A former US presidential adviser warned about the three major threats to the security of Latin America

Craig Deare, former Principal Director of Western Hemisphere Affairs at the National Security Council, in dialogue with Infobae (Roberto Almedida)

Latin America is one of the regions most shaken by violence and organized crime. Added to this worrying situation are various factors that threaten the stability of regional security.

In dialogue with Infobae, the American soldier, political scientist and professor Craig Deare addressed the three great threats to the security of the region, and that threaten the interests of the United States: organized crime, China and autocratic governments.

Regarding the first challenge raised by the former Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs at the National Security Council, the expansion of organized crime occurs, to a large extent, by the fragile governance in the region: “These weak governments give space to illicit actors to act with greater freedom and security. We see that in very weak countries, like Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, the classic Northern Triangle.”

Mexico is now suffering the same. In my opinion, in part, because of President López Obrador’s policy of ‘hugs, not bullets’, which, if organized crime used to be complicated, now they have a free field with this policy. The levels of violence have not been reduced. The president himself has limited the authority of the armed forces, of the National Guard, to act against these groups,” he added.

The second threat posed by the professor of the Faculty of International Security Affairs of the National Defense University (CISA, for its acronym in English) is “the growth and ever-increasing penetration of the presence of extra-regional state actors, such as China, Russia and Iran. He warned, however, that “the biggest concern is the penetration of China”: “Although it seems that it is benign, simply an economic interest, it seems to me that they are too strategic to limit it simply to the economic (…) It is an authoritarian communist government using state companies, with state banks, taking advantage of an increasingly weak presence of the United States , and a growing interest in the region to receive these investments”.

According to Deare, the third great challenge or challenge is the “increase of illiberal governments.”

Craig Deare questioned the policy of
Craig Deare questioned the policy of “hugs, not bullets” of the López Obrador government in Mexico (REUTERS / Edgard Garrido) (EDGARD GARRIDO /)

-Of the three challenges you mentioned, I would be interested in starting with China. The US has been widely criticized for its lack of interest in Latin America, while Chinese expansion has grown in recent years. Do you agree with the words of Biden, who argued that Beijing is the main global threat? Beyond its economic ambitions, is China’s great objective to change the status quo in the region, supporting dictatorships and authoritarian governments?

´-The challenge for the Biden government is to recognize the challenge that China represents. In a certain sense it is more complicated than the challenge of the Soviet Union, because the USSR was a military superpower, but that was it. Such as the hypothesis of George Kennan, in the 40s, to say that the seeds of destruction are contained in his own model. It was a matter of containing it. Perhaps that containment policy was successful, but one how to contain this Chinese model. The interesting thing is that, if you look at the development of the Communist Party of China in the 20th century, with Mao and the death of millions of people trying to impose his model, and an economic failure… But when Deng arrives in the 1980s, to see that the economic model must be modified, without sacrificing authoritarianism, and then in the 1990s the US government with the hypothesis that, if we invite the Chinese to enter the world of the free market, and offer them space, the We invite with the hope, with the desire, that economic freedom will translate into political freedom. Neither things. They had the wisdom to study the free market model, adapt it to their realities, maintain total authoritarian control, and now they have the world’s largest economy, by any measure, and it’s going to keep growing. We kind of gave him the recipe for success. Now you have to think how to counteract that, it is not clear. If it was just benign economic growth, well, they invented a better model, congratulations, we are going to adapt to this new world. The fact is that it seems to me that it is not that simple. Otherwise they were not investing in their armed forces as they are doing. Now they have the largest Navy in the world, they are developing increasingly sophisticated military capabilities… A country without global pretensions, why do you need such a large armed forces? And with Xi Jinping’s public declarations that he wants to be the great power of the 21st century, that should cause concern in Western countries that believe in freedom. Biden himself said that it is a confrontation between autocratic systems versus liberal systems.

-Does the emergence of new left-wing governments benefit China’s expansionist aspirations, as in the cases of Peru, Chile and Colombia?

