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Pedro Burelli on strategic opportunities and challenges in Latin America - "Intelligence Matters"

In this episode of "Intelligence Matters," host Michael Morell speaks with Pedro Burelli, a former senior Venezuelan oil official, and an astute observer of Latin America and the world. Burelli and Morell exchange observations about Latin America's political and economic trajectory, including key influences and inflection points in Cuba, Chile, Mexico and other countries. They discuss shifts in political leadership, the degradation of democratic norms, and the opportunistic entrances of Russia and China into the region. Burelli also reflects on the achievements of the Biden administration's recent Summit of the Americas. 

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  • Growing influence of Russia and China: Little by little, both countries kind of found a different footing. I think as they decided to confront the U.S., they both have looked at Latin America as, 'How do we play with the United States in its same kind of time zone? The United States is playing hardball with us in the South China Sea that, you know, NATO's encroaching. Why shouldn't we move and try to be disruptive?'  
  • Mexico's political shift away from the U.S.: President Lopez-Obrador "despises the U.S., absolutely despises the U.S. Won't confront them directly, but everything he does is to undermine this longstanding relationship. So I think for the United States, for the first time ever, you're going to have a very dangerous neighbor in a very dangerous neighborhood."
  • Degradation of democratic norms: "I think what we're seeing in Latin America is bad governments who begin to be unwilling to leave power. And the institutions are not strong enough to guarantee you that that staying power is not a possibility. I'm seeing Argentina, I'm seeing Bolsonaro in Brazil. And definitely we've seen what happened in Bolivia. So I think the notion of alternative democracy, of political parties, that is all fast collapsing corruption is defining the rule of this populist. The fear of having to face justice because of running corrupt administrations is massive, and then holding on to power becomes important." 

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Intelligence Matters transcript: Pedro Burelli

Producer: Olivia Gazis

MICHAEL MORELL: Pedro, welcome. It is great to have you back on the show.

PEDRO BURELLI: Well, I'm happy to be back with you.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Pedro, the United States just hosted the ninth Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles. And given that, I thought, we thought, at Intelligence Matters that this would be a great time to review where the region is today and where it might be heading. And I want to come back later, Pedro, and ask you a question about the summit itself.

But before I do that, I want to have a discussion that's much broader and deeper than what just happened in a five-day get together that didn't include some of the region's most important countries.

So where I'd really like to start, Pedro, is by reaching back a little bit in history to a particular year that I know you and I have talked about, which is 1998. And if you think about it today, we have Russian aggression in Ukraine. We have the tragedy in your own country, Venezuela. And we have Washington searching far and wide to add oil to the global market to try to keep a lid on gasoline prices and, I guess save themselves at at the polls.

But I'd love for you to take a few minutes to explain how why all of these things tie back to that particular year, 1998.

PEDRO BURELLI: Well, Michael, I mean, people always often talk about 1968 as a critical cultural year in which we kind of, freedom and liberty and a whole bunch of things and peace and love happened. But '98, to me, is a year that people have in focus a great deal of time.

The distinctive feature was a collapse of oil prices, a collapse of oil prices, which started on January 1st. And it was prompted by Saudi Arabia challenging Venezuela on account of the fact that Venezuela was going to double its production from 3 to 6 million barrels. And most of that increase was going to come to the United States. And that was within a framework of what the Clinton administration was calling energy security within the hemisphere, which was a fairly intelligent look at, you know, from Canada down to Patagonia and understanding all the different sources of energy that existed within the hemisphere and saying, 'If we all work together and coordinate, we could actually get energy security and not be dependent of an extra-hemispheric energy sources.'

Clearly, the Saudis did not like that. They did not want anybody cutting the umbilical cord, that they have this mutual dependency that they have with the U.S.. And what really happened right before the year, at the end of '97, was that an open meeting in Jakarta in the midst of the slowdown of the Asian tigers when they went into economic trouble, the Saudis, instead of agreeing to lower production in order to match between lower demand and production, they came to us and said, 'You want to challenge us, we're going to increase production.'

