Great-Power Competition Comes for Latin America


In early February, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Menendez (and the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee for the Western Hemisphere, Marco Rubio), introduced legislation designed to counter “the growing meddling of Russia and China in Latin America and the Caribbean.” Unfortunately, beyond some language on human rights and civilian defense management, the Western Hemisphere Security Strategy Act strikingly resembles the U.S. approach during the Cold War, the last time that great-power competition guided U.S. foreign policy in the Western Hemisphere. The bill’s response to “the harmful and malign influence” of China and Russia hinges on bolstering longstanding State and Defense Department military and police aid programs. Making no mention of economic assistance, trade ties, civil society, or democracy promotion, the bill covers only a small piece of what renewed engagement should entail. A “security first” response was insufficient and harmful during the Cold War, and it is absolutely not enough today.

As the senators’ bill language makes clear, competition with China, Russia, and other powers has supplanted the “Global War on Terror” (and, in Latin America, the war on drugs) as the top-tier foreign policy frame. Today’s reality, though, is not quite a new Cold War. The influence of a less stable, polarized United States isn’t what it was, and the Soviets weren’t making Americans’ phones, computers, and other consumer goods like the Chinese do today. Still, the senators aren’t alone in their view: The Cold War urge remains strong across Washington. It would be unfortunate for U.S. diplomats and defense planners to slip into a familiar rut of backing friendly dictators and militaries in a misguided effort to preserve access and influence in this hemisphere.



That Cold War rut may offer comfort as authoritarianism, social unrest, and mass migration rise in Latin America, but it should be resisted. This time, the United States ought to contend with China, Russia, and other extra-regional dictatorships in a way that upholds Latin America’s brave reformers and insists on democratic norms. That would require a degree of creativity, courage, and coherence that have been scarce lately in U.S. politics.

The Lure of the Familiar

The turn to great-power rivalry in U.S. security policy toward Latin America has been sudden.

Every three years or so, the Defense Department sends the Senate a nominee to head U.S. Southern Command, the combatant command responsible for military operations in most of Latin America and the Caribbean. The Senate Armed Services Committee then sends that nominee, a four-star officer, a questionnaire. The 2015 nominee, Adm. Kurt Tidd, filled out the questionnaire mentioning the word “China” or “Chinese” three times. In 2018 the nominee, Adm. Craig Faller, mentioned “China” or “Chinese” 15 times. In 2021, Gen. Laura Richardson did it 33 times.

Longtime concerns like drugs, organized crime, and terrorism — the former two having dominated security planning in the 2000s, since the hemisphere was never a central theater of the war on terror — still appear in nominees’ answers but get less emphasis than before. Instead, China, Russia, and Iran (in descending order of importance) are a dominant theme in defense officials’ public remarks about Latin America. Legislators of both parties voice concern about those countries in congressional hearings. These “malign external actors” are regular fixtures on the website of Diálogo, Southern Command’s online magazine.

The quick shift follows the U.S. defense establishment’s new worldwide priorities: The 2018 National Defense Strategy put great-power competition at the top of its list. Latin America is not a central theater of this competition, although rival powers have become more active in the past 20 years.

China is increasing its economic investments, trade, and grants for big-ticket items like infrastructure projects, as well as competing on 5G network hardware and on access to lithium and other strategic raw materials. Russia, with a much smaller economy (today the size of South Korea’s), exercises influence more through targeted military aid programs, hacking, and propaganda and misinformation. Iran’s activities are marginal, but examples of its outreach to Latin American authoritarians do exist. All three relate most deeply to the hemisphere’s three most dictatorial regimes — Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua — though China has major investments, and Russia is a top arms vendor, in numerous other countries.

These states’ activities challenge the quality of democracy and human rights in Latin America. The Chinese model of surveillance-state totalitarianism, the Russian brand of hyper-nationalist kleptocracy, and Teheran’s intolerant theocracy would cause human misery and harm civic life if they were to replicate across the continent. They could accelerate an ongoing reversal of nearly four decades of transition to democracy — a transition that followed a period of brutal military dictatorships in most of the hemisphere. Most of these dictatorships, it’s important to recall, got important U.S. backing during the Cold War.

