The term “gringo”, a sometimes-derogatory term used as reference for U.S. citizens in Latin America, is widely believed to originate from Puerto Rican peasants and farmers who would shout “green go home!” when seeing U.S. soldiers in green uniforms patrol the streets of colonized Puerto Rico.
Or so the story goes.
A quick search will reveal about five or six different folk origins for the term “Gringo”. Nevertheless, etymologists have placed the origins of the term at least 50 years before the American invasion of Puerto Rico, when it was first referenced in the Castilian Dictionary. It derives from the expression “hablar en griego”, literally meaning to speak in Greek, or in a language unintelligible to Spanish speakers.
Regardless of the origins (which for linguistics nerds like this author are extremely interesting), the “gringo go home” expression has been dominant in Latin America policy narratives. In fact, calling out Gringos is Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro’s favourite gimmick, besides talking to Hugo Chavez in the form of a little bird.
The U.S. Monroe doctrine, which deemed territory south of the Rio Grande as “America’s backyard”, set the stage for U.S. relations with their southern neighbours. In foreign policy, Latin America undoubtedly fell under the U.S. sphere of influence.
After the end of the Cold War, American interventionism in the region declined steadily. U.S. foreign policy, riding the highs of their new world hegemonic wave, focused their attention on troubled regions of the world such as Somalia and the Balkans. The 9/11 attacks refocused U.S. foreign policy on the Middle East and South Asia, whilst the pivot to Asia has changed the U.S. gaze towards the Pacific. In the meantime, Latin America has fallen to the shadows of American foreign policy priorities.
Free from U.S. imperialism, leftist leaders and thought (who had been crushed during the years of the Monroe Doctrine) emerged on the Latin American political scene. The Pink Tide, a group of leftist leaders that came to power in the late 90’s and early 2000’s took reins of the region. The most notable figures include the aforementioned Hugo Chavez and Luis Ignacio “Lula” da Silva. Since 2010, some countries have elected centrists and right-wing candidates. Pundits “up north” have claimed the Pink Tide is receding, it hasn’t.
The Pink Tide was really about reaping the benefits of freedom from non-intervention in domestic affairs, respect for opposition of ideas and democracy, not about loud mouth red-beret wearing former generals. The Pink Tide, for the most part, wasn’t a rise in Leftist anti-capitalist leaders. On the contrary, with the exception of the ideologue Chavez and his successor Nicolas Maduro, Pink Tide leaders are and continue to be notoriously pragmatic.
If we divert focus away from attention grabbing Venezuela and crisis stricken Argentina, South America has seen some of the most pragmatic policy makers in a generation take reins of their countries. Whilst the U.S. has focused on the dangers of the “turn to the left in Latin America”, they failed to see the continuous string of smart, sustainable policies enacted by several leaders. Lula da Silva stewarded Brazil in to becoming the regional hegemon and a world player.
Social welfare policies like Bolsa Familia and Fome Zero, levelled with a continued engagement in world markets made this possible. Bolivia’s Evo Morales has supervised a decade of unprecedented economic growth, coupled with social and economic policies meant to address Spanish colonial legacies of inequality and imbedded state racism. Rafael Correa (Ecuador) and Hollanta Omala (Peru), both strong practitioners of anti-US imperialist/capitalist rhetoric, boast two of the fastest growing economies in the region.
Across most of Latin America GDP growth over the past 15 years has been sustained, despite the 2008 global recession and reduced demand for commodities today. In fact, the recent fall in commodity prices didn’t derail the region from its impressive path, as previous shifts in the global economy had. Economic diversification policies and sound macro-economic stewardship have prepared the region to weather the commodities bust. In spite of slower growth rates in 2014, the World Bank predicts a return to form in 2015 for the region.
In the international stage, Pink Tide democracies have punched way above their weight. Rafael Correa has drawn attention to the precarious situation his nation faced when negotiating environmental conservation pressures from the West vis-à-vis resource exploitation that generates income to alleviate poverty for his citizens.
José “Pepe” Mujica, Uruguay’s humble ex-president, drew admiration from the world for his progressive social policies and his radical approach to the presidential office.
Pink Tide democracies sill face many challenges, Brazil’s current president and Lula’s protégé, Dilma Rousseff, has faced strong social upheaval and allegations of corruption. Authoritarianism still pokes its ugly head in parts of the region. For example, Evo Morales recently took up a third term as Bolivia’s president. In Honduras, democratically elected Manuel Selaya was ousted in a coup d’état in 2009. In Paraguay, the speedy impeachment of ex-president Fernando Lugo raised eyebrows across the region and was considered by human rights observers as a “constitutional coup”.
The U.S. has been notoriously quiet on Latin American issues until relatively recently. However, Cuba’s changing regime and Venezuela’s instability have prompted the Obama administration to take action in the region. President Obama gained praise for his long-overdue reengagement with the Castro regime. However, he took two steps back with his inflammatory remarks against the Maduro regime, one of Cuba’s closest allies, and his classification of Venezuela as a U.S. national security threat.
Obama’s actions were extremely clumsy, justifying Maduro’s anti-U.S. rhetoric to his electorate and drawing attention away from ongoing food shortages and social crisis. Furthermore, Nicolas Maduro has felt vindicated in searching military and economic assistance from China and Russia. Military drills in Venezuela, featuring Chinese and Russian equipment, took place on the weekend of March 16th. There is no real worry about Venezuela taking any military action against the U.S., however Obama has directly injected new life to a moribund regime and created problems where there were none before.
The Economist boldly claimed that Latin America is nobody’s backyard anymore. Pink Tide leaders have shown the benefits of freedom from U.S. interventionism. Now it’s time for the U.S. to see Latin America as a region to engage with on equal ground, like it recently has with Cuba. Criticizing Venezuela and acting unilaterally are not sound actions; the rest of the region needs to be engaged in dealing with Venezuela. Foreign ministers from all twelve South American nations already condemned “U.S. aggression in the region” and stood firmly behind Caracas during an extraordinary meeting of the Union of South American States (UNASUR).
If Obama wishes to bring back the ghosts of the Monroe Doctrine, he is going to face opposition from far stronger, legitimate states in the region. That’s neither good for the region or the U.S.
Obama, gringo, go home.
Christian Medina Ramirez is a Master of Arts candidate at the Norman Patterson School of International Affairs at Carleton University, Ottawa. He was born in Bogotá, Colombia, and did his undergraduate degree in Politics and Philosophy at the University of Hong Kong and the University of Waterloo, Canada.
Featured Photo by US Embassy Santiago, Chile via Flickr Commons.