Extra-regional Actors in Latin America: The United States is not the Only Game in Town

Por • 2 oct, 2020 • Sección: sociologia

PRISM Vol. 8, No. 1

Feb. 26, 2019

Mr. Douglas Farah is a visiting Senior Fellow with the Institute for International Strategic Studies at National Defense University and is President of IBI Consultants. A former Research Coordinator at IBI Consultants, Ms. Babineau is now a Ph.D candidate at the University of Virginia.

During the past two centuries, the United States has enjoyed a largely unchallenged geopolitical, economic, and social influence in Latin America. However, in an increasingly multipolar world, Russia and China—and Iran to a lesser extent—have emerged to fill the vacuum left by diminished U.S. engagement in the region. Each with different interests, these three foreign actors exploit a growing, widespread disillusionment towards the United States. This regional disillusionment coupled with endemic corruption, violence, and erosion of the rule of law marks the conditions under which the extra-regional actors are engaging Latin America. All three actors have made significant gains—and suffered important setbacks—as they move aggressively to position themselves as alternatives to traditional U.S. hegemony in Latin America. Their success has not been total, nor has it gone completely unchallenged. However, their efforts are a new constant in the Western Hemisphere, as the United States increasingly pursues an agenda that is sharply divorced from the once-shared interests of the majority of the region’s governments.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has made no effort to hide his desire to reestablish his country as a viable power player and competitor to U.S. influence in the region. Viewed through the lens of the Gerasimov Doctrine, this engagement is both rational from the Russian perspective and dangerous to the United States. So far, Russia has primarily focused its outreach efforts on allies in the Bolivarian Alliance, led by Venezuela and including Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia, El Salvador, and Suriname, all of whom share a strong anti-U.S. ideology with each possessing deeply criminalized governments.1 Often operating as a sort of “parasite state,” the public outreach of the Putin regime in Latin America is designed to maximize impact at low cost. To date, this approach consists largely of weapons sales and donations, high level state-to-state visits, military and police training in areas of U.S. specialization such as counternarcotics, and financial assistance in avoiding the U.S.-based banking system. Within international forums, Russia has used its seat on the UN Security Council to protect Venezuela and Nicaragua from international sanctions, and has aggressively moved to open up financial operations—including banks and a crypto currency—to help its allies blunt the impact of U.S. and EU sanctions. The Russian presence, increasingly accompanied by Russian organized crime groups operating under the protection of the Russian state, is viewed by most U.S. stakeholders as presenting the biggest strategic challenge of the three countries discussed.

In comparison to Russia, China is primarily an economic competitor, actively seeking to expand its areas of influence globally. China’s outreach has been much broader across Latin America where it has sought to build long-term economic relationships with any willing partner in the region. China’s growing regional presence is focusing on trade and on increasing diplomatic ties at the expense of the Republic of China (Taiwan), while presenting itself as a global superpower capable of providing military training, business opportunities and unconditional foreign assistance in a more reliable, long-term way than the United States. Rather than wooing only the Bolivarian bloc and ideological allies, China engages across the region, recently convincing Panama and the Dominican Republic, key U.S. allies, and El Salvador to drop their diplomatic recognition of Taiwan. In exchange, both received large amounts of aid and promises of investment from the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Of the three external actors, Iran’s revolutionary government has the smallest footprint in Latin America of the three countries and the most opaque agenda. Unlike Russia and China, Iran offers neither economic nor military support, but instead focuses on a narrower set of state and non-state actors through limited political outreach and illicit activities meant to further Iran’s national interest and nuclear program. That influence diminished with the death of former Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez and the end of the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran, but may increase again contingent upon current developments.

Prior to the January 2016 implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreed to by Iran and the West, the Iranian government maintained an active network in Latin America to purchase dual use equipment for its nuclear program, and sought to build close partnerships with the Bolivarian bloc of nations that were belligerently anti-U.S. in tone and focus.2 Iran used the Bolivarian banking structures to evade sanctions, along with its primary allies: Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua. Attempts at a rapprochement with Argentina ended in 2016 with the end of the Kirchner government, and ties to Brazil in the past decade have fizzled.

Upon the initial implementation of the JCPOA, the visible Iranian presence in Latin America dropped significantly, although the infrastructure of the clandestine network remained in place. That network appears to be reactivating again in possible anticipation of the likely collapse of the JCPOA in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from the pact. Closely tied to the Iranian government’s formal structures are the Hezbollah-linked networks that engage in widespread criminal activities, such as contraband, money laundering, and drug trafficking needed to finance the Iranian proxy force.

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