Intervention in Civil Wars Symposium: Intervention in Latin America

Intervention in Civil Wars Symposium: Intervention in Latin America

My friend Chiara Redaelli has produced an impressive volume, thoroughly analysing the topic of intervention in civil wars. As others in this symposium have already pointed out, it is usually difficult to offer comments on what one mostly agrees with. In this post, therefore, apart from congratulating Chiara for a fantastic book, I wanted to add to the conversation by briefly telling the story of intervention in civil wars she explores, though Latin American eyes.

Latin America is not usually a region one thinks about when dealing with issues of intervention in civil wars, particularly not in terms of the formation of the legal concept. Sure, there are classic case-studies related to the US intervention in Panama (1989) or the Dominican Republic (1965), in the broader context of intervention by invitation, but those are mostly explored through the experience of the US. The agency of these states to influence the law was limited – the rules and basic principles had already been set.

Contrary to popular belief, Latin America has a much richer yet still unexplored relationship with intervention in civil wars. The book starts this exploration by noting that “[t]he first explicit recognition of rebels took place during the war of independence of the Spanish colonies in America (1810-1824)” (p. 29). This was, Chiara notes, a recognition of belligerent status. I have written before on how the concept of recognition of belligerence impacted Latin America. It was the perfect balance between Europe and Latin American needs. On the one hand, European states could deal with bellicose armed groups without endangering their relationship with their host nation (since the group was recognized as a semi-separate entity), and, on the other, absent such attacks, the recognition meant third states should remain neutral, therefore protecting Latin America’s claim to absolute non-intervention.

Non-intervention was one of independent Latin America’s key concerns going into the second half of the 19th century. The young American republics faced a very real risk of re-colonization and loss of territory from European powers. To prevent this, Latin America would need to engage with the existing international law on non-intervention with an intent to move it away from its “gunboat diplomacy” European conception and into an absolute principle, much more similar to what we know today. This, as Chiara explains, would be difficult. Non-intervention was a contested topic, premised on racist views related to the (in)famous “standard of civilization”. As she notes, in the European paradigm “the principle of non-intervention was a corollary of sovereignty, only civilised countries would be protected by this principle” (p. 24-25). Upon independence, Latin American states and scholars sought to use their cultural connections to Spain as a sort of “ethnic pedigree” to force their way into the club of civilised states. It is in this context that the Calvo, Drago and Carranza doctrines took shape.

This context influenced Latin America’s experience with intervention in civil wars during the 19th century. One such example was Mexico’s reaction to the US’ intervention in the Texan Rebellion of 1836. However, as I have already talked about that in another post, let me use another case to illustrate the point: The War of the Confederation of 1836. Despite its name, more than a war, the War of the Confederation centres around the Argentinean, Bolivian and Chilean involvement in the Peruvian Civil War of 1834. This civil war started when Peruvian President Agustín Gamarra reached the end of his rule without elections having been called. Trying to avoid instability, Congress appointed Luis José de Orbegoso as “interim President”. Gamarra and his supporters revolted in response. When de Orbegoso marched south to confront Gamarra, one of his generals, Felipe Salaverry, joined Gamarra and cut off de Orbegoso’s supply lines. Desperate, de Orbegoso asked Andres de Santa Cruz, President of Bolivia, for assistance. In June 1835, Peru signed a Treaty of Military Assistance with Bolivia.     

Santa Cruz was a cunning leader, though, and seized the opportunity to get something in return. According to the Treaty, Bolivia would join the war on the side of de Orbegoso in exchange for his commitment to divide Peru into two parts (North and South Peru) that would themselves join with Bolivia, forming the Peru-Bolivia Confederation.

Bolivia justified its intervention partly through Peru’s consent. Chile and Argentina responded with counter-interventions arguing, in part, that this consent was fraudulent. According to Chile, Santa Cruz was an “unjust holder of Peru’s sovereignty”, while to Argentina “the Bolivian army’s occupation of Peru is founded solely in the right granted to it by an illegal, null, and harmful treaty, drafted and signed by a Peruvian General without a mandate and without the power to surrender his motherland to foreigners”. Ultimately, the Confederation was defeated and Peru’s sovereignty reinstated in 1839.   

