Political and economic crises in Latin America direct threats to U.S. security

February 20, 2020

Miami Herald
Op-ed: Sen. Rick Scott
February 19, 2020

During the State of Union address, President Trump recognized the president of Venezuela, Juan Guaidó, and later received him at the White House as a head of state. It was a significant moment in today’s hyper-partisan Washington to see near universal, bipartisan support for Guaidó.

It also underscored the commitment to a future Latin America not plagued by despots like Nicolas Maduro, Raul Castro or Daniel Ortega. For those of us who advocate the importance of Latin America to U.S. national-security interests, it renews our hope that the region may finally be prioritized in our foreign-policy agenda.

Historically, Latin America has been an afterthought. The media ignore significant events in the region even when they may have a direct impact on our national security. While Latin America is ignored, anti-American interests understand well the ramifications of such apathy and are diligently working to gain strength in the hemisphere.

The Havana-Caracas alliance has encouraged Hezbollah — and countries such as China, Russia and Iran — to turn Venezuela into a narco-state and a haven for organized crime as well as hub for anti-American mobilization. Their shared hatred for America, combined with a growing financial footprint in the region, is a dangerous combination for the United States.

We need to pay attention.

The crises we face across Latin America may seem like isolated, parochial conflicts in a faraway place, but the reality is that these crises reach our shores eventually. They always do. Each time there is political, social or economic instability, a natural disaster or rising dictatorship in the region, the movement of immigrants from any given crisis puts a strain on our immigration system and resources. There also are the devastating impacts on affected families.

It’s a geopolitical reality that requires, from a simple cost-benefit analysis, a greater commitment to the stability of the region.

Most of the problems in Latin America can be directly linked to the Cuban regime. The oppression of its own people is bad enough, but Cuba’s expanding influence throughout Latin America creates real problems for the United States. Luis Almagro, secretary general of the Organization of American States, said that, “The dictatorship in Cuba has been overlooked for far too long, and now is the time for the international community to treat Cuba like the ruthless dictatorship it is.”

He added that, “Solving the problems associated with Venezuela also means dealing with the Cuban dictatorship. Cubans have been intervening in Venezuela for years—managing intelligence activity, conducting training in torture and managing the civil registration system.”

The Trump administration recently tightened sanctions against Cuba, which I had previously called for, and took concrete measures in both the enforcement of Title III of the Helms-Burton Act and now Title IV, which denies visas to foreign corporate officers involved in trafficking of stolen properties. Helms-Burton was enacted in 1996, but these provisions have not been enforced until now. The international community is starting to get the message.

Last week, the Spanish company Melia, whose CEO was banned from entering the United States, was the first to understand that there are now consequences for collaborating to prop up a savage dictatorship in this hemisphere.

In the past few months, we’ve seen stories of Maduro’s continued oppression of his people in Venezuela and Ortega’s violence in Nicaragua. Venezuelan officials were caught meddling in the political affairs of Bolivia and Chile. Argentina is back in the hands of those who support dictators and oppose the United States. Before his election, President-elect Alberto Fernandez met with Russian and Chinese officials hoping to become stronger partners to help Argentina out of its economic crisis.

Fernandez also sent a message of appreciation to Maduro following the election. These are worrisome indicators of the direction in which Argentina is heading.

After Bolivian President Evo Morales tried to circumvent the constitution, which does not allow a president to be re-elected after two consecutive terms, the people rose up and said, “Enough!” But even now, Morales, with the support of the Mexican government, is plotting his return and is undermining the new government and elections. Again, the political relationship between Castro, Maduro and Morales is strong, as is the financial relationship with China and Russia.

The United States has a checkered history of engagement in Latin American affairs; no one is advocating for direct intervention across the region. There are success stories that serve as a guide, including Plan Colombia, where the United States partnered with officials there to help the country provide security and fight crime while protecting human rights.

We must be clear-eyed about the threats and understand their origin as well as their effect on the flow of migrants to our border, of drugs into our country and the rising influence of anti-American actors in the hemisphere. The degree to which our foreign policy truly reflects a commitment to freedom, democracy and human rights in the region will have a direct impact on our stability at home.

Rick Scott is the junior U.S. senator from Florida.