The U.S. military is reviving a naval command for the Latin America and the Caribbean region, which has not been active since World War II. Officials say the re-establishment of the Fourth Fleet does not change the Navy's mission in the area.  But VOA's Brian Wagner reports some regional leaders fear it will lead to an increased U.S. military presence.

The head of Southern Command, Admiral James Stavridis is to lead a ceremony Saturday for the re-establishment of the Fourth Fleet based in Mayport, Florida. The fleet was created in 1943 to guard against enemy boats, submarines and blockade runners, and was retired shortly after the end of World War II. Since then, the Second Fleet based in Virginia has handled naval operations throughout the Atlantic Ocean.

But military officials say now it is time to renew the Fourth Fleet command to oversee ongoing operations in the Caribbean and Latin America, such as joint training, counterdrug operations and disaster relief.

Lieutenant Myers Vazquez, a spokesman for Southern Command, says the decision reflects the growth in naval activity in recent years.

"So effectively U.S. naval forces in Southern Command had been operating as a fleet organization command without the name. Basically it is just the name catching up to reality," he said.

Recent Southern Command operations include the visit last year by a navy hospital ship to 12 Latin American and Caribbean nations to provide free medical care. And this year, the aircraft carrier USS George Washington flowed into the area for an annual exercise aimed at boosting ties with partner naval forces.

Some Latin American leaders, however, see the carrier visit and the re-establishment of the Fourth Fleet as a new U.S. military push in the hemisphere.

At a recent trade summit, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said the U.S. naval command could pose a threat to Venezuela's vast oil resources.

Chavez said Latin American leaders should ask the United States what the Fourth Fleet plans to do in Latin American waters, and said he sees it as a clear threat.

In a Cuban state newspaper, former leader Fidel Castro cited an Argentine newspaper article suggesting the U.S. fleet could be used to seize food and energy resources, as prices for those goods are soaring. Bolivia's President Evo Morales called it the Fourth Fleet of intervention.

Military officials dispute the claims, saying the Fourth Fleet will not have a new mission or bring any new ships to the area. They note the George Washington carrier was only passing through Latin American waters to reach its new homeport in Japan.

General Barry McCaffrey, who led Southern Command in the late 1990s, says the criticism from leftist leaders is not surprising. He says the comments are unlikely to strain the Navy's ties with partner nations.

"I would think the professional navies of Latin America will welcome the increase in stature of the cooperative naval presence we will have in the region," he said.

Still, the words of leftist leaders like Mr. Chavez and Mr. Castro often carry considerable weight across Latin America and elsewhere. Frank Mora, professor at the National War College, says the criticism may create confusion about U.S. military goals.

"I think it is a public diplomacy issue or challenge for the United States not to give over the debate to Chavez, Morales and Fidel Castro, allowing them to shape the reason or motivation why the command was created," he explained.  "When obviously it has nothing to do with that."

Mora says the revival of Fourth Fleet was driven mainly by budget and command decisions inside the Pentagon, and not by political developments in Latin America.

Mora adds the new command helps bring attention to progress that Southern Command has made to engage partner nations and provide military training and technical support.

He said the command's leadership also deserves credit for expanding its outreach in Latin America and the Caribbean to non-military roles.

"Admiral Stavridis is trying to make a point of engaging more Latin America on issues that are non-kinetic, but have more to do with humanitarian [aid], disaster relief, and dealing more with the non-traditional threats we are seeing in the region," he added.

Mora says some of those non-traditional threats include environmental degradation and gang violence issues that are plaguing some Central America nations. The revival of the Fourth Fleet may help advance those concerns even further.