Kiron Skinner And Mateo Haydar on November 26, 2022
The latest sign that America’s influence in the Western Hemisphere is waning came when Brazilians went to the polls last month and narrowly elected leftist former president Luiz Inacio “Lula” Da Silva over conservative incumbent Jair Bolsonaro by less than 2% of the vote.
For the first time ever, the largest economies in Latin America will now all be governed by progressive politicians who are increasingly hostile to U.S. influence in the hemisphere while embracing economic, political, and military ties to communist China. At least 11 anti-American leaders will now govern countries in the region.
For decades, following the Monroe Doctrine, the United States understood that radical forces backed by the Soviet Union threatened U.S. security and sovereignty in seeking to turn neighbors into client states for a hostile power. Violent Marxist guerrillas like the Sandinistas in Nicaragua or the Shining Path in Peru are cases in point, with both insurgencies now part of ruling coalitions in their countries. But facing a much greater threat with communist China, such concerns appear to be fading in Washington.
Today’s threat is a different one in several ways. China is a well-financed and technologically equipped rival waging economic warfare on the U.S., as an extension of its military and political aggression. In the global south, it is monopolizing access to extractive resources, penetrating public and civil society institutions, and building dual-use facilities like ports and satellite ground stations.
Unlike the Soviets, China is particularly effective in gaining buy-in from autocrats and democrats alike and across ideological variations. For example, the outgoing conservative Bolsonaro government initially tried to curtail Beijing’s “buying [of] Brazil” but was met with an aggressive pro-China lobby that pushed it to make concessions. This included allowing the Chinese state-affiliated telecommunications giant Huawei to bid for sensitive 5G spectrum projects.
To compete in America’s neighborhood, China also counts on the complementary strengths of aggressive allies like Russia and Iran whose presence and threat networks have grown rapidly in Latin America.
Another difference is that the former Soviet-backed political forces of the mid-20th century in Latin America also evolved and adapted. At the tail-end of the Cold War in 1990, Lula and Cuban dictator Fidel Castro founded the São Paulo Forum (SPF), an organizing mechanism to support the radical left’s pursuit of power in the region through elections rather than arms.
Lula and the SPF were key to enabling the leftist “pink tide” at the turn of the century, including the elections of Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez in 1998 and Lula in 2002. The left adapted its tone and its means to become a potent electoral force.
But while much has changed and important differences exist among the latest wave of elected leaders, the notion that the United States’ position and influence in the hemisphere should be revised and countered remains a central tenet to most (if not all) of the newly elected leftist leaders.
The new bloc of leftist leaders will soon elect a new president of the Inter-American Development Bank, one that is now less likely to impede China’s outsized influence in the bank. The U.S. is the bank’s largest donor with over 30% of shares compared to China’s paltry 0.004% contribution. Despite this, China is the bank’s top recipient of co-financing, top non-borrower recipient, and top procurement recipient.
Similarly, the new leaders will likely revive and strengthen regional multilateral bodies that exclude U.S. participation while engaging with China and Russia, like the “Union of South American Nations” (UNASUR) and the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). Both were promoted by Lula and Chavez in the early 2000’s. CELAC has hosted China’s regular ministerial forums in the Western Hemisphere since 2015.
Concerningly, Lula and his regional counterparts have campaigned on promoting a regional currency in an explicit effort to weaken the U.S. dollar as the world’s dominant reserve currency, which communist China is already doing. This is easier said than done, but it’s still a troubling development.
Even as Beijing works to secure partners across ideological corners, the prospect of a new leftist revisionist bloc led by once-reliable U.S. partners and allies like Brazil, Colombia and Mexico is no minor development.
If the Biden administration is serious about countering China’s imperial pursuits, it urgently needs a new grand strategy amid rapidly shifting geopolitics in its own neighborhood.
Kiron Skinner is a visiting fellow in The Heritage Foundation’s Davis Center for National Security and Foreign Policy. Mateo Haydar is a researcher for Latin America in Heritage’s Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies.
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