United States Announces IV Fleet Resumes Operations Amid South American Suspicions

In a region where there are virtually no terrorist groups seeking to attack the United States, or deployment or even development of nuclear arsenals, it is time for a civilian and not a military approach to define and lead U.S. foreign relations in Latin America. The announcement of the IV Fleet setting sail does not represent any major change in U.S. military activity, but it does reveal how the U.S. government’s approach to Latin America can be an element of division in the hemisphere.

Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Gary Roughead announced on April 24 the re-deployment of the IV Fleet.1 He said that "[r]e-establishing the Fourth Fleet recognizes the immense importance of maritime security in the southern part of the Western Hemisphere, and signals our support and interest in the civil and military maritime services in Central and South America." Effective July 1, the new command structure will have operational responsibility for U.S. Navy ships that operate in the SouthCom area (see picture)—one of the six regions of the world that the Pentagon divides into unified commands.

SouthCom map

Map of Central and South America as covered by SouthCom, the division used by the U.S. military to control operations in the hemisphere.

Spokespersons for the U.S. Navy affirm that the announcement of the IV Fleet’s redeployment does not imply new military assets to the region. "There has been some misperception that with the re-establishment of U.S. Fourth Fleet comes more ships to the region. In Navy culture the word ‘fleet’ can mean two things—a ‘physical’ fleet of ships or an ‘organization’ staffed to fulfill a planning and coordination mission. U.S. Fourth Fleet will be an organizational fleet," clarified Lieutenant Joe "Myers" Vasquez, U.S. Navy Public Affairs Officer, U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command (SouthCom).2 The new organizational structure thus implies an additional duty for U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command headquartered in Mayport, Florida. The IV Fleet will concentrate efforts on the fight against illicit trafficking and providing humanitarian aid and disaster relief, officials say.

But leaders from South America are not convinced. They point to the poor response of the U.S. government when Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans as reason to question the official explanation. "The United States must have some information above and beyond what we know, which made them make this decision," said Venezuelan Rear Admiral César Augusto Manzano.3 The June headline for Le Monde Diplomatique‘s Brazil edition states "The Empire Strikes Back: Worried about the leftward drift of Latin American governments and the discovery of formidable oil reserves and abundance of natural resources, the United States restarts its IV Fleet."4 While Le Monde‘s headlines may appear as fear-mongering since no new military forces have been earmarked for deployment, it does call attention to suspicions that increased U.S. military presence aims at economic control over natural resources and political control to rein in South American efforts to chart a course less oriented to the United States. The Union of South American Nations (Unión de las Naciones del Sur—UNASUR) symbolizes this latest attempt.

U.S. Hegemony on the Wane and a United South on the Rise?

South America’s relationship with the rest of the world has changed substantially in recent years. While the United States has been preoccupied with the War on Terrorism and focusing its attention mainly in the Middle East, South America has increased its trade relations with the rising economies of Asia. The Council on Foreign Relations recently released a report saying the United States is losing hegemony in the region and new direction is needed.5 The Council’s Task Force on Latin America bluntly states this new reality: "If there was an era of U.S. hegemony in Latin America, it is over."

But in the same breath, the authors of the report say that as a region Latin America has "never mattered more" to the United States, since it is the largest supplier of oil, one of the fasting growing trading partners, and largest source of immigrants. The Task Force concludes with recommendations, stressing that the United States should focus on "common areas of concern—poverty and inequality, public security, migration, and energy security—and recognize that Latin America’s fate is largely in Latin America’s hands."

The latest move toward building continental unity was announced on May 23. The presidents of 12 South American nations gathered in Brasilia, the capital of Brazil, to sign on to UNASUR. This follows up on efforts begun in December 2004 when the region’s countries pledged to create the South American Community of Nations. The latest gathering may seem like yet another attempt at unifying under a new name, alongside Mercosur, Andean Community, and Pacific Arc, to name a few. However, the new institution will be recognized as a formal international organization and will create a stronger forum to work toward integration among the 12 countries of South America, home to 360 million people and a gross domestic product (GDP) of US$2.5 trillion (in 2006 dollars).