The experience with the War of the Confederation is an early example of the requisites for valid consent in international law. As Chiara notes, “[i]n order to be valid, a state’s consent must meet certain requisites as to who has the authority to express it, how the consent should be given, and when” (p. 87). In modern parlance, for Argentina and Chile, de Orbegoso’s consent was faulty, because of his status as an unelected interim President with no effective control over Peru’s territory. He was not really President of Peru.

Issues of consent, though, are not the only topic present in Chiara’s book with a lost Latin American history. In 1898, the US decided to intervene in the Cuban war of independence, on the side of the Cuban rebels, against Spain. At the end of hostilities, the US stayed in control of Cuba, but was unable to annex it due to domestic legislation prohibitions. Looking for a compromise solution, Senator Orville Platt suggested an amendment that would set the conditions for US withdrawal from Cuba. According to this Platt Amendment, “the government of Cuba consents that the United States may exercise the right to intervene for the preservation of Cuban independence, the maintenance of a government adequate for the protection of life, property, and individual liberty (…)”.

The Platt Amendment was the direct result of the more renowned Monroe Doctrine. As expressed by US President Roosevelt, the doctrine meant that the US, as the more “civilized” society in the Hemisphere, would be required to intervene in cases where Latin states faced “chronic wrongdoing, or an impotence which results in a general loosening of the ties of civilized society”. In other words, the US reserved the right to intervene in Latin American civil wars – and in the case of Cuba, the legal rationale for said intervention would be its prior consent.

In this context, Mexican President Venustiano Carranza launched a counter-doctrine known as the Carranza doctrine, that “affirmed the principles of equality among nations, sovereignty and absolute non-intervention in the internal affairs of another state”. Ever since these days, it has been Latin America’s constant position that the Platt Amendment’s blanket consent was a form of interventionism that went against the principle of non-intervention.

It is interesting to explore these Latin American experiences in light of the debate surrounding negative equality – the idea that intervention by invitation is unlawful when it takes part in civil wars. As Chiara notes, “it is questionable why a duty to abstain should be limited to the sole case of civil wars” (p. 95). In the negative equality paradigm, the rationale is that the government can no longer represent the people. However, as she notes, “state practice shows that states do not rely on the negative equality doctrine, nor do they mention it during discussions within the UNSC”. This conclusion seems to be supported by the Latin American practice

Indeed, the usual line of argument coming out of Latin America in situations of intervention in civil wars attacks the nature of consent. De Orbegoso was not really President and could not really consent to Bolivia’s intervention. Cuba could not give prior consent to future interventions. Countries facing “a general loosening of the ties of civilized society” did not also tacitly consent to their invasion. None of these examples actually questioned the right to request intervention. If anything, where the discussion arose, Latin states have tended to stand against negative equality.

In 1916, for instance, during the events of the so-called “Punitive Expedition” against Pancho Villa, during the Mexican Revolution, the Mexican government protested the US’ unlawful military intervention arguing that:

“The American military authorities carried out this expedition without waiting to obtain the consent of the Government of Mexico, and even after they were officially advised by this Government had not given is consent thereto, they continued to send forward more troops without informing the Mexican Government thereof”.

More recently, when partially-recognised Venezuelan interim President, Juan Guaidó hinted he would request a military intervention in Venezuela to oust autocrat Nicolás Maduro, the Lima Group issued a statement reiterating “their conviction that the transition to democracy must be conducted by Venezuelans themselves, peacefully and within the framework of the Constitution and international law, supported by political and diplomatic means, without the use of force”. The statement at no point questioned the powers of a President to request intervention in its territory. Instead, it merely pointed out that in this case, use of force would not be employed.

The same occurs with counter-intervention, where Latin American practice agrees with Chiara’s argument that “intervening powers have often grounded their interference on the basis of the foreign help provided to the opposition group” (p. 97). In the context of Cuba’s intervention in Uganda, in 1975, Fidel Castro stated:

“Yankee imperialism, without any kind of scruples, launched the mercenary troops of South Africa to squash Angolan independence and then is outraged when we support Angola (…) By the duties established in our principles, our ideology, our convictions and our own blood, we will defend Angola and Africa!”   

The Latin American experience, therefore, seems to offer extra support for Chiara’s excellent book. Having said that, I want to end this post by congratulating her once more on such a great volume. It is, without a doubt, a must-read in this field. 

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