Editor’s Note:  On November 15, 2018, #NatSecGirlSquad hosted a conference in Washington D.C. at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.  Over the coming months Divergent Options, as a partner for this event, will be deviating from our traditional content and publishing a series of white papers in various formats that capture each panel at this event.

Mattea Cumoletti is the Fellow for “The Future of U.S. Relations and Security in the Western Hemisphere Panel” at the #NatSecGirlSquad Conference, and she also works on the website. Mattea is a graduate of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where she specialized in human security and gender analysis of international affairs.  Find her on Twitter @matteacumo. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

Panel Title:  The Future of U.S. Relations and Security in the Western Hemisphere

Overview:  The Western Hemisphere has become an increasingly chaotic microcosm of international threats and geopolitical concerns with global ramifications, but the complex security issues in the region are often misunderstood or overlooked. At the NatSecGirlSquad (NSGS) Conference, experts came together to unpack regional security issues and offer policy solutions for improving the United States’ relationship with Latin America. Dante Disparte, the Chief Executive Officer of Risk Cooperative, moderated the panel, which included Christine Balling, Senior Fellow for Latin American Affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council, Dr. Vanessa Neumann, president of the political risk firm Asymmetrica, and Ana Quintana, Senior Policy Analyst at the Heritage Foundation. 

The December 2017 U.S. National Security Strategy on the Western Hemisphere emphasizes the importance of shared democratic values and economic interests in the region to reduce threats to common security[1]. As Ana remarked in at the onset of the panel, “the U.S. has a deep and abiding geopolitical interest in seeing a secure, stable, and economically prosperous Western Hemisphere.” However, while Latin America has emerged from decades of dictatorships, familiar challenges remain, and emerging issues are threatening the stability of the region. Overall, political corruption continues to be the source of much of the volatility in Latin America. Authoritarian regimes in Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua, recently dubbed the “Troika of Tyranny” by U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton, have triggered social upheaval, a pressing humanitarian crisis, and massive migration. The migrant caravan coming from Central America is not only testing U.S. immigration policy, but calling attention to the terrible political and social conditions in the Northern Triangle that motivate desperate people to flee. In Mexico, after the election of the anti-establishment left-wing President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, commonly referred to as AMLO, questions remain about the direction of his agenda. While Colombia has made strides in the peace process with the guerilla group Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia or FARC, the new administration faces a growing Venezuelan refugee crisis and an upshot in narcotics production. Meanwhile, it appears that the U.S. has disengaged from the region in many ways, leaving a power vacuum that is being filled by Chinese and Russian influence and increased regional cooperation. The panel discussed these key issues and reflected on the future of U.S. relations with Latin America.

Troika of Tyranny and Crisis in Venezuela:  In the beginning of November 2018, the Trump administration laid out its intentions to confront the oppressive regimes of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, calling it the “Troika of Tyranny,” harkening back to Cold War tropes. Trump had already set a policy aim to pull back from the Obama administration’s attempt to normalize relations with Cuba, but this new approach raises questions about whether a comprehensive regional strategy will follow[2]. On the panel, Dr. Neumann addressed the catchy new phrase, and particularly the increasingly volatile crisis in Venezuela. She quipped that the Cold War “never really went away,” and many of the issues in Venezuela are more sophisticated moves from the Cuba’s Cold War playbook. Experts in the region are unsurprised that the fast-growing political crisis in Nicaragua is a more brutal version of Venezuela. All panelists agreed that Venezuela is a failed state—as President Nicolás Maduro has continued former President Chavez’s practices of economic mismanagement which has trickled down to the poor, who are now feeling the effects of the corruption—a veritable man-made humanitarian disaster. Ana explained how Venezuela is one of the best examples of squandering its economic potential. As one of the world’s largest proven oil reserves, the country was flush with oil money during the commodities boom in the 2000s. But rather than saving money and investing in oil infrastructure and development, Chavez used oil wealth as a “slush fund” for government corruption, and Maduro’s government has become “essentially a narco-dictatorship.” Currently, most of Venezuela’s oil wealth is used to pay off foreign debts, and in a country that has more oil than Saudi Arabia, there are regular black-outs, an extreme shortage of food and medicine, hyperinflation, and increasing authoritarian policies and social controls[3]. Foreign interests are also preventing Venezuela from getting out from the situation—for example, Cuban intelligence services have stopped every coup attempt from within the military. 

