Sunday, July 26, 2015

Presentation: Is Cuba a U.S. National Security Threat in 2015?

"Is Cuba a U.S. National Security Threat in 2015?"
W. Alejandro Sanchez
Senior Research Fellow, Council on Hemispheric Affairs

"Charting a Course for Cuba"
The Washington Center
Track | International Affairs
July 24, 2015

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

E-IR: A Non-Violent Conflict: The Venezuela-Guyana Dispute

"A Non-Violent Conflict: The Venezuela-Guyana Dispute"
W. Alejandro Sanchez
E-International Relations
July 21, 2015
Originally published:

An old territorial dispute between Venezuela and Guyana has flared up once again as the Guyanese government contracted ExxonMobil to look for offshore oil in an area that Caracas claims as its own. While it is unlikely that this particular instance will escalate into an armed conflict, these tensions highlight how non-violent incidents over coveted resources will continue to occur. Moreover, should clashes over this disputed territory continue, Venezuela will, in this author’s opinion, come out as the loser as it will be inexorably regarded as the aggressor against a militarily weaker neighbor.

Moreover, while this dispute has thankfully been non-violent, it could affect U.S.-Venezuela relations as the two governments have been at odds for over a decade and a half. Washington could capitalize on Venezuela’s aggressive stance in order to strengthen relations with Guyana to better monitor developments in Caracas.

A Brief Overview

A full historical review of the Venezuela-Guyana dispute is beyond the scope of this analysis, but it is necessary to give a basic historical overview to put the current situation in the proper context. Guyana is a former British colony (with Dutch influence), formerly known as British Guyana, which obtained its independence in 1966. However, the area, while it was under London’s control, was at odds with Venezuela due to a territorial dispute that dates back to the 19th century. Venezuela obtained its independence in 1824 from Spain, much earlier than Guyana, and has consistently claimed a portion of present-day Guyana.

London and Caracas reached an agreement via the 1899 International Arbitral Awards (held in Paris) which was thought to have put an end to differences. In 1962, Venezuela declared the 1899 treaty void and returned to its pre-1899 claims. In 1966, the same year that Guyana gained its independence, a Mixed Commission was established to address Venezuela’s renewed demands; but while negotiations took place, the Venezuelan military was accused of carrying out incursions into Guyana’s border territory, including the occupation of the Guyanese half of the Ankoko Island. Negotiations and incidents followed, as well as agreements such as the Protocol of Port of Spain, which Venezuela decided not to renew in 1982.

Caracas claims a contested area of around 155 thousand square kilometers in addition to a maritime area off the contested coast.

The dispute generally remained dormant for decades as the 21st century began but resurfaced in November 2007 due to a bizarre incident in which some 30 Venezuelan soldiers entered Guyanese territory and used explosives to destroy two dredges. The Guyanese Defense Forces were deployed to the area, but by that time the Venezuelans had already returned to their country. Fortunately the incident did not escalate into an armed conflict. The Venezuelan government apologized for the incursion as Deputy Minister of External Relations Rodolfo Sanz travelled to Guyana to diffuse the situation. He declared that Caracas “expressed sincere regrets and assured that the incident had no political motive on the part of the Venezuelan Government.”

Another incident occurred on October 2013 when the Venezuelan Navy intercepted the Teknik Perdana, a ship flying Panama’s flag that was hired by the Guyanese government and the Anadarko Petroleum Corporation to carry out seismic investigations. This was a preliminary step for future expeditions to look for offshore oil reserves. Thankfully, like in 2007, the incident did not evolve into a conflict, but the situation does highlight how the two countries began to clash at sea.

The newest round of tensions erupted in March, less than a decade after the Venezuelan military incursion into Guyana and only two years after the Teknik Perdana incident. ExxonMobil started looking for oil through its research vessel, the Deepwater Champion. According to Reuters, “Exxon signed an agreement with Guyana to explore the 26,800 square kilometer block, 100 to 200 miles (160 to 320 km) offshore, in 1999.” On May 20, the company found (black) gold as it announced that it had discovered oil. Days later, the Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro announced that the area in dispute is rightfully Venezuelan. Even more, the Venezuelan presidential decree No. 1.787 (dated May 27) divided Venezuela’s coast into four defense areas. One of them is called the “Zona Operativa de Defensa Integral Maritima Insular Atlantica” (ZODIMAIN Atlantica; Atlantic Operational Maritime & Insular Defense Zone), which extended from the Promonotory of Paria to the border shared with Trinidad & Tobago; hence it included the disputed maritime area between Venezuela and Guyana. In early July, the Venezuelan government took a step backwards by passing the presidential decree No. 1.859 which modified the aforementioned No. 1.787; the new directive withdrew specific coordinates for the ZODIMAINs.

Guyanese President David Granger labeled Venezuela’s claims as a “legal absurdity” and stated that Exxon’s operations will continue. The situation worsened in early June, when the Guyanese government decided to stop flights made by CONVIASA, Venezuela’s state-owned airline. Georgetown officially states that this is due to “the non-payment of bonds and landing fees to the government and the Cheddi Jagan International Airport.” However, it is impossible to deny the obvious coincidence that this drastic measure comes shortly after Venezuela’s claim over Guyanese waters. In retaliation, Caracas called in the Venezuelan ambassador to Guyana in early July and also announced that it will not renew a rice trade agreement with Guyana, which is set to expire in November.


At the time of this writing, the possibility of inter-state warfare between Venezuela and Guyana thankfully remains extremely low. The two countries have never gone to war over the territory in dispute, but the aforementioned incidents that occurred in the past decades are problematic since they deteriorate bi-national relations—i.e. the cancellation of CONVIASA’s flights, which left dozens of people, including Venezuelan citizens, stranded in Georgetown. Moreover, in a worst-case scenario, a small incident like a seized vessel could be the trigger that transforms it into a greater conflict if tensions are not properly managed.

