The U.S. Involvement in Latin AmericaFor decades, the U.S. government has been in charge of many anti-poverty and development programs in Latin America. One of the United States’ longest-running international aid programs has been the United States Agency for International Development or USAID. The Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 created this agency, which reorganized the U.S. government’s foreign aid money and mandated the creation of an independent federal agency tasked with administering economic aid to foreign countries. USAID has been a significant part of U.S. involvement in Latin America.

The U.S. started working in Latin America in 1962 when USAID began operating in the region. USAID has been one of the U.S. government’s primary methods of providing development assistance to the region. The agency currently works to help countries in Latin America develop by supporting small businesses, working to end government corruption, supporting democracy and helping the region protect its natural resources. This article will explain the history of the U.S. involvement in Latin America by focusing on three countries in particular: Brazil, Mexico and Nicaragua.

USAID in Brazil

A year after its creation, USAID partnered with Brazil’s government to solve a wide range of issues in public health, education, the rights of children, human trafficking and food insecurity.

  • Throughout the 1960s and 70s, USAID helped Brazil strengthen its institutions and provided financial support for higher education within the country.
  • During this time, USAID helped solve Brazil’s food crisis by funding the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa) in 1972. Embrapa transformed Brazil from a struggling food producer to becoming the third largest agricultural producers in the world. Embrapa helped increase Brazil’s beef and pork supply by four times between 1975 and 2009. At the same time, the production of milk increased up to 7.03 billion gallons per year from 2.1 billion gallons per year.
  • In the 1980s, USAID shifted its focus toward public health issues, such as child trafficking, forest conservation and biodiversity research.
  • In 2014, USAID Brazil became the agency’s first strategic partnership mission. USAID recognized that Brazil was not merely a struggling country reliant on U.S. aid money, it was also a major partner in development efforts in the region and around the world. This partnership led to the creation of the Partnership for the Conservation of Amazon Biodiversity (PCAB) that same year.

USAID in Mexico

U.S. development efforts in Mexico began 10 years before the creation of USAID with the passing of the Mutual Security Act of 1951. The United States’ efforts during this time primarily focused on housing guarantees, health programs, food security and academic exchanges between the United States and Mexican universities. USAID expanded upon these goals and added new priorities such as economic and technological development to Mexico’s development strategy with support for democratic governance.

  • USAID took a hiatus from supporting development programs in Mexico in 1965, but they resumed in 1977.
  • USAID disaster relief became crucial for rebuilding parts of the country after a devastating earthquake in 1985.
  • The U.S. and Mexico have forged successful bilateral cooperation on many issues as a result of USAID. Because the establishment of the Mexican Conservation Fund was a success, it gathered environmental experts to seek policy solutions to Mexico’s environmental problems.
  • In recent years, USAID has increased efforts to decrease gang and drug-related violent crime throughout the country. USAID’s programs have reduced the tendencies for Mexican youths in jail or on probation to repeat their criminal behavior. The national rate is 60 percent, whereas in Mexico, it is only 1.25 percent.
  • USAID has also made efforts to institutionalize the rule of the law in Mexico by reforming the country’s judicial system. Thanks to USAID-sponsored reforms, four Mexican states saw a 450 percent increase in resolutions to robbery disputes. The Justice for You platform provided information about the legal system to 32,389 people in 32 states.

USAID in Nicaragua

As was the case with Brazil, USAID began assisting Nicaragua in 1962, primarily helping Nicaragua’s government develop its infrastructure, healthcare and education.

  • USAID played a major role in helping disaster relief efforts in the aftermath of a massive earthquake in 1972 and Hurricane Mitch in 1998. Following the earthquake in 1972, USAID installed 4,560 connections for clean water to houses that lost access.
  • In the aftermath of a brutal civil war lasting from 1978 to 1989, USAID was instrumental in efforts to reinstate democracy in war-torn Nicaragua in 1990 by backing Violeta Chamorro of the National Opposition Union. With the help of USAID, the government of Nicaragua transitioned into democracy by providing training to civil society organizations that encouraged broader participation in government.
  • USAID helped Nicaragua embrace a market economy through its implementation of the Balance of Payment Support Program in 1990. This allowed Nicaragua to import capital goods, raw materials, agricultural inputs and oil. In 2005, USAID also helped bring Nicaragua into compliance with the Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR). USAID helped train more than 2,000 small to medium-sized Nicaraguan enterprises to be compliant with CAFTA.

The U.S. involvement in Latin America has had an encouraging amount of success. USAID, in particular, has facilitated political, economic and social development in Latin America on a massive scale since 1962. While Latin America still faces challenges with drug crimes, gang violence, political corruption, food security and poverty, USAID has undoubtedly played a role in fostering lasting development in the region.

Andrew Bryant
Photo: Flickr