This December will mark 200 years of the Monroe Doctrine, one of our nation’s oldest and foundational foreign policies. As we approach two centuries of the doctrine, it’s time the United States leaves behind this antiquated policy in favor of something more modern and effective.
In 1823, President James Monroe declared that the American continents would not be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers. Thus began a legacy of American dominance over Latin America. Over the next 100 years, this foreign policy philosophy justified interventions, annexations, and other colonial actions across the Western Hemisphere, including in my homeland of Puerto Rico.
As the U.S. sought to limit the rise of communism and socialism during the Cold War era, our government invoked the Monroe Doctrine to support coups, fund military repression and death squads, and prop up brutal dictatorships.
In August, several of my colleagues and I had the opportunity to travel to Brazil, Chile, and Colombia. These countries bear substantial scars from our foreign policy decisions over the past century. From the American-backed coup to overthrow socialist President Salvadore Allende to our government’s long-standing support for the military dictatorship in Brazil, leaders in all of these countries continue to deal with the costs of the Monroe Doctrine in their countries.
Another tragic example of this dynamic has been the U.S. approach to Colombia, where Cold War-era strategies and remnants of the failed “War on Drugs” linger today.
In August, I traveled to Columbia where I met with President Gustavo Petro, Vice President Francia Márquez Mina, and others involved in efforts to achieve “total peace” and negotiate an end to the decades-old conflict with the National Liberation Army (ELN) while fully implementing the still very recent peace agreement negotiated with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). During our meetings, we discussed the legacy of U.S. foreign policy in Colombia and the disastrous unintended consequences that have often followed it.
In 2000, the U.S. launched “Plan Colombia” in coordination with the Colombian government. Under the policy, America provided Colombia with massive amounts of resources and training to combat the leftist insurgencies of the FARC and the ELN.
Make no mistake: These guerrilla groups committed numerous horrific atrocities, from kidnappings and murders to bombings and drug trafficking. The U.S.-supported Colombian military, however, and especially the right-wing paramilitaries deployed to fight the FARC and ELN, often exceeded the guerrillas in bloodshed and unspeakable human rights abuses.
The UN estimates that the vast majority of killings in Colombia—roughly 80 percent—have been committed by right-wing paramilitary groups.
In recent decades, U.S. support has coincided with intensified bloodshed and increased civilian deaths. Researchers found that the military’s extrajudicial killing of civilians increased after the U.S. boosted assistance. The Colombian military is estimated to have killed at least 5,000 civilians during Plan Colombia. Too often, American support and training has made these atrocities possible.
Coupled with support for the brutal counter-insurgency as part of Plan Colombia has been American initiatives tied to the “War on Drugs,” which have also led to rights abuses as well as destructive and ineffective policies like aerial fumigation. The U.S. has made this practice a centerpiece of its war on coca in the region.
For years, planes have strafed the Colombian countryside, spraying the chemical herbicide glyphosate in attempts to wipe out coca plants. In the process, food crops and other plants are destroyed as well, and sometimes locals fall ill with severe skin problems and other health issues due to the toxic chemicals being deployed.
This one-sided approach ignores the economic incentives that push small farmers to grow cocoa; they often lack other opportunities to provide for themselves and their families. It can exacerbate farmers’ problems by destroying the other crops they may decide to grow as coca alternatives, or by making the land unusable.
The new peace in Colombia presents us with an opportunity for a new policy approach to Colombia, one that would put human rights first while assisting the Colombian government in creating a better future for all its citizens.
During my trip to South America, I met with many policymakers and activists eager to turn the page on years of failed U.S. policies in Latin America and build a collaborative relationship that treats countries as equals and helps address the shared challenges we face.
In Colombia, the Petro government is attempting to move on from the forced eradication efforts implemented decades ago. Instead, they are focusing on strategies that protect, not target, those on the lowest economic rung, in this case coca farmers, for punishment.
We should be working with the Petro government to support a new approach that will help strengthen and expand peace, create productive and positive economic opportunities for the mostly Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities that have been devastated by decades of armed conflict, while also curbing cocaine production.
From drug trafficking to mass migration to climate change, the many shared challenges between the United States and Latin America cannot be addressed by the antiquated Monroe Doctrine. These are some of the most pressing issues of our time, and they call for a process that stresses respect and cooperation.
As leading Republican presidential candidates call for the invasion of Mexico and a revitalized Monroe Doctrine for the 21st century, it’s incumbent on Democratic policymakers to show that a more forward-looking Latin American foreign policy can be effective. In shifting its drug war strategy, the Colombian government has already created a radically new approach to failed policies. It’s time for the United States to join them in this effort.
Rep. Nydia M. Velazquez is a Democratic congresswoman representing New York.
The views expressed in this article are the writer’s own.