I see in the papers that the protests in Greece and Spain and Argentina over foreign debts are getting uglier by the day, with much fretting over protests and riots and how are we to get through these times?
Impossible to know for sure, of course, but the past gives us a few cautionary tales of what to avoid. Consider the case of Venezuela and Cipriano Castro.
Castro was a rural middle class boy who made good in 19th century Venezuela, hitching his wagon to the winning revolutionary side in various internal difficulties. Enough to say that by age 43 he had seized the presidency, he set himself up as a kind of Central American Medici (without the art) – beating back various revolts and killing political opponents and living the high life as only a dictator can.
New governments tend to inherit the old government obligations, and a common early act is to repudiate them. Plays well with the crowds, if not with the countries that are stiffed.
In those days, the response was to send gunships.
Which is pretty remarkable if you think about it. Just imagine – a private financial concern in London or Berlin, a Goldman Sachs or Barings Bank, say, takes a flutter on a developing country half a world away and when it goes balls up their next move is to ask the government – the government – to send in tax supported armed troops as debt collectors. That’s service!
Back in Venezuela, Castro assumed – why would he not? – that the US would invoke the Monroe Doctrine to keep Europeans out of Venezuelan hair. Well, what was the so-called Doctrine for if not to keep tiresome Europeans back on their side of the Atlantic? Please, Mr Roosevelt, be so good as to tell them to go away.
Roosevelt, caught between his fellow Europeans and this officious Latin, decided to fine tune the Doctrine. Doctrine, you understand, not actual law, much less treaty, and therefore open to interpretation. For practical purposes, the US would see this as a matter of foreign intervention rather than as foreign invasion and seizure. Blockade away, if you must.
They, that is to say Germany and Great Britain, did so, for all of three months (December 1902-February 1903), at which point Castro backed down and eventually agreed to set aside a healthy chunk of customs duties for debt repayment, with first checks to go to the intervening (but not invading) powers.
Even this was troublesome, as it put secondary creditors at the back of the line.
Might makes right, of course, but this special treatment for the Germans and British was a precedent distasteful to Roosevelt, who worried it might encourage more gunboat diplomacy in the region – that is to say, non-US gunboat diplomacy. The US papers of the time were critical of the Old World types, and so we got the Roosevelt Corollary, which would put American power and taxpayers money to smoothing over any future economic difficulties between Europeans and the region of Central and South America.*
When in doubt, send the marines.
US marines, of course.
Castro’s own career followed the trash novelists cliches. Another brief intervention from the Dutch of all people (the issue was Curacao and refugees) in 1908. It was during the Dutch navy’s blockade that Castro went to Paris (no debts there!) to have his syphilis treated. While he was taking the cure, his second in command took over the show and made peace with Holland. Castro sent the rest of his life scheming to get back into power, and died in San Juan, Puerto Rico, still out of power .
And nowadays, collecting debts for hedge funds is now a matter for lawyers, not soldiers. Which is progress of a kind, I suppose.
* Cooler heads (Calvin Coolidge, to be exact) reversed the notion and the Big Stick eventually was replaced by the Good Neighbor. Still and all, the US has not exactly covered itself in glory with our relations south of the border.