So Russia and Syria? How About Our Own Backyard? Russia, China, Cuba, Iran are Sneaking Up Behind Us

In a written statement on March 25, 2015, by Lieutenant General Kenneth E. Tovo, United States Army, Military Deputy Commander, United States Southen Command to the 114th Concress Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs,  the general shared the following concerns about the Southern Commands (SOUTHCOM) inability to fully protect the United States from attack that could originate in SOUTHCOM’s areas of responsibility which are land mass of Latin America south of Mexico, the waters adjacent to Central and South America, and the Caribbean Sea.”

We believe the good General has done an outstanding job sounding the alarm as best he could and should be congratulated and thanked by the American people.

But we’re going to add a few items that highlight and expand upon his remarks.

First, before reading General Tovo’s statements, remember that Cuba is a strategic choke point for sea borne entry and exit into and out of the Gulf of Mexico and THE principle choke point to our largest ports and most important refineries. This will help you see see why Iran, the russian bear and the chinese dragon are in our backyard circling the panama canal and other areas In Latin America.

Pointing at Southcom.

Lieutenant General Tovo:

“These and other challenges underscore the enduring importance of U.S. Southern Command’s mission to protect our southern approaches….[n]evertheless, [the U.S. Southern Command is] the lowest priority Geographic Combatant Command, ‘doing less with less’ has a disproportionate effect on our operations, exercises, and engagement activities. Mr. Chairman, Members, the truth is we are managing to keep the pilot light of U.S. military engagement on in the region—but just barely. This presents more than just risks to our national interests; U.S. Southern Command has accepted risk for so long in this region that we now face a near-total lack of awareness of threats and the readiness to respond, should those threats reach crisis levels.”

“U.S. Southern Command has accepted risk for so long in this region that we now face a near-total lack of awareness of threats and the readiness to respond, should those threats reach crisis levels.”

“Iranian Influence and Islamic Extremist Organizations. Over the last 15 years Iran has periodically sought closer ties with regional governments, albeit with mixed results. Iranian legislators visited Cuba, Ecuador, and Nicaragua to advocate for increased economic and diplomatic cooperation.  Iran’s outreach is predicated on circumventing sanctions and countering U.S. influence.  Additionally, Iran has established more than 80 ‘cultural centers’ in a region with an extremely small Muslim population. The purported purpose of these centers is to improve Iran’s image, promote Shi’a Islam, and increase Iran’s political influence in the region. As the foremost state sponsor of terrorism, Iran’s involvement in the region and these cultural centers is a matter for concern, and its diplomatic, economic, and political engagement is closely monitored.”

“Sunni extremists, while small in number, are actively involved in the radicalization of converts and other Muslims in the region and also provide financial and logistical support to designated terrorist organizations within and outside Latin America. Partner nation officials throughout the region have expressed concern over the increasing number of suspected Islamic extremists from the hemisphere who are traveling to Syria to participate in jihad. Some take part in military and weapons training before departing; last year 19 Trinidadian Muslims were detained in Venezuela for conducting training with high-powered weapons. When these foreign fighters return, they will possess operational experience, ties to global extremists, and possible intent to harm Western interests—and they will reside in a region rife with smuggling routes that lead directly and easily into the United States.”


Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with his Venezuelan counterpart Nicolas Maduro during a signing ceremony at the Kremlin in Moscow, July 2, 2013. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov (RUSSIA - Tags: POLITICS) - RTX11A0Q
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with his Venezuelan counterpart Nicolas Maduro during a signing ceremony at the Kremlin in Moscow, July 2, 2013. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov (RUSSIA – Tags: POLITICS) – RTX11A0Q

“Chinese Outreach.  As in other regions around the world, China has growing influence in Latin America and the Caribbean.  Since 2005, it has provided financing to the region in excess of $100 billion.6 Chinese investment is concentrated in commodities, manufacturing, telecommunications, and construction sectors, including a $40 billion investment in a Nicaraguan ‘alternative’ to the Panama Canal by a Chinese company.7 In my view, just as we have ‘pivoted’ to the Pacific, China has pivoted to the Western Hemisphere. It views good relations with the region as useful for two reasons: to gain access to natural resources and to increase its global influence. China continues to increase its cooperation with regional organizations such as the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) and the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), and leverages its position in BRICS8  to advance its interests regionally. Of note, Beijing recently hosted a two-day China-CELAC Forum to discuss opportunities for increasing bilateral partnerships. Although cultural differences often preclude close cooperation, Chinese engagement with regional militaries is gradually expanding, especially with Cuba and Venezuela. This outreach, while not a threat to U.S. interests at this time, does underscore the importance of continued engagement by the U.S. military to maintain our valued security partnerships.”

