Almost Jeffersonian: U.S. Recognition Policy toward Latin America

By Weeks, Gregory | Presidential Studies Quarterly, September 2001 | Go to article overview

Almost Jeffersonian: U.S. Recognition Policy toward Latin America


Weeks, Gregory, Presidential Studies Quarterly


Since Latin American independence, U.S. presidents have consistently faced the issue of how to respond to domestic political conflict in the region. In particular, when unscheduled (and often unexpected) changes of government occur, should the United States extend diplomatic recognition to the new regime, or even revoke recognition of an already existing government? As scholars seek to explain the characteristics of post-cold war, post-twentieth century relations with Latin America, it is useful to analyze the development of recognition policy, which for many years was central to expressing approval or disapproval of governments. After the late 1960s, U.S. presidents deliberately removed recognition as a foreign policy tool. The purpose of this article is to examine U.S. recognition policy toward Latin American governments, to identify patterns in that policy, and to explain its decline.

In 1992, President Alberto Fujimori enacted a "self-coup," suspending the judiciary and dissolving congress. The Bush administration did not mention recognition at all but rather suspended nonhumanitarian aid (Clayton 1999,294). Despite Fujimori's authoritarian seizure of power, he never faced revocation of recognition. Then in 2000, Fujimori presided over obviously fraudulent elections. The Clinton administration simply asserted its "right to draw its own conclusions and take its own action in response" (Gutierrez 2000). In both cases, U.S. recognition of the government was never in doubt. Yet for nearly 150 years, recognition policy represented a central component of U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America. In cases of presidents' shutting down the opposition or utilizing electoral fraud or of military officers' overthrowing a government, U.S. policy entailed deliberation over whether the government in question fulfilled all criteria for diplomatic recognition.

Recognition has implied a wide range of consequences, including access to the courts of each country, protection of nationals, uninterrupted trade, and acceptance of coparticipation in treaties (Peterson 1997). Often, the policy was used to correct what U.S. presidents viewed as political misbehavior.(1) Now into the early twenty-first century, the United States no longer wields recognition as a foreign policy instrument, choosing instead to utilize more ad hoc strategies to express its will.

A survey of diplomatic correspondence and secondary sources has made it possible to identify the instances when the United States deliberated about recognizing a new government and what rationale U.S. policy makers utilized to make the decision. There are a total of fourteen:

* De facto control of the government

* Fulfillment of international obligations

* Evidence of popular support

* Constitutionality of the government

* Consensus with other American republics

* Promise of holding elections

* Degree of external influence

* Protection of U.S. citizens and their property

* Protection of civil liberties

* Whether the government is anti-Communist

* Promotion of stability

* Fulfillment of U.S. treaty obligations

* Need to protect foreign investment

* Need for prior consultation with European powers

Over time, the prevalence of certain rationale reveals clear shifts in policy. These shifts correspond to three distinct time periods: an emphasis on de facto control between 1822 and 1899; the rise of "dollar diplomacy," with a shift toward fulfillment of international obligations and protection of U.S. citizens and property from 1900 to 1934; and the gradual de-emphasis of recognition policy as a whole after 1934, culminating in its disappearance after 1969 and the concomitant rise of ad hoc policies.

Development of the Policy

The concept of recognition came out of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Europe. …

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