Pluralism bursts into the Western Hemisphere

November 28, 2007 15:11 | by Alex Sánchez

No one is arguing that Latin America and the Caribbean have become a priority matter for international diplomacy, save for the US, which has witnessed a massive retreat of Washington's vigilance for what it once insisted were its longtime national interests and influence in the hemisphere. Concentrating on its "War on Terror" has resulted in a detour of the US military and diplomatic corps to a series of sorties, like Afghanistan, Iraq, and now, likely enough, to Iran. The 1823 Monroe Doctrine is no longer relevant as nations like Russia, the People's Republic of China as well as the European Union (and its individual members) increase their influence in the Western Hemisphere. This penetration is due to the fact that numerous hemispheric countries are themselves looking to diversify their pool of allies and trading partners by contracting ties to other nations besides the US, with Venezuela being at the core of this movement.

From Brussels to Moscow and Beijing, not to mention other emerging middle powers like India, it seems as though everyone wants a piece of Latin America these days. With Washington's grip on the region loosening, there is an increase in opportunity for potentially valuable non-traditional relationships - Iran's aggressive courting of Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia and Nicaragua is one example- demonstrating that the Western Hemisphere has become a multipolar continent, with Washington no longer being the exclusive choice, and with diplomatic initiatives originating from around the globe.

Enter the Dragon

China has diverse interests in the Western Hemisphere, and although most of them are primarily economic, there are pressing political factors at play as well. Of key importance to Beijing is its quest for new product markets, in combination with creating multiple portals through which it can import the mineral resources and produce what it needs to maintain a booming economy. The most recent example is the $10 billion contract signed between Beijing and Caracas to search for crude oil reserves in Venezuela's oil-rich Orinoco belt. This arrangement occurred shortly after Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez expelled a number of Western oil companies from the country, including Exxon and Conoco, for failing to take a minority stake in their Orinoco oil holdings.

Another reason for China's interest in the Western Hemisphere has to do with the status of neighboring Taiwan. Beijing and Taipei's hostile attitude toward each other and quest for diplomatic recognition has been transferred to the Americas, as both governments attempt to gain new allies in order to bolster support for their positions on the issue of Beijing's claim to the island of Taiwan. Inevitably, Beijing is winning its diplomatic and public relations showdown with Taipei, due to its geopolitical weight. While Taiwan has gained the formal recognition of a number of countries in this hemisphere, it subsequently lost some of this support. This is being achieved as a result of an "open checkbook" policy for economic aid, access to the Chinese market, and the availability of loans for the disadvantaged economies of the Americas. The critical factor here is that China has been able to decisively beat out its adversary, with Taipei having diplomatic ties with only a handful of countries in the Western Hemisphere, most of which have only marginal importance other than their ability to cast a vote in international forums.

An example of this "financially mercenary" is the Caribbean island of Dominica, which cut ties with Taiwan in 2004. According to a report by the BBC, after the decision of Dominican Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit to cut off Taipei, Beijing was prepared to hand over more than $100 million in aid over the next five years to the now blessed Caribbean island.

The Russian Bear

Russia has just begun to regain a privileged position of influence in the Western Hemisphere, a status once enjoyed during the days of the Cold War when, as a result of its close ties with Havana, it was able to maintain close relations with Nicaragua, Grenada, and Allende's Chile. Moscow also had the sympathy of military governments like Peru during the Juan Velasco Alvarado rule (1968-1975). Today, Russia is attempting to come up with a new strategy to recover a resource-drilling position of influence in the hemisphere, and has focused on the military export industry as its line of attack. During the Cold War several Latin American governments purchased Soviet weaponry, and today are familiar with utilizing this type of equipment and prefer its use (not to mention Russian weapons are currently very inexpensive) over having to purchase them from other manufacturers (i.e. France, Israel). For example, Peru is in the process of upgrading its Soviet-era Mi-8 helicopters, having placed its order with Moscow.

Moscow has also capitalized on non-US friendly countries like Venezuela to increase its client base. Last year Venezuela purchased $3 billion of military equipment from the Vladimir Putin regime. This summer, during a trip to Moscow, Chávez ordered five submarines, with the option of buying four more in the near future. In addition, Russia's Izhevsk Manufacturing Plant has reported that it will build two factories in Venezuela to manufacture Kalashnikov rifle-type AK-103 as well as ammunition for it. The objective is to have both plants completed by 2010.

