American influence in Latin America is rapidly declining

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Latin America has always been about dramatic booms and busts, afflicted by the “resource curse” with a tradition of caudillos and a passionate, idealistic people. Since the Monroe Doctrine some two centuries ago, the U.S. has unevenly wielded great influence in the region. Frequently patronizing and often callous, Hispanics tolerated the gringos due to our economic and military might and credibility on issues like the rule of law and democracy. President Biden echoed this view in his inaugural address: “We will lead not merely by the example of our power but by the power of our example.”

Today, the example many regional political elites see is of a dysfunctional, violent country usurped by China. They sense our moral authority is tarnished and we are not a democracy worth emulating. The Biden administration has done little to counter this with
their progressive doctrine focused on climate change, equity and open borders. It began during the 2020 campaign with the promise of a relaxed border policy. Once in office, they waived enforceable laws, selectively enforced others and signaled an invitation to everyone and anyone. They focused on the rapid processing of migrants with no concern for the predictable consequences of unchecked diaspora. 

The Biden administration wax on about a “secure” border and provide updates on their mythical search for the “root causes” of irregular
migration, all-the-while U.S. prestige plummets from a lack of serious engagement. The United States and Latin America have been on divergent paths for some time. The challenges are as varied and complex as the countries themselves. A U.S. policy constructed according to “woke” doctrine, seemingly oblivious to the changing dynamics is failing. As Ayn Rand noted: We can avoid reality, but we cannot avoid the consequences of avoiding reality. 

We are facing at least a generation lost to brinksmanship between the United States and a strengthened nexus of international criminal networks, an empowered regional alliance of leftist autocrats and the relentless Chinese. We will get no respite from the human tsunami at the border, as cruel smuggling networks devise new methods to monetize and exploit vulnerable populations. In addition, increasingly
autocratic political elites will push as many as possible to the border to reap remittances benefits while tightening their grip on political power.  

Political elites and irregular immigration 

COVID-19 laid bare poor governance. Populations in Latin America were hard hit and frustrated by the government’s inability to protect them from the pandemic, restart economies, control inflation, reopen public schools and do anything about crime and corruption. Once Mr. Biden signaled an open border, political elites already under duress saw increased migration as their escape valve for bad governance.  

Many already understood the importance of migration northward: remittances. For many countries, remittances surpass foreign direct investment and overseas development assistance combined. Remittances provide a critical lifeline to vulnerable households and can separate them from a miserable life below the poverty line. They increase access to education, improve health care and provide financial support to families, especially for older or disabled relatives. Remittances buy better medicine, bring electricity and potable water into homes, and might even allow for a washing machine or the internet.  

The political elites in Latin America also benefit from not having to provide public services for the millions that either moved northward or improved their lives through remittances. Remittances mask the consequences of chronic low investment in public services, which elites have been loath to support, and bad governance is off the hook. Without the Biden doctrine, people would be in the streets demanding change, or threatening revolt, now they just head northward. Their policies are not only pull factors for the most desperate but also for some of the most capable of an already shallow talent pool. In their home country, the migrants might have become civic leaders or opposition politicos. Now they are out of the country, supporting the economy through their remittances, not draining services or complicating domestic politics. 

The bottom line: Many political elites in Latin Ameria do not want to change the underlying structures in their countries. They do not want to transform their economies, operate transparently or become more responsible democracies. An open border and remittances allow them to skirt responsibilities and avoid necessary reforms. 

The progressive alliance, irregular migration and a post-U.S. Latin America 

Seemingly unnoticed by the Biden administration is the emergence of a progressive alliance in the region that believes it’s their time. They see the future through a post-U.S. Latin America lens. The gray beards leading the alliance are former Brazilian President Luiz Lula da Silva and current Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, known as AMLO. Mr. da Silva is leading the polls ahead of Brazil’s October election. When he wins, the alliance would be complete. They envision a progressive coalition bolstered by recent electoral victories in Colombia, Chile and Peru, and with their compatriots in Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua they can shift the balance of power away from a weakened, unserious United States.  

There is a thinly veiled disdain for the U.S. by some political elites in the alliance. Some will ridicule, embarrass or seek retribution for
the perceived capricious attitude of an oppressive empire that has held them back for far too long. If there are doubts as to their intentions, the recently concluded Biden-hosted Summit of the Americas should assuage them. AMLO refused to make the journey to Los Angeles because Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela were not invited. For AMLO, this violated the principle of “regional solidarity.” The presidents of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras also declined, demonstrating American influence in the hemisphere has truly lost its luster. 

What to expect? Regional conferences excluding the United States? More overtures to China? Russian troops in Nicaragua? Iranian missiles in Venezuela? Transnational networks criminally capturing the region? An intensified assault on the border based on
Cuba’s 1980 Mariel Boatlift playbook that stresses not to forget to clear the jails, hospitals and asylums? For how long can we avoid the consequences of avoiding reality? 

• Ron MacCammon is a retired Special Forces colonel with more than 30 years of experience in Latin America. He taught International Relations at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and has a Doctorate in Education from the University of South Florida. 



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