U.S. Navy Admiral Craig S. Faller, commander of U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), spoke before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee on January 30, 2020, to provide lawmakers an assessment of SOUTHCOM’s concerns and initiatives in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Stressing that the Western Hemisphere is a shared home, Adm. Faller highlighted the connections the nations of Latin America and the Caribbean share. “In my first year in command, I have had the opportunity to visit our partners and see firsthand the opportunities and challenges that directly impact the security of our hemisphere,” Adm. Faller said.
“I have come to describe the challenges as a vicious circle of threats that deliberately erodes stability and security in the region,”,Adm. Faller added, referring to countries with weak democracies which are plagued by poor governance and porous legal frameworks. Adm. Faller also remarked that, “this situation is exacerbated by a propensity toward corruption, which in turn leads to the spread of transnational criminal and violent extremist organizations along with external state actors — most notably China, Russia, and Iran — that exploit these countries at the expense of U.S. and partner nation security.”
“This vicious circle continues to negatively impact our homeland, most acutely in the form of illegal immigration and illicit drug flows, but also in other, more harmful ways. Due to high levels of insecurity and corruption, democracy in Latin America and the Caribbean is shifting in a negative direction, providing further openings for China and Russia to increase their influence,” Adm. Faller added.
Senator Mike Rounds of North Dakota spoke of Russia’s presence in the region and asked about the disinformation campaigns Moscow continues to conduct. “The disinformation campaign that Russia has been on is truly about — in all instances — painting the United States in an inaccurate light,” Adm. Faller said.
Adm. Faller provided the example of an occasion when Russia reported that he was on the border of Venezuela preparing to lead an invasion. In another instance, Russian disinformation campaigns attempted to sow discord by fabricating statements that Adm. Faller had said, which were contrary to what U.S. Vice President Mike Pence had previously stated. “Their largest effort by volume — in social media — is in Spanish and you have to ask: What’s the national interest of Russia of that disinformation here in this region,” Faller added.
Crisis in Venezuela
Regarding the ongoing crisis in Venezuela, the illegitimate regime of Nicolás Maduro remains in power and is being propped up largely due to the help of China, Russia, and most notably Cuba, Adm. Faller said in his opening remarks.
At the recent Defense Writers Group conference in Washington D.C. in October 2019, Adm. Faller said that “while Russia has hundreds of people in Venezuela, Cuba has thousands.” In fact, he told the writers, “100 percent of the Venezuelan ‘palace guards’ protecting Maduro are Cuban.”
“What’s happening in Venezuela is a tragedy. The illegitimate Maduro regime is using food as a weapon,” he went on to say during his opening remarks before the Senate. “The human suffering in this once thriving democracy has driven five million people to flee to neighboring countries like Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Brazil, Argentina, and Chile, who are now having to provide health care, education, and other basic services to those millions of migrants.”
While sanctions continue to be placed on Maduro’s regime, the remainder of the world and the United States look forward to the day when Venezuela reclaims its rightful place as a prosperous and democratic member of the community, Adm. Faller concluded.
Growing presence of China
Adm. Faller also expressed concern over the presence of China in Latin America, which is “trying to achieve a positional advantage right here in the region,” through large infrastructure investments, multiple port deals, and a technological and cyber security structure. “The best way to outcompete China is through partnerships,” Adm. Faller said. “Our partners want to work with us. They want the advantage of the United States: education, training, exercises and military equipment — which is the best in the world, and it’s up to us to deliver.”