Washington, D.C.-based think tank Center for a Secure Free Society (SFS) hosted the 2023 Western Hemisphere Security Forum on January 19, bringing together political leaders and defense, intelligence, and law enforcement officials of the region to analyze issues such as threats to democracies in Latin America and strategies to confront authoritarian regimes such as China, Iran, Russia, and Venezuela.
“The consensus of this forum is that China, Iran, and Russia present strategic challenges […]. Great power competition is becoming confrontational […], and authoritarian governments are increasing the use of unconventional tactics and asymmetric warfare, taking advantage of the high use of disinformation and cyberespionage to destabilize democratic nations and U.S. partner countries in Latin America and the Caribbean,” Joseph Humire, SFS executive director, told Diálogo.
John Gizzi, White House correspondent for Newsmax TV kicked off the discussions, reminding participants that Latin America faces turmoil caused by regional and extra-regional threats.
Humire then described the strategic and geopolitical challenges posed by what he described as an ongoing migration crisis. According to Humire, it is symptomatic of several border crises worldwide, and he stressed that the most dangerous border in the Western Hemisphere is the Colombia-Venezuela border. Malign regional governments intentionally use massive migration crises as a weapon of asymmetric warfare, which China, Iran, and Russia then exploit, Humire said.
Two panels followed. In the first, “Stopping the Authoritarian Wave,” speakers analyzed the rise of authoritarian governments in Latin America. In the second, “Countering the Threats from Venezuela, Russia, Iran, and China,” they discussed the impact to security and free society in the Western Hemisphere from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Iranian revolution, and China’s civil-military fusion.
María Corina Machado, a leading Venezuelan opposition figure, who joined from Venezuela via video conference, said that Nicolás Maduro has been whitewashing his crimes by establishing a democratic facade promoted by some international actors. For Francisco Santos, former vice president of Colombia, Venezuela has become “the Somalia” of Latin America, where criminals and terrorists reign and have taken control of the borders. Santos also warned that Russia and Venezuela have strengthened their relationship, which includes cyber espionage and other subversive actions in Bogotá.
“Among the main lessons from this forum is that civil society is key to fighting the rising authoritarian wave worldwide,” Humire said. “China remains the main external state actor and strategic challenge to the United States in the region, and it is key to be aware of its military-civilian fusion, as Latin American countries can be misled into thinking they only have commercial relations with China, and fail to notice the dual Chinese commercial-military capabilities with its People’s Liberation Army.”
For John Griffiths, head of Security and Defense Studies at Chilean think tank Athenalab, and former Chief of Staff of the Chilean Army, the Chinese presence in Latin America and the Caribbean takes place in a scenario of competition and confrontation between “great powers.”
“When one speaks of competition one is referring to competition for resources […], but if a country establishes military bases and ports in strategic areas of a country, such as Argentina, for example in the case of China with the military base in Neuquén and the construction of a multipurpose port in Río Grande, Tierra del Fuego, that is in the realm of confrontation,” Griffiths told Diálogo. “With these initiatives, China could clearly aim for bio-oceanic control of the Pacific and Atlantic, or for eventual aid to China’s fishing fleet, or for the projection from that port toward Antarctica.”
Humire added that Iran could assume a more important role in Latin America and the Caribbean as Russia is consumed by the war in Ukraine and China’s economy slows down.
But given that Iran has no conventional force in Latin America, its expertise in asymmetric warfare could become more prominent in regional instability. Regarding Russia, he warned that they had increased disinformation in Spanish and Portuguese, with an impact on local elections through the “weaponization” of social networks.