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US Army War College professor discusses strategic challenges in Latin America

Dr. R. Evan Ellis, a professor of Latin American Studies at the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute who focuses on Latin America’s relationship with non-Western state actors, organized crime, and populism, delivered a presentation entitled “Democratic Governance as a Strategic Concept for Latin America” at The Institute of World Politics on October 15th, 2018. His lecture outlined the strategies of key transnational Latin American actors and the current challenges facing the United States in the region today.

Dr. Ellis primarily focused on Chinese and Russian actions in Latin America. He noted that Russia is using old Cold War-era sympathies to establish its presence in Latin America; however, the scale of Russian actions in Latin America is limited. Dr. Ellis described the increased Russian activity in Latin America as a response to international tensions over conflicts in Georgia and Ukraine. By bolstering its influence in Latin America, Russia hopes to show the U.S. that it can project its political power in foreign countries.

Dr. Ellis believes that China is taking a different approach to Latin America. He argued that the PRC’s activities are part of a larger economic dominance strategy. Following China’s acceptance into the World Trade Organization in 2001, China increased exports to Latin America; this allowed the Chinese to establish a legal presence in Latin America. The Chinese were able to circumvent their stalled domestic projects with newly forged business connections in Latin America. With these connections, Chinese companies were able to establish a physical presence and take on multiple projects across Latin America and the Caribbean.

Dr. Ellis argued that Chinese economic and business ventures are an important part of China’s global expansion strategy. Rather than seek out ideological conflict, the PRC has attempted to establish a modern Silk Road style trading system while appointing itself the hegemon. Dr. Ellis pointed to the Chinese focus on port agreements as evidence. These ports allow the Chinese to increase their economic foothold in the region. By creating international trade opportunities, China could give itself a trading advantage over other Latin American trading partners. Furthermore, Dr. Ellis noted that these ports allow China the opportunity to discreetly project its military power when necessary; however, its emphasis will remain on economic development.

Dr. Ellis also discussed the effect that organized crime and populism have on the Latin American political climate. Organized crime in Latin America is composed of multiple groups, including the cartels, gangs, and intermediaries that regulate underground markets. Using a diagram, Ellis described how organized criminals contribute to political instability in Latin America. All criminal actors in Latin America contribute to endemic corruption which erodes citizens’ trust in the government. Organized crime also helps fuel the refugee crisis sweeping across the Americas today.

Dr. Ellis outlined the strategic challenges facing the U.S. and its approach to Latin America. He emphasized that in order to approach the situation effectively, we must develop a strategic concept for what we hope to accomplish in the region, both economically and politically. While American leaders do have a strategic planning process, Ellis pointed to several factors that have hindered it, including budget reductions, coordination challenges between relevant agencies, the lack of critical ambassadors, and the unpredictability of executive-level decision making.

In conclusion, Dr. Ellis argued that the activities of state actors and organized criminals in Latin America present challenges to the U.S. domestically and internationally. American leaders will have to approach the strategic situation in the region carefully, with emphasis on the economic outreach efforts of adversarial foreign nations.

 Take Away Points:

  • The primary external actors influencing Latin America are Russia and China; however, they approach the region in distinct ways.
  • Russia’s operations in Latin America are small in scale and rely on old Cold War-era sympathies. Russia’s goals in Latin America are politically driven because they are largely a reaction to American activities in eastern Europe.
  • China has an economic interest in Latin America. It has established trading relationships with Latin American partners using trading ports and business establishments which it leverages to gain a superior trading network in Latin America.
  • The U.S. should also be concerned with organized crime in Latin America, as it contributes to multi-level corruption in government. This erodes local faith in the government to address criminal activity and creates refugees wishing to flee criminal violence and corruption.
  • To tackle these problems, the US should develop a fully defined strategic concept for our goals in Latin America. The current US planning process is hindered by bureaucratic infighting and lack of necessary political appointees and experts.