However, it is doubtful that military sales alone will be enough for Russia to once again cement anything like the position of influence in the Western hemisphere that it episodically had in the post-World War II period. Trade is still somewhat lagging between the two sides of the Pacific, and there have been instances of rapprochement between Kremlin officials and a number of hemispheric leaders. Cuba has yet to receive anything approaching a major volume of Russian investment and economic aid, as it once did, although there is always the possibility that this situation may change in the near future. There have been some important visits by high level Kremlin officials, like President Vladimir Putin's trip to Cuba in 2000, as well as several meetings between Putin and Chávez in Moscow, however, these ties have to be amplified in order to make Russia into a bigger player in Latin America. Meanwhile, the region increasingly looks to Moscow for both friendship and, more importantly, trade and investment.

European Unity for All

Understanding Europe's presence in Latin America and the Caribbean may require two separate streams of analysis. On the one hand, the Europe Union has a common policy towards the Americas, and, at the same time, individual European countries have their own foreign policies and interests in the region. When it comes to the EU, Brussels has focused on greater economic and political interaction with the region's major blocs, namely MERCOSUR, the Andean Community of Nations (CAN), and the Rio Group. In fact, the EU has already been discussing a free-trade agreement with CAN for a number of months. In recent weeks, Venezuela has been placed in the spotlight as President Chávez is looking to possibly return to CAN after leaving the bloc in 2006. Chávez is not in favor of an FTA between CAN and the EU, so it is yet to be seen how these feints will transpire. In the meantime, CAN has scheduled its second round of negotiations with the EU in Brussels this coming December. Additionally, the EU has pursued free trade talks with countries like Mexico and Chile.

Individual European governments are pursuing their own foreign policy initiatives vis-à-vis the Western Hemisphere in line with their own national interests. France has increased its cooperation in recent years with Brazil. Likewise, Britain continues to make use of its historical influence on the English-speaking Caribbean, for example, maintaining a military base in Belize (the British Army Training Support Unit Belize - BATSUB). The goal of the base is to provide jungle training to British troops, with the additional objective of protecting the sovereignty of the country, which has had a historical territorial dispute with neighboring Guatemala. In addition, British naval ships regularly patrol the Caribbean and aid with drug-enforcement operations. In 2005, the frigate HMS Cumberland stopped a vessel off Nicaragua's Caribbean coast, which was carrying two tons of cocaine.

In addition, Spain and Portugal, in an attempt to project their presence in Latin America, encouraged the creation of the Ibero-American Secretaria (SEGIB) in 2006. The organization is based in Madrid and scored something of a coup after the distinguished Uruguayan official Enrique Iglesias was selected as its first secretary-general in 2005. Iglesias brought a significant amount of prestige to the organization as he is a former president of the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington, Uruguay's foreign minister from 1985-1988 and also served as the head of the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. Nevertheless, it is yet to be seen if SEGIB can make much progress in bringing both sides of the Atlantic effectively together.

In early November, the XVII Ibero-American Summit took place in Santiago, Chile. The meeting was not without controversy as at one point King Juan Carlos of Spain told President Chavez "por qué no te callas?" (why don't you shut up?). Ironically, SEGIB's secretary Iglesias declared in a press conference that the summit had been a success. The next meeting will take place in October 2008 in San Salvador, El Salvador.

The Netherlands' presence in the region is mainly a result of its connection to its former colonies of Suriname and the islands of Aruba (Curacao and Saba off the coast of South America in the Caribbean), as well as St. Maarten, which it shares with France. Finally there are some European nations that particularly are at odds with one or more Latin American countries, especially with Fidel Castro's Cuba. The Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia are famous for their rejection of any effort to be made to moderate the current hostility that these former Soviet satellites currently have towards Cuba, which has rendered them a gaggle of Castro bashers serving on European bodies.

The Growing Persian Shadow

Iran is another country that has a mixed diplomatic-trade and security relationship with a number of regional countries, with Venezuela immediately coming to mind. Recently, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad caused an uproar in New York when he visited the UN and gave a fiery speech after being booed during a presentation he made at Columbia University. After his stopover in Caracas, Ahmadinejad traveled to Bolivia, prompting rumors of a possible Caracas-Tehran-Sucre/La Paz alliance. In order to explain his meeting with the Iranian leader, Bolivian President Evo Morales declared "we are from the culture of dialogue and life, without marginalization and discrimination. We are about unity [and] solidarity."

