[Note: See the links appendix at the end of the text. – J.E.]
The reaction on Wednesday to the Trump administration’s announcement of a surge against drug cartels in Central America ranged from bemused to cynical. Many Americans seemed surprised by such a priority in the midst of a virus pandemic. Others – the most cynical – saw it as merely an attempt at distraction.
A few, like Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), appeared to recognize the move’s connection to the larger strategic situation in the Western hemisphere, in which Venezuela is a red-carpet-laying path of least resistance for Russia, China, Iran, and Hezbollah, the latter a major global player in narco-terrorism.
Even as we are focused on the crisis we face due to the #COVIDー19 pandemic, foreign policy & national security doesn’t stop.
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) April 1, 2020
If you have just be indicted for narcotics trafficking & have a $15 million reward for your capture,having @Southcom conducting counter narcotics operations off your coast with a surge of destroyers, AWACS, an Army brigade & special operators is not very comforting.
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) April 1, 2020
But what Americans have not been well enough informed by their media to appreciate is that this latter situation, given the relentless assault of the cartels on America’s southern border, is the biggest geo-strategic vulnerability we have today.
The coronavirus pandemic is paralyzing the United States to a dangerous extent: making us shelter in our homes, reducing our societal alertness across the board. Instead of being on the move, watchful in millions of directions for millions of interests, putting out human energy, we have been stilled in place. We are unnaturally focused on, even transfixed by, one single problem: daily survival as we try to treat the infected, practice social distancing, and not get sick.
The Border Patrol is doing everything it can. But it is always undermanned for the problem, and that hasn’t changed. Meanwhile, the drug-running corridors used by the cartels are well-entrenched transit lanes through a porous aperture on our southern border, fringed with the bullet holes of decades and held open by force with bloody intimidation against the nations to our south.
And gathering around those transit lanes are the world’s nations most inimical to the United States: Russia, China, and Iran.
They are well aware that a conventional military convergence on the United States is a non-starter. The “straight line” utility of their conventional military presence, of which only Russia’s amounts to much (and that comparatively little), isn’t the point.
The point is that they are there, already signaling their strategic intentions as clearly as they possibly could, and with ready access through Venezuela to the North-South pipeline of the cartels. At a time when the coronavirus pandemic is punching America in the gut, it is a bold but necessary move to disrupt that pipeline as thoroughly as possible.
It can’t be done through Mexico. Vast swaths of Mexico are effectively in the grip of the cartels. Fighting over territory with the cartels in such an environment is a head-on approach that would court an unnecessary number of collateral difficulties, not the least of which would be how to pacify liberated cartel territory after the exorcism.
Going after the viability of the pipeline through Central America, from both sides of the Isthmus of Panama but with an emphasis on Venezuela, is a deep-strike strategy, reaching around the line of direct confrontation to go after the logistics and operational rear. (Note that, contrary to the shorthand of popular discussion in social media, the operational plan puts surge assets in both the Eastern Pacific and the Caribbean. The main goal is to disrupt the cartel pipeline.)
The value of metaphorically blowing up the Russia-China-Iran (Hezbollah)-Venezuela nexus – if possible, on a permanent basis, by squeezing out the Maduro regime – is that doing so would disrupt the center of gravity of the entire strategic problem. In no other place can the Eastern hemisphere powers have such strategic comfort in the Western, at least not on any short timeline. Cuba may be happy to leave the light on for them, but the U.S. needs no forward basing whatsoever to hold them at perpetual risk and decisive disadvantage there.
And there’s nowhere else they have the prospect today of getting as entrenched as they are in Venezuela. The assaults on Central American constitutions over the last two decades, encouraged by cronies of Hugo Chavez, are being quietly reversed, and the people rejecting radical socialism. A decade ago Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua might have been radicalizing, Honduras teetering on the brink; today their voters are striving for a return to moderation and the rule of law. They aren’t in the mood to welcome “ghost flights” from Tehran or the arrival of special forces from Russia and China.
There’s a limit to what the U.S. can do about China’s signature method of getting entrenched via infrastructure projects and the transportation industry. But that’s why it’s essential to attack the cartel pipeline itself.
China’s inroads in the Caribbean are also a key reason the U.S. needs to be visible and active there.
