Our Waning Influence to the South

By Commander Pat Paterson, U.S. Navy

While no U.S. military interventions have occurred since Grenada in 1983 ("Urgent Fury") and Panama in 1989 ("Just Cause"), deep-seated suspicions of the United States hinder modern-day goodwill efforts.

Fortunately, the dark years of mass violence and dictatorial military rule in Latin America appear to be over. Since the 1990s, a wave of democratization has brought liberal and enlightened ideas to the area, forcing hard-line military governments and conservative forces to cede power.

All Latin American countries today have democratic processes, with the exception of Cuba. In recent years, progressive and populist policies have taken root in the region. This is as much a backlash to the conservative military governments as it is a public cry for assistance against poverty, which averages 40 percent in Latin America. Leftist governments now head 12 of the 16 South and Central American nations (or 75 percent), a complete shift from just 20 years ago. At that time, 75 percent were led by right-wing governments. Since 2000, populist-leftist leaders like Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, Evo Morales of Bolivia, and Rafael Correa of Ecuador have been elected to office.

They rose to power, in part, on a wave of anti-Americanism. Angered by decades of U.S. economic hegemony and military unilateralism, most Latin Americans hold strongly negative views of U.S. policies. In Zogby International's 2006 poll, 86 percent of Latin American elites rated U.S. relations in the area as negative, with only 13 percent as positive. 1 One witness testifying before Congress quantified the problems as, "We've never seen numbers this low." 2 As a result, our strategic interests there are in jeopardy. 

Foreign Policy Blowback

This overarching anti-American sentiment presents a danger to our national security interests. In Bolivia, President Morales ordered U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg to leave the country in September 2008. Venezuela's President Chavez followed suit by ejecting Ambassador Peter Duddy later the same day. This marks a first in U.S. history; never before have two ambassadors been expelled from their assignments simultaneously. It also demonstrates how the leadership of these countries works closely together, in this case against our interests.

Some of the most important U.S. initiatives in Latin America have been recently blocked or replaced. Venezuela and Brazil have convinced some countries to establish a collective security agreement (called the Union of South American Countries, or UNASUR) that would exclude the United States. The U.S.-led Free Trade of the Americas initiative, an attempt to establish a hemisphere-wide economic-cooperation zone, has been stalled by resistance from Venezuela and others. Ecuador has refused to renew our lease on the airbase at Manta, forcing the shutdown of a strategically vital forward operating location. Venezuela, one of the wealthiest countries on the continent because of its vast oil reserves, is emerging as a powerful and alarming regional leader at the hands of Hugo Chavez, a loud, charismatic leader who has rewritten the constitution to allow himself to stay in power.

Countering Venezuela

We must rapidly answer Chavez and his petroleum-fueled anti-U.S. rhetoric. Venezuela is the fifth-largest oil exporter in the world and has the ninth-largest oil reserves. With these rich coffers, Chavez has been providing five times more financial assistance to Latin America than has the United States—and has been gaining influence and power. Chavez has been vehemently critical, referring to former President George W. Bush as the "Devil" and asserting that "the hegemonic pretension of U.S. imperialism . . . puts at risk the very survival of the human species." 3

In 2007, John Negroponte, then-director of National Intelligence, said that President Chavez was "among the most stridently anti-American leaders anywhere in the world, and will continue to try to undercut U.S. influence in Venezuela, in the rest of Latin America, and elsewhere internationally." 4

Evidence indicates that Chavez is in cahoots with drug traffickers and terrorists. On 14 May 2007, the State Department determined that Venezuela was a major trafficker of narcotics to the United States and was friendly with quasi-terrorist organizations like the Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas de la Republica de Colombia, or FARC).

The 2006 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report stated:

Rampant corruption and a weak judicial system are the main reasons for the prominent role Venezuela is now playing as a key transit point for drugs leaving Colombia for the United States. Colombian guerrillas such as the FARC, National Liberation Army [Ejercitos de Liberacion Nacional, ELN], and the Self-Defense Forces of Colombia [Auto Defensas de Colombia] move freely through Venezuela, unchallenged by the authorities. 5

Venezuela also presents a threat to other regional countries that oppose Chavez or support us. During the past four years, he has been on a $4 billion shopping spree for weapons in Russia, Spain, and elsewhere. Using its oil wealth to modernize and expand its military, Venezuela has been trying to buy state-of-the-art fighter aircraft, attack helicopters, and submarines. Strong U.S. allies like Colombia are rightfully worried. The Colombian government watched as Chavez first aligned himself with the FARC (a group trying to topple the Colombian government) and then mobilized Venezuelan troops on the Colombian border following a March 2008 dispute with Ecuador.

A U.S. Defeat in the War on Drugs?

