What happened when the United States hoped to build an urban idyll in Colombia?
The Alliance for Progress resembled a New Deal, projected abroad. It would entail large-scale, state-led interventions to spur economic growth and ensure for the peoples of the Americas the comforts of middle-class American consumer capitalism. “Those of us who love freedom realize that a man is not really free if he does not have a roof over his head, or if he cannot educate his children, or if he cannot find work, or if he cannot find security in his old age,” Kennedy said. In all, the United States committed more than $10 billion over 10 years to boost economic growth and social programs in Latin America.
Underlying Kennedy’s invocation of “freedom from want” was the acute fear of communist revolution in the Western Hemisphere. Fidel Castro had taken power in Cuba in February 1959. Just two weeks prior to Kennedy’s trip, Castro had declared himself a Marxist-Leninist, cementing Cuba’s ties to the Soviet Union. The frontlines of the Cold War had moved nearly to U.S. shores. “This is a battlefield,” Kennedy said as he laid the cornerstone of the first of what would be some 10,000 homes. In Latin America, the Cold War could be won or lost.
By the end of the 1950s, many U.S. policymakers saw Latin America as a powder keg. Mass media gave many of Latin America’s poor a glimpse of the luxuries of middle-class life just beyond their reach, compounding widespread indignation at the distribution of land and wealth. Political systems dominated by rural elites or the industrial bourgeoisie made prospects for social reform at the ballot box seem poor.
Some Latin American leaders may have stoked U.S. anxieties in their quest to secure a Marshall Plan of their own from the United States. Colombian president Alberto Lleras Camargo was among a generation of democratically elected liberal leaders who lobbied the United States for development financing by arguing that “underdevelopment,” in the parlance of the era, was at the root of much of the region’s turmoil. These pleas, however, went largely ignored until two events rattled the United States. In May 1958, President Dwight D. Eisenhower dispatched his vice president, Richard Nixon, on a goodwill tour of South America. In Caracas, mobs attacked Nixon’s motorcade. (In response, Eisenhower mobilized troops and naval support for a potential rescue operation dubbed “Operation Poor Richard.”) Fidel Castro’s guerillas entered Havana the following New Year’s Day, sending Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista fleeing. Concerned about unrest to the south, Eisenhower capitalized what would become the Inter-American Development Bank with $350 million, and Congress, for the first time, authorized $500 million in loans for social projects such as low-cost housing, primary education, and health care.
Richard M. Nixon, ca. 1935 – 1982 Wikimedia.org
Inside the Americas - Jorge Eliécer Gaitán