China is attempting a kind of reverse “South China Sea strategy” in the Caribbean, and the remedy for it is not any form of counter-occupation – something antithetical to U.S. principles – but rather perpetual motion. China’s mode is to try to set conditions until a whole geo-scape has been reduced to controlled, limited mobility. America rubs against China so badly because our mode is not to counter-set the landscape nearly as much as it is to insist on free mobility, not just for the USA but for everyone.
That’s why the situations of the South China Sea and the Caribbean are not similar to each other, but the opposite. What’s similar in each case, however, is the policy of China versus the policy of the U.S.
In the South China Sea, China wants to control and restrict all the movement, as if the South China Sea were literally Chinese territory. The U.S. wants to guarantee freedom of movement on the principle that the South China Sea is a waterway.
In the Caribbean, one look at the map (above) shows that China’s long-term goal is to hem the United States in with a network of island and chokepoint outposts that effectively restrict and confound both America’s and everyone else’s movement.
The U.S., meanwhile, wants to guarantee freedom of movement, on the same principle that the Caribbean is a waterway.
Unlike China in the South China Sea, the U.S. doesn’t view the Caribbean region off our shores as a geographic injustice, to be repaired by building the whole place into an extension of our territory. Americans aren’t apt to sympathize with China (or Russia, for that matter) when it comes to concern over maritime access. We would actually be wise to learn to, because understanding their point of view could mitigate at least some of the friction we have with those nations. Their maritime access is inherently more restricted than ours, and they have to think about defending it in ways we usually haven’t. They don’t have the visceral complacency we have about the availability of maritime outlets, and that’s for good reason.
But the point of understanding their perspective, as continental powers with maritime access issues, isn’t to then concur with them that they need to control and extort all their neighbors in order to guarantee maritime freedom. It’s to intelligently negotiate livable agreements on maritime policy: agreements that acknowledge their concerns as real, and seek to build guarantees for them into a balanced, quiescent regime of maritime expectations among the nations.
I want to make that point up front, because it’s very important to establish that in disrupting a Chinese policy to impose geographic risk on the U.S. by rooting into the Caribbean, America is being consistent with our principles. They’re the same ones we want to enforce in the South China Sea, and those principles of free navigation, access, and opportunities for trade have been a global good for decades.
We can tolerate the presence of Russia and China as commercial investors around all our borders – and in fact we do. We view them with far less suspicion than they view us, and with none of the overtly militarized hostility.
But that shouldn’t blind us to the hostility they do show, and how it may play out in our nearer geographic perimeter. It shouldn’t lead us to accept a situation in which they have the option of coming after us by unconventional means through the blood-soaked back door of a cartel pipeline. That aperture of vulnerability, we should make too hard to enter through – by doing what we do best: moving, shaking, and backing alternatives for the third parties.
List of reinforcements being sent to SOUTHCOM to boost counter narcotics missions, with a focus on stopping drug trafficking out of Maracaibo and eastern Venezuela, as well as parts of Colombia #Venezuela #Colombia pic.twitter.com/Fe6pEcZLTz
— CNW (@ConflictsW) April 1, 2020
Ironically, we might not see the strategic urgency of doing it now if we weren’t under effective attack from the coronavirus – a condition whose debilitating aspects we yet only dimly envision. We probably wouldn’t see the urgency if the cartels were less active and having less of an impact today, or if Russia, China, and Iran weren’t all trying to establish, by administering black eyes to the United States, that there is no international order that can constrain them any longer.
But all of those conditions obtain at this moment. And true to his campaign themes from 2016, President Trump is reacting not by attacking those nations on their home turf, but by tightening the big hole in America’s national security that they have been positioning themselves to exploit.
We will see how much can be accomplished with the effort in Central America. Perhaps it will only disrupt the cartel pipeline, keeping it out of play for the extra-hemispheric powers long enough to get us through the coronavirus.
If it managed to see Nicolas Maduro ushered out, and a new government installed in Venezuela that would evict Russian troops, chase out Hezbollah, and cease surreptitious cooperation with Iran, that would be a tectonic shift in the geopolitical environment. It would affect, for the better, the future of every bad trend in the region, including the viability of the cartels themselves and the nexus of the cartels with Hezbollah and transnational terrorism.
It would also have the signal effect of closing off an avenue of retaliation against the U.S. for Iran, as well as for Russia and China.
The fresh effort in Central America isn’t a misguided one. It’s not “abstraction as distraction.” It’s just an effort that bypasses the lines of direct confrontation, where the Trump administration’s intentions would be easier to see.
