Countering the New Autocrat’s Manual

A depoliticized lens would afford the United States more room to be consistent, nuanced, and effective in its foreign policy with the region, supporting struggling democracies and seeking the sustainable democratic evolution of incipient criminalized states.


Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro (L) talks to Cuba’s President Miguel Diaz-Canel (R) during the 16th Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America-Peoples Trade Agreement (ALBA-TCP) Summit in Havana, Cuba, in December 2018. Photo: Reuters.

President Biden’s senior foreign policy leaders have recently made statements attesting to their pragmatic ambivalence regarding the ideological orientation of Latin American governments. In practice, however, U.S. policy still reflects a politicized, outdated left vs. right emphasis derived from the polarized nature of U.S. domestic politics. Instead, we suggest a depoliticized lens would afford the United States more room to be consistent, nuanced, and effective in its foreign policy with the region, supporting struggling democracies and seeking the sustainable democratic evolution of incipient criminalized states.

The regional situation continues to deteriorate because democratically elected governments strain to deliver basic services to their peoples. Complicating this in many cases is direct state participation with Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs) that have moved beyond the radical, populist Bolivarian movement to governments across the political spectrum. This metastasized movement generates billions of dollars in corrupt proceeds and has spawned a continent-wide authoritarian tendency that entrenches itself while corroding democratic competitors.

A viable U.S. strategy in Latin America and the Caribbean, encompassing governments ranging from struggling democracies to fully-fledged autocracies, should involve the following elements:

  • An overarching goal to strengthen or reestablish rule of law and independent democratic institutions in all countries in the region.
  • Clear, achievable state-to-state national security objectives on at least three topics: migration, crime, and public health.
  • Strong U.S. diplomatic presence from all relevant U.S. agencies, but with a renewed, Presidential-level emphasis on the Chief of Mission Authority to minimize intelligence agencies or Justice Department freelancing.
  • Credible assessments of in-country agencies and officials with whom the United States can constructively engage.
  • Targeting criminal networks with coordinated RICO-like judicial action.
  • Collaboration with like-minded country partners.
  • Implementing a “people-centric” approach that aims to provide information, education, and relevant training to government officials and civil society actors in ways that are consistent with either (1) specific U.S. national security goals and/or (2) U.S. rule of law/democratic institutions strategic goals.

The following categories of people-centric engagement would be relevant:

Diplomatic: The United States should be present everywhere in the region and offer unyielding public support for liberty, even at the expense of awkward relations with the host government.

Information: The United States should facilitate the regular provision of unrestricted internet access and reinvigorate its use of cultural diplomacy.

Military: The United States makes many mistakes when deploying the military as an instrument of power; this tool of state-state engagement should therefore be largely humanitarian (such as hospital ships) or reflect other soft power approaches.

Economic: The United States should bypass the often-stultified local elite business cartels and instead seek to train and empower a new young business class that would agitate for economic liberalization and other necessary change.

It is long past time that U.S. policy ceases to be performative, valuing public denunciations and serial, selective individual sanctions over a strategy that fortifies elected democracies and employs organized, coordinated steps to bring down criminal networks. We offer this assessment to spark what we hope will be a spirited exchange that clarifies constructive options for U.S. policy in the region.

This submission represents the executive summary of a longer, full-length report. Click here to read the report in its entirety. The opinions and analysis enclosed are those of the authors, and does not represent the institutional position of any of their respective organizations nor of Global Americans.

Amb. (Ret.) John Feeley is the Executive Director of the Center for Media Integrity of the Americas. He is a former career U.S. diplomat who served as Ambassador to Panama, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, Charge d’Affaires and Deputy Chief of Mission in Mexico, in addition to other postings in Latin America and the Caribbean. He is a former Marine Corps Officer.

Scott Hamilton is a former career U.S. diplomat. His most recent assignments were Consul General in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Chargé d’Affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba, Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Gaborone, Botswana, and as Director for Central American Affairs in Washington, DC. He also served at the U.S. Mission to the Organization of American States, and in Colombia, Ecuador, and South Africa, among other assignments. He holds degrees from Oxford University (PPE), Harvard Law School (JD), and the National Defense University (Masters, National Security Strategy).

Douglas Farah is the Founder and President of IBI Consultants, LLC (, a security consulting firm specialized in security challenges and transnational organized crime in Latin America. From September 2013 to September 2022 Farah was a visiting senior fellow at the Center for Strategic Research at National Defense University leading the Western Hemisphere Illicit Network Review project under the auspices of the Deputy Secretary of Defense for Counternarcotics and Global Threats. Farah frequently guest lectures at universities and has testified before Congress more than a dozen times. For the two decades before founding IBI Consultants in 2005, Farah worked as a foreign correspondent and investigative reporter for The Washington Post covering civil wars in Central America, conflict and organized crime in South America, blood diamond and gold wars in West Africa, and radical Islamic finances. He is the author of dozens of peer reviewed studies and is the author of two books: Blood From Stones: The Secret Financial Network of Terror and Merchant of Death: Money, Guns, Planes and the Man Who Makes War Possible (With Stephen Braun).

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