In November 2013, then-Secretary of State John Kerry, addressing the Organization of American States, made news by announcing: “The era of the Monroe Doctrine is over.”
He was referring, of course, to the policy declared by President James Monroe in 1823: that the United States would oppose foreign intervention in the western hemisphere and, as Kerry put it, “act as protector of the region.”
Kerry added that “throughout our nation’s history, successive presidents have reinforced that doctrine and made a similar choice.” He and former President Barack Obama, however, had decided not to dictate “a policy that defined the hemisphere.” Instead, they would build “a stronger foundation for the future based on our common democratic values and beliefs.”
Eight years later, I think it’s clear: What Kerry and Obama saw as enlightened restraint, U.S. adversaries took as an invitation to replace Washington’s influence and power in Central and South America.
In 2015, Obama followed up by visiting Cuba, where he restored diplomatic relations with the Castroite regime. “I have come here to bury the last remnant of the Cold War in the Americas,” he triumphantly declared.
He then had his picture taken in the Plaza de la Revolución before a giant mural of Che Guevara, a communist totalitarian and what today we might call a “violent extremist.”
Obama’s concessions were not reciprocated. On the contrary, the regime has continued imprisoning dissenters and peaceful protesters (more than 150 last month) while strengthening its relations with the People’s Republic of China, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Russia and Turkey.
This partnership has provided crucial support to Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela, a country once free and prosperous, now decidedly un-free and so impoverished that one out of five Venezuelans has fled.
Nevertheless, far-left rulers with close ties to Cuba and Venezuela were elected last year in Peru, Honduras and Chile.
Venezuela has become “Iran’s forward operating base in South America,” my colleague Emanuele Ottolenghi wrote last month. “Tehran’s agents benefit from access to genuine Venezuelan identity documents and passports, which enable them to travel freely in the entire region. Meanwhile, Iran has established cultural centers and mosques across Venezuela, recruiting and radicalizing locals.”
A more immediate concern: Iranian-made unmanned aerial vehicles, capable of carrying precision armaments, have been positioned in Venezuela just over 1,200 miles from Miami. There’s more to come: Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian recently announced that Tehran and Caracas would soon sign a 20-year strategic agreement.
Not just coincidently, Venezuela has become a refuge for foreign terrorists and drug lords. Tareck el-Aissami, appointed by Maduro in 2017 as vice president and head of intelligence, has been tied to Hezbollah, Tehran’s most effective proxy.
The son of Middle Eastern immigrants, el-Aissami currently holds the position of petroleum minister, despite having been put on a U.S. government Most Wanted List in 2019. A year later, the U.S. State Department offered $10 million for information on him related to drug trafficking and narco-terrorism.
Tehran has launched a Spanish-language television channel “to spread its propaganda in the Western Hemisphere,” Ottolenghi noted, and has been recruiting “activists, journalists, and academics.”
“Iran’s influence ops through cultural centers thrive in virtually every Latin American country, from Mexico to Chile, regardless of the political leanings of local governments,” he added. “And Shi’ite mosques, whether serving Lebanese and Iranian Shi’ite expatriates or Latin American converts to Shi’ite Islam, are overwhelmingly under the control of Iranian and Hezbollah-friendly clerics.”
At the same time, Hezbollah “has become the contractor of choice for mafia activities abroad,” Sen. Bill Cassidy recently wrote. “Through networks of shell companies, courier systems and friendly relationships with adversarial nations like Venezuela and Nicaragua, they are carrying out the money-laundering operation for a significant portion of the region’s illicit trade in drugs, weapons and human trafficking. The service they provide drug cartels involves hijacking international trade markets to mask their illicit transactions—a process called Trade-Based Money Laundering.”
China’s rulers have also developed strong ties with Nicaragua. Last month, President Daniel Ortega broke off relations with Taiwan and ordered Taiwanese diplomats to leave the country within two weeks. The diplomats attempted to donate their land and buildings to the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Managua. Ortega seized the properties and gave them to Beijing.
Panama, long closely tied to the United States, dumped Taipei in favor of Beijing in 2017. The following year, El Salvador followed suit. China’s rulers have reportedly bribed officials in that country and are now moving forward to build a deep-water port and manufacturing zone from which U.S. companies will be excluded. Throughout Central and South America, Beijing is financing infrastructure projects through its Belt and Road Initiative—loading countries with debts they may be unable to repay.
Chinese influence “is everywhere in this hemisphere and moving forward in alarming ways,” Adm. Craig Faller, the head of U.S. Southern Command, recently told NBC News. The goal, he said, appears to be both a substantial military presence and economic dominance within the next decade.
I could give you additional examples, but I think you get the point. Kerry and Obama believed they were smarter and more virtuous than their predecessors, that U.S. leadership—call it hegemony if you like—in the Western Hemisphere was worse than the alternatives, that if we Yanquis would only stay our hand, surely peace, freedom, democracy, prosperity and social justice would flower.
Our authoritarian and neo-imperialist adversaries heard a different message: that the United States is in retreat and that the nations, peoples and resources of Central and South America are theirs for the taking.
Clifford D. May is founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), and a columnist for The Washington Times.
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