Ever since the Monroe Doctrine, the U.S. has seen the Caribbean in the way that the Romans viewed the Mediterranean: Mare Nostrum, Our Sea. From the Spanish-American War through the Cuban missile crisis and the Central-American dirty wars of the Reagan era, Washington was always quick to flex its muscle over the rum-soaked waters that stretch from Florida to Venezuela. The bad news: it ain't our sea anymore, gringos.
The headlines of the past week have underscored the extent to which U.S. hegemony in the Caribbean has faded. Whether it's Russia reportedly threatening to reestablish a military presence in Cuba, Iran cozying up to U.S. nemeses like Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega or U.S. free-trade partners such as the Dominican Republic and Costa Rica jumping into energy alliances with left-wing Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, Washington seems increasingly on the sidelines of a region the Bush Administration once called America's third border. "The U.S. let its guard down in the Caribbean after the Berlin Wall fell," says Johanna Mendelson-Forman, a senior associate for the Americas at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "As a result, we've gone from unipolarity in that region to multipolarity, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but we're in a real learning phase as to how to deal with it."
Chávez's visit to Moscow this week not only to buy more than $1 billion worth of anti-aircraft missiles and submarines, but also to commune with growing anti-American resentment in Russia resurrected old ghosts for some conservative yanqui lawmakers. Florida Congressman Connie Mack declared the Caracas-Moscow partnership a "stark reminder of the cold war partnership between the Soviet Union and Cuba."
As if to encourage that Dr. Strangelove nostalgia, the Moscow daily Izvestia quoted high-level Russian military officials as suggesting that Russia might begin flying long-range bombers into Cuba again, almost two decades after the Soviets bolted from Havana. That prompted U.S. Air Force General Norton Schwartz, President Bush's nominee for Air Force Chief of Staff, to tell a congressional confirmation hearing the next day that if the Russians were to base nuclear-capable bombers in Cuba, "I think we should stand strong and indicate that is something that crosses a threshold, crosses a red line." Cuban President Raúl Castro has so far kept quiet about the Russian report; his older brother, Cuba's retired President Fidel Castro, commended his brother's silence and wrote on a government website that Cuba "need not offer any explanations or excuses nor ask forgiveness" of the U.S.
The significance of the Izvestia bluster isn't that the Russians could be coming again Moscow's Defense Minister later said any air force arrangement in Cuba would most likely involve stops for fuel rather than actual bases but that they've returned to the idea of using the Caribbean to try to leverage Washington. The latest gestures may be designed as a warning to Washington that if it goes ahead with stationing a missile shield on Russia's borders, Moscow could reciprocate in America's backyard.
Russia isn't the only U.S. rival dipping its toes into the Caribbean of late. Iran has parlayed its deepening relationship with Chávez into an alliance with Nicaragua's Ortega. China and India, aside from receiving increased crude imports from oil-rich Venezuela, are themselves poised to help Cuba drill for an estimated 5 billion bbl. to 10 billion bbl. of oil recently discovered off the island's coast. That find is so close to Florida shores that gringo oil execs are clamoring for a loosening of the 46-year-old U.S. trade embargo against communist Cuba so they can get in on the act. And Brazil, which will also play a major role in tapping the Cuban crude, has exerted itself as a security player in the Caribbean, assuming the leadership of international forces in strife-torn Haiti.
Most Caribbean and Central American nations have now defied the Bush Administration's wishes and signed on to Chávez's regional energy cooperative, Petrocaribe. Started in 2006, Petrocaribe lets the basin's fuel-starved countries buy Venezuelan oil at just 40% of the current skyrocketing market price and pay back the difference over 25 years at 1% interest. Few Caribbean nations, struggling to juggle food and energy prices, can refuse Chávez's petro-diplomacy. His critics call it petro-bribery, using oil to broaden his fledgling anti-U.S. bloc in the hemisphere. But this month it won over Guatemala and Costa Rica to bring the number of Petrocaribe members to 19. And in U.S.-friendly countries that have so far balked at Chávez's deal, such as Barbados, the governments have taken heat from voters. Costa Rican President Oscar Arias was narrowly elected in 2006 by promising to keep Chávez's influence out of his Central American country. But last week, realizing that its oil expenditures have jumped 88% over the past year, he conceded that Costa Rica needed "to benefit sooner from this help."
Even before Chávez came to power, the U.S.-Caribbean bond wasn't all that warm, given the long history of unwelcome U.S. intervention in the form of coups, invasions and proxy warfare. Still, the 1999 handover of the Panama Canal to the Panamanians was seen as a magnanimous gesture, and the Bush Administration was able to ink a free-trade pact with Central America and the Dominican Republic. Colombia, meanwhile, has emerged as the U.S.'s staunchest ally in Latin America. But a century of imperious U.S. misconduct, and a decade of Bush Administration indifference toward Latin America, has left the Caribbean more willing to look elsewhere for allies many of whom are at odds with Washington.
So how can the U.S. regain its stature in the Caribbean? For starters, it can stop looking shocked to find that countries with whom it recently signed free-trade agreements have also hooked up with Chávez. Free trade is usually a good thing but not when it's approached, as the Bush Administration does, as a development panacea that doesn't address Third World exigencies like choosing between food and fuel. The U.S. and the U.N. have pledged a combined $117 million in food aid for starving Haiti this year, but to compete with Petrocaribe, the U.S. needs to move faster to help Caribbean Basin nations develop biofuels such as sugar ethanol, while more broadly engaging the region diplomatically with efforts to help curb its nightmarish violent crime and the rising sea levels that threaten to displace entire coastal populations. "It will be the U.S., not Russia, that has to absorb that massive environmental migration," says Mendelson-Forman, who is scheduled to testify before Congress next week about Petrocaribe. "That should be enough to make us take the whole 'third border' concept more seriously."
Back in Moscow, Russian President Dmitri Medvedev was ebullient on Tuesday after Chávez added to the more than $3 billion he's spent on Russian weaponry in recent years. Chávez crowed about a "strategic partnership" with Russia to "guarantee the sovereignty of Venezuela, which the U.S. threatens." Medvedev gushed that it was the "common task" of Russia and Venezuela "to achieve a more democratic, just and secure world." All in all, it was a new Caribbean day in the Kremlin.