Pompeo’s Latin America tour is about gaining influence against Venezuela & China. But the US tactic has dubious regional support
While America’s allies in Latin America are losing credibility, the US is also seeing a decline in its ability to influence, let alone dictate, some of the political and economic choices that governments are making there.
With a combined population of around 1.5 million, Guyana and Suriname rarely garner enough attention from Washington to merit a mention during a briefing, let alone a visit from the US Secretary of State. But the fact that Mike Pompeo’s latest Latin American tour began in the two neighboring countries was no accident.
These two South American nations with Atlantic Ocean coasts, both of which recently held elections whose outcomes were welcomed by the US, are producers of a commodity that is of great interest to Washington. Guyana’s economy is projected to grow a staggering 85 percent this year thanks to large oil reserves found off its coast, and US firms like Exxon have been actively working in both countries to take advantage of the extractivist boom.
Guyana has also been at odds with its other neighbor, Venezuela, over oil reserves found off what Caracas has long considered to be its territory. This has made Guyana a natural partner in another obsession of Washington’s – overthrowing Venezuela’s government.
As Latin American history over the last 150 years or so has shown, foreign policy is often an instrument for US business and this is no different in the case of Venezuela, where successive US administrations have worked feverishly to overthrow the Bolivarian Revolution, in large part to ensure access to the country’s oil reserves.
As with almost every significant diplomatic tour of the region by officials of the Trump administration, Pompeo’s four-country tour had a considerable focus on Venezuela and on reasserting, if not reenergizing, the campaign to forcefully unseat Nicolas Maduro.
The tour appeared timed to coincide with a report at the UN Human Rights council, which has alleged that Venezuela’s government had “committed egregious violations.” Caracas has rejected the report’s findings, saying it was “plagued with falsities” and was produced “from abroad.”
#COMUNICADO | Venezuela observa con preocupación la declaración ministerial del Grupo Internacional de Contacto del 17 de septiembre y su permanente conducta injerencista, origen y causa de su poca o nula utilidad, respecto a los objetivos enunciados desde su creación. pic.twitter.com/ugmufzpKSZ
— Jorge Arreaza M (@jaarreaza) September 18, 2020
After meetings with newly elected heads in Georgetown and Paramaribo, Pompeo was off to Brazil and Colombia, whose governments have been arguably the most loyal to Uncle Sam’s imperatives in the region. However, Washington’s allies are increasingly in positions where their ability to claim the moral and ethical high ground is untenable.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro continues to be widely seen as a far-right extremist outside of his country and, despite polling figures which show that support for his government actually increased during the pandemic, the South American nation has the world’s second highest Covid-19 death toll, after the United States.
In Colombia, which has been the most active country supporting the overthrow of Venezuela’s government, the government of Ivan Duque has not only been rocked by the pandemic but also by continued scandals and violent protests. Over a dozen were killed in recent protests after a 43-year-old lawyer died, reportedly from being repeatedly shocked with a stun gun by officers for violating pandemic lockdown measures.
What’s worse for Duque, his political mentor and the main figure in his Democratic Center party, Alvaro Uribe was forced to resign from his Senate post and placed under house arrest after being charged for ties with paramilitary groups responsible for drug trafficking and massacres of thousands of people. Yet, without the slightest hint of irony, Duque, the leader of a country where over 100 social activists have been killed this year alone, called for Venezuelan leaders to be brought before international courts.
As with Duque and Bolsonaro, many other leaders from the so-called Lima Group have either been ousted or have been too mired in their own scandals to be credible standard-bearers on issues of democracy and human rights.
Meanwhile, in Venezuela, the opposition most closely aligned with the US has not only lost steam, but its current leader, Juan Guaido, has lost relevance. Closing in on two years since he declared himself president of the country, the opposition legislator still doesn’t have control of a single institution in the country. Moreover, he is barely able to hold the often-fractured opposition to the Bolivarian government together. The most radical section of these right-wing parties has once again opted to sit out the upcoming legislative elections, which all but confirms that, apparently, they see foreign military intervention as their best option.
Venezuela continues to be a major geopolitical target of Washington, but China is arguably its bigger concern. For years, think tanks, intelligence and military leaders have been warning that China’s growing presence was a threat to America’s political and economic hegemony in the region, and the Trump administration has been unabashed in its goal of reasserting its historic position in its “backyard.”
As with many of his previous visits to Latin America, Pompeo pushed regional governments to favor US investment over Chinese.
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In a meeting with newly elected Surinamese President Chan Santokhi, Pompeo warned of the “political costs” of deals with the Chinese, while also touting the quality of US products.
China’s support of governments with whom it shares some political affinity has not prevented it from seeking cooperation with countries and political actors across the spectrum. So, in spite of a recent slump in Chinese activity, and a surge of mergers and acquisitions originating from the US, many financial observers expect Chinese investments in the region to rebound and grow in the future, especially given its flagship Belt and Road infrastructure initiative, into which both Suriname and Guyana have been invited.
So when even the newly elected leader of a country with less than a million people balks at Pompeo’s not-so-subtle nudge to forgo Chinese investment, you know an irreversible shift has taken place.
Pompeo’s trip may secure a few more mining and oil contracts for US firms, and it might secure a few more votes from for Trump from anti-communist Venezuelans and Cubans in the US, but it won’t bring Guaido any closer to taking the reins in Caracas. And, although its military, intelligence and funding apparatus still mean Washington is capable of wielding undue influence on the decisions that governments make, it is unlikely to unsaddle China from the position it has earned as investor and partner in the region’s economies.
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