In rolling out its new defense strategy on Jan. 5, the Obama administration said little about Latin America and the Caribbean.
The strategy also does not foreshadow whether cuts are in store for the Southern Command, the Defense Department’s outpost in Miami that is responsible for U.S. military activities in Latin America and the Caribbean — which has few troops posted permanently in the region aside from at the U.S. Naval base at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba.
The much-anticipated “Priorities for 21st Century Defense,” unveiled by President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta at the Pentagon, makes a single reference to the region, in the same context as Africa.
The focus, it said, will be making the U.S. “a security partner of choice” with those nations that share a “common vision of freedom, stability, and prosperity.”
“In Latin America, Africa, elsewhere in the world, we will use innovative methods to sustain U.S. presence, maintaining key military-to-military relations and pursuing new security partnerships as needed,” Panetta said.
“Wherever possible, we will develop low-cost and small-footprint approaches to achieving our security objectives, emphasizing rotational deployments, emphasizing exercises, military exercises with these nations and doing other innovative approaches to maintain a presence throughout the rest of the world,” he said.
The Southern Command, otherwise known as Southcom, mostly uses revolving troops and training exercises to keep in contact with and establish friendly relations with regional militaries.
It has dispatched supplies and troops during regional hurricanes and potentially destabilizing humanitarian disasters, such as after Haiti’s 2010 devastating earthquake.
The new U.S. military strategy focuses on Asia, the Middle East and Europe and makes no specific reference to any single nation in Latin America or the Caribbean. Nor does it mention Southcom.
But it says the Pentagon is still committed to conducting emergency evacuations of American citizens abroad in humanitarian disasters.
“For the moment, the Pentagon doesn’t foresee the Western Hemisphere as becoming a theater for its operations or a place where it’s going to put its increasingly dwindling resources,” said Ray Walser, a former U.S. diplomat and senior policy analyst specializing in Latin America and the Caribbean at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation.
He said the new strategy doesn’t suggest a major change in Southcom’s approach.
“Will they get any additional assets? Doesn’t seem particularly likely,” he added.
But the Pentagon’s undersecretary of defense, Michele Flourney, said the United States military is “not going to abandon” small-scale relationships in regions like Latin America and the Caribbean.
She, however, acknowledged: “The truth is, in the last 10 years, we have been so focused in Iraq and Afghanistan there hasn’t been a lot of forces available in some of these other areas to be available for engagement.”
Southcom spokesman Army Col. Scott Malcom said no final budget decisions had been made.
“Tremendous effort has been made in the last several years to improve the effectiveness of whole-of-government strategies which include diplomatic, development and law enforcement instruments among others. Engagement using all of these tools smartly will remain important to an effective and cost-effective U.S. national security strategy,” he said.
“The steadfast partnerships Southcom enjoys with our partner nations in Central and South America and the Caribbean Basin and our well-established capacity to operate in a manner consistent with these strategic principles will serve our region well in the future as we work together to find regional solutions to regional problems,” he added.
Southcom has oversight of the budget for the detention center at the base in Cuba, where 1,850 Pentagon forces and employees staff the prison compounds that hold 171 captives at a cost of US$800,000 per captive a year at Guantánamo, according to U.S. officials.
Although a presidential commission over the weekend recommended that Haiti President Michel Martelly restore the army, which was disbanded in 1995 because of its history of abuse, Malcom said the Southcom focus is preparing the hemisphere’s poorest nation “for disaster readiness and response.”
He declined to comment on the notion of restoring the Haitian army.
“The U.S. and the rest of the international community are all in agreement that the Haitian National Police should remain the focal point of efforts to improve security and the rule of law,” he said.