-That remains to be seen. It can be, of course. Interestingly, President Boric, regarding Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which some countries in the region have not condemned, including Mexico and Brazil, said that he condemned the invasion. I think there are questions in the case of Peru, Chile, Colombia, and what seems to be the most likely, which is a possible return of Lula to Brazil. There are 19 Latin American countries, each one with its history, its internal, political nuances… Generalizing and thinking that all governments will do this or that is complicated. You have to go case by case. We are going to have to see what these governments are going to do. For these countries that have economic difficulties, and China arrives with pockets of money, and with offers, with very favorable terms, and to invest in infrastructure, something that is sorely lacking in the region, such as railways, telecommunications, mines, agriculture, it’s hard to say no. The effects of corruption should also be mentioned. If it were a flat table, and an offer arrives from the Netherlands and another from China to build a port, and we compare contracts, in the free market the best tender wins. Two things: first, the Netherlands is not going to want to invest because of the lack of security, there is insecurity, violence. Then you will prefer to invest in other safer places. China, in addition to offering the money on good terms, perhaps puts that under the table, and everyone is happy. The government of the day, perhaps recognizing that this is not ideal for the country in 20 years, but that is the problem of the ruler who is in 20 years, meanwhile he takes his money, big projects, they appear in photos, and everyone happy.

Chinese expansionism is one of the great threats to US interests in Latin America (Yoan Valat/Pool via REUTERS)
Chinese expansionism is one of the great threats to US interests in Latin America (Yoan Valat/Pool via REUTERS) (POOL/)

-In addition to China and Russia, you also mentioned Iran among the extra-regional state actors. These days he was once again at the center of the controversy over the Iranian-Venezuelan plane seized in Argentina, but for years now there have been warnings about the growing presence of extremist groups backed by Tehran, particularly in Venezuela and the Triple Frontier. For the US, does this issue represent a real threat, or one of extreme concern?

-Of those three actors, it is the least worrying, although it does not mean that it is not worrying. Iran, according to the US government, is the world’s largest state actor sponsor of terrorism, through Hezbollah, the Quds Force. The links with Latin America are not obvious: there are not so many cultural ones, I don’t know why they would be commercial… The Triple Frontier has its legacy of money laundering. Makes sense there. It seems to me that Iran perhaps recognizes that it is not in its interest at the moment to export high levels of terrorism in the region because it would be counterproductive. The case of the plane: What is it doing here? It is something curious. The case of the flights between Tehran and Caracas: What is happening? I imagine there are classified intelligence files that know what they’re doing, or have some idea. For me it is not the biggest concern, but it is still.

-When explaining the concept of “illiberal governments” he referred to the case of Colombia, where Gustavo Petro, a former guerrilla fighter who for a long time had close ties to the Venezuelan dictatorship, has just won. Is this change of management in Colombia worrying in Washington, as a result of the antecedents of the next head of state?

-I dare to think that there is some level of concern. At this moment I would say that the Biden government is willing to see what happens, as it is with Boric in Chile, and would be with a return of Lula in Brazil. It’s a bit of “wait and see”; not so much what they say, but what they do. I have been a bit surprised by some photos I have seen of Petro with Uribe, for example. Let’s see how much he has matured… he was mayor of Bogotá, and according to what he understands he hasn’t achieved great things, but he wasn’t an up-to-date terrorist either. I think I understand that a large part of the vote in Colombia was not pro-Petro, but rather an anti-right vote. The elections in Peru, Chile, Colombia, seem to be in part a rejection of the political status quo. And perhaps a little bit a reflection of the weakness of traditional political parties, and a vote of the societies in the hope that we vote for something different, to get us out of where we were, with insecurity, political instability, lack of economic growth. Boric was not part of a strong party, the case of Lula is a little different… The case of Peru, the president was not a political figure. It was a very anti-Fujimori vote, which was pro-communist. He now has the challenge of seeing how he governs without strong political backing. The Colombian case would be a similar case. In the case of Mexico, it has a president with high levels of popularity, despite quite poor results in terms of security, economy, and handling of the pandemic. However, his arrival with society is still strong, I think they are at 56%. For a party that he created a couple of years ago, it was not the PRI, nor the PRD. He established his own party, and now appears to be the strongest of the center left. Mexico is a unique case, because it is the only one that has a neighbor like the United States.

