Caught in the Dream of Empire: U.S. Power from the Borderlands to Central America and the Caribbean

For much of its history, the United States has fostered the dream of building an empire. From visions of the Empire of Liberty to Manifest Destiny and the expansion westward, colonizing native peoples and increasing Washington’s dominion at the expense of Mexico. In 1893, as Frederick Jackson Turner’s observation that the “frontier” had closed in U.S. society, this did not mean a cessation in a desire for expansion and control of new territory. The Monroe Doctrine grouped the entire Western Hemisphere under the aegis of the United States, Americans sought to command economic and political opportunities in the region. The result of this policy had far-reaching social, political, and economic ramifications for the other countries involved.[1]

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as the frontier became the border, the United States expanded its notions of what an American empire should encompass in terms of ideas and territory. This growing imperial dragnet ensnared elite Nicaraguans with modernizing dreams, a savvy island dictator who hoped to “blanche” his realm, and the Chinese diasporic community in the Republic of Panama. Studying how local elites and non-elites viewed American power, and interacted with it, reveals the dynamic movement and complexity of ideas related to empire as they were transmitted between “periphery” and “metropole.”

While none of the countries examined in this essay became formal colonies of the United States, they did experience the ramifications of American intervention in their political and socio-economic existence. This is not to imply that these countries were simply “victims” of U.S. empire; instead something more complex emerged in the region. In fact, Nicaraguan elites, initially, had looked to invite Americans into their country in hopes of furthering their goals of “modernity” and “progress.” Liberals used the filibusterer William Walker to help overthrow the ruling Conservative elites; however, once in power, he initiated a reign of terror informed by U.S. paradigms of race. After Walker’s expulsion, Nicaragua’s elites continued to favor the U.S. because of their own “national dream,” which envisioned the construction of an inter-oceanic canal across the country. In this sense, both countries shared an overlapping vision. On the one hand, the United States hoped to extend its power and prestige in Latin America through the building of a canal. On the other hand, Nicaragua saw this project as an opportunity to achieve greater wealth and influence in the region.[2]

Thanks to these parallel dreams, Nicaragua favored a version of modernity with an American accent. Elites hoped to position themselves favorably with Washington, while also developing economic ties with Wall Street’s financiers through agro-export policies. Culturally, Nicaragua’s powerbrokers learned English, played basketball and decorated their homes in the “American” style as a means to transform themselves as well as Washington’s idea of their country. In 1904, however, the decision by the U.S. Congress to build the canal through Panama destroyed the Nicaraguan elites’ decades-long desire for an inter-oceanic corridor.[3]

Nevertheless, the country could not easily extricate itself from Washington’s machinations. U.S. military forces and diplomats, ultimately, intervened in Nicaraguan affairs on multiple occasions in the twentieth century. In 1912, following an American invasion, Washington imposed what it called “dollar diplomacy” on the country. It took control of Nicaragua’s financial institutions and left open the possibility of further military operations in order to ensure that this nation could not be used by another power as the site of a competing canal. The geo-strategic importance of the Panama Canal animated not only U.S. policy, but also the decision-making processes of other regional governments, including the Dominican Republic.[4]

General Rafael Trujillo astutely played his country’s location in the Caribbean and its political proximity to the Washington for maximum benefit. He utilized the Jewish colony at Sosúa during the Second World War as a bargaining chip with the Roosevelt Administration. He also saw it as an opportunity to improve his image after brutally massacring 30,000 Haitians in 1937. The United States had need of an ally to take in Jewish refugees, in order to defuse mounting international pressure against its hypocritical stance on anti-Semitism. By setting up a settlement for Jews fleeing Europe, Trujillo gained additional leverage in Washington. He pressured representatives of Jewish relief organizations to lobby on his behalf; the goal was to influence U.S. economic policies toward the island. Trujillo recognized the Dominican Republic’s client relationship and worked within the parameters of American hegemony to maneuver his country (and himself) into a more favorable political and economic position. He severed ties with Nazi Germany and successfully urged Washington to adjust its approach on D.R. customs policy. Though the United States retained ultimate control over the dispersal of funds, Trujillo claimed a victory for the “sovereignty” of his nation, because Dominicans gained greater budget flexibility.[5]

