January 31, 2008 | Commentary on Latin America
Maintaining - or regaining - America's influence in our own neighborhood will be a key challenge for the next US president.
The perceptions are especially grim these days. Latinoamericanos accuse Uncle Sam of neglecting their needs at the same time they chastise us for unwelcome meddling. And the rise of leftist anti-Yanqui leaders has many Norteamericanos lamenting what they see as a precipitous decline in America's influence to the South.
One anti-American is on his way out, though: the "Bearded One" - Fidel Castro, who'll join other communist cronies in the dustbin of history any time now. On death's door for months, Fidel has turned running the government over to his "First Brother," Raul. Sadly, Havana's communist cadre will likely retain their nearly 50-year death grip on the Cuban people.
Meanwhile, Venezuela's caudillo president, Hugo Chavez, intends to replace Castro as leader of the Latin Left. While his political fortunes have been on a rollercoaster, Chavez has made a sport of taunting the United States in both word and deed. He'd like to place a kindred anti-US spirit at the helm of every Latin or Caribbean nation.
Just last week, Chavez urged countries in the region to form an alliance against the United States - proposing that Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador, Cuba and Dominica become a unified military force.
Fortunately, Chavez's outlandish antics, such as a UN speech where he referred to President Bush as "the devil," undermine his appeal. Many Latin Americans see him more as a disruptive hothead than the model statesman he fancies himself.
But Venezuela is awash in oil profits, which Chavez is using to consolidate power at home, bankroll Leftist pols across the region, provide cut-rate oil to amigos like Cuba, buy billions in Russian weaponry and back guerillas in Colombia.
He's also chummy with Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The two nations have signed a number of joint-venture deals, but the real worry is the prospect of Iranian missile or even nuclear (weapon) proliferation to Venezuela.
Castro's Mini-Yo also hopes to squeeze the United States by cutting off oil shipments, too - if he can find a new customer base. (Venezuela produces 15 percent of our imported oil.)
Happily, Chavez failed to win a key ally when Felipe Calderon won the 2006 presidential election in Mexico, an important US trading partner. But US-Mexico relations are a mixed bag - complicated by thorny issues such as Mexico being a prime source of illegal immigrants to the US, and the preferred transit route for more.
Another problem: narcotics trafficking. Calderon has felt obliged to call in the army to deal with the drug lords; he's even asked the United States to help fight gangs, narco-gunslingers and corrupt cops.
Chavez gets along far better with Bolivia's Evo Morales and Ecuador's Rafael Correa, two populist leftist leaders who've gotten financial support from him - and take many political cues from him, too.
Each is looking at rewriting his nation's constitution (as Chavez has tried to do) to consolidate power and nationalize energy resources. Bloodshed and civil strife can't be ruled out, especially as indigenous peoples are politically mobilized.
Then there's Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega. Chavez backed his campaign, forgave Nicaraguan debt and provides aid. Some worry Ortega still longs for the bad ol' Sandinista days.
Ortega and Ahmadinejad are buds, too. On a recent visit, the Iranian leader claimed he and Ortega "have common interests, common enemies, and common goals." On an earlier visit, Ortega honored his Iranian guest with two of Nicaragua's highest medals of national honor. Ortega has supported Iran's nuclear ambitions at the United Nations, while Ahmadinejad has promised Ortega hundreds of millions in public-works projects.
China, with its seemingly insatiable appetite for energy and natural resources, is also making its presence felt in the region - offering an alternative to the United States as a big power pal. Beijing reportedly plans to invest $100 billion in Latin American and the Caribbean in energy and infrastructure projects over the next decade.
On the positive side of the tote board, democratic Colombia is one of the United States' closest allies in the region. President Alvaro Uribe, a conservative, has rescued his country from near-failed-state status, fostering economic growth and stability.
But Colombia is still plagued by tensions with next-door Venezuela, a decades-long fight with narcoterrorist guerillas and drug trafficking - plus allegations of human-rights abuses by its military.
Emerging powerhouse Brazil is also a possible ray of sunshine. Social democratic President Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva continues to advance free trade, successful social and anti-poverty programs and develop bio-fuels.
Another positive note: Democratic politics, with some notable exceptions, have become entrenched in the Latin psyche since the end of the Cold War. Free markets are also on the march, fostered by regional free trade agreements.
So, has the United States "lost" Latin America? Nah.
While some nations, prodded by Chavez's petrodollars, have moved left and become less democratic, that trend is balanced by positive developments in democracy and free markets.
Latin America's future will greatly affect our economic prosperity and national, homeland and energy security. Without question, the next - indeed any - American president only ignores Latin America at our peril.
Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow and former US deputy assistant secretary of defense.
First appeared in New York Post