Pentagon focused on penetrating right-wing regimes in Latin America
The commander of U.S. Southern Command, Army Gen. Laura Richardson, and Argentine Armed Forces Joint Command Chief Lt. Gen. Juan Martín Paleo, arrive at the Argentine Ministry of Defense. During her visit April 25-27, Richardson met with leaders, including Vice President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Richardson is a repeat visitor to Argentina since the election of right-wing President Milei. | Photo via U.S. Embassy Argentina

U.S. Southern Command Chief Laura Richardson was visiting Argentina for the third time. On April 4 in Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego—the world’s southernmost city—she and U. S. Ambassador Marc Stanley were received by President Javier Milei, his chief-of-staff, his cabinet chief, the defense minister, the interior minister, a military band, and an honor guard—at midnight.

Richardson announced her government would build an “integrated naval base” in Ushuaia that, close to the Strait of Magellan, looks to Antarctica. Both are strategically important. She “warned about China’s intention to build a multi-purpose port in Rio Grande,” Tierra del Fuego’s capital city.

Richardson, the U.S. military’s top leader for the region, had previously noted its attractions. She explained to the House Armed Services Committee in 2022 that Latin American and the Caribbean area “accounts for $740 billion in annual trade with the U.S.; contains 60% of the world’s lithium and 31% of the world’s fresh water; and has the world’s largest oil reserves.”

She insisted later that, “This region matters. It has a lot to do with national security, and we have to step up our game.”

Testifying before a congressional committee on March 14, she remarked, “The PRC [People’s Republic of China] is America’s pacing threat; countering their aggression and malign influence requires a whole-of-society approach.”

Information from an alleged leak from the U.S. Embassy in Bolivia suggests the U.S. government seeks to isolate non-aligned countries like Colombia, Bolivia, and Venezuela and collaborate with “three bastions of U.S. support,” namely Peru, Ecuador, and Argentina.

Analyst Sergio Rodríguez Gelfenstein claims U.S. “policies [in the region] are in the hands of the Pentagon…with the State Department playing a secondary role…. The emphasis is on penetrating extreme right-wing governments.”

U.S. troops and military advisors collaborate with regional military forces to confront narco-trafficking and other transnational crimes. Stories of good works have propaganda use in gaining support for their presence and for partnership with governments to work on other tasks, like pushing back against popular protests. The survey below shows that U.S. military activities in the region are far-reaching and that imperialism’s long-term objectives and short-term needs are served.

Moving parts

The stated mission of the U.S. military installation in Argentina’s Neuquén province is to respond to humanitarian crises. That a Chinese satellite launch and tracking facility is nearby, however, is of course no coincidence. The area also has immense oil deposits.

U.S. troops based in Misiones, near Argentina’s borders with Brazil and Uruguay, ostensibly deal with narco-trafficking and other cross-border crimes. The U.S. government recently provided credit for Argentina to buy 24 F-16 fighter planes from Denmark.

The largest U.S. bases in the region are the Guantanamo base in Cuba, with 6,100 military and civilian personnel, and the one at Soto Cano in Honduras, with 500 U.S. troops and 500 civilian employees. The U.S. Naval Medical Research Unit, active in several locations in Peru and overseen by the Southern Command, conducts “health science research” with Peruvian partners. It also serves to “build the capacity of special forces to survive in tropical forests.”

The U.S. Navy patrols South Atlantic waters and conducts joint training exercises with Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Uruguay. The U.S. Coast Guard confronts “illegal”—read Chinese—fishing off South America’s Pacific coast.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers operates in 17 countries, full-time in eight of them. It advises on river and estuary projects, notably on maintaining commercial flow from the Río de la Plata basin to the Atlantic.

Ecuador and Peru each agreed recently to accept U.S. troop deployments. Colombia (2009) enabled the U.S. Air Force to utilize seven of its bases. Brazil and the United States (2019) cooperate in launching rockets, spacecraft, and satellites at Brazil’s Alcántara space center. The U.S. military cooperates with Brazil and Chile in conducting defense-related research.