The country is facing the biggest humanitarian crisis in the history of the hemisphere, with one in three Venezuelans planning to leave. One million Venezuelans have already settled in Colombia, and about 50,000 continue cross into Colombia daily. At this rate, the region will soon be facing a migration crisis double the size of the Syria’s, and with the same far-reaching effects. Increased migration to the European Union triggered a rise of right-wing populism, fracture of traditional political parties, and social upheaval—destabilizing forces that are already happening in Latin America. Though Colombia feels a sense of reciprocal responsibility after Venezuela was a safe-haven for migrants fleeing FARC violence, there has already been pushback, border skirmishes, and a rise in anti-immigrant rhetoric, which Dr. Neumann predicts will only grow. 

Migrant Caravan and Northern Triangle:  Another area of focus on the panel was the Northern Triangle of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. According to Ana, these are countries that should be considered failed states—”thousands of people from these countries are willing to risk their lives and their children’s lives for a dangerous and uncertain journey to the U.S. because their countries haven’t provided them any other options or opportunities.” News about the current migrant caravan has saturated U.S. media, and the U.S. response has become a hotly politicized and debated issue. Over 5,000 U.S. troops were sent to the border, and other restrictive policies have limited the means to claim asylum in the United States[4]. However, Ana argued that country of origin conditions are being ignored in the policy debate, and U.S. asylum policies should be “point Z in the conversation and point A has to be, ‘why are these countries not able to provide their people with at least a remotely dignified livelihood?’” Panelists agreed that migration is often discussed as a domestic issue, but it should be viewed as a foreign policy issue. International attention should focus on the caravan organizers, according to Ana. These are far-leftist political organizations that are “essentially weaponizing poor migrants and using them as political pawns.” It takes a well-mobilized and organized effort to move thousands of people through cartel terrain to the U.S. border—the caravan was not spontaneous. Ana learned on a recent trip to Mexico that the organizers are selling migrants a “false bill of goods,” promising that the United Nations will meet them with protection at the U.S. border, and not to trust the Mexican government’s offer of asylum, education, work, and housing. Therefore, a strong policy recommendation to the international community is to shift focus from just U.S. border policy and “go after the real boogeymen.” A question from the panel audience raised the idea of a Marshall Plan initiative in Latin America—to further bolster economic aid in the countries of migrants’ origin. However, the panel argued that this sort of policy prescription would just shift the burden of responsibility away from the Northern Triangle countries and further allow the international community to bail them out. A history of corruption has proven that increased development funds from the international community would more likely go towards building mansions for the elite than paving roads or feeding children. Ana concluded that “to really be humanitarian and compassionate is to not embolden the governments that are oppressing their people,” and political pressure should shift to the countries at the root of the migration problem. 

Mexico:  Recent contentious elections in the region represent a general breakdown of the traditional political system. While Jair Messias Bolsonaro’s win in Brazil shifts the country to the far-right, AMLO’s populist ascension in Mexico is also “very Trumpian in a way,” according to Dr. Neumann. In Mexico, the concern is not so much that the country is veering to the left, but that AMLO may not respect government institutions and his broad mandate could lead to a consolidation of power. The Mexican people are strongly supportive of the third-party AMLO because they feel that the two-party system that came before him only served to enrich the elite and disenfranchise the rest of the country. But with the presidency, a super majority in congress, and a majority of state legislatures, there is a risk of a one-party unchecked system in Mexico. However, despite the risks and critics’ likening to former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, AMLO has promised to fight corruption and has a huge mandate to do so, which panelists agreed could present a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity[5]. 

Colombia:  The panel also discussed Colombia, which has been the United States’ largest foreign aid recipient in the region. While Colombia has done significant work in dealing with the demobilization of the FARC guerillas under the new peace deal, Christine argued that there were a lot of promises made by the Santos administration to the FARC and Colombian citizens which cannot be fulfilled by the new administration. Cocaine production has actually increased since the 2016 peace accords, mostly because Santos had conceded to end the U.S.-funded aerial coca eradication program. FARC dissidents have continued to attack military and civilian targets, and the Venezuelan refugee crisis is only increasing in size and urgency[6]. Despite these challenges, Colombia has made great strides since recent decades of turmoil—the economy is doing well and it is an example of bright spot in the region. Christine pointed out that there is very little media highlighting the investment that the U.S. military and USAID have made successfully in the region, especially in Colombia—“the U.S. military is largely involved with civil affairs, community relations projects, and has actually done a great deal in supporting the Colombian military and military police in their fight against the bad actors there.” The U.S. must now decide how it can continue to support Colombia, which can in turn strengthen regional peace.

