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50 years after Cuba missile crisis, US influence in hemisphere waning

Investment from emerging economies like China and Russia are diminishing Latin America's reliance on the US, making it more difficult for Washington to isolate regimes like Cuba. 

By Staff Writer / October 14, 2012

A soldier poses for a photograph on the outer casing of an old, empty Soviet missile on exhibit Saturday at the military complex Morro Cabana, which is open to tourists in Havana. On the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, historians now say it was behind-the-scenes compromise rather than a high-stakes game of chicken that resolved the face-off.

Ismael Francisco/AP


Mexico City

It was what many consider the most dangerous moment the world has ever faced: the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, which saw the United States square off over nuclear missiles stationed by the Soviet Union in Cuba.

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This week marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the tense standoff. And while the politics of the cold war have little relevance for US-Latin American relations today, in some ways the US finds itself in the very position that set the stage for conflict in the first place, says Philip Brenner, a historian of the missile crisis at American University. With US influence waning in the region, Latin America is forging ahead with its own agenda.

It was not only the containment of communism that drove US attempts to oust Fidel Castro from the helm of Cuba in the early 1960s, says Mr. Brenner. The US was also concerned about Latin American countries emulating Cuba, particularly its geopolitical stance in the cold war, and thus undermining American leadership in the Western Hemisphere. Some 50 years later, the US faces the same situation, just a more modern iteration.

“What the US feared the most in 1962 has come to pass,” says Brenner, who wrote "Sad and Luminous Days: Cuba's Struggle with the Superpowers after the Missile Crisis."  “We were concerned about our sphere of influence that we had taken for granted.… [Today] we cannot dominate this region anymore. They do not look to us for leadership. Countries look within the region, and to some extent to Cuba still.”

After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the US turned its attention from Latin America as it focused on terrorism and threats from the Middle East. At the same time, over the past decade Latin American democracy has flourished and the global economy shifted, with Latin America no longer looking just north to the US for leadership and investment, but to India, China, and Russia. China surpassed the US as Brazil’s biggest trading partner in 2009.

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