By Robert D. Kaplan, Chief Geopolitical Analyst, and Karen Hooper
American geopolitical power historically has its source not in Europe or Asia but in the Greater Caribbean. The Greater Caribbean is the world from Yorktown to the Guianas; that is, from the mid-Atlantic states to the jungles of northern South America. The Western Hemisphere, as the Dutch-American strategist Nicholas J. Spykman explained in 1942, is not divided between North and South America. It is divided between the latitudes north of the great barrier of the Amazonian jungle and the latitudes south of it. In other words, from a geopolitical point of view, Venezuela is not a South American country at all. It is a Caribbean country: Most of its population of 28.8 million lives in the north along the Caribbean Sea, secure from the jungles to the south.
While the headlines today are about the Middle East and Asia, for many U.S. presidents from the early 19th century to the early 20th century, foreign policy crises centered on the Greater Caribbean. It was a 100-year process for the young United States to truly wrest control of the Greater Caribbean from European powers. The Greater Caribbean — the Gulf of Mexico plus the Caribbean proper — is, in fact, a blue water territorial extension of the continental United States. Influence over it allowed for the building of the Panama Canal at the beginning of the 20th century. Once the United States could take the Greater Caribbean for granted, America became the hegemon of the Western Hemisphere, with only the Canadian Arctic and the southern cone of South America (including the shadow zones of Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru) truly beyond the security belt carved out by the U.S. Navy in the West Indies. And with the Western Hemisphere under its domination, the United States was henceforth able to affect the balance of power in the Eastern Hemisphere. The American victories in the two world wars and the Cold War were originally built on the geopolitics of the Greater Caribbean.
But as distances have collapsed in a more crowded world increasingly united by technology, the Greater Caribbean has again come into play. It would be an exaggeration to say that the United States is losing control of the region. Indeed, the U.S. Coast Guard on its own is basically able to manage it, while the U.S. Navy is deployed for the most part elsewhere in the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific. Nevertheless, this is now a region beset by massive drug smuggling from Mexico and Central America into the United States and by a robust Chinese commercial presence in the Panama Canal and Venezuela, among other places. Meanwhile, the anomaly of a communist Cuba still staggers on, though arguably that is a problem that could have been effectively dealt with decades ago by a less ideological U.S. foreign policy.
Moreover, for two decades the United States has had to deal with partial state failure in Colombia, followed by the ascent of anti-American radicalism on the part of the government in Venezuela. Venezuela and Colombia are demographic and regional powerhouses in their own right, whose politics have themselves been partly subsumed by the drug trade. Each state is now in an important stage of political transition, with repercussions for America's position in the Western Hemisphere. The stakes are particularly high because of the widening of the Panama Canal in 2014, which will increase global maritime traffic from Colombia and Venezuela all the way north to America's Gulf Coast.
At the moment, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez may be dying. His colon cancer has spread to his bones, according to some reports. In power since 1999, Chavez has brought Venezuela far over to the anti-American left of the ideological spectrum, making ostentatious alliances with Iran, Russia and China. He is planning to run for re-election in October. If he is re-elected, and then dies, or if he dies at any point, Venezuela could be thrown into chaos, partly because of the way his strongman-style rule has eviscerated Venezuela's political institutions. This makes Venezuela, with its soaring crime rate, fundamentally unstable. Under Chavez, Venezuela is operating economically within a narrow margin of error. The country is severely politically estranged from the United States, even as half of its oil, mainly for geographical reasons, is exported to the United States. And because investment in the energy sector has slowed — because of domestic nationalizations — Venezuela is pumping only 2.4 million barrels of oil per day compared to 3.2 million barrels a decade ago. Venezuela's national oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela, has suffered a concurrent decline in efficiency, with a skyrocketing payroll and increasing diversion of oil revenue to finance social projects.
Venezuela badly needs capital to develop the sour and heavy crude oil fields near the Orinoco River in the country's jungled interior, given that output from lighter and sweeter deposits near the Caribbean city of Maracaibo have peaked. But negotiations with the Americans for a new bilateral understanding will be difficult because of Venezuela's complicity with the drug trade and its record of expropriating assets from U.S. companies.
In other words, Venezuela's present strategic direction, marked by hostility to Washington and bad relationships with foreign investors, is probably unsustainable. If Chavez is succeeded not by chaos but rather by current opposition leader Henrique Capriles Radonski, than we can expect a milder version of the current anti-American populism mixed with a more business-friendly climate. Yet another possibility is rule by Foreign Minister Nicholas Maduro, who would in the short run continue Chavez's policies but would face the same economic and structural constraints that have built up under the Chavez administration.
All possible successors are aware that Chavez has been popular with the poor and lower-middle class, a large percentage of the population. Thus, redistributive economic policies are likely to continue, even as they may pave the country's road to further ruin. In order to afford these programs Venezuela will have to reverse the trend of declining oil production. For that, the next government will have to reverse policies that make Venezuela a chancy investment. These changes will require not only guarantees to investors but also changing key factors in the labor market, risking unrest. Despite the challenge to Venezuela's domestic political structure, without these changes, Venezuela's future looks rather bleak and dangerous.
While Venezuela lurches along the political precipice, Colombia next door — the other giant on the Caribbean's southern rim — looks less hopeful than it did a few years back. Alvaro Uribe, Colombia's president during most of the last decade, aligned himself closely with Washington, delivered competent and progressive social and economic policies, and hit insurgent drug armies extremely hard, taking back significant swathes of territory from the guerrillas. But the insurgents, principally the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have staged a comeback, with a focus on attacking oil installations. The FARC has essentially lost its left-wing ideology and is now mainly about drugs and territory. Colombia's current president, Juan Manuel Santos (Uribe's former defense minister), has borne the brunt of the FARC's comeback amidst the growing consolidation of criminal bands that closely resemble dismantled paramilitary organizations of the past. Santos has now sharply broken from Uribe, whose achievements are increasingly in question as corruption cases from high-level officials in his administration continue to emerge. Santos has also rhetorically shifted his foreign policy away from outright friendship with the United States and more toward accommodation with the region, especially in regards to Chavez's Venezuela and Rafael Correa's vaguely anti-American regime in Ecuador.
Thus, Washington cannot count on stability in either Colombia or Venezuela, even as Mexico's drug war continues with 50,000 deaths since 2006 — with most of the violence in northern Mexico near the U.S. border. The United States may dominate the Greater Caribbean in terms of its conventional military power. It may dominate the Greater Caribbean in the sense that no other significant power can challenge America there. But such American power cannot guarantee stability anywhere within the region itself.