Though Latin America occasionally has been the source of national security headaches, it historically has received relatively little U.S. attention. A policy of benign neglect may have been adequate in the unipolar world following the collapse of the Soviet Union, but it is increasingly unsustainable as great power competition once again becomes characteristic of international relations. The growing influence and presence in Latin America of China, Russia, and other opponents of the United States is a threat to national security and warrants a sea change in U.S. interaction with the region.
Competition for Influence
Trade between Latin America and China has grown by a factor of 18 in less than two decades.1 China is now the second largest trading partner of Latin America as a region, which is also the second largest recipient of Chinese foreign investment.2 Beyond trade, the Chinese government offers its Belt and Road Initiative infrastructure program, low-cost loans, and cooperative ventures in areas such as telecommunications and aerospace.3 Chinese influence is further increased by arms sales and military cooperation, the expansion of soft power through institutions such as the Confucius Institute, and political support to governments with wanting human rights records. China’s objectives in Latin America include the creation of “a sphere of influence in the traditional backyard of the U.S. . . . and reshaping the current world system in a fashion more to its liking.”4
The Russian Federation is a stalwart supporter of those countries most opposed to U.S. security interests in the region, specifically Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela. Russia cannot offer significant financial inducements, which it makes up for with support to internationally isolated regimes and the breadth of military hardware available for sale. The list of nations purchasing Russian arms includes U.S. security partners such as Brazil, Mexico, and Peru.5 Russian aircraft and ships have made visits to the Western Hemisphere in recent years as well, reasserting a presence lacking since the fall of the Soviet Union. Support for television and news outlets, such as Russia Today, and the growth of high-level diplomatic connections are other avenues for Russia to expand its influence in the region.6 Taken together, Russian interests in Latin America are part of a strategy to “erode U.S. leadership and challenge U.S. influence in the Western Hemisphere.”7
The Islamic Republic of Iran’s activity in Latin America is aimed largely at cultivating diplomatic relationships, soft power, and favorable attitudes.8 A Spanish-language television network and cultural centers across the region speak to these ends, which can then be leveraged to oppose U.S. overseas interests and circumvent international sanctions.9 Perhaps most relevant, Iran seeks greater military ties in Latin America and a source of fissile material for its nascent nuclear weapons program.10
The United States also stands to lose influence to regional actors opposed to its interests. The Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) now includes 12 Latin American countries, including Nicaragua and Bolivia.11 ALBA explicitly opposes U.S. influence and works toward excluding the United States from Latin American economic and political affairs—an ideological stance that has made it an attractive diplomatic partner for China and Russia.12 Notably, ALBA counts both Iran and Syria as observer states.13
National Security Interests
The most prominent effect of great power competition in Latin America is opponents’ ability to create militarily advantageous positions and partnerships. Russian nuclear-capable strategic bombers have flown to Venezuela, and Chinese naval ships make port visits in the Caribbean.14 These nations will leverage their Latin American presence when they feel it necessary.
Far more pernicious, however, is the propping up of regimes hostile to U.S. interests. Nations such as Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela receive significant economic, political, and military support from abroad in exchange for opposing the United States. After more than two decades, Russia again began supplying Cuba with oil and gas in May 2017, and it has made similar offers to Nicaragua and Venezuela.15 China offers plentiful loans and infrastructure projects to economically backward governments. Without this support, these political administrations would find it much harder to stay in power. The effect is to maintain pockets of instability and hostility close to U.S. borders.
Friendly relations with Latin American nations also can prove useful in evading or neutering international organizations and obligations. Iran sees in Venezuela a country unlikely to comply with international regulations on exporting uranium.16 Latin American countries might be courted as friendly votes at the United Nations, for their influence within regional organizations such as the Organization of American States or Caribbean Community, or as trading partners not subject to international or U.S. financial sanctions. Russia was able to count on support or abstention at the United Nations from Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela for its annexation of Crimea.17
Both China and Russia have courted arms deals with ALBA member countries, specifically Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Bolivia.18 China also has sold a variety of weapon systems to Argentina and Peru, and Russia is pursuing arms sales to a number of countries, including Mexico.19 Increased arms sales tend to increase the likelihood of armed conflict, and the weapons themselves present an attractive target for paramilitary and criminal organizations. Russian-produced tanks may not proliferate, but the products of a planned Kalashnikov factory in Venezuela certainly will.20 Perhaps most important, the sale of modern weapon systems often includes continued support in the form of maintenance and training, making further military cooperation that much easier.
