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Soft power has become a significant tool in modern international relations, allowing nations to influence and attract other countries through non-coercive means. In Latin America and the Caribbean, the United States has historically relied heavily on its economic and military power to maintain influence. However, in recent years, the region has undergone significant political and social transformations, and the traditional power dynamics have shifted. Therefore, the United States needs to focus on strengthening its soft power capabilities in the region through deepening cooperation. The White House’s 2022 National Security Strategy attempts to balance the need for more cooperation with the clear challenges that have developed in the hemisphere over the last two decades. The current state of U.S. soft power in Latin America and the Caribbean highlights the need for further investment in specific initiatives to enhance cooperation and improve diplomatic relations.
Soft power, first coined by Joseph Nye in the 1980s, is the ability to influence others through attraction rather than coercion or payment. It is a crucial element of modern foreign policy and plays a vital role in shaping relations between nations. People often see the United States as a major soft power in the world, with its cultural products, political values, and economic clout shaping the opinions and preferences of individuals across the globe. However, in Latin America and the Caribbean, some view U.S. soft power as on the decline, with negative perceptions of the United States increasing and alternative models of governance and development gaining traction. This article explores soft power from both the United States and Latin American perspectives, analyzing the perceptions of effectiveness for both regions and where they can go from here.
U.S. Soft Power in Latin America
There are several reasons why U.S. soft power is perceived to be in a state of decline in Latin America and the Caribbean. One of the main factors is the history of U.S. interventions in the region, often seen as paternalistic and imperialistic. From the Monroe Doctrine in the 19th century to the interventions in Cuba, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic in the 20th century to more recent interventions in Haiti and Venezuela, the United States has often been perceived by some as a bully that seeks to impose its will on weaker countries. Previous U.S. support for (or at the very least ambivalence toward) authoritarian regimes—such as Pinochet in Chile, Somoza in Nicaragua, and Batista in Cuba—has reinforced this perception.
Another factor that has eroded U.S. soft power in the region is the rise of alternative models of governance and development. In recent years, countries like Brazil, Mexico, and Argentina have successfully promoted their own development models, which emphasize social inclusion, environmental protection, and regional integration. These models have been popular, especially among left-leaning governments and social movements, and have provided an alternative to the neoliberal model that the United States and international financial institutions have promoted. The other side of that coin is represented by authoritarian regimes that have taken root in Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and briefly in Brazil. A tilt toward illiberal democracy threatens the idea of soft power as an effective tool, but creating a uniting force through soft power’s core tenets remain viable.
Soft power is an important tool for countries to project their values, culture, and ideals to others in a way that attracts admiration and cooperation. However, when a country’s internal policies and practices contradict those ideals, it can undermine its power. Despite this threat, promoting democratic principles, human rights, the rule of law, and economic development—all hallmarks of effective soft power—common ground and reciprocal influence could transcend individual leaders or political ideologies.
A third factor contributing to the decline of U.S. soft power in the region is the changing demographics of Latin America and the Caribbean. The region is becoming more diverse, with indigenous peoples, Afro-descendants, and other marginalized groups demanding greater political representation and social justice. These groups often perceive the United States as a hegemonic power that is indifferent to their concerns and have therefore become more skeptical of U.S. influence.
Latin America’s Soft Power Abroad
While traditionally associated with major powers such as the United States, China, and Russia, smaller and developing nations have also used soft power to achieve their goals. In Latin America and the Caribbean, soft power has significantly shaped regional dynamics and international perceptions of the area due to its rich cultural heritage. From the music of Brazil and Cuba to the literature of Colombia and Mexico, the region’s cultural output has been a key component in the projection of its soft power.
Latin American and Caribbean countries have increasingly recognized the importance of soft power in their foreign policy. This is particularly relevant as they have historically been marginalized in the international system and face many challenges in promoting their interests and values globally. Without the leverage of hard power, the often more subtle nature of soft power provides these countries with a venue to project a positive image of the region and promote cultural diversity and values. They can harness soft power through specific assets: culture and arts, tourism, sports, diplomacy, and education.
Strategies for Bolstering Soft Power
Despite these challenges, there are several strategies that the United States could use to strengthen its soft power in the region. One is to promote greater cultural exchange and understanding between the United States, Latin America, and the Caribbean. This could involve supporting programs that encourage language learning, student exchanges, and cultural festivals and promoting the work of Latin American artists, writers, and musicians in the United States. By increasing cultural understanding, the United States could demonstrate that it values the diversity of the region and is interested in learning from its rich heritage.
Another strategy is to support democratic institutions and human rights in the region. This could involve providing technical assistance to governments and civil society organizations that promote democratic governance, freedom of expression, and the rule of law. By more aggressively supporting these institutions, the United States could demonstrate that it is committed to the values of democracy and human rights and is willing to work in partnership with countries in the region to achieve these goals.
Finally, the United States could promote greater economic integration and cooperation. This could involve expanding trade agreements, promoting investment in key sectors such as renewable energy and infrastructure, and supporting regional integration initiatives. This will require a sustained and comprehensive effort on the part of the United States. The United States can help build a more prosperous and integrated region by working with regional partners and supporting economic development initiatives.
Partners With Shared Goals
By understanding the factors that contribute to effective soft power in a modern context and by adopting new strategies that emphasize cultural exchange, democratic institutions, and economic cooperation, the United States can adjust to the external actors who have set their sights on the region. Over the past four months, China, Russia, and Iran have been strengthening their relationships throughout the region. Iran committed to a new shipping route with Venezuela to sidestep sanctions and announced plans to expand its naval presence in the Panama Canal zone. China began to approach the lending market in the region with a strategy that focuses on smaller amounts but highly targeted loans. China also continues to leverage its loans in the Americas to pressure countries to break off ties with Taiwan. Finally, leaked U.S. classified documents revealed that Russia, as well as China, have deepening footholds in Latin America and the Caribbean. These documents outlined several Russian plans to leverage regional relationships to strengthen its position and counter U.S. actions.
The United States has a long and complex history with Latin America and the Caribbean, but working in partnership with countries can build a more equitable and sustainable future for all. It is worth noting that President Biden has already taken steps in this direction. His administration has pledged to support democratic institutions and human rights in the region and has emphasized the importance of multilateralism and diplomacy in its foreign policy approach. Additionally, Biden’s administration has expressed a commitment to addressing the root causes of migration from Central America by promoting economic development and social inclusion.
However, there is still much work to be done. The United States must be willing to listen to the concerns and perspectives that come from the people in the region and to work in partnership with them to address shared challenges. Ultimately, the success of U.S. soft power in Latin America and the Caribbean will depend on the ability of the United States to demonstrate that it is committed to the values of democracy, human rights, and shared prosperity, and that it is willing to work in partnership to achieve these goals.
Jeffery A. Tobin is a doctoral candidate in the Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs at Florida International University. He holds a master’s degree in Latin American and Caribbean Studies and was a journalist for more than 20 years.