Security and Defence


Solving Crises in Latin America

16 Dec 2019 - 15:18
Bron: Protest against US military intervention in Venezuela © Fibonacci Blue
Economic involvement instead of interventions

Political discontent and protests are currently tormenting Latin American countries. In Ecuador the government has been forced to temporarily move out of the capital due to violence and vandalism. In Bolivia protests have led to the resignation of President Morales. In Argentina people have protested against the involvement of the IMF. In Venezuela the situation has evolved into a humanitarian crisis. These are only a few examples of troubled countries in the region. Even though the root causes of the turmoil are different, there is one overarching aspect: a growing level of dissatisfaction among the people, fuelled by the economic policies of the past few years. Moreover, the prospects for the nearby future are not favourable, as the refugee crisis in Venezuela continues to unfold and there is a possibility for an escalation of violence in Bolivia.

"One overarching aspect is a growing level of dissatisfaction among the people, fuelled by the economic policies of the past few years."

Another worrisome development is that politicians are turning to the armed forces to resolve crises, thereby ignoring the lessons of the region’s past: military coups do not lead to democratic transitions, but push countries in a less democratic direction. Besides, a growing level of geopolitical rivalry in the region can be witnessed. The current prevailing instability makes Latin American countries even more vulnerable to influence from abroad. Altogether, this raises the question of whether the outside world should intervene or if another approach is preferred?

Foreign political or military intervention undesirable for historical reasons

Firstly, a foreign political or military intervention is not desirable for historical reasons. Like Africa and the Middle East, Latin American countries have a long history of foreign powers interfering in their internal affairs. Whereas in the 15th and 16th centuries the region was predominantly occupied by Spain and Portugal, the beginning of the 19th century saw the arrival of the United States with the implementation of the Monroe Doctrine, by which European countries were ordered to stay out of the western hemisphere. Moreover, during the Cold War, the US did not refrain from meddling in Latin American affairs in order to avoid the spread of communism into the American backyard.

"Latin Americans resent being bullied by foreign powers."

Even though times have changed, foreign powers are still showing a profound interest in the region today: while France is still involved in mainland South America (French Guiana), the Caribbean islands are still of importance to the US, the UK and other European countries. In addition, geopolitical rivalry between China, Russia and the US is clearly visible in Latin America, as demonstrated by their interference in the Venezuelan crisis and the Chinese construction of a second ‘Panama Canal’ in Nicaragua. Even though most countries have been independent for almost two centuries, they continue to know what it is like to have others prying into their affairs. Hence, Latin Americans resent being bullied by foreign powers.

Unintended consequences

Secondly, history has shown that foreign interventions with the purpose of re-establishing peace or achieving regime change may come with unintended consequences. For example, the US-supported military coup in Chile in 1973 overthrew Salvador Allende, the democratically-elected president. He was replaced by General Pinochet, who imposed a brutal military regime, within which torture was a part of daily business. Even though the US achieved its goal by removing Allende from the presidency, it still resulted in the instalment of a government that severely violated international humanitarian law. Hence, given the unintentional consequences that may come with an intervention, this should not be regarded as a solution to ongoing problems in Latin America.  

Geopolitical consequences

A final consideration concerns the geopolitical consequences of an intervention. Recent years have demonstrated a rise in tensions between ‘great powers’. Growing competition between the US, Russia and China has resulted in a changing international security landscape. To an increasing extent the intensified tensions between these powers are also visible in Latin America. The Venezuela crisis serves as an illustration. Venezuela is one of the countries in the region where China has tried to gain a foothold through issuing loans. This, in turn, provokes a reaction by the US, which is obviously not an advocate of increased Chinese influence in its backyard. In addition, the US and the EU, on the hand, and Russia and China, on the other, find themselves on opposite sides with reference to whom they support as the rightful president of Venezuela: while Russia and China back Nicolás Maduro, the US and the EU support Juan Guaidó. Intervening, politically or militarily, in an already precarious region would, thus, only add to the geopolitical complexity. This begs the question, what can and should be done instead?

The solution?

Economic involvement can provide a solution, as the causes of civil and political unrest originate from discontent with the economic situation of the countries in question. In this field, the European Union can prove to be an useful actor. In line with its new vision for EU foreign policy, the EU aims to become stronger and more assertive, to promote its interests and values abroad. In this regard, the Joint Communication on a common future with Latin America and the Caribbean of April 2019 provides a good starting point, considering that it encompasses an agenda to advance prosperity, democracy, resilience and effective global governance. Moreover, if the EU wants to be able to counter expanding Chinese economic influence, as demonstrated by the increasing level of foreign direct investments in Latin America, increased economic involvement is a must.

This does not mean, however, that the EU should steer the economic policies of the Latin American countries, as this would imply political interference. Rather, it can contribute in addressing the problems by providing funding to e.g. infrastructural projects. The provision of such funding would have a twofold effect. On the one hand, the creation of new infrastructural projects can revitalise the economies of and support growth in Latin American countries, which serves the EU agenda for a common future with Latin America and the Caribbean. Considering that unemployment levels will decrease following an economic boost, a decrease in grievances can be expected, thereby reducing the risk of popular uprisings. On the other hand, these funds can address increased Chinese economic expansion in the region, by providing an alternative to the Chinese funding of infrastructural projects. Currently, China is providing funds for projects without taking into account the societal and environmental impact. Consequently, many projects have led to either environmental damage or communities that have been forced out of their towns. Therefore, it is important that EU funds are distinguished from the Chinese funds, thereby providing a viable and sustainable alternative.

"Economic assistance is the best tool to address the root causes of instability."

In conclusion, despite worrisome developments in several Latin American countries, foreign powers should abstain from intervening politically or militarily. Instead, economic assistance is the best tool to address the root causes of instability. The EU could invest in infrastructure projects. Naturally, the provision of funding should be judged on a case-by-case basis and monitored throughout the implementation phase. When it is evident, for example, that a government violates international (humanitarian) law, funding has to be made conditional. In case of continuation of violating humanitarian standards, there should be room for sanctions. Nevertheless, given the current circumstances in Latin America, deepening economic involvement is preferred over political or military intervention. This can provide both a boost to the economies of the countries, which will eventually decrease the number of popular uprisings, as well as counter the growing Chinese economic influence.

Follow @AdajaStoetman and @ClingendaelOrg on Twitter.