As concern grows over the declining ability of the United States to influence events in faraway places such as Syria, little attention has been paid to a significant loss of influence much closer to home — South America, where there is a concerted effort by radical populist governments to erase any trace of U.S. military doctrine.
The U.S. influence is being replaced by a lethal doctrine of asymmetrical warfare, inspired by authoritarian governments seeking perpetual power and nurtured by Iran.
The most recent step of the Venezuela-led “Bolivarian” bloc of nations came in Argentina in June. President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner carried out a little-noticed but significant purge of the armed forces, forcing out some 30 senior officers and replacing them with loyalists and specialists in internal intelligence.
The Argentine purge is only the latest phase of an historic break with the U.S. military, long an overriding objective of the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez and a goal that remains dear to his successor and his main allies, primarily Iran and Russia.
The Venezuela-led Bolivarian alliance — including Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina and Suriname and others — is replacing the U.S. influence with a toxic mix of anti-democratic values, massive corruption and a doctrine that draws on terrorism and totalitarian revolutionary models, including the justification of the use of weapons of mass destruction against the United States.
During the Cold War, the United States tolerated human-rights abusers and supported bloody dictatorships across the region. But over the past two decades its military doctrine and training have focused on human-rights training, respect for civilian governance and the rule of law. In the process it helped transform Latin American militaries away from their coup-prone and authoritarian past to national defense institutions. Colombia is a vibrant example of that change.
In the Bolivarian bloc, this progress has been reversed. Special counter-narcotics units have been disbanded, joint training halted, and those with links to the United States forced into retirement. Argentina’s new army chief, Gen. César Milani, is loyal to the most militant and anti-U.S. wing of the president’s party and will remain as head of intelligence.
Rather than building militaries under civilian control and subject to the rule of law, the Bolivarian leaders are building militaries in the Cuban and Iranian molds — as instruments of their increasingly authoritarian revolutions, to be used against any “counter-revolutionary” dissent, including peaceful democratic protests.
Once the military leadership is deemed loyal, they are given large parts of the national economy to profit from. Like Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Venezuela’s Military Industry Company (CAVIM) is now active in economic spheres far outside the military’s normal purview. At the same time, the narco-corruption in the militaries under the sway of the new doctrine is pervasive.
According to its own literature, the new Bolivarian military doctrine rests on the concept of fourth-generation asymmetrical warfare in which a U.S. invasion is the hemisphere’s primary security concern. The doctrine explicitly advocates the use of weapons of mass destruction to defeat or deter such an attack. The model for resistance is Hezbollah, Iran’s terrorist proxy operating across Latin America.
Iranian influence is palpable. The Islamist regime is helping fund the new Bolivarian military academy in Santa Cruz, Bolivia, where the joint doctrine is being developed. The curriculum draws on the work of Jorge Verstringyne, a Spanish academic who praises al Qaida, Hezbollah and suicide bombings while advocating the use of WMD against the United States; Illich Sánchez Ramirez, better known as Carlos the Jackal, a convicted terrorist serving a life sentence, who converted to Shia Islam in prison and wrote Revolutionary Islam, arguing that the Shia Islamic and Marxist revolutions were natural allies; and Ernesto “Ché” Guevara, the Argentine-Cuban Marxist who fought alongside Fidel Castro.
This little noticed but radical shift of posture of the Bolivarian militaries and their growing ties to Iran and drug corruption pose significant challenges to United States and represents a historic break with traditionally friendly allies. It also presents an enormous obstacle to the return of democratic institutions and the rule of law in Venezuela, Argentina and beyond.
Douglas Farah is the president of IBI Consultants, a national security consulting company and a senior non-resident associate of the CSIS Americas Program.