Following the news in recent months has sometimes felt as if we’ve opened a time capsule from the Cold War – when Soviet Union aggression was the norm along with its determination to prop up U.S. adversaries in the Western Hemisphere, most notably the Castro regime in Cuba. Today, Russia under Vladimir Putin has challenged the international order through its unlawful annexation of Crimea and continued provocations against Ukraine. In our own hemisphere, there is growing evidence of Russia’s interest in reconstituting their Cold War-era presence in the region. Just this week, in the wake of Putin’s visit to Havana, reports emerged about Russia’s renewed push to improve intelligence operations in Cuba.
While these Russian actions are concerning in their own right, they are emblematic of a larger problem affecting U.S. interests in the Western Hemisphere. The Obama Administration’s failure to pursue a consistent, meaningful and proactive strategy in Latin America has left a leadership void that not only Russia but also China, Iran, North Korea and others have been able to exploit. In recent years, we’ve seen each of these nations move aggressively to enhance their alliances in the region, and expand their defense and intelligence relationships.
Failing to deal with our adversaries on dangerous threats like these – as well as North Korea’s illicit weapons trafficking alliance with Cuba – will have many consequences that will be felt right here in the Western Hemisphere. For almost six years, the Obama Administration’s neglect of the hemisphere has failed to stem the rise of authoritarianism, the deterioration of democratic order and rampant human rights violations, while emboldening America’s strategic challengers.
The Obama Administration must wake up from its Latin America slumber of the past six years, reinvigorate our alliances, act resolutely when our interests are threatened, and ensure that an emerging foreign policy crisis in Latin America is not left to the next U.S. president to fix. Continuing to ignore this situation, as the Obama Administration has often been inclined to do when threats are starting to emerge, simply won’t make the problem go away. For the sake of America’s interests and the region’s stability, we must rightly elevate Latin America to the level of attention it deserves even as global crises mount.
What would this involve?
In Russia’s case, we cannot wait around for Europe to figure out how to address the situation in Ukraine. The U.S. must lead the way by imposing more far-reaching sectoral sanctions that go further than what has been announced so far, which would send economic shockwaves through the Russian economy and government treasury, increase internal pressure on Putin’s government to change, and deprive him of the funds he needs to bankroll his aggressive foreign policy initiatives. We also need to increase our assistance and support for our allies and partners in Central and Eastern Europe, many of whom face increasing pressure from Moscow.
With regard to Cuba, the U.S. must continue denying the Castro regime access to money it uses to oppress the Cuban people and invest in foreign policy initiatives that actively challenge and undermine U.S. interests. The Obama Administration should roll back the economic benefits it has extended to the Cuban regime, in the form of expanded U.S. travel and remittances, as a meaningful response to the regime’s ongoing unfair imprisonment of an American humanitarian worker, and its violation of multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions banning arms trade with North Korea. Just months after Cuba was chastised by a UN report for its illicit military trade with Pyongyang, news emerged this week of another North Korean ship with an unknown cargo that recently docked in Havana. Additionally, given that Venezuela now plays the lead role that the Soviet Union once did of bankrolling the Castro regime, President Obama should impose sanctions on Maduro regime officials responsible for human rights violations against the Venezuelan people.
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