"I think the United States sees everything upside down, at least part of the world," said Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in an October 2010 interview. "It's hard to imagine the destiny of this [U.S.] society. But of course we have to hope for the better, for the winds of change coming from the south."
Latin America and the Western hemisphere face serious challenges today, threatening regional stability and U.S. national security. First and foremost among them is Hugo Chavez's anti-American Bolivarian Revolution, which undermines democratic forces in the region and supports revolutionary and violent movements. Meanwhile, drug cartels are advancing across the continent, undermining the authority of states such as Mexico and Guatemala and threatening to infiltrate other weak countries in Central and South America, which would create a situation of anarchy similar to that of Afghanistan. In addition, the presence of terrorist groups and rogue regimes is growing on the continent, increasing the possibility of nuclear weapons in the area and of terrorists' infiltration into the United States through its southern border. And finally, to add to the hardship, China's influence in Latin America is increasing economically, displacing the U.S. in key commercial and technological areas.
Unless the White House takes immediate action, traditional U.S. influence in the continent will decline, bringing about uncertain geopolitical consequences.
The Chavez Agenda
Chavez came to power in 1999 after being democratically elected while running on a platform of ideas he called "Bolivarianism"—an ideology made popular for its invocation of Simon Bolivar, the 19th century Latin revolutionary credited with liberating the region from Spanish colonial rule. Today, Chavez and his expanding "Bolivarian Revolution," as he calls it, is one of the main sources of instability in the region.
The Bolivarian Revolution promotes a socialist ideology and rejects democracy and capitalism. Needless to say, it is fervently anti-American; it seeks to reduce U.S. power in the region and, if possible, throughout the world.
The Bolivarian Revolution under Hugo Chavez has transformed the once-democratic Venezuela into a de-facto absolute regime, which moves closer to totalitarianism each day. Under Chavez, private property is vanishing; individual rights are being violated; the citizenry and the media are being intimidated; previously organized civil society groups are being repressed; executive prerogatives are weakening parliamentary institutions, the judiciary, and the political opposition; arbitrary law is replacing written law; the educational system is used to indoctrinate the youth with revolutionary ideals; and the military is being politicized.
But Chavez's revolution is not for Venezuela alone; he seeks to spread the revolution to as many countries in the region as possible with the help of Venezuela's multi-billion dollar oil revenue. With tactics such as funding political candidates with socialist-leaning ideas akin to his own ideology, Chavez has succeeded in influencing election results and bringing the revolution to Ecuador, Bolivia, and Nicaragua—even though these countries have not achieved the same degree of despotism and repression as Venezuela.
The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia
Like Iran, Hugo Chavez relies on violent anti-democratic groups in Latin America in his attempts to spread the revolution. One such group is the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)—Colombia's largest and most capable Marxist insurgency that only strengthens as the Bolivarian Revolution expands throughout the continent.
The FARC and Chavez fully understand the importance of violence in destabilizing countries. Once violence is unleashed, the destabilization process can be applied to any country in the region, particularly those who are unfriendly. With this goal in mind, the FARC teamed up with Chavez to create an international terrorist group, the Coordinadora Continental Bolivariana (Bolivarian Continental Coordinator, or CCB), whose main purpose is to provide military support for the Venezuelan revolution and struggle against U.S. bases in Colombia.
In Colombia itself, however, the FARC has lost ground as a result of successful efforts by the government under former President Alvaro Uribe. But as the FARC weakened in Colombia and lost territory, supply lines, areas of coca cultivation, and cocaine trafficking routes, its leadership moved to Venezuela where they are sheltered by the government. The FARC also has moved to the border with Ecuador and to Ecuador itself—heightening tensions between Colombia and Ecuador and triggering a Colombian military operation into Ecuador in early 2008. That military operation killed Raul Reyes, a senior figure in the organization. Connections between Chavez and Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa's close advisors with the FARC were revealed in papers taken from Reyes' files. Among them was the Ecuadorian minister of national security and his deputy as well as Ecuador's ambassador to Venezuela. Moreover, according to the testimony of a major FARC leader, President Correa directly received electoral campaign funding from the organization.
It is also suspected that the FARC has maintained a presence in Bolivia for several years, ties that have significantly increased since Chavez's ally Evo Morales took power in 2006. According to the papers taken from Raul Reyes' files, Bolivian students have been trained in FARC camps. Likewise, important political and intellectual figures within the ruling party as well as indigenous leaders are reportedly connected to the FARC.
Dallying with Drug Cartels
In the summer of 2009, the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a report stating that, "Venezuela had become a major transit route for cocaine out of Colombia, with a more than fourfold increase in cocaine flow between 2004 and 2007." According to the report, the drug makes its way out of Colombia on foot, on maritime vessels with Venezuelan flags, and on airplanes that take off from one of the 100 clandestine airstrips in Venezuela. As the report notes, "a high level of corruption within the Venezuelan government, military and other law enforcement and security forces enables such permissive environment." As U.S. and Colombian authorities explained, "Venezuela has extended a life line to Colombian illegal armed groups by providing them with support and safe haven along the border. As a result, these groups remain viable threats to Colombian security and U.S.-Colombian counternarcotics effort."
Chavez and his allies associate themselves with the drug business because it helps destabilize the region and its governments and, therefore, tilt more countries away from the United States and towards the Bolivarian Revolution. The drug business may also help Chavez generate revenue to replace money lost from oil as Venezuela's state-owned oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela S.A. (PDVSA), suffers losses as a result of mismanagement and international largesse.
