For much of American history, Latin America and the Caribbean were seen as areas to be overseen and protected. Under the Monroe Doctrine, the region was considered vulnerable to the colonial intentions of European monarchies. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union became the primary concern, and the United States actively aided Latin American governments that appeared to be threatened by communist subversion. However, the end of the Cold War in 1989 led to a wave of new Latin American democracies, along with some of the strongest economic growth anywhere in the world. And while the region continues to suffer large-scale poverty and requires continued investment to realize its potential, Latin America is today on a path to become an economic and political powerhouse by the middle of the 21st century.
“It is a region of enormous promise and exciting opportunities, but it is also one of persistent challenges and complex threats.”
“It is a region of enormous promise and exciting opportunities, but it is also one of persistent challenges and complex threats,” SOUTHCOM Commander Gen. John F. Kelly, USMC, told Congress in March 2013. “It is a region of relative peace, low likelihood of interstate conflicts, and overall economic growth, yet is also home to corrosive criminal violence, permissive environments for illicit activities, and episodic political and social protests.”
The United States’ links with Latin American and Caribbean countries have become increasingly dynamic and multivariate over the past few decades, with many actors, from the federal down to the state and local levels, having a part to play. Over the past five decades, however, one of the dominant influences in the region has been U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), located in Doral, Fla. SOUTHCOM’s military and civilian professionals lead America’s efforts to promote stability and peaceful engagement between the nations of the region, helping to meet some of the critical needs of governments of countries with vibrant futures but faced with sometimes daunting challenges. In fact, SOUTHCOM is unique among the unified combatant commands of the U.S. military these days, in that it does not face any obvious emerging conventional military threats, though there are other, dangerous threats beyond those conventional military ones. “These challenges are non-traditional in nature, networked in design, and transnational in scope, requiring constant vigilance, regional cooperation, and collective action,” Kelly told Congress. “When it comes to South America, Central America, and the Caribbean, I cannot overstate the importance of awareness, access, and the enormous return on investment from personal, on-the-ground security relationships. As the United States turns its attention to the home front to address domestic economic and budget issues, I firmly believe we must remain engaged with the nations in our shared home, the Western Hemisphere, for one very simple reason: proximity. Left unaddressed, security concerns in the region can quickly become security concerns in the homeland.” SOUTHCOM’s efforts are focused upon three strategic objectives: to defend the United States and its interests, foster regional security, and serve as an enduring partner of choice in support of a peaceful and prosperous region.
The SOUTHCOM Area of Responsibility: Latin America Today
SOUTHCOM’s geographic responsibility covers fully one-sixth of the globe – 16 million square miles – including large parts of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, along with 31 independent countries and 15 “areas of special sovereignty” (mainly territories of Great Britain, the Netherlands, and France). Living in SOUTHCOM’s area of responsibility (AOR) are more than 486 million people. Some 200 million of them speak Portuguese, and the rest Spanish, with some English, French, and Dutch speakers, mainly in the Caribbean. About 45 million are considered “indigenous” – native tribes that have often been targets of discrimination by their own governments.
Human trafficking is a growing concern in the region. According to a Congressional Research Service report, “Trafficking in Persons in Latin America and the Caribbean,” internal trafficking of human beings is widespread among many countries of the region for forced and child labor.
The region is rich in natural resources, particularly minerals, which historically have attracted the interests of more powerful nations. Mexican and Bolivian silver accounted for 20 percent of Spain’s total budget by the end of the 16th century, and it is estimated that the world’s stock of precious metals was more than doubled by silver from the Americas. This historical richness in mineral wealth has continued to the present day. Mining of precious metals is once again on the increase, and again has aroused the interests of powerful nations. China, for example, has a joint agreement with Venezuela to develop the Las Cristinas gold mine, one of the largest gold reserves in the world, and has also invested $1.4 billion in copper mines in Ecuador. Venezuela’s petroleum reserves are possibly the largest in the world, and Brazil continues to make vast offshore oil discoveries. The area is also rich in agriculture, exporting much of the world’s coffee, sugar, and bananas.
High birth rates and persistent poverty also make the region a major exporter of people, an international problem when these people are smuggled and victimized by criminal traffickers. Human trafficking is a growing concern in the region. According to a Congressional Research Service report, “Trafficking in Persons in Latin America and the Caribbean,” internal trafficking of human beings is widespread among many countries of the region for forced and child labor. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has estimated that sex trafficking in Latin America alone generates some $16 billion annually. In addition, the State Department has identified several countries in Latin America and the Caribbean as major source, transit, and destination countries for victims of transnational human trafficking.
Source countries identified include Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Paraguay. Destination countries include Argentina, the Bahamas, Barbados, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Mexico, Netherlands Antilles, Panama, St. Lucia, and Trinidad and Tobago. All the countries of Central America and the Caribbean are considered transit countries.
Today, except for communist Cuba, all the nations of the region have some form of democratic governance. Economic growth has also been robust. In the past decade, the region has averaged a remarkable 3.5 percent growth in GDP, despite global financial crises.
Though blessed with natural resources, the region is also afflicted with frequent natural disasters: tropical storms, earthquakes, and volcanic activity. Of even greater impact have been the man-made disasters of racism, military dictatorship, and pervasive corruption – long nightmares from which the region has been slowly awakening. Today, except for communist Cuba, all the nations of the region have some form of democratic governance. Economic growth has also been robust. In the past decade, the region has averaged a remarkable 3.5 percent growth in GDP, despite global financial crises. Per capita income is up 57 percent, and 12 percent of the population has been lifted from poverty, notably in Brazil. During this period, U.S. exports to the region increased by 72 percent, while U.S. imports have increased 114 percent.