Challenging Hegemony in Latin America

The US has never made a secret of its intent to exercise hegemony over its hemisphere. The intent has been enshrined and repeatedly reinforced in policy. Nearly two-hundred years ago, the Monroe Doctrine claimed the western hemisphere, placing a fence around the Americas and posting a no trespassing sign for all other nations of the world. Theodore Roosevelt reinforced the Monroe Doctrine, making clear America’s right to intervene in Latin America to enforce it. In 1963, justifying the invasion of the Dominican Republic that was intended to "preserve the Dominican Republic from going Communist," President Johnson added the Johnson Doctrine, asserting America’s right to intervene in the domestic affairs of nations in its hemisphere to ensure that no communist government be established.

That doctrine is today being challenged. Long the center piece of US hegemony, the isolation of Cuba and Venezuela is being challenged. Latin America is embracing both rebellious nations. Argentina has re-established ties with Venezuela; Ecuador is considering following those steps. A recent meeting of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), hosted by Mexico’s López Obrador, welcomed both Miguel Díaz-Canel of Cuba and Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela.  López Obrador recently went to Cuba in a visit that “was not just another visit.” The visit initiated a “new, very close relationship between Mexico and Cuba.” The leaders of the two countries signed documents that “formalize” and make their relationship “institutional.”

When the US attempted to reinforce the isolation of Cuba and Venezuela by excluding them – along with Nicaragua – from the Summit of the Americas, they triggered a show of solidarity that led to a protest that threatened the summit’s legitimacy, turning it into the Summit of Some of the Americas.

López Obrador boycotted the summit, saying he would not attend if "not all are invited." Bolivia’s President, Luis Arce, joined the boycott, calling Cuba and Venezuela "sister nations" and refusing to attend if they were excluded. Honduras’ president, Xiomara Castro, stayed home, protesting that “if all the nations are not present, it is not a Summit of the Americas.” The leaders of Guatemala and El Salvador also did not attend.

And attending did not mean countries were not protesting: protests can take many forms. Some decided to attend so they could "argue for the positions of Cuba and Maduro from within the meeting." Argentina’s President, Alberto Fernández, attended but asked that the US "invite all the countries of Latin America." Once at the summit, Fernández bemoaned that "The silence of those who are absent is calling to us." Chile’s Gabriel Boric attended but said that he will be there under protest and that he will proclaim loudly that the US excluding countries is a sign of disrespect to the region. He criticized the US "error" and insisted that "We have to express in the United States and elsewhere that exclusion is not the right path." Belize’s Prime Minister John Briceño, complained that "This summit belongs to all of the Americas – it is therefore inexcusable that there are countries of the Americas that are not here" and condemned the “illegal blockade against Cuba” an “affront to humanity.”

Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, who had also threatened to stay away, attended only after Biden sent an aid to meet with him who promised that Biden would not confront him over deforestation of the Amazon or Bolsonaro’s challenges to the upcoming Brazilian election: a remarkable concession given that Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua are excluded because of their alleged compromises on democracy.

Some Caribbean countries who do not recognize Juan Guaidó as the President of Venezuela and who threatened to boycott if he was invited to represent Venezuela may only have gone after Guaidó was not invited. Biden, though, did speak to Guaidó by phone on June 8 and did, once again, state "the United States’ recognition of and support for . . . Guaidó as the Interim President of Venezuela."

American hegemony in Latin America is also being challenged by the emerging multipolar world. China has now passed the US as the top trading partner of South America.

The challenge to American hegemony in Latin America may only be strengthened by two approaching elections in the region. In October, Brazilians will vote between Bolsonaro and Lula da Silva. The latest polls suggest that Lula is way in the lead. 46% of Brazilians say they would vote for Lula versus 30% who say they would vote to re-elect Bolsonaro. That would lead to a run-off that the polls suggest Lula would win by a huge 54% to 32% margin.

A Lula win would likely be a win for a multipolar world and a loss for US hegemony. Mark Weisbrot, Co-Director of the Center for Economic Policy and Research and an expert on Latin America, told me that Lula will not only “be active in promoting economic integration in the hemisphere,” he will also “pursue good relations with both the US and China.” 

Lula would also throw Brazil’s substantial weight behind Mexico’s López Obrador’s efforts. Lula said in a May 4 interview that he “was very concerned when the U.S. and the E.U. adopted Guaidó as President of the country.” “You don’t,” he added, “play with democracy.” The Monroe Doctrine and the Johnson Doctrine say you do. Lula has also indicated that he would stake out an independent foreign policy path from the US, criticizing the US, the EU and NATO for their approach to the Ukraine conflict.

But the Brazilian election is not the only election that could empower the push against US hegemony in Latin America. Colombian politics have taken an unexpected turn. Gustavo Petro, who won 40.3% of the first round vote will run off against Rodolfo Hernández who came in second with 28.2% of the vote. Though the two candidates are quite different, the shock for US hegemony and its key policy of isolating Venezuela, is that both have promised to re-establish ties with Maduro and Venezuela.

That Mexico is leading a challenge to US hegemony in the Americas that could soon be joined by Brazil and Colombia promises a strategically important triumvirate. Biden has "said many times that Colombia is the keystone of US policy in Latin America and the Caribbean." Brazil is the largest economy and the most powerful country in Latin America. Mexico is the second largest economy in Latin America and shares a border with the US. The US has often said that its relationship with Mexico is among the most important relationships the US has.

A challenge led by these three nations, and joined by Bolivia, Honduras, Chile, Argentina, Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua and others, could be a formidable challenge to US hegemony in the Western Hemisphere.

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