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The New Cold War in Latin America

With Cold War divisions once again rising to the fore, the US is doing exactly what you'd expect it to: trying to exert influence in its old 'backyard'.

A demonstrator holds a Colombian flag at Bolivar Square on 12 May 12 2021 in Bogota, Colombia. (Guillermo Legaria / Getty Images)

As the United States continues to escalate diplomatic and military pressure on Russia and China for supposed foreign meddling worldwide, evidence from Latin America exposes their double standard. Historically perceived by the US as their ‘backyard’, or their ‘front yard’, as Joe Biden has more recently suggested, Latin America is now a chess piece in the ‘new Cold War’.

Earlier this week, influential US Congress members proposed a new bill titled the ‘Western Hemisphere Strategic Security Act’, with the view to increase military cooperation with friendly Latin American nations. This, according to US politicians, will help to address a perceived threat of Chinese and Russian interference in the region.

But while China and Russia are indeed deepening diplomatic and trade relations across Latin America, it is the US whose history of undemocratic meddling continues through to the present. In a recent document circulating out of the US embassy in Bogota, Colombia, promises are made of large and small-scale grants to local organisations that promote affinity to the US government’s political stance.

The embassy notice states that they will fund groups that support the ‘embassy’s strategic objectives’ and that ‘increase… affinity for the US’s policies and priorities through strategic cultural and educational programming in the media and digital platforms.’ The grant project has a yearly fund allocation of $250,000 (US), just short of one billion Colombian pesos.

With the Colombian congressional and presidential elections looming, and a leftist coalition leading the polls, it’s no surprise that the Western superpower is spending big. The US has more spending power than all the country’s political parties, and is attempting to secure the population’s political loyalty traditionally tied to the declining right.

This effort is of course only the latest tactic used by the US to maintain a friendly government in the conflict-ridden nation. The US government has spent billions over the decades cooperating with consecutive violent right-wing administrations.

Apart from the effort to spread an affinity for the US government’s political positions, the embassy’s guidance for funding also purports to prioritise applicants with entrepreneurial projects that include ‘women, Afro-Colombian people, diasporic Venezuelans, indigenous communities, LGBTQ+, and other vulnerable communities.’ This effort to appear to ‘empower’ neglected and vulnerable communities is not just hypocritical considering the US’ weighty role in empowering political forces that abandon and oppress those communities; US funding for ‘civilian’ organisations has always come alongside funding the violent military and police authorities.

Research shows that the US government (and the EU) have used civilian organisations in Colombia to combat possible threats to the established political and economic order since the 1990s. One programme, known as the Peace Laboratories, began as a grassroots effort to diffuse the violent conflict in the most affected regions. After tens of millions of dollars were funnelled into it by Western nations, it became known as the ‘social arm’ of Plan Colombia—a US-backed military operation known for its violent counterinsurgency tactics.

Today, a turn to the left in Colombia, historically the US’ closest strategic ally in the region, poses a threat to US dominance—even while the movement is led by centre-left Gustavo Petro, who has shied away from openly criticising the US. The broad left coalition Petro heads, Pacto Historico, is making waves across the country and looks the likely winner in the May elections, which could mark a break with over two hundred years of liberal-conservative party hegemony. And although the figureheads of the coalition appear to be radical (and are portrayed as such in the media), their proposed policies are moderate.

Petro is hardly the Russian or Chinese agent or ‘communist’ threat he’s reputed to be. Influenced and advised by thinkers like Thomas Piketty, Petro’s threat to Colombia’s ruling class and the US is his insistence on a modest redistribution of the country’s vast wealth, a far stretch from the Castro-Chavista the US-backed corporate media characterise him as.

The embassy’s attempt to influence the coming elections in Colombia is only the most recent. At a time when the West so loosely cries ‘meddling’, let’s not forget that it was the US that deployed warships, threatened invasion, and forced the split of Panama from Colombia. The US also pressured the Colombian government to send in troops to defend the United Fruit Company from striking workers, ultimately instigating the massacre of thousands. The US advised and then trained the Colombian military and paramilitary in their violent counterinsurgency tactics with legacies that persist in the present, and it is the US and the West more broadly that consistently, over decades, supported and upheld a nefarious state to protect their economic and geopolitical interests in the region.

Let’s be clear. The battle for Colombia, and for Latin America more broadly, is not between the world’s superpowers but between the US government, the US-friendly ruling classes, and the oppressed and exploited masses who yearn for change: change which makes us not anybody’s back or front yard, but an independent region capable of helping to lead the world away from neoliberal capitalism—a system that has done nothing for us, and only leads to further destruction and doom.

About the Author

Carlos Cruz Mosquera is a PhD candidate and Teaching Associate at Queen Mary, University of London. He specialises in analysing the European Union’s 'civilian power' in Latin America and its role in maintaining the neoliberal status quo in the region.