50 years after Cuba missile crisis, US influence in hemisphere waning

Investment from emerging economies like China and Russia are diminishing Latin America's reliance on the US, making it more difficult for Washington to isolate regimes like Cuba. 

Ismael Francisco/AP
A soldier poses for a photograph on the outer casing of an old, empty Soviet missile on exhibit Saturday at the military complex Morro Cabana, which is open to tourists in Havana. On the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, historians now say it was behind-the-scenes compromise rather than a high-stakes game of chicken that resolved the face-off.

It was what many consider the most dangerous moment the world has ever faced: the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, which saw the United States square off over nuclear missiles stationed by the Soviet Union in Cuba.

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the tense standoff. And while the politics of the cold war have little relevance for US-Latin American relations today, in some ways the US finds itself in the very position that set the stage for conflict in the first place, says Philip Brenner, a historian of the missile crisis at American University. With US influence waning in the region, Latin America is forging ahead with its own agenda.

It was not only the containment of communism that drove US attempts to oust Fidel Castro from the helm of Cuba in the early 1960s, says Mr. Brenner. The US was also concerned about Latin American countries emulating Cuba, particularly its geopolitical stance in the cold war, and thus undermining American leadership in the Western Hemisphere. Some 50 years later, the US faces the same situation, just a more modern iteration.

“What the US feared the most in 1962 has come to pass,” says Brenner, who wrote "Sad and Luminous Days: Cuba's Struggle with the Superpowers after the Missile Crisis."  “We were concerned about our sphere of influence that we had taken for granted.… [Today] we cannot dominate this region anymore. They do not look to us for leadership. Countries look within the region, and to some extent to Cuba still.”

After the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the US turned its attention from Latin America as it focused on terrorism and threats from the Middle East. At the same time, over the past decade Latin American democracy has flourished and the global economy shifted, with Latin America no longer looking just north to the US for leadership and investment, but to India, China, and Russia. China surpassed the US as Brazil’s biggest trading partner in 2009.

Investment from outside

Most of these relationships are economic in nature among emerging economies. If Russia, for example, once eyed Cuba to buoy its political project close to the American border, today it is inking energy deals and selling arms in Latin America because it finds willing partners and purchasers there.

“Russia is going to sell all kinds of arms to Venezuela, not because [Venezuelan President] Hugo Chávez is saying he is socialist. It’s because he has money to pay for it,” says Alex Sanchez, a senior research fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.

The flurry of investment in countries ranging from Venezuela to Bolivia helps to further undermine US global dominance in the region, a scenario that many leaders welcome today. Chief among them is Mr. Chávez, who just won another six-year term in office, and his allies including President Evo Morales in Bolivia and President Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua.

Indeed, the anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis will likely provide an opportunity for the “extreme left” in Latin America to express support for Cuba, says Johns Hopkins Latin American expert Riordan Roett. “They will be in solidarity about the survival of the Castro brothers,” Mr. Roett says.

'A linchpin' in the region

That kind of defiance – showing respect for a nation that for so long the US has considered a thorn in its side – would have been unthinkable 50 years ago. Before the Cuban missile crisis, after the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, the US pressured Latin American countries to suspend Cuba’s membership from the Organization of American States (OAS). At the same time, Cuba signed onto the nonaligned movement, and Brenner says it was that move that the US feared other countries in Latin America might follow. At the time, US thinking on the movement was, ‘you are with us or you are against us.’

The politics surrounding Cuba at the OAS highlights the declining influence of the US in the region. Fifty years ago, the US advocated Cuba’s suspension and was successful; but during the group’s summit in April, leaders across political spectrums said they would question attending another summit without Cuba at the table.

“This comes from [Colombian President Juan Manuel] Santos, our most loyal ally in the region," says Brenner. "Cuba was once the pariah state; it is now a linchpin for all the other countries.”

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