The Southern Command annually holds CENTAM exercises with participation by U.S. National Guard troops and those of several Central American nations. They prepare for humanitarian crises and natural disasters. The National Guards of 18 U.S. states carry out joint training exercises with the troops of 24 Latin American nations.

The United States supplies 94.9% of Argentina’s weapons, 93.4% of Colombia’s, 90.7% of México’s, and 82.7% of Brazil’s. Bolivia is the outlier, obtaining 66.2% of its weapons from China.

The U.S. government authorized arms sales to Mexico in 2018 worth $1.3 million, to Argentina in 2022 worth $73 million, to Chile in 2020 worth $634 million, and to Brazil in 2022 worth $4 million.

The Southern Command operates schools for the region’s military and police forces. The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation and the School of the Americas, its predecessor from 1946, account for almost 100,000 military graduates. The El Salvador-based International Law Enforcement Academy, “purposed to combat transnational crime,” trains police and other security personnel.

The Command in December 2023 undertook joint aerial training exercises with Guyana, where Exxon Mobil is preparing to extract offshore oil from huge deposits in Guyana’s Essequibo province.  Venezuela claims ownership of that area. Venezuelan President Maduro recently accused the U.S. government of establishing secret bases there.

The story here is of installations and institutions, supply and support systems, and military interrelationships. The complexity of this U.S. undertaking signals fragility. The make-up of allied governments does likewise.

With friends like these

Raised in the United States and buoyed by his family’s great wealth, Ecuadorian president Daniel Noboa is inexperienced. The country faces environmental catastrophe and widespread violence. Indigenous peoples are politically mobilized and security forces are cruelly repressive.

Raiding the residence of un-elected Peruvian President Dina Boluarte, police on March 29 found jewelry worth $502,700. Establishment politicians appointed her as president after they railroaded progressive President Pedro Castillo, her predecessor, to prison. Oligarchic rule and occasional dictatorships are customary in Peru, as is Indigenous resistance to the same.

The presidential rule in Argentina is bizarre. Eric Calcagno, distinguished sociologist, journalist, and diplomat, told an interviewer recently that President Milei is “asking to be part of NATO, which is the organization that occupied part of our territory, the Malvinas (Falkland Islands).” For Milei, “war is necessary.” The “regime … [is] “the figurehead of local and international monopolies [and] is taking Argentina to the point of no return.”

Argentina is “governed by a gentleman who decides things in consultation with a dead dog, or much worse, with General Richardson of the Southern Command.”  (A news report attributes to Milei’s devices “allowing him to enter into the spirit of Conan and calm his anxiety.” Conan, a dog, is dead.)

Meanwhile, 800,000 students, workers, unionists, the unemployed, and popular assemblies marched in Buenos Aires on April 23. Joined by 200,000 Argentinians demonstrating elsewhere in the country, they were protesting governmental attacks on public universities.

With popular resistance continuing in Argentina and elsewhere in the region, the precariousness of U.S. military intervention will show. Investigator Jason Hickel points toimperial arrangement on which Western capitalism has always relied (cheap labor, cheap resources, control over productive capacities, markets on tap).”

He refers to the “Western ruling classes” and the “violence they perpetrate, the instability, the constant wars against a long historical procession of peoples and movements in the global South.” And yet: “[a]fter political decolonization, a wide range of movements and states across the South … sought economic liberation and sovereign industrial development.”

These are national liberation struggles that presumably will continue. Resistance under that banner may someday overwhelm military intrusions like the ones surveyed here. That’s the hope, at least.

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W. T. Whitney Jr.
W. T. Whitney Jr.

W.T. Whitney Jr. is a political journalist whose focus is on Latin America, health care, and anti-racism. A Cuba solidarity activist, he formerly worked as a pediatrician, lives in rural Maine. W.T. Whitney Jr. es un periodista político cuyo enfoque está en América Latina, la atención médica y el antirracismo. Activista solidario con Cuba, anteriormente trabajó como pediatra, vive en la zona rural de Maine.