OPINION: China, Russia And Iran Use South American Upheaval To Gain A Western Foothold

Rep. Francis Rooney Florida Congressman
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America has taken the relative calm of the Western Hemisphere for granted. We have paid little attention to foreign influence from across the globe descending on the region and only now are we realizing the consequences. The growing presence of American adversaries such as Russia, China and Iran in Latin America alters the strategic landscape south of the United States and should serve as a wake-up call for United States engagement in Latin America.

Russia has played a role in Latin America for decades, but its presence there has seen a resurgence which could prove troublesome to the United States. Russia serves as a lender, trade partner, arms dealer and security guarantor to many Latin American countries. Many of these countries have been openly anti-American at some point including Cuba and various others.

Cuba and Venezuela are both deeply tied to Russia. Recently, Russia forgave 90 percent of Cuba’s $32 billion debt, and Russian power company Interrao has assisted Cuba by building four power stations. In Venezuela, Russia continues to strengthen its support of Nicolas Maduro’s socialist regime. Like in Cuba, Russia has restructured Venezuela’s debts as it continues to hold up the failing economy. In December, President Vladimir Putin pledged $6 billion of investment and then sent four military aircraft to the nation, reminiscent of Russia’s Cold War posturing in Latin America.

Further complicating the situation is Russian gas company Rosneft’s 49.9 percent stake in Citgo, the U.S. branch of Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, PDVSA. A Venezuelan default on Russian loans would allow Rosneft to acquire several refineries and other assets in the United States.

Russia has solidified long-standing relationships with Bolivia and Nicaragua. They have sold armored vehicles and weapons to a corrupt government in Nicaragua, including T-72 tanks and BMP-3 and BTR-80 armored vehicles. In Bolivia, Russia is assisting in the development of energy facilities including a nuclear facility at El Alto and several oil fields operated by Russian oil giant Gazprom.

Russia has also expanded its influence to other friendly Latin American nations, selling military helicopters and hardware to Argentina, Ecuador, Peru and Brazil. These trends are reminiscent of Cold War Soviet strategy to expand its presence in America’s sphere of influence and draw our attention and resources from other global issues.

China’s influence in Latin America is relatively new, but has quickly outpaced that of Russia. Communist China is already the largest export market for many Latin American countries including Brazil, Chile, Cuba, Peru, and Uruguay. From 2006 to 2016 total trade between China and Latin America increased by 200 percent compared to an increase of only 38 percent between the United States and Latin America.

Further, the Export-Import Bank of China is positioning itself as the primary option for large-scale investment and infrastructure projects across the region. China has invested $150 billion in more than 100 infrastructure projects in 16 countries across Latin America through their Belt and Road Initiative.

In Ecuador, the Export-Import Bank of China funded the construction of the Coca Codo Sinclair Hydroelectric Plant which now produces 35% of the country’s energy. China is also exporting its nuclear technology through contracts it has signed to build two nuclear power plants Argentina, and a Chinese company has bought a 90 percent stake in Brazil’s most profitable container port, the Port of Paranaguá.

Perhaps most troubling is the evidence of Iranian involvement in the region, which is markedly more covert and nefarious compared to the Russian and Chinese presence. The tri-border area (TBA) between Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay has long been known as a base for illicit and terrorist activity. Hezbollah has been active in the TBA and it is estimated that the terrorist group earns $20 million each year from their activities in the area. This is essentially a terrorist training ground on America’s doorstep.

Iran also partnered with Venezuela to build a Parchin Chemical Facility, which produces some of the key components of rocket fuel. Iran was able to use this facility to circumvent U.S. sanctions for several years while developing their missile technology in our own hemisphere.

This influence is simply the first step that our adversaries will take as they seek to influence events and actors in our own hemisphere. The United States must recognize the vulnerabilities we will face if we continue to ignore the geopolitical importance of our southern neighbors. As events in Venezuela illustrate, disastrous authoritarian and socialist policies result in deleterious consequences for our friends in the region and produce a vacuum filled by our adversaries in an effort to destabilize our hemisphere.

Francis Rooney (@RepRooney) has represented Florida’s 19th congressional district since 2017 and is the ranking member of the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He previously served as U.S. ambassador to the Holy See under President George W. Bush from 2005 to 2008.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.