One aspect worth stressing is that the 2007 dredges incident brought Guyana onto the U.S. radar. At the time, relations between the U.S. and Venezuela, then led by Presidents George W. Bush and the late Hugo Chávez respectively, were continuing to deteriorate. Caracas had accused Washington of being behind a short-lived coup that briefly removed Chávez from power in April 2002. Meanwhile, Washington was concerned about a Caracas-Moscow alliance, as the Russian government had begun to sell high-tech weapons to the South American state. Thus, Washington saw this incident as a valid reason to have a stronger presence on Venezuela’s eastern flank. For example, military cooperation between the U.S and Guyana increased: The “USS Kearsarge,” a multipurpose amphibious assault ship, made a port call in 2008. Officially, the Pentagon said that this was a humanitarian mission, but at the time IPS News explained how the assumption in Guyana was that the naval visit was “designed to send a tacit political and military signal to neighbouring Venezuela,” particularly as “U.S. military helicopters are flying around communities as close as 16 kilometers from the Venezuelan border.” It makes sense to believe that Washington was capitalizing on Georgetown’s security concerns with its neighbors in order to monitor Venezuela.

Let us look at Venezuela’s geopolitical situation in another way: the country borders three nations, and it has been at odds with two of them in the past decade. Apart from Guyana, Venezuela also has a territorial dispute with neighboring Colombia. Even more, Bogota and Caracas had tense relations during the rule of President Alvaro Uribe and the late President Chavez (respectively) – to the point that in 2008 the two countries almost went to war. Nowadays, relations are much better but Venezuela is still concerned about the fact that Washington remains a steadfast Washington ally. As for Brazil and Venezuela, the two countries have maintained cordial relations and there have not been any security incidents. Finally, Caracas has declared that U.S. aircraft flying from the Forward Operating Location base in Curacao (a Caribbean overseas territory of The Netherlands, just north of Venezuela) were surveillance planes spying on Venezuela.

In other words, Guyana-Venezuela tensions have to be placed in the proper context of Venezuela’s complex relationship with its neighbors, a development that Washington has capitalized on. From Venezuela’s point of view, Washington can be regarded as trying to encroach on the South American state by increasing security ties with its neighbors.

As for the current tensions between Caracas and Georgetown, they come at a time of renewed strained relations between Caracas and Washington. In March, President Barack Obama announced that Venezuela is now considered a “national security threat,” a declaration that brought about economic sanctions on various Venezuelan government officials. At the time of this writing, both sides have been attempting to improve their tense relations, which date back to the Chávez years, as bilateral negotiations recently took place in Haiti. Nevertheless, no major announcement has come out of these talks. Moreover, while there have not been any new U.S. naval deployments to the region, a Guyanese vessel did participate in Tradewinds 2015 (naval exercises organized by the U.S. Southern Command and Caribbean nations).

It is also important to note that Guyana has been rallying its allies in the Caribbean and beyond to support its claims. So far, the Guyanese government has been successful, as in March when the other members of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), a 15-nation bloc of Caribbean states, declared that the organization “reiterates its firm, long-standing and continued support for the maintenance of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Guyana.” The move was probably a blow to Caracas, as most CARICOM members, Guyana included, are members of PETROCARIBE, an alliance whose members purchase oil from Venezuela at reduced costs. These small Caribbean states are very dependent on cheap Venezuelan oil in order to maintain their economies and fulfill their energy needs; however, the latest Venezuela-Guyana incident highlights that they will rally to protect one of their fellow members against an external security threat.

Comparing Naval Forces

Given that the most recent incident has to do with offshore oil discoveries, I will briefly address the naval force of both countries. Guyana is a small nation whose military is called the Guyana Defense Force, and its naval branch is the Guyana Defense Force Coast Guard (GDFCG). While the GDFCG has limited resources at its disposal, it has been upgraded in recent years. In 2014 Guyana received back the flagship “GDFS Essequibo”, which had been sent to Brazil for repairs. The “Essequibo” is a remodeled British River-class minesweeper that Guyana acquired in 2001. As for recent acquisitions, the Guyanese obtained three speedboats in 2014, which were donated by the United States as part of Washington’s Caribbean Basin Security Initiative.

The Guyanese coast guard could hypothetically be a challenge to the Venezuelan Navy, but the latter country’s fleet has also been upgraded and expanded under the Chávez and Maduro regimes. For example, Venezuela has acquired Stan Patrol vessels for its coast guard as well as transport and multipurpose ships from Damen Shipyards Group. The Venezuelan Navy is also repairing its submarine fleet, as the submarine “Sabalo” is currently being upgraded by the DIANCA shipyard in Puerto Cabello.

Given this major disparity in military might, it would be next to impossible for Venezuela to not appear as the aggressor should a maritime conflict occur.

Why Countries Do Not Go To War

If anyone thought in 1899 that the agreement would solve the territorial dispute between Venezuela and the UK/Guyana, that person was grossly mistaken. While the dispute has thankfully remained non-violent, there have been a series of small incidents and diplomatic spats within the past decade. While the probability of either government committing itself to an armed conflict is very low, it would only take one small incident—i.e. a Venezuelan warship facing off with a Guyanese coast guard ship as the latter protects oil research vessels in the disputed territory—for the encounter to escalate.

This brings up the question of why both nations have not gone to war with each other over the disputed territory, particularly since Guyana gained independence from London in the 1960s and remains significantly weaker militarily when compared to Caracas. In a 2011 essay for Small Wars & Insurgencies, I discussed the lack of inter-state conflict in South America, including the Venezuela-Guyana dispute after the 2007 incident. In the analysis, I state that the last inter-state war in the region occurred in 1995 between Peru and Ecuador, while the last war that had a maritime theater of operations was between Argentina and the United Kingdom over the Falklands/Malvinas in 1982. In other words, while there are plenty of territorial disputes in Latin America, actual inter-state warfare is scarce.

