Secretary Mattis‘ Visit to Latin America: A Good Beginning That Needs to be Taken to the Next Level

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The recent visit of Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis to Latin America could have the potential of being a turning point after decades of neglect and failed policies in the region.

In order to strengthen our relations, Secretary Mattis visited Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Colombia, all of which are crucially important in the Western Hemisphere.

The visit is part of a number of visits made to Latin America by different administration officials including Vice-President Mike Pence and former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

These tours are taking place amid a complex but promising situation. Argentina and Brazil are the two regional giants. Both countries, along with Chile and Uruguay supported the dictatorial governments of Venezuela and its allies in Nicaragua, Ecuador, Bolivia and Cuba (The Bolivarian Alliance or ALBA).

Since the three countries had left-wing governments, they believed they could form a continental alliance with ALBA. Thus, regional groups that excluded the U.S. and Canada, such as UNASUR and CELAC were formed at the initiative of the Venezuelan revolutionary leader, Hugo Chavez. These regional organizations were supposed to cooperate on economic and social justice matters and to form a political block that would eclipse the power and influence of the U.S. in the region. Brazil went as far as assigning itself a role in world affairs by not only being a part of the block of emerging markets along with Russia, China, India and South Africa (BRICS), but also claiming leadership in a third world front by creating a South-South alliance with Arab and African countries.

Colombia maintained its independent stand and its alliance with the United States but could not escape the mounting pressure to be part of the regional trend. The Colombian government headed by Juan Manuel Santos began negotiations with the Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) brokered by Venezuela and Cuba.

That regional reality was even accepted by the Obama Administration that proceeded to normalize relations with Cuba. Russia took advantage of the situation by continuing to arm Venezuela and other left-wing dictatorships. Chinese investment in the region grew exponentially and China became Brazil’s main commercial partner effectively removing the U.S. from that status.

But this regional euphoria began to quickly fade away as the Venezuelan dictatorship turned more and more brutal; as the new Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS) marked a change in the OAS’ obsequious policies towards Venezuela and its supporters; and as key countries in the region (particularly the four countries Secretary Mattis visited) have changed governments. The left no longer rules these countries. Colombia already withdrew its membership from UNASUR while the other three countries along with Peru and Paraguay announced last April that they will no longer participate in their activities.

The Mattis visit, like Pence’s and Tillerson’s previously, seems to be aimed at recovering these alliances and addressing the issues that are affecting the interests of these countries. These include the crisis in Venezuela which is now replicating in Nicaragua and is likely to expand to Bolivia. In addition,Mattisalso seems to be concerned with Russia’s expansion in the region. Most recently I described how Russia is arming regional tyrants who violate human rights and are also hostile to the United States.

Hopefully, Mattis raised the issue of China’s expansion and the presence of elements associated with Iran, including Hezbollahs drug trafficking activities and expansion of ideological influence.

Mattis’ counterpart in Argentina, Oscar Aguad, pointed out that relations between the U.S. and Argentina “are improving” and now “we are returning to the path we should never have abandoned”. This sounds encouraging. Likewise, Mattis’ pitch to the Brazilian government to build a defense partnership was very important. His proposal to partner with Brazil on space research was a crucial point as China has already made substantial progress in that area. Currently, the Chinese operate a space center in Southern Argentina. This step is very important since China’s investment and technology constitute “soft power” that the Chinese government expects to transform into political power and influence.

The Mattis visit to Chile was also extremely important as both countries signed an agreement on cybersecurity. Mattis pointed out that “this agreement acknowledges the threats that our democracies are confronting and reflects our determination to fight (this threat) together”. Mattis was obviously alluding to Russia’s interference in U.S. elections and in other countries’ elections with the purpose of increasing its influence.

In Colombia, Mattis discussed further cooperation in strategic terms and the role the Andean country could play as the first Latin American NATO global partner.

It is here that it is important to stress that more Latin American countries should join NATO as global partners.

As world challenges continue to exist and as democracy deteriorates; as radical groups have not been defeated yet; and as countries such Iran continue to expand their activities in the Middle East and in Latin America, the expansion of NATO is crucial.

As I stressed in my last article, NATO should not only be a military alliance but also a political alliance that acts on the basis of consensus. This consensus should not only be based on defining who is a friend and who is an enemy but it should also be based on shared values. NATO should be an entity aimed at defending democracy, democratic rule and human rights (Mattis raised the Venezuelan crisis, a crucially important element that reinforces our commitment for these values). The aspiration should be that every NATO member should adhere to this rule.

Latin American countries such as Brazil and Argentina should be part of this block to prevent a repeat of the experiences of the last decade, as well as for mutual future stability.

The administration’s approach to Latin America seems to be the correct one but it is still far from being enough, as U.S. foreign policy in Latin America needs to be taken to the next level. Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba and Bolivia are already strategic assets to Russia, China and Iran. Visits by high U.S officials should continue to build these relations and develop strategies to strengthen political and security alliances in the Western hemisphere. Latin American countries need the U.S as much as the U.S needs them.

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