U.S. Policy in Latin America—Time for a New American Realism

By helping [the hemisphere’s] democracies to deliver, the United States can prevent populist regimes from emerging, and thereby close down space for malign external actors to meddle and reinforce authoritarian tendencies.


Image: Organization of American States (OAS) Member State flags in the Hall of Heroes at OAS headquarters in Washington, D.C. Source: OAS Photo.

The persistent failure of the United States to help democracies in Latin America to deliver for their people has contributed to multiple democratic failures in the region, opening doors to repressive populists and weakening U.S. influence. Malign external actors like China and Russia exploit those democratic failures and reinforce authoritarian tendencies. To reverse this trend, the United States should place the strengthening of democratic institutions and the promotion of democratic values as the top U.S. national security priority everywhere in the region, thereby aligning the United States with the aspirations of the region’s people for democracy, economic opportunity, and social justice. U.S. efforts to invest in security forces, nudge countries to “pick sides” in Great Power competition, or increase the use of sanctions for those that don’t follow its lead would only hasten the decline in U.S. influence.    

U.S. Influence Eroding

The promotion of democracies that meet the needs of their citizens has long been an ostensible bipartisan goal in Latin America. Yet, U.S. policy has regularly failed to achieve this objective. In its first year, the Biden administration has done nothing to change this dynamic. It has not engaged effectively with the region to seek negotiated outcomes to difficult issues associated with repressive states like Cuba, Venezuela, or Nicaragua. It is mocked or ignored by populist democratic backsliders like Mexico, Brazil, and El Salvador. And it is seemingly AWOL as multiple Caribbean countries try to keep their heads above water. The consequence of democratic neglect is a combination of repressive and populist audacity and malign actor opportunity.

In the last two decades, China and Russia have significantly increased their economic and security influence in the region, at the expense of the United States and its allies. A full accounting is beyond the scope of this essay, but Panama, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, and Costa Rica switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China since 2017. China is now Latin America’s second-largest trading partner after the United States, and in Brazil alone, its bilateral trade soared from $2 billion in 2000 to $100 billion two decades later. China is not only active on economic projects, with 19 Western Hemisphere countries working with its Belt and Road Initiative. It has provided important diplomatic support to the Maduro regime in Venezuela. Washington perceives Russia as offering mostly nuisance value in the region, not the potential strategic challenge that China could represent, but it would be unwise to be so dismissive. No Latin American country imposed sanctions on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine. In fact, the only Latin American leader to take a strong stand against the invasion was Chile’s president Gabriel Boric. The more Chinese and Russian presence grows in the authoritarian Petri dishes being replicated around the region, the stronger will be the attraction of the authoritarian political and development models those countries represent.

The Axis of Futility

There is a pattern to the U.S. failures to help democracies succeed. It amounts to an American Axis of Futility—selective moralism for some, amoral pragmatism for others, and inattention for the rest. So long as Latin American leaders carry Washington’s water on key U.S. domestic issues, the United States turns a blind eye to repressive tendencies as democracies fail to deliver. However, a transactional U.S. approach only accelerates Latin American democratic erosion that often erupts in civil wars, coups, and the emergence of corrupt authoritarian or populist leaders.

This misguided perspective explains the U.S. support for former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez’s coup in 2017, because he was supposedly an ally in the drug war, though he now sits in a U.S. prison as an alleged drug trafficker himself. It also explains much of the democratic erosion in countries like Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua in the last 20 years, all of which took place with U.S. complicity as democracy corroded, then the United States claimed to be surprised by the emergence of corrupt, repressive, or populist regimes, most of which remain in place. It casts light on the U.S. current reluctance to criticize democratic backsliding in Mexico and Brazil because the administration believes a short-term transactional approach is more valuable in those countries.

Countries in which democracy has failed to resolve problems may merit U.S. attention and investment but it usually fades when the crisis passes, generating more instability, drawing the United States in again. Central America played this role in Washington in the 1980s following civil war and repression. Washington then lost attention, reduced assistance, and unresolved issues continued to fester. The Northern Triangle returned to Washington’s attention in 2014 when unaccompanied minors began streaming across the Mexican border, prompting a concentrated U.S. effort to address the root causes of migration. The Trump administration abandoned this approach in favor of supporting authoritarian leaders in the Northern Triangle, like former President Hernandez in Honduras, if they put a lid on their domestic migration pressure cookers. Colombia could be next in the Washington boom and bust attention cycle if leftist Gustavo Petro wins the presidency since he is less likely to support Washington’s regional or global priorities and is likely to de-emphasize Washington’s security-centric policy in that country.

Washington treats leftist repressive regimes differently because they do not follow Washington’s lead on Hemispheric and global issues. For Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, it has meant sanctions and aggressive pro-democracy rhetoric. The theory of change seems to be that U.S. diplomacy should remain disengaged because sanctions will collapse the economy and prompt the government’s overthrow. Instead, sanctions only allow those countries to deflect blame onto the United States for their failings. As a result, the United States sanctions dictatorships yet only entrenches them.

