Remarks of Senator John F. Kennedy Democratic Dinner, San Juan, Puerto Rico, December 15, 1958

A New Attitude on Latin America

It is an impressive experience to come from historic Massachusetts to historic Puerto Rico. Much is different – but much is the same. We occupy a beachhead on the cold North Atlantic – you are an island in the sunny Caribbean. We represent one of the oldest industrial bases in our nation’s economy – you represent one of the newest. We battle snow and sleet – your antagonist is more often sun and heat.

Much is different – but much is the same - the great traditions of the sea, the preservation of an ancient heritage, and perhaps most important of all, similarities in the character of our people – in their determination, in their integrity, in their faith in the future – in their untiring efforts to achieve a better home and a better nation for themselves and their children.

To achieve our goals, much more needs to be done. More needs to be done in New England, demonstrating as it does the past glory of North America. And more needs to be done in Puerto Rico, demonstrating as it does the future glory of Latin America.

I want to speak to you tonight on this matter of our Latin American relations because of the increasing recognition given this island as an example of what can be done – an example most recently pointed out in the brilliant book by the President of your Democratic Party here, Jose Benitez.

But I would also speak on inter-American relations and policies tonight because we in New England have faced many of the same problems which face Latin America today – the problems of inadequate fuel, water and power resources – the need for improved and economical transportation facilities – and particularly the need to modernize, stabilize, and diversify our industrial base. Our one-industry towns in Massachusetts, which faced a chronic depression when the textile industry declined, can appreciate the problems facing the one-crop and one-commodity nations of Latin America.

But the needs of most Latin American nations go far beyond this. Astounding population increases – four times faster than the rate of population increase of Northwestern Europe – have far out-paced increases in national savings, living standards, and food supply. This population explosion has resulted in large measure from a phenomenal reduction of the death rate, from the control of infectious diseases, sanitation improvement, and medical progress. The gap between North America and Latin America in terms of living standards, in terms of wealth versus poverty, grows greater instead of smaller; the gap in terms of economic power, in terms of domination versus independence, grows even greater.

The so-called under developed nations of Latin America need investment capital – not only in oil and mining, where many private investors are willing to risk such capital, but in the development of their transportation, power, and other basic needs. These nations also lack foreign exchange resources – a shortage which makes it impossible for them to buy our goods when they need them – and a shortage which has not been solved by the huge growth in the world trade over the last ten years. For unfortunately, much of that growth has been kept within the industrial countries instead of expanding trade between the industrial and the non-industrial. Finally, our neighbors to the South need know-how – the administrative, technical, and managerial skills required to improve their economies and government, and the educational facilities in which to develop those skills.

What must be done to meet these problems? What kind of program can and should be adopted? The essentials of such a program are not, for the most part, new. They have been discussed by many speakers, north and south, on many occasions. Such a program should, of necessity, include the following points:

  1. First, an inter-American agreement for stabilizing commodity prices and markets.
  2. Pursuing the same objective, a re-evaluation of our tariff duties and quotas, of our programs for stock-piling strategic and nonperishable commodities, and of the possibilities for inter-American common markets and currency convertibility agreements.
  3. An inter-American capital development bank, to which all Western Hemisphere nations contribute and in which they all participate, with a majority of the capital being supplied by American dollars.
  4. Concurrent with such a bank, the allocation to Latin America projects of a larger proportion and total of the capital funds available from the Development Loan Fund.
  5. The negotiation of individual tax treaties which would encourage the flow of private investment to under developed lands whose tax forgiveness programs are now without effect in our own tax structure.
  6. An increase in technical assistance programs of mutual cooperation between the United States and Latin America.
  7. An increase in the exchange of students, and inclusion of undergraduates as well as graduates – not only to raise the educational standards and technical training in these nations, but also to foster the spread of good will and a better understanding of both continents – in both continents.
  8. A series of inter-American fellowships in medicine and public health, supported by all members of Pan American Sanitary Bureau, offering opportunities to study medicine and public health in the United States and elsewhere – including the excellent schools of medicine and public health which have raised the standards so greatly here in Puerto Rico.
  9. The judicious use of our agricultural surpluses to relieve critical food shortages without displacing the markets of other Latin American nations.