What explains the absence of war between Venezuela and Guyana, as there have been three incidents in less than a decade but no shots fired (though a couple of explosions over the dredges)? In spite of the territorial and maritime claims, the two countries have maintained good diplomatic relations as Guyana is a member of Venezuela’s PETROCARIBE initiative. It is nevertheless concerning that Venezuela has called in its ambassador to Guyana and cancelled negotiations over Guyanese rice as good trade relations are an important confidence building mechanism that serves to counterbalance security concerns. The deal will only expire in November, so there is a chance that Caracas is using the deal to temporarily punish Georgetown over the maritime dispute but will renew negotiations later. If this does not happen, it will force Guyana to look for other trading partners for its goods elsewhere, further creating a breach between the two governments and populations.

Moreover, the 2013 and 2015 incidents can be interpreted not as threats to Guyana but rather as methods that the Venezuelan government and Navy used to demonstrate that they maintain their claim to the territories in dispute, seeing this is part of Venezuelan national identity. The same can be said for the new presidential decree 1.859, which does mention specific coordinates for Venezuela’s maritime claims – this way the Venezuelan government does not appear aggressive as it is not implying that its naval forces can now enter Guyanese-controlled waters.

As to whether there was ever a time when Caracas was realistically willing to start an armed conflict with Guyana in the past decade, I would say no. I would argue, as previously noted, that these incidents occurred because the Venezuelan government, Navy, and Army wanted to show that they continue to see Guyanese territory as rightfully belonging to Caracas. Moreover, the quick support that Guyana received from its CARICOM allies, who are also PETROCARIBE clients and even ALBA members, signaled to Caracas that further aggressive initiatives would hurt its relations with its allies; hence, the latest conflict has been short-lived.

Finally, it is necessary to discuss how Venezuela perceives its geopolitical situation versus potential (or imaginary) adversaries. After all, Colombia remains a steadfast U.S. ally. Meanwhile Brazil maintains cordial relations (including security-related) with Venezuela, but the two are in competition with each other for regional influence. Hence, policymakers in Caracas may perceive closer Washington-Georgetown relations as the U.S. and its allies encroaching on Venezuela.

I cannot speculate whether anyone in the Venezuelan military or Ministry of Defense truly believes that Washington would come to Georgetown’s aid if it is attacked, but the fact that the U.S. military has increased its cooperation with Guyana, including training exercises, has certainly not gone unnoticed. Nevertheless, even with some U.S. defense support, Guyana remains a militarily weak state, and Venezuela would undoubtedly be regarded as the aggressor in any military conflict between the two. In a vastly interconnected world, Venezuela’s international reputation would be significantly damaged if it were viewed as an aggressor. Hence, the potential for international shaming can also serve as another deterrent to avoid conflict (a country like Russia may see little problem with gaining this “label,” but Venezuela is no global power).

Ultimately, the interception of the Teknik Perdana or the ongoing dispute after the Exxon discovery are ways for Venezuela to flex its diplomatic and military muscle, not just at Guyana (to demonstrate that it still claims the disputed territory) but also at Washington. Just this past March, President Maduro ordered new military exercises in order to demonstrate his country’s military might. This came at a time when Washington had declared Caracas a “national security threat.”

Guessing the Future

The possibility for an inter-state conflict between the two countries, even over oil, remains low. Nevertheless, what is problematic is the potential for a small incident to quickly evolve into a greater one. For example, should a Venezuelan vessel, let us say the patrol vessel “Guaiqueri” (PO-11), detain an Exxon research vessel, the Guyanese “GDFS Essequibo” could then be deployed to assist the Exxon vessel. As a result, a standoff could occur where, unless cool heads prevail, any action taken by one vessel could be perceived as an aggressive move by the other. This escalation is not unheard of in the region. In 2008, a Colombian military operation that was carried out against FARC insurgents in Ecuador (without Quito’s approval) increased to the point that Venezuela, then ruled by President Chávez, was on the verge of declaring war on Colombia in order to protect the sovereignty of Ecuador, its ally.

Thankfully, the current tensions over Exxon’s oil explorations appear to be dissipating, but it is just a matter of time before another incident occurs, particularly if Guyana is fully committed to exploiting its offshore oil and Venezuela continues to claim the area. I would argue that another round of maritime incidents will occur soon given the creation of the aforementioned “ZODIMAIN Atlantica.”

Warfare may not come to the Venezuela-Guyana border, but it is clear that inter-state disputes among Western Hemisphere states over territory and resources will not end anytime soon.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Peru This Week: The Pride of the Peruvian Navy: The BAP Union

"The Pride of the Peruvian Navy: The BAP Union"
W. Alejandro Sanchez
Peru This Week
July 20, 2015
Originally published:

