US and Latin America: Trouble in the Backyard

While the US is expanding into Russia’s sphere of influence, it seems to be having trouble consolidating and controlling its own sphere of influence. There may be trouble in America’s backyard.

The Biden administration has been so distracted by expansion and so asleep at diplomacy that the very fundamentals of diplomacy have been neglected in Latin America. A dozen ambassadorial postings in Latin America, including Brazil, Chile, and Bolivia, remain vacant sixteen months into Biden’s presidency.

All the while, the ever swinging pendulum of Latin American elections is swinging, once again, to progressive governments that are more likely to protect and advance the interests of their own populations than they are to sleep walk behind US hegemony.

There is no more sign of a domestic uprising against the government in Cuba than there ever was. The party of Chavez and Maduro remains solidly in power in Venezuela despite attempted US coups and recognition of interim coup president Juan Guaidó. The party of Evo Morales has returned to power in Bolivia, and the party of Manuel Zelaya has returned to power in Honduras, reversing US supported coups. Lula da Silva is poised to return to power in Brazil, which would reverse another US backed coup. Mexico, Argentina and Chile have all recently elected more progressive, independent governments.

This electoral swing away from obedience to US foreign policy is also making it harder for the US to maintain its policy of isolation for Cuba and Venezuela: a key strategy in its Latin America policy. After the State Department announced that “Cuba, Nicaragua, [and] the Maduro regime [in Venezuela] . . . will not receive invitations,” to the upcoming Summit of the Americas to be hosted in the US, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador asked Biden to invite “all the countries of the America’s to receive and invitation, without excluding anyone." On May 8, he reiterated that he intends to emphasize to Biden that "Nobody should exclude anyone.”

Argentina’s President, Alberto Fernández, echoed Mexico’s demand, saying "I ask of the organizers what López Obrador has asked: that they invite all the countries of Latin America." Caribbean leaders have also lent their voices to the demand.

López Obrador then escalated the challenge to US isolation of Cuba and Venezuela, threatening that "if there’s exclusion, if not everyone is invited, there will be representatives from the Mexican government but I would not attend.” The potential boycott grew when Bolivia’s President, Luis Arce, announced that "A Summit of the Americas that excludes American countries will not be a full Summit of the Americas and, if the exclusion of sister countries persists, I will not participate."

The ability to isolate Cuba and Venezuela and control of America’s backyard is showing further strains. Argentina has re-established ties with Venezuela and has urged other countries in the region to do so as well. Ecuador is listening and is considering re-establishing diplomatic relations with Venezuela.

The strain on US ability to maintain hegemony in its backyard and dictate foreign policy to its neighbors is further on display in the US attempt to forge a unified opposition to Russia over its war in Ukraine. In the General Assembly vote to condemn Russia, Venezuela didn’t participate in the vote because it has unpaid UN membership dues. Cuba, Bolivia, El Salvador and Nicaragua all resisted the pull of US hegemony and abstained.

Mexico has refused to join the US led sanctions, and Brazil has said that it refuses to take sides in the conflict and that it will remain “impartial.” Brazil’s president Bolsonaro has said that he is “in solidarity with Russia.”

And it won’t get easier for the US if Lula DA Silva defeats Bolsonaro in the upcoming elections as expected. In a May 4 interview, Lula told Time that "Putin shouldn’t have invaded Ukraine. But it’s not just Putin who is guilty. The U.S. and the E.U. are also guilty. What was the reason for the Ukraine invasion? NATO? Then the US and Europe should have said: ‘Ukraine won’t join NATO.’ That would have solved the problem." He went on to criticize the lack of effort at a diplomatic solution: "The conversations were very few. If you want peace, you have to have patience. They could have sat at a negotiating table for 10, 15, 20 days, a whole month, trying to find a solution. I think dialogue only works when it is taken seriously."

And it won’t get easier not only in the attempt to form a US block against Russia. It will also get harder for the US to maintain its block for isolating Venezuela and Cuba. "I was very concerned when the U.S. and the E.U. adopted Guaidó as President of the country," Lula said. "You don’t play with democracy."

At a recent meeting of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), hosted by Mexico’s López Obrador, Miguel Díaz-Canel of Cuba and Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela were present. And López Obrador recently called on the US to end its blockade of Cuba: "The Government that I represent respectfully calls on the Government of the United States to lift the blockade against Cuba." Lula recently said that, if elected, he would return Brazil to CELAC.

From a reincarnation of governments with independent foreign policies and a rebirth of regional integration in the form of organizations like CELAC to cracks in the blocks aimed at isolating Russia, Cuba and Venezuela, the US seems to be facing a reborn challenge in its backyard.

Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.