilities low. Crime rates and violence surged to some of the highest levels in the world with the proliferation of gangs and the arrival of drug cartels. The challenges emerging from the region were now of a different nature, characterized by having domestic as well as international dimensions, with the implication that they could not be solved by a single party, not even the regional hegemon, instead requiring a multilateral approach. This was the case of immigration, transnational crime, and environmental degradation.

U.S. interest in the region waned in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. As the focus shifted to the War on Terror, policy towards the region was dominated by security concerns, particularly with regard to drugs and immigration. The framework of a “war” on drugs set the policy onus on the supply side–eradication and interdiction–doing little to prevent demand, relying mostly on the use of repressive and militaristic tactics. At the same time, domestic political pressures to “secure the border” drove policies towards erecting physical and technological barriers to prevent border crossings, while a comprehensive immigration reform could not garner sufficient political support to pass in a polarized political climate. Regional engagement otherwise focused mostly on trade and investment, with the signing of a free trade agreement with Central America and the Dominican Republic, and later with Panama.
As the U.S. fought wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, attempted to mediate the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and, subsequently, “pivoted” to Asia, Central America and the circum-Caribbean appeared to fade out of focus. Extra regional powers benefitted from the area’s opening, with China developing strong economic and political ties throughout the region, and Russia and Iran doing the same with Venezuela and its ALBA partners. Battered by the Great Recession, American regional predominance, let alone hegemony, was seriously questioned as Russia conducted joint military maneuvers with Venezuela and Chinese investors announced their intention to build a new transoceanic canal through Nicaragua. Countries in the region, buoyed by strong commodity prices, also asserted greater autonomy from the U.S. forming new regional institutions that excluded it and distancing themselves from American foreign policy objectives. This became particularly poignant in the case of Cuba where U.S. efforts to isolate the country economically through its longstanding embargo while excluding it from regional and diplomatic fora have faced continued and growing regional opposition.

Most recently, the appearance of thousands of Central American child migrants at the U.S. border fleeing the violence and despondency of their hometowns, brought the region’s relevance back into perspective. While geopolitical realities and the terms of engagement have changed, the United States and the circum-Caribbean are linked inextricably. The challenges the region faces are not solely its own, nor will the effects of success or failure confronting them be confined to it alone. These challenges are extremely complex, with deep historical roots, that defy simplistic solutions.

Some key general research questions in this area include the following:

  • How can Central America and the circum-Caribbean best confront the drug trade and transnational crime, including ways that focus on prevention and community engagement What are the terms for a more fruitful collaboration with the U.S. in this area? What are the potential costs and benefits for the region of drug legalization?
  • How may countries in the region foster state strength, enhancing their ability to confront crime and build strong economies, while ensuring the rule of law, transparency and accountability, and the respect for human rights?
  • How can countries in Central America and the circum-Caribbean develop greater resilience as they confront increasingly extreme weather events in a region greatly susceptible to the effects of global warming? What are the bases for building sustainable development in Central America and the circum Caribbean? What is the region’s potential for developing green economies? How may countries best take advantage of existent sources of renewable energy?
  • How may countries articulate the triple challenge of increasing economic growth, promoting social inclusion, and confronting climate change? How can countries reverse the loss of human capital and the social dislocation generated by migration? What are the regional implications of deepening social and political conflict in Mexico?
  • What are the challenges for democratic consolidation in the region and how might they be confronted? How do they affect the prospects for deeper regional integration? What would be the regional implications of a deepening internal conflict in Venezuela?
  • How likely is Cuba to follow a belated transition to democracy and the market? Will the economic changes adopted by Raúl Castro continue to deepen or will they backtrack? What alternatives exist for a more constructive U.S. engagement of Cuba and the opening of a post-embargo era?
  • What are the challenges posed by the potential development of a transoceanic canal in Nicaragua and how might they be confronted? More broadly, does the Chinese and Russian presence in the region imply potential risks in the case of a deeper strategic cleavage of those powers with the West?

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Latin America at the Crossroads: Peru

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Join CIPR for the third talk in the “Latin America at the Crossroads” series, this talk focuses on Peru. Voters rejected Keiko Fujimori, daughter of former President Alberto Fujimori, for president in the April 10, 2016 elections, but gave her party a majority in Congress. The election was marked by controversy and demonstrations, with many concerned that a win for Fujimori would mark a return to the human rights violations and corruption of the elder Fujimori’s presidency.

Dr. Cynthia McClintock, Professor of Political Science and International Afairs at George Washington University, will present on these recent events. Dr. McClintock is author of Peasant Cooperatives and Political Change in Peru (Princeton University Press, 1981) and Revolutionary Movements in Latin America: El Salvador’s FMLN and Peru’s Shining Path (U.S. Institute of Peace, 1998) and the co-author of The United States and Peru: Cooperation at a Cost (Routledge, 2003). A past President of the Latin American Studies Association, she has taught at the Catholic University in Peru, appeared on major U.S. and Peruvian news programs, and testified before the Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Afairs of the U.S. House of Representatives.

The talk is free and open to the public but RSVP is required.

For more information and to reserve your seat, please contact Sefira Fialkof at cipr@tulane.edu or phone 504.862.3141.