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2013: US-Latin America Diplomatic Relations; A Year in Review

Updated on January 15, 2014

Facing A Rapidly Changing Region

Deteriorating Relations - A Question of Leadership and Competence

The year 2013 in its entirety, will surely be acknowledged by many political analysts as one of complicated diplomatic relations for the United States with the world, with the release of NSA documents that showed the various mechanisms and ways that the United States and its increasingly large defense and security bureaucracy has been able to collect data and information from various countries around the world. A strategic geopolitical region for the United States has always been Latin America, and as a consequence of such, it has historically accumulated various friends, allies, and enemies in the region. The region is of very strong geopolitical importance, as it is a region with current strong economic growth and opportunities, particularly the large economies of Mexico, Brazil, Argentina and others, that also rely strategically on US economic and military aid, and with the release of NSA leaks, it puts the leadership, competence, credibility and influence of the United States and its ability to solve with the region tough issues of security, immigration, globalization, and economic development, at crossroads, as the rest of the world reacts in dismay to our tactics of achieving our national interest.

If the US did not already have a complicated and at times conflictive relationship with Latin America, the release of NSA documents by Edward Snowden proved merely as a reminder of the yet long road that the US has to travel to fully accomplish the goal of having a strong symbiotic relationship with the region in order to tackle a whole wide range of issues of concern to both Latin America and the US. Predominant in this changing relationship, is to be found the also growing influence and partnership with alternative means and ways of each country in the region to achieve their own national interests, particularly with the help, support, and influence of other rising, strong global powers such as China and Russia. These two countries in particular, have perhaps more effectively than other major global powers been able to secure an increasingly strong relation with defiant states such as Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua, and even US-friendly states such as Brazil and Peru, in areas of commerce, economic development, resource exploitation, and geopolitical ties. Other than fighting drug trafficking and the signing of free-trade agreements by the US with allied countries such as Colombia, Peru and Panama in the past decade, many analysts believe the US has nonetheless remained largely (more recently than before) distanced from the region, as it has prioritized other foreign policy issues such as enforcing and reshaping its Middle East policies, and addressing the structures of the global economy with Europe and other major world powers. This has as of consequence created a strong power vacuum by countries like Russia and China in Latin America as they also seek to assert their influence in a very economically promising region, putting United States interests in jeopardy of losing its influence that has for decades been of extreme importance in the Western hemisphere.

What the infamous leaked documents have nevertheless made clear to the US as it struggles to reshape its foreign policy, is that it opens up the possibility of deteriorating the already functional and beneficial relationship of trust that it has on its allies, and also the ability of them to effectively engage and trust each other in tackling issues such as terrorism and human rights. An example of such is the recent revealed leak that Australia, a close ally of the United States , had been using its embassies in Indonesia and other countries to spy and collect surveillance information with the cooperative consent and approval of the Australian government; a scandal that seemed to threaten not just the credibility and trust of the US in the Pacific region, but also the trust and cooperation of these two friendly nations.

But most impacting and transcending perhaps, has been the response and backlash by many states and world leaders. With Snowden for months in an international legal limbo, against the warning and consent of the United States, the leaders of Venezuela, Ecuador and Nicaragua were quick to offer the former NSA contractor diplomatic asylum, a move that was largely criticized by State Department officials. More recently, the fear of US involvement in internal political affairs, Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro expelled top US diplomats and embassy officials, due to alleged plans to destabilize the country. In other words, this has, if anything, made more troublesome and difficult thoroughly and actively engaging in diplomatic relations with nations that already have trust issues with the United States. This also appears to put into jeopardy the competence and credibility of international institutions that facilitate US international engagement. In July of this year, when the airplane of Bolivian president Evo Morales was forced to land in Vienna, at the command of France, Spain, Portugal and indirectly, the US, out of suspicion that the South American president had been carrying the young Snowden inside the presidential airplane from its recent trip to Moscow, the Latin American response was multilateral in solidarity with the Bolivian president and condemnation of US and NATO perceived 'arrogance', including coming from the more conservative US allies in the region, Colombia and Chile. But perhaps the most high-profile case of endangered US diplomatic relations with Latin America this year, came from Brazil, when President Dilma Rousseff postponed indefinitely an official state visit to the White House to meet with President Obama as a rebuke of revelations that the NSA had been spying on the Brazilian president's inner circle and the state-owned oil company, Petrobras. Besides having recently refrained from supporting Brazil's bid for a permanent seat in the U.N. Security Council (as it did for India in 2010), this move comes off as yet another alarming sign of Brazil's derailment with US interests; not only has it deepened its diplomatic ties with Iran, but its growing relationship with China has surpassed the United States as its top trading partner.