And this really led to this massive collapse. The first thing we saw around May was that Mexico, which had barely recovered from the '94 crisis, came running to us. 'Hey, guys, what are you doing? Stop this war. Come to some terms with the Saudis and do something.'

But really, the most momentous things were the massive devaluation in Russia in August of '98 and the election of Hugo Chavez in December of '98. Now, why this is interesting is because we talk about Latin America, the arrival of Chavez into the scene was very important. What he did on the oil side was very important.

But more important was that that collapse of Russia in August of '98 was what led to the arrival to power of Putin, first as prime minister in July of '99 and eventually on the 31st of January of '99 as president of the Russian Federation. And the rest is history.

As I said, yeah, that year was very critical to determine things. And if we talk more about the relation between Russia and Venezuela, we can talk about what the interplay of oil was there. But I think this is a year in which a lot of things changed and also a lot of the things that the United States had been planning for the region, the free trade zone of the Americas, all this idea of energy, all that collapsed. So kind of the entire gameplan of the region began to collapse in 1998.

MICHAEL MORELL: So for me, Pedro, the story you told speaks volumes about how what happens in one region of the world can affect the entire world for years to come. And I also think it speaks volumes about the importance of Latin America in a way that that people often don't think about.

Let me transition here a little bit and ask you about something that President Biden just said, which is that he sees a great deal of opportunity in Latin America. And I wonder if you agree with that, and to what extent, and if so, how do you think about those opportunities?

PEDRO BURELLI: I think Latin America is a region that's been for centuries enamored of its potential and for centuries unable to realize it. So it is very clear that, no matter what way you look at Latin America, there's tremendous potential. There's tremendous opportunity. 650 million people. Very large territory. An amazing amount of fresh water. Some of the minerals that people want for the new economy. The ability to imagine an area to be very, very green. The Amazon - which, people don't even realize Amazon is the size of the 48 continuous states of the United States. I mean, the Amazon jungle is a huge carbon sink the world has there.

This is a region that potentially could develop as one of the fastest-growing kind of green energy, green hydrogen areas. And that potential is there. That potential is quantifiable.

It's - however - what the president is saying is wishful thinking, because if it's not if it doesn't really drive the leadership of this country, if he doesn't drive the population of this country to capture that potential, it will probably go another century without realizing the potential of the region.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Pedro, why aren't we meeting that potential? Why is Latin America falling short of what we just talked about, and what's behind that failure? And to what extent is that a function of Latin America itself, and to what extent is that a function of U.S. policy? Can you talk about that a little bit?

PEDRO BURELLI: You know, I think it's - Latin America, when it's doing well, it's because they manage to get things right. And when it's doing as bad as it's doing right now it's because they just can't get their act together. The first thing is to say that Latin America is a very, very big, heterogeneous area. I mean, completely different. I sometimes try to explain to people, if you fly, let's say, from Silicon Valley to Santiago, I mean, just taking kind of the heart of the the booming economy in the U.S. to what used to be, until recently, one of the most promising countries, Chile - that's a14 hour flight. I don't think anybody flies directly. I mean, it's a very long distance.

The countries are very different. They're small countries, like very large countries like Brazil that speak Portuguese. Huge countries like Mexico that are fully integrated in the northern part of Mexico through NAFTA and its successor to the northern land of North America. And then we've got the Caribbean in the middle with all kinds of needs and stuff like that.

So the first thing to understand is that this is a very difficult and very big region with different history. So it's hard to kind of put a blanket statement of why things are not working. If you take, right now, a tiny country like Uruguay with 3 million people, is doing really, really well. I mean, and it's got two successive governments going from one party to the other. And it's a country that really works.

When you go to a country like Argentina, it's a completely dysfunctional country. It's a country that's weighted in bad politics, in mythical politics, deeply, deeply corrupted and with probably the largest potential - Argentina was almost a first world country before the before the Second World War. And, I mean, there's a country that had everything. And it's really through politics that it's ruined everything.