The construction of the BAP Unión is well underway, and, upon completion, it will be the largest sail vessel in Latin America and will train Peruvian sailors for generations. The contract for the Unión was awarded to a Peruvian state-run shipyard, the Servicios Industriales de la Marina, meaning that the vessel will be manufactured in Peru for the use of the Peruvian Navy.
With an estimated $60-70 million USD price tag, the Unión will be 115 meters long, weigh approximately 3,500 tons, and have four masts. The vessel, which is expected to go as fast as 12 knots, will have a crew of around 100 personnel but will have room to accommodate up to an additional 160. Given the budget and the ambitiousness of the project, it is no surprise that the senior members of the Peruvian government and military have gone to SIMA’s shipyard to personally inspect the ship’s construction. Just over the past year, Peru’s Defense Minister, the commander of the Peruvian Navy, and even President Ollanta Humala himself have visited the SIMA shipyard in Callao.
It seems that everything is on schedule regarding the Unión, as it was launched this past December 2014 in a ceremony with President Humala in attendance. The vessel will be officially commissioned by the end of this year. A May 2014 issue of the Peruvian Navy’s magazine Monitor best exemplifies the pride that this branch of the South American nation’s military feels regarding the Unión. The opening paragraph of an article about the ship’s construction explains how the new vessel can be compared to those in which Admiral Miguel Grau himself, the hero of the Peruvian Navy, learned about sailing in the 19th century. The construction of the Unión is not simply an industrial challenge for SIMA or part of the Navy’s aim to reinvigorate its inventory, this new ship is also meant to teach future Peruvian sailors how their ancestors navigated the seas and help them connect with the country’s ultimate naval hero.
During the 2014 ceremony, President Humala remarked how “it is important [to note that] we did not buy [the Unión]. We made it here. In Peru we have the technology for maritime construction of this type of vessels.” This is an important fact to keep in mind since, as previously mentioned, the Unión is being constructed by the Peruvian shipyards SIMA. In recent years, SIMA has carried out some important manufacturing projects for the Peruvian Navy and is also (slowly) expanding into the competitive international shipbuilding- market. Among its recent projects is the construction of two multipurpose ships as well as an auxiliary towing vessel. Besides its main facilities in Callao, SIMAalso has shipyards in Chimbote (north of Lima) and in Iquitos (in the Peruvian Amazon).
Moreover, at the international level, an important milestone was reached in April 2014 when former Defense Minister Pedro Cateriano (now the President of the Council of Ministers) went to Panama and met with his then Central American counterpart, José Raúl Mulino. The two signed a cooperation agreement through which SIMA will open a shipyard in Panama. This shipyard will provide technical expertise, including repairs, to vessels that are travelling through the Panama Canal. SIMA-Panama relations are nothing novel, as the Peruvian shipyard constructed two support boats for the Panama Canal Authority in 2011. More recent information regarding the status of the SIMA shipyard in Panama is unavailable but hopefully this agreement will ultimately materialize.
The construction of the Unión and SIMA’s other projects demonstrate the growing capabilities of Peru’s shipbuilding industry. Certainly, SIMA is in no capacity to build a complex vessel like a carrier, but its current projects highlight how the Peruvian state-run shipyard is making a name for itself and could become an important supplier in the international shipbuilding industry in the near future. As for the BAP Unión, when it is completed and commissioned, it will be a sail vessel that would make Admiral Grau himself proud.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

CIMSEC: Damen's Presence in the Latin American & Caribbean Market, Part 2

"Damen's Presence in the Latin American and Caribbean Market" Part 2
W.  Alejandro Sanchez
Center for International Maritime Security
July 19, 2015

Selling To Everyone
The list of Damen’s current clients in the Western Hemisphere highlights one curious fact about this company: the Dutch company sells its equipment to both U.S. allies and foes alike. Certainly, Washington sees no fault in Damen’s decision to upgrade Mexico’s naval equipment. On the other hand, the U.S. government probably frowns at Damen equipping countries that Washington is at odds with, such as Venezuela (which was declared a national security threat by the White House this past March). Similarly, Damen’s shipyard in Cuba, a country that was on the U.S. State Department’s list of states that sponsor terrorism until this past May, is not considered a positive development in Washington.

Nevertheless, Damen has remained neutral in Western Hemisphere geopolitics, as it has dealt with any government willing to pay. This issue deserves further analysis by stating two obvious facts: the U.S. and the Netherlands have generally enjoyed good security relations over the past decades, and Damen is a privately-owned company, which means that the Dutch government has limited influence in the contracts and initiatives it chooses to carry out. With that said, it is bizarre that Damen chose to build a shipyard in a country that has been at odds with the U.S. for decades, and is also selling vessels to countries like Ecuador and Venezuela, which have become a thorn on Washington’s side for years (in the case of Caracas’ for a decade and a half). Certainly, Damen does not need to take into account U.S. foreign policy in its business decisions, but it is nevertheless important to keep in mind how the sale of military equipment can upset regional geopolitics, particularly if this equipment is sold to nations that have carried out aggressive foreign policies in recent years (i.e. Venezuela).
Damen is Important, But Not A Pillar

While Damen has made a name for itself in the Latin American and Caribbean market, the shipbuilding company has not fully cornered this market, as it still faces a number of competitors.
One of Damen’s major competitor is Navantia. The Spanish company has been trying to sell Peru its frigate F-538 model as well as attempting to sell Colombia (and Peru) its F-110 frigate. The company already has a strong presence in the region, best exemplified by a 2013 contract to upgrade the motor system of a Brazilian corvette, the “Julio de Noronha.” Government-to-government exchanges are also common as South Korea has donated one of its corvettes, the now-called “ARC Nariño,” to Colombia. The Donghae-class vessel served in the Republic of Korea Navy for 27 years before it was given to the South American state.

Finally, the know-how of Latin American military industries is improving. Case in point, the Peruvian shipyards Servicios Industriales de la Marina (SIMA) is currently constructing a new training vessel for the Peruvian Navy, the “BAP Union” – a project worth around $50-55 million USD. Moreover, with support from the Daewoo International Corporation and the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency, SIMA is building a new multi-purpose vessel for its Navy.

These examples stress how competitive the shipbuilding industry is in Latin America. Not only are there several major companies trying to sell brand new warships, but governments are also donating surplus naval technology. Furthermore, regional shipyards are rapidly improving their knowledge when it comes to shipbuilding, as we now have modern shipyards in countries like Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela  that are constructing their own vessels.

In fact, countries like Ecuador, Mexico and Venezuela want Damen to construct some vessels in their own shipyards in order for local technicians to learn from Damen’s experts. Certainly, none of these facilities are in a position to build a ship as complex as a carrier, but they can now construct smaller vessels, like patrol boats or support ships.

What this means for a company like Damen is that while it will continue to enjoy new contracts for the immediate future, it will have to continue developing more modern and improved equipment that its Latin American and Caribbean clients cannot purchase, maybe at a better price, from other suppliers, or even construct themselves in the not-so distant future.

A Need for Stronger Naval Forces
As transnational crime over the Caribbean Sea and other maritime crimes, such as illegal fishing, continue throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, it has become a major priority for regional states to have modern and capable navies and coast guards in order to protect their exclusive economic zones.

