A Second Chance

Yesterday’s Latin America and Today’s Middle East

From 2011 to 2012, social media outlets were set afire with news of an increasingly tumultuous situation in the Middle East. While the region has always been a hotbed for international crises, it is only in the past year that the Middle East’s decades-long tradition of autocracy finally faltered. Within months of each other, Tunisia’s Zine Ben Ali, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi all fell from their despotic perches.

2011 protests in Egypt’s Tahrir Square

From a global perspective, the occurrence of these events in the Middle East is not unique. For much of the 20th century, many Latin American countries also languished under dictators, many of whom had either the implicit or explicit support of the United States. Raphael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic, for instance, ruled with an iron fist for years until the atrocity of his actions finally overwhelmed his close relationship with the American Congress. In Argentina in the 1980s, the US-sponsored School of the Americas turned out hundreds of brutal military leaders.

Until events like Trujillo’s assassination — or more recently, the Arab Spring — presented themselves, people in autocratic regimes rarely had a chance to experience change. Before transitional opportunities arose, resistance to the status quo was often met the harshest retribution, punishments that ranged from exile to death.

The autocratic political dynamics that defined Latin America for forty years have also been present in the Middle East — most notably, in Mubarak’s Egypt. Professor Emma Sky — a senior fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute, political advisor to General Petraeus and General Odierno, and US coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process — provided insight into the Egyptian condition when interviewed by The Politic. She explained, “The struggle you see in Egypt is between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood… the Muslim brothers will try to bring the military under control and the military will try to resist that because they have a huge stake in the Egyptian economy.” The Dominican Republic and Argentina once bore the same marks of military dominance. Soldiers became the subject of nationalistic worship, receiving kickbacks from the wealthy and building lucrative connections to powerful families.

However, the Egyptian and Dominican militaries, regardless of Constitutional declarations, did not truly serve the government. Rather, they served their immediate officers — officers who occasionally held vastly different views than those of their respective civil governments. With regards to Egypt, Professor Sky said, “To save themselves, the military sacrificed Mubarak,” and “[Under Morsi] They have the capacity to carry out a coup.” In the Dominican Republic, historian Howard J. Wiarda wrote, “When Trujillo was assassinated… several high-ranking military officers… were implicated.” In the context of these examples, it becomes clear that the traditionalist Dominican and Egyptian military did not merely dominate politics, but that they also played the roles of kingmakers.

The parallels between Latin America and Egypt extend beyond the nature of their governmental structures and into the basis for the collapse of those structures. Though the causes of the Egyptian Arab Spring are still under debate, it is almost universally accepted that poor governance and weak economies were guiding forces in the destruction of once ostensibly invincible regimes. One study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) indicates that in Egypt, youth unemployment and low per-capita GDP growth were some of the key reasons behind revolt.

1985 protests in Argentina

According to University of Texas Professor Mark Atwood Lawrence, the same could also be said of Latin America during the Nixon years. Lawrence points to a presidentially-requested fact-finding report by Nelson Rockefeller: “There was a ‘restless yearning’ across Latin America for a better way of life. Yet a range of interlocking problems—poverty, population growth… corruption—was blocking progress.”

A final connection that can be drawn between Latin America and Egypt is conspicuous American intervention. In the 1960s, for instance, Lyndon Johnson backed the highly conservative Dominican leader, Joaquín Balaguer. And in a telephone call with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, President Nixon said that he did, in fact, “favor dictatorships.”

In the context of the mid-20th century zeitgeist, it can be argued that Johnson and Nixon were reacting to the omnipresent threat of communism. In Egypt, however, the billions of dollars that were poured into Mubarak’s military coffers were given for a different reason: Israel. Former Iraqi Ambassador John Negroponte, who served as the first director of national intelligence under President George W. Bush, said that although “Bush was very disappointed that Mubarak did not move his country in the right direction,” the United States backed Egypt not because “we were against democracy… but because we have always placed the utmost priority on upholding the Camp David Accords.”

Yet despite the United States’ goal of maintaining a fragile peace between Israel and its neighbors, American funding for Mubarak may have had the same negative ramifications as Johnson’s or Nixon’s Latin American funding: the populations in these volatile regions gradually lost all sympathy for the United States.

Professor Lawrence summarized Rockefeller’s report to President Nixon, saying, “Unrest would have increasingly anti-U.S. overtones since so many Latin Americans saw the United States as a bulwark of the oppressive status quo.” Professor Sky argued that some members of the new Islamist government “were in our jails [and] are suing us because they were tortured.” A recent Gallup poll supports this claim. Though 48% of Egyptians support the US-backed Camp David Accords, 82% also oppose US aid to Egypt.

Analyzing the Latin American situation in hindsight, several policy directives become clear. Any future President must act under the assumption that a return to Egyptian autocracy is fundamentally detrimental to American goals in the region. Professor Lawrence asserted that when Nixon declared, “Latin America doesn’t matter,” he made a grave mistake.

However, both former United Nations Academic Council Executive Director Jean Krasno and Ambassador Negroponte put it a different way: “Stay the course,” they both said. Professor Krasno continued, “We can’t be seen to withdraw when there is tension or conflict…because that would only encourage more attacks.” Ambassador Negroponte agreed, stating his belief that the only thing worse than staying in the region would be leaving altogether.

George W. Bush with former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak

In order to fix two decades of blunders in Latin America, Lawrence wrote, “Officials concluded that Washington must continue, within tighter constraints, to demonstrate a commitment to economic development.” The same goes for Egypt. Economic development of the region is vital for the betterment of US-Egyptian relations and the stable growth of an Egyptian democracy. Ambassador Negroponte stated, “It’s not enough to just buy peoples oil. That means in the case of Egypt you’re not buying anything.” Instead, he proposed measures to increase manufacturing in Egypt with the goal of “integrating the Middle Eastern economies with the European economies.”

If there is any one thing that the history of Latin America demonstrates, it is the weakness of America’s Chief Executive in crafting creative and mutually beneficial policy. Lawrence wrote that in 1969, Nixon gave a speech that he hoped “would be the most meaningful one that [Latin Americans] had heard in years.” But the speech was a disaster and, as Lawrence noted, “Observers had little difficulty recognizing the speech as a blueprint for inaction.” In 2009, President Obama delivered one of the most famous speeches of his presidency in Cairo, creating what Professor Sky called “huge expectations that he has not delivered on.”

Considering the still-fluid framework of the Egyptian situation, the comparisons drawn above indicate that the Middle East now stands on the same precipice as Latin America did during the Johnson and Nixon administrations. In other words, regardless of the outcome of the 2012 election, the next President of the United States must be mindful of lessons learned during this time period.


Joshua Faber is a freshman in Branford College.


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  1. perhaps Yale should have deferred ‘learning lessons’ from these ‘Brits’ Emma Sky and Graeme Lamb until the UK Iraq Enquiry has reported?

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