Visits by Ahmadinejad and other Iranian officials to the Western Hemisphere are examples of Tehran's growing presence in the continent. In early November, Iranian Minister of Commerce Masood Mirkazemi traveled to Havana and signed an agreement to form a joint shipping company between the two governments.

During his trip to Bolivia, the first made by an Iranian president, Ahmadinejad pledged to invest $1 billion over the next five years to improve the Bolivian economy. According to September 27 Associated Press file, "Bolivia-Iran trade can hardly go anywhere but up. Bolivia exported nothing to Iran between 2000 and 2006, and Iranian exports to Bolivia totaled just $10 million last year, according to government statistics, down from $24 million a year earlier." Closer relations between La Paz and Tehran have more than raised eyebrows among Bolivia's opposition parties. There are rumors that there may be a deal between both countries for the mining of Bolivia's uranium, which opposition senators would try to block, if true. "No one has assured us that Bolivian uranium will be used for benign purposes, so we cannot take risks," said Senator Arturo Murillo of Unidad Nacional.

In Ahmadinejad's September trip to Caracas, he met with Chávez and the two leaders signed three cooperation accords regarding the petrochemical, agricultural and automobile sectors. In addition, as reported by Latin America News Digest, Venezuela's state-run oil giant Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA) and Iranian state-run energy firm Petropars have agreed to set up a 50/50 joint venture named Venirogc. The article explains that the goal is to challenge the supremacy of oil and gas giants Chevron, Royal Dutch Shell and Eni by creating international oil and gas enterprises along the entire value chain, from production to retail merchandizing through gasoline stations.

Additional Players

Brazil's increasing links to South Africa and India have aided both emerging middle-rank powers to gain a foothold in the Western Hemisphere. India also has a growing research-based presence in Guyana, which it gained by deploying historical ethnic ties, and has also used a diplomatic offensive to permit it to step up investments in mineral-rich Peru.

Pluralism in the Americas

Washington's semi-divorce from Latin America and the Caribbean has been the catalyst that has allowed other nations and international organizations to move rapidly into the regions. What can be seen now is the possibility of the creation of a new system in the Western Hemisphere, with the US becoming no longer the omnipotent and omnipresent player. Washington may have to adjust to being one of many actors in the hemisphere along with Beijing, Moscow, Brussels and, oddly enough, Tehran.

In effect, a dramatically pluralistic hemisphere is in the making, which cannot help but profoundly affect the inter-American system, with the Organization of American States-which has always been regarded as Washington's protégé-losing ground to one or more of a variety of other possible regional blocks, like CARICOM, the Rio Group, the Andean Community of Nations, as well as Chávez' Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA).

Caribbean Security

While important from a geo-strategic point of view, the Caribbean does not usually attract the international media coverage it deserves. In spite of this fact, security forces from major powers like the US and Britain continue to maintain security a presence in the area, especially as the Caribbean has become a major point for the shipment of illegal drugs coming from South America on their way to Europe.

London's BATSUB provides specialist training for over 4,000 British troops per year and offers back-up support to the Belize Defense Force (BDF). The British base also regularly receives visits by British vessels, like the Cumberland, that take part in anti-narcotics operations in the Caribbean Sea, often in conjunction with the US

Washington aggressively has pressed the relatively unknown but very important "Shiprider Agreement" with a number of Caribbean countries. The objective of this pact is to combat illegal drug trafficking, arms smuggling and transnational crime by increasing cooperation between US security forces (particularly the Coast Guard) and Caribbean governments. From the onset, the "Shiprider Agreement" has been surrounded by controversy; for example, there have been confrontations between the US, Jamaica.

According to a February 2004 article in the Jamaica Gleaner, "in 1996, then US President Bill Clinton's administration was on the verge of imposing financial sanctions against Jamaica because it was dissatisfied with Jamaica's co-operation on narcotics. Sanctions were eventually averted after the crisis prompted a Caribbean summit in Barbados with Clinton in 1997." Jamaica and Washington signed a new "Shiprider" accord in 2004.

