Biden urged to focus on long-neglected Latin America as chaos erupts

A top concern is the possibility that an uncontrolled civil conflict in Haiti could lead to a new refugee crisis, Shifter said.

“The U.S. cannot afford to be on the sidelines in the wake of the president’s assassination and ensuing chaos,” Shifter said. “The Biden administration has a fundamental interest in doing what it can to stabilize the situation in Haiti through non-military means.”

Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby sought to tamp down any expectation of a new U.S. military intervention in Haiti or a major shift in the Pentagon’s priorities on Tuesday.

“Recent newsworthy events aren’t necessarily going to drive major changes to Southern Command,” Kirby said.

Southern Command has long requested additional resources for the region, particularly as anti-American actors have grown in influence there. Adm. Craig Faller, the current commander, noted recently that Russia, China and transnational criminal organizations are actively undermining America’s efforts in the Western Hemisphere.

“I feel an incredible sense of urgency. This hemisphere in which we live is under assault,” Faller said at a Senate hearing in March. “We are losing our positional advantage in this Hemisphere and immediate action is needed to reverse this trend.”

Faller noted that China, Russia and Iran consistently seek to take advantage of the vulnerable countries in the region, which have been hard-hit by the Covid-19 pandemic and economic woes. China, for example, is building 40 ports in the region and has significant loans with Latin American countries that Beijing uses as political leverage. Meanwhile, regimes in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua perpetuate corruption and open the door to bad actors, he said.

But repeated calls for additional resources have not yielded significant results over the years. Southern Command has always been “a poor cousin to the other geographic combatant commands,” said retired Adm. James Stavridis, noting that when he led the command, his entire budget for one year equaled what retired Gen. Jim Mattis, then the commander of U.S. Central Command, received for a few days of operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There is “a sense in the Pentagon that ‘nothing important happens down there,’” he said.

“As we wrestle with massive refugees from Venezuela, instability in Haiti and Cuba, dominant gangs and drugs in the ‘triangle’ of Central America, nascent Islamic terrorism organizing, and the crisis on the U.S. southern border, it seems clear that we need to pay a lot more attention to the world to the south,” Stavridis added.

One exception to this general rule is Colombia, where Washington has strong diplomatic and military relations. The United States is Colombia’s largest trade and investment partner, with large investments in the mining and manufacturing sectors, according to the State Department. Meanwhile, the U.S. military trains regularly with its Colombian partners and is a major provider of arms to the Colombian military and police.

The Haitian police have implicated at least 20 Colombians in a suspected plot to assassinate the president. But the circumstances of the Colombians’ involvement is increasingly murky.

Stavridis echoed Faller’s comments, noting that Southern Command needs additional resources to enable “soft power” — medical diplomacy in the form of hospital ships and airlifted clinics, response to natural disasters, humanitarian construction of schools and other infrastructure and counter-narcotics. These capabilities are inexpensive and will achieve outsize effects, he noted.

“The irony of soft power is that it is incredibly inexpensive in terms of cost versus long-term benefit, much like preventative medicine,” he said.

But the U.S. military has a complicated history in Latin America, dating back to the Mexican-American War, when the United States invaded Mexico and captured Mexico City in 1847. U.S. Marines repeatedly intervened in Central America and the Caribbean throughout the beginning of the 20th century amid political instability in the region. After World War II, Washington backed successful and unsuccessful coups in Guatemala, Cuba and Brazil. And during the Cold War, Latin America was frequently the victim of the proxy war between the U.S. and Russia, with both sides fomenting conflicts in Nicaragua, Grenada and Panama.

In Haiti, the public still remembers the 1994 U.S. invasion to remove the military regime installed by a 1991 coup that overthrew the elected leader, President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Some 90 years earlier, President Woodrow Wilson sent in the Marines after the assassination of the Haitian president in July 1915. The U.S. occupied the island until 1934.

“The history of U.S. military intervention in Haiti has not been an altogether happy one. The request for troops is probably not widely shared in Haitian society, which has grown skeptical of the role of external actors in national affairs,” said Shifter, noting that U.S. interventions in Latin America and the Carribean have come to be viewed as “violations of national sovereignty.”

As recently as 2019, the Trump administration backed a failed coup in Venezuela against President Nicolás Maduro, who is still clinging to power as the country plunges into near-economic collapse.

Chavez, the former Pentagon official, called on the Biden administration to pursue a “productive engagement” to rebuild U.S. credibility in the region.

“U.S. interventions in Latin America haven’t turned out well,” Chavez said. “We’re going to have to go into it with humility. We’ve lost some credibility in the region [during the Trump administration] and we need to demonstrate our ability to follow through on our commitments.”