The Kirkpatrick Reflex

While concern about extra-regional powers’ behavior is not misplaced, neither are concerns about a repeat of big Cold War mistakes. In a 1979 essay that influenced Ronald Reagan, Jeane Kirkpatrick warned against alienating authoritarians by pushing them too hard to liberalize and respect human rights, as she believed Jimmy Carter did with the Somoza regime in Nicaragua. Weakening pro-U.S. dictatorships, she argued, could work to the advantage of totalitarian great-power rivals. It would mean losing “access to friendly territory.”

Many in Washington still believe this mis-learned lesson of the Cold War. When the stakes shift to great-power competition, this view holds, protecting democracy can become a luxury. States that offer access and cooperation deserve U.S. assistance — including military aid — regardless of their adherence to liberal norms.

It was in that vein that the Heritage Foundation hosted Guatemala’s president in December 2021 when the Biden administration refused to invite him to its Democracy Summit that same week. Heritage argued that Alejandro Giammattei was a “critical U.S. partner” against “the rising threat of China.” Heritage portrayed the Guatemalan president as leading one of the region’s “remaining democracies” even as he faces serious corruption allegations, and as he presides over attacks on the judiciary and anti-corruption reformers, driving many into arrest and exile.

Though Giammattei’s absence from the December summit was appropriate, the Biden administration did include Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, despite his persistent efforts to politicize the armed forces and growing concerns about the integrity of the country’s October elections (the results of which Bolsonaro has said he’d reject if he lost). That invitation, which raised eyebrows at the time because it seemed so incongruous, likely resulted from a desire not to alienate Brazil, which has an economy 20 times the size of Guatemala’s and is entering a tense election campaign. Still, Bolsonaro, who hasn’t had a bilateral conversation with Joe Biden, ended up visiting Moscow the week of Feb. 14.

A corollary to this view is that regimes on the political right are more likely to offer access and cooperation to the United States than are left-of-center governments. “The prior behavior of the ‘democratic left’ in Latin America,” writes U.S. Army War College Professor Evan Ellis in a January report for Center for Strategic and International Studies, “suggests that they will be more resistant to work with the United States in multilateral forums against populist regimes who are also left-oriented and more likely to work with China and other extra-hemispheric actors of concern to the United States.”

Don’t Repeat This Mistake

The idea that the United States should go easy on authoritarian-trending regimes of the right that offer access, while viewing the democratic left as suspect, led policymakers to commit some historic mistakes. During the 45-year struggle against the Soviet Union, administrations of both parties aided coups and dictators because they were anti-communist and open to cooperating.

U.S.-backed leaders like Chile’s Gen. Augusto Pinochet, Paraguay’s Gen. Alfredo Stroessner, Haiti’s Francois and Jean-Claude Duvalier, and juntas from Brazil to Guatemala to Argentina carried out systematic torture, disappeared tens of thousands, and sacked treasuries. They eliminated their political opponents, including human-rights defenders, reporters, and jurists. As a result, countries that were already among the world’s most unequal, with tiny, unaccountable economic and racial elites who refused to invest in their societies, lost decades in which they could have been building functioning, accountable institutions, and establishing strong civil societies.

When states finally transitioned to democracy in the late 1980s and 90s, many were missing a generation of civic and political reformers, who had been murdered or driven into exile. Hollowed-out, under-resourced governments could not control organized crime or move national economies away from commodity dependence. They lacked the wherewithal to bring basic services to vast sectors of the population. Impunity for corruption remained the norm. Illicit economies flourished. Racial and ethnic minorities remain marginalized. Despite some progress, these problems persist, and polling today shows broad skepticism about democracy’s ability to deliver.

The decades lost to Cold War-era misrule aren’t the only reason that Latin America is today the most violent region in the world, experiencing about a third of the world’s homicides. This period’s hangover isn’t the only reason why two million or more people migrated last year away from, or around, the region. The Cold War legacy, though, is an important factor. To repeat even a faint echo of it, in the name of renewed great-power competition, would do grave harm.

Rising Authoritarianism Adds to the Risk

As recently as 15 years ago, authoritarian-trending governments were still a rarity in Latin America. Those that existed (mainly Cuba and Venezuela) were on the left, and not interested in U.S. collaboration. Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez (1998–2013) drafted a blueprint for coming to power through the electoral process, remaining popular through populist rhetoric and handouts, courting the armed forces, and all the while steadily dismantling democratic checks and balances as well as choking opposition parties, the free press, and civil society.