The drug business corrupts state institutions and undermines state authority. Drug cartels in Latin American countries such as Mexico have been able to co-opt, bribe, and kill hundreds of policemen, judges, and politicians at all levels. In Guatemala, the government is feeble and incapable of exercising state authority—leaving the country open to increased power in the hands of drug cartels. In Ecuador, the commission that investigated the Colombian military operation against the FARC in 2008 found that there is complicity between the armed forces of Ecuador with drug and weapons trafficking. According to the report, the military also helped pass drugs manufactured by the FARC through Ecuador to Mexican cartels that later moved the product to the U.S.
The anarchy created by the drug cartels plus the FARC could well leave a situation of Afghanization where the authority of the state recedes and non-state groups and foreign elements increase their influence. As a situation like this spreads it could lead to regional instability; an Afghanistan in the United States' backyard could have devastating consequences.
At the same time, Chavez and his allies also seek to remove the United States' influence on the continent by taking steps such as dismantling military bases aimed at monitoring drug trafficking, expelling American personnel, particularly from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), and, most importantly, becoming part of the drug trafficking network. As part of their anti-U.S. policy, Bolivia and Ecuador, like Venezuela, expelled the DEA from their countries. Ecuador basically dismantled the base in Manta, which was used by the U.S. military to control drug trafficking.
These events are likely to aggravate the process of state collapse in the region.
The Bolivarian-Iranian Bond
Against this volatile background it is easy to understand the presence of Iran and its terrorist proxy, Hezbollah, in the region.
Iran has developed strong relations with all the countries of the Bolivarian alliance, which helps Tehran avoid international sanctions. For example, Iran uses the Venezuelan banking system and extracts uranium from Venezuelan soil, which helps the regime in its effort to develop a nuclear program. Moreover, having a presence in Latin America gives Tehran leverage against the U.S. in the event that tensions with the United States increase.
However, Chavez also benefits from relations with Iran. Chavez and his allies consider Iran a partner in the common cause of weakening U.S. hegemony in the region. And Iran is helping Chavez build a nuclear village in Venezuela, as the president announced in September 2009, for supposedly "peaceful purposes." Chavez had previously approached Argentina and Brazil for assistance, but to no avail.
Indeed, there is reason to believe Hugo Chavez is seeking nuclear capabilities. The Venezuelan dictator has threatened Colombia a number of times, even calling for the mobilization of Venezuelan troops to the Colombian border, a country Chavez considers an ally of the United States and an obstacle to his revolutionary ambitions. Conventionally speaking, the Venezuelan army is no match for Colombia. Thus, it is logical to conclude that for a man thirsty for power and hostile towards a militarily superior neighboring country, a move towards acquisition of nuclear weapons is a next step. A nuclear weapon would provide Chavez with the respect, fear, and deterrence he needs to carry out his agenda. And there is reason to believe that Iran would hand over a nuclear weapon to Venezuela; such a weapon could serve not only Venezuela but also Iran in its search for a striking capability against the United States.
The presence of Hezbollah in Latin America is no less worrisome. It was reported that Hezbollah and other radical Islamic groups are associated with Mexican drug trafficking cartels—allowing Hezbollah or any other terrorist organization associated with it to use the cartels' routes to infiltrate the southern borders of the United States. Moreover, Chavez has been promoting the doctrine of "asymmetric war" in the Venezuelan military—a war of guerillas that implies self-sacrifice in the face of a stronger conventional army. According to reports, Venezuelans have been trained in Hezbollah camps in Lebanon and there are at least five Hezbollah training camps located in Venezuela. A number of Venezuelan diplomats are also known to have helped facilitate travel of Hezbollah operatives to and from the country.
It is realistic to assume that groups such as the FARC and Hezbollah could not only be part of a Venezuelan militia but also could become effective subversive and destabilizing forces in any country Chavez may choose as the next target of his revolution.
Over the last decade, China has increased its investments in, and commercial and technological relations with, Latin American countries. Between 2007 and 2008, China's trade with Latin America grew by 40 percent, making its trade with the region in 2008 three times higher than in 2004. Likewise, during that same period, Latin American exports to China increased by 41 percent.
These economic activities and investments provide China with tremendous leverage over the Latin American countries. Moreover, Chavez and his allies might be perpetuated with the help of China, which has a major interest in reducing the influence of world democracies. This is not in the geopolitical interests of the United States or the Latin American countries that have not joined the Bolivarian alliance. China's economic growth and increasing influence in the world enables it to support and even bail out authoritarian regimes and rogue states, as it did with Iran. If that is the case, enemies of the U.S. might be perpetuated in power for a long period of time. This is especially true when China's influence in Latin America could provide it with invaluable strategic and political leverage against the U.S., which holds military and political influence with countries in Asia—a fact China deeply dislikes.
Remembering Latin America
The geopolitical challenges for the United States in Latin America are manifold. A combination of anarchy, the expansion of anti-American despotic and revolutionary regimes, the proliferation of ominous non-state actors, the penetration of Iran, and the presence of China in the area all present unique challenges to the U.S.
The multiple foreign policy challenges the U.S. has faced in the Middle East over the last decade have turned Washington's attention away from its southern neighbors. And yet, all the while, anti-American influences were using the region to gain leverage against the world power. The White House must consider the scenarios described above and begin to focus more on this neighboring, but all too often forgotten, continent if the U.S. is to maintain regional stability and security.
* Luis Fleischman is an adjunct professor of sociology and political science at Florida Atlantic University Honors College and an academic advisor for the Menges Hemispheric Security Project in Washington.
This article was originally published in: InFocus - winter 2010.