The growing resentment of the United States is reflected in new challenges for the war on drugs. A congressional report in October 2008 revealed that despite a $6 billion effort designed to reduce Latin American cocaine cultivation and distribution by 50 percent over the past six years, we have not stemmed the influx of drugs. Despite U.S.-led military successes against leftist insurgents in Colombia that have decimated the top FARC leadership and reduced the number of guerillas by 50 percent, coca cultivation has skyrocketed by 27 percent. Drug czar John Walsh of the Office of National Drug Control Policy said that the trafficking has increased by as much as 40 percent.

No longer receptive to Washington's requests for cooperation, countries that are the most opposed to our policies are also the source of many of the narcotics. Air trafficking of cocaine from Venezuela has increased 400 percent in the past three years. In September 2008, the U.S. Treasury announced sanctions against two of the heads of Venezuelan intelligence agencies for their role in trafficking.

Upon entering office in Bolivia in 2006, former coca grower President Evo Morales nearly doubled the amount of authorized land available for its cultivation. According to UN figures, Bolivia coca cultivation has risen 5 percent since 2000. In November 2008, Morales expelled U.S. drug-enforcement agents working in the country.

In Ecuador, the forced closure of the U.S. airbase denies us an important airfield from which to patrol the eastern Pacific Ocean, a transit zone for nearly 70 percent of the cocaine that reaches the United States. Coast Guard Rear Admiral Joseph Nimmich, head of the interagency counterdrug headquarters in Key West, Florida, acknowledged the scope of the challenge his group faces. "We're lucky we get 5 percent," he said, referring to the amount of drugs intercepted. 6

This growing problem has always represented a national security threat, but never more so than now. Colombian traffickers have used their profits to create a new and dangerous vessel. In the past, drugs were transported on fishing vessels and speedboats, both susceptible to U.S. Navy and Coast Guard search-and-seizure efforts. But now smugglers have begun to use small self-propelled semi-submersibles (SPSS).

In 2008 alone, an estimated 60 - 80 of these craft sailed from Colombia toward Central American and Mexican destinations. Each SPSS carried an average of 3 - 5 tons of cocaine; some had a capacity of 8 - 10 tons of cargo. In a time of proliferating weapons of mass destruction, the idea of 80 to 100 enemy vessels steaming undetected toward the California or Florida coastline represents a major national security threat.

Mexico in Flames

The threat comes from land as well as sea. The flow of cocaine surging northward from South American regimes has pulled Mexico into an increasingly dangerous war. The drug-related murder rate there resulted in nearly 5,400 deaths in 2008, more than double the 2007 rate of 2,500. Many U.S. government officials worry that the conflict has taken a turn toward so-called Colombianization. In the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s, cartels responded to a federal crackdown with a violent and unlimited war against the government and military officials. Both the head of the federal police and the national drug czar were recent victims of these cartels.

An estimated 90 percent of the coke entering the United States travels through Mexico. 7 The conflict threatens to spill over our southern border. More than 60 Americans have been kidnapped or murdered so far. In 2005, U.S. Ambassador Tony Garza closed the U.S. consulate in Nuevo Laredo due to threats against personnel in that border city. In October 2008, men with rifles and grenades attacked the U.S. consulate in Monterrey.

The problems in Mexico threaten the very existence of that country, and some strategists have warned that it could become a failed state. This would be a very worrisome development in a country that shares a 1,700-mile border with us and is our second-biggest trade partner. A December 2008 U.S. Joint Forces Command report on worldwide securty threats predicted that Mexico could experience a "rapid and sudden collapse." 8

But we do not have the resources to prevent this from occurring. The Merida Initiative, a $400 million package provided in 2008 to Mexico to combat trafficking, is only a fraction of the estimated $23 billion that Mexican cartels earn for the drugs flowing across our border. Additionally, in 2007 the Pentagon reduced funding for anti-drug efforts in Mexico by more than 60 percent, to free up $8 - 10 billion needed monthly for the war in Iraq.

A New Good Neighbor Policy

President Barack Obama's election offers an opportunity to extend an olive branch to our southern neighbors. His election was well received in Latin America; a worldwide BBC poll showed a preference for Obama to McCain in every single country surveyed, by a four-to-one overall margin.

Evo Morales seemed to share these hopes when he said: "The entire world is hoping there will be changes. We Bolivians want to improve diplomatic relations." 9 Brazilian leader President Luiz Lula da Silva echoed the same cautiously optimistic sentiment.

The timing is right. According to an influential new report on emerging global multilateralism, U.S. influence is expected to wane as China and Russia come online, and globalization further distributes economic opportunities for developing nations in Latin America. A new U.S. foreign policy focused on the Western Hemisphere makes sense, considering our ties here economically and demographically. By 2050, more than 30 percent of our population will be Latino, making it the country's largest minority. That represents a tripling of the current Hispanic population here. Already we are the second most populous Spanish-speaking country in the world, after Mexico.

The April 2009 Summit of the Americas Conference in Trinidad and Tobago was the perfect venue for President Obama's message of equality and partnering in our region. Obama's ascendancy provides the opportunity to finally overhaul foreign policy—including lifting the Cuban embargo. Easing travel restrictions was a good first step in this direction.