Certainly, it can be argued that the current purchases of some naval technologies are generally unnecessary, given that the region has enjoyed inter-state peace for decades (the last inter-state war in the region was in 1995 between Peru and Ecuador, while the last conflict with naval warfare was the 1982 Falklands/Malvinas War between Argentina and the United Kingdom). Moreover, while transnational crime remains a persistent problem, Latin America has enjoyed cooperation at the inter-state level for two decades (the 2008 Colombia-Venezuela incident notwithstanding). Given this period of peace, some may argue that these defense dollars would be better spent in social programs, especially since many Latin American nations, including Damen-clients like Honduras, are very poor and underdeveloped.

Unfortunately, the reality is different. First, Latin American and Caribbean nations must have some capabilities for deterrence as inter-state tensions continue, such as between Peru and Chile or even the aforementioned 2008 incident between Colombia and Venezuela. Second, transnational drug trafficking remains a major problem from Mexico to Argentina, particularly throughout the Greater Caribbean waters as cocaine is transported from Colombia and Venezuela to the U.S. and Mexico markets. Just last May, the U.S. Coast Guard and the USS Kauffman (FFG 59) interdicted almost 1,800 kilograms of cocaine in the Eastern Pacific.

Hence, it is necessary for Latin American and Caribbean naval forces, including their coasts guards, to have fast and technologically advanced vessels for both internal and regional security – which in turn would diminish their dependence on U.S. security aid. In this sense, the involvement of companies like Damen and Navantia in the Western Hemisphere is a necessity (at least until regional states can build their own high-tech vessels).

Final Thoughts
In recent years the Dutch shipbuilding company Damen has made a name for itself as a provider of high-tech, fast vessels, from multipurpose boats to coast guard speedboats, for various Latin American and Caribbean states. Their clients include nations with small defense budgets like Honduras and Trinidad & Tobago, to major buyers like Mexico and Venezuela. Nevertheless, Damen has not cornered these region’s shipbuilding markets, as there are several other companies selling their products, such as the Spanish Navantia, in addition to regional states enjoying growing maritime defense industries.

Moreover, while Damen’s sales to the region have generally controversy-free, the incident over the overpriced vessels sold to Honduras highlights the potential for corruption, i.e. kickbacks, in countries renowned for lacking good governance. I have been unable to confirm if there were other similar discrepancies in Damen’s other contracts in the Western Hemisphere. Nevertheless, countries like Venezuela are known for their lack of transparency (case in point, the billions of petro-dollars spent by Caracas to purchase Russian military technology) while Mexico is infamous for its corrupt state-run oil company, PEMEX. Given these precedents, there are valid reasons for concern over Damen’s deals with its Latin American and Caribbean clients.

Ultimately, the question comes down to whether the region requires new vessels. Inter-state conflict may be scarce, but it remains a possibility given recent tensions between regional nations (i.e. Venezuela and Colombia, Peru and Chile or currently between Venezuela and Guyana). Thus, it is necessary for nations to maintain capable deterrent capabilities. Additionally, these states must have strong navies and coast guards to crack down on maritime crimes that range from illegal fishing to transnational drug trafficking.

In 2015, the waters along Latin American and Caribbean states are far from peaceful and Damen’s vessels, while not the cornerstone of regional navies, are an important addition to hemispheric maritime security.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

CIMSEC: Damen’s Presence in the Latin American and Caribbean Market, Part 1

"Damen's Presence in the Latin American and Caribbean Market"  - Part 1
W. Alejandro Sanchez
Center for International Maritime Security (CIMSEC)
July 18, 2015

Though shipbuilding is a competitive global industry, one company has become a major provider to the naval forces (coast guards included) of various Latin America and Caribbean states: Damen Shipyards Group. Damen is now a household name among Latin American and Caribbean navies as it provides multi-purpose vessels, patrol boats and speed boats. These sales have enhanced the capabilities of Damen’s clients as they face transnational threats.

While the defense budgets of Latin American and Caribbean states cannot be compared to those of the usual suspects (i.e. the U.S., Russia or China), a significant number of weapon deals have occurred in recent years between the Dutch-based company and these two regions.

Damen’s sale of technologically advanced vessels is a positive development for the region for a variety of reasons. Most notably, since Latin America and the Caribbean are enjoying a marked lack of inter-state conflict  (the last war between two regional states was in 1995), the region’s security forces are now focused largely on transnational crimes, particularly drug trafficking. Thus, it appears that Damen’s clientele will continue to grow for the immediate future as the company is looked upon as a reliable supplier of vessels necessary to combat criminal activities that occur at sea, particularly in the Greater Caribbean region.
  • Recent Sales

In order to discuss Damen’s effect on the shipbuilding industry and naval defense sector in Latin America and the Caribbean, a brief enumeration of confirmed deals and equipment delivery is necessary. This will also give us a clearer view of Damen’s clients.

The Caribbean
Damen has a number of clients in the Caribbean whose naval forces are more akin to coast guards rather than traditional navies. One good example is the Bahamas, which formalized a deal with Damen in 2014 for a variety of vessels, including four Stan Patrol 4207, four SPa 3007, and one roll-off ship Stand Lander 5612. The shipbuilding portion of this multi-faceted contract is valued at around $149 million.

The company has already delivered the four 4207 patrol boats. Moreover, this past January the Damen Gorinchen shipyard in the Netherlands received the hull for the Stan Patrol 3007. It is important for the 3007 to become operational soon as this vessel is urgently needed by Nassau to combat narcotics trafficking, a further example of how Damen technology is being utilized for positive security initiatives.

Another one of Damen’s clients in the Caribbean is Trinidad & Tobago. This past May, the government in Port-of-Spain ordered 12 new vessels for its coast guard, including four type Stan Patrol 5009, two Fast Crew Supply 5009 and six Interceptor speedboats. The deal is worth $189 million USD. In early June, the “TTS Point Lisas” (GC 23), one of the FCS ships, was delivered to the Caribbean government.