The use of the Sosúa settlement was crucial to this process, because it signaled the Dominican Republic’s loyalty to the United States. This did not mean, however, that Trujillo blindly followed the will of his northern patron. Domestically, the fledgling Jewish community also evinced the general’s preoccupations with race and notions of “progress.” He had hoped by establishing a white settlement, it would transform the racial context of his country. Trujillo associated whiteness with modernity, denying the Dominican Republic’s complex racial dynamics. In some respects, this preoccupation with race spoke to how “modernization” was internalized by elites in nation-states relegated to a “third world” status. Whitening campaigns held the promise of greater respect on the world’s stage and access to economic and political transformation. Though motivated by a set of idiosyncratic priorities, Trujillo operated within a paradigm of American hegemony. Not only did cooperation with the United States equal economic aid, but the ideas of how one should represent self and nation were influenced by this imperial relationship. Trujillo’s goal of whitening the Dominican Republic spoke to a desire to display a more “acceptable” version of his country to Washington.[6]

As Ciudad Trujillo exploited its position to extract maximum economic and political benefits from the United States, in many ways Panama was a “victim” of its own success. It was a key component in Washington’s informal empire across Central American and the Caribbean, and the construction of the inter-oceanic canal there signaled two important issues. First, for the Panamanians, it held the promise of economic growth as the nation became an important crossroads for global trade. Second, due to its strategic importance, the United States could not ignore the isthmian nation. This arrangement ultimately limited Panama City’s ability to maneuver vis-à-vis Washington. The Canal Zone represented a persistent reminder of American intervention in Panama and of the country’s status as a quasi-colony, becoming a flash point of cultural and political conflict. In part due to these pressures, Panamanian nationalists used groups associated with the United States as a foil to foment popular opposition to empire. Faced with becoming a kind of borderland with the U.S. Canal Zone, Panama lashed out at Washington’s political, military, and economic might. President Arnulfo Arias gained popularity characterizing Panamanian Chinese (and others) as domestic enemies of the nation, despite the fact that they were also citizens. His constitutional reforms ultimately denied citizenship to people of Chinese descent, forcing many of them, as well as citizens of other ethnicities, to flee across the “border” into the Canal Zone to escape social upheavals in the republic. Later, a U.S.-backed military coup removed Arias from power.[7][8]

Ultimately, the desire for regional influence and the dream of an inter-oceanic canal caught much of Central American and the Caribbean in the grasp of U.S. hegemony. Local elites saw collaboration with Washington as an opportunity to modernize. These notions of “progress,” however, were framed within a Eurocentric paradigm heavily influenced by American sensibilities. For Nicaragua and Panama, the idea of a canal represented prospects of a bright future, but it carried with it the threat of domination by the United States and the creation of a “borderland on the isthmus.” The Dominican Republic also struggled with the promise and peril of its geopolitical position. None of these countries could easily escape the designs of American foreign policy in twentieth century. In response, groups like the Chinese Panamanians were “othered” by local domestic policies and suffered greatly as indirect subjects of an informal American empire.

[1] The analytical framing of this essay, including the idea of the relationship between the borderlands and U.S. imperialism is inspired by Mary A. Renda’s Taking Haiti: Military Occupation and the Culture of U.S. Imperialism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001).

[2] Michel Gobat, Confronting the American Dream: Nicaragua Under U.S. Imperial Rule (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005).

[3] Gobat.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Alan Wells, Tropical Zion: General Trujillo, FDR, and the Jews of Sosúa (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009).

[6] Wells.

[7] Lok C.D. Siu, Memories of a Future Home: Diasporic Citizenship of Chinese in Panama (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005).

[8] Michael Donoghue, Borderland on the Isthmus: Race, Culture, and the Struggle for the Canal Zone (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014)

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