U.S. Secretary of Defense (SecDef) Chuck Hagel recently carried out a three-day visit to Mexico and Guatemala (April 23-26); this was his first visit to Latin America as SecDef since he assumed office. The objective of Hagel’s mini trip was to “affirm America’s commitment” to the region, as a Pentagon spokesman phrased it.
While no groundbreaking agreements were reached, Hagel’s visit comes at a time when U.S. allies in Latin America are feeling forgotten by Washington.
The first leg of Hagel’s tour was a trip to Mexico. The visit was fairly important as it highlights Washington’s approval of ongoing discussions regarding Mexico’s intention to buy U.S. weaponry. Specifically, the Mexican government is negotiating with Washington the purchase of 18 Black Hawk helicopters in a deal reportedly worth $680 million USD.
It is worth noting that Hagel’s visit to Mexico is the third trip by a senior U.S. official in recent months.President Barack Obamatraveled to the Mexican city of Toluca in late February where he met with Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper to pursue greater integration between the three North American nations and to praise NAFTA, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.
Moreover,Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnsonvisited Mexico City in late March, where he met with President Peña Nieto and other Mexican officials. The goal of the visit was to discuss cooperation so both governments can continue “to ensure a safe and secure border region.”
In other words, while the U.S. government may have been focused on the events unfolding in Ukraine in recent months, support for the Mexican government and military remains a part of U.S. foreign policy.
The second part of Hagel’s trip was a visit to Guatemala. At first, the trip to Guatemala may seem to be an odd choice. It would have made more sense, for example, for the SecDef to travel to Colombia, Washington’s other major military ally in the region. In fact, Hagel’s visit to Guatemala is the first one by a SecDef since 2005. Nevertheless, Guatemala’s government has been proactive in recent months as it upgrades its military (there are rumors that it will buyIsraeli drones) in order to crack down ondrug traffickingand other transnational crimes.
Moreover, Hagel’s visit to the Central American nation coincided with an ongoing humanitarian operation by the U.S. military, organized by Southern Command (SOUTHCOM).
The initiative is called “Beyond the Horizon” and it constitutes various civic projects. For example, the U.S. military personnel will construct seven new classrooms at three schools in Guatemala’s Zacapa and Chiquimula departments as well as a three-room clinic in Zacapa. Tragically, a U.S. serviceman,Specialist Hernaldo Beltran Jr.of the 56th Signal Battalion, recently perished during this operation due to a freak accident.
Hagel’s trip in context
During his flight to Mexico City,Hagel declaredto the journalists “I don’t think over the years we’ve probably ever done enough to reach out to our Latin American partners.”
That statement is true. Over the past decade, Latin America and the Caribbean have generally enjoyed little priority from Washington as compared to Europe and the Asia Pacific (in part due to the ongoing crises in Ukraine and the South China Sea).
SOUTCHOM, the branch of the U.S. military that oversees most of Latin America and the Caribbean, acknowledged this reality in its 2014 Posture Statement. While discussing sequestration and a limited defense budget, General John Kelly, SOUTHCOM’s commander, states,
“Over the next ten years, the Services are reducing deployments of personnel, ships, and aircraft in the context of tightening fiscal constraints … As the lowest priority Geographic Combatant Command, [SOUTHCOM] will likely receive little, if any, ‘trickle down’ of restored funding. “ (click here for the full Posture Statement)
Hagel’s aforementioned quote and General Kelly’s Posture Statement say a lot of Washington’s military priorities in 2014 and for the immediate future.
Certainly, it would be wrong to assume that the U.S. military has completely forgotten the Western Hemisphere. The U.S. continues to have numerous bases in Latin America, including major bases inHondurasandEl Salvador.Moreover, the “Beyond the Horizon” humanitarian mission, demonstrates that the U.S. armed forces continue to be actively involved in the region as an outgrowth of military diplomacy.
SOUTHCOM’s Posture Statement as well as the topics that SecDef discussed in Mexico and Guatemala revolved around both military cooperation and how these countries, with U.S. aid, can successfully address challenges to the continent, particularly drug trafficking.
In addition, I would add that while SOUTHCOM may be receiving fewer resources, the quality of the military personnel assigned to it has remained high. As I noted in a 2013 profilefor VOXXI, General Kelly is a highly efficient commander with a strong career record and a clear sense of his priorities and challenges.
Ultimately, Secretary Hagel’s trip to Mexico and Guatemala did not accomplish anything particularly noteworthy. Nevertheless, the trip in itself, along with the ongoing humanitarian exercises in Central America and the Caribbean, may bring a much-needed boost to cementing a new era of positive defense-oriented relations between Washington and its Latin American partners.