Fires in the neighbourhood: Will Latin America's turmoil singe America’s global standing?

Regional crises, refugees, narco-states, and ruthless gangs may affect U.S. polls

HAITI-VIOLENCE/ People wait to collect water in containers along a street after Haiti's Prime Minister Ariel Henry pledged to step down following months of escalating gang violence, in Port-au-Prince in Haiti | PTI

Democracy's dominoes are toppling across America's southern realm — from the anarchic implosion of Haiti to the authoritarian entrenchment of Venezuela, Nicaragua, and El Salvador to gang-infested streets and prisons in Ecuador, Colombia, and Guatemala to economic instability in Argentina and Bolivia.

This regional unraveling, spawning human floods and emboldening criminal empires, now looms as an electoral menace in the US. Will these crises shatter its authority and destabilise politics from the Rio Grande to the Potomac?

As prolonged trouble festers across Latin America, haunting the US with converging caravans of migrants, emboldened crime syndicates, and collapsing democracies in its own backyard, President Biden confronts a galling irony: His core pledge to rally the free world around upholding democracy and human rights abroad risks being undermined by the perception of impotence along its most vital frontiers. 

And that, in turn, risks turning American voters to easy populist solutions.

From Haiti's anarchic devolution into a lawless wasteland to Venezuela's entrenchment as a repressive dictatorship aligned with the US adversaries, longstanding regional emergencies appear to be tumbling past rhetorical debates over "root causes" and policy nuances into open contempt for American leadership and sovereignty. 

The salience of these interlocking crises could not only render Biden's vaunted global agenda dead-lettered come election time – it may well shape domestic political conditions in ways that threaten his party's grip on power in the pivotal swing states and Latino communities whose vote across America’s southern sunbelt states elected him.

Nightmare in the Caribbean

For over a century, Haiti's tragic descent has tormented American policymakers like a permanent migraine – a quagmire that extinguishes the ambitions of anyone who tries to solve it. 

Today, the troubled Caribbean nation has fully shed any pretense of democracy, deteriorating into a grindingly poor narco-state where all order has collapsed beneath the boots of heavily armed paramilitary gangs.

The scenes unfolding in the Western Hemisphere's most desperate territory appear ripped from the darkest realms of supernatural horror. Gun-toting gangsters in towns like Cité Soleil patrol major roads into the capital, using arson, kidnapping, and naked violence to subjugate the impoverished masses. 

Jailbreaks routinely empty prisons first of allies, then of weapons and ammunition to resupply the rank-and-file. All basic supply lines grind to a halt amid this atmosphere of persistent extortion, inflaming a humanitarian emergency as food, water, and medical aid turn to vinegar across the blighted landscape.

ALSO READ: Haiti burning: Inside the collapse of a nation as gangs take control

"Haiti is the premier example of a catastrophic breakdown of democracy and human rights fueling broader insecurity across our entire hemisphere," says Jorge Castaneda, a former foreign minister of Mexico. And the United States' inability to quell the chaos lays bare the limitations of its power and principles when pushed to the brink in its own backyard."

The origins of Haiti's current hell trace back to the still-unsolved assassination of its last democratically elected president in 2021. Not a single culprit in the audacious killing of Jovenel Moïse has been convicted, underscoring the nation's total collapse of law and order. 

In the power vacuum that followed, heavily armed factions backed by drug cartels and oligarchs began marauding across the country, settling petty scores with brutal efficiency while rapidly enriching themselves through kidnapping rings and controlling access to key infrastructure like ports and roadways.

Today, no corner of Haitian society has escaped the merciless grip of these gangs. Outbreaks of cholera and other preventable diseases ripple outward amid shuttered hospitals and a strangled aid distribution network. 

Entire cities sink into rolling blackouts for weeks at a time, snuffing out the basic functions of modern commerce as businesses board up and flee. Basic essentials like gasoline and drinking water turn into scarce luxuries wielded as weapons by those with the biggest arsenals.

