These adversaries threaten the U.S. with their moves into Latin America.
The news from Latin America is grim. The reaction from the Biden administration is a yawn.
To reports in this newspaper that China is offering Cuba billions of dollars in exchange for the construction of a sophisticated intelligence facility to be used against the U.S., the White House responded with a classic non-denial denial. The report was “not accurate,” a spokesperson said, which translated from Washingtonese means that the story was largely correct, but it would be politically inconvenient to say so.
By Saturday the White House was into stage 2 of non-denial. Well, the White House conceded, perhaps there is such a facility, and perhaps China and Cuba are collaborating to upgrade it, but it’s all the previous administration’s fault, and in any case the current administration is addressing any and all relevant issues through diplomatic channels. Nothing to see here, folks, move along.
But Cuba is the tip of the iceberg. From Tijuana to Tierra del Fuego, American interests are under threat as virtually every country in Latin America suffers from major and growing social, political and economic distress. Narcotrafficking cartels have tightened their grip across much of Central America and into the Caribbean. Law and order is collapsing in Ecuador, while political instability seethes across countries like Bolivia and Peru. Argentina is again reaping the catastrophic results of populist Peronist economic policy. The Venezuelan dictatorship continues to tighten its grip as it sucks the remaining wealth from what ought to be one of the richest nations in the hemisphere. Haiti no longer has even the ghost of a government. In Brazil neither the right-populist shenanigans of the Bolsonaro government nor the left-populist quack remedies of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s Workers’ Party offer much hope to a stagnant, rapidly deindustrializing economy.
As is traditional, Latin populists are blaming capitalism and the U.S. for the otherwise inexplicable failure of their pet policies. They are also rolling out the red carpet for America’s opponents, literally in the case of Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi, who is following up his navy’s recent visit to the region with official visits to Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela.
Ties with Russia and China are booming. Moscow has resumed its Cold War efforts to subsidize a Cuban economy that somehow, despite 60 years of enlightened socialist planning, remains unable to meet the basic needs of the population.
But Moscow’s efforts are dwarfed by Beijing’s. Chinese trade with Latin America and the Caribbean rocketed from $18 billion in 2002 to $450 billion 20 years later and is projected to reach $700 billion by 2035. From lithium mining in Bolivia to strategic ports at both ends of the Panama Canal, Chinese companies are getting involved in vital infrastructure. Eleven or more space facilities across five countries in the region give Beijing sophisticated tracking and surveillance capabilities, and China hopes to expand this network.
The steady incursions of U.S. rivals into the Western Hemisphere would have touched off a political firestorm at any time since James Monroe issued his famous doctrine. But Latin America and the Caribbean are the last remaining places where the American foreign-policy establishment appears to cling to post-Cold War complacency about America’s rivals. Just as the establishment once scoffed at the idea that Russian ambitions in the former Soviet republics could pose a threat to European peace, or that China’s military buildup around Taiwan could affect American interests, it now blandly dismisses the idea that focused Chinese, Russian and Iranian activism in the Western Hemisphere could undermine American security.
If there’s been one single besetting sin in the generational failure of American foreign policy that took us from the “end of history” of the early 1990s to our current grim global situation, it’s the fixation on grandiose and vague global goals at the expense of American national interests as traditionally understood. The security and prosperity of our neighborhood matters enormously to the U.S., but Latin America has been at most an afterthought in American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War.
Monroe had it right. The safety and security of the U.S. require that no hostile powers turn the Western Hemisphere into an arena of geopolitical rivalry. To prevent foreign interference in the affairs of the nations of this hemisphere, the U.S. must work with neighbors to prevent failures of governance from creating chaotic conditions in which hostile powers can fruitfully meddle.
Washington’s passivity as drug cartels undermined state structures and as hostile foreign powers established beachheads across the hemisphere handed China, Russia and Iran a historic opportunity. Unless Joe Biden learns to channel the spirit of James Monroe, the toxic cocktail of instability and foreign interference in the Western Hemisphere could soon undermine America’s ability to face challenges farther afield.
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Appeared in the June 13, 2023, print edition as ‘Adversaries in America’s Backyard’.
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