The Obama administration’s tacit policy of disengagement in Latin America has emboldened U.S. adversaries to gain a foothold in the region, experts said at a congressional hearing on Tuesday.
Rep. Matt Salmon (R., Ariz.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, said in an opening statement at the hearing that the administration lacks a "strategic vision" for the region.
"When I mentioned my concerns to Secretary [of State John] Kerry [at a recent hearing], he pontificated about the environment in the Pacific Islands and a typhoon in the Philippines—further making my point about the administration’s lack of strategy for the Western Hemisphere," he said.
Salmon added that U.S. officials should push for better environmental policies in the region, but not to the neglect of commercial and security interests.
"That’s prudent and smart, but to the scale of priorities—when we’re looking at people being killed on the streets in Venezuela and arms smuggled by Cuba into North Korea—on the relative scale of what are our priorities, are we really focusing our attention on what really matters?" he said.
U.S. funding for initiatives in Latin America has declined in recent years, particularly for joint security cooperation such as counternarcotics.
Ilan Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council, said the "vacuum" in the region is quietly being filled by Russia, Iran, and China.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu last month announced the Kremlin’s plans to establish new military bases in eight foreign countries, including Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. The sites could be used to refuel Russian long-range aircraft.
"There is a Russian adage that says that sacred space will not remain empty for long," Berman said. "This is very much a throwback to what the Russians, what the Soviets at the time, used Latin America for."
Iran’s Islamic government has cultivated both its commercial and ideological interests in Latin America, signing agreements to mine for uranium in Bolivia and Ecuador and erecting intelligence bases in multiple countries. The Iranian regime partially financed the construction of a "regional defense school" for the Venezuelan-led ALBA alliance in eastern Bolivia, which reportedly instructs left-wing paramilitaries similar to the basij militias in Iran and "colectivos" accused of killing Venezuelan protesters.
China’s outreach has been more economic but also includes arms sales to ALBA countries and joint military exercises and trainings. A Chinese businessman with close ties to the country’s communist party has received approval to build a massive $60 billion canal in Nicaragua that could rival the Panama Canal.
Berman criticized Kerry’s declaration last fall to the Organization of American States (OAS) that the "era of the Monroe Doctrine is over." The doctrine, initially crafted as a warning against European intervention in newly independent Latin American countries, guided more than 200 years of U.S. policy toward the region.
"By doing that [Kerry] effectively served notice to regional regimes that they are allowed to curry favor with external actors, and served notice to external actors that America will no longer compete with those external actors," he said.
Other experts at the hearing called on the administration to support sanctions including U.S. visa bans, asset freezes, and prohibitions on financial transactions against Venezuelan officials involved in human rights abuses.
More than 30 people have died in the protests against President Nicolas Maduro’s regime. Opposition leaders such as Maria Corina Machado have either already been jailed or face the threat of imprisonment.
Otto Reich, former special envoy for Western Hemisphere Initiatives during the George W. Bush administration, said U.S. sanctions should also extend to wealthy elites with ties to Venezuela’s government.
"There are a lot of private sector people in Venezuela and other countries in the region that have become billionaires as a result of these corrupt left wing populists who are in office," he said.
"They have huge assets in the United States," he added. "They come and spend the weekends here. I don’t know why we allow that."