America's conundrum in this nightmare scenario is that it faces only two equally unpalatable options, neither offering any clear pathway to meaningful resolution. Washington can deploy troops, likely activated National Guard units or special forces, in a bid to forcefully stabilize the environment and create conditions for elections and the rebirth of civil society. 

Or it can continue a de facto policy of paralysis, avoiding any new commitment of troops and treasure while allowing Haiti's decline to fully metastasize into a chronic regional crisis fueling refugees, transnational crime, and disease.

Aside from the gripping humanitarian toll, the costs of American impotence on this matter has ramifications in disturbing ways. 

Every image of mayhem in the streets of the Port-au-Prince or Croix-des-Bouquets broadcasts to the world that the United States, for all its power and treaty commitments in the Western Hemisphere, is impotent to uphold basic security and human rights even in its most proximate sphere of influence. 

More practically, Haiti is quickly becoming an incubator for terror groups and violent criminal syndicates seeking a foothold for penetrating deeper into the Americas. "The Biden administration talks a big game about restoring democracy and development as drivers of human rights and security," says Phil Manger, a Haitian-American political analyst. "Well, Haiti represents a total system collapse of those putative priorities, fueled by American dithering and lack of a credible strategy for intervention or stabilization."

Security experts already report upticks in gang activity bleeding outward from Haiti to neighboring nations like the Bahamas, where transnational organizations are recruiting migrants and trafficking poor souls into smuggling operations to the continental US for profit.

Washington's Haitian headache speaks to its larger troubles projecting influence and shaping outcomes in the Americas during the past two decades. 

Once a region where the United States could spur regime changes from afar through deft applications of pressure and inducements, the erosion of American military and economic advantage has transformed it into an arena where projecting power is difficult and fraught with peril in an area that has become the battleground of new regional influence players such as Russia, China, India, Iran, and Turkey.

Hawkish critics bemoan this enervation as a product of feckless leadership and a loss of national will. Doves frame it as long-overdue prudence and restraint after painful lessons of overreach.

Whether this quandary stems from a loss of American hard power and influence, or merely a long-overdue injection of humility into the interventionist impulses that have marred Washington's record through cycles of hubris and miscalculation, resolving it demands reckoning with new global realities. 

At the same time, no American administration can neglect the radioactive optics of the world's greatest power abdicating its stabilising presence in the Caribbean basin – especially when anguished images of human suffering reach voters in pivotal swing states and suburban districts.

The melancholy reality is that the fate of Haiti remains an open wound on America's conscience, one whose only certainty is the promise of rippling destabilisation and human misery absent dramatic initiatives to change course. 

This Caribbean dystopia represents the most extreme test of America's regional leadership and stomach for principled action at a time of daunting fiscal constraints and skepticism of interventions abroad. Resolving it may require summoning vestiges of American hard power and resolve not yet apparent in Washington.

Bedlam at the border

Among the multitude of crises afflicting America's standing and national interests across Latin America and the Caribbean basin, perhaps none looms larger than the daily pandemonium unfolding along the southern border, where a record influx of migrants has overwhelmed federal agencies and fueled a backlash from voters already skeptical of leadership in Washington. Trump has made the border crisis a hot election-year issue.

The images piped into living rooms and computer screens across America are politically damning: Desperate families from across the hemisphere cramming to cross the Rio Grande. 

Weary clusters of migrants huddled under foil blankets on the ground as refugees continue pouring in from Venezuela and beyond; footage of overwhelmed U.S. agents shouting over crying children as they herd people into overcrowded detention centers resembling makeshift refugee camps is the stuff of emotional political ads that run ad nauseum.

Conservatives seize on these scenes as proof of federal incompetence and an "open borders" agenda, alleging the chaos results from covert sympathies in Washington toward fully decriminalising illegal immigration, capitalizing on the populist fear of strangers. 

