WASHINGTON – The political crisis in Venezuela has pitted the United States against a dictator who refuses to leave office. But the crisis has a broader significance: It shows that Latin America has again become an arena in which rival great powers struggle for influence and advantage. As the U.S. faces surging geopolitical rivalry around the world, its position is also coming under pressure in its own backyard.
The region has been the focus of global competition before, of course, from the Spanish-Portuguese rivalry of the 15th and 16th centuries to the Cold War between Washington and Moscow. But after the fall of the Soviet Union, Latin America seemed — for a time, at least — to have become a geopolitics-free zone. The retreat and disintegration of the Soviet Union left the U.S. with no challenger for predominant regional influence. Fidel Castro’s Cuba turned inward, consumed by a profound economic crisis. As countries democratized and embraced free markets, the region became essentially unipolar in an ideological sense, as well.
By the early 2000s, however, the climate was shifting. First came a new generation of leaders who viewed neoliberal economics as the source of the region’s persistent poverty and inequality. Governments led by the likes of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia and Rafael Correa in Ecuador coupled populist political appeals and economic programs with a penchant for illiberalism and, in some cases, outright authoritarianism. They challenged the U.S. diplomatically and rhetorically, while establishing close ties with Cuba. This created a bloc of regional actors that opposed American power — just as outside actors were beginning to assert, or reassert, their own influence in the region.
As China’s economy has boomed over the last two decades, its presence in Latin America has grown as well. Chinese trade and investment has surged nearly everywhere, not just countries run by radical populists. Chinese commerce and loans have provided a lifeline to illiberal rulers such as Chavez and now Nicolas Maduro by reducing their vulnerability to U.S. and Western pressure.
Chinese military engagement followed, creating fears that Beijing may be trying to establish a strategic foothold in the Western Hemisphere. Although aspects of China’s relationship with Latin American countries remain controversial — some Chinese infrastructure projects have been criticized because they often employ Chinese rather than Latin American workers, for instance — Beijing has undoubtedly become a player in the Western Hemisphere.
Russia has provided economic and diplomatic support to Chavez, Maduro and other autocratic rulers such as Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega. It has sold jets, tanks and other weapons to populist governments, and resumed providing military technology and oil to Cuba. Much to the concern of the U.S. government, the Kremlin has also been working to establish a significant intelligence presence in Nicaragua. As the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace observes, “Moscow’s approach to Latin America today echoes Soviet outreach in the 1960s through 1980s.”
Russian and Chinese relations with Latin American countries are often described as simply transactional, and it is true that both Moscow and Beijing can drive hard bargains for their support. One price of Russia’s continued backing of the Maduro regime has been a significant ownership stake in the Venezuelan oil industry. China, too, has seen Venezuela as an energy source, and its economic growth would have driven enhanced involvement in Latin America even in the absence of any geopolitical design.
But for both countries, that involvement also has a deeply competitive logic. Reaching into Latin America is a way of keeping the U.S. off-balance by exerting influence in Washington’s “near abroad.” It helps augment Beijing’s and Moscow’s global influence and stature at a time of intensifying rivalry with Washington. Finally, supporting autocratic regimes such as those in Caracas and Managua — whether quietly, as in China’s case, or more vocally, as in Russia’s — is a way of making sure that the world remains ideologically safe for authoritarianism in Beijing and Moscow, as well.
All this constitutes the backdrop to the Venezuelan crisis. The growth of Russian and Chinese influence in Latin America broadly, and Venezuela specifically, is a key reason the Trump administration has so uncharacteristically taken up the banner of human rights and democracy. By imposing harsh economic sanctions, calling for the military to desert Maduro, and backing the political opposition led by Juan Guiado, the Trump administration is seeking to deprive Moscow, Beijing and Havana of a critical partner in Latin America. And while Russia and China have responded very differently to this crisis, both are working, in their own ways, to protect that partner.
The Chinese government has registered its opposition to the international campaign against Maduro’s government; it has continued to recognize his embattled government even as dozens of democratic countries have thrown their support behind Guiado.
Russia has been far more assertive, denouncing Washington for trying to “engineer a coup d’etat,” in the words of its United Nations representative. It has warned against American military intervention, and symbolically dispatched two nuclear-capable strategic bombers to Venezuela. More concretely, Moscow has reportedly dispatched 400 mercenaries to reinforce Maduro’s praetorian guard and pledged additional economic support. There is thus a certain Cold War feel to the current crisis, with the U.S. and its rivals lining up on opposite sides of a conflict over who should rule a key Latin American country.
To be sure, there is an element of bluff in Moscow’s position. It can project only very limited military power into Venezuela or any other part of Latin America. Still, by providing Maduro with moral and material support that he would otherwise lack, both Russia and China are making the current crisis more difficult to resolve.
Is the U.S. ready for this new environment where local crises and global tensions once again interact in challenging ways? The Trump administration deserves some credit here. It has spoken candidly about the dangers Chinese and Russian influence present to both Latin America and the U.S. It has also worked closely with other Latin American governments — including Brazil’s new and admittedly problematic president, Jair Bolsonaro — to coordinate the diplomatic pressure campaign against Maduro.
There are also less helpful tendencies in U.S. policy. Trump’s earlier hostility to NAFTA gave Mexico and other Latin American countries incentive to diversify their economic relations, with China a willing target. The administration has warned about the threats posed by Chinese investment in dire tones, without making clear where else Latin American countries should turn for resources.
Then there are the president’s offensive comments toward people of Hispanic descent, which have done little to endear him to Latin American audiences. In a 2015 Pew Research Center poll, a median of 66 percent of Latin Americans from seven different countries viewed the U.S. positively. Under Donald Trump, the number has fallen to 47 percent.
Finally, developing a comprehensive strategy for dealing with Chinese and Russian influence will require consistent policies and cultivating key relationships — talents this administration has rarely displayed.
Washington is increasingly waking up to the new struggle for advantage in Latin America. The outcome in Venezuela will be an early indicator of whether U.S. policy is up to the task.
Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. Most recently, he is the co-author of “The Lessons of Tragedy: Statecraft and World Order.”
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