The trade embargo against Cuba has become representative of U.S. economic and diplomatic bullying, the type of foreign-policy tool that has proved counterproductive to our interests. Opposition to the embargo is nearly universal. In October 2007, the UN General Assembly voted overwhelmingly for the United States to end this 46-year-old embargo. It was the 16th straight year that the 192-member world body approved a resolution calling for this to be repealed "as soon as possible." The vote in favor of the resolution—184 to 4—was a one-vote improvement over the previous year's vote of 183 to 5. Only the United States, Israel, Palau, and the Marshall Islands voted against it.

The next step should be to befriend Brazil, which is quickly expected to reach the economic levels of China, India, and Russia. In August 2008, Brazil discovered the largest oil fields in the Western Hemisphere in more than 30 years. Last December, it announced the intention to join the ranks of the Oil Producing Economic Countries, an honor that only two other countries in the region previously shared: Venezuela and Ecuador.

President Lula da Silva takes a measured and pragmatic approach to relations with the United States, causing many here to recognize a chance to align ourselves with an emerging global powerhouse in our own hemisphere. A friendly Brazil would provide an economic engine that few countries in this part of the world could resist.

But there is not a moment to lose. Brazil is already starting to distance itself. In May 2008, it convened the inaugural meeting of the Union of South American Nations, which included all continental nations but did not offer an observer position to the United States. Additionally, Brazil proposed the establishment of a new South American military alliance. Both initiatives would have the effect of replacing the U.S.-dominated Organization of American States and Inter-American Defense Board and further elevating Brazil's status as a leader.

Brazil's foreign minister from 1995 to 2001, Luiz Lampreia, said of his country's newfound position and declining U.S. influence: "Countries in the region are more aware than ever that they live in a globalized, post-American world." 10

Time Is of the Essence

We are still respected as the world's most powerful military, but the economic motor that drives the global economy and U.S. cooperation with Latin America is in bad shape. Leftist governments are proliferating—and are opposed to U.S. policies. Counter-drug efforts are barely maintaining status quo.

Our interference in the internal politics and sovereign issues of Latin American countries has left a resentment and suspicion of our activities. The Free Trade of the Americas has basically collapsed. Our unilateralism in Iraq and Afghanistan has alienated what few friends we had to the south. Foreign powers like Venezuela, Brazil, China, and Iran are filling the vacuum that U.S. hegemony has left behind.

Open communication, honesty, and awareness of suspicions about U.S. action will help to repair relations with those who should be our natural allies. This will also help to avoid further damage by those hostile to us. But the remedy for long-damaged relations will not be quick. We need a strategic patience to achieve the long-term investment in our regional partners.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates understands the long-term effort necessary. "The solution is not to be found in some slick campaign or by trying to out-propagandize [American opponents]," he says, "but through a steady accumulation of actions and results that build trust and credibility over time." 11 For now, U.S. policy in the area should be humble, not arrogant; modest, not boastful; multilateral, not unilateral; compassionate, not belligerent; honest, not hypocritical. Unlike our past behavior in Latin America, now is the time to speak quietly and put down our big stick.


1. Peter Hakim, "Is Washington Losing Latin America?" Foreign Affairs magazine, 1 February 2006.

2. U.S. Congress House Committee on Foreign Affairs, "The Decline in America's Reputation: Why?" Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 11 June 2008.

3. David Stout, "Chavez Calls Bush 'the Devil' in UN Speech," New York Times , 20 September 2006.

4. U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, "Annual Threat Assessment of the Director of National Intelligence," 27 February 2007.

5. U.S. Department of State, International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, March 2006.

6. Ben Fox, "U.S. Hunts Caribbean Drugs But Odds Favor Smugglers," Miami Herald , 17 December 2008.

7. Daniel Kurtz-Phelan, "The Long War of General Garcia Luna," New York Times Magazine , 13 July 2008, p. 33. Melanie Hanson, "Mexico's Drug War," Council on Foreign Relations, 20 November 2008. Mark Lacey, "Rice Visits Mexico for a Meeting About Its Drug War," New York Times , 23 October 2008, p. A11.

8. Joint Forces Command, Joint Operating Environment Report, December 2008, p. 5.

9. Bradley Brooks, "Latin American Summit Focus Is Lack of U.S. Presence," Associated Press, 16 December 2008.

10. Joshua Goodman, "Bush Excluded by Latin Summit As China, Russia Loom," Bloomberg News Group, 15 December 2008.

11. Peter Spiegel, "Defense Chief Gates Wants to Spend More on U.S. Diplomacy," Los Angeles Times , 16 July 2008.

Commander Paterson is a U.S. Navy foreign area officer who has worked in Latin America since 1997. He has contributed to Proceedings several times.

Lieutenant Commander Paterson is the African desk officer at Special Operations Command, Europe in Stuttgart, Germany. A 1989 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he is also a surface warfare and foreign area officer. 

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