I think the politics of the region, I think this region, right now probably I would say there is no period of time where it's been so badly managed as it is right now.

And all the elections that have happened have yielded really bad outcomes. So populists or people with very little experience have been elected. So if things got better, let's say, in the first decade of the of the century, then we had a kind of lost decade when commodity prices came down in the second half, now, and this in the second decade.

Now, in this third decade, I think we're starting from a really wrong foot. I mean, almost everything is going wrong. And where you realize that the potential is going to be lost is that the leadership is very incompetent. Populism, quick-fix solutions, leftist stuff that has never worked, being revisited. And even countries that we thought were, you know, literally beyond the line that we're already in, stages where they wouldn't go back.
I'm talking about Mexico, Colombia, Chile, even Peru are really going to unravel very, very fast, creating a crisis, like I said, that it will really reverse what we have thought was years of good policy, of governments that came and although they were from different colors, that would somehow keep the same economic policy. And suddenly everything is collapsing. I think that the symbol of that is Chile. I mean, Chile was supposed to be the leader of everything, was right. And in basically two and a half years has dissolved to a country that really has no idea where it's going.

MICHAEL MORELL: And then to what extent does U.S. policy play in all of this?

PEDRO BURELLI: I think the U.S. - I mean, it's easy to blame the U.S. because they are, in a way, this benign neglect, to call it nicely. It's really there. The U.S. has tried many times. The Alliance for Progress was very important. What they tried to do with the free trade zone area of the Americas during the Clinton administration was a good, good attempt to do something.

But at the end of the day, the region itself does not want to converge to its neighbors, to the north. They don't look at Canada and the U.S. and the northern part of Mexico as a model to follow. I mean, they look at Europe as a model to follow. So they haven't united politically. They haven't united economically. And at the end of the day, that's the problem.

It's a disjointed group of countries that are not taking advantage, are not generating economies of scale, who missed the boat. And I think what happened to the United States in reality is that when the free trade area of the American experiment, which was literally what all the governments called for in the first Summit of the Americas in Miami '94, by the time that they got to a later summit in Rio Plata, in Argentina, things had changed.

Chavez and Castro had contaminated the region with anti-Americanism. And everybody refused to go there. Now, the United States was then very focused on the war on terror and I think very disappointed that this idea hadn't gelled and that nobody wanted to do it. And they just kind of, in a way, gave up on the region. And I'm not sure what else they could have done.

They went ahead and signed bilateral agreements with Colombia and Peru, Chile, Panama, the Dominican Republic and Central America. So they tried to do it piecemeal. But in that whole process, Brazil was left out. Argentina was left out. And at the end, you're wrong. And if you were to talk about the ideological contaminant, what is really damaging the region? It's funny, but it's Cuba. I mean, Cuba, I mean, it's amazing how a small country of 11 million people with absolutely dismal economic performance still is an absolutely damaging influence on the politics of the region.

MICHAEL MORELL: In what ways? How does it work?

PEDRO BURELLI: I think what happened is that Fidel Castro was dead set on a revolution. Dead set on communism, dead set on anti-U.S. and what they call anti-imperialism and in the end, he pushed and pushed and pushed. Obviously, you had what happened with, again, I mean, he basically took over Chile during the time of the wars of Central America, were very much influenced by him and then suddenly run out of money. He ran out of money when the Soviet Union collapsed. And he went through a very, very difficult period of time.

But then came Hugo Chavez. Hugo Chavez basically delivered himself to Fidel and Fidel found in Venezuela a massive ATM machine and a system to deliver money that began to play, you know, country by country individually, going to - first going to leftist political parties, giving new oxygen to parties that had been dead, like the Communist Party in Chile, for example. I mean, getting Lula elected. Lula didn't turn out to be as bad as it could have been, but he got elected with tremendous help from money from Venezuela, but through an ideological plan from Cuba.

