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The Monroe Doctrine, Revisited: How 200 Years of U.S. Policy Have Helped to Destabilize the Americas

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This weekend, Democracy Now! co-host Juan González gives the opening plenary at American University’s one-day conference, “Burying 200 Years of the U.S. Monroe Doctrine,” marking 200 years since the Monroe Doctrine, the foreign policy directive from President James Monroe that effectively declared all of Latin America a U.S. sphere of influence. For the past two centuries, the Monroe Doctrine has been repeatedly used to justify scores of invasions, interventions and CIA regime changes in the Americas. On today’s show, we speak to two other conference guests, CodePink’s Medea Benjamin and The Red Nation’s Nick Estes, about the Monroe Doctrine’s long and brutal legacy within U.S. imperialism.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

This year marks 200 years since the United States effectively declared all of Latin America and the Caribbean within its sphere of influence. On December 2nd, 1823, President James Monroe outlined what became known as the Monroe Doctrine. He warned other nations to stay out of the Americas, saying, quote, “We should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety,” unquote. Over the past 200 years, the Monroe Doctrine has been repeatedly used to justify scores of invasions, interventions and CIA regime changes in the Americas.

This is Vermont’s independent Senator Bernie Sanders talking about the Monroe Doctrine last year, shortly before Russia invaded Ukraine.

SEN. BERNIE SANDERS: Mr. President, Vladimir Putin may be a liar and a demagogue, but it is hypocritical for the United States to insist that we, as a nation, do not accept the principle of spheres of influence. For the last 200 years, our country has operated under the Monroe Doctrine, embracing the principle that as the dominant power in the Western Hemisphere, the United States has the right, according to the United States, to intervene against any country that might threaten our alleged interests. That’s United States policy. And under this doctrine, the United States has undermined and overthrown at least a dozen countries throughout Latin America, Central America and the Caribbean.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Senator Bernie Sanders speaking last year.

Well, on Saturday, American University in Washington, D.C., will be hosting a one-day conference titled “Burying 200 Years of the U.S. Monroe Doctrine.” Democracy Now!’s Juan González will give the opening plenary address.

We’re joined now by two other guests, as well. Nick Estes is an Indigenous writer and historian, co-founder of the Indigenous resistance group The Red Nation and a citizen of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe, author of Our History Is the Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance. Nick is joining us from Minneapolis. In Washington, D.C., Medea Benjamin is with us, the co-founder of CodePink, co-author of the new book War in Ukraine: Making Sense of a Senseless Conflict.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Medea, let’s begin with you. Talk about the whole push for this conference called “Burying … the Monroe Doctrine.”

MEDEA BENJAMIN: CodePink initiated this and got a group of partners around the country to join with us in recognizing the immense changes that are happening in Latin America, the progressive governments that are coming into power all over the region, the vibrant civil society that exists. And yet, on the other hand, you have the U.S. trying to continue to impose its will on Latin America and the Caribbean, whether it’s through a continued military presence, through brutal economic sanctions that are imposed on Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, or through the U.S. companies that try to continue to exploit the mines, the logging, the lithium, the resources, the oil. And so you have a real disconnect.

And we are saying that it’s time that U.S. policy recognizes that this is not the U.S. backyard. The U.S. is looking at Latin American and saying, “Oh my goodness, China is now becoming the major trading partner with all of these countries in Latin America,” and wants to now push China way. That’s not the attitude we want in U.S. policy. We want the U.S. to finally recognize the sovereignty of countries in Latin America, the reality that Latin America has changed, and that it is time for a policy that is one based on mutual respect.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, I’d like to bring Nick Estes into the conversation, as well, writer, historian, author of Our History Is the Future: Standing Rock Versus the Dakota Access Pipeline, and the Long Tradition of Indigenous Resistance. Nick, I wanted to ask you about the parallels between the Monroe Doctrine and also the Doctrine of Discovery, which a lot of Americans are not aware of but which has often been cited in U.S. law. This was hundreds of years older even than the Monroe Doctrine, and it essentially permitted or sanctioned the regarding of the Native peoples of the Americas as an inferior race. Yet the pope managed this year to finally discard the Doctrine of Discovery. Could you talk about that?

NICK ESTES: Coincidentally, in 1823, the year that the Monroe Doctrine was enunciated, you also had a Supreme Court decision, through the Marshall Court, that decided that through, you know, this process of Cherokee removal, you have the influx of white settlers into the state of Georgia. You have Chief Justice John Marshall declaring that the United States had inherited the Doctrine of Discovery or the discovery principle from previous colonizing powers. And in this case, he traces it back to the Holy See or the Catholic Church.

