Latin America and the Caribbean are caught between geopolitical competitors. According to leaked Pentagon documents, Washington is very concerned about what it views as undue influence by its global rivals in its self-proclaimed backyard of Latin America—or, in the words of President Joe Biden, the US’s “front yard.” The documents relate to an alleged plan by the Russian Wagner Group to “provide security” in Haiti, Brazilian President Lula da Silva’s call for peace in Ukraine, and negotiations between China and Nicaragua to build a deep-water port near the coastal city of Bluefields.
The Monroe Doctrine established that Washington would allow no other powers to hold sway in its sphere of influence in Latin America. As former National Security Advisor John Bolton proudly declared in 2019, the imperialist doctrine is “alive and well.”
For hundreds of years, Washington has sought to dominate the region and ‘workshop’ its empire on the lives of millions in Latin America (to paraphrase Greg Grandin) while crafting the domestic and foreign policies of ostensibly sovereign nations according to the goals of the US government.
As such, the continued economic cooperation of many regional governments with China and Russia, coupled with the refusal of many to adopt the US position of unconditional support for Ukraine, has raised concerns in Washington, with Lula’s Brazil at the top of Biden’s list of worries.
While Lula’s government is by no means the most radically transformative in the region, his prestige on the world stage, his lead role in the expansion of BRICS, and Brazil’s large economy make his non-aligned foreign policy a matter of concern for the Biden administration.
Lula, however, appears committed to non-alignment. During his recent visit to China, he informed the press, “When I talk to the US, I don’t worry about what China will think of my conversation with the US. I’m discussing the sovereign interests of my country. When I come to China, I’m also not worried about what the US thinks about my talks with China.”
According to the Miami Herald, officials in Washington are unsettled by Lula’s apparent rejection of “the West’s aggressor-victim paradigm” and his efforts to help “establish a club of supposedly impartial mediators to settle the war,” including by working with China, which is fresh off its peacemaking success between the Saudi and Iranian governments.
At the same time, the Biden administration knows it must tread lightly to avoid pushing regional players even closer to Washington’s rivals. As Andre Pagliarini explains in The Brazilian Report:
Chinese funding could help Brazil modernize its ports, airports, highway systems, and other transportation networks. A heavy hand from Washington could legitimately be seen in Brazil as an attempt to deprive Latin America’s largest nation of crucial infrastructure investment. The Biden administration seems cognizant of what a bad look that would be in the region… Reviving the Brazilian economy [after Bolsonaro] is key to Lula’s political success, and China is key to this process.
Of course, the leaked Pentagon documents show that behind closed doors, the Biden administration is very concerned about Chinese influence in its “front yard,” despite the fact that investment from China is not viewed so negatively throughout much of Latin America.
Unsurprisingly, Biden’s anxieties extend to Moscow and Latin America’s overall neutrality on the war between Russia and Ukraine. The fact that most of the governments in the region, including Lula’s, have condemned the invasion of Ukraine does not satisfy Washington. The Biden administration wants total, unfettered support for Ukraine against Russia, a policy that is not in the self-interest of governments in the region.
Aware of the violent, anti-democratic history of US invasions, coups, and neocolonialism in their own region, many Latin American leaders understandably view other global powers like Russia and China as counterweights to Washington’s imperial designs in the Western Hemisphere.
When head of US Southern Command Laura Richardson implored Latin American governments to send their Russian-made military equipment to Ukraine in early 2023, leaders of the region’s largest countries like Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, and Mexico reiterated their position of neutrality and called for peace in Eastern Europe.
Colombian President Gustavo Petro said, “Even if they end up as scrap in Colombia, we will not hand over Russian weapons to be taken to Ukraine to prolong a war… We are not with either side. We are for peace.”
For his part, Lula also denounced the call, responding, “Brazil has no interest in passing on munitions to be used in the war between Ukraine and Russia… Brazil is a country of peace. At this moment, we need to find those who want peace, a word that has so far been used very little.”
A spokesperson for the defense ministry of Argentina said, “Argentina is not going to co-operate with the war… It is not appropriate to co-operate by sending arms to the conflict in Europe.”
The Mexican government under President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) also refused to send weapons to Ukraine. While promising humanitarian support to Ukrainians and Russians fleeing the conflict, AMLO said, “We do not send weapons anywhere; we are pacifists.”
Recently, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov toured several countries in Latin America, including Lula’s Brazil. He also visited Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua, where he denounced Washington’s attempts to overthrow those countries’ governments. It should not be surprising that such a message resonates with a large segment of the Latin American population.
Several states of primary concern to Washington are strengthening their economies, having survived opposition attempts to depose them. Venezuela, one of Russia’s closest allies in Latin America, has experienced something of an economic rebound in recent years. On top of that, governments in the Caribbean, as well as important regional players like Colombia, are calling for the lifting of Washington’s unilateral sanctions, which exacerbated the country’s economic crisis while causing the deaths of tens of thousands of Venezuelans.
At the same time, the economic and political situation in Nicaragua, perhaps the closest ally of China and Russia in Central America, is favourable to the continuation of the Sandinista government. The FSLN remains popular, while the country has made some notable strides in its efforts to implement socialist-oriented reforms, including in food security. Due to Sandinista policies, the country now produces over 80 percent of the food it consumes, which has prevented US sanctions from imposing hunger on the population.
Recently Nicaragua earned the number-one spot on a Gallup poll of countries whose citizens feel most at peace (73 percent of Nicaraguans polled “always” feel at peace). Meanwhile, talks between Beijing and Managua to build an interoceanic canal to rival Panama’s are continuing.
In Haiti, meanwhile, decades of intervention and occupation by Canada and the US have resulted in Russia being viewed more favourably than the North American powers. As a recent Miami Herald article explains:
Haitians are losing patience with the traditional international community over intervening in Haiti and many are expressing a preference that any such intervention be led by Russia… 41% of respondents did not believe [Canada’s] deployment of Royal Canadian Naval ships off the coast of Haiti was effective… With Haitians saying they had more trust in international action than domestic efforts, Russia was preferred by 44% of those surveyed, compared to the United States, which was at 19%. Canada had dropped from 23% to 12%.
The report by Premise Data Inc. found that, “With their politicians discredited and security deteriorating, Haitians are looking to the international community for solutions… While they wait for the gradualist programmes offered by Ottawa and Washington to bear fruit, frustration is building, creating a potential for an alternative ally to fill the vacuum.”
In Latin America and the Caribbean, the desire to continue and expand relationships with Russia and China, and to remain neutral on the war in Ukraine, is partly rooted in the violent history of Canadian and US imperialism in the region. If Ottawa and Washington fail to realize this, they will continue to isolate themselves in the hemisphere while enabling the growing influence of the geopolitical rivals they are supposedly trying to obstruct.
Owen Schalk is a writer from Manitoba. His book on Canada’s role in the war in Afghanistan will be released by Lorimer in September. You can preorder it here. To see more of his work, visit www.owenschalk.com.