Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro, aided by allies including Cuba, Russia, China and Iran, continues to serve as a threat to the democratic freedom in neighboring nations in South America, the commander of U.S. Southern Command said.
"When we look at this region, there is so much promise and so much potential," Navy Adm. Craig S. Faller said during a panel discussion today with the Atlantic Council.
South America is home to a number of democracies that share values with the United States, and are rich in resources, including human intellectual capital, Faller said. "All that is under assault. It's under assault by a vicious circle of threats, the center of which is ... Venezuela," the admiral said.
A big part of the threat, he said, is a drastic increase in narcotics trafficking coming out of Venezuela, which he said not only threatens lives throughout North and South America, but also corrupts the institutions critical to the maintenance and development of the young democracies that surround Venezuela.
"At the heart of the threat, it's the lives that are we're losing unnecessarily, and it's the undermining of democracy," Faller said. "That was a choice Maduro made to take the once thriving state into the current dictatorship that it is."
The COVID-19 pandemic has allowed Maduro to even further lock down Venezuela and increase his power, Faller said. At the same time, he added, organizations such as FARC, and the National Liberation Army of Colombia are able to expand territory in the country.
"All those threat vectors are headed in a negative direction, which is a significant reason why we have upped the amount of engagement we're doing with our partners and launched our enhanced counternarcotics operation," Faller said.
One tool to fight narcotics trafficking, Faller said, includes Southcom's Joint Interagency Task Force South and Key West, which has the involvement of 22 partner nations behind its efforts.
"They're all aligned there under the common threat of narco trafficking," Faller said. "The connection to Maduro is his complicity in that threat. The nations that go there, they go there for their national interest, but working together for the good of the hemisphere. It's been a success. And we have actually seen an increase in partner nation involvement, year to year, last year to this year."
Faller said that about half of Southcom's counternarcotics operations include the involvement of partner nations. He also cited as a success the U.S.-Colombian Action Plan, in which Colombians train partners across Central America to conduct operations against narcotics trafficking and terrorists. He also pointed out the Central America Regional Security Initiative and the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative as being important investments for the United States.
"The United States' time and financial resources will pay forward for enhanced stability," he said. "That's part of the solution set here, ... making sure we have it right in those investment areas to keep the democracies that have made progress in Central America and South America and the Caribbean [in] keep them moving forward against this vicious circle of threats."