We however believe that “Chinese Outreach” in Latin America must be weighed against the shared views both countries that both Iran and China have towards other regions of the world.

“Beijing and Tehran share common views on several issues of international concern and China might have identified Iran as a potentially more stable pivot into the region, given how its decade-long investments in Middle Eastern countries such as Iraq and Syria have suddenly become uncertain in the current political climate,” according to a Monday analysis in Jane’s Defence Weekly.”
“This unprecedented visit and the participation of Chinese warships in naval SAR exercises with the [Iranian Navy] in the Persian Gulf could be an effort to further improve interoperability between the two navies.” Iran and China have reportedly shared military technology since the 1980s but there have been few overt displays of military to military cooperation.”

We believe these common views extend to Latin America and include plans for expanded military presence with Iran leading the way as indicated above. It’s evident that Iran conceals China’s actual hand in Latin America and elsewhere with Russia not far behind selling weapons.

China’s hand that includes seeking to control the Panama Canal, not just arm Iran with the latest naval technology:

“A Chinese company with close ties to the Beijing Communist government was planning to take over the operation of the Panama Canal, a secret government report revealed.

And according to Adm. Thomas Moorer, with facilities at both ends of the canal and an agreement with the Panamanian government, Hong Kong-based Hutchison Whampoa Ltd. has the ability to all but control the strategic waterway.

The company has long-term 25-year leases on the ports at each end of the Canal. They are run by the Panama Ports Co., a Hutchison Whampoa subsidiary.”

To put a finer point on it:

“The Panama Canal Administrator Jorge L. Quijano held an informative meeting with a delegation headed by Mo Wenhe, Chairman of the China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC) and Wei Hua Wang, representative of the Chinese-Panamanian Office of Business Development.

“Mo Wenhe showed interest in the development of projects in the Panama Canal during the upcoming years.”

“We are exploring our participation in all Canal projects, especially in the design, construction and financing of a Fourth Set of Locks,” Wenhe said.”

“CHEC is a full-service provider of Engineering-Procurement-Construction (EPC), Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) and Public-Private-Partnership (PPP) for the public and private sectors.”

But does this point to Chinese malevolence in Latin America? Building new and controlling existing chokepoints a sign of that malevolence? What does this have to do with Russia?

Well maybe if we consider how China views another region like Taiwan and the South China Sea and the US presence we might find some clues and understand how China and Russia’s shared views in Eurasia appear to be nearly the same for Latin America and the Caribbean.

“Attacking US and Taiwanese military air bases is one of the main training objectives of the PLA (China’s People’s Liberation Army) Air Force and Second Artillery Corps, according to China’s Global Times.”

“It is clear from tests carried out in China’s Dingxin experimental air base in northern Gansu’s Jiuquan and its Korla air base located in Xinjiang’s Bayin’guoleng Mongol autonomous prefecture that the amount of damage that the air force and the Second Artillery Corps can inflict is increasing and that their objective has shifted from its traditional target, Taiwan, to Japan and US military bases in Japan.”

(A full scale model of the United States Kadena Air Force Base located on Okinawa used for target practice)

“After refurbishment, the Korla base (in China) is now equipped with an aircraft apron and a US-style reinforced concrete aircraft hangar. The base stretches 8 km from its easternmost point to its western edge and 7.2 km from north to south.”

On its 260 m x 60 m apron there are 12 full size replicas of US F-15 fighters, clearly modeled on the US Kadena Air Base on Okinawa.

Satellite pictures from May 2013 suggest that the apron and the hangar suffered a massive cluster bomb attack, leaving deep craters around them. The hangar was not completely destroyed but the roof showed signs of having been hit by an attack.”