Tenth, and finally, a new program of loans to encourage the establishment within other countries of a program similar to our own Farmers Home Administration, which through loans and guarantees enables small tenant farmers to buy their own farms.

For the most part, this is not a new program. Many of these ideas have been advanced before. The difficulty is not in giving voice to them but in carrying them out. And perhaps even more important than the contents of such a program is the attitude with which it is devised and carried out – the attitude with which we in the United States regard our neighbors to the south. In the final analysis, I think this question of attitudes will prove to be more important in improving or worsening relations between the United States and Latin America than dollars, tariffs and treaties of friendship. Unless we in the United States re-examine our attitude toward Latin America, there is little value in re-examining our policies and programs.

If we take our western hemisphere friends for granted – if we regard them as worthy of little attention, except in an emergency – if, in patronizingly referring to them as our own “back yard”, we persist in a “papa knows best” attitude, throwing a wet blanket on all of their proposals for economic cooperation and dispatching marines at the first hint of trouble – then the day may not be far off when our security will be far more endangered in this area than it is in the more distant corners of the earth to which we have given our attention. If we persist in believing that all Latin American agitation is Communist inspired – that every anti-American voice is the voice of Moscow – and that most citizens of Latin America share our dedication to an anti-communism crusade to save what we call free enterprise for the free world – then the time may come when we will learn to our dismay that our enemies are not necessarily their enemies, and that our concepts of progress are not yet meaningful in their own terms. And finally, if even those who seek to improve these relations talk in terms of our promoting a new program for Latin America, instead of working out separate policies and programs for each nation with the spokesman for that nation – then we may learn too late that there are differences within Central and South America as wide as those that separate North Africa and South Africa.

Permit me to mention in detail three sets of attitudes which are particularly troublesome:

Our attitude on political relations, especially in connection with the so-called dictators; our attitude in diplomatic relations; and our attitude concerning economic relations.

First, what should our attitude be toward Latin American politics in general and dictators in particular? I realize that it will always be a cardinal tenet of American foreign policy not to intervene in the internal affairs of other nations – and that this is particularly true in Latin America. I realize that we cannot force out any duly constituted government, however repugnant its methods or views may be – particularly when we have no guarantee that its successors in the long run will be a real improvement. Imported democracy is never as meaningful or viable as the domestic brand.

But an announced policy of non-intervention becomes a sham when it is turned off and on to suit our own purposes. It should apply to businessmen as well as diplomats, to economic as well as political revolutions. And how can we call it non-intervention when we are more willing to offer economic assistance to those who join our battle against the Soviet Union than those who do not – or when we turn loan applications down for reasons of corruption, inefficiency and inflation, but not because freedom is suppressed - or when our aid policies are conditioned upon the role which private enterprise will play within the recipient country.

The recent performance by our government – and the British – in Cuba illustrate our lack of vision in this matter. Both our sense of judgment and our official prophecies on Cuba are wide of the mark. But, more important, the record shows unmistakably that both our resources and our moral authority helped to sustain General Batista in power. Our policy of non-intervention was not only a fiction, but it was also weighted in favor of an oppressive regime whose persecutions and brutalities far exceeded the retributions of the Castro regime. We have reason to be disturbed by the chain of trials and killings of the Castro regime, but we are hardly in a position to throw stones. Moreover, the Cuban system is not an Anglo-Saxon system of law and these acts of the Castro regime, after long years of suppression are not untypical of revolutions in general. Our outraged public protests are only likely to furnish fresh excuse for acts of terror and retribution. It has been one of history’s ironies that revolutions outrun themselves and that it takes extraordinary human skill and leadership to control popular passions once unleashed. Terror is an aftermath of most revolutions, and our responsibility is to adopt a position which will mitigate, not irritate those revolutionary passions. And we can encourage sustained democratic government by adapting our aid policies in such a way that those nations repudiating dictatorship and force are given a higher claim on our assistance funds. In this way we can make a more meaningful contribution to popular government than we can by verbal proclamation or counsel.

