Winning the South: How the United States Can Win Back Latin America (Marcellus Policy Analysis)

By Scarlett Kennedy, Fall 2022 Marcellus Policy Fellow

Amid increasing tensions between the United States and Iran, it is crucial to have an effective plan in place for protecting the U.S. homeland from Iranian violence. This violence significantly decreased following the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) but has reignited since the agreement’s collapse, constructing a worrisome picture for the future. In 2020, following the U.S. killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, Iranian proxy Hezbollah vowed retaliation. This retaliation presented itself this year against former National Security Advisor John Bolton in a plot that fortunately was uncovered and foiled by the United States. The U.S. Justice Department charged a Mexican national connected to drug cartels for being complicit with the plot, having agreed to carry out the murder. The retaliation against Bolton was not an isolated incident: assassination plotters in the past have commonly utilized Latin American networks to gain access to U.S. soil and will continue to do so in the future, making it the key region for protecting the homeland from Iranian terrorism.

The Western Hemisphere Security Strategy Act of 2022 (S.3589), currently in Congress, presents an opportunity to create an overarching strategy for Latin America that would contend with the threat of Iran’s access to Latin America while also addressing other emerging concerns, such as Russian and Chinese influence in the region. The lack of U.S. economic and security engagement in Latin America has left a vacuum for foreign influence from undesirable outside superpowers. A successful strategy will reprioritize the region, which for too long has been neglected despite its geographic proximity to the United States homeland (and, therefore, importance to U.S. security). In doing so, the United States should cooperate with Latin American nations to address economic and security problems while avoiding policies and rhetoric that attempt to impose U.S. interests on Latin American nations that already view the United States as an interventionist power.

The strategy should encourage strengthened economic ties, producing trade agreements beneficial to all parties. This can be done by reinstating Trade Promotion Authority, which enables a simpler, speedier, and more credible process for negotiating agreements. Expanded trade agreements should be paired with plans for supporting development in the region that include job training programs and funding for locally-led development initiatives in key nations. These actions will lend credibility to a new strategy for public diplomacy that addresses Washington’s troubled past in Latin America and counteracts current negative perceptions of the United States. This will be essential in order to combat the anti-Americanism in the region that Iranian terrorist groups thrive on. Additionally, changing the common negative perceptions of the United States as an interventionist power will help build trust and generate support for U.S. partnerships in place of stronger ties with China, Russia, or Iran. Through these efforts, the U.S. can repair its image in the region and become a reliable partner.

The U.S. should encourage security cooperation in critical zones like the Tri-Border Area (TBA) of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay, and support efforts to improve the capacity of Latin American nations to take heightened security precautions. Support for such cooperation can be garnered by framing the issue as one of transnational crime, which most countries take seriously, instead of framing it as a counterterrorism effort.