The United States has turned to Latin America in an increasingly frenetic search for weapons for the US-NATO proxy war against Russia in Ukraine, the senior US commander for the region has revealed.
US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) chief Gen. Laura Richardson said at an online forum hosted by Washington’s geopolitical strategy think tank Atlantic Council last week that the Pentagon is trying to persuade several unnamed Latin American governments to “Donate” Russian-made military hardware to the US military. US-backed regime in Ukraine.
“We are working with the countries that have the Russian equipment to either donate it or exchange it for US equipment,” Gen. Richardson told a virtual audience last Thursday.
Diplomatic relations between the US and the three countries in the region that have the closest military ties to Moscow — Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba — are either nil or severely limited. Like Russia, they are all subject to US sanctions.
While Richardson declined to name them in the forum, titled “On Security in the Americas,” she said six other countries in the region have significant stockpiles of Soviet or Russian-made weapons and that talks are “in progress” to get them “to donate it to Ukraine or to the running cause”. Such deals to send Russian-made equipment to the Ukraine war would involve urging Latin American countries to replace Russian equipment with US-made weapons.
While the US Southern Command also refused to say which countries were in talks about such arms transfers, the Pentagon has been carefully tracking the flow of Soviet and Russian arms into the region.
Evan Ellis, the US Army War College’s chief expert on Latin America and a vocal supporter of Washington’s viewing of the region as a battlefield in preparations for World War I, gave a detailed testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere list last July such weapon systems.
Significantly, the Latin American country — outside of Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua — with the largest number of such weapons is Peru, which began importing Soviet weapons in the 1970s under the nationalist military regime of General Velasco Alvarado, and so only in 2013 did Moscow buy 24 Mi-17 military helicopters and two Mi-35 attack helicopters. In the intervening years, also under Alberto Fujimori’s right-wing dictatorship, Lima bought Su-22 fighter-bombers, Mig-29 fighter jets and other equipment, while its armed forces received Russian military training.
The December 7 parliamentary coup that ousted President Pedro Castillo and installed a regime dominated by the Peruvian right and the security forces under Castillo’s former vice president Dina Boluarte may have greased the wheels for the kind of deal proposed by General Richardson is promoted. The day before the coup, US ambassador to Lima Lisa Kenna, a veteran CIA agent, met with the country’s defense minister to support Castillo’s ouster. Since then, the security forces have cracked down on protesters, killing at least 60 of them.
Other countries with significant stockpiles of Soviet/Russian arms are Brazil, Ecuador, Colombia, Mexico, Uruguay and Argentina. Weapons include tanks, armored vehicles, multiple missile systems, surface-to-air missile systems, MANPADS (man-portable air defense systems), and various fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters.
In her remarks, Richardson stressed that the Pentagon was “aggressive” in exploiting obstacles imposed by anti-Russian sanctions on Moscow’s supply of parts for its weapons systems and financing for Latin American customers.
From the perspective of the US-NATO proxy war in Ukraine, the shipment of weapons from Latin America serves a specific purpose. While international attention has focused on the provocative and potentially globally disastrous decisions to equip Kyiv with advanced US M1 Abrams main battle tanks and German Leopard 2 main battle tanks, the reality is that it will be months before these weapons can be deployed with trained Ukrainian crews. The Soviet-Russian stocks in Latin America, on the other hand, are practically identical to the weapons already known to the Ukrainian military and can be used immediately.
Regarding Washington’s goals in Latin America itself, eliminating Russia as a competitor and restoring the Pentagon’s arms monopoly would give US imperialism greater political clout in a region where the military has repeatedly intervened to overthrow governments deemed inadequate are subordinate to the USA and national profit interests.
Increased arms sales mean more US military advisers on the ground in these countries and more of their own officers being sent to the US for military training. This serves to forge military-to-military ties far deeper than those between diplomats or elected officials, and created the organizational infrastructure for the kind of US-backed military coups that have swept the continent over the past half-century.
