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What’s at Stake in Venezuela? On sovereignty and Latin America* Greg Grandin

* Originally publised under the title “What’s at Stake in Venezuela? Greg Grandin on sovereignty and Latin America,” in London Review of Books Online, 8 February 2019. For its Spanish version by Patrias. Actos y Letras click here.

1. The concept of sovereignty may refer to the political control that a leader exercises over a society and territory, or the psychic control that an individual exercises over herself.

2. Sovereignty has a long history in political thought, not least in relation to the expansion of European imperial powers. But it was in Spanish America that its modern form – applied to non-imperial or non-colonial nation states – was first put into effective use as a diplomatic norm.

3. By the late 1820s, all of Spain’s former colonies in the Americas, apart from Cuba and Puerto Rico, had won their freedom. These new countries – among them Gran Colombia, the United Provinces, Bolivia, Peru, the Republic of Chile and the United States of Mexico – accepted the territorial integrity of the others, based on old colonial boundaries. They had to, since each nation both legitimated and threatened the others: legitimated, because the independence of one confirmed for the rest the right to rebel against the established monarchal order; threatened, because they all came into being at a time when international law recognised war and conquest as valid means of obtaining territory and establishing sovereignty. Spanish American republicans, Simón Bolívar among them, rejected the legitimacy of the right of discovery, in effect insisting there was no ‘free land’ left in Spanish America to be claimed. Hoping that their violent break with Spain would lead to a more harmonious world, they argued that accepting fixed borders (which corresponded to colonial administrative divisions) would prevent conflict and help to establish a moral community of bounded nations.

4. Throughout the 19th century, the ideological commitment to sovereignty – later also understood as non-intervention – deepened, for three reasons. First, the new Spanish nations, along with Portuguese Brazil, had many boundary conflicts over resources and land. But the region’s diplomats tended to appeal to the ideal of territorial sovereignty to settle those fights, thus confirming their commitment to the ideal. The second had to do with Latin American efforts, by the Argentine jurist Carlos Calvo and others, to ward off Europe’s attempts to collect debt by force and, occasionally, as in Mexico in the 1860s, sending in troops. The third was the shadow of a territorially aggrandising United States, speeding across North America like a whirligig, into Mexico and then the Caribbean, followed by market expansion and gunboat intervention deeper into South America.

5. By the beginning of the 20th century, Latin America – its jurists, diplomats, politicians and intellectuals – had codified its commitment to sovereignty in an expansive body of legal theorising they called American International Law. Its theorists worked closely with US and European jurists, many of them associated with the international peace movement, helping to establish such legal milestones as the League of Nations and the Kellogg-Briand Pact.

6. Some of these theorists, including Mexico’s revolutionary politicians, were more critical of the US. Others, such as Chile’s Alejandro Alvarez, held to a blind Hegelian faith that the unilateral militarism of the United States would help create a world community of law that would contain and socialise the unilateral militarism of the United States.

7. The United States held, in contrast, to an aterritorial understanding of sovereignty. As the nation flew west, first indigenous peoples, and then Mexicans, were often cast as ‘children’, supposedly incapable of forming the rational political society that justified self-government. After the frontier closed, Latin American nations became the new irresponsibles. Woodrow Wilson’s Latin American experts, as they prepared for the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, ranked countries ‘as mature, immature or criminal’ and came up with a series of tests ‘to determine whether they are yet ready to be allowed to conduct their own affairs in a world to be governed by reason’. ‘How many Cubas are there?’ the document asked: that is, how many countries were made up of leaders and populations who had no right to political sovereignty because they couldn’t exercise sovereignty over themselves and their emotions?

8. Such questions are based on the premise that only a morally responsible nation could be sovereign. The definition of morality changed according to circumstance: either it meant the ability to exercise effective control over a population; or it meant democratic or procedural legitimacy. Which standard Washington used – control or legitimacy – depended on which was best able to protect foreign private property. In all cases, the United States reserved the right, often invoking its own sense of exceptionalism, to be the judge.

