Announced by U.S. President John F. Kennedy on March 13, 1961, the Alliance for Progress was a massive U.S. foreign aid program for Latin America, the biggest aimed at the underdeveloped world up to that time. Likened to the Marshall Plan in postwar Europe, its express intent was to promote economic and social development and democratic institutions across the Western Hemisphere; to raise living standards for the poorest of the poor; and to make leftist social revolution an unattractive alternative. “Those who make democracy impossible,” warned President Kennedy in announcing the plan, “will make revolution inevitable.”
Most commonly interpreted in the context of the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union, as a response to Fidel Castro and the Cuban revolution of 1959, and as the U.S. foreign policy establishment’s effort to thwart the aspirations of leftist revolutionaries, the Alliance for Progress, despite some successes, is widely considered to have failed to meet its lofty goals. Pledging $20 billion in aid over 10 years, the program actually distributed an estimated $4.8 billion, the remainder of the approximately $10 billion overall U.S. contribution from 1961 to 1969 going toward loan repayment and debt service. The program came to an effective end in 1969 under President Richard Nixon, who replaced it with a new agency called Action for Progress. A refurbished version was formulated by President Ronald Reagan in 1981, in his Caribbean Basin Initiative, which suffered many of the same shortcomings as its predecessor.
In August 1961 representatives from the United States and Latin American countries (save Cuba) met at
Punta del Este, Uruguay, to formulate specific objectives and targets for the program and ways to implement them. The most important of these objectives included raising per capita incomes by an average of 2.5 percent annually; land reform; trade diversification, mainly through export production; industrialization; educational reforms (including elimination of illiteracy by 1970); and price stability. The program’s theoretical underpinnings owed much to the work of U.S. economist Walter W. Rostow, and his notion of “economic take-off” (articulated in his 1960 book, The Stages of Economic Growth). He was a member of the inter-American “board of experts” (dubbed “the nine wise men”) that had final authority on the program’s specific content.
The reasons for the program’s overall failure have been the subject of much debate among scholars. Most agree that deepening U.S. commitments in the Vietnam War diverted attention and resources away from Alliance programs and initiatives. Another frequently cited limitation concerns the difficulties inherent in promoting democratic institutions and land reform in societies dominated by stark divisions of social class and race, entrenched landholding oligarchies, and small groups of privileged economic and political elites. Another criticism concerns the top-down nature of the programs, which relied almost exclusively on active state support and failed to incorporate local community or grassroots organizations into their design and implementation. For these and other reasons, the Alliance for Progress achieved some successes but on the whole failed to achieve the goals articulated by President Kennedy in 1961.