Néstor T. Carbonell


Néstor T. Carbonell is the author of the book Why Cuba Matters: New Threats in America’s Backyard. He was born in Cuba and is a lifelong opponent of the communist regime.

We must rally our allies and deter our adversaries before they pose a clear and present danger to our national security and to the region.

The U.S. is right to focus on critical hotspots such as Ukraine, Taiwan, and Iran. But it can no longer afford to ignore the dramatic inroads China and Russia have made in our own backyard.

The head of the Defense Department’s U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), responsible for Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), General Laura Richardson, warned early last year that, “China continues its relentless march to expand economic, diplomatic, technological, informational, and military influence in LAC, and challenges U.S. influence in all those domains.”

China’s rising leadership in the region was evident last week at the Seventh Summit of CELAC, the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States — a rival of the largely paralyzed Organization of American States. CELAC excludes the U.S., while embracing China under a formal banner known as China-CELAC Forum. In his video address to the Summit, President Xi Jinping proclaimed that in this time of “turbulence and transformation,” he wants to take the China-CELAC partnership to a “new era.”

His words, warmly applauded, carry significant weight. China has already become the top trade partner for South America. Even more important, it is rapidly advancing toward its goal of regional economic dominance within the next decade.

But trading is just one element of China’s influence. By including LAC in Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) — an imperial global-infrastructure program — China has enabled its banks and state-owned companies to finance numerous deals.

Already, 21 of SOUTHCOM’S 31 nations have signed on to the BRI. They include most of the region’s largest economies, now led by leftist governments eager to reduce or supplant U.S. power. But democratic and pro-U.S. nations, such as Uruguay and Costa Rica, were also lured by the BRI, while Washington remained aloof.

Examples of China’s recent multi-billion-dollar deals, cited by General Richardson, show the scale and breadth of the program. In Argentina: a nuclear power plant ($7.9 billion), a hydroelectric dam ($4 billion), a freight railway ($3 billion). In Cuba: an energy refinery ($5 billion). In Peru: a highway ($5 billion). In Colombia: a metro ($3.9 billion).

The loan recipients, hungry for financing, seem willing to overlook the fact that — if the experiences of BRI participants in Africa and elsewhere are anything to go on — the loans are corruptive and predatory. They’re designed to leave vulnerable countries very deep in debt, which increases those countries’ dependence on Beijing. Moreover, the workers hired for the mega-projects typically are not locals, they’re from China. As General Richardson pointed out, “The Chinese don’t really invest, they extract.”

But Beijing also poses other challenges that worry SOUTHCOM:

    China’s numerous dual-use port and harbor infrastructure deals, particularly those near strategic choke points essential for global communications and military operations, such as the Panama Canal and the Strait of Magellan, with access to Antarctica.

    Beijing’s disinformation campaign across LAC (in concert with those of Russia and Iran) to advance political and strategic agendas, foment unrest, and undermine U.S. leadership through social media and state-sponsored media outlets.

    Expansion of Huawei’s telecommunications market, from Mexico to Argentina. This could enable China to gather intelligence, steal trade secrets, and track down and punish critics.

    China’s huge space-tracking facility in Patagonia, Argentina, with a powerful 16-story-high antenna, which, according to the February 2019 testimony before Congress of Admiral Craig Faller, then newly appointed head of SOUTHCOM, “may have the ability to monitor and potentially target U.S., allied, and partner space activities.”

Referring later to the broad scope of Beijing’s involvement in LAC, Admiral Faller asserted that, “Chinese influence is global; it is everywhere in this hemisphere, and moving forward in alarming ways.”

Interestingly, SOUTHCOM has deemed Russia’s meddling in LAC to be an even more immediate threat, largely focused on the “Caribbean Triangle” of Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua.

Cuba’s totalitarian regime post-Castro, headed by Miguel Díaz-Canel, continues to suppress human rights and exploit the flood of Cuban refugees into the U.S. to extract concessions from Washington, including removal of the island from the list of state sponsors of terrorism — a move the State Department seems to be pursuing.

