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By Alex Pollock

In the post-Cold War world, Latin America and the Caribbean have emerged as more important than ever. The dynamism of the region’s cultures, its prodigious agricultural capacity, and vast energy reserves have made the region’s place in the global community more significant than at any time since the colonial era. The relationship between the United States and Latin America, in particular, has changed, becoming both more symbiotic and extensive. The region is no longer as dependent on the United States as it once was and the countries of the region have increasingly acted independently of the United States in international fora. At the same time that free trade agreements between the United States and many of the countries of the region have permitted new levels of economic integration, alternatives to the US market have also made the region less dependent on its northern neighbour economically.  China, not the US, is now Brazil and Chile’s largest trading partner and Venezuela’s largest creditor. (Duke University Center for Latin American and Caribbean Studies)

The race for influence in Latin America

Latin America and the Caribbean received $105.48 billion in Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in 2020, as the region continues to struggle politically, economically, and socially. Due to the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, Latin America received its lowest amount of FDI since 2010. However, despite the decline in monetary aid, several large-power nations are continuing to invest in infrastructure projects, economic development projects, and social enhancement agendas in the region. The United States, Iran, Russia, and China have all expressed interest in boosting relations with Central and South American nations, in what has become a race for influence in Latin America. South America is a resource-rich area, with natural supplies of precious metals, rubber, sugar, copper, coffee, and oil. Access to these resources has led to foreign intervention in the region for hundreds of years, yet the projects undertaken by foreign investors have yet to make a significant impact on the nations they were meant to serve. Billions of dollars have been spent by numerous countries with the intent of bringing Latin American countries out of systemic poverty and political unrest, yet the region remains in turmoil. Countries such as the US, Russia, Iran, and China have all recently reworked their foreign policies as they pertain to Latin America, with the hope of creating mutually beneficial relationships in the region.

Trends in Latin American foreign policy

Due to the common political structure of Latin American countries, shifts in foreign policy have been more closely correlated with presidential preferences rather than overall party ideology. Many Latin American leaders have, over the years, continued to concentrate more and more authority within the role of the president, and in countries with consistent changes in the presidency, more shifts in foreign policy and international relations have come about. According to a study conducted by the Latin American Research Review, there are two separate foreign policy ideologies that have emerged within a Latin American context: a pro-north ideology and a pro-south ideology. The pro-south model can be most evidently seen within the framework of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA). ALBA is an alliance between several Latin American and Caribbean nations that was founded by former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and former Cuban president Fidel Castro in 2004. The aim of the alliance is to “achieve integral development for Latin America and the Caribbean through a process of integration inspired by the likes of Simon Bolivar and Jose Marti.” Simon Bolivar is the former president of Bolivia and is credited with leading several South American countries on their path to independence from Spain. The member states of ALBA – Venezuela, Cuba, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Dominica, Antigua and Barbuda, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Saint Lucia, Grenada, and the Federation of Saint Kitts and Nevis – aim to be anti-imperialist, anti-neoliberal, and anti-capitalist, working to defend their independence and self-determination. The governments of these nations have a goal of achieving Simon Bolivar’s dream of creating a “Big Homeland” that is completely free from colonial and imperialist influence. Because of this goal, the Bolivarian nations have shown more interest in partnering with other developing nations in a “third-world solidarity”, as well as other nations in the Global South, rather than nations like the US and European countries. Other Latin American countries, including Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay have adhered to more of a pro-north foreign policy trend, attempting to secure aid, political support, and increased trade opportunities with more developed nations like the United States and various European countries. Individual presidents’ views on the role of former colonialist nations and their continued impact within the region have affected how many Latin American countries continue to form and develop their foreign policy with nations who are trying to increase their influence in Latin America.