9. US envoys occasionally sided with Latin American diplomats in their efforts to keep Europeans at bay. But they always rejected the idea of American International Law, especially if it meant giving up the right to intervene in the affairs of other nations to protect their own interests. ‘There can no more be an American international law,’ the US envoy said at the first Pan-American Conference in 1889, ‘than there can be an English, a German or a Prussian international law.’ There was only ‘international law’, whose ‘old and settled meaning’ was defined ‘long before any of the now established American nations had an independent existence’.

10. In other words, American exceptionalism was good to justify US intervention, but not good when deployed, by other kinds of Americans, to contain interventionism.

11. In the first decades of the 20th century, with the US at the height of its gunboat diplomacy – waging counterinsurgencies in Nicaragua, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and sending troops into Mexico’s oil-rich city of Veracruz – Latin American diplomats made their strongest push to force it to accept the principle of non-intervention.

12. It didn’t. In the run up to the Seventh Pan-American Conference, in December 1933 in Montevideo, Argentina’s foreign minister, Carlos Saavedra Lamas, invited the nations of the world to sign an Anti-War Treaty on Non-Aggression and Conciliation. Part of an effort to end the war between Bolivia and Paraguay, it crystallised many of the doctrines long advocated by Latin American jurists, in particular the absolute prohibition of ‘intervention either diplomatic or armed’ in the affairs of other nations. Saavedra Lamas had obtained the signatures of six other Latin American countries before the start of the conference.


13. FDR had dispatched his secretary of state, Cordell Hull, to the summit with instructions not to offer Latin Americans anything more than a promise to build a few roads. Hull was a Tennessee Democrat who had fought in the War of 1898, and, as he wrote in his memoir, was proud to have intervened then, ending Spanish colonialism and bringing democracy to Cuba. Hull – who, according to his adviser Ernest Gruening, spoke a born and bred Tennessee gentry lisp, dropping g’s and wrestling with r’s – objected to the idea of Latin American sovereignty: ‘What am ah goin’ to do when chaos breaks out in one of those countries and armed bands go woamin’ awound, burnin’, pillagin’ and murdewin’ Amewicans?’ Gruening says Hull asked him. ‘How can I tell mah people that we cain’t intervene?’ ‘Mr Secretary,’ Gruening answered, ‘that usually happens after we have intervened.’

14. Hull represented a nation in economic contraction, looking out at an increasingly hostile Asia and dangerous Europe. Finding it impossible to hold out, Hull ‘rose to the occasion magnificently’, an observer wrote, announcing that the United States would henceforth ‘shun and reject’ the ‘so-called right-of-conquest … The New Deal indeed would be an empty boast if it did not mean that.’ Latin American delegates broke out in ‘thunderous applause and cheers’.

15. ‘Our era of “imperialism” nears its end,’ the New York Times announced of Hull’s pledge to give up the right to intervene in the affairs of other nations. ‘“Manifest Destiny” is giving way to the new policy of “equal dealing with all nations”.’ Roosevelt, ever the agile politician, seized the moment, confirming later in 1933 that the ‘definite policy of the United States from now on is one opposed to armed intervention’.

16. Montevideo was Roosevelt’s first significant foreign policy success, marking a turn in the United States’ fortunes as an ascendant superpower. FDR withdrew marines from Haiti and gave the country back its national bank (seized by one of his interventionist predecessors). The US abrogated the Cuban constitution’s hated Platt Amendment, which had turned the island into a vassal state, and tolerated a degree of economic nationalism in Latin America, including Mexico’s expropriation of the holdings of Standard Oil.

