Discover more from Armas
Armas No. 5 — The southern question, again.
Mexican violence, Latin American strategic autonomy, and American choices.
Perhaps you saw civil aviation mostly shut down in Sinaloa last week, thanks to a cartel uprising there following the arrest of Ovidio Guzmán, the least important of the Chapitos.
Aeromexico’s promise of a “passenger protection policy” is darkly comic: what can they do when cartel light infantry is assaulting local airfields to prevent their own leadership’s transport to prison? The answer is: not much, except perhaps urge the Mexican state to actually act and behave as a true sovereign across its own national territory.
All this is of a piece. If you didn’t read Armas No. 2, on the reemergence of Latin America into world history, take a moment and have a look.
Completely coincidentally, on the very same day, this piece from Mauricio Cárdenas went live in Americas Quarterly, and it presents essentially the same analysis from a very different viewpoint. Cárdenas, who has served in a variety of academic and policy positions in both the United States and Colombia across the past several years, was most notably the minister for energy, and then the minister for finance, in the 2010-2018 Colombian presidential administration. That administration, under Juan Manuel Santos, was broadly conservative and broadly committed to good relations with the United States — so the analysis here is not from the Latin-American left.
What Cárdenas asserts is notable. He concurs with the Armas analysis, but dissents from the conclusions.
Latin American countries enjoy an autonomy to make their own decisions unlike any other moment in recent memory. In this atmosphere of reduced foreign influence (or “meddling,” depending on your point of view), governments in the region have more room for maneuver. This can only be a good thing.
This of course tracks with the Armas analysis that the Latin-American disengagement from world politics, identified by Alexander Mikaberidze as incepting in the Napoleonic era, is ending. More from Cárdenas:
[T]he region is [now] governed by a coalition of leftist leaders who share a common political project. Their main objective is the fight against inequality, and they aim to accomplish this by increasing the strength and resources of the state … The new cohort of leaders has formed a coalition, similar in some ways to the original ‘pink tide’ of the 2000s. They not only share a view, but they seek to help each other—just look at their Twitter accounts and the messages they exchange. For example, they have made clear their support for former President Pedro Castillo in Peru. Mexico is offering asylum while Colombia has questioned the legitimacy of the new government.
We’ll stop there. All this concurs. Again, to repeat ourselves, we have a fundamentally new scenario — and by fundamentally new, we mean for the first time in two hundred years — emerging across Latin America. The region is asserting (or, perhaps more properly, being allowed) genuine strategic independence — at the very moment it is mostly under the control of governments who have no interest in the traditional hemispheric order helmed by the United States.
Cárdenas believes that the region possesses the leverage to make it all happen. His argument in sum:
Latin America has the food and energy the world needs. It is the only region that can compete with China as a source of the critical minerals that are required for the energy transition. It has the biodiversity that is essential to contain the climate crisis. It has the labor force and the geographic proximity for near-shoring to the U.S. some production processes that relocated to China during the last two decades. But above all, it is a safe and reliable partner that neither has interest nor capabilities to start international wars.
This is where Armas and Cárdenas part ways, which is not to communicate any disrespect for him: he gets a lot right, and he gets more right than most of the U.S.-side strategic leadership, so let’s give him full credit for it. Nevertheless we can pick apart his conclusions on three major points:
The Latin-American reliance on commodities is easily as much a source of weakness and instability as it is a source of strength and stability. We covered this briefly in Armas No. 1, noting that the Russian bet on commodities as a strategic leveler in the war hasn’t paid off. It is very possible to experience a great deal of ruin as a resource superpower — see Venezuelan or Mexican oil, or Argentinian foodstuffs — for two big reasons. One is that consumers, not producers, ultimate set market terms. The other is that bad governance can override and erase nearly any natural advantage, and bad governance is arguably the region’s major domestic product.
It is the final point that Cárdenas omits: the potential for near-shoring is irrelevant if it is unrealizable thanks to instability in governance and civil society. This is a perennial feature of Latin-American civics, illuminated in the enduring joke (there are many variations) that Brazil is the country of tomorrow, and tomorrow never comes. This past summer, the Financial Times published an excellent writeup on the Mexican state’s failure to take advantage of near-shoring and the diminishment of China as a manufacturing / supply-chain power. It’s difficult to overstate what a colossal signal of failure this is, in that the United States — in seeking to move its manufacturing and supply chains away from the PRC — looks to places like Vietnam and India, instead of its own hemisphere. As an aggregated-and-distributed vote of no-confidence it is so huge that it gets missed: but it shouldn’t be. If children’s bicycles for Iowan consumers are preferably manufactured in Hyderabad rather than Chiapas, there’s a reason.
Finally, the assertion that Latin America “neither has interest nor capabilities to start international wars” is an analysis rooted in the fading status quo, and therefore not necessarily applicable to the new and emerging context. It is largely true that Latin America has not been not a major engine of state-on-state conflict — as we’ve explained here at Armas, that woeful title goes to Europe — but the exceptions are instructive. The few times when the region actually did generate significant state-on-state conflict are nearly all times when it stepped beyond its Mikaberidze-framework post-Napoleonic severance from the world-political mainstream. Another way to put this is when the United States allowed it: the French invasion of Mexico would not have happened but for U.S. preoccupation with its own Civil War; the Cuban campaigns in southern Africa would not have happened but for Cuba’s divorce from the U.S.-led hemispheric order; and there is a plausible argument to be made that American engagement might have dissuaded Argentinian aggression against British possessions in the south Atlantic. It we are asserting that this restraining framework is falling away — as Armas explicitly is, and as Cárdenas implicitly is — then we must grasp the probability that the chance of “international wars” goes up.
All this — the confluence of factors that we see along with Mauricio Cárdenas — points almost directly to a near-term future for Latin America that, by virtue of its emerging strategic autonomy, is vastly less stable and more dangerous than the long-term order that preceded it. The question for us in the United States is what to do about it, and among the policymaking class the unfortunate answer is that we will probably seek to accommodate and adapt — even though our own national interest is to reassert. The logic — which is wrong, but with which we empathize — will in part be driven by scarcity of resources and attention. We have crises in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, so why would we elevate Western-hemispheric issues to the same level?
Well, we’re going to find out that we aren’t the only party who gets a vote on this question — and we’re going to find out that priorities can be reordered through fiat as much as choice.
This gets us back to our opener. Regional strategic autonomy doesn’t look like the rosy vision preferred by the readership (and authorship) of Americas Quarterly. I wish it did, both as a south Texan and as an American of Mexican descent. The world is overrun with industrious and virtuous peoples led to ruin by terrible elites, and Latin America seems to have more than its share. Regional strategic autonomy does, however, look like this: Aeromexico passengers (mercifully on the tarmac) crouching in the aisle as inbound rounds puncture their aircraft.
American policymakers, and Americans, can confront this now, or later. In either case — we will.