Fifty-two high ranking military, security forces personnel, and government officials from 10 nations gathered on October 14, 2021 for the first virtual Caribbean Region Information Operations Council (CRIOC) meeting under the theme “The Caribbean Threat Environment.” The William J. Perry Center co-hosted the event with U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM), U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), the U.K. Ministry of Defense, and the Canadian Joint Operations Command. The event was sponsored by The Watch NORTHCOM Magazine and Diálogo SOUTHCOM Magazine.
CRIOC was created in 2013 as a multinational partnership between the security forces of the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Caribbean nations to use information-related capabilities to combat transnational threat networks and illicit traffickers operating in the region, and support humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts.
CRIOC members include the Royal Bahamas Defense Force, the Royal Bermuda Regiment, the Royal Turks and Caicos Islands Police Force, the Jamaica Defense Force, the Trinidad and Tobago Defense Force, and the Haitian National Police-Coast Guard, as well as representatives from NORTHCOM, SOUTHCOM, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), the U.K. Ministry of Defense, and the Canadian Joint Operations Command.
Featured speaker Professor Anthony Clayton of the University of the West Indies’ Institute for Sustainable Development highlighted the most serious threats to the Caribbean region. Climate change is an existential threat, and there is a rapidly rising risk of great power competition with China. The COVID-19 pandemic has inflicted serious economic and social damage on the small, open economies in the region, some of which have lost 10-20 percent of their GDP, sharply increasing their dependence on Chinese investment. Prof. Clayton explained that some loans from China are hidden, kept off public accounts by using a combination of special purpose and semi-private loans, and that China is willing to make large loans to over-borrowing countries with high levels of corruption, allowing them to exert leverage, take control of assets, or require that more contracts are awarded to Chinese firms. Caribbean nations are major players in offshore finance, have a leading role in the coalition of 134 developing countries at the United Nations, and make up almost half the membership of the Organization of American States, providing China with a significant platform to extend their political influence and leverage in the U.S. near abroad.
The current vulnerability of the Caribbean nations is compounded by the exceptionally high level of violent crime and corruption in some countries, the increasing overlap between organized crime and terrorist networks (Islamic State-affiliates, Hezbollah and narco-terrorism) and the disintegration of Venezuela, now a mafia-state exporting instability to other countries in the region.
“China usually shows little interest in small resource poor states, but the Caribbean is an exception; China has become by far the largest investor in this region, acquiring both assets and influence,” Prof. Clayton said. He also noted Russia’s strengthening relations with Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, the challenges posed by the Kremlin’s increasingly effective disinformation campaigns, and the way that Russia could use these to “light fires” in the U.S. near abroad.
“Russia has an enduring relationship with Cuba and recent high-level bilateral talks between the two countries indicate that the strategic partnership between the two countries will strengthen. Regarding Venezuela, Russia has concretized the relationship through a multifaceted investment strategy that promotes Russian foreign policy and its views on global power dynamics,” said Dr. Tres-Ann Kremer of the University of the West Indies’ Institute for Criminal Justice and Security, another featured speaker at the event. “China has been always focused on the economic influence and it aggressively and astutely promotes its stance that its economic investments align with domestic interests for development and prosperity.”
Prof. Clayton noted that the Caribbean is a major base for transnational crime, with weapons, narcotics, counterfeit goods, and laundered funds transiting the region. Venezuela is now a safe haven for regional narcotrafficking organizations and an important center for financing and money laundering for Hezbollah, which has several bases of operation on Venezuela’s Caribbean coast. In addition, returning foreign fighters (Islamic State affiliates) are integrated into gangs in Trinidad and Tobago. “Fundamentalist organizations are targeting disaffected youth,” Prof. Clayton added. “The Caribbean has established networks for trafficking weapons and narcotics that could readily be adapted for use by terrorists.”
Guyana was another potential flashpoint in the region. Dr. Kremer highlighted that Guyana, with its politics largely divided along ethnic lines, and an unresolved territorial claim by Venezuela (Venezuela has claimed 62 percent of Guyana’s territory, including most of the oil reserves), is also an important transit hub for cocaine from Venezuela and Brazil, and a strong partner of China. The country is also poised to become one of the largest oil producers worldwide, with estimated reserves of 10 billion barrels. Weak institutions and unprecedented revenues will create many opportunities for fraud and extremely lucrative corruption, and increase the risk from politicized security forces seeking control of oil and other natural resources and potential aggression by Venezuela (or non-state actors acting for Venezuela) to control territory.
During his closing remarks, Dr. Benjamin P. Gochman, chief, Engagements at NORTHCOM’s Information Operation division, stated: “The Caribbean threat environment is evolving rapidly. NORAD and NORTHCOM works closely with SOUTHCOM to support our Caribbean partners during catastrophic natural disasters [such as hurricanes] and to counter common threats such as illicit [arms, drugs, and human] trafficking and illegal fishing. New threats are emerging and compounding old ones. The Caribbean is the United States’ ‘third border,’ but has not received as much attention as the borders with Canada and Mexico. We have to make the Caribbean a much higher priority in the future.”