-On repeated occasions, the United States warned that the dictatorships of Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba not only represent a threat to their own populations, but also to regional security. How do you analyze the current context of Latin America with these dictatorships?

-It is a strong internal debate among those who follow up on Latin American affairs, which is a small group, unfortunately. It is part of the challenge, the lack of consistent, profound attention of the United States in the region. The United States has bilateral, diplomatic relations with China, Russia. Why not have bilateral relations with these other countries? During the Obama administration, the former president opens a new relationship with Cuba. The criticism at the time was that the United States granted this recognition, which was an achievement for Cuban foreign policy, in exchange for very little. Political prisoners continued, lack of economic opening, etc… Venezuela, although it is true that it was the Trump administration that recognized interim president Guaidó, like more than 50 countries in the world. Nicaragua, depending on what is measured, has a terrible record, putting candidates for the presidential race in jail… They are not the countries that we would like to have, but they are sovereign countries, these are their leaders, so we should talk with them . What happened at the Summit of the Americas, regarding who to invite, who not, was complicated. If the Summit had been held in Mexico and López Obrador invited everyone, including Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, the United States would go and participate. The point is that when you are a host, the domestic cost of inviting them is complicated. Those who consider that they should be invited argue that it had to be done, and expose their shortcomings to the whole world, publicly challenge them to see how they respond.

Craig Deare - Torcuato Di Tella University
Craig Deare served as presidential adviser and was Senior Director for Western Hemisphere Affairs of the US National Security Council (Roberto Almedida)

-Precisely Mexico was the country that led the criticism towards the United States. Could this alignment of AMLO with Maduro, Ortega and Cuba, added to the already serious problem of drug traffickers and criminal groups operating in the country, represent a potential threat to the stability of the region?

For some yes, for others not so much. I’d say you should be concerned. Mexico for many years, for historical reasons, has tried to maintain a certain distance between Mexican and US foreign policy, and criticize what they did with the wars in Central America in the 1980s, their position for years supporting Cuba. But the curious thing is that after NAFTA, NAFTA, in the 90s, political and security relations began to strengthen, and independent of the party that ruled in Mexico and the US. It was almost what one could call a state policy. During many of those years, public support for Cuba had declined. AMLO arrives and changes all that. And although he is from the Morena party, one of the observations is that he is acting almost like a PRI president from the last century, from the 60s-70s. This flirtation with Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, with the left, for some is simply part of an internal political discourse for the bases. But in the United States, some are concerned. The establishment in Washington is concerned with the national interests of the United States: security, migration, the economy. AMLO and his policy of the fourth transformation of changing the rules regarding the energy reform, of giving less security regarding the issue of uncontrolled migration, hugs and not bullets, internal insecurity in Mexico… In recent years the migratory flow was mostly from Central America, now Mexico has returned to count among the large numbers due to lack of economic opportunity in security in Mexico.

-Finally, and appealing to your knowledge of the Mexican situation, does this instability that the country is experiencing give the drug trafficker more power or room for action?

-I think so. It does not have more power, what it does have is more field of action. The president has given instructions to the armed forces and the National Guard. Undoubtedly criminals feel more free to act. Talking to Mexican military friends, especially at a lower level, such as colonels and lieutenant colonels, they are very concerned and unhappy with these decisions. Generals are more careful in their words. A serving Mexican general wrote a public letter complaining about this hug-and-no-shot policy, and it seems the secretary of defense had to call him out. For a general to do that suggests high levels of dissent, which is not encouraging. And to close: AMLO when he is campaigning he talks about taking an article from the 1917 Constitution that establishes the National Guard. It was in law, but civil. Increasingly, it has given him strength to join the secretariat of national defense. In other words, not of a civil nature, take away public security, and put it under the control of the armed forces. The opposition is very divided, but it seems that all elements are going to prevail over this change in the law. All to say that things in Mexico are not going very well, and that is worrying for the US establishment.

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