The United States in Latin America

As the region’s closest neighbour, the United States has played a large role in the political, social, and economic affairs of Latin America. However, after President Joe Biden took office in January 2021, the US has aimed to drastically re-work its foreign policy in Latin America. As part of the restructuring, President Biden has sent multiple delegates to visit the region and conduct “listening sessions” in an attempt to better understand how Central and South American nations view their relationships with the US. In October, National Security Advisor Daleep Singh met with leaders of Colombia, Ecuador, and Panama to discuss the ‘Build Back Better World’ (B3W) initiative, an initiative designed to counter China’s ‘Belt and Road’ by providing funding to lower and middle-income countries. During the visit, the US delegation announced a plan to give $26 million to assist Venezuelan migrants and Colombian farmers. Vice President Kamala Harris has also visited Latin American countries, as she has been tasked with finding ways to mitigate the crisis at the US-Mexico border. She addressed the issues of corruption and lack of economic opportunities with the leaders of several South American countries earlier this year.

The United States has attempted to put political pressure on authoritarian leaders in Latin America, more so than other outside parties, due to political turmoil being one of the major causes of mass migration from Latin America to the United States. The US has criticised the governments of Colombia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua for committing human rights abuses and hindering the democratic process. This pressure has led to these nations growing closer with China and Russia, whose governments share more ideological commonalities. Critics of US foreign policy in Latin America accuse the US administration of investing heavily in the region to counter China, rather than working to improve the conditions in Latin America for the benefit of the people. Latin America is more and more becoming a new battleground for larger world powers as they compete for greater global influence.

China in Latin America

As of 2021, five Central and South American countries – Guatemala, Honduras, Paraguay, Nicaragua, and Belize – officially recognised Taiwan, hindering their ability to do business with China. Despite these holdout nations, China is steadily increasing its influence in the other countries in the region. Initially, China’s dealings with Latin American countries focussed primarily on the Bolivarian bloc, but over the last few years, China has used the promise of aid to woo others into geopolitical relationships. Panama, the Dominican Republic, and El Salvador all recently changed their diplomatic recognition to Beijing, rather than Taiwan, and in return received aid and the promise of investment projects from China.

As the United States is almost completely re-working its foreign policy in Latin America following the change in administration, China is using the uncertainty of future US-Latin America relations to make its mark in the region. Nineteen countries throughout Latin America and the Caribbean have joined China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, a trillion-dollar infrastructure project that now includes 139 countries. In 2019, China invested almost $13 billion in Latin America for projects such as railways, roads, dams, and ports. That’s a 16.5% increase in funding from the previous year, and China is now Latin America’s largest trading partner, with most trade business being conducted with Brazil and Mexico. Some commentators have expressed concern that China will not be able to follow through with all its promised infrastructure involvements in Latin America, citing the failure of an oil refinery project in Costa Rica that was cancelled due to environmental concerns in 2016, and an environmental disaster caused by a Chinese-built hydroelectric dam that led to a major oil spill in Ecuador that same year.  A report released by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean stated that China is at a critical point in its relationship with Latin America. The opportunity to have a great impact in the region is there, but China must now prove that its development policies can have a positive long-term effect on the region’s development and stability.

Iran in Latin America

In October 2021, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian met with Venezuelan Foreign Minister Felix Plasencia to announce a 20-year cooperation deal that will deepen political and economic ties between the two countries. A joint economic cooperation commission will be formed in Tehran by the end of the year to finalise the specifics of the agreement, which was designed to provide relief to both nations in defiance of US sanctions. The cooperation agreement comes two months after a meeting between Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and ALBA Executive Secretary Sacha Llorenti, in which Mr Raisi explained that expanding Iran’s relationship with Latin America is a priority of his administration, adding that “there is no doubt that a greater development of relations between Iran and Latin American countries can counter the US and other arrogant countries.” The relationship between Iran and Latin America, more specifically Venezuela, has flourished under the pressure of US sanctions. In June 2020, Iran successfully sent several tankers of oil to Venezuela as the country faced extreme fuel shortages. The continued development of the relationship between Iran and Venezuela, as well as the potential growth of Iran-ALBA relations, has alarmed Western leaders as the governments of Iran and many ALBA states continue to foster anti-Western sentiment.

