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US Wants to Remain ‘Partner of Choice’ in South America

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, speaks to reporters at the Pentagon, July 27, 2018.

High-profile U.S. officials have visited South America in recent weeks to signal strength in inter-American alliances amid U.S. competitors’ increased interest in the region.

Speaking to reporters while traveling to Brazil Sunday, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis said Russian and Chinese involvement in South America has had “zero impact” on military-to-military relationships with America's Latin partners.

Mattis said the United States supports “sovereign decisions by sovereign states,” while also cautioning against potentially damaging “inroads by other nations.”

“There’s more than one way to lose sovereignty in this world. It’s not just by bayonets. It can also be by countries that come in bearing gifts and large loans…piling massive debt on countries knowing they know will not be able to repay it,” Mattis said, in what appeared to be a jab at Chinese loans to countries like Venezuela and the Philippines.

Chinese influence in Latin America grows from a “larger commercial perspective” to “feed Chinese demand back home,” which Beijing then leverages to broaden security collaboration, the director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center, Jason Marczak, told VOA.

Russia’s role, however, “is specifically to undermine U.S. security interests,” Marczak said. Moscow has been providing weapons to countries like Nicaragua and Venezuela, where police regularly abuse and arrest citizens protesting against the government.

‘Partner of choice’

Mattis’s trip to the region follows a visit by the top Navy admiral, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson to Colombia, Chile, Argentina and Brazil.

In an exclusive interview with VOA, Richardson said the U.S. military, and especially the U.S. Navy, wants to make sure that it is the “security partner of choice” for Latin America.

“We want to be that stable, steady, committed team that will be there for one another when the chips are down,” Richardson told VOA.

The U.S. Navy has been partnering with Latin American allies to combat illicit trafficking, particularly as it pertains to narcotics. Allies are also mindful of transnational types of terror threats, with partners in the Caribbean keeping a close watch for piracy, a crime Richardson called “terrorism at sea.”

Officials say other security areas are ripe for inter-American military cooperation, from humanitarian missions to cybersecurity.

Richardson said he believed shared values among inter-American militaries could help deepen transparency across their governments.

“The stability that these security relationships provide offers a lot of flexibility for the other elements of national power, whether those be diplomatic or economic,” Richardson said.

About a month before of Richardson’s visit, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence also spent a week in South America. Pence said on Twitter that he highlighted “opportunities for stronger economic and security relationships” during the trip while bringing renewed attention to the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela.

Refugees fleeing violence in Venezuela have poured over the border into Brazil and Colombia, two of the stops on Secretary Mattis’s South America tour. Mattis will also travel to Argentina and Chile.