In South and Central America, four foreign powers are operating with differing involvement across all elements of national power, the commander of U.S. Southern Command said.
At a Defense Writers Group event in Washington today, Navy Adm. Craig S. Faller said he's seen Russia, China, Iran and Cuba operating in varying capacities in Southcom's area of responsibility.
Russia, he said, is helping to prop up the Nicolas Maduro regime in Venezuela with weapons sales and security assistance. They're operating elsewhere, too, he added.
"They have traditional arms sales relationships with countries in the region, and that continues, particularly in Venezuela [and] Nicaragua," Faller said. "Russia has deployed nuclear-capable bombers [and] Russia has deployed their most advanced warship that is capable of firing nuclear cruise missiles throughout the region, all within the last year. Russia has provided significant assistance to Venezuela."
Hundreds of Russians — both forces and contractors — are in Venezuela "helping Maduro continue his reign of terror on the nation," the admiral said. In Nicaragua, he told the defense writers, Russia runs a counternarcotics and counterterrorism training center that "has dubious dual purposes."
Russian information operations are strong in South America as well, he said, with a large Spanish-language media presence. "It is Russia's largest language operation outside of their native language, outside of Russia," he said. "It's pumping a lot of information out in those spaces, and then misinformation."
Faller said at one point, he was in Washington meeting with lawmakers and Russian propaganda outlets reported he was on the Columbia-Venezuela border planning an invasion into Venezuela.
China has legitimate economic interests in the region, the admiral said, but it also is involved heavily in the information space, including in the information technology, cyber and space realms.
"Their arms sales have grown," he said. "They have deployed some assets — that's ticked up consistently in the last couple of years. They are also increasing their military engagement."
He said the Chinese have created Spanish-language schools and training centers and in addition to military sales, have been giving hardware to various nations.
There is significant evidence of investment in Chinese and Russian weapons systems in Southcom's area of responsibility, Faller said. "Russian weapons systems sales [are] in the billions, and China's [are] increasing. China is also gifting a lot of military hardware to ... partners. The extent to which it undermines partnerships with the U.S. [and] contributes to instability ... is a concern for the security of the U.S."
Dozens of Chinese infrastructure projects in South America are contributing to instability, Faller said, noting that China is working on 56 port deals in the region. Some of those deals are locked up with onerous leasing agreements, he said, and some of those agreements have left host nations with little access to and little control over what the Chinese have built.
In one partner nation, he said, a Chinese-built road has a 99-year lease in which the Chinese have land rights on both sides. "Thousands of acres, and they have the ability to control the tolls on that road for 99 years," the admiral said. "That's the price you get for having the Chinese come in and build a road. We've been watching that closely, and it has our attention and has contributed to a sense of urgency I feel about the overall security."
While Russia has hundreds of people in Venezuela, Cuba has thousands, Faller said. In fact, he told the writers, 100% of the Venezuelan "palace guard" protecting Maduro are Cuban.
When it comes to terrorist activity, he said, Iran's influence and presence are felt in South America.
"We have uncovered terrorist plots," he said. "We know that there is a significant Lebanese Hezbollah presence through the region with connections back to Lebanese Hezbollah and Iran. ... Iran's hand is in this. They are the largest state sponsor of terrorism in the world. And the long arm of Iranian malfeasance is alive and present around the world, not just in the Middle East. We are continuously keeping our eye on that ball, along with interagency partners."
Key to Countering Threats
Faller said strengthening U.S. partnerships in the Southcom area of responsibility is the key to countering threats from Russia, China, Iran and Cuba.
The best approach is to work with those partner nations, learn their needs and determine how those needs support the defense of the hemisphere and the United States, he said. "That's where we focus," he added. "And it's different country to country."