While Richardson portrayed Russian operations in the region as an acute threat to US interests, in reality they pale in comparison and are largely a response to the massive US-NATO encirclement of Russia itself.
As the general made clear in her remarks, Washington and the Pentagon view China, which she described as a “malicious state actor,” as the more consequential challenge to US imperialist interests in the region.
Using the alarming rhetoric of war propaganda, Richardson warned of “the invasion and tentacles of the PRC [People’s Republic of China] in the countries of the western hemisphere that are so close to the United States.” China’s presence, she said, has reached “right here on the 20-yard line to our homeland — right here in the red zone.”
The general’s language is reminiscent of the 19th-century Monroe Doctrine, first employed by the US to repel European imperial invaders in the hemisphere and later used in defense of military coups, police-state dictatorships, and bloody counterinsurgency wars waged in the name of defeat were led to “communism.”
It has, like its predecessors, an arrogant habit of considering the countries south of the US border as American imperialism’s “own backyard”. But she has to admit that Washington has lost much of its control over these areas.
“In many of our countries in this region [China] is the number one trading partner, with the United States being number two in most cases,” Richardson said. In fact, China is already South America’s largest trading partner. In just under two decades, total trade between China and the entire Latin American region has increased almost twenty-fold, from US$17 billion in 2002 to US$315 billion in 2019.
Twenty-one of the region’s 31 countries have joined Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, which has already resulted in significant infrastructure development, including 17 ports, highways and railroads designed to channel the flow of Latin America’s vital commodities across the Pacific to China. Meanwhile, Chinese group Huawei has taken the lead in telecoms and deployment of 5G networks, despite US pressure.
“I worry about these state-owned dual-use companies that are springing up [People’s Republic of China]and I’m concerned about the dual-use capability – being able to flip it and use it for military purposes,” Richardson said.
However, as she continued, the SOUTHCOM commander made it clear that the real concern is securing US dominance over the region’s strategic resources and being able to deny them to China.
The general explained “why this region is important” to US national security and went on to catalog its “rich resources,” including Venezuela’s vast oil reserves and the discovery of vast deposits off the coast of Guyana, copper, silver, gold and other minerals, as well as 31 percent of the world’s freshwater supply. She noted that China now depends on Latin America for 36 percent of its food.
General Richardson placed particular emphasis on the so-called “lithium triangle” — Argentina, Bolivia, and Chile — which accounts for most of Latin America’s estimated 60 percent of the world’s lithium reserves. The strategic metal is a key component in the transition to electric vehicles and is used in virtually every modern weapon system. The battle for control of the region’s lithium reserves could soon resemble the bitter and bloody battles for control of Middle East oil. Today, China has more than half of the world’s lithium refining capacity and produces 79 percent of lithium-ion batteries, compared to just 6.2 percent in the US.
Richardson said that just the day before, she called a Zoom meeting “of the US ambassadors to Argentina and Chile and then also of Livent’s strategy officer.” [Tesla’s US lithium supplier] and also the VP of global operations for Albermarle [the largest US lithium company] to talk about the lithium triangle in Argentina, Bolivia and Chile and the companies and how they are doing and what they see as challenges and things like that in the lithium business. And then the aggressiveness and coercion of the PRC.”
The goal, she said, is “to figure out the issues and take out our opponents.”
The SOUTHCOM commander gave no details on how Washington intends to “push” China out of a region and strategic industry where it has already emerged as the dominant economic power.
The fact that it is the Pentagon’s regional commander who is calling a meeting of ambassadors and corporate executives to discuss how China can wrest control of Latin America’s lithium reserves provides the answer. US imperialism is turning to expanding militarism to offset the erosion of its global economic hegemony. It sees Latin America as a target for imperialist plunder and a key battleground on the road to World War III, even as it seeks to establish and consolidate its control over the region’s armed forces to counter the growing threat of social revolutions across the region.