As a new administration is coming to power, there is a tremendous need to reset U.S. policy in the Western Hemisphere, a policy that has been erratic and based on false premises.
The Western Hemisphere is the neighborhood where the United States lives. It is reasonable to assume that a better neighborhood will make us safer and stronger.
The last two decades were characterized by the rise of the left in Latin America. The extreme left led by President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela has been authoritarian and anti-American. Furthermore, it strengthened alliances with rogue states such as Iran as well as with terrorist groups including the FARC and Hezbollah.
While the moderate left in countries like Brazil did not go as far as Venezuela and its allies, it served as an enabler of extremism and anti-Americanism. Brazil actively pursued a foreign policy aimed at reducing U.S. influence in the region and saw the authoritarian left as an ally. In fact, the moderate and extreme left were triumphalist, united in their pursuit of a new order based on alliances with Third World countries while viewing Western countries as rivals.
Under President George W. Bush, U.S. policy in Latin America was delegated to the State Department while the Administration directed its efforts to Asia and the Middle East.
Under President Barack Obama, U.S. policy was characterized by mea culpa. In Obama’s eyes, the U.S. was a source of trouble and arrogance in the region. Therefore, the president subordinated U.S. policy to a mere adaptation to the circumstances without even attempting to exercise any influence in the region. Normalization of relations with Cuba has been the main thrust of American policy in the Western Hemisphere. Such policy was guided by two main principles: First the need to follow the will of the majority of the countries of the region and secondly, to establish Obama’s own legacy as the person who broke the traditional intransigent U.S. policy towards Cuba.
It is in this sense that the Western Hemisphere turned more and more chaotic and the U.S. turned more passive. Authoritarianism flourished and democracy declined throughout the region. Cuba did not substantially change its human rights policy and showed no signs of opening the regime to a transition. Likewise, Cuba continued to support the repressive apparatus of the Venezuelan government. Under the leadership of Hugo Chavez, Venezuela was also turned into a narco-state with part of its political and military elite seriously implicated in organized crime. The country has become a key transition point for transportation of illegal drugs. Likewise, Venezuela’s relations with Iran and subversive and terrorist groups has continued to thrive. Hezbollah cells cooperate with drug cartels in the building of tunnels along the U.S./Mexican border; the Iranian Revolutionary Guards are training revolutionary fighters of the Bolivarian Alliance in Bolivia; Iran extracts uranium from Venezuela; and Venezuela and some of her allies are selling passports to Iranians and other individuals from the Middle East.
None of these detrimental elements was challenged by our foreign policy establishment.
Today, Latin America is threatened with anarchy as the rule of law and transnational crime increases. Our Southern border is more vulnerable to criminal elements than ever before. China has increased its economic and strategic presence in the region raising its leverage. Russia has conducted joint military exercises with Venezuela and sold her weapons. General John Kelly, commander of U.S. Southern Command has pointed out that although Russia is not a threat to the United States, it has increased its profile in the region at levels not seen in three decades. Iran, Russia, and China increased their presence and leverage in the region, as well, thanks to their connections to anti-American countries such as Venezuela, Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador and Nicaragua, while the rest of Latin America watched with either indifference or joy.
A new policy requires evaluation of all these factors. The rising decline of the left in Latin America as reflected in the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff in Brazil; the defeat of Kirchnerism in Argentina; and the severe crisis of legitimacy in Venezuela could present a very good opportunity to recover some of the lost U.S. influence and help undo the damage.
There is now an opportunity for the United States to seek a renewed alliance with countries such as Brazil, having in mind the idea that such an emerging giant could be a very good strategic ally just like any other NATO member or Western ally. Likewise, the U.S cannot show any more tolerance to violations of democracy and human rights such as in Venezuela. First, because the assault on democracy is carried out by regimes that are likely to be involved in criminal activity, while pursuing alliances with rogue elements and adopting an anti-American attitude. Secondly, because democratic regimes are more likely to find common ground with the United States, find common goals and make the region safer.
The fact that President-elect Donald Trump most recently stated that he stands with the people of Cuba and Venezuela and that he will make demands on Raul Castro to further liberalize his regime is very encouraging. Likewise, Mr. Trump stated that the U.S. must stand with the oppressed people in the hemisphere and particularly in those countries.
This is an opportunity to develop an effective foreign policy. A Trump Administration should take into account all these factors and develop strategies accordingly. One thing is for sure: the status-quo is unsustainable and a lot of past defective policy needs to be reevaluated.