SOUTHCOM admiral: US security tied to Latin American and Caribbean stability
© Getty Images

Why should Americans, faced with serious global challenges, care about Latin America and the Caribbean, a region not frequently in the headlines?

From the Arctic to Antarctica, the Western Hemisphere is our shared neighborhood. At the center of that hemisphere, Latin America and the Caribbean constitute a region of promise defined by its geographic proximity, people with shared values, abundant resources and economic potential. It’s a hemisphere of freedom.

Yet, if we don’t invest in its security wisely and quickly, we risk increased instability here at home. From drug cartels to China’s influence operations, to the damage and human toll from superstorms and today’s pandemic, Latin America and the Caribbean face extraordinary challenges that easily could threaten our own national security.

ADVERTISEMENT

When I was growing up, my father ran several small businesses in western Pennsylvania, and he always said — repeating three times for emphasis — that “location, location, location is key to success.” Geographic proximity matters.

The area of responsibility of the Defense Department’s U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) has key sea lines of communication, such as the Panama Canal and the Strait of Magellan. In a global economy, these strategic waterways are vital to keeping our nation’s supply chains safe and secure. Our shared neighborhood also is rich in resources. With just 8 percent of the world’s population, Latin America and the Caribbean have 31 percent of the world’s fresh water and will account for an estimated 25 percent of global agriculture and fisheries exports by 2028. The region is replete with timber, oil, gas, rare earth minerals, and other resources — all vital for global economic growth.

Our “neighborhood” also is connected by family, and those ties run deep. Twenty percent of the U.S. population has ties to the region, with our Spanish-speaking populace ranking as the second largest in the world. Many families, including my own, have direct links; my father-in-law immigrated to the United States from Brazil. These intimate people-to-people bonds are amplified by our shared values and our faith in democracy.

The combination of proximity, abundant resources and people-to-people ties has led to a strong economic connection and potential for strategic partnerships. The United States trades $1.9 trillion annually with Western Hemisphere, according to the Office of U.S. Trade Representative — more than our trade with China.

The threats in the Western Hemisphere are persistent, real, and represent a formidable risk to our national security, however. Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs) directly threaten our citizens, contribute to tens of thousands of American deaths annually, and profit from a $90 billion-plus global cocaine industry. TCOs create instability and violence, contributing to the terrible statistic that 43 of the 50 most dangerous cities in the world are in our hemisphere, which drives the flood of migrants towards the U.S. border. TCOs control territory and are involved in all forms of illicit activities, fueling corruption, illicit financing and benefitting from trafficking humans, weapons and natural resources.

ADVERTISEMENT

To make matters worse, the Americas is one of the regions that has been hardest-hit by the coronavirus pandemic. According to the Pan American Health Organization, the region has 22.1 million cases, with more than 700,000 reported deaths. The health, economic and social impacts of this pandemic will alter the hemisphere for years to come. In the midst of this crisis, two back-to-back Category 4 and 5 hurricanes devastated parts of Central America. The pandemic and these unprecedented storms struck on top of an already challenging vicious cycle of threats that jeopardize a secure, stable and democratic Western Hemisphere.

The U.S. response to the pandemic and to hurricanes Eta and Iota, in the region, was swift and significant. For example, SOUTHCOM’s support of U.S. government efforts saved more than 850 lives in the aftermath of the hurricanes. Additionally, the U.S. government has pledged $4 billion in assistance to Central America over four years to address the root causes of human insecurity and irregular migration, including poverty, violence and corruption that open the doors to competitors like China, Russia and Iran, which actively seek to take advantage of the democracies in this region.

China, in particular, is building critical infrastructure projects, brokering port deals and installing high-tech surveillance technology from Argentina to Jamaica to Mexico. Countries whose economies are floundering due to the pandemic are becoming even more susceptible to China’s influence: 19 Latin American and Caribbean countries participate in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, with at least $150 billion in pledged loans. But China’s assistance often comes with little transparency, exposing countries to unmanageable debt and, ultimately, a loss of sovereignty.

As the Interim National Security Strategic Guidance and the Secretary of Defense’s Message to the Force suggest, we must meet the competition with China both globally and in our Western Hemisphere with a sense of urgency.

We cannot face such daunting challenges on our own. The only way to counter these threats is to build a strong team — one that includes our regional partners, allies with close ties to the hemisphere, international institutions, NGOs and the private sector — to win this strategic competition. The military brings capabilities to the table that are critical to building our neighbors’ institutions and resiliency to the threats they are facing. We have established programs to help our partners develop diverse and inclusive militaries that respect the rule of law and human rights — professional forces necessary to secure and stabilize our shared home.

In the end, if our neighbors are stronger, we are all stronger.

U.S. Navy Admiral Craig Faller will testify before the Senate Committee on Armed Services on Tuesday, March 16. He became U.S. Southern Command’s commander in November 2018. His Navy career includes serving as commander of the USS Stethem, the USS Shiloh and Carrier Strike Group 3, as senior military assistant to the Secretary of Defense, and as Deputy Chief of Naval Operations.