White House national security adviser John Bolton was detailing the U.S. government’s hard line against the government of “dictator” Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela on Sunday morning when CNN’s Jake Tapper posed him a tough question: How can President Donald Trump oppose Maduro when he has close ties to authoritarian governments in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates?
Bolton’s response was simple: The situation is different, because Venezuela is in the Western hemisphere.
“In this administration we’re not afraid to use the phrase ‘Monroe Doctrine,’ ” said Bolton. “This is a country in our hemisphere, it’s been the objective of presidents going back to Ronald Reagan to have a completely democratic hemisphere.”
Bolton was explaining why Trump may be happy to have dialogue with dictators – notably, the American leader had met with the leader of one of the world’s most repressive governments, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, just last week – but was seeking the ouster of Venezuela’s Maduro.
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The Trump administration is part of a broad coalition of countries in the Western Hemisphere that stand against Venezuela’s Maduro and recognize National Assembly leader Juan Guaidó as interim president.
However, the use of the phrase “Monroe doctrine” will stir unhappy memories in Latin America, where the phrase has uncomfortable connotations of U.S. interventionism. Bolton’s comments are a reminder that the definition of the doctrine itself has morphed substantially since it was first outlined in a December 1823 speech by President James Monroe.
“When U.S. officials use phrases like the ‘Monroe Doctrine’ and ‘our hemisphere’ it unnecessarily puts off Latin Americans, including allies that we are seeking to help,” said Jay Sexton, author of the book “The Monroe Doctrine: Empire and Nation in Nineteenth-Century America” and a historian at the University of Missouri. “One wonders if Bolton’s primary audience are actually Trump supporters at home who are drawn toward this kind of flag-hugging nationalist chauvinism.”
Maduro’s few remaining international allies quickly highlighted the use of the phrase. In Doha, Qatar, on Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that the use of the term was “insulting” to Latin America.
“I believe that Latin American states will react to John Bolton’s statement. He mentioned that the Monroe Doctrine could be used in Venezuela, which insults all of Latin America,” Lavrov said.
In a tweet Monday, Cuba’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla said that Bolton had been lying when he spoke of Cuban military support for Venezuela. “One truth accompanies him: He confessed to the application of Monroe Doctrine,” the diplomat wrote, using the hashtag #HandsOffVenezuela.
“Imperial arrogance at its most dangerous and fanatic,” wrote Guillaume Long, a former foreign minister of Ecuador under the left-wing government of Rafael Correa.
The doctrine Bolton cited Sunday dates back almost 200 years: Based on an annual message delivered to Congress by Monroe, the original idea outlined the United States’ opposition to European colonialism in the Western Hemisphere in return for Washington staying out of European affairs.
Initially, this concept was mostly rhetorical and rarely enforced. However, successive governments have reinvented and reinterpreted the idea many times over the many years since that original address. Bolton’s reference may refer more specifically to a tweak added by President Theodore Roosevelt, dubbed the Roosevelt Corollary, after the Venezuela crisis of 1902-1903 which argued that the United States was justified in exercising “international police power” when there was unrest in Latin America.
During the Cold War, the Monroe Doctrine became a justification for intervention in Latin America – usually against left-wing governments and sometimes with force. Given this history, some more recent American leaders had distanced themselves from mention of the doctrine.
“The era of the Monroe Doctrine is over. The relationship that we seek and that we have worked hard to foster is not about a United States declaration about how and when it will intervene in the affairs of other American states,” Secretary of State John Kerry said during a speech at the Organization of American States in 2013, adding that under the Obama administration, the United States saw its Latin American neighbors as equals.
But that Obama-era policy has been undone during the Trump administration. Both Secretaries of State Rex Tillerson and Mike Pompeo have referred to the Monroe Doctrine when speaking about the Trump administration’s policy in Latin America, as did former defense secretary Jim Mattis. “We believe the Monroe Doctrine thematically is still the right thing,” Mattis said ahead of a trip to Brazil in 2018.
“Taking the long view, there is nothing new in a U.S. statesmen invoking the Monroe Doctrine to achieve domestic political objectives,” Sexton said. “Indeed, U.S. politicians more often have invoked the Monroe Doctrine against each other than they have toward foreign governments. Domestic politics have never stopped at water’s edge.”
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The Washington Post’s Amie Ferris-Rotman contributed reporting to this report.