Renewing the U.S.-Latin American Alliance For Progress, 50 Years Later

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By 2060, the Americas are projected to have a larger population than China, so shouldn't we direct more attention to our southern neighbors?

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Venezuelan President Rómulo Betancourt and U.S. President John F. Kennedy at La Morita, Venezuela, during an official meeting for the Alliance for Progress in 1961 / WikiMedia

A great nation defines itself not by what it fears and opposes but by what it believes in and champions. This year is the 50th anniversary of the Alliance for Progress, President Kennedy's visionary effort to promote social justice and economic development in Latin America. The Alliance had a short ten-year life, but its influence was real, and its vision of the Americas is still relevant today.

The Alliance was a wager on the capacity of progressive democratic governments to carry out a peaceful revolution with the help of political support and carefully designed economic assistance.

The idea for the Alliance grew from my uncle's capacity to listen to the leaders of Latin America, and from his openness to what he heard. The leaders said, "The United States in all its power and wealth and influence should be our partner as we build a more just society for all our citizens." They added, "This partnership must be built on respect for the values and vision of the southern hemisphere." John Kennedy took their arguments seriously.

In launching the Alliance, he built on the work of Douglas Dillon, who in 1958 had attended a three-week meeting in Brazil as a State Department employee. Dillon was impressed by Latin America leaders, particularly those from Brazil and Mexico, who were urging a new coffee agreement and a new development bank for the Americas. He eventually prevailed on President Eisenhower to take up the cause and to create the Inter-American Development Bank. He also piqued the interest of the Democratic presidential candidate from Massachusetts.

As Arthur Schlesinger recounts it, Senator Kennedy read a memorandum from ten leading Latin American economists, and, impressed with the urgency and energy of their ideas, conceived of a new approach to inter-American development.

He had an idea but no name.

Sitting in the campaign bus as it rolled across Texas, Dick Goodwin, his speechwriter, groped for a phrase that would express what the "Good Neighbor Policy" did for Franklin Roosevelt. As he pondered, his eye caught the title of a Spanish language magazine, Alianza. He liked that, but then the question was, Alliance for what? A call was placed to Ernesto Betancourt, then at the Pan American Union, who had two suggestions: Alianza para el Desarollo (development) and Alianza para el Progresso. That's how the Alliance was christened.

Once he was elected, my uncle asked Douglas Dillon, a Republican, to serve as treasury secretary. (My brother Douglas was named for him.)  It's worth noting that at its beginning, the Alliance for Progress had strong bipartisan support.

In his inaugural address, the new president proclaimed his vision for the Americas: "To our sister republics south of our border, we offer a special pledge: to convert our good words into good deeds in a new alliance for progress, to assist free men and free governments in casting off the chains of poverty."

Later, in a talk with the Latin American diplomatic corps in the East Room of the White House, President Kennedy signaled that the Alliance was no mere window dressing.

At the heart of the Alliance was a call for fundamental openings in the economic and political systems of the Americas that would let the dispossessed claim their place in the sun. The status quo was unacceptable. My uncle said, "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable." He called for democracy, a new respect for human rights, long-term economic development, fair distribution of the fruits of growth to campesinos and workers, and land, tax, and education reform.

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Kathleen Kennedy Townsend is the author of Failing America's Faithful: How Today's Churches Mixed God With Politics and Lost Their Way. From 1995 to 2003, she was Maryland's first woman lieutenant governor.

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