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Venezuela, China are threats to Caribbean security, says Southcom commander

The commander of U.S. Southern Command, Navy Adm. Craig Faller, speaks during the opening of the Central American Security Conference. During the conference, security leaders from Central America and the United States are discussing regional security and ways to strengthen partnerships to counter threats. (Photo by Jose Ruiz, SOUTHCOM Public Affairs)

Within hours of arriving here, Navy Adm. Craig Faller, the military commander tasked with steering U.S. national security interests in the Caribbean and Latin American region, heard about Jamaica’s new crime-fighting tool.

It was impressive. It was powerful. And it was expensive, members of the Jamaica Defense Force, the country’s military arm, told him.

So as Faller prepared to depart Jamaica last week, he decided to take a look for himself.

Walking up to the modified Beechcraft King Air 350 WR maritime patrol aircraft parked inside the defense force’s newly minted hangar at the back of the Norman Manley International Airport in Kingston, Faller tip-toed and peered in. Turning around, he flashed a brief smile of approval and began to walk away before coming to a stop after spotting the surveillance aircraft’s “trouble” log on a wall.

“If something broke this year and it took X hours to fix, then next year if the same thing broke, it should take X-minus,” Faller told a young Jamaican military officer, explaining the importance of the maintenance log on such an asset as the two walked out. “That’s important so that with the trouble log, you learn.”

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For Faller, who assumed command of the Miami-based U.S. Southern Command a year ago this month, the brief exchange wasn’t just about advice accumulated over three decades in the U.S. Navy. It’s also about providing support to a key ally in a region struggling to address a number of threats: organized criminal networks dealing in arms, drugs and people smuggling; the crises in Venezuela and Haiti, and the encroachment of Russia and China.

“We have to pay the right amount of attention to this region and invest appropriately for the future,” said Faller, as he prepared to land in Jamaica. “There is a lot of pressure on the security system.”

All of the region’s security challenges, he said, are being magnified by the crisis in Venezuela. The regime of Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro has substituted money from its state-run businesses with narco-trafficking cash, Faller said, noting that in the past year narco-trafficking through Venezuela out into the Caribbean has doubled.

“This is affecting the stability of the neighbors and it’s magnifying itself outward,” he said.

Believing that “a handshake always works better,” Faller’s visit to Jamaica, followed by a few hours in Haiti to welcome the USNS Comfort hospital ship, and then an overnight in the Dominican Republic, stressed regional cooperation and partnership with the U.S.

The three-nation Caribbean visit came on the heels of the Comfort’s multi-nation stop in the Caribbean and Latin America to relieve some of the stress caused by the Venezuelan crisis, and ahead of a Caribbean security conference scheduled for Thursday and Friday at Southcom’s headquarters in Doral. The U.S. is co-hosting the conference alongside defense leaders from Canada, France, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom.

In addition to Caribbean military and public security officers who have been invited, attendees will also include the head of the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency and the acting director of the Caribbean Community’s Implementing Agency for Crime and Security.

“We are working very hard to take the regional approach to looking at regional organizations that respond to disasters and the security concerns of the Caribbean,” said Faller, explaining the inclusion of the disaster and crime and security agencies. “We think that the regional institutions are the key strengths of the security of the region. No one nation, not even the United States, can go alone when it comes to security.”

This message was stressed throughout the visit, which at one point had the Southcom team touring three countries in one day.

In the Dominican Republic, where he met with Dominican military officials and President Danilo Medina, Faller ended the visit by touring the country’s Emergency Operations Center. Southcom donated the facility in 2001, but the Dominicans have since made upgrades to allow them to better respond to hurricanes and earthquakes on the island of Hispaniola, which it shares with Haiti.

In Jamaica, which is proving itself to be a regional leader on not just security matters but disaster response — it assisted Haiti after the country’s devastating 2010 earthquake and the Bahamas after Hurricane Dorian — Faller visited Canada’s operational support hub after dropping by the Jamaica Defense Force’s Maritime, Air and Cyber Command at the airport. The Canadian hub serves as a staging ground in the event Canada needs to mount an operation in the Caribbean.