But this sort of process of colonization and what can only be described as ideologies of brutality really originates mostly from the Founding Fathers themselves. They use these — you know, this doctrine of the Doctrine of Discovery as sort of a made-up excuse to colonize Indigenous peoples. But if you go back to somebody like Thomas Jefferson, you know, when he was debating what this new empire of liberty would look like, he envisioned this empire expanding through the Western Hemisphere and having a global influence.

And during the debates about what the Constitution would look like, there were two sort of primary enemies that the United States was worried about in the 1880s when it was writing its Constitution. And that was the Indigenous nations on the Western frontier, as well as competing European powers. And so, when the United States begins to form its military, it uses a tax levy system to basically raise its standing army. This was an idea from Alexander Hamilton, who saw the dual threats of European influence as well as Indigenous nations on the Western frontier. And this begins sort of the process of looking at, you know, to quote the Declaration of Independence, “the merciless Indian savages” on the Western frontier, but also looking at the rest of the hemisphere. The treaties that Thomas Jefferson signed or that he encouraged to be signed with Indigenous nations essentially tried to bind them to the United States so that they couldn’t make treaties with other European powers. And that same principle applied to the Western Hemisphere.

And, you know, it’s important to point out that in 1823, the United States was a relatively small nation compared to its present-day form. So, in 1823, the Monroe Doctrine is aligning itself with the Doctrine of Discovery as sort of this imperialist, expansionist ideology that we can see the effects of today.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Nick — and I should add, Nick, you are a professor at the University of Minnesota in the American Indian Studies program. You have the pope renouncing the Doctrine of Discovery. What about Congress, the Monroe Doctrine?

NICK ESTES: Yeah. I mean, it’s important to point out that the pope himself, you know, when they repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery in their press release, they pointed out that the Holy See had essentially abrogated it by 1537. And they make this claim that they have been recognizing Indigenous rights ever since, which I think is a very dubious claim, especially given the recent discoveries of thousands of Native children who died at the hands of the Catholic Church in these brutal residential schools in Canada, as well as what’s being uncovered in the United States.

But for the Doctrine of Discovery to be actually excised from federal Indian law would require something beyond the courts. And, in fact, you know, when you travel throughout the world, when you talk about the federal Indian law system, a lot of people are still surprised that the United States is using this 15th century papal bull to justify the taking of Indigenous lands, when many countries throughout the world — most countries throughout the world have moved well beyond that.

And it’s going to take more than just, you know, a repudiation or words for the Doctrine of Discovery to be completely removed from that sort of — the institution of federal Indian law and policy. But also with the Monroe Doctrine, you had John Kerry in 2013 saying that the United States is moving beyond the Monroe Doctrine. But at the same time, you have Obama implementing sanctions on Venezuela. So, which is it? You know, you can have great words, but the actions don’t necessarily match those words.

AMY GOODMAN: Juan, I wanted to ask you a question. Now, you’re co-hosting the show, of course, as you have for all these 27 years, but you’re also the keynote speaker at the American University conference on burying the Monroe Doctrine. And among your books is the one that was just reissued in paperback, that is a textbook in so many classrooms across this country, called Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America. Can you talk about the connection between the Monroe Doctrine of 200 years ago and the exodus of people to the United States and how the U.S. government treats them?

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yes, Amy. Well, it’s precisely the implementation of the Monroe Doctrine and the creation of what essentially became the birthplace of the American empire in Latin America that resulted in so many people from Latin America coming to the United States in the — especially in the late 20th century and the beginning of this century. And a lot of people don’t understand that relationship. In fact, it’s precisely those countries in Latin America that the United States once intervened in, occupied and executed regime changes in that have produced the most migrants to the United States. So there’s a direct relationship between the empire the United States built in Latin America and the migration crisis that we continue to face here in this country.

And, you know, I don’t think that most Americans really understand the enormous number of interventions that our governments have perpetrated in Latin America. I mean, you can think of 1965, when Lyndon Johnson sent in several thousand U.S. troops to occupy the Dominican Republic. At that time, Johnson specifically said that the United States has no intention of allowing another communist government to exist in the Western Hemisphere. Now, first of all, the Dominican Revolution was not a communist revolution; it was a revolution against generals who had instituted a dictatorship. It was a democratic revolution. But the United States felt it had the right to invade the Dominican Republic and reorder that society based on the Monroe Doctrine. And you could go into Panama in 1989; Guatemala in 1954; the Dominican Republic even earlier, in 1916; Mexico; Honduras; Nicaragua. All of these countries were invaded by U.S. military forces based on the established right, as far as Washington understood, that it could determine what was happening throughout all of its, quote, “backyard,” or its empire.

