Remembering the Monroe Doctrine on Cinco de Mayo

4 MINS READMay 6, 2014 | 00:41 GMT
Remembering the Monroe Doctrine on Cinco de Mayo
A caricature, published in 1902, depicting England and Germany responding to the Venezuelan Blockade.
(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Stratfor's base in the capital of Texas gives us a unique view into what is possibly the most misunderstood yet highly geopolitical celebration in the Western Hemisphere: Cinco de Mayo. Though some revelers have already begun to throw back a few margaritas, we are setting the salt shakers aside to reflect on the legacy of the Monroe Doctrine.

During the American Civil War, Mexico was bankrupt, trying to fend off a last-ditch attempt by the French to create an empire in the Americas. Under orders from Napoleon III in 1862, French forces landed at the port of Veracruz, where American soldiers had invaded during the Mexican-American War just 15 years earlier. As the French made their way up the Mexican heartland, they were stopped in their tracks at the small town of Puebla just southeast of Mexico City. A ragtag army of some 2,000 to 4,000 Mexican soldiers on May 5 improbably repelled 6,000 soldiers of what was then Europe's pre-eminent military.

It was a symbolic victory for the Mexicans and a giant relief for the United States, which needed more time to patch itself up before the French turned their attention to cleaving the emerging hegemon farther north. Within a year of the battle at Puebla, French troops returned, and this time they succeeded in occupying Mexico City, where Napoleon III imported Austrian Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian to serve as emperor. But by 1865, the United States — now whole again with the end of the civil war — was ready to deal with meddlesome Europeans, carve out a sphere of influence and defend the words of former U.S. President James Monroe, who said in 1823 that "the American continents ... are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers." A U.S.-backed Mexican insurgency sent the French back to the Old World, while Mexico was left to live with its larger and inevitably much more powerful northern neighbor.

Nearly 150 years later, the U.S. defense of the Monroe Doctrine remains a foundational piece in the American playbook. With the largest military in the world, a quarter of the global economy in American hands and the rest of the world dealing with existential challenges, the United States doesn't need to exert nearly as much effort as it did in the 19th century to keep out intruders. Even as a pseudo-Cold War is playing out in Europe, Washington barely batted an eye when Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov took an unexpected tour through Latin America in search of defense deals. Russia is not about to start subsidizing Latin American governments and try installing puppet regimes half a world away when it already has its hands full trying to retake control of its own borderland.

Indeed, European armies have been replaced with massive European automobile manufacturers, fleeing their own economic troubles at home to take advantage of low-cost labor and proximity to the U.S. market. In the town of Puebla, Audi and Volkswagen are now raising armies of local workers to build cars for American consumers. Similar stories can be told in the central Mexican states of Guanajuato, Queretaro and Aguascalientes, where the manufacturing industry is growing at a healthy pace in line with expectations for the U.S. market. And with Mexico's energy industry in the midst of a reformation, U.S. investors will lead the way in knitting their North American neighbors even tighter together.

So on this Cinco de Mayo, Americans have a different reason to celebrate. The Mexican defeat at Puebla, while a speed bump for the French at a time of imperial conquest, bought the Americans valuable time to straighten their country out and return to the task of defending a sphere of influence in Latin America. With ocean buffers on each end and friendly trading partners to the north and south, this is a position that Old World powers will continue to envy while the New World shines bright.

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