Lieutenant General Tovo continues:

Increased Russian Presence. In contrast, Russian activities in the region are more concerning. Periodically since 2008, Russia has pursued an increased presence in Latin America through propaganda, military arms and equipment sales, counterdrug agreements, and trade. Under President Putin, however, we have seen a clear return to Cold War-tactics.  As part of its global strategy, Russia is using power projection in an attempt to erode U.S. leadership and challenge U.S. influence in the Western Hemisphere. Last year and again this year, a Russian intelligence ship docked in Havana multiple times while conducting operations in the Gulf of Mexico and along the east coast of the United States. Russia has courted Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua to gain access to air bases and ports for resupply of Russian naval assets and strategic bombers operating in the Western Hemisphere. Russian media also announced Russia would begin sending long-range strategic bombers to patrol the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico, in an effort to “monitor foreign powers’ military activities and maritime communications.”9 While these actions do not pose an immediate threat, Russia’s activities in the hemisphere are concerning and underscore the importance of remaining engaged with our partners.

What activities? First there’s Moscow and China’s joint pursuit of an even larger choke point into and out of the Gulf of Mexico. We’ll get to the weapons Russia is selling in the region in a minute.


“Moscow and Managua are to cooperate over the next few years on the construction of the so-called Interoceanic Grand Canal, a new alternative to the Panama Canal. Deeper, wider, and longer than its rival in Panama, the new canal will challenge U.S. control over the region, though experts are divided on its geopolitical benefits for Russia.”

There was even an opening ceremony the world may have missed:

“At an opening ceremony, Wang Jing, the president of HKND, the Chinese company building the canal, said this moment would go down in history.The 278km (172 mile) waterway will be longer, deeper and wider than the Panama Canal. But critics fear a negative environmental impact and doubt its viability and economic benefits. The Grand Canal of Nicaragua, as it has been called, aims to rival Panama’s waterway and lift the country out of poverty.”

The canal’s dimensions are reportedly large enough to accommodate the larget supertankers and the world’s largest container ships that presently are too wide for the Panama Canal. The dimensions will also accommodate Russia and China’s largest warships and submarines.

And Russia’s renewed interest in the gateway to the Gulf of Mexico, which historically, has always been Cuba and still is not surprising.

On the Eastern tip of Cuba sits Guantanamo Bay and directly across is the Island of Hispaniola (composed of Haiti and the Dominican Republic). Between them is one of the main navigable waterways into an out of the Gulf of Mexico from the Atlantic Ocean. Across from the Western tip of Cuba, Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula juts out to meet it in a pincers. That end is also one of the main navigable sea lanes into and of the Gulf of Mexico.

So it is surprise that Putin considers Cuba is of “Strategic” importance to Russia? Shouldn’t be. Cuba straddles America’s carotid artery leading to 7 of 10 of our largest ports in tonnage, and leading to our largest refineries.

“Castro and Putin also presided over the signing of a package of 10 agreements and memoranda to expand bilateral cooperation, including accords on oil exploration signed by Russian state oil company Rosneft and Cuban counterpart Cupet.

Putin later traveled Friday to Nicaragua for a previously unannounced visit, meeting in that Central American country with President Daniel Ortega.”

And it’s not all economic. Russia is Latin America’s largest weapons dealer at the moment.

And Cuba as you remember was caught shipping weapons to North Korea just recently.

“Vladimir Putin has been strengthening military links here, and Russia is now the largest arms dealer to governments in Latin America, surpassing the United States. Russia has even floated the possibility of building new military bases in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua, and putting its warships permanently in the Caribbean.

In the midst of the Ukraine crisis, Russia’s top diplomat Sergei Lavrov recently visited Cuba, Peru, Chile, and Nicaragua, where he announced that Russia would also pour money into the new Central American canal project.

Arms selling is a free market, and if Russian companies can offer cheaper and better guns than US or British ones, they have the competitive edge.

Many of this region’s leftist governments are also more suspicious of US military power, which has historically sided with dictatorships across South America, even as it challenges Cuba.”

So while our backs are turned to the Middle East and Europe, and while some are tripping over themselves to hail Putin as a hero, and China as indispensable, we may want to lock our back door.

If you look out the window they’re not bearing gifts or here for the BBQ.