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Hal Brands

South America Is a Battlefield in the New Cold War

The Venezuela crisis is a test of Russian and Chinese power in America’s backyard.

Oil is greasing this handshake.

Oil is greasing this handshake.

Photographer: Leo Ramirez/AFP/Getty Images

The political crisis in Venezuela has pitted the U.S. against a dictator who refuses to leave office. But the crisis has a broader significance: It shows that Latin America has again become an arena in which rival great powers struggle for influence and advantage. As the U.S. faces surging geopolitical rivalry around the world, its position is also coming under pressure in its own backyard.

The region has been the focus of global competition before, of course, from the Spanish-Portuguese rivalry of the 15th and 16th centuries to the Cold War between Washington and Moscow. But after the fall of the Soviet Union, Latin America seemed — for a time, at least — to have become a geopolitics-free zone. The retreat and disintegration of the Soviet Union left the U.S. with no challenger for predominant regional influence. Castro’s Cuba turned inward, consumed by a profound economic crisis. As countries democratized and embraced free markets, the region became essentially unipolar in an ideological sense, as well.