While the visit to Haiti was more of an assessment of the situation as the crew of the Comfort treated thousands of sick Haitians amid the country’s unraveling political and economic crisis, Faller said the objective of the Jamaica and Dominican Republic stops was to “listen and learn and focus on our military-to-military relations and focus on building individual connections.

“We always talk about the United States as being a young democracy, but most of our partners are far younger democracies,” Faller said. “They have very nascent institutions, in some cases weak institutions. Our goal is to try and get their institutions strong… that’s what’s going to survive the ups and downs of whatever politics brings to these nations.”

Of particular concern is China, and the inroads it is making in countries like Jamaica and the Dominican Republic, which earlier this year announced that it was ending relations with Taiwan in favor of Beijing.

“They’re committed to maintaining their relationship in a priority fashion with the United States. They assured me they understand the risks of IT and cyber associated with China and they are not willing to sacrifice the trust and professionalism and partnership they built with us for those risks,” Faller said about his discussions with Dominican leaders on the subject of China.

According to a chart compiled by Southcom, China has sold $615 million worth of weapons to Venezuela in the past 10 years, while 25 out of 31 countries in the hemisphere host Chinese infrastructure projects. Meanwhile, China has held 39 meetings with regional heads of state in the last five years.

During Faller’s visit to Jamaica, the country’s prime minister, Andrew Holness, was unable to meet with him because he was on a nine-day visit to China. While there, Holness noted that Jamaica was the first Caribbean nation to establish diplomatic relations with China.

In a press conference with Lt. Gen. Rocky Meade of the Jamaica Defense Force, Faller did not address the Holness visit. But he did make his feelings on China — and Russia — clear, saying they do not share the same democratic values and principles as the U.S. and Jamaica.

“We see other external actors, other regions of the world that don’t share the same values, are operating in conjunction with Maduro for their own good,” he said. “Cuba has surrounded Maduro and protected his regime. Russia is right in there alongside contributing disinformation, and China is in there as well as part of the disinformation campaign.”

While China “has legitimate economic interests throughout the world including in the United States and here in Jamaica,” Faller said, Beijing “continues to promote a model of governance… that does not adhere to international standards such as the rule of law, human rights, labor rights, protection of the environment.” He also criticized the country’s lack of transparency in its dealings.

China’s embassy in Jamaica called Faller’s assessment “irresponsible.”

“China’s relations with Jamaica and other Latin American and Caribbean countries are based on equality, mutual respect and win-win cooperation, which have yielded and will continue to yield more and more tangible fruits benefiting people of both sides,” Xia Shaowu, the Chinese embassy’s political-section chief, said in a statement.

Though Meade, whom Faller described as his “most valued strategic thinker,” didn’t address China, he said Jamaica valued its relationship with the United States during the press event. He instead focused on the partnership with Southcom and other U.S. crime-fighting agencies.

A closer collaboration between the defense force and the U.S. agencies in the past year has led to an increase in drug seizures, Meade said, which has also had an impact on illegal arms trafficking in Jamaica, which continues to see a spike in violent crime.

“Very often we expect that they’re planning to sell drugs to purchase weapons, so if we interdict drugs, we are stopping the flow of weapons indirectly as well,” Meade said.

Meade said he was happy that Faller, with whom he had a number of exchanges in the past year, was finally able to visit Jamaica with his team to see for himself the capabilities the country has developed — including the new King Air.

Faller took note.

“I think it’s a credit to Jamaica that they purchased this system using their own funds,” he said. “It was important to them that they invested their own money in it. They understand that in order to make this work, it’s not just flying the plane and getting the intel. They’ve got to have a system to train pilots and continue to train pilots. They’ve got to have a system in place to manage all of the maintenance people that do the work on the plane.”

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(c) 2019 Miami Herald
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.