Even President Obama's assurance to the leaders of Brazil, Mexico, and Germany that it would reassess its spying activities to world leaders, seems to have heads of state unconvinced and unsatisfied with US response to these allegations. The United States' tepid response seems to acknowledge that strong international surveillance is of key importance to US national interests, as the White House has been reluctant to come to a firm and final decision of whether or not to put to an end to the monitoring of at least friendly foreign leaders. This has caused world powers to move on the issue, and even perhaps open the door to the possibility of increasingly growing surveillance and mistrust between nations. On the former, Brazil and Germany have both moved to introduce a United Nations resolution to end mass surveillance in an attempt at countering the US' tepid response to the scandal. On the latter, new revelations have also surfaced that Brazil had spied on foreign diplomats inside its borders, putting the South American nation in an uncomfortable position when criticizing US spying, since it reinforces an argument that State Department officials have been arguing since the wake of the NSA leaks; that all nations spy on each other to one degree or another. Increasingly alarming with this revelation, is that the US appears to be losing its spying advantage over other nations that have made strong investments in technological spying operations. US spying agencies, on the other hand, have made a switch to cyberweapon development, in a move to put US interests on the offensive, rather than the defense.

By the year's end, it would be a smaller, yet equally symbolic gesture and change in the region that would deliver a major blow to the forty-year long war on drugs by the United States that has had significant repercussions in countries like Colombia, Mexico and Peru. A year after the Summit of the America was hosted in Cartagena, Colombia, and President Juan Manuel Santos openly brought the issue of drug legalization as an alternative to the war on drugs directly in front of President Obama (after receiving support ranging from the current head of state of Guatemala to former presidents of Colombia and Mexico), it would be the progressive nation of Uruguay that would offer perhaps the most transcending drug-policy reform seen perhaps in the Western hemisphere in decades. Beginning in April of 2014, Uruguay will become the first liberal democracy to have state monopolization of the production, regulation and distribution of Marijuana to its residents. The measure was opposed both by the United States and the heads of the United Nations, and while it further opened the debate of ending the War on Drugs in the continent as an alternative for combating drug trafficking in the region, it nonetheless currently receives little support by constituents in Uruguay. Similar measures are currently being debated as well in Argentina, Chile, and Guatemala, and as mentioned, it has even caught the attention and the will to reform its policy by Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, one of the most important US key strategic allies in the region.

The final point to which US leadership and enthusiasm in Latin America appear to be fading is in the area of macroeconomic management and effective, competent governance at home. While countries like Mexico, Brazil, Chile, and Colombia have made important socio-economic investments that have enlarged both their middle classes and their overall economies, there appears to be a growing outrage in the region towards the US for its inability to settle its fiscal and financial problems that could easily endanger the growing prosperity in many of these countries. From Argentina to Mexico, there seems to be a growing sense of institutional dysfunction in the US for its lack of leadership in tackling issues that also affect them: from immigration reform, to trade policies, to market investments, fear and dismay across the region of a perceived self-destruction of the American economy could have grave trust consequences in shaping US national interests in the region.

With this last point one can easily look back and reflect of what has been a highly complicated diplomatic year for the US not just in regards to Latin America, but to the whole world. Questions of leadership, competence and credibility have been consistently at stake for the US as it tries to reinsert itself as the major global power in the world stage. While the US at the moment does not appear to be changing much of its policy towards its southern neighbors, a strong signal is nonetheless perceived across Latin America that American leadership may not ultimately achieve their core goals and interests, let alone those of the United States'.

Looking Ahead: 2014

Which Issue Do You Expect to Dominate US-Latin America Relations in 2014?

See results

Digitally Offended: Brazilian President Cancels US Visit Over NSA Scandal

President Santos 'Open' to Decriminalizing Drugs

Diplomatic Tensions with Bolivia


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    • FreeeYou profile image

      Juan A. Misle 3 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Agreed. I do find surprising how some of the Wikileaks revelations (particularly the ones concerning the NSA spying allegations) seemed as too much of a big surprise, particularly when information about the NSA has been known (perhaps not confirmed) for many years. I surely remember reading about it in Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano's 1998 book "Upside Down:A Primer for the Looking-Glass World", a book I highly recommend by the way. But its most likely like you said, maybe we were not prepared to understand the extent to which wide ranging powers such as the Patriot Act or the National Defense Authorization Act have been used. Thank you for commenting!

    • Mark Lees profile image

      Mark Lees 3 years ago

      From an observors perspective the shock was not the extent that the US were spying on other countries, allies in particular, it was that they got caught with their pants down and let the information get into the public domain.

      It still remains to be seen if the Snowdon leak will see a change in policy and a move from deploying the wide ranging powers that the Patriot Act and others have given US security services since 9/11.

      A really interesting article.