Strategic Insights: Thinking Strategically About Latin America and the Caribbean


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Dr. R. Evan Ellis In the 2016 U.S. presidential debates, as on other occasions, the theme of Latin America and the Caribbean was remarkably absent. Important events in the region occasionally insert themselves into the U.S. consciousness through the mainstream media, including: the arrival of thousands of Central American child refugees at the U.S. border; the U.S. re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba; the impending collapse of Venezuela; and the Colombian public’s rejection, on October 2, 2016, of the agreement between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Yet even with its geographic connectedness to the United States, and although Latin America eclipses even China and Asia as the U.S. principal foreign trading partner, and despite the fact that more U.S. residents have family in the region than any other part of the world, Latin America, and the Caribbean continue to be remarkably absent from the U.S. strategic and foreign policy discourse.1 Part of the job of the U.S. Army War College is to educate future military leaders and prepare them for higher command, including thinking about the global strategic environment within which U.S. forces operate and how that environment is evolving. A range of security-related issues compete for the attention of U.S. leaders, from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and instability in the Middle East, to the nuclear and ballistic missile threat from North Korea, to Russian belligerence toward the West in the Ukraine and elsewhere, to a recalcitrant Iran now re-connected with global financial and commercial markets, to the ever greater presence of the People’s Republic of China in world trade and its increasing willingness to assert its interests, to non-traditional threats, including the Zika virus and other emergent diseases, cyberthreats, potentially disruptive new technologies, and even the emergence of space as a theater in which multiple U.S. rivals now operate. To be frank, the space that Latin America occupies in the agenda of senior U.S. military leaders is limited at best. Within the U.S. Army, there are talented people who serve in Latin America-focused assignments in the Pentagon, U.S. Army South, U.S. Southern Command, U.S. Special Operations Command 7th Group, National Guard State Partner Programs (SPPs), and within the individual security cooperation offices (SCOs) of the U.S. embassies in Latin America, among others. However, the number of Latin America-focused U.S. Army personnel is small compared to the number of personnel focused on other areas, such as the Middle East, Asia, Africa, Europe, and, of course, the U.S. homeland. The Strategic Importance of the Region. Let's be clear. Although it is possible to postulate scenarios in which terrorists, rogue governments, or foreign powers pose a threat to the United States from Latin America and the Caribbean, by comparison to the rest of the world, the region is at peace and arguably does not present the same near-term existential threats to the United States as those found in other regions. Yet, therein lies the misunderstanding. The absence of a near-term existential threat from Latin America and the Caribbean does not make it any less strategically important for the United States. Its strategic importance stems from its unique and inherent potential as both a vulnerability and as an opportunity to support the effectiveness of U.S. engagement in the globally interconnected world. As noted previously, there is arguably no region (including Asia) upon which the United States is more dependent for its prosperity and security, and with which it is more closely tied through bonds of family, than Latin America and the Caribbean. In terms of trade and investment, from manufacturers to the food Americans put on the table, there is no region for which disruption of commerce with the United States could do more damage to our economy and the everyday lives of Americans....

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