Latin America
When it comes to the mainland, several Latin American states are turning to Damen for naval equipment. For example, the Colombian Navy purchased one of Damen’s Swath-type vessels, which was constructed in Singapore.  Additionally, in 2014, Ecuador signed a deal with Damen to obtain two Stan Patrol 5009 for the country’s coast guard. The vessels are being constructed in Ecuador by the country’s shipyard, Astilleros Navales Ecuatorianos, under the oversight of Damen technicians. Additionally, Damen obtained a contract in early 2014 to construct a fourth Stan Patrol 2606 (the country already operates three),  which will also be built in Ecuador.

Additionally, Mexico and Venezuela have purchased various types of Damen’s vessels. Just this past January, the Mexican Navy received the Coast Guard vessel Tenochtitlan-class “ARM Mitla” (PC-334), which was constructed as a joint project between the shipyards of the Secretaria de Marina (the Mexican Navy) in Tamaulipas and Damen. The “Mitla” is based on the Stan Patrol 4207 model. This is the second of two vessels that Mexico and Damen are building together following a 2014 agreement. The other vessel is a supply variant of the Fast Crew Supplier 5009. Like the “Mitla,” it is also being constructed in Mexico’s Sonora state. These developments suggest that Damen has become an integral part of the country’s naval shipbuilding. Apart from the aforementioned vessels, SEMAR and Damen jointly constructed three other patrol vessels based on the 5009 model.

As for Venezuela, Caracas has ordered a number of new vessels for its Navy including a 2014 deal for 18 type Interceptor 1102 speedboats. The speedboats are being constructed in Cuba under the Havana-Caracas cooperation agreement. The first of these vessels arrived this past May and is currently undergoing testing. In addition, Damen has also constructed four support vessels for the South American nation based on the Stan Lander 5612 model. On February 2014, a new contract was signed for an additional eight vessels, a deal worth around $132 million USD. Finally, Venezuela’s military complex (UCOCAR) in Puerto Cabello is building five patrol boats based on the Stan Patrol 2606 model. The country’s navy already has one operational vessel based on that model, the “Pagalo” (PG-51).

Cuba’s Shipyards
It is important to note that Damen has a construction facility, Damex Shipbuilding & Engineering, in Cuba. The facilities, which were established in 1995, are located in the bay of Santiago de Cuba. Damen’s website explains that “the yard is equipped with one slipway provided with transverse parking facilities for new buildings and repairs and a lateral slipway for new buildings of up to 100 metres.” As previously noted, the shipyards have constructed vessels for Venezuela.

  • The Honduran Affair

It is important to stress that not all Damen deals have been scandal-free. This is best exemplified by a 2013 contract via which the government of Honduras purchased six Interceptor speedboats and two Stan Patrol 4207. The contract deal was reportedly worth almost $62 million. However in late 2013, the Honduran judiciary investigated it due to various irregularities, specifically the accusation that the vessels were overpriced  – according to the Honduran newspaper La Prensa,the vessels were overpriced by some $29 million. The newspaper argued that the Honduran Secretariats of Defense and Finance created a paper company called “Servicios Maritimos S.A.,” which was utilized by Florentius Antonious Florentius Kluck,  a Dutch citizen and honorary consul, as the intermediary for the sale.

In spite of these accusations, the deal ultimately went through, and the Honduran Navy has begun to receive the vessels. This is an important deal for Honduras since drug traffickers utilize the country’s coast for transporting illegal narcotics, and thus it is especially necessary for small Central American country to have vessels that can locate and seize the infamous narco-speedboats. Nevertheless, the details of the deal themselves are problematic, as the question its transparency and whether the Honduran government could have obtained similar vessels at a cheaper price. Even more, even though the Honduran judiciary never passed judgment on the  deal, scandals like the Honduran affair throw into question whether other contracts gained by Damen were due to shadowy middle men and nefarious deals.

Presentation: "U.S.-Western Hemisphere Relations And The U.S.-Cuba Rapprochement"

"U.S.-Western Hemisphere Relations and the U.S.-Cuba Rapprochement"
W. Alejandro Sanchez
Senior Research Fellow, Council on Hemispheric Affairs

July 15, 2015
American University, Washington Semester Program

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Blouin Beat: World: The Bahamas: television fantasy vs. darker reality

"The Bhamas: Television Fantasy vs. Darker Reality"
W. Alejandro Sanchez
Blouin Beat: World
July 14, 2015
Originally published:

On July 10, the Bahamas celebrated the 42nd anniversary of its independence from Great Britain. The islands that make up this Caribbean nation have become a must-see tourist destination over the past decades, while Nassau, the capital, has a history that is currently being glorified by Hollywood. The TV series ‘Black Sails,’aired on the Starz network, depicts what life was like in Nassau in the early 18th century when pirates ruled the Caribbean.

‘Black Sails’ is loosely based on a combination of real-life pirates and the popular book Treasure Island. The show focuses on real-life characters, like Charles Vane, and the fictional Captain J. Flint, pirates who made a profit from robbing merchant ships. The stolen bounty is then brought back to New Providence Island (where Nassau is located), where it is resold via the island’s black market. Both Vane and Flint share the utopian goal of Nassau becoming an independent nation, free from the threat of a British invasion. (I will skip the other subplots).

There is little threat of pirates taking over Nassau nowadays, but crime, both in the maritime waters and in the plethora of islands that makes up the country, remains a major problem. The smuggling of illegal narcotics is of particular concern due to the volume of the contraband – this is best exemplified by “Operation Take Down,” which took place in Nassau in early July. The police operation searched a home and found 100 pounds of marijuana, with a street value of $100,000 USD. Moreover, smuggling in Bahamian waters continues. In 2014, the security forces of the Bahamas detained a speedboat off Long Island; two men were arrested and a cargo of 37 bales of marijuana, worth a whopping $1.3 million USD, was seized. Despite the success of law enforcement officials, the area continues to be regarded as an attractive corridor for drug trafficking. In early June, the U.S. Coast Guard seized a vessel off Andros Island, which carried an impressive cargo of 985 pounds of marijuana (street value at $1 million USD).