UNASUR pledges to work on developing a common customs union, currency, and passport. As outlined in previous agreements, the Union plans to establish executive headquarters in Ecuador, a South American parliament in Bolivia, and the Bank of the South in Venezuela. The twist on this effort is Brazil’s proposal to create a South American Defense Council comprised of the region’s ministers of defense. Celso Amorin, Brazil’s minister of foreign affairs, said that the purpose of the council is to provide a "space for dialogue between the militaries of the countries of the region in order to formulate policies and prevent conflicts."

Centrifugal Forces in South American Unity

The initial steps of the organization demonstrate the challenges ahead. The first two candidates for the rotating secretary-general of UNASUR turned down the offer before Chile’s President Michelle Bachelet accepted the post. The position was first offered to Colombia’s President Alvaro Uribe who refused because no other member of the union would recognize the National Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (Fuerzos Armados Revolucionarios de Colombia-FARC) as a "terrorist group." The other regional leaders follow the United Nations’ denomination of the group as a "belligerent force."

Ecuador’s ex-President Rodrigo Borjas also turned down the secretary-general position because his proposal to accelerate the merger of Mercosur with the Andean Community fell on deaf ears. UNASUR was legally constituted despite its political problems concerning who would be the first leader. The next bump in the road was Colombia’s differences with its neighbors. The recent intrusion of the Colombian military on Ecuador’s soil to attack a FARC encampment revealed both the need for such a forum and the difficulties of forming it. An editorial in Colombia’s El Pais said that Uribe has resisted the idea of the Defense Council since it would provide another space for Hugo Chavez and his allies to take advantage of South American solidarity to denounce the United States and to create military bodies for political ends.6

To avoid ruptures at the outset of UNASUR, members decided to create a working group to analyze the creation of the Defense Council for 90 days. Both El Pais and Brazil’s business daily Valor Economico consider the Defense Council another useless bureaucracy. But other news media considered its creation an increasing urgency: "If at the beginning the Defense Council seems little more than a forum, this is its most pressing necessity," wrote Brazilian weekly Carta Capital.7 Border disputes continue to be the main source of conflict in the region. Not only did Ecuador (followed by its ally Venezuela) mobilize their forces after the Colombian incursion, but in 1995 Ecuador and Peru exchanged artillery over a border skirmish. Also, there are a number of internal conflicts, besides Colombia’s decades-long civil war, such as separatist movements in Bolivia and dissidence in Venezuela. Nelson Jobim, Brazil’s Minister of Defense, who turned down U.S. offers to participate in the Defense Council, foresees its mission as coordinating disaster relief efforts and peacekeeping missions.

If the nations’ leaders finally are able to breathe life into the South American Defense Council and obtain the active participation of all the member countries, it could achieve two long-desired objectives. First, while South American unity remains far removed from the degree of institutionalization of its model entity—the European Union—at least the region will have achieved what the African Union has accomplished in policing its area. Second, instead of relying on the Organization of American States (OAS), seen as dominated by the United States, the continent’s leaders will have formal space to resolve internal conflicts and define a common agenda.

U.S. Strategic Posturing in South America

South America’s growing political independence as a region raises the question: what is the United States’ role in the area? To answer, first it is necessary to define U.S. interests. According to Lieutenant Vasquez of SouthCom, "Thirty-eight percent of U.S. global trade is with countries in the Western Hemisphere and we import 34% of our oil from the region. Two-thirds of ships that transit the Panama Canal are bound for U.S. ports." SouthCom’s priorities also include counter-terrorism, counternarcotics, and engagement of the region’s militaries via joint training exercises. Secondary missions are arms control and non-proliferation, humanitarian and civic assistance, search and rescue, and disaster relief.8

In this scheme, re-activating the IV Fleet would seem to respond to objectives aimed at keeping sea lanes open for trade and closed to illicit trafficking. "The stature of a Fleet sends the right signal even to those that are not our greatest supporters," Admiral Jim Stevenson told a Bloggers Roundtable.9 One scenario he depicted in which the IV Fleet could be called into action is if the Cuban people do not accept the leadership of Raul Castro’s leadership and decide to flee in mass—thus repeating the Mariel Boatlift of 1980. "If you don’t have the capability to rescue these people, you have a disaster on your hands. I don’t think anyone can sit around and watch hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people die at sea," the Admiral said.

