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Secretary Mattis And Retiring SOUTHCOM Commander Offer Differing Visions Of Latin American Stability

In remarks made in Doral on Monday, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and a retiring commander of U.S. military operations in the Caribbean and much of Latin America offered starkly different readings of the state of security in the Western Hemisphere.

The comments came during a change of command ceremony for the U.S. Southern Command, or SOUTHCOM, the branch of the Pentagon that oversees operations in the Caribbean as well as Central and South America.

“To some who look around the globe, the last two years might have seemed like bad ones for democracy. But not so when I look at our hemisphere,” Mattis said. “From Ottawa to Buenos Aires to Santiago, we increasingly find an island of hemispheric opportunity and democratic stability, amidst a churning and ever-changing global sea.”

Mattis shined a light on ongoing regional efforts and collaborations by the SOUTHCOM aimed at maintaining the peace, saying the region's militaries can act as "stabilizing forces." He pointed to the deployment of a U.S. Navy hospital ship, the Comfort, which is scheduled to dock in Colombia within days to help treat Venezuelan refugees in the midst of what experts call a humanitarian crisis across the region. The Pentagon is working with 10 partner nations and six non-governmental organizations in that mission.

“We are sending doctors, not bombers, to help limit human suffering, and we are all better for this partnership,” he said, touting SOUTHCOM’s collaborative work. "There is more in this hemisphere that binds us together than drives us apart."

U.S. Navy Admiral Kurt Tidd somewhat wavered from that message and spoke a “bit more candidly” and “less diplomatically” about the region, as he put it, since the ceremony marked his retirement as commander of SOUTHCOM.

Tidd painted a bleaker picture of the region, noting that the region is home to many nations with the highest murder rates in the world, that the largest refugee crisis in its history is ongoing, and that bringing more stability to the region is “critical to the security of our homeland.”

“Our security depends on understanding that, even as the environment around us is improving in many ways, forces of darkness remain and at times seem to be expanding,” said Adm. Tidd, echoing the tone of a speech given in Miami earlier this month by President Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton. Adm. Tidd said problems stemming from the acronym VUCA (Violence, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity) are “more acute in the Western Hemisphere than most any other region” of the world, which is a root cause of both the Venezuelan refugee crisis and thousands of migrants fleeing North to the United States and Mexico from Central American.

“Gang violence is rampant and growing across Central America, and is spreading from major South American cities into transnational groupings. Illegal armed groups and transnational organized crime are carving out tacit control of swaths of territory, pushing out state and local governments,” Adm. Tidd said. “This produced wide swaths of under-governed or semi-governed spaces, which have become centers of corruption, of economic hopelessness, of illegitimate power centers that have already eaten away at the fabric of many societies, co-opting ruling elites and businessmen.”

China and Russia have been aggressively spreading influence across the region, especially among traditional U.S. foes Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela.

Tidd spoke of the military’s efforts to bring aid following major hurricanes in the Caribbean, aiding in the search for the missing Argentinian submarine ARA San Juan and offering assistance to Colombia as its decades-long civil war officially drew to a close as high points of his tenure.

U.S. Navy Adm. Craig Faller, the incoming head of SOUTHCOM briefly addressed the audience, full of former colleagues, family and friends, as well as visiting military officers from Central and South America.

“As I see it, the Western Hemisphere is our neighborhood. We are fortunate to live here, interconnected by common, cultural bonds, shared values, respect for human rights and strong democratic principles,” he said.

As the new commander for the region, his first line of business will be to conduct a tour across the region and to start to build relationships from the ground up, said Jose Ruiz, a spokesperson for SOUTHCOM.

“Good neighbors all benefit from a strong neighborhood watch,” said Adm. Faller in his speech, “and in our neighborhood, security and stability can’t be taken for granted.”

Credit Jose Iglesias / Miami Herald
Miami Herald
Sergeant Major Bryan Zickefoose, right, hands off the colors to retiring U.S. Navy Adm. Kurt Tidd as Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis stands by along with U.S. Navy Adm. Craig Faller, second from right. Faller will assume command of the Southern Command in Doral.

Daniel Rivero is part of WLRN's new investigative reporting team. Before joining WLRN, he was an investigative reporter and producer on the television series "The Naked Truth," and a digital reporter for Fusion. He can be reached at drivero@wlrnnews.org
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