While the sword and pistol fights depicted in ‘Black Sails’ may make for good television, weapons in the hands of criminals continue to threaten security in the modern-day Bahamas. On July 3, police officers from the Drug Enforcement Unit seized an AK-47 rifle, a Browning .308 rifle, and 974 live rounds of ammunition in a trailer in Long Island.

Finally, one major plot of ‘Black Sails’ revolves around the pirates avoiding a British invasion, as London wants to regain control over its lost territory. Nowadays, the government in Nassau has cordial relations with both London and Washington. In fact, just this past June, U.S. Assistant Secretary for the Western Hemisphere Roberta Jacobson travelled to the Bahamian capital for a meeting of the United States-Caribbean high-level citizen security dialogue to promote regional cooperation and address common threats. The meeting falls under the umbrella of the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative, which is Washington’s overall strategy for the Caribbean. The State Department explains that the CBSI aims to combat illicit trafficking, increase security, and promote social justice. Washington will certainly keep an eye on the Bahamas, given its close proximity to the United States, ongoing smuggling, and a curious fact: the aforementioned Andros Island is the location of the secretive Atlantic Undersea Test and Evaluation Center, where the U.S. Navy tests maritime weapons.

Thus, it is no surprise that both the American and British navies are actively supporting their Bahamian counterparts’ efforts to crack down on regional crimes. Apart from the U.S. Coast Guard operating in the area, the British HMS Severn made a port-call at Nassau Harbour this past January in order to carry out exercises with its local counterparts. In statements picked up by Bahamas Information Services, the British High Commissioner, His Excellency David Fitton explained that the British ship is “work[ing] with the regional Defense Force’s interdiction of drug smugglers, sometimes migration smugglers, and arms smugglers even. The most common one they work on here is drug smuggling.”

The Bahamas recently celebrated over four decades of independence from the United Kingdom — a dream for which the characters of the popular series ‘Black Sails’ fought. But romantic quest for independence aside, crimes like drug smuggling are a serious real-world problem for Nassau. The criminal elements depicted in ‘Black Sails’ are entertaining, but in the 21st century, the Bahamas needs a strong security force and regional allies (even its former colonial rulers) in order to prevent the rise of Charles Vane-like criminals.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Blouin Beat: One more time: Colombia’s FARC announces ceasefire


 "One more time: Colombia’s FARC announces ceasefire"
W. Alejandro Sanchez
Blouin Beat: World
July 8, 2015
Originally published:

On Wednesday July 8, the largest Colombian narco-insurgent movement in Colombia, the FARC (short for Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia) announced a new unilateral ceasefire starting this upcoming July 20. It is supposed to last for one month.

The FARC has waged a war against the Colombian government since the early 1960s. At its height in the mid-1990s, it had around 16,000 fighters but current estimates put its number of fighters at under 8,000. A large number of these fighters are minors, and the insurgents, in a goodwill move, declared this past February that they will stop recruiting fighters under 17. While the move was generally praised, the group was critiqued because while it promised to stop recruiting new underage fighters, it will not release the ones it currently has in its ranks.

But in spite of having less than half the fighters it had almost two decades ago, many of whom are minors, the FARC have yet to be militarily defeated – making them continual a thorn in Bogotá’s security side. During his first presidential term, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos chose a different tactic, as bilateral negotiations between the government and the insurgents started in Norway in 2012, before moving to Cuba. The two sides have been meeting in the Cuban nation for the past three years, and while several issues have been agreed upon, a final (and permanent) agreement has yet to be reached.

One obvious worry is that the negotiations could go nowhere and full-blown war could start once again. This is of particular concern for large segments of the Colombian military that fear the negotiations and ceasefires are part of the FARC’s plan to re-organize forces to launch a new wave of offensives. This scenario is not so far-fetched – in fact, it happened in the late 1990s when former President Andres Pastrana launched his own wave of negotiations, which were ultimately unsuccessful.

Apart from the fact that the negotiations have been dragging on for three years, clashes between the security forces and the insurgents have continued. In May, the Colombian armed forces attacked a rebel camp in the Cauca department, killing 26 fighters. Nevertheless, the government has suffered setbacks. This past June, three people, (a lieutenant colonel from the Colombian police, another officer, and a civilian) were killed in the Nariño department when they were attacked via explosives. According to the Colombian government, the police officers survived the explosions but were summarily executed afterwards. More recently, in early July, one soldier was killed and two were injured, all members of the Army’s Sixth Division, in another clash with the FARC in the Putumayo department. The FARC last declared a unilateral cease this past December 2014 and while it lasted for a few months, it has been effectively over since the May attack.

In other words, the recent declaration by the FARC’s peace negotiators in Havana that there will be a new ceasefire is important, as this may give a new momentum to the peace talks. The insurgents have requested that President Santos agree to a bilateral ceasefire, but at the time of this writing there has been no response from Bogotá on that matter. (Santos did tweet that he “values” the FARC’s gesture but “more is needed, particularly a real compromise to speed up the negotiations”).
It is difficult to be optimistic about the peace negotiations nowadays. The longer they drag on the more chances there are for them to be derailed completely. Lasting peace agreements between governments and rebel movements are possible, however, as best exemplified by Colombia’s successful negotiations with the M-19 insurgents in the late 1980s. Nevertheless, the FARC have proven to be a much trickier and complicated entity to negotiate with. Hopefully this new ceasefire will be permanent, but history is not on its side.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

CAEI: Observatorio de Rusia No.12

Observatorio de Rusia No.12
Otono Sur 2015, Año V I
Marzo, Abril y Mayo 2015
Centro Argentino de Estudios Internacionales

Integracion Regional
Cronología y Fenomenología - Pág. 20-26
A pesar de Ucrania, la Política Exterior rusa avanza (lentamente) -  Pág. 26-29

Por: W. Alejandro Sanchez

Monday, July 6, 2015

Quote: How Mexico is becoming the drone capital of Latin America

"How Mexico is Becoming the Drone Capital of Latin America"
By: Rafael Fernandez de Castro
July 6, 2015
Originally published:

Mexico is getting high on drones.