Finally, increased presence of extraregional actors may complicate normal U.S. military operations in Latin America, which are dependent on the use of host country facilities such as ports and runways. Increasing Chinese and Russian influence threatens regular access. Sri Lanka’s surrender of Hambantota port to China is a testament to the strategic interests that lie beneath low-cost infrastructure financing.21 In addition, the presence of intelligence-gathering equipment can have a chilling effect on military operations. Russia is expanding its electronic and communications intelligence gathering capability in Nicaragua and since 2008 has been conducting port visits in the Caribbean with warships and auxiliaries.22 The many multinational exercises the United States leads or participates in, including Rim of the Pacific, Tradewinds, and UNITAS, are indirectly threatened by the potential for possible adversary influence and monitoring.
A New Monroe Doctrine
The most effective way for the United States to counter the growing competition for influence and presence in Latin America is to craft a new Monroe Doctrine that makes clear that the benefits of engagement with the United States outweigh those of partnering with others.
Most critical to any new strategy is continuing to improve economic and political links. Many Latin American countries already conduct more trade with China than with the United States, and the United States cannot compete with the lavish infrastructure projects promised by the Belt and Road Initiative. Instead, the United States must trade on its strengths: cultural similarities, a large Latin American diaspora, a stable financial system, etc.
Likewise, the United States should continue to promote democracy, self-determination, and liberal economic and social policies. This won’t win over hostile regimes, but it will go a long way toward bolstering goodwill among the far more numerous “neutral” states. By showing patience and playing the long game, the United States can continue forging relationships in Latin America; time will reveal Chinese and Russian aid to be less reliable.
Closer military cooperation will show the value the United States places on its relationships with Latin American countries and further strengthen them. The Department of Defense, working with the Department of Homeland Security, should increase the assets available to Southern Command, including hospital ship deployments such as the USNS Comfort (T-AH-20) deployment that began in June. In conjunction with this “mini pivot,” new opportunities for personnel exchanges and unit-level exercises should be embraced. Every combatant commander needs more resources; assigning more to Southern Command is a hard sell. But as U.S. vulnerabilities in Latin America show, the price of neglect is high. Sustained and dependable involvement with Latin America is the United States’ best option to counter the possibility of nearby threats to national security.
1. Peter Ruvalcaba, “China – Latin America Trade at a Moment of Uncertainty: What Lies Ahead in 2019?” Atlantic Council, 3 December 2018.
2. “China Becomes Second Largest Trading Partner of Latin America.” Xinhua, 29 November 2018.
4. Lu Yei, “China’s Strategic Partnership with Latin America: A Fulcrum in China’s Rise,” International Affairs 91, no. 5 (September 2015): 1047−48.
5. Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, “SIPRI Arms Transfers Database.”
6. Richard Miles, “Virtual Russian Influence in Latin America,” Center for Strategic & International Studies, 9 May 2018.
7. Molly O’Toole, “Trump’s Homeland Security Chief Will Be Confirmed, Not Controlled,” Foreign Policy, 10 January 2017.
8. Craig A. Deare, “Latin America,” in Charting a Course, R. D. Hooker Jr., ed. (Washington, DC: National Defense University Press, 2016), 315−35.
9. Majid Rafizadeh, “Why Iran Is Increasing Its Military Presence in Latin America,” Arab News, 3 December 2017, and Deare, “Latin America,” 315−35.
11. “Ecuador Leaves Venezuelan-run Regional Alliance,” StarTribune, 23 August 2018.
12. Deare, “Latin America,” 315−35.
13. Sheldon Birkett, “Venezuelan Turmoil Insinuates an Uncertain Future for ALBA,” Council on Hemispheric Affairs, 20 July 2017.
14. Andrew Osborn, “Russian Nuclear-capable Bombers Fly to Venezuela, Angering U.S.,” Reuters, 11 December 2018, and Gabriel Marcella, “China’s Military Activity in Latin America,” Americas Quarterly (Winter 2012).
15. Diana Villiers Negroponte, “Russian Interests in Venezuela: A New Cold War?” Americas Quarterly (19 June 2018).
16. Statement to the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations by Robert F. Noriega, Former Assistant Secretary of State, 16 February 2012.
17. Julia Gurganus, “Russia: Playing a Geopolitical Game in Latin America,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 3 May 2018, 2−3.
18. Deare, “Latin America,” 315−35.
19. Allan Nixon, “China’s Growing Arms Sales to Latin America,” The Diplomat, 24 August 2016; and Gurganus, “Russia: Playing a Geopolitical Game in Latin America,” 5.
20. Villiers Negroponte, “Russian Interests in Venezuela.”
21. Kai Schultz, “Sri Lanka, Struggling with Debt, Hands a Major Port to China,” The New York Times, 12 December 2017.
22. Joshua Partlow, “Russia Again Plants Its Flag in Nicaragua, Stirring Fears in U.S.,” The Independent, 13 April 2017, and Adrian Blomfield, “Russia Deploys Warships to the Caribbean,” The Telegraph, 22 September 2008.