U.S. Policy and External Engagement:  The panelists acknowledged that the vacuum of U.S. engagement, trade, and investment in Latin America is being filled largely by China and Russia. It is no secret that China and Russia are vying for economic influence in the region[7]. Dr. Neumann pointed out that China gives fewer conditions to their loans and often turns a blind eye to corruption, but they’re loans, not investments—”they don’t develop, they indebt.” This type of “debt diplomacy” is cause for concern, because it creates the capacity for social controls. However, as Christine argued, the U.S. can’t just tell it’s allies to say no when it comes to Chinese money, and countries in the region have to act in their own best interest.

The looming question on the panel remained—what exactly is the United States goal in Latin America? In the past, it was always defined by defeating communism, and in some ways that still shapes the current administration’s rhetoric. However, the “end-game” for the U.S. in Latin America doesn’t seem to be clear. As Dante inquired, is U.S. strategy informed primarily by drugs, migration, and narrow interests with oil? Or are there broader interests?

Ana argued that one of the biggest issues in answering this question is simply that the Trump administration has done a poor job communicating their policies and what exactly they’ve done in the region. When it comes to Venezuela, for example, “it seems like they have a myopic focus on oil, but that could not be further from the truth.” The U.S. has been extremely engaged in promoting human rights and democratic governance in country. The U.S. has sanctioned over 70 Venezuelan government officials in the past year and a half alone. The administration has also emboldened the region and our regional partners to finally speak up on these issues as well—the Colombians have issued reciprocal sanctions, and Panama is looking at how can they freeze illicit Venezuelan government assets. Therefore, much of the U.S. policy discussion for the Western Hemisphere could involve a shift in the narrative. Panelists agreed that the narrative that has been propagated successfully is that historically, U.S. policy in the region has been the source of much of the current turmoil, but they argue that is not quite the case. In fact, despite the changes and upheavals of the last 100 years of U.S. involvement, it was Spanish colonization that had a more dynamic and long-lasting role in shaping the region as it is today. 

Despite what seems to be U.S. disengagement and unclear policy in the region, panelists agreed that a silver lining has been the strengthened regional cooperation that has resulted from a more hands-off U.S. approach. The Pacific Alliance, for example, is a great free trade deal between Mexico, Peru, Colombia, and Chile, which Dr. Neumann predicts will soon expand[8]. Economic integration is a key step for greater regional security cooperation, and hopefully puts the Western Hemisphere on the cusp of true prosperity. 


[1] United States & Trump, D. (2017) National security strategy of the United States: The White House. Retrieved from https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/NSS-Final-12-18-2017-0905-2.pdf

[2] Rogin, Josh. (2018, November 1). Bolton promises to confront Latin America’s ‘Troika of Tyranny.’ The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/global-opinions/bolton-promises-to-confront-latin-americas-troika-of-tyranny/2018/11/01/df57d3d2-ddf5-11e8-85df-7a6b4d25cfbb_story.html

[3] Labrador, R.C. (2018, December 7). Venezuela: the rise and fall of a petrostate. Council on Foreign Relations. Retrieved from https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/venezuela-crisis

[4] Gibbons-Neff, T. and Cooper, H. Deployed inside the United States: the military waits for the migrant caravan. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/10/us/deployed-inside-the-united-states-the-military-waits-for-the-migrant-caravan.html

[5] Johnson, K. and Gramer, R. (2018, November 30) How will AMLO govern Mexico? Foreign Policy. Retrieved from https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/11/30/how-will-amlo-govern-mexico-lopez-obrador-morena-pri-pan/

[6] Balling, C. (2018, April 11) Colombia’s political problems are an opportunity for America. The National Interest. Retrieved from https://nationalinterest.org/feature/colombias-political-problems-are-opportunity-america-25324

[7] Royal, T. (2017, December 4). How China and Russia are teaming up to degrade U.S. influence in South America. The National Interest. Retrieved from https://nationalinterest.org/feature/how-china-russia-are-teaming-degrade-us-influence-south-23458

[8] Marczak, J. (2018, July 24). Latin America’s future begins with the Pacific Alliance. Atlantic Council. Retrieved from http://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/latin-america-s-future-begins-with-the-pacific-alliance