Now, the thing about Cuba that I think it's important to mention in the context of the broad conversation is that, after the missiles - the Soviet missiles were taken away correctly. The American population as a whole never saw Cuba as a threat. There was no way that Cuba could do physical damage to the United States. What I think they failed to understand is how much Cuba has used its role as the victim to the U.S. and the obsessive nature of Castro, who lasted for a long time, to continue to persevere, to push every anti-American, every anti-European, every anti-capitalist. But in that you can push around the world.

And when he got the money over with Chavez, who wasn't an intellectual guy, who didn't really have a plan but put himself in the hands of them in order to get protection from the U.S., because Fidel was able to prove to him that Cuban intelligence had penetrated Washington, that he could deliver the information as to exactly what the State Department was thinking, what everybody's thinking in Washington. I assume they had access to that and they mixed with some, you know, made up stuff and feed Chavez with a cocktail that made him quite paranoid and quite willing to basically hand over 100,000 barrels of oil for free to to Fidel and basically follow them, just send the money wherever he did.

I mean, one of the interesting things here is that after 9/11 and with the Patriot Act, moving money around became difficult. But Venezuela, with its fleet of government owned planes, began to be the distributor of cash all over the region. So suddenly you had the ability of influencing or breathing life to bad politicians, bad parties, or bad ideas.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Pedro, we were talking about U.S. policy. And when it comes to Cuba here, it's U.S. policy, as you mentioned, that gave them oxygen. I used to sit in my office at CIA and think that the embargo was the greatest gift that we ever gave to Fidel Castro.

PEDRO BURELLI: Yeah. They knew how to play the victim card very well. They justified all the failings of policy in Cuba, all the suffering from it, you know, suffering from policies that were from a very unempathetic leader and who didn't really care at the end about anything. He blamed it - everything, travel around Cuba and everything is around a blockade, as they call it, the blockade. The reality is that that blockade didn't really exist. And I think what the Obama administration did, the wise part of what they did, is recognize that the U.S. was the main source of pharmaceuticals, one of the main sources of of food, that basically the fourth source of tourists into Cuba were Americans, and suddenly realized, you know, we are being hit around by something that doesn't exist, that it's not real. And I think they pursued or saw the opportunity to deal with Raul Castro, who wanted to shift Cuba from, you know, communism of the 20th century to crony capitalism of the 21st century, kind of move Cuba to kind of a Vietnamese model.

And for that, he understood that he needed to cut the umbilical cord with Venezuela, patch up with the United States, create some competition for investment from Europe and other places into the island. And, you know, control from the armed forces, control that new kind of crony capitalist society.

The Obama administration took advantage of that and I think when the deal was announced, Cuba literally had no argument, it's incredible. The whole region was in shock because this whole victimization strategy disappeared, so, suddenly, you know, the entire cloud of Cuba over the region lifted. And suddenly it looked like it was very smart. One of the things that people do not recognize or realize, it's not at all discussed, I've never seen it explained very well, is that when Obama decides to go to Cuba in March of 2016, the speech that he gave in Havana., which he wrote, his people wrote in Little Havana in Miami, the objective was to please those people in the Cuban American community who were still opponents of the opening to Cuba. He gave a speech to please them, but he gave it in big Haavna. And when I listened to it, it was probably the best speech Barack Obama gave.

He said everything that one would have thought that you have to tell them. But it was a wrong speech. You were beginning to try to bring this people into the fold or just move them and shift them into complete different things. And lo and behold, a few days later, an op ed came out by Fidel Castro, it was called Brother Obama, and basically just told him, 'You don't come here to lecture to us. We do not need anything from you.' And really, at that moment, that entire strategy, which had been run with tremendous stealthiness, nobody knew. The Venezuelans didn't find out. The Russians didn't find out. That whole strategy that came collapsing in what people now in the Obama team recognized was an excess of hubris. And we're now back to Cuba being the highly polarizing, where the most aggressive part of the Cuban regime is the one calling the shots. And they continue to be disruptive as we saw in the summit.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Pedro, the extent to which Latin America has failed to take advantage of its potential and the opportunities that are out there has given opportunities to both Russia and China in the region. Can you talk a little bit about that?