17. Hull’s extemporaneous agreement to Latin American demands that Washington recognise the absolute sovereignty of American nations is one of the most unambiguously successful foreign-policy initiatives the United States has ever undertaken. Improved relations with Latin America helped the US recover from the Great Depression. What became known as the Good Neighbour Policy also provided a blueprint for a revived globalism, establishing in the Western hemisphere the foundations of Washington’s postwar global diplomacy: an acceptance of national sovereignty; new multilateral institutions and agreements; the recognition of social rights, including the right of developing countries to regulate foreign investment and property; and a regional alliance and mutual defence system. Latin American nations made up the largest regional caucus in the UN – in its early years, before decolonisation greatly expanded the institution – backing, nearly unanimously, all the elements of Washington’s larger Cold War policy.

18. Latin American theorists understood that there was a fundamental contradiction between their ideal of absolute national sovereignty and their vision of a just international order that could ensure social welfare and individual dignity. But they argued that the contradiction could be resolved through multilateral arbitration, in an international system that might ‘intervene’ in the name of a higher law when necessary but wouldn’t be corrupted by the self-interest of great powers.

19. On a visit to Venezuela in 1950, George Kennan described the taxes that US oil companies paid to the government in Caracas as ‘a sort of ransom to the theory of state sovereignty and the principle of non-intervention which we had consented to adopt’.

20. The United States intervened in Latin America throughout the Cold War, but it did so in a way that didn’t undercut the diplomatic principles of multilateralism. The CIA’s successful coup in Guatemala in 1954 and its botched invasion of the Bay of Pigs in 1961 were covert violations of sovereignty, but did not entail a direct legal challenge to the ideal. In fact, they affirmed the principle – formally, at least – since Washington got the Organisation of American States’ approval to isolate Guatemala and Cuba diplomatically. The OAS also endorsed, with some dissent, Washington’s 1965 invasion of the Dominican Republic. And when it balked at Ronald Reagan’s 1983 invasion of Grenada, his ambassador to the UN, Jeane Kirkpatrick, cited treaty obligations with the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States to justify the intervention.

21. The commitment to the ideal of national sovereignty deepened in the 1960s and early 1970s, with decolonisation, wars of national liberation, and revolutionary movements in Cuba, Chile and elsewhere.

22. A Latin American understanding of sovereignty had worked its way out of the New World to serve as the legal and moral foundation of the United Nations and the guiding principle of 20th-century decolonising nations. The founding meeting of the Organisation of African Unity, in Addis Ababa in 1963, tacitly affirmed the Latin American influence. ‘We must take Africa as it is,’ said Mali’s president, Modibo Keïta, by which he meant recognising the borders imposed by European colonists as the fixed boundaries of independent nations.

23. The ideal of sovereignty was extended to cover a nation’s natural resources. In its 1917 constitution, Mexico was the first country in the world to adopt the principle that absolute sovereignty over natural resources belongs to the state. Venezuelan policymakers had pushed for national control of its petroleum reserves since at least the 1930s. The United Nations accepted the legitimacy of resource sovereignty in 1962.

24. In Chile in the early 1970s, Salvador Allende’s socialist government went a step further, expanding the ideal of sovereignty to cover the value generated by natural resources in the past. Chile claimed the right not only to nationalise foreign property but also to deduct the ‘excess profit’ companies had earned from that property (drawing on arguments made by the Algerian diplomat Mohammed Bedjaoui, who produced a UN report in 1969 arguing for a nation’s right to establish ‘permanent sovereignty’ over its natural resources). Chile calculated that the Anaconda and Kennecott mining companies owed the country $774 million, to be deducted from whatever amount Chile was planning to pay them in compensation for having nationalised them.

25. The principle of ‘excess profit’ was unacceptable to Richard Nixon’s administration. In an Oval Office meeting on 5 October 1971, the secretary of the treasury, John Connally, described the bill Chile presented to Anaconda and Kennecott as a ‘gauntlet’. ‘Now, it’s our move.’ It was then that Nixon said he decided ‘to give Allende the hook’. Henry Kissinger returned to a pre-FDR maturity/immaturity test of sovereignty to justify Allende’s ousting: ‘I don’t see,’ he said, ‘why we need to stand idly by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people.’


