Which were the objectives of the Alliance for Progress and to what extent did the Kennedy Administration meet them?

The Alliance for Progress represented an attempt to re-create the spirit of the Good Neighbor policy of the FDR administration in the context of the Cold War. It reflected President Kennedy’s longstanding and pre-presidential commitment to third world nationalism and economic progress, and also served to place in context the administration’s attempts to isolate and undermine Cuba and Cuban figures within Latin America. The Alliance was one of Kennedy’s first announcements, in March 1961, and was in part modelled on the Marshall plan of post-war European reconstruction. Pledging one billion dollars in 1961, and a further 20 billion by 1969, Kennedy sought to trade roads, schools, hospitals and housing in Latin America for trade concessions and reliable anticommunism. The US pledged to work through the Organization for American States when it came to hemisphere affairs, and to meet with other nations on a basis of equality.

At least, this was pledged in public. As with other Kennedy policies, a significant contrast arises between public rhetoric and clandestine behaviour. For example, the administration welcomed but does not seem to have caused the assassination of President Trujillo in Dominica, but then refused to support his democratic successor, President Bosch, against the Dominican military when the latter staged a coup shortly afterward. Agents and embassies of the USA actively worked against the left-leaning populism of the governments of Argentina, Brazil and Chile, and encouraged an Argentinian military coup in 1962 and the beginnings of the Brazilian coup that culminated after Kennedy’s death in 1964. In British Guiana, the administration colluded with the British colonial power to remove Cheddi Jagan, a Marxist Prime Minister. American behaviour in Cuba has become in the years since JFK’s assassination so clouded and yet so studied that it is not clear how much the president knew about the multiple assassination and destabilisation programmes directed against Fidel Castro and his regime by the Kennedys, but they were legion.

Support for militarism was not consistent. In Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras and Peru, the administration actually cut off military regimes, at least for a time. The key policies for states to meet with US approval seem to have been to demonstrate a commitment to regional cooperation, stability and growth alongside an unflagging anticommunism.

The Alliance for Progress set extensive economic goals, one of which was a 2.5% target for regional growth. Growth in the region was actually 2.4%, which compared well with Western Europe, but pales besides the later growth achieved by markets and globalisation. Of Kennedy’s promised 20 billion dollars over the course of the decade, 18 billion was eventually expended, but seventy per cent of this came in the form of grants. In addition, Latin American terms of trade—the measure of whether exports could pay for imports—worsened severely over the course of the Alliance, and GDP per capita also fell because GDP growth failed to match that of the populations of the region. As with all statistics, however, the issue is one of the range of calculation. Some theories of economic development, such as those known as the Rostow and Harrod-Domar plans, require a period of slow growth before ‘take off’. If the early, pre-Operation Condor 1970s are taken into account, regional growth did accelerate to 3.8%  by 1974. Overall, Mexico and seven other states did well; two—Uruguay and Haiti—did badly and twelve fell short. Yet in general illiteracy was reduced and life expectancy extended. In terms of the human development index (the geometric mean of economic, life expectancy and schooling indices) Latin America improved. The numbers attending universities in the late sixties, which ironically became hotbeds of anti-US feeling in the seventies, grew parabolically.

However, the Alliance ultimately did not achieve its aims. The issue of Land Reform lay at the heart of Latin American development and in sponsoring this, the AfP failed. Only fifteen million families seem to have been marginally benefited by gaining nominal title to land. Minimum wages were set low and the economies of the states were dominated by the fiscal burdens imposed by forced loan repayments. This foreshadowed the African debt crisis of the 1980s, and trapped governments into cycles in which they had to monopolise the economy, earn foreign currency through exports, and then pay those earnings into foreign accounts because of spiralling rates of interest on government bonds as inflation set in. Partly as a consequence, there were mass protests and coups throughout the decade. What there was not, was another Castro.

It is difficult to judge many Kennedy administration policies in the round, since they were associated with a president whose time in office was truncated. It is noticeable, however, that although Kennedy himself was clearly committed to the AfP—he made three personal trips to latin America, including a triumphant one to Mexico city—there was no clear break in policy sufficient to separate the years between 1944 and 1963 from those between 1963 and 1990. The US still used economic might and operated in clandestine fashion through major corporations afterward as before. There was no détente or rapprochement with Cuba so as to make any trace of left-wing policy less neurasthenic; indeed, anticommunist subversion, coups and cross-border paramilitary operations increased in Nicaragua, Bolivia and Colombia in the 1970s. under the gaze of Argentinian, Paraguayan, Chilean and Nicaraguan Dictators. By 1980, things had changed so little that American public opinion was openly sympathetic to a corollary to the Monroe doctrine attached to the Panama Canal question; ‘we made it, we own it, it’s ours’. It was sometimes difficult to tell, as Ronald Reagan and Christopher Buckley repeated that phrase, whether they meant the canal or the country.

All political careers end in failure. With JFK’s Alliance for Progress, there was an afterlife. One can begin from different perspectives, insisting that the AfP be viewed as a vehicle for anticommunism and US economic interests, or that it was a genuine attempt to revive a region which had been more or less rendered prostrate by the Great Depression and which had scarcely recovered afterward. The Kennedy moment was more than usually complex, and black-and white answers to the questions it raises are usually impossible. If forced to a judgment, the historian must surely come to believe that high hopes were initially matched with actions, but that, in the absence of wider détente and without Kennedy at the top, the AfP withered into a vehicle for the US security system.