It seems to me, moreover, that a policy of non-intervention does not tie our hands completely with respect to dictatorships in Latin America or anywhere else in the world. We should not attempt to influence voters in their choice of governments – but we should always indicate our hope that they will always have an opportunity to make such a choice – that we are not indifferent to human rights – and that we look with favor upon the emergence and continuance of free governments. It is no answer to say, as Mr. Dulles has said, that there are various degrees of democracy in every government. For there are also degrees of regards and respect which should govern our attitude toward these governments – differences of degree which should be borne in mind when we give a dictator praise, or medals, or military assistance which will only be used to tighten his hold. For there is little question that should any Latin country be driven by repression into the arms of the Communists, our attitude on non-intervention would change overnight.

Secondly, we need to change our attitude concerning diplomatic relations with the nations of Latin America. In recent years, Latin America has been the step-child in the Department of State, the responsibility of lesser officials and too often the haven for ambassadors of less than top-flight quality. Many top embassy posts have been left vacant for undue periods of time – in others, the top officials have been moved in and out too swiftly, with changeovers occurring all at once in the same post. Too often, the job has been selected for the man – rather than the man for the job. We have attempted to measure our interest by the quantity of American personnel in a given nation, rather than the quality. And too many of our emissaries in this area have associated only with the elite and the Americanized, with all too little contact with the leaders of the future, labor, students, small businessmen and the growing middle class. For we have not always recognized that the ideal contact is between peoples, rather than governments – governments come and go, while lasting personal friendships and impressions remain.

Equally serious, we have permitted the OAS – the Organization of American States – to wither in a back-seat role, concerned much of the time with unimportant policies and briefings rather than real consultations. If we could utilize the potential prestige of this organization, to make it as meaningful as the Buenos Aires Conference of 1936 and the Lima Conference of 1938 – if we could use its consultative machinery on major world issues rather than routine intra-hemisphere matters only – than it would be a force for unity far more valuable than any goodwill tour or “good neighbor” speech. As President Kubitschek wrote to President Eisenhower in July: “This substantial part of our continent must be freed from the featureless rear guard position which it has held heretofore in the international scene, and ... its voice heeded wherever the destinies of the peoples are at stake.”

It is not enough to say that we will go back to the good neighbor policy of a generation ago. Such a policy governed our relations with an area dependent almost entirely upon agricultural and raw commodities – a diplomatic preserve of the United States which required doing business with only a handful of leaders. Our most important common purpose was our continental coastal defense – the defense of isolationist North America with a relatively small and unimportant Latin America. Most of the Latin American states were in equal stages of development, and treated equally and identically in Washington.

Now, of course, all this has changed. Although the development of the intercontinental ballistic missile may again elevate the importance of continental defense, the United States has different responsibilities and a different outlook as the leader of the free world. Our Latin American neighbors have developed in different ways and at different rates of speed. They constitute an important group of votes within the United Nations, and a vital force in world economic and diplomatic affairs. Nothing in the Monroe Doctrine or good neighbor policy covered the problem posed by a Soviet economic offensive, which seeks to turn the eyes and ears of Latin America toward the Kremlin. And thus I say that a new, hard look at our attitude on diplomatic relations with Latin America is long overdue.

Third and finally, what changes do we need in our attitude on economic relations? The problem is not so much the proportion of our Mutual Security aid which has gone to Latin America; for those funds have, for the most part, been expended not as a measure of our friendship and regard, but to meet specific crises – whether they be in Greece and Turkey, or Formosa and South Korea. But Latin Americans do want to use American capital within their own political and economic framework. They resent our insisting upon a larger role for their private enterprise, which cannot cope with many of their problems, or a larger role for our private investors, who have limited their interests almost entirely to extra-active industries and to only five countries (Brazil, Cuba, Mexico, Venezuela, and Chile).

Nevertheless, we know – or surely ought to know – that Latin America is certainly as essential to our security as southeast Asia – that Latin America is also plagued by poverty, instability, and Communist political and economic warfare – and that neutralism and anti-Americanism are as strong there as in other parts of the world. Yet our twenty Latin American neighbors have consistently received less than 3 to 5% of our foreign aid budget.