We may also see counterattacks on Iran-backed militias in Iraq in the coming days; there are rumors to that effect. But it is wise to not maintain a sitting-duck strategic posture while preparing such an effort. Getting Iran and Hezbollah kicked out of Venezuela would have the benefit not only of improving U.S. security and regional stability in our hemisphere, but of making the mullahs pay a really high price for attacking Americans in Iraq.
This article would be much, much longer if it recounted all the background material used to frame the explanation of strategic context. Rather than making it so long, I have opted to include this appendix with links to sources that provide detail.
Much of it goes with the main map depicting the hover points of Russia and China around the Caribbean. Many readers may not be aware, for example of the extent to which Latin American and Caribbean nations have signed up for both the “Belt and Road” campaign by China, and other infrastructure projects like highway and port improvements.
Readers may also be unaware that these projects come with strings like the one in Jamaica, where China is building a toll highway in exchange for vast land leases around it, and a 99-year concession under which China manages collection of the tolls. As one of the links points out, even where host nations haven’t signed up for those conditions, they may end up accepting them by default (as Sri Lanka did) if they find themselves financially unable to meet their project obligations.
The links on background are far from comprehensive. Those who are already well-versed in the Russians’ activities in Venezuela, for example, or Hezbollah’s, will know of much more detail that’s out there.
One general note: Russia has a significant military presence in Cuba, and Cuba has a major paramilitary presence in Venezuela propping up the Maduro regime. I have assumed better knowledge among readers of these long-established conditions, and haven’t included links. They are easy enough to find.
As a scene-setter, the first links provide information on recent military encounters between U.S. and Venezuelan forces. There have also been reports in the last year of Venezuela engaging in bleedover between civilian and military activities in air and sea. This ought to give us pause as we survey the offshore drilling concessions in use by Venezuela, China, and Russia on the western end of Cuba. Furtively militarizing such civilian activities is exactly how the latter two operate.
Granted, Venezuela’s most recent twilight-zone encounter at sea resulted in the sinking of one of her naval patrol boats, after it tried to ram a Colombian cruise ship.
[Apologies: the blogging engine refuses to render all the links in the same format. They all work, but some may have to be copied and pasted rather than clicking through. – J.E.]
Venezuelan intercept (with unsafe maneuvers) of U.S. EP-3E reconnaissance plane
Venezuelan shadowing of USS Detroit (LCS-7) off Caracas
— CNW (@ConflictsW) January 21, 2020
Venezuelan intercept of cruise ship
A statement from the RCGS Resolute on what happened with the Venezuelan navy which led to the sinking of the GC-23 Naiguata. The Naiguata attempted to divert the vessel from international waters and shot at and rammed the resolute.#Venezuela pic.twitter.com/h8V0hA6101
— CNW (@ConflictsW) April 1, 2020
The Venezuelan navy OPV vessel the GC-23 Naiguata was sunk early yesterday morning after it collided with the Resolute, Passenger ship registered in Portugal. The Resolute continued to sale to Curaçao without rescuing the Venezuelan crew of the sinking vessel. #Venezuela pic.twitter.com/Dx7l7bXyxJ
— CNW (@ConflictsW) March 31, 2020
Analysis: potential for Russia, others to exploit cartel pipeline done in 2018 when “caravans” ramped up
Russian military presence in Venezuela
China’s Belt and Road campaign in Latin America (includes other mentions of Chinese infrastructure projects)
Note: Mr. Engdahl can be something of a crank with his interpretations, but deals generally in documented facts. The facts are what this next link is included for.
Chinese military engagement in Venezuela
This first report has been credibly disputed (not debunked), and is included here given the likelihood that some Chinese who have entered Venezuela under the guise of humanitarian aid and military sales are actually operational military personnel (in small numbers). That is characteristic of Chinese activity.
Iranian presence in Venezuela (includes references to military presence, although the extent of it has never been reliably confirmed in public reporting)
Hezbollah in Venezuela (recent information)
This first link has superb videos embedded from a panel presentation; very worth the time
General background and mapping of oil concessions in Venezuela and Cuba (and survey of oil/gas potential off U.S. territory of Puerto Rico)
Maritime claims; Treaty on U.S.-Venezuela maritime boundary (ratified/in force 1980)
US-VE maritime boundary