The U.S. Senate unanimously confirmed Lt. Gen. Laura Richardson as the next commander of U.S. Southern Command on Wednesday, the first woman to lead the Doral, Florida-based joint military command responsible for South America, Central America and the Caribbean.
Richardson is the second Army woman to reach the four-star general rank. The first was Gen. Ann Dunwoody, who attained the rank in 2008 and retired in 2012.
Richardson was confirmed early Wednesday morning at the end of a marathon U.S. Senate session, part of a flurry of moves before the Senate adjourned until September.
In a statement, the Pentagon praised Richardson’s promotion along with the confirmation of former U.S. Rep. Gil Cisneros as the undersecretary for personnel and readiness.
“We now have 21 nominees to be confirmed by the Senate,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby said during a briefing on Wednesday. “Additionally, the Senate confirmed Army Lt. Gen. Laura Richardson to command U.S. Southern Command and receive her fourth star.”
A Southcom spokesperson said Wednesday that a chain of command ceremony hasn’t been scheduled yet. Richardson’s predecessor, Adm. Craig Faller, took command six weeks after his October 2018 Senate confirmation.
Richardson, a career military officer, led the U.S. Army North at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston since July 2019. She previously was the deputy commanding general of the U.S. Army forces at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and served abroad in Iraq, Afghanistan and South Korea.
She was recommended to lead Southcom by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and nominated by President Joe Biden in March on International Women’s Day, and her confirmation hearing in the Senate Armed Services Committee was last week. Biden also nominated Gen. Jacqueline Van Ovost to lead the U.S. Transportation Command on the same day, but her nomination has not yet cleared the U.S. Senate.
“Each of these women have led careers demonstrating incomparable skill, integrity, and duty to country,” Biden said after nominating Richardson and Van Ovost in March. “And at every step, they’ve also helped push open the doors of opportunity to women in our military — blazing the trail a little wider, a little brighter for all the proud women following in their path and looking to their example.”
Richardson was previously considered to lead Southcom during the Trump administration, but then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley delayed her recommendation until after the 2020 election over concerns that former President Donald Trump would react negatively to a female general.
During her confirmation hearing, senators from both parties pressed Richardson on China and Russia’s influence in Latin America and the Caribbean. She deferred most questions on diplomatic policy, such as her positions on keeping the detention center at Guantánamo Bay Navy Base open and her preferred route to democracy in Cuba, to the State Department and White House.
“Joint Task Force Guantánamo executes detention operations in accordance with the law and the policy of the president and the secretary of defense,” Richardson said when asked if the planned U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan will affect operations at Guantánamo. “If confirmed, Joint Task Force Guantánamo will continue to do so with my oversight and supervision.”
Richardson did not face any opposition to her qualifications or previous military career from senators during her confirmation hearing.
Florida Republican Sen. Rick Scott, who serves on the Armed Services Committee, repeatedly asked Richardson what, if anything, Southcom can do to expand internet access in Cuba, a major point of emphasis from Republican politicians after widespread pro-democracy protests in Cuba last month.
To date, no proposal from the U.S. would dramatically expand internet access in Cuba if the Cuban government doesn’t allow it.
“Senator, if confirmed as the Southcom commander, I will definitely look into that,” Richardson said.
Richardson was also asked about vaccine diplomacy after the Biden administration announced that more than 100 million doses have been sent abroad.
“With the United States there aren’t strings attached, we don’t use this as leverage,” Richardson said. “Whereas the Chinese and Russians are using this as leverage to change a country’s mind.”
Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico rank among the largest recipients of U.S. vaccines worldwide, with each country receiving at least 3 million doses.
Richardson also said she supports democracy in Cuba and noted that the Cuban government props up leftist governments in Venezuela and Nicaragua that continue to crack down on political opponents.
“We have a long history with Cuba,” Richardson said. “They undermine the U.S. and are an authoritarian adviser, so to speak, and are an adviser with Venezuela and Nicaragua and certainly prop up the Maduro regime in Venezuela. Certainly, if we have democracy in Cuba, it will change things dramatically.”
Richardson also said getting more international buy-in will help U.S. efforts to pursue democracy in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua.
“The more allies and partners that we are working alongside to bolster that integrative deterrence … to Venezuela as well as Nicaragua and Cuba is extremely important,” Richardson said.
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