Southcom commander warns Congress of growing humanitarian crisis in Venezuela

Navy Adm. Kurt W. Tidd testifying at the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday, April 6, 2017
Navy Adm. Kurt W. Tidd testifying at the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday, April 6, 2017 Miami Herald screen grab from video

The admiral in charge of the U.S. Southern Command testified at Congress Thursday that while the region is “stable,” the situation in Venezuela is worsening and could trigger a humanitarian crisis requiring regional intervention.

“The enormous economic instability that’s taking place in Venezuela affects the entire region,” Adm. Kurt Tidd told the Senate Armed Services Committee. Both China and Russia “have significant economic involvement” in Venezuela, he added, and “it would be difficult to imagine that they would not look to take advantage of further instability in that country.”

Venezuela has been wracked by an economic crisis with soaring inflation and shortages of commercial goods. Most economists blame the woes on price controls, falling prices for oil exports, heavy government spending and production-crippling policie

The admiral was talking about Venezuela as he delivered his annual “Posture Report,” a combination update on activities, request for resources and briefing on regional political and social stresses in the territory that stretches south of the border through Latin America and the Caribbean, minus Mexico.

He said the region was not immune to “extremist networks, like ISIS, which are radicalizing and recruiting individuals” — and pointed to the attack in San Bernardino, California, as proof that “the reality is, ISIS is present here in the Western Hemisphere.”

He did not say there were actually card-carrying ISIS members in his area of responsibility but said, “We know there is a presence of radicalized individuals to whom the ISIS message is very appealing.”

At the Pentagon later in the day he told reporters that the concern was “ISIS or ISIS-inspired or ISIS-affiliated extremists ... that follow the Sunni path.”

Asked if Southcom had detected “operational-type cells,” Tidd replied that ISIS was encouraging would-be followers to stay at home globally. “The direction to them is to conduct attacks. They have not yet.”

His written testimony declared: “Overall the region is stable, although the gap between public expectations and government performance manifests itself in social protests, most often against corruption and mismanagement of public resources.

The admiral’s written statement

“Bolivian citizens have engaged in mass protests to demand resolution to a severe water shortage, while Venezuela faces significant instability in the coming year due to widespread food and medicine shortages; continued political uncertainty; and a worsening economic situation. The growing humanitarian crisis in Venezuela could eventually compel a regional response.”

He later elaborated that a regional response would be along the lines of “diplomatic activities” that the Organization of American States is engaged in.

In other testimony:

▪ Tidd said “a significant amount” of drug trafficking continues to head “towards the Central American peninsula, unfortunately. We only have the resources to be able to intercept about 25 percent.” To intercept all of it, he said, he would need “more ships, more aircraft.” In response to a question from Republican committee chairman Sen. John McCain, Tidd said he would quantify it in writing.

▪ The admiral appeared to put in a pitch to build new barracks for troops doing temporary duty at the Guantánamo prison — without offering a public price tag for the project previously championed by his predecessor, now-retired Marine Gen. John Kelly. His testimony included a photo of a trailer park for about 580 troops whose 2006 and 2008 “units have exceeded their economic life.” It advised: “Common problems with the units are roof leaks, plumbing failures and mold growth.” He told the senators: “Now it’s time to address the infrastructure requirements that we’ve been putting off. The safety and the security of our troops depend on it.”

▪ Tidd told Congress that last month’s migrant exercise “stressed our ability to conduct migrant operations at Naval Station Guantánamo Bay and support interagency partners in responding to migrant landings in the United States” — leaving still open the question of whether the Department of Homeland Security might use the base for migrants rounded up in the U.S.

“That was not rehearsed during Integrated Advance,” Southcom’s Army Col. Lisa Garcia said after the testimony. “We have no indications that the migrant operation center would be used for that purpose.”

▪ Tidd was asked if in light of President Donald Trump’s vow to grow Guantánamo prison he would need more resources. “Right now we have the people that we need for the size of the population we are charged with guarding,” Kidd said.

The prison spokesman said this week that it had a staff of 1,750 (1,550 troops and 200 civilians) assigned to the detention center of 41 detainees.

Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren asked both Tidd and his Northern Command counterpart about the proposed Trump Administration budget. It would cut funds to the State Department and financial assistance to partner countries, she noted, asking whether it would make the job more or less difficult for the two military headquarters that at times function as quasi-diplomatic regional outposts?

Northcom commander Air Force Gen. Lori Robinson went first: “It would make it more difficult, ma’am.”

Tidd replied with just two words: “More difficult.”

The testimony came a day after the Southern Command announced that, in response to a request from the Peruvian government, it had dispatched two C130 cargo planes from Little Rock, Arkansas, to help in the delivery of humanitarian relief to flood devastated communities in the country’s north.

Sean Spicer says that President Donald Trump 'believes that Guantánamo Bay does serve a very, very healthy purpose in our national security' during a White House press briefing on Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2017.

Carol Rosenberg: 305-376-3179, @carolrosenberg