Nov 21, 2023 - World

60 years after his death, examining JFK's legacy in Latin America

President Kennedy joins in an eight-way handshake with presidents from Central American nations.

Heads of state meet in Costa Rica, March 1963. From left: Guatemala President Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes; El Salvador President Julio Adalberto Rivera; Panama President Roberto Chiari; Honduras President Ramón Villeda Morales; U.S. President John F. Kennedy; Costa Rica President Francisco Orlich, Nicaragua President Luis Somoza Debayle, and Nicaragua President-elect René Schick. Photo: Bettmann Archives via Getty Images

Former President John F. Kennedy campaigned on improving U.S. relationships in Latin America and stopping the spread of communism, two issues that confronted him almost instantly after taking office — and would later shape his mixed legacy on foreign policy.

Why it matters: The U.S. for decades had helped give rise to authoritarian regimes in Latin America, supporting the ousting of democratically elected leaders. But when Kennedy took power, he began a massive effort to reset relations. On this 60-year mark of his death, Axios Latino is examining Kennedy's legacy in the region.

Flashback: Before Kennedy's election, many Latin American leaders distrusted the U.S. after World War II. The U.S. spent much of its focus on rebuilding Europe and Japan while ignoring nations in its hemisphere beyond helping to overthrow democratically elected governments.

  • The Eisenhower administration had openly supported military dictators in Peru, Paraguay, and Venezuela, angering human rights advocates and liberals who charged this was supporting another version of authoritarianism.

Kennedy's election generated a wave of excitement in Latin America because he was the first Catholic president elected in the U.S. and had campaigned on helping Mexican Americans and Puerto Ricans living in poverty in the U.S.

  • Kennedy vowed to reset U.S.-Latin America relations, launching as soon as he took office in January 1961 the Alliance for Progress, a $20 billion, 10-year initiative to promote democracy and social reforms.
  • Kennedy hoped the alliance would help nations battling high rates of poverty and foster democracy where threats of Communism loomed.
First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy poses in front of the Piedra del Sol (Aztec calendar, Sun Stone) during a tour of the Museo Nacional de Antropología (National Museum of Anthropology) of the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia (National Institute of Anthropology and History) in Mexico City.
First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy poses in front of the Piedra del Sol during a tour of the Museo Nacional de Antropología of the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia in Mexico City. Photo: Robert Knudsen. White House Photographs. John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

Yes, but: On April 17, 1961, in a Kennedy-approved mission to topple Cuban leader Fidel Castro, 1,400 Cuban exiles launched what became a botched invasion at the Bay of Pigs on the south coast of Cuba.

  • The disaster painted Kennedy as weak on foreign policy amid the escalating Cold War and created doubt among Latin American leaders about the president's real intentions.

But, but, but: Kennedy recovered from the debacle and visited Venezuela and Mexico to huge fanfare.

  • In Mexico, speaking in Spanish, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy lauded Latin American contributions to literature and culture.
  • Meanwhile, the president worked behind the scenes to build coalitions against the Soviet Union.
  • The pair attended Mass at the Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe (Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe) in Mexico City, solidifying symbolic cultural ties that hadn't existed before.

Everything changed in October 1962, after U.S. surveillance discovered Soviet nuclear weapons in Cuba. Known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, it was the closest the world ever came to global nuclear war.

  • But disaster was averted after Kennedy and Soviet Union Premier Nikita Khrushchev came to an agreement that included a promise by the U.S. not to invade Cuba.
  • The agreement generated anger among hardline Cuban exiles who wanted Castro removed. This began Cuban Americans' alignment with the GOP.

What they're saying: Moves by Kennedy in Latin America possibly contributed to more troubled relations years later with U.S. interventions in Central America and the Dominican Republic, University of Houston history professor José Angel Hernández tells Axios.

  • The U.S. saw Latin America as just another domino in the Cold War, and relationships would worsen after the 1973 CIA-backed overthrow of a democratically elected government in Chile under President Nixon and the backing of military juntas in Central America, he said.
  • "It would get ugly."

The bottom line: The Alliance for Progress did not meet many of its goals, but it did contribute to the construction of housing, schools, airports, hospitals, clinics and water-purification projects in Latin America, according to the JFK Presidential Library and Museum.

  • By the early 1970s, the program was considered a failure and the Organization of American States later disbanded the permanent committee established to implement the alliance.

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