Since writing off $32 billion of Cuba’s old Soviet debt in 2014, Moscow has been very active in and around the island. The Russian spy ship Victor Leonov docked in Havana just as Putin was taking over Crimea. Later, another spy ship, Yantar, equipped with submersible craft, visited the area to zero in on a major undersea cable near Guantanamo Bay that carries vital electronic communications.

To enhance its espionage and cyberwarfare capabilities, Russia has been installing its Global Satellite Navigation System (GLONASS) in Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. This system can be used for both commercial and military operations.

Russia also remains the main suspect in the cases of brain damage inflicted on several dozen U.S. intelligence officers and diplomats (and some Canadian officials) stationed in Cuba, and on American officers based in other countries. According to the December 2020 report of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine, its experts attributed the condition, labeled Havana Syndrome,” to radiofrequency energy, a type of microwave radiation. The attacks, the report added, were the result of “directed” and “pulsed” energy, meaning the victims were specifically targeted. Although Washington claims not to have hard evidence against Russia, CIA director William Burn warned Moscow’s intelligence agencies in November 2021 of consequences if they were involved, and the attacks mysteriously ceased after the warning.

Regarding Venezuela, both Cuba and Russia have worked closely to shore up the Chávez–Maduro dictatorship. Cuba has provided the regime with thousands of spies and paramilitary officers, and Russia shipped more than $11 billion in arms to Caracas from 2006 through 2015.

In March 2019, as Maduro was facing major protests and a possible coup following his rigged election, two Russian military planes landed in Caracas with supplies and more than a hundred military personnel and mercenaries from the Wagner Group. They allegedly came to activate Russian-made S-300 air-defense systems.

And in August 2022, amid its invasion of Ukraine, Russia held war games in Venezuela with forces from countries including Belarus, China, India, Pakistan, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Bolivia.

Similarly, former Cold War battleground Nicaragua is hosting a new Russian build-up. Moscow has sent armaments, visiting warships, and some 250 Russian military experts and trainers to the country.

After brutally quelling major protests in 2018 and rigging his third reelection in 2021, Nicaraguan dictator Daniel Ortega announced that he had authorized Russia to deploy troops, planes, and ships to his country twice a year. The purported reasons: training, law enforcement, emergency assistance, and humanitarian efforts.

Considering the implications of Moscow’s involvement in the Caribbean Triangle, Admiral Kurt Tidd, the former head of SOUTHCOM, warned in 2018 before retiring that, “Russia’s expanded port and logistic access in Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela provide Moscow with persistent, pernicious presence, including frequent maritime intelligence collection.” He went on to say that, “Left unchecked, Russian access and placement could eventually transition from a regional spoiler to a critical threat to U.S. homeland.”

In light of the looming threats China and Russia pose in this hemisphere, it’s fair to ask: Why was this allowed to happen? Where was — or is — the timely and effective U.S. response?

A short answer: SOUTHCOM has been viewed as a “secondary” priority among U.S. command centers. Moreover, the menace posed by these external forces was downplayed or underestimated by the executive branch, despite SOUTHCOM’s repeated warnings.

What is now needed urgently, along with additional resources, is an integrated, proactive U.S. strategy. While maintaining open lines of communication, the strategy should address four major objectives:

    Counter China’s and Russia’s relentless regional meddling — what SOUTHCOM calls “assaults” — in critical areas such as diplomacy, the economy, technology, intelligence, and cybersecurity;

    Promote economic development in the region by incentivizing private investments to preempt or compete with China’s predatory loans;

    Foster a true democratic opening in Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua, without appeasing or financing the current dictatorships; and

    Stem the tragic tide of drug and human trafficking across our southern border and resolve the immigration crisis with bipartisan support.

To reverse this dangerous trend, aggravated by the United States’ inaction, we must rally our allies and deter our adversaries before they pose a clear and present danger to our national security and to the region. If we don’t, we will continue losing our neighborhood — not by defeat, but by default.

Néstor T. Carbonell is the author of the book Why Cuba Matters: New Threats in America’s Backyard. He was born in Cuba and is a lifelong opponent of the communist regime.