Many of the legacies left by George W. Bush will focus on the War on Terror and Iraq. In Latin America, however, his legacy will be one that always remembers how Latin America was lost on his watch. As President Bush closes out his final months in office, many in Washington lament that the Monroe Doctrine, the foundation of Washington’s soft power in Latin America, is circling the drain and nearly dead.
Iran, China and Russia are certainly helping it along, but they would be in no position to do so if the present White House had simply lived up to what President Bush promised in his first presidential campaign: closer ties with Latin America. If anything, however, President Bush has distanced himself farther from Latin America than any president in recent history, creating a vacuum that has been steadily filled by patron nations not motivated by Washington’s best interests.
On 22 September Russian Naval cruiser, Peter the Great, set sail with two other ships for Venezuela where they will take part in naval exercises in the Caribbean. Russian bombers recently left Venezuela after a number of training missions off the Venezuelan coast, and a long time Russian spy, now Deputy Prime Minister, Igor Sechin recently made his rounds through Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua at the head of a large delegation of diplomats and business leaders.
The Russians are courting Bolivia, offering helicopters to help combat organized crime and drug traffickers. Meanwhile, Bolivia has announced it will move its Middle Eastern embassy from Egypt to Iran, a county now hard wired to Venezuela with at least one weekly flight.
A runway built by the US military in Manta, Ecuador, may soon be used to receive regular flights from China, and there are talks to open an international deep water port in Manta, making Ecuador a primary link between South America and growing business interests out of China.
Hutchinson-Wampoa, the company that controls ports on both sides of the Panama Canal has shown considerable interest in building in operating the Manta port, as well as a deep water port in northern Mexico.
The Chinese Development Bank, a financial institution that conducts some US$400 billion in annual loans, grants, and other programs, will invest US$100 million in Chile, where the national mining company, Codelco, will soon open another copper mine just to meet Chinese demand.
Over the past four years, we have watched the president of Iran receive a warm welcome in Nicaragua, Bolivia, Venezuela, and Ecuador, when the US president was all but forced off stage at the Summit of the Americas in Argentina and embarrassed by a negative public reception in Guatemala at the tail end of his obligatory Latin American tour in 2007.
The US State Department declared in January 2008 that this would be the year of engagement. So far, there has been little more than a cursory glance at Latin America, with most of the attention coming recently when Bolivia, then Venezuela, sent the US ambassador packing.
The International Monetary Fund has been lambasted as a bunch of Washington cronies. The State Department's Human Rights report and yearly review of cooperation in the so-called War on Drugs is significantly watered down in an environment where the region’s new patron states don’t place a high value on protecting human rights or preventing drugs from entering the United States.
Any influence the United States may still retain over the region has all but eroded. And since Thomas Shannon, the State Department’s top diplomat in Latin America, visited China in 2004, it has been all but formally acknowledged that China has a “seat at the table” when any Latin America enters serious discussions over trade, military support, or foreign direct investment.
Looking ahead, President Bush will hand his successor two ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as the so-called wars on terrorism and drugs. By many accounts, the new president will inherit four “wars”. Three of the four wars are over an ocean and half a world away. And the war that potentially has the most impact on Americans' daily lives has received the least amount of attention and funding.
What may affect Americans the most in the coming presidential term and beyond is likely not the threat of nuclear war or a terrorist attack but losing the support and respect of a region that since 1823, when the Monroe Doctrine was first signed, has been for better and for worse, the sole purview of the United States.
In the last eight years, Washington’s backyard has become littered with a number of interests that range from hostile to indifferent towards the United States. For many Latin American nations, the upshot is choice, an option to trade with other countries aside from the US and the EU. They are new patrons who don’t care about human rights standards. They do not force Latin governments to give their soldiers immunity from prosecution at the International Criminal Court
Moving forward, many countries in Latin America, specifically Brazil, Ecuador, Chile, Argentina, and Mexico, may see winning combinations and synergies emerge from budding relationships with at least China and Russia. Iran is a distant, yet significant regional player.
The big loser will be the United States. US diplomatic pressure and geopolitical voice will increasingly fall on deaf ears. A region that was once very close has perhaps forever stepped away. It is unlikely future leaders in the White House will repair broken relations or revive one of the region’s oldest unspoken laws.
One Brazilian diplomat recently told Southern Pulse, “In the past, the door for talks with the United States on any issue had to remain open. We had no choice. Now we can close it if we want. And in the future, it may rarely, if ever, open again if China and Russia have their way.”
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