SOUTHCOM commander describes U.S. military readiness in Latin America and Caribbean NPR's Ailsa Chang speaks with SOUTHCOM Commander Gen. Laura Richardson about U.S. military readiness and cooperation in the Caribbean and Latin America and the challenges posed by China's influence.

SOUTHCOM commander describes U.S. military readiness in Latin America and Caribbean

SOUTHCOM commander describes U.S. military readiness in Latin America and Caribbean

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NPR's Ailsa Chang speaks with SOUTHCOM Commander Gen. Laura Richardson about U.S. military readiness and cooperation in the Caribbean and Latin America and the challenges posed by China's influence.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

This month, the Senate is expected to pass a crucial bill despite the fact that it has turned into a bit of a political football. We're talking about the National Defense Authorization Act for the 2024 fiscal year. It narrowly passed the House along party lines last week due to Republican-led amendments that blocked Pentagon funding related to abortion rights and gender-affirming care. But there is a lot more in that bill. And today, we're going to focus on threats to national security not that far from home.

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LAURA RICHARDSON: Last year, I testified before this committee and stated this region, our shared neighborhood, is under assault from a host of cross-cutting, transboundary challenges that directly threaten our homeland. This is still true today and is a call to action.

CHANG: That warning came from four-star Army Gen. Laura Richardson, the current leader of the U.S. Southern Command, or SOUTHCOM. It's one of the regional combatant commands in the military tasked with protecting U.S. interests. She was testifying on the 2024 defense funding bill, and she joins me now to talk more about those threats that she cited. Gen. Richardson, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

RICHARDSON: Well, thank you. It is my pleasure to be here this morning.

CHANG: Well, it is our pleasure to have you. So just real quick, first, how would you describe what the mission is for SOUTHCOM and what your role is like in Latin America and in the Caribbean?

RICHARDSON: So it's my honor to be the commander of U.S. Southern Command, and we're responsible for contingency planning, operations, security cooperation with our partner nations in Central America, South America and the Caribbean. And so this region is very important and so close to our homeland. And the goal is to keep this Western Hemisphere free, secure and prosperous for the most part.

CHANG: I want to focus on the themes of your recent testimony from that hearing that we referred to at the top of the interview because so much of that testimony from you focused on China and its investment and influence in both Latin America and the Caribbean. Tell us what you see as China's main goals in zeroing in on these regions.

RICHARDSON: It looks to be investment, but I really call it extraction of the People's Republic of China. And when you have a communist country that's spreading its tentacles across the globe so far away from its homeland and investing in all of the regions and all of the globe's critical infrastructure, it just makes you question why. When you have the largest buildup of conventional and nuclear forces in mainland China over the past few decades, why are they so intent upon investing and look like they're investing across the globe?

CHANG: Let me ask you to connect the dots for us. Tell me why you see this economic investment by China - this focus on these particular regions, Latin America and the Caribbean, as a direct national security threat to the U.S.

RICHARDSON: Yeah. So these are state-owned enterprises owned by a communist government, and that usage of those facilities could be flipped for (inaudible) use or military application. And so that's my concern. And so that's why, when there's nobody else there to invest, they bring all the instruments of national power, and they're able to do that as a communist country to look like they're investing in the region.

CHANG: And we're talking about investment and influence in regions that aren't that far away from U.S. borders.

RICHARDSON: That's right. And so when you have countries that are very desperate for investment, and they're in the seat - these administrations are in the seat generally one term of four years. And they're working on a stopwatch, not a calendar. And some of our processes from team USA are a little slow, so I've been working very, very hard with all my teammates and the whole of government to speed up these processes so we can have a free and secure and prosperous hemisphere that we're a part of - partnering with our allies and partners as part of team democracy. And that's really what we're working really hard for in U.S. Southern Command.

CHANG: I have specifically heard you talk about protecting democracy in those regions - that you believe that China has been trying to advance its own, as you put it, brand of authoritarianism. I understand the concern about not supporting authoritarianism, but the U.S. does continue to buy oil from Venezuela, which many would describe as an authoritarian country. So when it comes to countries that seem to want to deepen their economic and security ties with China and other countries, how is the U.S. trying to deter that in these regions?

RICHARDSON: Well, the way I look at it is you don't turn away. You get in there, and you work to work with that nation because, if you turn away from a nation, then it will be filled by the void and generally by a void that we don't want it to be filled by. And so we have to continue to figure out how to work with all of these nations that are so close to the homeland and to push democracy with like-minded democracies and show how democracy can deliver for these populations.

And in terms of the exercises that we bring together - over 25 partner nations in some cases - so we have the longest maritime exercise ongoing right now in Colombia. Colombia is the host, and we have 26 ships. We've got 14 helicopters, 20 aircraft, over 7,000 personnel participating in this. So we bring like-minded democracies together. We operate together. We share interoperability. We share information for the free, secure and prosperous hemisphere because this hemisphere really matters. And proximity matters to our homeland.

CHANG: Well, before I let you go, right now, the defense spending bill and military appointments are being held up in Congress over abortion politics. Is that affecting your mission?

RICHARDSON: It affects readiness because I build readiness for the services in the Department of Defense with the missions and the operations that we have and the work that we do with our partner nation militaries and security forces, and so that impacts readiness. And leaders not being able to go into command and change out is really important. I would say that, you know, when we talk about instruments of national power, our leaders being in place - like, you want a General Richardson in place as a four-star. It also goes for our U.S. ambassadors. We are 60 U.S. ambassadors waiting to have a hearing and be confirmed across the globe. I have a shortage in my own region as well, and having our senior diplomat in the seat is extremely important. And so I would just raise that awareness across the board that - with our own nominations in DOD impacting readiness and then also our senior diplomats in the Department of State.

CHANG: We've been speaking with four-star Army Gen. Laura Richardson. She is the combatant commander for the U.S. Southern Command. Thank you so much for joining our show today.

RICHARDSON: Thank you, Ailsa. Have a great day.

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