PEDRO BURELLI: I think they're different. Clearly, the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia didn't even have a relationship with Cuba, which had been kind of its satellite in the region. And the relationship was really, really bad all the way, I would say to, you know, 2008, 2009, they're almost not on speaking terms between Cuba and the Russian Federation.

The Chinese had actually looked at the region for natural resources. And I think the first approach of China is understandable. It's a country that's growing, the first need is its raw materials. It also needed more food and eventually needed markets for its products. So part of what China did is understandable as a country that it was expanding, what was globalization, was a capitalist society and needed to get access to resources and markets.
Little by little, both countries kind of found a different footing. I think as they decided to confront the U.S., they both have looked at Latin America as, 'How do we play with the United States in its same kind of timezone? The United States is playing hardball with us in the South China Sea that, you know, NATO's encroaching. Why shouldn't we move and try to be disruptive?'

The styles of the Russian are kind of interesting because it proves, you know, what each one has to have. Russia disrupts through disinformation and tries to sell military where the Chinese are trying to disrupt through money, you know, buying political will, corrupting politicians, getting contracts for large infrastructure projects. So very different approaches.

But it's a tension between the United States and as both of these other powers grows, I think their interest of of finding ways to entrench themselves in Latin America grows. So it's almost opportunistic. I don't think there's a massive game plan. While a lot of the countries in Latin America assigned to the One Belt, One Road Initiative, the size of the projects, the amount of money being invested in Latin America is yet not that big, but they have political aims.

For example, there, you know, the countries that still support Taiwan, I think there's 14 of them in the world. Eight are in Latin America. So they're out there trying to fight by bribe, get these countries to change their alliance, to support China, to reduce Taiwan, to have made sure that Taiwan has no friends. And because he has this friends in Latin America. That's a political aim.

The other thing clearly is that they're more strategic going into infrastructure, port facilities. The issue with port facilities is the Chinese clearly understand that port facilities are multi-use ports facilities. You build civilian ports and then they imagine that eventually they control those ports. They could have dual use and military purpose. So that's the risk of the way China is proceeding.

In the case of Russia. I don't think with what's going on, they can be big. They don't have any money. They don't want to deal - in order to do what they're doing, they have to be very tight in the way they manage fiscal affairs. You know, they were very surprised by having lost more than half of the reserves of the central bank to sanctions. So there is no money there, but, you know, cyber operations, disinformation campaigns and all that. I think we're going to see a lot of that from Russia.

So as the war in Ukraine prolongs itself, we're going to see a Russia that from the footholds that he has, which are basically now Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, to some degree Bolivia, you could certainly imagine in one of the outcomes, in Colombia, that suddenly they'll have a foothold in Colombia, which has been for the last 20 years, the U.S.'s closest ally in the region.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Peter, you've painted a picture of a not great situation in Latin America. And I'm wondering how much worse it could get. I'm thinking in particular of Mexico here. I know you said you have some concerns along those lines. Could you talk about that a little bit?

PEDRO BURELLI: Well, I think Mexico has been a country that adopted, in the late eighties, what people call neoliberal politics. And the first was kind of the one party system. Then it opened up and suddenly you've got a populist in power. The problem with that populist is that it came to a country that was already showing signs of dysfunctionality. It's really three countries. I mean, the northern part very tied to the U.S., very integrated. It's kind of the NAFTA part of Mexico.

Then the center and the south, very impoverished, looks like most of Central America. And in the midst of it, a growing, growing proliferation of armed gangs, drug trafficking, gangs, extortion, and so forth. So this was getting bad when you get a populist, a populist in the true sense of a populist, as somebody who spends every minute thinking about his popularity. And obviously, in order to do that, you've got to quiet your critics. You got to try to intervene in the judicial system so that whatever you do bad, they don't come against you.

