By: Eric Singleton
Latin America has remained largely in the backburner of international political and economic affairs. In recent years, American media conglomerates have focused their attention on Eastern affairs, including (but certainly not limited to) Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula, China’s current economic recession, and the ongoing actions of the Islamic State. The agenda-setting tactics utilized by these conglomerates influence their audiences not on how to think about global issues, but rather what they should be thinking about.
A (dangerous) byproduct of the agenda-setting process is the assumption that stories with more media coverage have a higher global significance. This, frankly, leaves Latin America in a position of weakness, even though some have asserted that this world region could be the successor of global economic dominance to the United States, rather than the “natural” Eastern heirs of China or India.
In spite of being sidelined, Latin America has caught the eye of one emerging global power: Russia.
Russian presence in Latin America was scarce for nearly a decade following the Cold War. It wasn’t until the late 2000s that Russian diplomats began making visits to the Western hemisphere. The late Hugo Chavez, former president of Venezuela, was at the forefront of developing Russia-Latin America relations. As one of the leaders of the leftist, “pink tide” governments that arose at the beginning of the 21st Century, Chavez was characterized by socialist ideals and anti-American sentiment, and befriended a world leader with a similar ideological background: Vladimir Putin.
It is time for the United States to revisit Latin America.
The relationship between Venezuela and Russia has been defined primarily through arms sales and military contracts, continuing even after Chavez’s death in 2013. Between 2001 and 2013, Venezuela purchased over $10.9 billion in Russian arms (roughly 75% of Russia’s total production). A series of deals in 2009 also allowed Russian oil companies to develop oil fields in the petroleum-rich country.
Venezuela has served as Russia’s portal of re-entry into Latin America, and has allowed Russia to establish relationships with ideologically-driven countries such as Nicaragua, Cuba, Brazil and Peru. In 2013, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu promoted missile sales to Brazil while also announcing a plan to establish military bases in at least three Latin American countries.
What does this renewed Russian interest in Latin America mean for the United States? While Russia has become increasingly more active in the region, the U.S. has been absent in Latin America, focusing its attention on more pressing matters of regional security, such as the war on terror. Southern Command, the U.S. military branch responsible for activities in Latin America, experienced a 20% budget cut in 2014. In terms of foreign policy, Latin America is considered a low-priority area, as Eastern regions such as the Middle East and China have detracted U.S. attention. While many of Russia’s deals are still in the works, many see Russian advancement in the region as an attempt to take advantage of weak U.S. relations with its hemispheric neighbor in order to establish Eastern dominance in the region.
A militaristic and economic alliance with Latin America has the potentiality to completely change global distribution of power. While diplomatic relationships between the United States, Russia, and Latin America are complex, there are some actions that the U.S. can take to limit any threats to regional security, and even improve relationships with Russia:
The U.S. needs to recognize the hegemonic tendencies of their foreign policy towards Latin America. Historically, the United States has not looked at Latin America as a region to cooperate with, but rather to control. This ideology has manifested itself in U.S. foreign policy towards Latin America—military intervention, hurried deregulation and privatization of industries, and the histrionic fear of leftist governments in Washington’s backyard have caused decades of destruction, creating impoverished environments in which anti-American ideology can flourish.. Issues that plague Latin America—such as organized crime, drug trafficking, and immigration—cannot be solved with the aid of the United States with a foreign policy that is characterized by oppression and exploitation. The United States will need to create a more cooperative, multilateral policy that establishes international networks to facilitate trade agreements and collaboratively fight poverty and violence throughout the Western hemisphere.
Venezuela is more vulnerable than ever—action must be taken immediately. The decline in global oil prices (FYI, oil accounts for 95% of Venezuela’s total exports) has caused the country to crash into a horrific economic depression. Inflation has risen by 481 percent in 2016, with a projected 1,642 percent increase in 2017. Citizens in Caracas wait hours in line for grocery stores, so depraved that they can only line their empty shelves with vinegar. Political instability has created the perfect environment for protests, violence, and government opposition. Public recognition of Venezuela’s declining state, backed by foreign aid, will not only allow the United States to re-strengthen ties with a country that has been the site of heavy Russian influence, but also demonstrate that Venezuela is an example of a revolutionary government that went too far, and is now suffering repercussions.
The United States, over time, should incorporate Latin America in its talks with Russia. With precarious diplomatic discussion, this world region could potentially improve bilateral relations between the United States and Russia. How so? Muzafer Sherif (The American Journal of Sociology, 1958) illustrated that two entities in opposition can mend relations through superordinate goals. The United States and Russia have recently come together to assess the threat of Iran’s nuclear and missile buildup, demonstrating a capacity to work together. Between Russia’s recent military and oil investment in Latin American countries, as well as decades worth of foreign investment by the United States, the two global powers have quite a bit of stock in the area. Joint programs to combat poverty and human rights violations in Latin America would allow the two countries to save their foreign investments in this region, while also improving their own diplomatic relations.
It is time for the United States to revisit Latin America. While not at the forefront of Russia’s foreign agenda, the importance of Latin America is steadily growing in the eyes of Putin. It is imperative that the United States becomes active in Latin America once more to help strengthen the regional security of the area while also taking advantage of an opportunity to mend relations with Russia.
Eric Singleton is a Development Intern at EastWest Institute. He is an undergraduate student at College of Charleston Honors, pursuing degrees in international studies and psychology with a minor in Spanish.