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Trump continues long U.S. legacy of bullying Latin America

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Vice President Mike Pence and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. Photo: The White House/flickr/ Myles D. Cullen

"The Donald" can't buy a break. The U.S. President has been criticized for undermining all the established conventions of the presidency, but that's not how it looks to me. In fact, he's honouring several of the central themes of American history.

What else is anti-Mexican racism but part of the warp and woof of American life? What else is Sheriff Joe Arpaio but a classic case of law and order serving the cause of bigotry and racism? What else are threats to Mexico and the slander of Mexicans? Playing the race card and bullying the countries of Latin America are as American as McDonald's golden arches.

So despite all his ostensible repudiation of established and hallowed practices, literally from the moment he announced his decision to run, Donald Trump was following in earlier footsteps. Last month, we saw yet another example, when Vice-President Mike Pence went on a Latin America tour to throw around American weight. Nothing could be a more cherished part of the American Dream.

Anyone who ever said that the United States, unlike Europe, has not been guilty of an imperial past has willfully ignored U.S. policy toward Latin America for the past two centuries. In fact, imperialism was a formal component of American foreign policy ever since 1823, when former U.S. president James Monroe outlined his cheeky Monroe Doctrine. First, it unilaterally banned European intervention in the Western Hemisphere. Second, it pledged that the ban would apply equally to the United States. Well, one out of two ain't bad.

By and large, most of the countries of the Caribbean and Central and South America have been American fiefdoms for much of the past 200 years. If it wasn't the CIA and its bag of deadly clandestine tricks, it took the form of direct military intervention, training and weapons. Mostly to protect some "yuge" American economic interests, U.S. presidents sent in the Marines -- Semper fi and Oorah to you -- while the CIA specialized in knocking off unco-operative heads of state.

The more notorious interventions and invasions are well known: Cuba, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Dominican Republic, Chile, Panama, Grenada -- the list is impressively comprehensive. No place was immune from America's violent meddling. At times, the United States has provided military support to reactionary forces that had taken over much of the continent, as Ronald Reagan did during the 1980s when violent right-wing armies brutally ruled -- Chile, Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Peru. Mr. Reagan remains the revered avatar of the Republican Party and virtually all conservatives. At the same time, American economic policy was carefully designed to promote American interests in Latin America, especially agriculture and mining. "Banana republic" wasn't a figure of speech.

Here's where Mr. Trump has already proved to be just another conventional American president. Asked about the strife in Venezuela, Mr. Trump was positively Monroe-like. "We have many options for Venezuela and, by the way, I'm not going to rule out a military option," he said.

But the times in Latin America, they've been a-changing. Meeting President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia early in his trip, Mr. Pence got an unusual earful. Mr. Santos -- one of the United States' best friends down south -- denounced Mr. Trump's threat, adding that military force "shouldn't even be considered" and was "unacceptable." Mr. Santos added: "Every country in Latin America would not favour any form of military intervention."

This historic exchange received minimal coverage in North America. Across South America it earned banner headlines. It must have shocked the Yanquis. Neither Mr. Trump nor Mr. Pence had a clue that so many Latinos still bitterly recall the long night of American imperialism that caused so much pain and poverty across the entire south. But a new south has arisen in the past generation throughout Latin America, led by women and men who will not be bullied by their former imperial power.

According to Mr. Pence, the United States "is simply not going to tolerate seeing Venezuela collapse into dictatorship." Heaven knows Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and friends have made an unholy mess of the mixed legacy left to them by Hugo Chavez, and 11 Latin American countries plus Canada have now demanded a return to democracy in Venezuela.

But I'll bet that's not the world's priority this year. Actually, I'm confident that Mr. Pence's sentiment is shared by millions around the world -- if "Venezuela" was replaced by the good old U.S. of A.

Gerald Caplan is a former New Democratic Party national director. This column was first published in The Globe and Mail.

Photo: The White House/flickr/ Myles D. Cullen

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