Empathy Deficit Promotes Strategic Failure

One reason why the U.S. democracy policy failures have been so consistent is that U.S. policymakers lack the strategic empathy for the region’s people that would allow them to appreciate why democracies fail. They often identify more with the small middle class, military officers, and corporate executives—many of whom are U.S.-educated and speak English—than they do with the majority who are struggling. And most countries are out of sight, out of mind, far from Washington’s radar because they don’t have weapons of mass destruction or harbor anti-American terrorists.

How do we get out of this mess?

If the United States wants to maximize its allies in a time of Great Power competition, it would be wise to prioritize the democratic and material aspirations of ordinary people, even when—especially when—they may conflict with short-term Washington priorities. A policy centered on helping countries address the reasons why their democratic institutions are failing—as seen by deficiencies in health care, education, employment, crime, the rule of law, and corruption—is more likely to achieve the hemisphere of stable democracies that a U.S. bipartisan consensus has recognized as critical to U.S. national security for decades but has been unable to produce. What would this look like?

Protect Existing Democracies

First, the United States should prioritize the protection of existing democracies. This means publicly supporting independent democratic institutions and values, civil society, and the rule of law, everywhere, including in friendly or cooperating countries. This simply does not happen today, with Mexico and Brazil being the prime examples, and this short-sighted neglect corrodes democratic integrity and U.S. influence.

Repressive States and Supporting Human Rights

Second, U.S. diplomats should be present on the ground in all societies—especially the most repressive like Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua—to bear witness, advocate for better treatment, speak out publicly when warranted, and broker agreements that improve victims’ lives in incremental ways. This should be part of a “repressive state” approach to engagement with countries where democracy is nonexistent or threatened that mirrors U.S. diplomatic work in the Soviet Union during the Cold War and involves a wide range of diplomatic and economic tools and incentives. The goal should be democratic evolution, and the time horizon for assessing change should be generational, as it was in the Cold War.

Helping All Countries to Succeed

Third, a policy renewal would mean the United States prioritizing the key issues of health, education, job creation, and effective policing—essential for democratic evolution or longevity, including in repressive states, when possible. This necessarily means minimizing preconditions for broad diplomatic engagement in places like Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, and El Salvador. Engagement should not be a reward for following a U.S. line, but rather a U.S. strategic decision to prioritize putting social and economic rights and conditions on the same plane as civil and political rights. It would mean that the United States is identified with the overwhelming life concerns of ordinary people in all countries.

Focus Sanctions, Maximize Extraditions

The United States should also minimize the use of unilateral country sanctions as ineffective, immoral mass civilian punishment. However, the U.S. should seek to alter criminal incentives by considering how to charge perpetrators of crimes against journalists, judges, and civil society activists, in the same way that narcotics traffickers are penalized. Not all murders are drug-related, but many are, and could be treated in the same way, as furthering the drug conspiracy. Extraditing even one such murderer in one country could favorably impact the political climate. Moreover, there are rarely consequences for government complicity in such activities. Adding a government official to the indictment could prove equally powerful.

The Case of Mexico and Brazil

Both are critical to U.S. national security yet in each the administration prioritizes short-term transactional diplomacy as leaders erode democratic institutions and values. The United States has a stronger interest in the functioning of those countries’ democratic institutions and civil society entities, intimately related to their development and democratic trajectory, than it has to any other bilateral policy issue. Democratic erosion in Mexico would harm U.S. interests more than drug flows or migration ever could. Likewise, in Brazil, the United States has been silent for four years as President Bolsonaro intentionally and materially undermined that country’s democratic institutions and values, without even any notable transactional U.S. policy justification. In both countries, silence is complicity.

The Case of the Northern Triangle of Central America

U.S. policy is in tatters in El Salvador and is hanging on by threads in Guatemala because it has prioritized military and law enforcement assistance for decades and tolerated official corruption. Honduras remains uncertain and could go either way. U.S. policy should be oriented around the three big issues of governance, prosperity, and security that informed the U.S. Strategy for Central America in the Obama administration, and that then-vice president Biden endorsed, not on the fashionable silver bullet anti-corruption approach the current administration favors. This should include constructive engagement with El Salvador.

Conclusion: Time for New Realism

Realism and pragmatism are as important in the American cultural tradition as Wilsonian idealism. The United States should behave in Latin America in a realist and pragmatic way, prioritizing the health and longevity of democratic institutions and values over short-term political goals. By helping democracies to deliver, the United States can prevent populist regimes from emerging, and thereby close down space for malign external actors to meddle and reinforce authoritarian tendencies. And comprehensive U.S. engagement in repressive countries will pave the way back to democratic government over time. Making short-term trade-offs that acquiesce in the corrosion of democratic institutions may be wise inside the Beltway, but it inevitably intensifies regional democratic decay, promotes cynicism about U.S. intentions, creates space for malign actors, and undermines U.S. national security.     

Scott Hamilton is a former senior U.S. foreign service officer who retired in April, 2022 after almost 30 years of service. His most recent assignments were Consul General in Rio de Janeiro, Deputy Chief of Mission and chargé d’affaires in Cuba, and Director for Central American Affairs in Washington, DC. He also served at the US Mission to the OAS, and in Colombia and Ecuador, among other assignments. He is a graduate of Oxford University, Harvard Law School, and the National Defense University.

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