U.S. influence challenged in the Southern Cone

The shifting dynamics of American foreign policy will reverberate throughout South America following the presidential vote in November.

Chinese-made satellite dishes at the Bolivian Space Agency’s Amachuma Ground Station in Achocalla, La Paz Department, Bolivia
Chinese-made satellite dishes at the Bolivian Space Agency’s Amachuma Ground Station in Achocalla, La Paz Department, Bolivia, on Oct. 12, 2023. China financed the development of satellite and space communications technology for Bolivia, extending Beijing’s reach further into the Americas. © Getty Images

In a nutshell

  • China is challenging American preeminence in the Western hemisphere
  • Geopolitical alliances in the Cone of South America are hotly contested
  • The upcoming U.S. elections will have a broad impact on Washington’s future relations with South American countries

Few aspects of American foreign policy could exhibit greater potential for dramatic shifts based on the outcome of national elections in November than Washington’s policies toward Latin America. The impacts of the U.S. public’s choice of president will be felt from Mexico to Cape Horn.

The Southern Cone countries of Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay represent an admixture of interests and challenges to the United States that will likely be addressed very differently by a President Joe Biden versus a President Donald Trump. While the U.S. has limited trade, investments and security interests in the Southern Cone countries, the geopolitics of Latin America are increasingly important and contested, namely by China.

The great power challenge

Beijing’s strategy is to gain political, economic and security dominance in Latin America. The world’s second-largest economy heavily courts political elites in the region and buys influence across the political, media and business sectors. China has aggressively pursued economic engagement, underbidding all competitors, for example, in major telecom projects. Although Chinese investments have slowed in Latin America in recent years as China’s economy faces headwinds, Beijing has invested $150 billion in the continent over the last two decades. Lithium- and copper-rich Chile, for example, recently received among the biggest inflows of foreign direct investment from China in all of Latin America.

Seeking to portray itself as geopolitically aligned with Latin America, China argues that the continent is part of the “Global South,” yet within Latin America, attitudes toward the country vary significantly. Beijing promotes the BRICS grouping, which includes Brazil, and recently invited Argentina to join the group. Buenos Aires rebuffed the offer as it favors closer cooperation with Washington. Paraguay is the only nation in South America that diplomatically recognizes Taiwan. In contrast, though remaining officially pro-U.S., Uruguay has significantly upgraded ties with China in recent years.

In 2023, Bolivia began paying for its imports and accepting payments for its exports in the Chinese yuan. The country also trades in the ruble. Some in the Cone argue that Chinese investments and loans are beneficial for the region. The problem is that much of the dependence on China stems from weakness, not strength. Bolivia, for instance, found it difficult to maintain sufficient reserves in dollars and so, like many, turned to China as “the lender of last resort.”

After years of vigorous economic growth, Chile more recently has experienced a stagnating economy and increasing dependence on China. While many elites still trumpet engagement with China, their views appear to be colored by either unrealistic expectations or hopes of benefiting financially and politically from aligning with Beijing.


Facts & figures

A region of increasingly contested geopolitical alliances

Map of Southern Cone political alliances

Nevertheless, the U.S. has never before faced strategic conditions south of its border where a significant foreign power increasingly dominates the infrastructure and logistical networks – let alone a power with an adversarial relationship with Washington. If Beijing’s regional expansion continues unabated, China could undermine a pillar of American grand strategy in place since the enunciation of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823.

Criminal networks affiliated with Iran are also expanding and deepening their footprint in the Cone countries. Of particular concern for the U.S., Iran has explicitly stated a policy of expanding security cooperation in Latin America. Recently, Bolivia and Iran issued a bilateral memorandum of cooperation between their defense ministries. There are reports of up to 700 Iranian Quds Force (a branch of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps specialized in unconventional warfare and military intelligence) personnel based in Bolivia. Such developments have caused friction with some of Bolivia’s neighbors.

Russia also has interests in Bolivia, recently signing a deal with the country to develop its lithium deposits.

Deepening political divides

The countries of the South American Cone are increasingly a geopolitical battleground between the socialists and communists on the one side and center-right forces, conservatives and classical liberals on the other.

Foro de Sao Paulo, an association of leftist political leaders in the region including Brazil, Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Venezuela, seeks to establish a widening political bloc across Latin America. This group is increasingly at odds with center-right governments in Central and South America, creating starker choices for bilateral and regional partnerships.

