Robert Harneis –TDO- (FRANCE) US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has completed a week long tour of Latin America that mixed barely concealed threats against Venezuela with a revival of the Monroe doctrine of 1823, this time aimed at Russia and China. Not only was he saying, like President Monroe, that Latin America is a sphere of influence’ reserved for the United States but also that any country such as Venezuela that does not conform to the wishes Washington had best beware of regime change.
It is perhaps no coincidence that on the eve of his trip, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon, a key figure in State Department policy-making in Latin America with 37 years’ experience, resigned unexpectedly.
According to the State Department website, “Secretary Tillerson will engage with regional partners to promote a safe, prosperous, energy secure, and democratic hemisphere. Throughout his travel, Secretary Tillerson will advocate for increased regional attention to the crisis in Venezuela.”
At the start of his trip in Austin Texas, Secretary Tillerson outlined the Administration’s Western Hemisphere policy priorities in an address at the University of Texas where he claimed the Monroe doctrine was “as relevant today as it was the day it was written,”. He linked this with attacks on Russia and China for their incursions into Latin America. His statements were not only a naked expression of the Trump administration’s desire to control the region with, as always, a denunciation of anything that Obama may have put forward. The secretary’s remarks were a direct repudiation of the Barack Obama administration’s new-style approach to the region. In 2013, Tillerson’s predecessor John Kerry declared “the era of the Monroe Doctrine is over.” With Trump it is back.
The difference between the two administrations may well be one of style rather than substance. Although it was under George W Bush on 24 April 2008, then Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral Gary Roughead announced the reestablishment of the Fourth Fleet after a sixty year absence. But Obama actually oversaw its recreation. The fleet is responsible for U.S. Navy ships, aircraft and submarines operating in the Caribbean, and Atlantic and Pacific Oceans around Central and South America. President Chavez Chavez accused the United States of attempting to frighten the people of South America into compliance. In 2009 he ordered that all important Venezuelan ports be taken from the regions and put under Venezuelan government and naval control.
Tillerson’s style could best be described as unsubtle. He called on South American states to beware of China, warning of imperial trade ambitions and quick United States as the regions preferred trade partner. He said “Today China is getting a foothold in Latin America. It is using economic statecraft to pull the region into its orbit. The question is: At what price?” adding “Latin America does not need new imperial powers that seek only to benefit their own people”.
"Our region must be diligent to guard against faraway powers who do not reflect the fundamental values shared in this region," he said.
Tillerson said that “strong institutions and governments that are accountable to their people also secure their sovereignty against potential predatory actors that are now showing up in our hemisphere.”
He said that Russia’s "growing presence in the region is alarming.”
Tillerson added that Moscow “continues to sell arms and military equipment to unfriendly regimes who do not share or respect democratic values.”
As for Venezuela, Washington’s least favorite government, he said under Maduro the country could face a military coup, though he stressed Washington was not advocating regime change.
“I think there will be a change,” he said, noting that militaries “oftentimes” handle regime change in Latin America but saying that peaceful transitions are always preferred. “Whether that will be the case here or not, I do not know,” he said on Thursday, speaking at the University of Texas.
It remains to be seen how this surprisingly blunt demonstration of how the US sees Latin America and how it ought to be, will affect relations with the countries concerned. A recent poll by Gallup found Latin Americans’ approval ratings of U.S. leadership dropped from 49 percent in 2016 to 24 percent in 2017. Only 16 percent of the region approves of Trump’s job performance.