26. The subsequent erosion of the ideal of sovereignty as the foundation of international relations has many causes, including the exhaustion of the New Deal/Keynesian model; the political triumph of the New Right; the economic triumph of neoliberalism; the collapse of the Soviet Union; and the global acceptance of basic human rights, especially to life and bodily integrity, as non-negotiable. But we can chart the beginning of the end of the ideal in Latin America. In the 1980s, Reagan’s not-so-secret war on Nicaragua rewrote the terms of law and diplomacy. As Eric Posner has said, Washington’s decision to withdraw from the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice in 1986 – in response to a ruling that the US had to pay Nicaragua billions of dollars for laying mines in its waters and conducting an illegal war of aggression – was a ‘watershed moment’ in the United States’ relationship with the international community. The withdrawal would later be cited by George W. Bush’s ambassador to the UN, John Bolton (Latin America’s self-styled new libertador, now leading the charge against Venezuela), as a reason for the US not to abide by other multilateral obligations.

27. The 1989 invasion of Panama had a transformative effect on international law. Thomas Pickering, George H.W. Bush’s ambassador to the UN, later said that it paved the way for the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Coming just over a month after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was justified by a hierarchy of rationales. But high on the list was the goal of installing democracy in Panama. Against unanimous hemispheric opposition, Luigi Einaudi, the US ambassador to the OAS, explicitly reclaimed for the United States the right to intervene in the affairs of another country because it considered the quality of its sovereignty unworthy of recognition. ‘Today, we are … living in historic times,’ he said, ‘a time when a great principle is spreading across the world like wildfire. That principle, as we all know, is the revolutionary idea that people, not governments, are sovereign.’

28. At first, in Latin America, the link between a ‘common good’ notion of citizenship and a ‘common good’ vision of absolute territorial sovereignty was formalistic: individuals, like nations, exist not in isolation but in harmony, bound together as equals by mutual needs and limitations. Over time, a more dependent relationship evolved. Efforts in the 20th century to institutionalise social rights entailed state intervention in the economy, which often provoked domestic and foreign interests to retaliate. Between 1898 and 1994, Washington overthrew at least 41 governments in Latin America. In turn, nationalists, social democrats, populists and socialists came to see social rights and sovereignty as mutually constitutive. It would take a fortified executive with control over both the physical and the social space of the nation to achieve, in Bolívar’s words, the ‘greatest possible sum of happiness, the greatest sum of social security’.

29. In the decades since the Panama invasion, that link has been broken. The ideal of absolute sovereignty – the undergirding of the liberal New Deal world order – is to a large degree discredited. Post-Cold War globalisation diluted the doctrines of sovereign immunity and non-intervention. To use Kennan’s metaphor, the ransom was paid off. The international community returned – in Iraq and beyond – to an ethic of interventionism in the name of a higher purpose.

30. There is an ethical and logical consistency to interventionism: a moral common sense that, just as borders shouldn’t divide markets or capital, they shouldn’t protect repressors and illegitimate governments. The world should do something to stop barbarism. The rhetorical consistency of such common sense only amplifies the hypocrisy and double standards – not to mention the often disastrous consequences – of its application. Economic globalisation promised a prosperous, borderless world, even as its promoters signed a raft of treaties that freed capital but effectively criminalised labour mobility. Humanitarian interventionism justifies itself by a universal ideal morally superior to the concept of national sovereignty, but then picks its targets – Iraq, Libya, Yemen, and now Venezuela – according to criteria that have to do with something other than universalism.

31. The Wall Street Journal reports that Washington’s move against Venezuela is part of a larger strategy to transform the hemisphere. As the administration of William Howard Taft announced in 1911, on dispatching twenty thousand troops to the border to intimidate Mexican insurgents into protecting foreign property, ‘the revolution in the republic to the south must end.’ Washington, Woodrow Wilson said two years later, was ‘going to teach the South American Republics to elect good men’.

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