A ‘fevered hallucination’: Latin America meets Vivek Ramaswamy

It’s not often a presidential candidate invokes the 19th century Monroe Doctrine to entice voters.

But Vivek Ramaswamy has strong views on U.S. relations with Latin America — and while some officials there are intrigued that he’s paying attention at all, many don’t like what they hear.

The fast-rising Republican presidential candidate already has drawn notice for his isolationist-learning proposals on Europe and Asia. Ramaswamy believes he can convince Russia to abandon its ties with China in exchange for parts of Ukraine. And he’s effectively given an end date of 2028 for U.S. support to Taiwan, although he’s now trying to walk back that position.

But in a recent major speech and an essay in The American Conservative, published after his breakout GOP primary debate performance, the 38-year-old laid out a more comprehensive foreign policy with a striking amount of focus on the Western Hemisphere.

Ramaswamy calls the region America’s “near-abroad,” a term Russia has used to describe other former Soviet states. He also says he wants to revive the Monroe Doctrine, a nearly 200-year-old idea that began as an American warning to Europe not to interfere in the Western Hemisphere but which many in Latin America have grown to resent as a justification for U.S. domination. In Ramaswamy’s version of the doctrine, China and Russia are the outside powers that should stay away.

This is not going over well with current and former Latin American officials, many of whom are just now starting to study up on Ramaswamy.

“It’s a sort of fevered hallucination,” said one Latin American official who was granted anonymity to speak candidly. “It’s a simplistic vision, based on a misreading of history that elides the highly diverse perspectives, challenges and aspirations of the countries he is hoping to corral into a monolithic support of his vision of the U.S. nationalist interest.”

Francisco Santos Calderón, a former Colombian ambassador to the United States, also cast Ramaswamy’s ideas as naïve.

Still, he appreciates that the candidate is discussing the region, especially its economic potential. That’s not often the case in U.S. elections, where Latin America rarely comes up unless the topic is migration or drugs.

“The only thing I think he gets right is when he finally puts the region in priority,” the former envoy said. “Latin America has been in the backwater of American foreign policy for many, many decades — forever. For China and for Russia, Latin America has been a priority. But putting it under the Monroe Doctrine is not the smartest of policies.”

Ramaswamy does discuss ending illegal migration and stopping drug smuggling. He and several other GOP primary contenders have supported using the U.S. military to fight Mexican drug cartels — a worrisome prospect for regional leaders protective of their sovereignty.

But Ramaswamy also promises that during his presidency, “we will grow hemispheric trade to historic levels. We will pursue fair trade deals that will help create good-paying jobs both in the United States and in our neighbor nations, with an eye towards helping us to near-shore our supply chain and move it away from China.”

This intrigues Latin American officials and analysts; many in the region want new or renewed trade deals with the U.S.

“He’s absolutely right in identifying the importance of that free trade architecture that the U.S. has in the hemisphere,” said Arturo Sarukhan, a former Mexican ambassador to the United States.

The problem? The Republican voters being wooed by Ramaswamy tend to be wary of trade deals, and it’s not clear if they’ll buy his line that the deals will create jobs in America.

Ramaswamy campaign spokesperson Tricia McLaughlin, in a statement, described the candidate’s Monroe Doctrine vision as seeking “greater prosperity for the whole hemisphere,” especially involving trade.

McLaughlin said Ramaswamy wants bilateral deals, as opposed to massive multi-nation deals that have earned a particularly bad reputation among working-class Americans. “He will have his work cut out to persuade people, something he has never shied away from,” McLaughlin said.

The candidate is, in some ways, taking the views of former President Donald Trump, on whom he frequently lavishes praise, to a new extreme.

During his presidency, Trump and his aides declared they believed in the Monroe Doctrine and used it to justify U.S. economic sanctions on dictatorships in Nicaragua, Venezuela and Cuba.

This came several years after the Obama administration declared “the era of the Monroe Doctrine is over” and that the United States would treat other countries in the region as equals.

The doctrine’s roots stretch to former President James Monroe, who proclaimed in December 1823 that Europe should avoid colonizing or otherwise interfering with countries in the Western Hemisphere, effectively casting the region as America’s sphere of influence.

It later turned into a byword for U.S. interference in Latin American states’ internal affairs. This included armed incursions into countries such as Nicaragua and Haiti, as well as the U.S. naval blockade of Cuba during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis nuclear faceoff with the Soviet Union.

The Trump and Ramaswamy version of the doctrine is more worried about Russian and Chinese designs on the hemisphere than European plans.

“As we look at the Western Hemisphere today, we see encroachments that James Monroe would never have tolerated,” Ramaswamy wrote in his essay.

“To our foes who wish ill upon us and our hemispheric partners, I say keep your distance or you will be made to regret it.”

Such an approach has its share of defenders, including among advocates of a more restrained U.S. foreign policy that eschews global primacy.

“It makes absolute sense for us to dominate our sphere of influence in the Western Hemisphere to keep foreign powers and their allies far away from us,” said William Ruger, president of the conservative American Institute for Economic Research. “But that doesn’t mean we should treat our closest neighbors poorly.”

While many Latin American leaders would be happy to have closer relations with the U.S., they bristle at declarations about whether they can engage with other world powers.

Brazil, for instance, is part of the soon-to-expand BRICS international grouping that includes both Russia and China.

For many Latin American officials and analysts who watch the region, it’s hard to know how much credence to give Ramaswamy. He’s not featuring prominently in Latin American media, but then again neither is the GOP primary in general. If anyone comes up, it’s Trump.

But the countries’ foreign policy elites are watching. Sarukhan said he delivered a speech in Mexico City this past week and attendees asked him about Ramaswamy.

People trying to understand Ramaswamy often say they are struck by how he insists he will do something — often something others have tried with no success — without actually explaining how he will accomplish the task.

“This is rhetoric, not foreign policy,” said Elliott Abrams, a Latin America and Middle Eastern specialist who has served in multiple Republican administrations, including Trump’s.

Santos, the former Colombian envoy, expressed similar frustration.

“If foreign policy were that easy — believe me, I’m not a newcomer,” he said, “it would have already been done.”

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