In the early 1990’s, the idea that the Cold War was over was widespread. The Soviet Union was no longer communist. The Soviet satellites in Eastern Europe followed suite and joined the European Union. Furthermore, the Soviet Union broke up reversing even the imperial path established by the Russian Empire well before the communist revolution.
So, since then the tension between capitalism and communism was no longer an issue as the latter collapsed.
But now another type of tension has emerged: a competition between powers that seek to expand their political spheres of influence.
Russia reemerged trying to recover the power and spheres of influence lost after the collapse of communism. China is becoming an economic powerhouse. Although, it is in great part motivated by profit, it also seeks to increase its political influence, particularly in geographical areas it considers to be naturally theirs such as Asia. Hence its aggressive activities in the South China Sea, the enlargement of its Navy, and its protection of North Korea.
Russia, on the other hand, it 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 that back the dismantlement of the European Union. The Russian plan is to divide the West by weakening alliances such as NATO and the European Union.
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, fewer and fewer authoritarian regimes remain 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 becomes a tool to increase its sphere of influence.
For the United States, having a strong sphere of influence is crucial for economic, military, political and moral reasons.
Since the Monroe Doctrine (1823), the United States has considered Latin America part of its sphere of influence, given the region’s geographical proximity.
As the United States was being challenged by events in Asia and the Middle East, 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 President Obama, the entire concept of sphere of influence was dismissed.
By the same token, the U.S failed to identify the co-relation between democracy and sphere of influence.
Meanwhile, events continue to occur in front of our eyes. As an example, last June the illiberal Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega signed a military agreement with Russia where Russia agreed to provide 50 T-72 tanks to Nicaragua and a satellite station in the outskirts of Managua that will enable Russia to spy on the United States. The agreement was signed on the same day that 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 that exports repressive techniques to other countries in Latin America, particularly Venezuela.
Most recently, CITGO, the American-based oil company whose parent company is the Venezuelan oil giant PDVSA, mortgaged almost 50% of its holdings to ROSNEFT, a company controlled by the Russian government. This enabled PDVSA to pay its bonds. If Venezuela fails to pay its bond payments, Russia could end up owning U.S based refineries, pipelines, and distribution terminals. However, most importantly, they are likely to exercise control of a large part of the Venezuelan economy. The relation 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 to 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 and 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.