The U.S. has already lost ground in the region with newly established leftist governments in Brazil and Colombia, along with Mexico, where current progressive, center-left President Andres Manuel Lopez supports the Foro de Sao Paulo. Most recently, Mexico elected its first female president, Claudia Sheinbaum, a protégé of Mr. Obrador, and she has pledged to continue with his policies.

The countries of the South American Cone are increasingly a geopolitical battleground between the socialists and communists on the one side and center-right forces, conservatives and classical liberals on the other.

The political right in the nations of the South American Cone feature diverse views on social issues, including gender and life and economic policies. However, they share an aversion to leftist dogma. Conservative governments also tend to be more pro-American despite the present U.S. administration often being politically more progressive.

Paraguay, Uruguay and the recently elected government in Argentina are generally pro-American. Bolivia, in contrast, has long been at odds with both Democratic and Republican administrations. Chile, after years of leftist governments and recently accepting Chinese largesse, is a geopolitical wildcard with elections scheduled for 2025 to select members of the National Congress and a new president.

The recent war in Gaza has exacerbated the political divide in the Cone and, more broadly, in Latin America. In 2023, Bolivia broke political relations with Israel. In contrast, Argentina strongly supports Israel. Chile, with a larger ethnic Arab population, has been more circumspect, while Mexico has been ambiguous.


One little-discussed issue is the governance of Antarctica, in which both Argentina and Chile have strategic interests. The governance of the fifth-largest continent is managed through a treaty signed in 1959 by 12 nations with active scientific programs there, nine of which also have territorial claims. Later, the treaty was signed by many other countries. China has an increasing presence in Antarctica and will undoubtedly seek to be recognized as a relevant party in renegotiating the treaty.

Read more by national security and foreign policy expert James Jay Carafano

A country’s presence in Antarctica is an element with long-term strategic implications, and nations will seek partnerships to protect their interests in the maintenance of the current treaty provisions. The U.S. recently reiterated its policy of not recognizing territorial claims in Antarctica.

Response to Washington

Bilateral relations with the U.S. are as diverse as the countries of the region. Recently, Buenos Aires has tried to move decisively closer to Washington. Argentina has declined BRICS membership, seeks status as a NATO partner, is interested in supporting the reconstruction of Ukraine, and recently received a high-profile visit from the U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) military commander. All these measures aim, in part, to strengthen ties with the U.S.

On the other end of the spectrum, Bolivia is one of the most anti-American regimes in the Western hemisphere. Uruguay and Paraguay are often at odds with the Biden administration but still prefer the U.S. over China as a strategic partner. As for Chile, its future path will be determined by the results of next year’s vote.



The region, its relations with the U.S. and the path of American policy toward Latin America are all highly dependent on who wins the U.S. presidency in November.

Possible: Continuity in Washington yields focus on global issues

In one scenario, Biden returns with a continuation of current policies, which engage countries like Argentina while tolerating more leftist regimes. The administration eschews both military competition in the theater and an aggressive, confrontational path with China and Iran. Washington would keep attention on Russia and Europe, on Taiwan and Asia-Pacific allies, and on global concerns such as climate.

Furthermore, while there is discussion in Washington of “near-shoring” and “friend-shoring” U.S. manufacturing operations to provide an alternative to China, the current administration seems to have no serious plan to guide such developments and investments toward the most pro-U.S. countries in the region.

Possible: Trump returns, U.S. assumes activist role in select countries

In the second scenario, with a Trump presidency, Washington immediately embarks on strong U.S. border and immigration policies that will ripple throughout the region. Former President Trump’s policies of being tough on China and Iran will almost certainly be mirrored in more significant pressure on leftist regimes in Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua.

While Colombia, Brazil and Mexico are too big and important for the U.S. to isolate, and Mexico especially is and will remain a crucial economic partner for America, a Trump administration will push for tough bargains in the region. It will guard the vital interests of the U.S. in the Western hemisphere while seeking to offer more compelling alternatives to Beijing’s influence.

Under Mr. Trump, U.S. focus may move from Europe and Asia-Pacific to the Americas. The Monroe Doctrine could well be revived, not as a U.S.-imposed policy but as a joint endeavor through bilateral agreements between the U.S. and like-minded nations. Depending on the outcome of the elections, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay and possibly Chile, could be the chief beneficiaries of such a policy. Bolivia would be the biggest loser.

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