The Strategic Environment in Latin America

By Dialogo
February 14, 2013

Latin America is a very attractive setting to study and demonstrate international and global trends, as well as different risk factors of regional insecurity and how it relates to and affects its strategic environment.
Even though it’s true that there are common features including language, religion and history, Latin America is currently a mosaic of countries with different characteristics. It is perhaps surprising to see that, even when several nations in the region are celebrating their 200 years of independence, they still have antagonistic forces obstructing common development, in which integration and cooperation should prevail.

Currently, there are two main strategic guidelines: the first consists of four main global trends:
1. – Perceived risks of global interdependency, which are wider than in the past.
2. – Increased pressure to reach cosmopolitan solutions, either in human rights or in the environment.
3. – Global public positive or negative elements that are not defined at the national level.
4. – Blurred risk borderlines in the fields of space, time, and society. At present, it is difficult to determine who is actually polluting the environment or causing the financial crisis, since these events are the result of a chain of interactions.

In the second one, there are six risk factors of regional insecurity:
1. – Strategic political vulnerabilities
2. – Economic vulnerabilities (weakness in the face of international macroeconomic swings, foreign debt, dependence on international prices of raw materials)
3. – Social vulnerabilities (marginalization, scarcity, emigration, unemployment, social inequality)
4. – Vulnerabilities related to security, new threats and conflicts (drug trafficking, money laundering, terrorism, and weapons trafficking)
5. – Vulnerabilities related to the environment and natural disasters
6. – Vulnerabilities of technological differences

The amount of intergovernmental organizations that operate in the region do not always satisfy the expectations of countries which may clash with each other, making it more difficult to differentiate between actual common regional interests.

Associated to these phenomena, there are other factors such as irredentism, protectionism, and a prominent increase in populism, which do not contribute to the stability required to move forward in terms of regional cooperation and integration.

Another aspect that has contributed to reaching a more complex environment in political-strategic relations in the region has been the continued existence of certain geopolitical variables and border disputes. Indeed, the International Court of The Hague is deciding over four cases that involve Latin American countries:

Nicaragua – Colombia: territorial and maritime demarcation dispute in the Western Caribbean between the two states.

Peru – Chile: disputing the demarcation of the two states’ maritime areas in the Pacific Ocean and the recognition of a 200-nautical miles maritime zone.

Ecuador – Colombia: disputing the spread of toxic herbicides near and throughout the border between both countries.

Costa Rica – Nicaragua: disputing the incursion, occupation and use of territory and infractions in conventions and treaties.

On the other hand, the economic crisis, which apparently has afflicted our region less significantly, has affected growth expectations in several cases, and has also led some countries to higher levels of poverty, with multiple political and social repercussions. In order to compensate for this, some countries have promoted a broader expansion in the region, especially towards Asia and China. In contrast, some states are imposing import tariffs to protect the local industry, generating a protectionist wave that might have a negative impact with reductions in the domestic economy and increases in inflation rates.

It is known that domestic and international migration is another consequence of recession, which causes an imbalance in employment supply and demand, and also intensifies social and international conflicts.

Likewise, the region is not immune to the impact of the energy crisis and the increasing shortage of non-renewable resources. In this regard, energy has become a security issue in some countries, while others consider the preservation of natural resources as a national defense matter. Consequently, several cooperation and integration projects in these fields are accompanied by strategic considerations.

Another aspect that has gained international awareness over time is the increase of crime rates, making Latin American cities dramatically more dangerous than ever. This has caused insecurity to be one of the main concerns for the regional population, after the economic situation.

It is possible that the equation of drug trafficking, organized crime and illicit weapons trafficking are the main contemporary threats, which affect producer, transit and consumer countries. This problem is fueling crime and the intensity of its actions, directly challenging authorities and the law, and imposing an increasing cycle through violence that, in some cases, may involve security institutions. In some way, the joint stability of Latin American nations will depend on how successful this crime problem is curbed.

Others problems, such as environmental issues, natural disasters and pandemics, demand more and more application of the affected countries’ various resources –that could have been used to solve other needs. The concept of multidimensional security has allowed these variables to become a security problem. Since these problems have no boundaries, and nations are forced to face a situation of risk and insecurity characterized by their invisibility and unpredictability, given the States have an opportunity for cooperation. This was demonstrated after the earthquake and tsunami that affected Chile in February 2010, where several States established a solidarity that allowed not only assistance to those in need, but also an excellent example of international cooperation.

The same cooperative effect is displayed due to the limited technological development of cyber security in some states, which forces the creation of new legal and scientific settings in order to prevent and control this vulnerability, since this threat does not recognize borders. Furthermore, the international trend suggests that it will continue to rise.

On the other hand, we are witnessing more subtle future manifestations, such as scarcity of natural resources worldwide and its effects on Latin America.

At first sight, the risk and insecurity factors previously mentioned suggest a new strategic environment for Latin America. From a realistic point of view, we know that we will always be facing different security risks; however, the current challenge is to understand the nature, projection, and objective reality of problems, lack of vision, or ideological interpretations, to offer solutions in a timely manner ¬and conveyed in fundamental actions.

Latin America has a complex, collective and cooperative security architecture, allowing a relative stability with an important degree of institutionalization. If we consider the current strategic situation in Latin America, we can confirm that there are several countries in the region that are going through State consolidation and very diverse development processes. For instance, there are medium sized powers with clear economic leadership worldwide; small countries with political and economic leaderships; other States struggling to obtain a desired national unity as a first step towards development; while others are suffering from the effects of violent internal conflicts that have extended for over 50 years. Yet others are labeled as weak countries, whose constitutional character is permanently at risk. Finally, there is also the failed or collapsed state, such as Haiti, which paradoxically was the first Latin American State to gain its independence in 1804.

To this we must add that the region is at an inflection point between two political, economic, social, and cultural models. The first model is characterized by States with low constitutional levels that do not adhere to or favor the integration of their economies in the global free market with political processes. On the other hand, there is a second model that is characterized by openness to the outside world, and is willing to take advantage of the opportunities offered by globalization in order to mitigate its vulnerabilities and which, generally, favors a deeper and more complete integration.

In this scenario, it is the State – as the main political organization – who must respond to the demands of its population and grant them the common good that is demanded. To do so, they must provide security, along with development and wellbeing in a fundamental way.

However, Latin America is a continent that must recognize that the best is yet to come; as a matter of fact, the joining factors are more than the dividing factors.

The future depends on the region alone, and we will only make it possible if we do it in a context of unity, integration, and mutual respect regarding our differences and existing treaties, so that we can jointly achieve a reality of progress and development.