On January 26, 2006 an article was published in Caribbean Net News, which included comments by the US ambassador to Suriname, Marsha Barnes. In the article the American diplomat said that so far, there are no tangible results from the proposed cooperation since Suriname doesn't have a Coast Guard. The diplomat noted that agreements with other Caribbean nations were exercised differently. Some Caribbean nations' vessels patrolling off-shore Puerto Rico have US law enforcement officers on board, while in other instances Caribbean law enforcement personnel are on board US Coast Guard vessels.

Additionally, the US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), in coordination with the US Coast Guard, sponsors a series of military exercises held with Caribbean nations, known as TRADEWINDS. The May 2007 TRADEWINDS exercises were held in Belize with the participation of the British Royal Marines. It is noteworthy to mention that the Caribbean has strived to achieve independence when it comes to security issues. In the late 1970s and 1980s, the need for a collective response to security threats led to the creation of the Regional Security System. This concept first appeared in concrete terms through a Memorandum of Understanding which was signed in October 1982 between Antigua and Barbuda, Dominica, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, St. Lucia and Barbados, in order to provide for "mutual assistance on request." The RSS' first deployment was a part of the US invasion of Grenada in 1983. Grenada itself joined the RSS in 1985.

Who Supports Who?

In spite of the growing presence of extra-hemispheric nations in the Western Hemisphere, it might be an exaggeration to assume that exclusive alliances have been cemented between any Latin American or Caribbean nations with particular European or Asian powers. Brazil has developed close relations with India and South Africa (through the tri-national organization known as IBSA), which is perhaps the closest there is to an inter-hemispheric alliance at the moment. In addition, Britain has a strong relation with its former colonies, but at the same time, the Caribbean states have had success in forming their own identity through regional organizations like CARICOM.

Mexico's growing closeness with the EU, China and India on trade issues will continue to be dwarfed by its relationship with the US, its major trading partner by far. The same can be said about Central America and the Dominican Republic, after the ratification by all members of CAFTA-DR. President Chávez has turned to Russia as a weapons supplier, but he had no problems granting China, Russia's competitor in the quest for overseas resources, a multi-billion dollar deal for oil exploration.

An issue that needs to be addressed is that of shifts and movements in inter-state relations on the continent and the search for external alliances. Brazil, with is global ambitions, has teamed up with other regional powers in other parts of the world that share similar interests. Venezuela turned to Russia for military equipment because when requested, the US would not sell the Chávez administration spare parts to repair the country's squadron of aging F-16 fighter planes. Adjoining countries like Peru, Uruguay and Paraguay, have yet to feel any need to seek stable extra-hemispheric alliances.

Another condition that deserves to be considered is the fear that allowing too many foreign companies or foreign influence in a country will be detrimental to local economies or create neo-colonial scenarios. For example, some Caribbean analysts still bitterly recall CARICOM's distrust which was directed against France's then-Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, with some officials of the Caribbean organization alleging that he was one of the main plotters of the Haitian 2004 coup that overthrew President Jean Bertrand Aristide.

It is unrealistic to believe that a Russian or Asian military base may be located in the Western Hemisphere anytime soon. However, it is necessary to keep in mind that non-American military bases in Latin America and the Caribbean do exist. One example is the aforementioned British military training facility in Belize. France has also deployed members of its Foreign Legion to French Guyana, an overseas department, for training exercises and to protect the European Space Agency spacecrafts which are launched from there. Furthermore, the status of US facilities in the region is no longer secure or, for that matter, sacred. Ecuador's President Rafael Correa adamantly insists that once the lease to the US facility in Manta expires in 2009, Quito will refuse to renew it. Meanwhile Mexican authorities have stressed that no US military forces will be allowed in the country as part of the newly signed Merida initiative.

El Gran Juego

Like the struggle for influence in Central Asia in the 19th century between the Russian and British empires, which was referred to at the time as the Great Game, Latin America and the Caribbean have entered into their own version of this quest, with non-hemispheric players like Russia, China and the European Union all attempting to win influence in the region. This translates into investment, access to resources and local markets; however it is not a winner-takes-all type of game. One thing is clear: for the rest of the world, efforts at associating with Latin America and the Caribbean signifies the region's emergence as an important political and economic force with potential for further growth, which is even far beyond what Washington is now able to conceptualize.

This analysis was supplied by the US-based Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) Alex Sánchez is a COHA Research Fellow.

See also

http://www.spectrezine.org/LatinAmerica/Sanchez2.htm