U.S. presence in South America continues to grate on the nerves of nationalists who fear that the United States’ primary interest is access to natural resources. The most important and recent relevant fact was Brazil’s announcement of large oil deposits discovered in the Tupi field off its southeast coast, estimated to produce 5-8 billion barrels. Haroldo Lima, the head of the National Petroleum Agency (Agencia Nacional do Petroleo), boasted that the country’s oil reserves could reach 33 billion barrels and possibly much more, a huge jump from proven reserves of 12 billion barrels as of last year.10

Minister of Defense Jobim said that the IV Fleet will not enter Brazilian waters without authorization: "Here they do not enter," he told military authorities. But the question of how far Brazilian sovereignty extends still remains an open question. The Convention of Montego Bay establishes the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) at 200 nautical miles but could be extended to 300 if the continental shelf extends outward. Both Brazil and the United States are signatories of the convention but the United States has yet to ratify it. Lima stoked nationalist fears when he said last May that the United States has repeatedly violated the EEZ. But U.S. Admiral James Stavridis countered that the U.S. Navy indeed does respect it.11

Despite fears from Brazilian nationalists, Brazil-U.S. relations have tightened lately, especially on issues of energy security. Brazil’s state-owned oil giant Petrobras continues to rely on a number of foreign sub-contractors, including Halliburton, but more important is the recent biofuels partnership between George W. Bush and Brazil’s President Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva. The agreement pledges to expand technical assistance to Central American and Caribbean countries to develop the use of ethanol. Also, Brazil has never pressured foreign investors to renegotiate contracts as have the governments of Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador.

The IV Fleet is designed to improve the administrative and command structure of the U.S. Navy in SouthCom’s joint operations with other countries in the theater. The most important event is the Partnership of the Americas, a six-month naval deployment in the Caribbean, Central, and South America. The partnership includes a number of multinational exercises carried out by U.S. forces with the region’s militaries. The biggest naval operation of the partnership is UNITAS Atlantic & Pacific, held since 1959, which includes two annual maritime scenario training exercises aimed at enhancing security cooperation and improving coalition operations. Other naval exercises include Teamwork South, Siforex, Community Relations, New Horizons, Counter-Drug Operations, Panamax, and Disaster Relief (see endnote 8).

U.S. Military Presence as a Continental Unifier or Divider

With so many different military exercises held in willing partnership with South American militaries, the restart of IV Fleet without any ships and equipment may seem like a minor development. Are those fearful of U.S. encroachments just crying wolf? But within SouthCom’s region, U.S. naval operations complement the ring of U.S. military bases. These include Comapala, El Salvador; Manta, Ecuador; Guantánamo, Cuba; Atuba, Curacao; and Comayuga, Honduras. The U.S. forces have also undertaken training exercises at the Mariscal Estigarribia airport in Paraguay12 although a recent look at the alleged U.S. base in Paraguay discovered a nearly deserted airstrip.13

The formally established bases in the region have been more active—the most polemical with regard to U.S.-Latin American relations is Manta. Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa refused to renew the base’s contract that expires in 2009, so the United States is discussing with Colombian authorities to move it to La Guajira, near the Venezuelan border (see endnote 4).

Moving the base to La Guajira would undoubtedly inflame tensions between Venezuela and Colombia and by extension, the United States. Uribe claims that Chavez supports the FARC, while the Venezuelan government characterizes Colombia as a puppet of the United States. In fact, the Latin American press considers Colombia’s attack on Ecuadorian soil to be based on information from U.S. intelligence services.

The Chavez government has reacted angrily to the U.S. bases surrounding Venezuela and U.S. generals listing "radical populism" a major new security threat.14 One dangerous scenario (outright war would be worse) is an acceleration of the alleged arms race occurring in South America. Former Brazilian President Jose Sarney and other regional leaders warn about Venezuela increasing its military strength. "If [Venezuela] truly becomes a military power, an arms race in Latin America will ensue. It will lead to a strategic disequilibrium on the continent," Senator Sarney cautioned.15

Based on percentage of GDP, however, Venezuela is the Andean country that spends the least on defense at 1.39%, with Ecuador in the top spot at 3.14%. But other sources claim that Venezuela is spending billions of dollars in recent years that are not included in the regular budget. According to Military Power Review, which measures military power in terms of brute measures of military hardware, Brazil continues to occupy the top spot in all of South America, and Venezuela the fifth, followed by Colombia.16 One problem according to this ranking is that it does not account for the fact that much of Brazil’s equipment is near obsolete, while Colombia has been receiving the latest military hardware from the U.S. government as part of Plan Colombia.

