Where Is Latin America in the Fight against ISIL?

Last week, Venezuela was elected to a temporary seat on the UN Security Council (UNSC) as the representative of Latin America and the Caribbean. Long an antagonist to the United States and its interests—both in the Western Hemisphere and around the world—Venezuela will, in all likelihood, align itself primarily with other countries who typically oppose U.S.-led initiatives on the Council.

It is, at best, difficult to imagine Venezuela standing in support of U.S. proposals on the UNSC. But with global crises like the conflict in Ukraine and the rising power of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in the Middle East, the prospect of a UNSC member unfriendly to U.S. interests presents challenges.

At first glance, it’s easy to write off Venezuela’s role on the council as an inaccurate representation of Latin American interests and priorities on the global stage. But the U.S.-led coalition to combat ISIL’s rise in particular suggests a different reality—one in which Latin American countries decreasingly see where their interests overlap with the United States in the Middle East. To date, over 60 countries from every region of the world have declared themselves “coalition partners” committed to the goals of eliminating ISIL’s threat—every region, that is, except Latin America.

So why has Latin America kept quiet?

Q1: What is Latin America’s historical involvement in confrontations in the Middle East?

A1: Since 9/11, Latin American countries have frequently been at odds with the United States over its security agenda in the Middle East.

During the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, the United States built a 58-country coalition of support; in Latin America, only El Salvador joined the coalition—though the support it provided was nonmilitary.

In 2003’s invasion in Iraq, seven Latin American countries openly supported the war: Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama. And two of the closest U.S. allies in the region, Mexico and Chile, opposed the UN resolution authorizing the use of force in Iraq, actively condemning the war.

It seems, then, many countries in Latin America have historically hesitated to support U.S. military involvement in the Middle East, staying far outside those conflicts despite their global security relevance.

Q2: Why are countries in Latin America skeptical of ISIL’s relevance to their own interests?

A2: So much of U.S. foreign policy prioritizes the Middle East. Between oil interests, the alliance with Israel, democracy promotion, and the war on terror, the Middle East is a flashpoint for U.S. foreign policy—and has been for decades.

But in contrast, Latin American countries have, in general, not enjoyed robust relations with their counterparts in the Middle East. Much of the interregional interactions have been in the form of capital investment flows, but even these have been limited at best.

So while from a U.S. perspective, it is hard to imagine a foreign policy without Middle Eastern security and stability among its top priorities, the same cannot be said for Latin America. Generally noninterventionist in ideology, with a premium on the respect for sovereignty, Latin American governments have found themselves unable to justify military engagement in a region they perceive as nonpivotal to their own well-being.

Q3: What’s at stake for Latin America in this conflict?

A3: The U.S. government has long been concerned about threats to Latin American nations from various terrorist groups. The region is no stranger to these threats, having dealt with terrorism for decades.

In 1994, the Asociación Mutual Israelita Argentina (AMIA) in Buenos Aires was bombed. Argentina, home to the largest Jewish population in Latin America, accused Hezbollah and Iran of perpetrating the attack, which killed 85 and injured hundreds.

Though it has not been the primary focus of the war on terrorism, terrorists have used Latin America to raise resources and advance their causes.

This is, perhaps, nowhere more apparent than in the Tri-Border Area (TBA), where Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay have historically struggled to combat lawlessness, corruption, and money laundering to the benefit of international terrorist groups. And the United States has been involved in this effort through the 3+1 Group on Tri-Border Area Security. Instability and weak government presence in many parts of Latin America make it fertile ground for illicit activity, and the region’s proximity to the United States only increases the likelihood that global terrorist groups could use Latin American soil and resources to their own benefit.

And the region’s large and growing population of Arab descent is a factor, too. Some 15 million people from Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, and Chile alone self-identify as Arab—and this reality could, if not yet, impact regional policymaking.

So what can Latin America do to help, particularly given the region’s distaste for military intervention?

Many of the countries in the anti-ISIL coalition are providing support via military aid and airpower. But with an adversary like ISIL, support is just as important on the domestic side. Much of ISIL’s threat stems from its ability to recruit support and militants from outside the Middle East. And the potential that those recruiting efforts could target Latin Americans is not farfetched.

Conclusion: According to Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson, the U.S. government does not expect all governments—or, perhaps, any from Latin America—to contribute to the anti-ISIL effort through military action. But the governments can provide “invaluable” support by making a concerted effort to impede ISIL’s recruitment of foreign fighters. And beyond such efforts, the region could support the fight against ISIL by working to cut off the organization’s access to financial resources and by providing the humanitarian assistance sorely needed for the millions affected by the conflict in the Middle East.

NATO has agreed to spearhead the campaign to degrade and destroy ISIL. The Arab League has come out in support of the ongoing Western efforts to combat the group. And the UN Security Council issued a statement stressing that ISIL “must be defeated and that the intolerance, violence, and hatred it espouses must be stamped out.”

So when will countries in Latin America get on board?

Carl Meacham is director of the Americas Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Karina Rodriguez, intern scholar with the Americas Program, provided research assistance.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Carl Meacham