Progressives decry a humanitarian catastrophe, claiming the border crisis results from a stubborn obsession with deterring and criminalizing asylum-seekers fleeing violence and persecution rather than creating orderly, humane pathways.

Graphic scenes of violence, chaos and millions of migrants left starving and repressed by America's failing neighbors have transcended policy to become a daily liability for Biden and Democrats. 

When Venezuelans are malnourished en masse while Maduro enriches himself and Haitian gangs run amok while refugees pour across the southern border, it cements the perception of American impotence and decay. Issues like these will move voters in Florida, Texas, Arizona, and other battleground states come November.

Perhaps no single issue better encapsulates the myriad woes radiating from America's imperiled backyard than the border crisis, whose relentless waves of unauthorized migration may soon be compounded by emergent catastrophes brewing across the hemisphere.

Biden Administration officials point to ongoing efforts to rebuild the Trump-hollowed-out asylum bureaucracy and address root causes like gang violence, poverty and environmental disruptions that spur migrants to undertake the dangerous northbound trek, and how Trump has scuttled bipartisan agreements addressing the issue because they would help Biden’s reelection.

Republican candidates, sensing a potent wedge issue, are ramping up demagoguery portraying the chaos as the product of a secret liberal agenda to erase national sovereignty and privilege criminals over citizens, the populist appeal has catapulted Trump to the nomination. 

Democrats have spent years trying to regain control, blaming much of the pandemonium on the Trump administration's dismantling of established legal processes for screening asylum claims and managing orderly entries. 

They point to steps aimed at humanely rebuilding asylum processing and creating more pathways for migrants to apply for work visas from afar as evidence their approach, though imperfect, stresses order over draconian deterrence policies and family separations.

But that nuanced messaging falls flat when contrasted with viral scenes of massive migrant caravans barreling toward ports of entry, or influxes that have necessitated the revival of temporary detentions centers never intended to warehouse families for extended periods. 

To critics across the political spectrum, the lack of clear control and unified chain of command at the border looks like a worrying abdication of national sovereignty – all playing out in real-time on cable news.

"Most Americans don't want to hear more jargon and excuse-making about complicated bureaucracy and outdated laws," says Manger. "They want to see order restored at the border through clear rules and processes that halt the sense of chaos and demonstrate a government firmly in charge of its territory."

The stakes of finding that equilibrium are enormous, more than most domestic policy challenges. Suburban swing voters repelled by images of overrun facilities and maxed-out federal capacities could easily tilt away from incumbents seen as weak on border security. 

Working-class Latino communities near the boundary lines tend to eye reducing illegal immigration as a priority, fearing displacement and economic disruption. 

Meanwhile, Republicans have intensified efforts to paint the entire border zone as a gaping wound through which undocumented migrants, fentanyl, and transnational criminal elements are essentially invited across unmanned boundaries.

A second, equally combustible dimension of this crisis pertains to the root causes driving unprecedented waves of migrants north from the Central American nations of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. 

Chronic poverty, lack of economic opportunity, and the perpetual rule of corrupt authoritarian strongmen have been exacerbated by successive bouts of drought, famine, and violent gang activity from criminal groups and cartels exploiting state collapse.

The reality is that few policy conundrums better encapsulate the backlash toward American leadership abroad than the border crisis with its bipartisan furors and stubborn resistance to easy solutions. 

Rightwing hyperbole aside, the salience of border images like kids stuffed into overcrowded cells and human caravans trundling through the Rio Grande is hardening into a public relations disaster for Democrats with broad electoral implications,

Suburban voters fear their communities are destabilised by migrant influxes. Latinos in states like Texas prioritise border security and orderly immigration. Both groups are critical constituencies in 2024 and neither appears placated by Biden's approach so far. 

