Latin America Needs a Wake-Up Call


Latin America Needs a Wake-Up Call

Aug 15, 2023 4 min read
Simon Hankinson

Senior Research Fellow

Simon is a Senior Research Fellow in the Border Security and Immigration Center at The Heritage Foundation.
Colombian president Gustavo Petro gives a speech in Bogota, Colombia on August 3, 2023. Sebastian Barros / NurPhoto / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

From Bolivia to Venezuela, socialist regimes combine corruption with authoritarianism.

Regimes all over Latin America use “lawfare,” including media suppression, to silence opponents.

Working together...the people of the United States and Latin America can build durable, democratic societies that cooperate for mutual economic prosperity.

The country’s left-wing president is unpopular and beset by family scandals. According to a political analyst: “Right now, [he] is in damage-control mode trying to isolate the issue around his son. . . . A lot of people are saying ‘It’s impossible that [the president] didn’t know what his son was up to.’” The president promised not to interfere in the investigation. He wishes his son “luck and strength” and is hopeful that “these events forge his character.”

Of course, we’re talking about Colombia, where President Gustavo Petro’s son Nicolás was arrested on July 29 on money-laundering charges. But deadbeat first sons aren’t the only parallels between the U.S. and Latin America today. This July, more than 40 conservatives came together for the inaugural Carvalho Dialogue in Miami to discuss the regional threat of transnational organized crime as well as authoritarian socialism and political instability.

Convened by the Heritage Foundation, the Texas Public Policy Foundation, and other partners, the Dialogue aims to meet twice a year in Miami and Austin, Texas, to discuss regional issues from a conservative perspective. The next meeting will be in September and will focus on the troubled U.S.–Mexico relationship.

The regional challenge is considerable. The socialist network founded by Fidel Castro and Brazil’s Lula da Silva in 1990 as the São Paolo Forum has spread far in the Americas. From Bolivia to Venezuela, socialist regimes combine corruption with authoritarianism. And as the Biden administration looks the other way, malign foreign powers are taking advantage.

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China, Iran, and Russia are interfering in elections, infiltrating governments, and using strong-arm tactics to dominate crucial commercial sectors. Unfortunately, Latin America’s persistent corruption enables them. Iran is assisting the Nicolás Maduro regime in manufacturing drones in Venezuela to equip the first armed-drone program in Latin America under the guise of commercial shipments. Through established air- and sea-shipment routes from Iran to Venezuela, the Iranians are empowering a transregional threat network that facilitates the transfer of illicit drugs, money, and weapons to the benefit of Hezbollah and Latin American armed groups, such as the dissidents of the FARC in Colombia. Russia uses social-media disinformation to manipulate elections. China, meanwhile, is playing a longer game for strategic control of ports, space, telecommunications, critical infrastructure, and finance.

Even more familiar to Americans are Latin America’s vast organized-crime networks. These operations move weapons, drugs, and migrants across borders with impunity, using the profits to undermine or co-opt weak governments. Colombia’s leaders appear to have forgotten the horrors of the era of Medellín Cartel drug lord Pablo Escobar, and the Petro government is making peace with narco-terrorists on unfavorable terms, ceding territory to armed groups. Venezuela’s Maduro regime has weaponized mass migration, funding and organizing politicized “open borders” NGOs in Central America to undermine the sovereignty of democratic states, including the U.S.

And, of course, Mexico’s president, Andres Manuel López Obrador, has ceded control of areas of his own country to cartels that “are known to control the trafficking corridors in Mexico that connect to California and Arizona,” according to the DEA. Fentanyl, mostly smuggled across Biden’s open border, killed about 60,000 Americans last year alone, but instead of taking responsibility, López Obrador prefers to spend time interfering in U.S. elections and telling minorities not to vote for Republicans.

Finally, following the example of their progressive counterparts in the United States, regimes all over Latin America use “lawfare,” including media suppression, to silence opponents. In the U.S, social-media platforms have arbitrarily, or in cooperation with federal agencies, blocked opposing viewpoints on Covid, gender ideology, and other topics of national debate. Apparently at the behest of Biden administration officials, Facebook suppressed content from the conservative Daily Wire in favor of more aligned media outlets. YouTube routinely uses overly broad content guidelines to demonetize shows and videos for “hate speech.” In Brazil, Lula da Silva’s government and the supreme court have cracked down on opposition voices through censorship and criminal prosecution, rendering prominent figures incapable of expressing their views via any media. According to Reporters Without Borders, Venezuela “is experiencing a prolonged restrictive environment in terms of information, with policies that threaten the full exercise of independent journalism.” Its electoral politics are a sham. And in Mexico, President López Obrador “has not yet carried out the reforms and measures needed to stop the spiral of violence against the press.”

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Meanwhile, the Biden administration’s order to inject gender ideology into all our diplomatic programs and foreign aid indicates its interest in advancing progressive radicalism, at the expense of other U.S. national priorities such as wielding influence in Latin America. A 134-page inter-agency report shows how seriously the administration takes this new ideological mission. Biden’s activist diplomacy also splits Latin American societies into identity groups. This obsessively “intersectional” approach is highly divisive in a continent with great ethnic and political diversity, and it undermines cooperation with our allies on matters ranging from defense and counterterrorism to refugees. Indeed, in countries that the progressive Left hasn’t managed to conquer yet, such as Peru, popular resistance has grown in response to American diplomacy that seeks to change traditional culture and family values.

But there’s still hope. As common threats to countries in the Americas become more pressing, our ability to collaborate toward a solution is increasing also. The Carvalho Dialogue revealed that free, sovereign peoples can and must resist the repressive, anti-democratic agenda of socialism. Working together, though not necessarily through their present governments, the people of the United States and Latin America can build durable, democratic societies that cooperate for mutual economic prosperity and security.

This piece originally appeared in the National Review