Elements of that blueprint would show up in the programs of leaders across the political spectrum worldwide, from Hungary to the Philippines. In Latin America, they’ve been on the left, like Ecuador’s Rafael Correa and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, and on the right, like Brazil’s Bolsonaro and Honduras’ Juan Orlando Hernández, now awaiting extradition to the United States to face drug-trafficking charges. Still others have cast themselves as centrist or beyond ideology, like Nayib Bukele in El Salvador. Leaders in Mexico (left-ish), Colombia (right), Bolivia (left), Guatemala (right), and elsewhere have shown worrying strongman and anti-institutionalist tendencies. All have shrunk civic space, attacked the media, and sought to politicize the military.

Donald Trump also showed these authoritarian tendencies, and his administration courted populist regimes of the center and right. Bolsonaro’s Brazil became a “major non-NATO ally,” a status established by the Arms Export Control Act to ease some forms of weapons transfers. U.S. support for anti-corruption reform and clean elections in Honduras and Guatemala disappeared, as pro-U.S. populists received lavish praise for their modest efforts to halt U.S.-bound migration. Relations became so close with the now-ruling rightist party of Colombian ex-president Álvaro Uribe (who, later in his 2002–2010 presidency, would seek a third term and speak often of a “rule of [popular] opinion” instead of a “rule of law”) that Biden backers would call out the party’s members for campaigning for Trump in Florida in 2020.

How to Engage Without Renewing Cold War Errors

Neo-cold warriors are correct that the U.S. government needs to be engaging more, and more audaciously, with the nations to its south. But it needs to do so on a much different set of terms, and in a much more coherent and comprehensive way. Here are some principles and actions that should guide future diplomatic, security, economic, judicial, and social engagement.

First, U.S. policymakers need to stop fixating on the right-left axis and focus instead on the authoritarian-democratic axis. Authoritarians on the left are not friends of the United States. Authoritarians on the right are not either, regardless of the “access” they might transactionally offer.

Fortunately, the region offers examples of rules-respecting democratic leaders across the spectrum. Few accuse the conservative leaders of Ecuador and Uruguay of dismantling liberal democratic traditions. There is, meanwhile, a wavelet of left-of-center leaders who show few authoritarian inclinations. Two won elections in recent months: Xiomara Castro in Honduras and Gabriel Boric in Chile. In Brazil, ex-president Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, who is trouncing Bolsonaro in polls for the October elections, left institutions intact when his eight years ended in 2010. In Peru, leftist Pedro Castillo has been governing haphazardly and is unpopular, but he has also criticized leftist authoritarians in Nicaragua and Venezuela.

Now, 40 years after its transitions to democracy, Latin America has a robust democratic left, often with deep roots in social movements. A second guideline, then, is that when this democratic left does well at the ballot box, Washington needs to stop viewing it as a setback. This means ditching the old reflex of viewing a country as “lost” and deepening ties with traditional elites and the armed forces (which risks exacerbating military politicization and worsening civil-military relations).

The election of a democratic left candidate (or democratic right, for that matter) should be viewed as an opportunity for institutional stability and regional order. Such a candidate can more effectively and peacefully channel popular demands for economic and social reforms. The United States might have to work a bit harder to forge a working relationship with them, but there is no reason to write them off from the start.

Third, this means being clear that democratic left does not equal pro-China. A leftist leader may be more skeptical of the unfettered free market’s ability to deliver and more wary of aligning unconditionally with the United States. He or she is probably no fan of the Monroe Doctrine. But that doesn’t translate into an affinity toward other great powers.

There is nothing leftist about the Xi and Putin governing models, which are free market-based, socially conservative, and increasingly colonialist or imperialist. It makes little sense, then, to assume that victories like Boric’s or Castro’s carry any benefit to Moscow or Beijing — though if U.S. policymakers insist on assuming that and hold those leaders at arms’ length from the beginning, it could be self-fulfilling. Instead, even if he or she meets with Russia and China, and perhaps even accepts goods and services from them, a democratic left leader should not be viewed as irretrievably lost to the other side. Signing on to the Belt and Road Initiative is not the same as becoming part of the Soviet bloc 50 years ago: It may just be a rational response to a generous offer, one that the U.S. government is only recently trying to measure up to with initiatives like the new Development Finance Corporation and the Biden administration’s “Build Back Better World” plan.

