External states are working hard to get a foothold in South America, and they want to exert even greater influence there than they already do. Strong partnerships are the way to counter that effort, the commander of U.S. Southern Command said in a Senate hearing.
"Competition is happening globally, and right here in our neighborhood: the Western Hemisphere," Navy Adm. Craig S. Faller told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
In Venezuela, he said, Russia is propping up the illegitimate regime of Nicolas Maduro with loans, technical and military support. China, he said, is the country's largest creditor.
"[China has] saddled the Venezuelan people with more than $60 billion in debt and is exporting surveillance technology used to monitor and oppress the Venezuelan people," he said. Iran, he told the senators, has recently restarted direct flights from Tehran to the Venezuelan capital of Caracas.
Faller said China does have legitimate financial interests around the globe, including in South America. "We're working hard as a nation to figure out how those legitimate international interests can actually be played using the rule of law," he added.
Still, he said, China's investments in 56 port facilities in South America as well as investment in cyber and information technology infrastructure sets the stage "for future access and influence that would have clearly military dimension."
Russia, he said, can best be characterized as a "wounded bear" wanting power.
"Their principal objective is to make the U.S. look bad at whatever turn they can do, and do anything that would blunt a U.S. advantage, even if that advantage is for the international good and the people, as it is in Venezuela," he said.
The activities of China, Russia, Iran and Cuba, he said, are "profoundly unhealthy" for democracy and regional security in South America, and also are counter to U.S. interests there.
"China, Russia and others want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian models," he said. "They're blurring the lines of what constitutes a military threat through economic coercion, the systemic stealing of technology, influence campaigns and malicious cyber activity."
Pushing back in South America, Faller said, requires the United States to focus on what it does best there already: partnership building.
"The best way to outcompete is by focusing our strengths: the strong and enduring ties that we have with our neighbors," he said. "Security cooperation is our best tool to continue building these strong partnerships and turn the challenges of our hemisphere into opportunities. Working together, training and exercising shoulder to shoulder with American military professionals is our competitive edge, and no one can match our system."
Partners in South America want to work with the United States and value what it brings to the table, including military-to-military relationships, military exercises and schools, Faller said.
"They want the advantage of a U.S. education, training, exercises and military equipment," he said. "It's the best in the world. So it's up to us to deliver that in a way that's relevant and also provides a return on investment for American taxpayers."
Faller said more could be done in the way of training with increased funding. He told lawmakers that the International Military Education Training account run by the State Department has "basically been flatlined for as long back as I can do the math." This, he told the Senate panel, has meant decreasing seats for schools that partner nation military personnel can attend.
"I've advocated and former defense secretaries have as well, that we would be well served to look at an increase in this," he said. "The overall account for the entire Department of Defense is somewhere just north of $100 million, and for Southcom it's about $11 million. I think I could absorb $18 million, a modest increase. When you look at the kinds of monies we're spending in other areas, this is a low amount of money for a high dividend, high payoff."