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  • Talons of the Eagle: Dynamics of US-Latin American Relations
  • Russell Crandall
Talons of the Eagle: Dynamics of US-Latin American Relations. By Peter Smith. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. 377pp. $ 30.50/Cloth. Reviewed by Russell Crandall, M.A. candidate, SAIS.

It is well known that for well over a century US-Latin American relations have been replete with intervention, hegemony, mistrust, and hatred. What is less understood is the context and manner in which the relations between these two regions have evolved. Peter Smith, an eminent political scientist at the University of California-San Diego, in his excellent book Talons of the Eagle: Dynamics of US-Latin American Relations, attempts to do just this. He takes an historical approach to support his thesis that, while the types of policies and interventions have varied depending on the international context of the times, the United States has consistently sought to achieve both political and economic hegemony in the region. Once this fundamental point is understood, Smith believes that a better prediction of future inter-hemispheric relations can be made.

Smith divides US policies towards Latin America into three historical periods: the Imperial period, from 1820–1945, which was characterized by both the United States’ quest for a dominant sphere of influence in the hemisphere and its desire to promote economic and commercial interests; the Cold War period when the world was separated into a bipolar context and policies towards Latin America were driven by geopolitical and ideological motives; and the “age of uncertainty,” which began at the end of the Cold War and continues today. It is in the “age of uncertainty” that no coherent rules of the international game exist and domestic political issues play a preponderant role in US actions in Latin America.

Beginning his analysis with the Imperial period, Smith quickly shows that even putative triumphs of US policy in Latin America were actually thinly-veiled attempts at domination of weaker Latin American nations for economic and security reasons. Woodrow Wilson’s missionary diplomacy comes under special scrutiny since it is during this era that Smith believes the chasm between lofty rhetoric and actual policies was most evident. Smith contends that, while couched in the rubric of bringing democracy and morality to oppressed people, Wilson’s interventions in the Caribbean and Central America during the 1910s were much more concerned with strategic and domestic economic interests. Smith goes on to claim that Wilsonian [End Page 213] intervention in the name of democracy actually served to retard, rather than promote, democratic institutions in Latin America. Indeed, the countries which were most susceptible to US interference and subjugation during the period (Haiti, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic), turned out to be the very countries that were the most unstable and undemocratic in subsequent decades.

In his most original assertion in the book, Smith claims that United States imperial domination of Latin America culminated during the 1930s era of Franklin Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor Policy.” Contrary to the widely-held belief that the “Good Neighbor Policy” marked the highpoint of US-Latin American relations due to its ostensible emphasis on political and cultural awareness and friendship, Smith claims that this policy design allowed the US to exact economic gains from Latin America without sacrificing anything in return. The fact that the US was able to hide this objective behind a patina of goodwill made it all the more effective and nefarious; in the words of Smith, “tactics had changed, but goals were much the same.”

While Smith’s argument that the “Good Neighbor Policy” coincided with the apex of US domination in the region is compelling, he fails to substantiate this claim. Smith actually undermines his own argument by listing the various ways that the US worked to improve cultural and political relations with Latin America. Smith posits that a litany of cultural and political dimensions such as Hollywood’s fascination with producing Latin-theme films, a Latin music craze that rocked the US, and the State Department’s greater attention to the region, were attempts to mask the real, more cunning, objectives of U.S policies such as economic coercion. But he never makes a convincing case...