Latin American Research Review 40.3 (2005) 403-416
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North-South Visionsof Central America
William M. LeoGrande
From the promulgation of the Monroe Doctrine onward, Washington's view of Latin America has been refracted through the prism of U.S. national interest. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, competition with the Great Powers of Europe shaped how the United States thought about the Western Hemisphere. Since the mid-twentieth century, the Cold War, then the drug war, and now the war [End Page 403] on terrorism, have distorted Washington's vision of Latin America in general and nearby Central America in particular.
This collection of books, each in its own way, speaks to the issue of how the United States has seen its Central American neighbors, and the impact Washington's policy has had on them. The consistent message, whether from Harper's Weekly articles published in the 1850s or the Pentagon's efforts to create a Counter-Drug Center in Panama in the late 1990s, is that Central America has been an arena for U.S. action in furtherance of its own national interest, regardless of the will or interests of Central Americans. Not surprisingly, Washington's worst policy failures have come about when Central Americans proved to be less pliant and more resilient than Washington anticipated.
U.S. interest in the region dates to the mid-nineteenth century and early ideas about the need for an inter-oceanic canal to link the eastern seaboard with newly acquired western territories. LaRosa and Mejía's collection of essays are drawn from Harpers Weekly and The Atlantic Monthly between 1850 and 1905 and focus on Panama and alternative inter-oceanic routes in Nicaragua and Mexico. The essays offer a nineteenth-century view of how U.S. writers saw the region and portrayed it to the reading public at home. Most are travelogues, chronicling the writers' adventures in territory they regarded as exotic, forbidding (because of tropical diseases), and populated by people who (when they merited any attention at all) were seen as racially inferior and uncivilized. The region deserved the attention of readers in the U.S. because of its value as a transit point; its people were superfluous.
The essays begin with accounts of the Panama Railroad, which preceded the canal and, for almost half a century was the preferred route between east and west. The next group of articles recounts the debate over alternative routes—from the Chiriqui Lagoon to San Carlos Bay, through the Darien jungle along the Colombia-Panamanian border, through Nicaragua via the San Juan River and Lake Nicaragua, and—by far the most entertaining– across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico, with locomotives pulling the boats across dry land on rails. The...