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Latin America and the Caribbean

R. Evan Ellis
R. Evan Ellis SSI

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pp. 24-27 of the

2023 Estimate of the Strategic Security Environment

U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute

U.S. strategic access to and influence in Latin America continues to be bolstered by strong commercial and cultural ties, and the human bonds of those in the region with family or experiences in the U.S.  That influence and access is reinforced by geography, particularly with respect to the countries closest to the U.S including Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean basin.  Nonetheless, the region is currently becoming more unstable, less willing to work with the U.S., and more open to engage with extra-hemispheric rivals to the United States.  This dangerous transformation is driven by reinforcing economic, political, and external factors which are degrading governance, increasing insecurity, and fueling reinforcing political and economic crises. 

The deterioration of U.S. access negatively impacts a collaborative response to shared security challenges such as migration, drugs, criminal and terrorist groups in the region.  At the same time, expanded opportunities for U.S. geopolitical rivals in the U.S. “near abroad,” arising from the same political trend, including advances by the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Iran and Russia, creates strategic vulnerabilities for the U.S. in the hemisphere, particularly in the event of war with the PRC.

Deep-rooted frustration in the region with endemic insecurity, corruption, and poor economic conditions predates the Covid-19 pandemic yet was exacerbated by the pressures of the pandemic and sources of contention exposed by the government response.  Covid-19 hit Latin America particularly hard, producing one of the highest per capita death rates in the world, while also highlighting corruption and neglect in the region’s healthcare systems, and the inability of governments to effectively protect their populations.  The economic disruptions from fighting the pandemic ruined businesses and pushed many from the middle class into poverty and the informal sector.  Meanwhile, Latin American public-sector spending gravely weakened fiscal balances, hampering the government’s response to future needs, and driving politically unpalatable tax increases and other adjustments.   On the heels of the pandemic, Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine accelerated inflation impacting already vulnerable populations through increases in prices for basic foodstuffs, and fuel.   

In the security domain, populations have become more vulnerable to mass migration which also exposes them to exploitation by human smuggling, trafficking, and other criminal organizations, while also further stressing the societies through which those migrants move.  The displacement of more than seven million Venezuelans, as well as Haitians, Nicaraguans and others has produced significant migratory flows in multiple directions, including through Panama’s Darien Gap, through Central America to the U.S.-Mexico border, through the Caribbean, and from Venezuela through Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Chile, straining the resources of already fiscally and economically vulnerable host countries, and empowering criminal organizations that prey upon them.

In the political domain, the aforementioned disillusionment and discontent has brought to power an unprecedented number of non-traditional politicians, generally less disposed to cooperate with the US on important traditional security issues.  They are charged with managing deeply polarized countries, often with fragile legislative coalitions, while advocating state-led solutions unpalatable to investors, in an environment where the fiscal balances of their government are already fragile and the private sector unable to absorb new costs, setting the stage for further protests, economic difficulties, and political instability.

On the radical left extreme of the chaotic and less US-friendly political space, entrenched authoritarian regimes in Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba have consolidated power internally and outlawed or otherwise incapacitated oppositions that could replace them.  They have also leveraged outreach from the expanded group of sympathetic governments to politically and economically re-engage with the region, facilitating the expansion of criminal networks operating in their territory, and potentially radical groups which seek to weaponize the region’s ample discontent. 

The increased economic and political viability of authoritarian populist regimes such as Venezuela and Nicaragua since they have led in hosting threats that U.S. rivals Russia and Iran have sought to project into the region.

Although the US has found common ground with the region’s new left regimes on select issues involving the environment and social justice.  their willingness to collaborate across a range of key security and strategic issues has eroded markedly.  Examples include Mexico’s 2020 National Security Law, which increased barriers to working-level collaboration against organized crime, the Gustavo Petro government in Colombia’s redefinition of the security agenda with the US, and the Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva government in Brazil inviting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to the region, as well as permitting the Iranian warship Makran access to Brazil’s ports.

The shift to less US-oriented governments has also accelerated expanding commercial, political and security engagement by the PRC in the region, reaching $449 billion in 2022, making the PRC the principal trade partner for most nations south of Costa Rica.  In the past two decades, PRC-based entities have invested over $172 billion in the region and its two principal policy banks alone have loaned $136 billion to the region.

PRC-based companies such as Huawei play a key role in the region’s telecommunication infrastructure, and are positioned to dominate 5G.  Huawei also plays a leading role in cloud computing.  Huawei, Hikvision and Dahua have an important role in security systems in the region, including “smart cities” and “safe cities” initiatives.  Chinese companies also have significant access to the region’s data through Alibaba in eCommerce, DiDi Chuxing in ride sharing, Nuctec customs scanners, and the container “reading” technology in ZPMC port cranes.

PRC companies also have captured strategic positions in strategic minerals including lithium in Chile, Bolivia, Argentina and Mexico, and niobium in Brazil.  PRC-based companies have captured a significant share of the region’s energy transmission and generation infrastructure, particularly in hydroelectric, wind and solar.  PRC-based companies have captured strategic positions in maritime logistics, operating major ports in Mexico, the Bahamas, Brazil, Panama, and soon, Peru.  The PRC is also expanding its role in the region’s space architectures, collaborating on satellites and other infrastructure with Brazil, Venezuela, Bolivia, Argentina, among others. 

PRC security engagement with the region is also expanding, including sales and donation of equipment to military and police forces, hosting of their senior officers in the PRC for training and institutional visits, and periodic travel by its warships and delegations to the region.

PRC influence in and access to the region is expanded by “flips” in diplomatic recognition, as seen in recent years in Panama, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Honduras.  Such changes are routinely accompanied by multiple non-transparent agreements involving not only “gifts” of infrastructure, but PRC training programs, Confucius institutes, media collaboration, and projects in sectors from telecommunications to electricity to port infrastructure.

In the event of US military conflict with the PRC, its commercial presence provides leverage to persuade Latin American governments to suspend some cooperation and access to the US, while providing cover for operations observing and disrupting US deployment and sustainment operations.  Its relationships with Latin American security forces and operation of multiple ports in the region, and its access to Latin American space assets could be leveraged to support operations against the US from the hemisphere, even in the absence of formal alliance or basing agreements.  In the context of such a war, Russian and Iranian assets, in combination with those of US-hostile actors such as Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, could be employed against the US with PRC support, in ways those actors would be reluctant or under-resourced to do in peacetime.

The reinforcing dynamics of economic stresses, transnational crime, discontent, political polarization and fragility threatens to deepen the crisis of governance in the region, creating further opportunities for the PRC, including a security and political crisis in Ecuador, one of the few remaining US-aligned governments.  At the same time, discontent with many leftist governments, and the possibility for more US-friendly actors to prevail in Argentina’s October 2023 general elections raise hopes for escaping from the current cycle of deteriorating democracy and institutions, particularly if the US can leverage the opportunity and help to make its partners succeed.