Russia in Latin America 

Similar to Iran, Russia’s most prominent involvement in Latin America is with countries that are at odds with the United States, namely Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua. Russia’s backing of these nations provides them with international support as their popularity declines in international circles. Russia has also contributed to the economic sector of several Latin American nations, with their annual trade growing by 44% between 2006-2016, reaching its highest level at $12 billion. Most of Russia’s dealings are within the gas and oil industries, however, due to US sanctions, Russia’s overall impact on those sectors is minimal. In 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed security agreements with Cuba, Nicaragua, Brazil, and Argentina, increasing its presence within the region further, but those deals have also failed to produce much in terms of increasing Russian influence in those nations. According to Dr Samual Ramani, a researcher focusing on Russian foreign policy at the University of Oxford: “Russia has struggled to convert its rising profile in Latin America into genuine leverage. Russia’s limited commercial presence outside of the energy sector, dwindling arms sales and soft power deficit ensure that it is a spoiler rather than a strategic rival to the US in Latin America. In the months ahead, Russia could leverage its support for authoritarian regimes in Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua to establish elite-level normative ties with Latin American officials, but it will struggle to form diversified partnerships with the region’s leading powers.” To compete with the influence of the United States and China, Russia will have to find a way to make more practical, long-lasting partnerships within the social, economic, and political spheres of Latin American society.


A study on global Christianity published in Sage Journal recorded the recent shift in missions from the ‘Global North’ to the ‘Global South’. In 2020, it was estimated that two-thirds of the world’s Christians reside in the ‘Global South’, and it is predicted that that number will grow to 77% by 2050. The growing number of Christians and interest in missions in the Global South – which includes Latin America – increases the potential of the Latin Church to significantly impact missions. An INcontext contact serving as a pastor in the region described how many churches in Latin America allocate only 5-10% of their total income to missions and evangelism programmes and activities. If Latin American church leaders can be trained up and equipped to mobilise their congregations to participate in fulfilling the Great Commission, Latin America can become a strong missionary force. That potential is demonstrated within the nation of Brazil. Over the last several years, Brazil has grown to be one of the top missionary-sending nations in the world.

According to the pastor, the main hindrances the Latin American Church faces is ongoing political, social, and economic unrest. While the circumstances facing many Latin countries are not new, congregations continue to struggle to look past their circumstances and focus on the Kingdom of God first. Many congregation members suffer in the same ways their non-believing neighbours do. Violence within communities, social unrest, and a lack of resources plague Latin American societies, and the Church is not immune to that suffering. However, the pastor has put forth a challenge to the Latin American Church: “There will always be crises, problems, and persecutions. We were told that by Jesus. The violent devastation of human life is without a doubt the largest problem facing our society in Latin America. It has created a dangerous atmosphere; crime and the panic that it produces. The battle is not against the Church, but society itself. Our society speaks about social reconstruction and development. We as a Church should seek to be a society that does not dominate or exploit, but rather protects the rights of the weak, building a solid foundation of mercy, compassion, and forgiveness.”

Crime and political dysfunction play a major role in the mass exodus of people from Latin American countries. If the Latin American Church can focus itself on being a key player in reconciliation efforts, in promoting Biblical principles of peace and restoration, together with well-executed foreign investment strategies, more stable conditions can be created, allowing people the opportunity to stay in their home countries. Latin America has long been a large missionary receiving region. Together with those foreign workers, the larger body of believers can pray that foreign powers will work alongside Latin American governments to uplift the people in the communities that will receive infrastructure projects.  For the Latin American Church to reach its full missional potential, it needs to start by building healthy, Christ-serving communities within its own region. The Church in Latin America is well-positioned to be the ‘hands and feet’ of Jesus to those around them, fulfilling physical needs, as well as spiritual ones. The global Church can pray for Latin American church leaders to remain focussed on things of eternity, to lead their congregations well, and to fulfil their role in mobilising people to help complete the Great Commission.

Please pray with us for the following:

  • For the Latin American Church to know and remain focussed on the mission and vision of Christ
  • For Latin American Church leaders to be trained and equipped; and that they will lead and train their congregations in fulfilling the Great Commission
  • For believers who face tremendous societal problems to not be discouraged, but to be strengthened and supported, that they will remain, being ‘salt and light’ in their communities


Image: REUTERS/Sabine Greppo