In the early 1990’s the idea that the Cold War was over was widespread.
The Soviet Union was no longer communist. Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe followed suit, joining the European Union (EU). Additionally, the breakup of the Soviet Union reversed the imperial path established by the Russian Empire well before the communist revolution.
So, since then the tension between capitalism and communism is no longer an issue as the latter collapsed.
But now another type of tension is emergent, a competition between powers seeking to expand their political spheres of influence.
Russia has reemerged in attempts to recover the power and spheres of influence lost after communism's collapse. China became an economic power. Although, it is in great part motivated by profit, it also seeks to increase its political influence, particularly in geographical areas it considers naturally theirs — like Asia. Hence its aggressive activities in the South Asian Sea, the enlargement of its navy, and its protective instincts regarding North Korea.
Russia, on the other hand, is less motivated than China by economic profit, but remains politically highly aggressive. Russia not only reacted militarily to pro-NATO tendencies in Georgia and the Ukraine, but it also interferes in Western European affairs by supporting illiberal candidates who back the dismantling of the EU. The Russian plan is to divide the West by weakening alliances like NATO and the EU.
Thus, this power competition brings a new type of tension between liberal democracy on the one hand, and illiberal democracy and authoritarianism on the other hand
Russia and China are interested in weakening the power of liberal democracies precisely because non-democratic regimes are more likely to reject Western democracies. Indeed, there are fewer and fewer authoritarian regimes remaining pro-Western.
Non-democratic actors are fearful of liberal democracies. By the same token, since non-democratic states are Russia’s allies, Russia's support for illiberal and authoritarian elements became a tool to increase its sphere of influence.
For the U.S., having a strong sphere of influence is crucial for economic, military, political — and moral reasons.
Since the Monroe Doctrine of December 1823, the U.S. has considered Latin America part of its sphere of influence, given that region’s geographical proximity.
As America was being challenged by events in Asia and the Mideast, it withdrew its interest in Latin America even as radical ideological authoritarian regimes with ties to Iran, Russia, and China began to consolidate in the region.
Thus, an important sphere of influence was being further abandoned.
Under former President Barack Obama, the entire concept of sphere of influence was dismissed. By the same token, the U.S. failed to identify the correlation between democracy and sphere of influence.
Meanwhile, events continue to unfold in front of our very eyes. As an example, last June the illiberal Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega signed a military agreement with Russia, one in which Russia agreed to provide 50 T-72 tanks to Nicaragua and a satellite station in the outskirts of Managua. This would enable Russia to spy on the United States. The agreement was signed on the very same day three American diplomats were expelled from the country.
Last December, Russia signed an agreement with Cuba where Russia would provide advice to modernize Cuba’s armed forces and provide technological and logistical assistance. Cuba continues to be an oppressive regime, one which exports repressive techniques to other countries in Latin America, especially Venezuela.
Most recently, CITGO, the American-based oil company whose parent company is the Venezuelan oil giant PDVSA, mortgaged almost 50 percent of its holdings to ROSNEFT, a company controlled by the Russian government. This enabled PDVSA to pay its bonds.
If Venezuela fails to make good on its bond payments, Russia could end up owning U.S.- based refineries, pipelines, and distribution terminals. But most importantly, they are likely to exercise control of a large part of the Venezuelan economy. The relationship between Venezuela and Russia is not new. Russia provided billions of dollars to Venezuela in weapons. Venezuelan anti-democratic character made Russia a natural ally of the Caribbean nation. Now, Russia not only increased its sphere of influence in Latin America but they are at the verge of ownership of American-based companies. This shows the importance of maintaining stable spheres of American influence.
In the last two decades, the U.S. refused to fight for democracy in Latin America. It displayed indifference over the loss of influence in the region while competing powers increased their economic, political, and military presence.
A new U.S. strategy and policy in Latin America is badly needed. We urgently need good planning and movement before it is too late.
Luis Fleischman has worked as adviser for the Menges Hemispheric Security Project at the Center for Security Policy on issues related to Latin America. He is the author of "Latin America in the Post-Chavez Era: The Threat to U.S. Security." Fleischman is an adjunct professor of sociology and political science at Barry University. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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