So you have to create a system in which you suddenly take control of the state. You weaken the institutions of the state. You know, a frontal attack against meritocracy, which is really the defining characteristic of how Mexico had built this stability, is tons and tons of people had come to study in the U.S., but they would return to their countries to occupy positions in government. And it built over these 40 years a very powerful country that was very separated in a way from the rest of Latin America in terms of its potential and definitely in terms of its integration to the world.
The problem is that Lopez Obrador came in with an idea that he was going to fight the gangs that is not bullets, but hearts, that they would serve, with a completely anti-U.S. sentiment. He despises the U.S., absolutely despises U.S. Won't confront them directly, but everything he does is to undermine this longstanding relationship. So I think for the United States, for the first time ever, you're going to have a very dangerous neighbor in a very dangerous neighborhood.

So this is where migration comes in. But it's also, what kind of activities are beginning to take ground in Mexico? Who's come into Mexico? What are they doing in Mexico and how is that flow into the United States?

So, first of all, it's clearly the way the passage for migrants of all sorts, but it's also potentially the weakest part of the territory of the United States that you've got to defend, because anybody who wants to do damage physically to the United States would probably stage something out of Mexico. In what? What kind of attack? What kind of thing? It doesn't matter. But it's very clear that Lopez Obrador's view, he's completely anti-American and he views anybody who's anti-American as somebody that he should be close to.

I mean, he has refused to condemn the invasion of Ukraine. He's very tight and his party is very tight back to the communists, to the Soviets. So the lingering end of the foreign service right now in the Russian Federation, which are still kind of people who were young guys during the communist era, they're very connected with the Morena party. So that's happening there.

But, you know, it's the influence of Iran, it's what Venezuela is doing, it's the influence of Cuba over Mexico's foreign policy that is coming to a kind of very combustible combination that, I think, if I were to say, worries the biggest un-understood risk that the United States has, what is the soft underbelly?

And again, it's Mexico, but it's as the rest of the region begins to go through this crisis in which more and more people will flee this country, always seeking to get to the United States. You're going to compound every single problem of Mexico with the problems of the region converging in a physical territory.

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Pedro, is democracy at risk in Mexico?

PEDRO BURELLI: I think that little by little Lopez Obrador, like others who are elected democratically, begin to move against the institutions of democracy, the practices of democracy, and against the players in democracy. You go against civil society, against the opposition, against the courts, against the media. And at the end of the day, yes, I mean, we are moving to a system now. The challenge and the question that I ask my Mexican friends is, who rules like Lopez Obrador rules? Will he give up power? Will you bear the consequences at the end of your six year term of being out of office and maybe having to pay for the corruption, the disorder and the abuse that defined your regime?

And I think what we're seeing in Latin America is bad governments who begin to be unwilling to leave power. And the institutions are not strong enough to guarantee you that that staying power is not a possibility. I'm seeing Argentina, I'm seeing Bolsonaro in Brazil. And definitely we've seen what happened in Bolivia. So I think the notion of alternative democracy, of political parties, that is all fast collapsing corruption is defining the rule of this populist. The fear of having to face justice because of running corrupt administrations is massive, and then holding on to power becomes important.

And by the way, this is where China and Russia become very, very dangerous while the United States is promoting democracy and just being the big champion of democracy, I mean, China and Russia, in their big declaration, Beijing basically said and stated, you know, every country should have the government they desire and this promotion of democracy should not continue.

I mean, this is an imposition by the West on countries. And it's not surprising that right before the invasion, Bolsonaro from Brazil and President Fernandez from Argentina ran to Moscow a week before the invasion. And then Fernandez continued on to China because I think, as they imagine holding onto power, just not not accepting losing power through the ballot box, they were imagining, 'We'll put ourselves under the wings of this two powers who are challenging the rule of law and democracy around the world.'

