Alexandre Meneghini/AP
Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, right, shakes hands with Bolivia's President
Evo Morales during the summit of Latin American and Caribbean for Integration and

Latin American, Caribbean Leaders’ Meeting Leaves US Out in the Cold

December 16, 2008 11:58 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
A regional summit that excludes the United States is another sign that the region is shying away from American influence, and becoming closer to U.S. rivals.

Two-Day Summit Kicks Off Tuesday

In recent months, Venezuala has held joint naval exercises with Russia, Peru has signed a free-trade agreement with China, and Brazil has invited Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to visit—all in a region that U.S. President James Monroe once declared a U.S. sphere of influence.

The two-day Latin American and Caribbean Summit on Integration and Development, which began Tuesday at a Bahia beach resort, is another indication that countries in the region are snubbing the United States and strengthening military, economic and diplomatic ties with China, Russia and Iran, reports Bloomberg.

“A lot of this is designed to stick it in the eye of the U.S.,” said Peter Romero, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere from 1999 to 2001, about the fact that the U.S. was not invited to the summit, to Bloomberg. “But underlying the bluster, there’s a genuine effort to exploit the gap left by a distant and distracted U.S.”
But U.S. diplomat for Latin America Thomas Shannon says that the United States did not seek an invitation to the summit and that American influence in the region is simply undergoing change.

Some of the region’s leaders are hoping that the Barack Obama presidency will be able to improve relations, as President George W. Bush’s administration was preoccupied by the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But Michael Shifter, vice president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, says that major issues of contention such as Cuba, immigration and American trade barriers will not be easy to resolve.

“Latin America wants the U.S. to be engaged, but in very different terms that it has in the past,” said Shifter to Bloomberg. “In any case, they’re not waiting around for the U.S. to change its mindset.”

Background: Venezuela’s relationship with Russia stirs Cold War fears

President Dmitry Medvedev was to become the first Russian leader to visit Venezuela in November. His meeting with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was "expected to coincide with joint naval exercises off Venezuela's coast, led by the Russian nuclear-powered warship, Peter the Great, and came as the two powers announced that Russia would help Venezuela build a nuclear reactor," according to The Christian Science Monitor.

Medvedev was also to meet with leaders in Brazil and Cuba during his trip, in what was seen as an attempt to strengthen economic and military relations with two countries that have been damaged since the Soviet Union collapsed.

“It’s all about strutting your stuff and cocking a snook at the West, in the same way that the Bears [Russian strategic bombers] have been doing since they began patrolling again,” said Andrew Brookes, of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, according to the Times of London.

But Jason Alderwick, naval analyst at the institute, argued that the ships are not as advanced as many of the Western ships typically used today, insisting that, “This is a case of naval diplomacy rather than a demonstration of capability.”

Tensions between the United States and Venezuela and Russia have escalated as the latter two countries strengthen their ties, both financially and militarily.

U.S.-Latin American tension traces its roots to the Cold War
, when the area was used as a “chessboard” between the United States and the Soviet Union, according to Agence France-Presse. Since then, “left-wing ideology” has continued to take hold in the region that strives for “affluence and modernity.”

The United States declared its hegemony over Latin America in the 1823 Monroe Doctrine. The AFP claims that the United States used that doctrine to assert its control during the Cold War and because of this, Latin American countries “are determined to have full sovereign control over their affairs.” The news agency lays out where each Latin American nation fits into the diplomatic landscape: “Currently, the moderate left wing of the region includes Argentina, Brazil, and Chile. The left-wing includes Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Ecuador. The United States’ main allies in Latin America are Colombia, which receives five billion dollars a year to fight the illegal narcotics trade, and Mexico. It also has good relations with Costa Rica.”

Opinion & Analysis: The impact of the Russia-Latin America developments

Russia’s actions in Venezuela serve two purposes for Chávez and Morales, according to the Los Angeles Times: provoking the United States “distracts domestic attention from their disastrous policies and could, they hope, produce an overreaction in kind from Washington that would further their interests.” The Times claims that Morales is currently fighting with affluent white landowners who oppose his policy of redistributing the nation’s wealth. And, although Chávez is still popular in Venezuela, the country has a 34 percent inflation rate and there is “intensified scrutiny of his incompetent domestic policies.” Congress should not overreact to the situation in Latin America by cutting trade, the Times argues, because doing so would only solidify opposition to the United States in Bolivia and Venezuela.

Kathy Shaidle of FrontPage Magazine agrees. “Ultimately, though,” she writes, “the biggest loser in this game of geo-political shadowboxing is Venezuela. With economic peril looming … the Chavez government’s posturing is a distraction from the serious challenges facing Venezuela.”

Mary Anastasia O’Grady of The Wall Street Journal asserts that Russia’s recent intervention in South America should not be feared as if this were still the Cold War. “Vladimir Putin has been trying to rebuild his military, but it is no match for U.S. might. Nor is it believable that Russia seriously expects to challenge the U.S. in the Caribbean with the flotilla it says that it is sending next month for joint exercises with Venezuela.”

But Tony Karon, senior editor at Time magazine, takes a somewhat different perspective in an op-ed published in the U.A.E. publication The National. He says the American news media blew the situation out of proportion when Russia sent bombers to Venezuela. There is no “new Cold War” because “there’s no ideological basis for the alliance between the self-styled socialist Venezuelan leader and the Islamists in Tehran or the nationalists in Moscow; simply a common antipathy towards the US and a shared interest in keeping oil prices high. During the Cold War there were two world economies, and you were part of either one or the other.” Now only one world economy exists, and they are so inextricably connected that business takes precedence.

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