Analysts continue to debate on how to measure military power in Latin America, but all agree that if a "strategic imbalance" exists in the hemisphere, it continues to favor the United States. SouthCom’s communications officers did not respond to requests concerning its operating budget, but documents available on the internet put it around US$170 million for 2008.17 This amount does not include military aid. Oddly enough, since the end of the Cold War when U.S. economic aid was more than the amount of military aid, now the two are growing closer. In 2005, Congress appropriated $921.07 million in economic aid and at least $859.69 million in military aid.18

The Pentagon continues to lead U.S. foreign policy in the region. For all of the Pentagon’s talk of partnership with South American countries, the U.S. Navy’s presence felt more ominous than amicable when its warships docked in Rio de Janeiro last April. The only ones celebrating were the city’s brothel owners, who registered a marked increase in business.

End Notes

  1. U.S. Navy, "Navy Re-Establishes U.S. Fourth Fleet," Press Release: April 24, 2008, http://www.southcom.mil/appssc/factFiles.php?id=55 [accessed June 16, 2008].
  2. Lieutenant Joe "Myers" Vasquez, U.S. Navy Public Affairs Officer, U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command (SouthCom), (email exchange: joe.m.vasquez@navy.mil).
  3. María Daniela Espinoza, "Decisión de EEUU de reactivar IV Flota genera inquietud," El Universal, http://buscador.eluniversal.com/2008/05/25/pol_art_decision-de-eeuu-de_872613.shtml [accessed June 16, 2008].
  4. Le Monde Diplomatique Brasil, No. 11. June 2008.
  5. Council on Foreign Relations (2008), U.S.-Latin America Relations: A New Direction for a New Reality, INDEPENDENT TASK FORCE REPORT No. 60, Chairs: Charlene Barshefsky and James T. Hill.
  6. El Pais, http://www.elpais.com.co/historico/may232008/OPN/editorial.html [accessed June 16, 2008].
  7. Antonio Luiz M.C. Costa, "Vamos Olhar Para o Sul," Carta Capital, No. 468, 4 de Junho de 2008.
  8. For more details of http://www.cusns.navy.mil/Main%20Pages/ops.htm and of SouthCom’s missions and objectives, see "Theater Security Operations" http://www.southcom.mil/AppsSC/pages/theaterSecurity.php and "Exercises/Operations" [accessed June 15, 2008].
  9. Bloggers Roundtable, http://www.southcom.mil/appssc/factFiles.php?id=55 [June 16, 2008].
  10. The Economist, "What lies beneath," April 16, 2008, http://www.economist.com/daily/news/displaystory.cfm?story_id=11043022&top_story=1 [accessed June 23, 2008].
  11. Iuri Dantas, "EUA respeitam mar do Brasil, diz comandante," Folha de S. Paulo, 16/5/2008.
  12. Sam Logan and Matthew Flynn, "U.S. Military Moves in Paraguay Rattle Regional Relations" (Silver City, NM: International Relations Center, Dec. 14, 2005).
  13. Luiz Carlos Azenha, "Poeira e consipiração," Carta Capital, No. 493, March 25, 2008.
  14. General James T. Hill, United States Army Commander, United States Southern Command Testimony Before House Armed Services Committee, United States House of Representatives, March 24, 2004, http://www.house.gov/hasc/openingstatementsandpressreleases/108thcongress/04-03-24hill.html.
  15. Maruricio Dias Carta, "Rosa-dos-Ventos," Carta Capital, No. 495, May 12, 2008.
  16. Mlitary Power Review, http://www.militarypower.com.br/ranking.htm [accessed June 23, 2008].
  17. Lt Col Juan Berrios, "Security Assistance Executive Conference," USSouthCom J5 Unclassified, http://www.usasac.army.mil/SAEC06/SAECBriefings06/PDF/05%20-%20Southcom%20(LTC%20Berrios).pdf [accessed 8 July 2008].
  18. Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), Blurring the Lines: Trends in U.S. military programs with Latin America, Sept. 2004.




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