Perhaps more worrisome are the escalating ripple effects from more sudden catastrophes emerging in politically polarised nations like Guatemala, El Salvador, Ecuador, and Colombia – all of which have been rattled by spiraling crises severely exacerbating northbound migrant flows just as America's bureaucratic capabilities for processing asylum claims remains overmatched.

In Colombia, a shocking sequence of prison riots and jailbreaks in recent months essentially abolished government control over entire facilities from Cali to the capital of Bogotá, with guards and officials simply fleeing as incarcerated gang leaders orchestrated mass escapes. 

Criminal factions like the Jalisco New Generation Cartel moved swiftly to replenish their ranks with hardened escapees while using jails as staging grounds for storing pilfered arms and narcotics. 

As if that security vacuum weren't concerning enough, Colombia's surging displacement numbers may prove even more alarming. Over 600,000 Colombians were internally displaced in 2022 alone amid spiraling feuds between criminal syndicates like the Gulf Clan and remaining FARC holdouts fighting for control over smuggling routes and coca-cultivating territories. 

Many of those uprooted families fled regions already destabilised by mass deforestation and mudslides from illegal mining operations undertaken by militants enriching themselves on gold shipments and money laundering.

The deteriorating order exacerbates a dynamic fueling global concern that the Western hemisphere's most economically stable democracy may be barreling toward a failed state malaise, in which the central government loses its monopoly on violence. 

Even more alarming, deepening lack of opportunity and services in rural regions disrupted by conflict are empowering agitators urging migration to the United States, fueling new migrant caravans – undercutting Biden's standing with Colombian President Gustavo Petro, who has emerged as a critic of U.S. war on drugs policies commonly blamed for perpetuating bloodshed. 

ALSO READ: How migrants risk death in Darién jungle to get to US

The Southern border crisis appears poised to absorb further convulsions from Guatemala and El Salvador, where prison unrest and gang violence have dramatically spiked over the past year. In Guatemala, two separate riots in February saw over 200 prisoners break out of jails in Quetzaltenango and Zacapa cities. Sixteen inmates were killed and the escapes requiring the mobilization of 2,000 army troops to put down the unrest.

Guatemala's relentless gang violence, perpetuating a youth refugee crisis as adolescents flee recruitment by cartels, already sees over 150 Guatemalans applying for US asylum each day. Startlingly, nearly all those requests originate from smuggling operations and recruitment cells based in just two departments – Huehuetenango and San Marcos provinces, where collapsing social order has emboldened transnational gangs to establish a firm foothold.

Similar dynamics prevail in El Salvador, where periodic prison riots and an escalating number of homicides nationwide have produced a cycle of vigilante justice and impunity so corrosive, human rights defenders are sounding alarms of a return to open civil war between state forces and criminal organizations. 

Already, the refugee outflows of unaccompanied minors from El Salvador have reached a critical mass, with thousands showing up at the US border each month after fleeing forcible gang recruitment and "tax" collection rackets in cities where schools have essentially ceased operating. 

"El Salvador and Guatemala are shattered societies hemorrhaging their futures to outright criminality unchecked by law and order," says Luis Pintor, a former US official. "They are factory nations for producing traumatized migrants that wind up crashing humanitarian systems and public services along the American border with their urgent claims of relief from crippling types of urban warfare."

Even nations further south appear increasingly primed to backslide in ways fueling more insecurity and migratory crises impacting America's doorstep. Bolivia is barreling headlong toward an economic collapse that could unleash regional tumult and more refugees northbound.

The crisis metastasizing in the heart of South America stems from its lopsided dependence on natural gas exports. Following a prolonged period of supply chain disruption stemming from the covid pandemic, a new and withering price war has resulted as major importers like Brazil have pivoted away from expensive Bolivian supplies to cheaper liquefied natural gas from the United States and Middle East. 

Those pivots have deprived La Paz of billions in expected gas revenues, forcing the left-wing government to start burning through its dollar reserves to maintain subsidy policies. The nation is mired in a severe dollar shortage that impedes imports and international commerce, with cascading repercussions thorough its economy.

