The U.S. Southern Command, which is responsible for all U.S. military activities in Latin America and is headquartered in Doral, recently transitioned its leadership to Marine Corps Gen. John Kelly from Gen. Douglas Fraser, who is retiring after a distinguished 37-year career in the U.S. Air Force.
This is an important time for the U.S. military, as troops re-deploy from Iraq and Afghanistan, and as we face flat defense budgets and the looming threat of automatic spending cuts on Jan. 1.
It is also a crucial time for the Western Hemisphere and for U.S. interests in the region. Gen. Kelly has an opportunity to renew a forward-leaning U.S. engagement posture with our allies in the region. We need this because there has been a woeful lack of focus on Latin America over the last several years.
The U.S., through Southcom, should aggressively pursue direct military-to-military engagement and joint exercises with countries in the Western Hemisphere that welcome our presence. In particular, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Peru, Paraguay and Chile deserve more attention from the Department of Defense (DoD). Each of these countries has its own unique relationship with the U.S., but we can respect our differences on some matters while developing closer ties, particularly throughout our young officer corps.
We already have a great relationship with the Colombian military, forged through years of close cooperation and shared successes. With the prospect of peace talks between the FARC and the government, this is an important moment in the decades long insurgency the Colombian people have suffered.
President Juan Manuel Santos should be commended for maintaining the offensive against the FARC, even while negotiations are ongoing. With the FARC’s back against the wall, now is the time to put an end to this narco-terrorist organization, whether through military victory, a negotiated FARC capitulation, or a combination of the two. While I hope earnest peace talks will be successful, I urge Southcom and Joint Special Operations Command to maintain robust cooperation with the Colombians to defeat the FARC so peace can come to Colombia.
Brazil is a special case, and requires special attention. The U.S. should encourage Navy-to-Navy engagements with the Brazilians with the hope that they can participate more actively in regional exercises like Panamax and Unitas, as well as humanitarian contingency operations. To the extent that the Brazilians welcome it, we should partner with Brazil on energy development to help achieve energy independence for the Western Hemisphere.
One of Gen. Kelly’s main tasks at Southcom will be to support the Joint Interagency Task Force (JIAFT) - South Director, who needs more air and radar assets, as well as the regular presence in the Caribbean and Eastern Pacific of U.S. Navy ships dedicated to track smugglers. With a reduced U.S. military presence in the Middle East, the new Southcom commander should press the Pentagon to dedicate more airborne surveillance assets like Joint STARS [Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar], to the mission of countering illicit trafficking.
Joint STARS sorties should be a regular occurrence in the Southcom area of responsibility, which would help detect things like self-propelled semi-submersibles, which are innovative submarine-like boats currently used to smuggle narcotics, but which could be used to smuggle people and weapons to our shores.
Counter-narcotic successes in Colombia have shifted the threat of transnational criminal organizations to Mexico and Central America, and there is growing concern that security efforts in these countries will shift the threat into the Caribbean and increase reliance on sea routes for smuggling while adding pressure to the governments of Jamaica and the Dominican Republic among others. In response, Southcom should look at increased military-to-military cooperation through training and equipment programs in Honduras to expand their coastal patrol capability, and other countries in the region willing to accept this type of U.S. support.
Otherwise, we should enable partners like the Colombians to export security training and assistance. Providing simple items — like night vision goggles — can make a big difference.
Finally, there are larger geo-strategic concerns within Latin America. The Chinese government continues to out-maneuver the U.S. on trade deals and is aggressively buying resources for export across the Pacific, all while cultivating ties with Latin American governments. Due to Latin America’s proximity to the U.S., our enemies have not let up on establishing a foothold in the region.
Working with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and his Bolivarian alliance of Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua and the Castros in Cuba, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has worked aggressively to cultivate friendships, open “cultural offices,” and place his operatives in nations that welcome them. Fortunately, Iran has a spotty track record of delivering on its promises. But we know their intentions are not benign.
I welcome Gen. Kelly and his family to South Florida, and to this challenging assignment. I look forward to working with him and the men and women from all the services and their families who serve our nation at U.S. Southern Command at this important time.