Fourth, it would be unwise to view the region’s armed forces as a bulwark against foreign influence or against certain political views. In a region where civilian control over the military is unfinished business, assistance or messaging needs to avoid politicizing armed forces. Under no circumstances should messages conveyed through training courses, exchanges, exercises, engagements, or defense diplomacy align armed forces with authoritarian leaders’ agendas, whether directly or inadvertently. Assistance and messaging ought to avoid encouraging militaries’ assumption of new internal roles like policing, as Mexico has done with its new National Guard, or crowd control, a role presidents have urged on reluctant militaries in Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, and elsewhere. And it would be most dangerous for training curricula and other, less formal messaging to propagate “hybrid threat” or “gray zone warfare” doctrines that portray legitimate social protests as the work of internal adversaries duped by foreign interests—unless the intelligence implicating a foreign power is overwhelmingly clear.

Fifth, U.S. engagement with the region needs to happen not only with a broader universe of elected democratic governments, but also with a far broader spectrum of institutions and social actors within countries. A vibrant democracy is more than just political leaders, business elites, and security forces. A more multidimensional approach to security cooperation, for instance, would involve more than just a partner nation’s soldiers, police, intelligence agents, and prosecutors. It would place equal importance on helping to strengthen a broader security sector encompassing judges, legislators, local governments, oversight bodies, and even non-governmental security experts, human-rights defenders, women’s groups, ethnic communities, and security-focused journalists.

Finding a Narrative: Why Work with the United States Today?

Senators Menendez and Rubio are right about one thing: The U.S. government sorely needs a coherent policy and narrative to guide its assistance to, and relations with, Latin America. Unlike 30 years ago, that narrative is playing out in a context of reduced U.S. power and influence. Nations will no longer choose to work with Washington simply because of its military and economic might. Today, the U.S. government has to make its case, and in more spheres than security alone.

Right now, it’s difficult to pin down U.S. priorities in Latin America. Take Colombia, the region’s largest recipient of assistance. What are the reigning U.S. priorities there right now? To the State Department’s Western Hemisphere bureau, they appear to be public security and reducing drug supplies, containing Venezuela, and worrying about outside meddling in this year’s elections. For Southern Command, they are countering great-power influence, weakening armed groups, and interdicting cocaine. For the Justice Department, they are taking down kingpins and having them extradited. For U.S. Agency for International Development, they are implementing the peace accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and protecting endangered social leaders. For the State Department’s migration bureau, it is accommodating Venezuelan migrants. Homeland Security officials are concerned about migrants transiting Colombia.

There is nothing wrong with having a long list of priorities, but when seeking to build a community of like-minded democracies in the region, it would help to convey a hopeful vision, or at most a few pillars. For all its flaws, Plan Colombia (the aid framework of the 2000s) had a coherent narrative: strengthening Colombia’s state, weakening armed groups, and reducing drug supplies. Today, the U.S. government communicates to Colombians a welter of diverging messages and priorities, depending on the agency.

If the U.S. government is truly concerned about great-power competition in the Americas, this incoherence and inaction are a strange way to show it.

It doesn’t help that the U.S. Congress can barely pass a budget or approve nominees, nor that the U.S. brand has taken a self-inflicted beating as the commitment to democratic principles that the United States wants to see from Latin American leaders is in serious danger of deteriorating at home.

This drift could lead right back into the “Cold War 2.0” rut that Washington so badly needs to avoid. Avoiding it means partnering with governments and civil societies to build a regional community of open democracies — not, as in the past, a regional community of conservative, unquestioningly pro-U.S. regimes. That, in turn, means partnering with leaders of the elected, democratic left, rejecting the notion that a leader like Chile’s Gabriel Boric might belong anywhere near the same category as Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro. At a time of complex migratory, economic, climate, and public health challenges in the hemisphere, privileging security assistance for like-minded regimes would be a waste of resources and a recipe for failure.



Adam Isacson runs the Defense Oversight program at the Washington Office on Latin America, a human rights advocacy and research organization. He has monitored the U.S. security relationship with Latin America and the Caribbean since the 1990s.

Image: U.S. Navy (Photo by Mass Communication Spc. 3rd Class Aaron Lau)