With reserves dwindling at an alarming rate and its all-important gas revenues deteriorating, most economists now predict Bolivia will experience hyperinflation and social unrest within two years without an emergency IMF bailout. Yet the specter of default looms larger as the government resists cutting subsidies and maintains price controls seen by investors as sabotaging its marketability.

Having watched the unraveling of fellow Latin nations like Argentina amid hyperinflation, Bolivia's growing litany of economic woes is already creating weaves of migration to more economically stable countries like Brazil. Larger waves of mass migration could translate to more pressures along America's southern frontier.

The repercussions of a destabilized Bolivia wouldn't just roil regional supply chains and investment climates already backsliding in tandem with democracy's global erosion.

In any other era, a slow-motion catastrophe of such generational proportions might garner sustained global focus and mediation to head off worst-case consequences. But policymakers across the ideological spectrum fear latent crises across Latin America are receiving insufficient attention from American leadership, let alone applying deft preventative diplomacy and reform initiatives before tipping points are reached.

To critics on the political right, this malaise reflects a loss of American will and credibility under an administration rooted in outdated academic theory at odds with nationalism and sovereignty. 

China has increasingly courted deep economic partners across the hemisphere, investing heavily in mining and infrastructure projects that could serve dual-use military purposes while extending its diplomatic base in America's historic sphere of influence. 

Russia has cozied up to regimes like Venezuela, Bolivia, and Nicaragua, as well as sustaining military partnerships in Cuba, as it seeks to counter U.S. pretensions of regional hegemony. 

Others see innate limits to what American leadership or intervention can realistically achieve in a post-9/11 era marked by hyper-polarization and receding political appetites for assertive, costly nationalism abroad after the profligate expenditures of the War on Terror. 

Such issues go to the heart of what many see as a profound crisis of American influence and leadership during this unique crossroads era between the post-Cold War period and the dawning of new systemic rivalries between Beijing and Washington. 

While think tank hawks and conservative critics decry any perceived hesitation by Biden as weakening US global standing, others in the foreign policy mainstream worry that dated unilateralism and dogmas around reasserting hegemonic control actively backfire in today's multipolar world.

The broader point cuts to the heart of electoral dynamics roiling 2024 as much as any other foreign policy crucible – the notion that candidates portraying nuance and prudent realism become branded as "weak" compared to blunt populist forces promising decisive American leadership through sheer willpower. 

The questions transform abstract policy derring-do into a crucible for American democracy itself. Failure to assert credible initiatives and unchecked crises may contribute to an electoral backlash from voters frustrated with the decay of borders and national sovereignty. Double down on costly quagmires and the backlash stems from globalists over-extending into new fronts after Afghanistan and Iraq.

In the court of public opinion, however, the electoral implications seem evident as the outlines of 2024 begin materializing. Already, Trump down to aspiring House back-benchers are leveraging border fears, portraying every in-bound refugee stream as an existential threat while mocking Biden's presidency as a front for lawlessness and transnational crime. 

This is the theater of scorched-earth polarization engulfing American politics through the lens of spreading dysfunction.

Even a relatively modest shift could imperil Democratic prospects in battlegrounds like Arizona, Nevada, Georgia and North Carolina that biden narrowly won in 2020. While border communities themselves lean heavily Republican, gains among independents and college-educated women fueled recent Democratic advances – a dynamic that could swiftly unravel. 

At its core, the 2024 election may prove nearly as much a referendum on the entropy consuming the Western hemisphere as on Biden's stewardship of the economy or any other hot-button issue. Americans live with a heightened sense that disorder under their noses portends even worse instability if left unchecked. 

Whoever proves most credible in asserting control and attacking root causes – even by imperfect means – stands to accrue real electoral advantages amid all the fury that runs the north-south length of the continent below the Rio Grande.

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