And I think that that’s what’s at stake that needs to be finally renounced, especially given the enormous changes in Latin America, that Latin America is no longer subservient to the United States in the way — or, its governments are no longer subservient to the United States in the way that they have been in the past.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Juan, we first met in Haiti, covering Haiti, one U.S.-backed coup after another. And you have the occupation of Haiti by U.S. forces back in 1915.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yes, Haiti was another example, Grenada. Who remembers Grenada? And the United States — a tiny little country, and yet the United States felt it had the right to send troops into Grenada to essentially change the government of Grenada. There are so many countries in the Western Hemisphere that have experienced this, that it’s no wonder that now, finally, not only the people of these countries but the governments themselves are standing up and saying, “Hey, we don’t need to allow this anymore.” And now you’re having, throughout the entire South America and Central America and the Caribbean, governments coming to power that are saying, “We need a new relationship, a more equitable relationship, with the United States.”

AMY GOODMAN: And, Medea Benjamin, you’re in Washington, D.C., right now, where the conference is going to be at American University. Headquartered there also is the Organization of American States. Can you explain the significance of this institution?

MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, this is an institution created in 1948, and it’s always been dominated by the United States. It is supposedly for Latin America and the Caribbean, but it is ironic that the headquarters is right here in the United States. And it has been a way for the United States to exert its influence in Latin America. It is seen by more and more of the progressive Latin American countries as an old institution, a dinosaur, that needs to either be significantly reformed or replaced. This is especially true after the OAS was instrumental in the overthrow of the government in Bolivia of Evo Morales. And the head of the OAS, Almagro, is seen as somebody throughout the region that is too close to the United States and doesn’t represent the new Latin America. That is why there is a lot of effort being put into strengthening the alternative, called CELAC, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States. And I think there is more and more of a recognition that OAS should go by the wayside in history, because it does not represent the new Latin America.

And I do want to say that for people who want to join us, there’s still some room in Washington, D.C. You can go to to register. And there will be hundreds and hundreds, if not thousands, of people watching online, both in the United States and throughout Latin America, because it will be simultaneously in Spanish, as well.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, I wanted to ask Nick also about the enormous changes among the Indigenous people of Latin America and their impact on Native peoples in this country. Could you talk about the changes? Because, obviously, much of Latin American history is also the history of Indigenous populations there, as well as of Africans and the African slave trade. But can you talk about the enormous changes that are occurring in Latin America among Indigenous people?

NICK ESTES: Medea mentioned the 2019 U.S.-backed coup that ousted, you know, Indigenous President Evo Morales. And we can look at Bolivia, as the plurinational state and the project that it is, really as a beacon of hope for a lot of Indigenous people in the Americas to look beyond the sort of hegemonic, singular mode of liberal democracy that we see in the United States that doesn’t really privilege plurality but privileges homogeneity, and looking at the successes of that movement and how, in 2010, you had something like the People’s Accords that was passed there, that really recognized the rights of Mother Earth and, you know, Pachamama. That was really reflective — you know, reflected in the constitutional process that Bolivia has undergone and the process of change that it has undergone in the last two decades. And we can see, like, even how the Monroe Doctrine attempts to strangle or choke out alternatives. And in this case, it’s an Indigenous alternative for the hemisphere. It’s not just a national project for Bolivia, but it was looked at as a sort of international or hemispheric project for Indigenous peoples.

And we see this same kind of process underway in a country like Brazil, where you’re coming out of a very brutal presidency under Bolsonaro and the devastation of Indigenous lands, the threat against Indigenous rights. But then you see the Indigenous movements really coalescing around this broader movement for progressive changes, not just within the domestic policies of Brazil itself but also internationally, and how — working in cooperation with different nations and different movements throughout the world, how to lessen the impact and, in some instances, stop the devastation of Indigenous lands within that particular region.

And I also just want to point out that the Indigenous movements in North America and the recognition that has been gained at the United Nations would not have been possible without the support of, you know, countries from the Global South, as well as our Indigenous relatives in the Global South. And so, when we’re talking about the Monroe Doctrine and we think about things like sanctions in Venezuela, you know, those sanctions target not just high-level government officials, they target everyday civilians and people. And one aspect of Venezuelan society that’s often forgotten is Indigenous people within Venezuela, who are — who were suffering the very deleterious aspects of the sanctions regime. And so, when we’re talking about repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery domestically within the United States or repudiating the Monroe Doctrine, we have those kind of movements in mind and those kind of aspects of our struggle, that isn’t just confined to securing gains for Indigenous peoples in the United States, but it’s definitely part of this hemispheric approach.

AMY GOODMAN: Nick Estes, we want to thank you for being with us, Indigenous writer and historian, co-founder of the Indigenous resistance group The Red Nation and a citizen of the Lower Brule. He is an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota in the Department of American Indian Studies. Thanks so much for joining us. Medea Benjamin, please stay with us. After break, we’re going to talk about the war in Ukraine. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: “Jamaica Farewell” by Harry Belafonte. He died at his home on Tuesday in New York at the age of 96.

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