And far too much of this has been in military assistance – desirable perhaps if it assists in our continental defense, with radar and missile bases and troop patrols to guard our sea lanes in case of war – but undesirable when it tightens the grip of dictatorial governments, makes friends with those in power today at the expense of those who may be in power tomorrow, and emphasizes the role of the military in states that want to be peace-loving. The objective of our aid program in Latin America should not be to purchase allies – but to consolidate a free and democratic western hemisphere, alleviating those conditions which might foster opportunities for Communist infiltration, and uniting our peoples on the basis of mutual confidence, stability and constantly increasing living standards.

But while I may be critical of our attitudes and policies in these respects, I do not think we should be unmindful of the good already accomplished by the United States, of the burdens already borne by our taxpayers and of the problems which certain Latin American attitudes pose for us. For the development of harmonious relations is, like trade, a two-way street. The deterioration of relations in this hemisphere cannot be blamed entirely upon the United States or cured entirely by the United States. Latin American nations have complained about our tariff barriers when embarked upon protectionist policies of their own. They have blamed our government for not making more loans available – and resented us as creditors when they came. They have complained about the selfish nationalism of our agricultural and mineral policies – but have exhibited the same tendencies in their own official programs. They dislike too much foreign capital – yet they ask for more foreign capital. They oppose American intervention in their internal affairs – but think we should have intervened more to help their economies or to oppose certain dictators. They want to be regarded as members of the American family – but they also want to be dealt with as a separate force that cannot be taken for granted.

In short, this problem of attitudes is a mutual problem. It requires mutual understanding, mutual patience and better communication between both sides. The basic issue is whether we are going to approach the future together or separately. It is just that simple and clear-cut – yet we have not made our answer equally clear.

There was a great deal of talk at the time of the demonstration against Vice President Nixon – a great many promises and assurances – but now, as the crisis seems to pass from the headlines, the assurances are being neglected, the promises delayed and even the talk is dying down.

I am sure that all of us here would agree that the answer to this question – whether we are to face the future separately or together – ought to be crystal clear. What unites the nations of this hemisphere is far greater than what divides us. We are dependent upon each other economically, militarily and diplomatically. We are united by our love for peace and liberty, by strong cultural ties and by the strength of an ancient friendship.

It is not a matter of cost to the United States. A small sum spent now may save us billions later. Investment in a growing area, rich in resource potential – an area which asks not for a charity handout but for financial arrangements in which its members are willing to participate – is not throwing money down the drain. On the contrary, our dollars spent in Latin America return to pay for our goods and services. 98 cents of every American dollar spent to purchase sugar from Cuba, for example, is spent by the Cubans to buy American exports. And we can be certain that any vacuum we leave through the instability of our own foreign trade policies will be swiftly filled by the Soviet Union.

In short, while I would hope that we would continue to regard ourselves as members of the same family, I would also hope that Uncle Sam – like any political leader – would not neglect his family responsibilities in order to attend to his broader community responsibilities – or that he would confuse the two sets of issues. For inspiration and guidance as to what we can expect from our change in attitude and policies, we need look no further than right here in Puerto Rico. Under the tireless and inspired leadership of Governor Munoz-Marin, this island has become an ideal testing ground for inter-American relations and a pioneer in inter-American development. Despite tremendous handicaps and problems not easily tackled and not yet done away with, you have achieved both political and economic independence accompanied by both political and economic stability. Making an attitude of neither servile submission nor intransigent nationalism, you have cooperated with the mainland and the Federal Government to the mutual benefit of us all. Rising wages, rising productivity, a stronger industrial base, a responsible labor movement, increased land ownership, and stable political parties have made this island a showcase of economic and political democracy, where the Communists will never gain a real foothold.

These problems which we have discussed tonight are essentially problems of leadership – leadership such as that which you have achieved here in Puerto Rico – leadership which our nation needs today in both domestic and foreign affairs. While I could not pretend to say that a change in national administrations would magically eliminate the problems we face at home and abroad, I am convinced that our party – the Democratic Party – is best prepared to offer that kind of leadership.

Source: Papers of John F. Kennedy. Pre-Presidential Papers. Senate Files, Box 902, "Democratic dinner, San Juan, Puerto Rico, 15 December 1958." John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.