The recent decision to reestablish the U.S. Fourth Fleet in the Caribbean Sea and South Atlantic Ocean has raised concerns about military intervention in Latin America at a time when many analysts say the region is distancing itself from the United States.

U.S. Defense officials describe last month's reactivation of the Fourth Fleet as an organizational move that will provide maritime security, drug interdiction and humanitarian operations throughout Latin America.

But Argentina, Ecuador and other countries in the region are questioning the reasons for the fleet's reactivation for the first time since the 1950s.  Venezuela has warned the fleet to stay out of its waters and announced that it has purchased Russian bombers to defend its territory.  The Pentagon has tried to allay these fears, saying the fleet is not an offensive force and that it will not enter territorial waters. 

Competing Interests

Costa Rica's former ambassador to the United States, Jaime Daremblum, a scholar at the Washington-based Hudson Institute, dismisses fears of U.S. military intervention in the region.

"I don't interpret this as a return to the gunboat diplomacy of the early 20th century.  The activation of the Fourth Fleet doesn't mean that they are going to start attacking any countries.  But I think it's a signal that the United States wants to make.  And it should be interpreted that way, not more than that, because there has been a great deal of noise on what's happening down south about the Chinese, with the Iranians now in several countries, including Cuba, and also noise about Russia," says Daremblum.  "And I think all of that has to do with this particular measure [i.e., the reactivation of the Fourth Fleet]," says Daremblum.

"The United States is growing increasingly apprehensive that China and Russia are selling arms to Latin American countries, including Venezuela," says the Director of the Council of Hemispheric Affairs in Washington, Larry Birns. He adds that the change in U.S. naval forces also coincides with Latin America's shift toward regional integration and move away from U.S. policies.

"The United States is beginning to worry about the rest of the world poaching on this region that traditionally has been favored as particularly close to the United States.  So we have the resource diplomacy added to the military diplomacy on the part of China and Spain and Brazil and Russia -- all selling arms.  Venezuela is buying two-billion dollars worth of weapons from Russia.  And China is a major seller of military equipment and a major buyer of energy, of oil," says Birns.  "So Latin America is getting rich from all of these sales just at the time that it's becoming more and more politically defiant against the United States and determined to go its own way."

Regional Development

Latin America is coming of age, says Birns, with Brazil spearheading regional coordination and new institutions that promote economic and political self-reliance.  One example is the Union of South American Nations, or UNASUR, which, according to Birns, resembles the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the Organization of American States, or OAS.

"UNASUR is a gathering of exclusively Latin American countries.  This is an OAS without the United States as a member.  And being added to it is a security apparatus, again under Brazilian auspices, which represents an extraordinary challenge to the United States.  And it's very clear that Brazil is beginning to make its stand as a regional superpower and is no longer deferring to the United States," says Birns. "So this is a very vital area.  They're signing agreements among themselves.  They are making trips to otherwise rogue nations.  This isn't your old grandfather's Latin America."

While some analysts argue that Brazil's efforts moderate Latin America's populist governments, Alvaro Vargas Llosa of The Independent Institute, a California-based research organization, says they highlight that the continent has split into two camps.

"One group of countries in which I would place both governments of the center-right and the center-left would like to engage the United States constructively to focus on economic ties and maintaining cordial political contacts," says Llosa.  "The other group -- in which I would place the populist governments like those of Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador or Nicaragua -- would like to create barriers between Latin America and the United States and form a sort of "Anti-U.S. International" with other countries.  They have not been able to separate countries like Brazil and Peru and Mexico from having a cordial relationship with the United States." 

The View From Washington

Also divided is Washington's policy toward Latin America, says Llosa.  He adds that this is due to U.S. preoccupation in other regions and the different priorities various federal agencies have in Central and South America.

"You have agencies that are a lot more interested in the war on drugs, so they would like to put the emphasis on military ties with Latin America and on making Colombia a pivotal case for the rest of the continent," says Llosa.  "But then you have people at the State Department who are much more interested in engaging the region politically and they have been even willing to talk to the Bolivian government, despite the very hostile attitude that the Bolivian government had vis-à-vis the United States, at least in the first few years of the [Bolivian President] Evo Morales government."

Not just Bolivia, says Peter Hakim, President of the policy analysis group Inter-American Dialogue.   After years of neglect, he says the U.S. is paying more attention to Latin America and retooling its foreign policy.

"The U.S. has certainly stopped pressing on Latin American countries to take an adversarial relationship with Venezuela. I think there is a great deal of recognition in this administration about Latin America wanting to have a more independent foreign policy, to have more diverse international relations," says Hakim. "And the next [U.S.] president simply should move forward with the recognition that Latin America has matured.  It's doing pretty well on economic, political and social grounds, and there's every reason to be optimistic about the future."

While most experts say Washington should encourage Latin America to chart its own political course, they urge U.S. policymakers to keep an eye on what the Chinese, the Russians and the Iranians are doing in the region.