MICHAEL MORELL: So, Pedro, here's the really tough question, I think. So the region is not meeting its potential, not taking advantage of the opportunities that it has in front of it, which has, I think, a negative impact on the United States. In fact, I don't think; I know.

And then there's these risks. You're talking about democracy not only in the entire region, but in the country that is closest to us, Mexico. And given all of that, I'm just wondering why I don't see more focus on the region from Washington on, what, to me, it deserves a lot more attention. I would assume you agree with that, but I'd love to hear you talk about that.

And then I'm wondering why that attention is not there, given everything we just talked about in terms of lost opportunities and risks.

PEDRO BURELLI: Michael, this is an interesting question because I sometimes say, for example, about Venezuela, which used to be the U.S.'s tightest ally in the region in almost every aspect where there's, you know, military promotion of democracy, promotion of human rights, and then it just disappeared as the biggest enemy.
I always say that, you know, since Chavez arrived in power in '98 to now, every administration has left the problem worse than it found it. It's a testament to how bad the problem is. But it's that basically the administrations are an automatic drive; there's nothing there.

The issue with the Biden administration is that it's really, in a way, the third term of the Obama administration. So they can't say that they don't know the problem because they just left the problem, which they had in their hands over eight years. And it deteriorated over eight years in the case of Venezuela and the entire region deteriorated over those eight years.

So what I think happened is that when the administration arrives, they set their priorities very clear. And I think you can correct me, you probably know a lot more of this than I do. But I think, you know, renegotiating the deal with Iran was number one. Number two is figuring out a new policy to contain China. Number three was, what do we do with this North Korea lunatic? And number four, how do we deal with Putin?

So Latin America was, you know, under the theory of Senator Dick Lugar, he always used to say, 'Pedro, no nukes, no terrorists, no problem.' Which in a way, it looks like a good thing because the region doesn't have those problems, but it actually leads to a tremendous amount of neglect. I think that's what happened.

And how do I know that happened? Because they did exactly the opposite of what I would do; if it cannot be a priority, if I know I'm going to be focused on these four big things, but I understand something about the risks and opportunities to Latin America, I would just put a really good team that would manage that, that wouldn't take my time, senior management time.

You just, you know, maybe name a special envoy for the Americas, somebody with real power, with access to the president who just runs the part of the world, you know, with the tools that are needed for that part of the world, as the top echelon of your foreign policy runs those four big crises. That didn't happen.

The team that came in to run Latin America is probably the most amateurish team. The person who runs the Western Hemisphere is a staffer, is just a staffer of somebody that Biden was fond of, a very young guy with no experience. And I don't think the senior people in this administration understand the damage. I hope that when they saw the very lackluster results of the summit in Los Angeles, they understand, you know, that they've been mismanaging this to the risk of the United States, because on the other hand, if you look at SOUTHCOM, you know, Southern Command, and you look at their analysis of threats in the region, this should be top, top, top priority.

I mean, I listened to the testimony of General Richardson, who commands Southern Command, and I was mesmerized of the analysis they do about transnational crime, China, Russia, Iran in the region. I mean, if you look at that report, this should be a high priority. This should be, you know, priority number three or four for the United States. And it's nowhere there. And I think it's very dangerous, Michael. I mean, I think I really appreciate you doing this program because maybe some of your listeners would pay attention.

MICHAEL MORELL: You know, Pedro, I told you a story which I'll share with my listeners. I was talking to President Bush several years ago, and I made the comment that the most important relationship for the United States was the relationship between Washington and Beijing. And he corrected me and he said, 'No, no, no, no, Michael. The most important relationships for the United States are our relationship with Mexico and Canada.'
And I think he was making a very important point.

PEDRO BURELLI: I think it's a critical point.

MICHAEL MORELL: Pedro, thank you so much for joining us. This has been a very important discussion and we'll have to continue it at some point in the future. But thank you so much for joining us.

PEDRO BURELLI: Thank you very much, Michael. 

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