WASHINGTON – It is an angry political season in Latin America. Chile, the most stable South American country and richest by gross domestic product per person, is convulsed by violent street protests that may require a complete rewrite of the nation’s constitution. Peru also faces a crisis, with President Martin Vizcarra and the congress declaring each other illegitimate. In Bolivia, riots following a controversial and flawed election (according to independent observers from the Organization of American States) forced President Evo Morales to take political refuge in Mexico City.
Drug violence has shot back up in Mexico, highlighted by a recent shootout in which the son of the incarcerated drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman was apparently allowed to escape capture. Venezuela continues to smolder, torn between leftist President Nicolas Maduro, heir to the authoritarian Hugo Chavez and supported by Cuba and Russia, and democratic opposition leader Juan Guaido.
Political tensions are likewise high in both Brazil, under conservative populist leader Jair Bolsonaro, and in Argentina, where newly elected populist leader Alberto Fernandez intends to take the country back to the left.
In seemingly every direction, there are violent street protests, dramatic political swings in governance and economic uncertainty. What can the United States do to play a constructive role in furthering democracy and economic progress?
During my three years leading the U.S. Southern Command roughly a decade ago, I was in charge of all military operations south of the Mexican border. I was born in south Florida, speak reasonable Spanish, and traveled throughout the region repeatedly. Back then, a major focus was on countering what we saw as political challenges from the left, led by Venezuela’s Chavez.
Armed with petrodollars when oil prices were spiking north of $100 a barrel, Chavez was able to help fellow left-wing governments to power in Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua. At home, he controlled everything, rigging elections, trampling democratic opposition and destroying the country’s economy by taking government control of major industries and agriculture. He worked closely with politicians on the left in Brazil and Argentina. To various degrees, these nations leaned away from the U.S. and engaged closely with Cuba, often with support from Russia and China.
I met with Morales, Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, Rafael Correa of Ecuador and other leftist leaders. They were full of disdain for the U.S. and were at pains to tell me that Washington had no role in Latin America. One Venezuelan defense minister said to me: “You are finished here. Take your troops and your ships and your planes and go home.” We had good relationships in a few places — Chile and Colombia, notably — but the U.S. was not in a leadership role in that hemisphere, to say the least.
Within a few years, however, the rising tide of the left began to ebb, as oil and other commodity prices dropped, economic policies began to fail, Chavez died of cancer (after medical treatment in Cuba) and a number of governments shifted from left to right, notably Argentina and, more recently, Brazil.
Now the political winds may be shifting again. It seems bewildering, but there is a common denominator: income inequality and a growing sense from lower-to-middle class voters that the elites on both left and right continue to drive policy without really addressing their people’s long-term needs. This has resulted in a kind of Latin American version of the Arab Spring.
It’s important to put things in optimistic perspective. Despite the turmoil, the region is vastly better off than in the late 20th century. The days of brutal military dictatorships are gone (other than in Cuba and Venezuela), hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of extreme poverty, infrastructure and education are improving, and the political process — while messy and hard to generalize — gives voice to democratic impulses, and over time will have an impact on the underlying challenges of inequality.
Because so much is in flux, the U.S. has an opportunity in the region, and is actually in a better position than it was a decade ago. A good strategic approach starts with reinforcing strong relations with the keystone regional partners: Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Peru. In addition to increasing diplomatic and trade ties, joint military exercises would help stabilize not just those nations but the entire region.
Chile, for example, has one of the world’s longest coastlines but a small and overtaxed navy that would greatly benefit from U.S. expertise. Working with Mexico and Central American countries to address gangs and drug cartels through foreign aid and civilian security cooperation is a much better approach to solving illegal migration than simply building a wall.
As for the chaos in Venezuela, the U.S. should operate in the background with the OAS taking the lead; unilateral military action is not the way to help Guaido take office. Cuba should be warned that more sanctions are coming if it doesn’t curtail destabilizing activities in Venezuela. Stronger regional free-trade arrangements would help insure that a future democratic Venezuela would be able to put food on the shelves and provide jobs for the people. The U.S. should also pay more attention to the oft-forgotten Caribbean nations in terms of aid and senior-level engagement; the flow of Venezuelan refugees has only added to their seemingly intractable economic malaise.
The good news is that all of that can be done at relatively low cost. When I was serving as commander of the U.S. Southern Command, I would look enviously as billions of dollars flowed into the U.S. Central Command to fight wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — the equivalent of my annual budget was spent each week in Afghanistan alone.
That was understandable in those days, as we had hundreds of thousands of troops in those two conflicts. But today, with 95 percent of those forces withdrawn, we should reapportion a fraction of that spending to this hemisphere, which is in every sense our shared home.
The world to the south is not “America’s Backyard,” an expression rightfully despised throughout the region. But Latin America and the Caribbean represent a natural set of partners and allies for the U.S.; it is a region with huge potential in every dimension. The linkages — economic, security, cultural, linguistic — are only increasing. The challenges are immense, but so are the strategic possibilities.
James Stavridis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former supreme allied commander of NATO, and dean emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.