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When Helping Hands Hurt

June 14, 2017


    ProPublica, the investigative news organization, has published a terrifying account of how U.S. actions in Mexico led to the murders of dozens--the article says it could even be hundreds--of innocent people in the city of Allende, Mexico, who were caught up in a drug cartel's murderous quest for revenge. The author of the article, veteran correspondent Ginger Thompson, lays out in sobering detail missteps by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency that led directly to the massacre. A careful read of Thompson's meticulous investigation leaves the clear impression that the United States and Mexico both would have been better off had the U.S. not tried to help.  

    That has been a troubling pattern in America's relations with Latin America going back years. Interventions in any way can backfire, and often do. 

   Cuba, which had a US intervention clause in its constitution for decades, could be the poster child for the trouble that America can get into when it sticks its nose into other countries' business. But beyond such embarrassing debacles like the Bay of Pigs invasion, U.S. intervention has had a distorting effect on Cuba-U.S. relations, and has caused mischief even when the Marines did not land on Cuban beaches. 

     For years, just the threat of intervention wreaked havoc on Cuban politics, and was used by significant players in Havana to get their own ways. In 1905, when the Cuban Repubic was just three years old, Cuba's first president, Tomas Estrada Palma, begged for intervention.  In 1923, General Gerardo Machado, who would go on to become president, faced with insubordination by former soldiers, wanted the US to help put down the rebellion. And when the seams started coming apart in Cuba in 1933, there were so many pleas for U.S. intervention that Secretary of State Henry Stimson was embarrassed. He knew that the mere threat of the US getting involved was letting Cuban officials off the hook and preventing them from taking responsibility for solving problems themselves. 

      As we wait for the Trump Administration to lay out its Cuba policy, it would be good to keep those examples in mind. Relying on Washington to force the Castro regime to change detracts from the work of Cuba's fledgling opposition, while at the same time giving Cuban officials an excuse for continuing to deprive their people of basic human rights like freedom of speech and assembly. As long as they can blame US actions for the deplorable conditions under which so many Cubans must live, change will be slow to come. And as long as the dissident movement remains fractured and in a state of anticipation for another U.S. crackdown, the unhappy people of Cuba will simply continue to wait in line, not just for chicken parts and toilet paper, but for true independence. 

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