Some observers and experts on inter-American military relations tend to repeat two inaccuracies: They confuse diplomatic pronouncements with military realities, and they view the military advances of China, Russia, Iran and India as potentially generating a dramatic imbalance at the expense of Washington.
Indeed, although Secretary of State John Kerry announced the end of the Monroe Doctrine in 2013, in practice, the Department of Defense, and especially the U.S. Southern Command, has reaffirmed its primacy in Latin America. Furthermore, even though there is no doubt that China’s economic growth is being accompanied by a growing projection of military power beyond its regional area of influence, except for exporting arms (and promises to supply these) to Venezuela, its effective military presence in Latin America is still low.
It is Russia which has been the major arms provider to South America (27 percent) over the U.S. (15 percent) and France (10 percent) between 2013 and 2017. However, its military presence and incidence in Latin America is insignificant overall. Ties between Iran and Latin America irritate Washington, but Tehran lacks the military capacity to gain influence and obstruct U.S. pre-eminence in the region. According to independent defense analyst Sanjay Badri-Majaraj, military ties between India and Latin America are so limited that it is a farce to discuss them. In short, U.S. military supremacy in the region is still in force and it is solid.
No extraregional power, individual or joint, holds the same military deployment levels in the region: the Southern Command, located in Miami; the reactivation in 2008 of the Fourth Fleet (decommissioned in 1950); military bases (in Cuba and Honduras); cooperative security locations (in El Salvador and Aruba-Curacao); and the so-called cooperative security organizations (defense cooperation offices, defense representation offices, consulting groups for military defense, defense coordination offices) in different Latin American countries.
While Beijing has successfully implemented programs of cooperation in security and increased the number of military invitees to courses in China, the truth is that 75 of the 107 global programs for military assistance from Washington operate in Latin America and that, in 2017, 5,361 Latin Americans were trained in the U.S.
China and Russia are trying to increase intermilitary ties, but the U.S. has the State Partnership Program through the National Guard in 17 states, plus Puerto Rico and Washington D.C., which has agreements on security and defense with 23 Latin American countries.
In 2016, Argentina signed an agreement with the Georgia National Guard. Beijing and Moscow promise material assistance with defense and security, but it is Washington that, in 2018, committed $436 million in military and police assistance. Russia is a large arms provider in the region and China is seeking a larger market share. However, in 2018, the U.S. has sold Mexico a record $1.3 billion in weapons.
Russia has increased its relationship with Venezuela to the point of conducting military exercises, which seriously worries Washington. However, the Southern Command periodically conducts joint maneuvers with Latin American countries through exercises such as PANAMAX,* UNITAS,** Tradewinds and New Horizons. In turn, the special operations forces have increased their presence in the region. According to investigative journalist Nick Turse, since 2006, troop deployments of special operations forces in the region increased from 3 to 4.39 percent.
According to a 2016 special operations force training report, the U.S. Special Operations Command South conducted various maneuvers with specialized regional units on anti-terrorist tasks, in the framework of a change in Central America’s focus on the Caribbean (especially with the Dominican Republic and Trinidad and Tobago) and a growing emphasis on South America (especially Brazil, Chile and Peru).
In 2017, U.S. Army Special Forces conducted various exercises with armed forces in the region: for example, and among others, with Central American naval forces for drug interdiction; with troops from Colombia and Peru for border tasks related to narcotics trafficking and terrorism; and with special forces from Chile to address regional challenges and prepare for different contingencies, such as urban warfare.
The 2018 operating budget for the Southern Command is $190 million and, for 2019, it is estimated to be $196 million. The political gravitation of the military in inter-American relations is such that before assuming their respective presidencies in Colombia and Paraguay, Ivan Duque and Mario Abdo Benitez visited the Southern Command; in February of this year the ministers of defense and security of Argentina visited the same site.
In short, regarding military matters, the U.S. continues to be without doubt first among equals in Latin America. To accept that the threats of China, Russia and Iran in the region are alarming is to resign oneself to Washington's diagnosis concerning defense and security.
Juan Gabriel Tokatlian is a full professor at the Universidad di Tella
*Editor’s note: PANAMAX is a U.S.-sponsored annual multinational exercise series designed to ensure the defense of the Panama Canal.
**Editor’s note: UNITAS are sea exercises and in-port training conducted by the U.S. in support of U.S. policy, involving several North, South and Central American countries.