Interannual precipitation over South America is largely modulated by the large-scale modes of variability in the surrounding oceans. In particular, the El Niño – Southern Oscillation (ENSO) affects South American rainfall generating a dipole pattern of precipitation over the northern and southeastern regions. In this study the role of the oceans for South American rainfall variability is investigated using the National Centre for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) Community Earth System Model (CESM). Multi-century simulations are performed to estimate rainfall mean and variability in South America in a fully coupled climate system and in the absence of ocean variability. Results show that interannual and decadal rainfall variability over South America is primarily associated with sea surface temperature anomalies in the Indo-Pacific region and variations in the extent of the Pacific warm pool. In the absence of ocean variability, droughts tend to last longer, particularly over the northeastern region. Thus, ENSO acts as a restoring mechanism for rainfall deficits and surplus over the continent. Interestingly, ENSO events are not only crucial for modulating rainfall variability, but also for determining mean precipitation over South America.