A lack of strict aerospace regulations combined with a growing manufacturing and aerospace industry could turn the country into the drone capital of Latin America. Mexico recently opened the first drone pilot academy in region, and now hopes to become a global competitor in the high-flying industry.

“We saw a wave of consumers buying drones, but they didn’t know how to operate them,” Jose Luis Gonzalez, director of Mexico’s Drone Academy and CEO of Unmanned Systems, told Fusion. So he opened a drone academy in Mexico City and began offering a 9-hour course. They’ve already graduated 50 drone pilots in less than a year.

It’s part of why Mexico is fast becoming an ideal testing ground for the development of drones, Gonzalez says.

“Mexico has low production costs and there’s skilled labor that can turn the nation into a key player in the drone industry,” he said. “There’s a big entrepreneurial spirit here.”

Gonzalez isn’t the only one developing the Mexican market. A local company known as Unmanned Systems Technology International has released a drone known as MX-1, which is being marketed as “a proudly Mexican aircraft backed by thousands of hours of conceptualization, design, prototyping and flight tests,” according to its website. The MX-1 drone can allegedly fly for up to seven consecutive hours and reach a cruising speed of 68 mph. Other companies such as 3D Robotics are also fabricating drones in Mexico.

Mexico is also finding new uses for drones, from protecting endangered animal species to improving agricultural practices and preventing forest fires. Earlier this month a group of researchers announced they will be using drone photography to enhance land cultivation and fertilization techniques.
The Mexican government is reportedly using drones to monitor crime-ridden areas, develop naval operations, and monitor some of the country’s state-owned oil pipelines.

There’s also been innovation by the criminal world. Some narcos are now apparently using drones to smuggle drugs across the U.S.-Mexico border.

And then there’s singer Enrique Iglesias foolishly cutting his fingers while trying to grab a hovering drone during a concert in Tijuana —an incident that fits into a category all its own.

Overall, Mexico has embraced drone technology quicker than other countries in the region. In May many chilangos flocked to Mexico City’s first drone expo to learn about the development and use of the so-called multirotor drones.

The government shares the public’s enthusiasm. Last March, Mexico’s Aerospace Navigation Service commissioned a video shot by a drone flown over Mexico City’s airport. “It turned out wonderful. We’ve gotten rave reviews,” air traffic controller Alejandro Ruiz de la Fuente told the Washington Post. “We know that back in the United States it’s not allowed.”

While drones have an increasingly military connotation in the U.S., in Mexico and many parts of Latin America drones are mostly viewed as fun, useful and educational tools. In Peru drones are reportedly being used to monitor archeological sites, while in Chile some universities have begun offering courses in piloting. Brazil is using drones to help protect the Amazon.

But drone fun is also creating new problems. Argentina’s government recently moved to protect people’s privacy by regulating the use of drones to prevent candid photographs and videos shot from above.

Now the U.S. could spoil some of the fun if it continues to militarize drone use in Latin America. The United States Southern Command or SOUTHCOM has already deployed unarmed drones on joint military exercises and missions in Central and South America. The war on drugs also appears to be prompting Latin America to ramp up the use of U.S.- and Israeli-manufactured drones against traffickers.

“With regard to Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), it is hard to predict the extent to which they’ll be employed to counter transnational organized crime in the SOUTHCOM area of responsibility in the long-term,” Southern Commander spokesman Jose Ruiz told Fusion.

Ruiz said SOUTHCOM has “been able to periodically employ” a model known as the RQ-4 Global Hawk, but wouldn’t offer details about the mission. “Operational security precludes us from discussing specifics, but when utilized by SOUTHCOM to support detection and monitoring operations, the RQ-4 is configured with non-lethal, surveillance capabilities; and missions that include time over the sovereign airspace of a partner nation are closely coordinated with the host-nation government through the U.S. embassy before being approved and scheduled.”

Alejandro Sanchez, a drone expert at the Council of Hemispheric Affairs, told Fusion there have been occasions when unarmed U.S. drones have entered Mexican airspace. “A U.S. drone helped triangulate the cellular network of drug lord Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman, pinpointing his whereabouts for Mexican authorities,” he said.

So far, no U.S. drones flown over Latin American airspace have been known to be weaponized. But experts say it might be only a matter of time before there are armed drones circling the region.

Sanchez says based on the U.S. experience, Latin American militaries are realizing drones can change the tide of war. He thinks the lack of technological know-how might be the only binding constraint preventing Latin American countries from developing their own weaponized drones. “I think security forces in Latin America see drones favorably,” he said.

The U.S. recently passed legislation allowing the sale of armed drones to ally nations. And Sanchez thinks Mexico and Colombia could be the first countries in line to buy them.

Israel is also a major player in the drone industry. A 2014 report by COHA says Israel is the main provider of drones to Latin America, selling “some $500 million worth of drone technology to Latin American clients between 2005 and 2012.”

For now, Latin America’s drone market remains unarmed and mostly unregulated.

“I think in Mexico and most of Latin America they are viewed as toys,” Sanchez said. “But there will be a point when we we’ll have to talk about privacy laws, drones flying in airports and residential areas. They are devices that can be used by reputable agencies, but also criminals.”

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

CAEI: Colombia y Peru Necesitan Drones Armados?

"Colombia y Peru Necesitan Drones Armados?"
W. Alejandro Sanchez

Opinion - Working Paper 10
Programa America del Norte
Centro Argento de Estudios Internacionales
Julio 2015