The Global Competition for Latin America

At the start of March 2019, John Bolton, national security adviser to the President of the United States, declared that Donald Trump’s administration was not afraid to use the term “Monroe Doctrine” with reference to Venezuela: “This is a country in our hemisphere. It’s been the objective of American presidents going back to Ronald Reagan to have a completely democratic hemisphere.” These words represent a paradigm shift from the policy under Barack Obama. His vice president, John Kerry, gave a speech to the Organization of American States (OAS) in 2013, stating that “the era of the Monroe Doctrine is over. The relationship that we seek is not about how and when we will intervene in the affairs of other American states.”

Alfredo Bosco, Mexico, San Felipe del Ocote, 2018

Barely five years have elapsed between the two declarations, yet they reflect developments in Latin America and the way the United States relates to the whole region, which they have always seen as their “backyard.” The “Monroe Doctrine” is no ordinary policy. In 1823 it defined the vision that the United States had, and still has, of its role in the region and its relationship with the other countries of the continent. The 19th century was dominated by the clash between the US and the European colonial powers; the 20th, almost entirely by rivalry with the Soviet Union; and the 21st, apparently, by that with Russia and the People’s Republic of China. However, in the collective memory of Latin America, the doctrine is synonymous with direct or indirect North American military intervention that fuelled coups and set up dictatorships to serve Washington’s interests.

At the Summit of the Americas in 2005, Brazil, Paraguay, Uruguay, Venezuela and Argentina, the country hosting the summit, sided against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), the ambitious White House project for the creation of a trading bloc between the countries of the region with the exclusion of Cuba. Since then, US influence in the region has weakened due to the rise of various progressive governments that dispute the unipolar vision of the world promoted by the United States ever since the collapse of the Berlin wall and the Soviet Union. At the end of the summit, it was clear to everyone that a cluster of governments was emerging that were unwilling to submit to the White House’s economic, political and diplomatic projects, unlike other countries, including Mexico and Colombia, whose policies are closely aligned with Washington’s. Their challenge to the United States rested on two axes. On the one hand, the establishment of regional groupings without the participation of the leading world power, like the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). On the other, the urge to foster a multipolar world by strengthening ties with Russia and China and promoting initiatives such as the BRICS bloc (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), an organization without any formal weight, but which brought together some of the world’s most powerful countries.

The strengthening of the progressive current and the failure of the FTAA weakened the position of the United States in the region until the triumph of Maurizio Macri in Argentina in 2015 and the dismissal of Dilma Rousseff in Brazil in August 2016, influencing the rise of Jair Bolsonaro as president on 1st January 2019. The changes of government in these two countries and the radical line adopted by the president of Ecuador Lenin Moreno, implemented to distinguish himself from his predecessor Rafael Correa, have reconfigured the regional scenario between the “progressive” current, in the broadest sense of the term, and the right-wing neoliberal current, internally heterogeneous, which has been considerably strengthened. In this context, the US government has begun to openly demonstrate its opposition to the growing influence of Russia and China in the region.

Federico Vespignani, Honduras, Tegucigalpa, 2017

Early in 2018, the then Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Mexico, Argentina, Colombia, Peru and Jamaica shortly after attending a conference at the University of Texas. His speech traced the lines of the policy of the Trump government towards Latin America and the Caribbean without sparing criticism of the presence of Russia and China, and warned the governments of the region that the presence of China involved “long-term dependence, very expensive loans and unsustainable debt”. Furthermore, he believed that China was exploiting its “state interference in the economy to attract the region into its own orbit,” and that “Latin America does not need new imperial powers that only aim to bring grist to their mill”. An unsuspecting reader might think that Tillerson was quoting the Latin American authors of the “theory of dependence” of the last century, which described US policy towards Latin America, to explain what the Russian and Chinese presence in the region entails. Without mentioning, it goes without saying, the conflict-ridden relations between his own country and the region itself. When Tillerson came to explain the intentions of the White House, he stated that “the United States clearly stands out” because “the U.S. approach is based on mutually beneficial goals to help both sides grow, develop and become more prosperous, and do so by respecting international law, prioritizing the interests of our partners, and protecting our values. With the United States, you have a multidimensional partner – one that benefits both sides with engagement to support economic growth, education, innovation, and security.” In simple and concise words, Tillerson claimed that the United States was helping the region in a disinterested way compared with the sinister aims of Russia and China.

The alarm that the White House feels about the presence of the two powers emerged clearly in September 2018, when the government of El Salvador decided to break off relations with Taiwan and forge them with China, as did most of the countries of the region, for many of whom the Asian giant has become the main trading partner, toppling the United States from its throne. Today, China imports almost 15% of its oil from Latin America, mainly Venezuela and Brazil. Since the United Nations welcomed China to its ranks in 1971, excluding Taiwan, the region has been a terrain of political, commercial and diplomatic struggle between China and Taiwan. For decades, Taiwan has supplied the region with technology, but the situation has changed with China’s entry into the capitalist world and its investments in the region.

Federico Vespignani, El Salvador, San Salvador, 2018

The influential Republican senator for Florida, Marco Rubio, challenged the decision of the Salvadoran government and, on Twitter, claimed to have spoken with President Trump “to break off economic aid to the government of El Salvador.” He also threatened to suspend aid to the “Alliance for Prosperity,” a program established in 2014 to provide assistance to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras through development projects. It is interesting to note that the United States does not take such an aggressive attitude towards the People’s Republic of China in Africa, where Chinese companies are competing against North American ones. This is because the central factor of the dispute is not the economy but world hegemony. On the African continent, few governments contest US policies, as do various Latin American governments. The international dimension of the rivalry between the great powers in the region is a crucial factor in understanding the importance that Washington attaches to the situation in Venezuela. Chavismo was a key political movement in the redefinition of regional structures and the development of the progressive current that is still fights for a multipolar world that has not disappeared, despite electoral shifts and the imprisonment of Lula da Silva in Brazil. And Moscow and Beijing are clearly aware of this

Cover photo by Marco Negri, Brazil, Rio de Janeiro,Rocinha favela, 2016