March 29, 2021
In testimony earlier this month, Admiral Craig S. Faller told Congress: “This Hemisphere in which we live is under assault.… We are losing our positional advantage in this Hemisphere and immediate action is needed to reverse this trend.” Faller was appointed commander of the US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM, responsible for overseeing US military activities in Latin America) by the Trump administration in 2018, despite his ties to a notoriously corrupt defense contractor. On March 16 of this year, he spoke at a Senate Armed Forces Committee hearing on the FY 2022 military budget. Hearings of this kind often serve as a platform for government officials to argue for larger budgets by highlighting both their agency’s successes and remaining challenges.
Given this context, the general thrust of Admiral Faller’s testimony is unsurprising: the US is under attack, and SOUTHCOM is defending it valiantly, but will need even more money to keep doing so. “The very democratic principles and values that bind us together,” he argues in the written version of his testimony, “are being actively undermined by violent transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) and [China] and Russia.” Iran also aims to “take advantage of the nascent, fragile democracies in the region and look to exploit the region’s resources and proximity to the United States.” Finally, “malign regional actors” are “opening the door” to foreign influence and criminal organizations. However, Faller offered little evidence that these threats are really as dire as he made them out to be.
Despite describing Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela as “malign regional actors,” and Iran as one of several “threats,” these four countries take up just 2 of the 22 pages in Faller’s written testimony, filled mostly with details like an Iranian-run Spanish-language news channel in the region (the US runs one as well). Of the seven sentences in the Venezuela section, six describe the country’s humanitarian crisis and don’t even attempt to portray it as a threat. Though US-Venezuela sanctions policy relies on the White House officially describing Venezuela as “an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States,” SOUTHCOM apparently has little to share about how this could be true.
According to Faller, “transnational criminal organizations” are a serious security threat in the region, but even here his analysis is misfocused. The role of Central American cartels in widespread violence and the forced displacement of nearly half a million people are barely unmentioned. But he does mention the minor regional footprint of Hezbollah, despite that the group is allegedly implanted in the Triple Frontier region of South America, more than 3,500 miles from US soil. Only two criminal groups based in the Western Hemisphere are mentioned by name: a pair of Colombian left-wing guerrilla groups which, Faller claims, have close ties to the Maduro government in Venezuela (though no strong evidence of this has yet emerged).
The real subjects of Faller’s testimony were China and Russia, which are viewed through a Cold War-era framing of great power competition to justify high levels of US defense spending. In the written version of his testimony, Faller mentions China 26 times (more than any nation actually in Latin America), and the Russian government 14 times.
Faller’s spoken testimony was less restrained than his written one, arguing: “the Chinese Communist Party, with its insidious and corrupt influence, seeks regional and global economic dominance and its own version of a rules-based international order.” As Fareed Zakaria recently put it, we are in a “new age of bloated Pentagon budgets, all to be justified by the great Chinese threat.” Observers have noted that this sort of Cold War rhetoric fuels discrimination and violence against Asian Americans; it is also detached from reality.
Faller first claims that China and Russia “are taking advantage of the pandemic” to “gain more access, presence, and influence in the region.” The impacts of COVID-19, he says, “creates a more fragile region that serves as fertile ground for our competitors to advance their interests, both malign and legitimate…” This argument portrays ending the pandemic as a competitive endeavor rather than a cooperative one, and implies that China and Russia are acting aggressively against the US when they seek to address needs in Latin America that the US has neglected. As Faller acknowledges: “If the U.S. wants to be the partner of choice — that means being first to respond in a crisis.”
Though SOUTHCOM engaged in some humanitarian relief efforts during the pandemic, from field hospitals to the provision of PPE, the overall US response in Latin America has been poor. In the critical early months, the US government may have actually accelerated the pandemic’s spread throughout the region through frequent deportations of infected individuals. The US then withdrew funding for both the World Health Organization and the Pan-American Health Organization when these multilateral organizations most needed funds to help developing countries combat the pandemic. Though US policymakers have recently begun putting greater emphasis on international aid, US assistance to the region was slow in coming. From February to August 2020, the US pledged only $141.5 million to all of Latin America in COVID-related aid (equivalent to 2.3 percent of the total US annual military aid budget).
Once vaccines became available, the US hoarded global supplies and sided with Big Pharma in helping to block other countries from manufacturing their own generic vaccines. The US initially refused to share its stockpiles with even the neighboring nation of Mexico, and now appears to be using them as leverage in getting Mexico to stop migrants from reaching the US border. The US government also pressured Brazil not to accept the Russian vaccine, as doing so would be to the “detriment of U.S. safety and security.”
The reason nations like Brazil are now turning to China for vaccines is not Chinese aggression, but the counterproductive “vaccine nationalism” of US policy. The same applies to matters of finance: when the US fails to step up and provide the region with the help needed, Chinese assistance becomes a logical substitute. Like many other national security threats, the problem here lies not in Beijing or Moscow, but in Washington.
Outside of COVID-19, Faller presents a long list of actions through which China and Russia are growing their influence in Latin America. But the United States is also doing most of the things on Faller’s list. The US is presumed to have rightful hegemony over Latin America, “our neighborhood,” a perspective that dates to the Monroe Doctrine and suggests that China and Russia’s actions are a threat not to Latin American sovereignty, but to US sovereignty over Latin America.
Faller notes that China and Russia have moved to expand their limited military presence in Latin America. Russia has more than doubled its naval deployments in the region, to a total of 11 in the years 2015 to 2020. We lack precise numbers on SOUTHCOM’s naval deployments over this period, but there is reason to assume they were far greater. SOUTHCOM press releases mention at least five instances of US military ships deployed in the region in 2019 alone: in May, in June twice, and in September, twice, not including aircraft-based deployments. The year 2020 also featured many US naval deployments, including those aimed at pressuring Venezuela and deterring China and Russia.
We are told that China is seeking ways to “establish global logistics and basing infrastructure in our hemisphere.” (Emphasis added.) China and Russia combined have zero military bases in Latin America (unless we include a secretive space station built as a joint venture between China and Argentina). The US military, on the other hand, has some form of enduring presence in over a dozen Latin American nations.
China’s trade with Latin America is growing at an impressive pace, and Faller points out that it “is now the region’s second-largest trading partner behind the U.S.” It isn’t clear why trade competition is inherently malevolent, but even with this aside, China’s second-place position doesn’t match even half the US trade with Latin America, in terms of total trade. China has three trade agreements in the region, and the US has 11.
Faller describes China’s Belt and Road Initiative as “a concerted effort by Beijing to indebt fragile countries in the region, impinge on our partners’ and allies’ sovereignty, and use its influence to extract concessions when needed.” Aside from the fact that these claims are questionable, it’s worth noting that the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, where the US wields disproportionate influence, have been criticized for imposing harmful conditionalities on developing countries for decades.
Russia is selling weapons to Latin America, but the US is the world’s largest arms dealer by far; in fact, Russia and China’s arms sales are shrinking, while US sales are growing. Under Trump, it became even easier for US weapons to wind up in the hands of criminal organizations and human rights abusers in Latin America.
The US government has provided military assistance to Latin American security forces for decades longer than China has, and in far greater amounts. Though Faller contrasts Russian military training with (much-larger) US training programs that he says include “values like respect for human rights and the rule of law,” US-backed forces have committed human rights violations in the region for well over a century. Faller even mentions a US Army unit “currently training Colombian and Honduran forces” in counternarcotics operations, two countries that have received massive US security assistance and where security forces have long and ongoing records of committing human rights abuses.
Faller’s credibility on human rights becomes particularly questionable when he claims that the US base at Guantanamo Bay “continues to conduct safe, legal, and humane detention operations.” Earlier this year, UN human rights experts described it as “a place of arbitrariness and abuse, a site where torture and ill-treatment was rampant and remains institutionalised, where the rule of law is effectively suspended, and where justice is denied.”
Lastly, Faller criticizes Russia and China for their disinformation campaigns in the region. Such “fake news” efforts are a large and growing problem in Latin America, and one to which the US contributes. In recent years, US companies have engaged in large-scale disinformation campaigns across the region. Despite recent cuts, the US also continues to spend millions every year on an Office of Cuba Broadcasting, whose news programming has been described by a US government review as “ineffective propaganda.”
Faller’s analysis only makes sense through a lens of extreme US exceptionalism in which an action is good when the US does it, but bad when others do it. When Cuba sends doctors abroad to provide much-needed assistance, it’s because they are trying “to build international goodwill and gain back door access to undermine fragile democracies.” But when the US, which has an actual history of “undermin[ing] fragile democracies,” engages in largely identical medical diplomacy missions, it’s simply to provide “relevant and timely support to our partners and demonstrate our commitment to the region.”
Faller argues that “we must build OUR team to win this strategic competition.” How? “To put it simply, we outcompete bad guys by being the good guys. While our adversaries look for opportunities to extract, we look for ways to build up.”
If the US wants to be the “good guys” in Latin America, it should start by putting the region’s interests first. This means pursuing a strategy of regional cooperation to provide hemispheric neighbors with support they actually want, without conditions — not by more funding for counterproductive operations by the military and other security agencies focused on reaffirming US hegemony.