Exclusive to Power Line: Marco Rubio on the Russian Threat to the Western Hemisphere

Senator Marco Rubio is one of Washington’s leading authorities on Latin America. While most people don’t want to hear much about foreign policy these days, given America’s problems at home, the fact is that years of neglect by the Obama administration have put the U.S. in danger. Some of the threats are perilously close to home, as Senator Rubio explains in this analysis, special to Power Line:

Russia-Cuba Cooperation a Sign of Growing Threats in Latin America

Following the news in recent months has sometimes felt as if we’ve opened a time capsule from the Cold War – when Soviet Union aggression was the norm along with its determination to prop up U.S. adversaries in the Western Hemisphere, most notably the Castro regime in Cuba. Today, Russia under Vladimir Putin has challenged the international order through its unlawful annexation of Crimea and continued provocations against Ukraine. In our own hemisphere, there is growing evidence of Russia’s interest in reconstituting their Cold War-era presence in the region. Just this week, in the wake of Putin’s visit to Havana, reports emerged about Russia’s renewed push to improve intelligence operations in Cuba.

While these Russian actions are concerning in their own right, they are emblematic of a larger problem affecting U.S. interests in the Western Hemisphere. The Obama Administration’s failure to pursue a consistent, meaningful and proactive strategy in Latin America has left a leadership void that not only Russia but also China, Iran, North Korea and others have been able to exploit. In recent years, we’ve seen each of these nations move aggressively to enhance their alliances in the region, and expand their defense and intelligence relationships.

Failing to deal with our adversaries on dangerous threats like these – as well as North Korea’s illicit weapons trafficking alliance with Cuba – will have many consequences that will be felt right here in the Western Hemisphere. For almost six years, the Obama Administration’s neglect of the hemisphere has failed to stem the rise of authoritarianism, the deterioration of democratic order and rampant human rights violations, while emboldening America’s strategic challengers.

The Obama Administration must wake up from its Latin America slumber of the past six years, reinvigorate our alliances, act resolutely when our interests are threatened, and ensure that an emerging foreign policy crisis in Latin America is not left to the next U.S. president to fix. Continuing to ignore this situation, as the Obama Administration has often been inclined to do when threats are starting to emerge, simply won’t make the problem go away. For the sake of America’s interests and the region’s stability, we must rightly elevate Latin America to the level of attention it deserves even as global crises mount.

What would this involve?

In Russia’s case, we cannot wait around for Europe to figure out how to address the situation in Ukraine. The U.S. must lead the way by imposing more far-reaching sectoral sanctions that go further than what has been announced so far, which would send economic shockwaves through the Russian economy and government treasury, increase internal pressure on Putin’s government to change, and deprive him of the funds he needs to bankroll his aggressive foreign policy initiatives. We also need to increase our assistance and support for our allies and partners in Central and Eastern Europe, many of whom face increasing pressure from Moscow.

With regard to Cuba, the U.S. must continue denying the Castro regime access to money it uses to oppress the Cuban people and invest in foreign policy initiatives that actively challenge and undermine U.S. interests. The Obama Administration should roll back the economic benefits it has extended to the Cuban regime, in the form of expanded U.S. travel and remittances, as a meaningful response to the regime’s ongoing unfair imprisonment of an American humanitarian worker, and its violation of multiple United Nations Security Council resolutions banning arms trade with North Korea. Just months after Cuba was chastised by a UN report for its illicit military trade with Pyongyang, news emerged this week of another North Korean ship with an unknown cargo that recently docked in Havana. Additionally, given that Venezuela now plays the lead role that the Soviet Union once did of bankrolling the Castro regime, President Obama should impose sanctions on Maduro regime officials responsible for human rights violations against the Venezuelan people.

More broadly in the Western Hemisphere, the U.S. must strengthen our alliances in the region by finalizing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that includes several Latin American countries, and ensure that other countries in the region with which the United States has signed free trade agreements can quickly join a finalized TPP. We should continue building on hemispheric energy initiatives that will make us less dependent on energy from unreliable oil producing nations like Russia and Venezuela. We must combat drug cartel violence and instability in Central America, and work to expand opportunities for these nations to provide greater opportunities for their people. Part of this requires making sure that the TPP does not leave Central American countries behind, and that we work to strengthen our security relationships with willing partners like Honduras and Guatemala. The U.S. military and U.S. Southern Command should also be free to expand, train and equip missions in the region with the help of more capable regional allies, such as Colombia. Efforts like these will help ensure that the region’s future is shaped by the U.S. and like-minded allies who believe in free enterprise, individual freedoms, the rule of law, and a foreign policy based on peace through strength.

I realize that, especially in recent months, many Americans have grown alarmed by news of growing Russian provocations that remind us of another era we thought had ended when the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union disintegrated. Many Americans see events that are mostly occurring on the other side of the world, particularly in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, and question their impact on us. And they are seeing more evidence of these nations’ increasing presence in our own hemisphere.

As history has always shown – and recent events have reaffirmed – authoritarian governments are never satisfied with dominating only their own people; they seek the weakening and outright conquest of their neighbors, along with growing influence in every corner of the planet. Russia’s renewed interest in our own neighborhood as well as China’s increasing activity show this to be the case.

The Obama Administration must wake up before it’s too late, and these emerging problems in our region become even bigger nightmares. It’s not too late, but the current administration no longer has the luxury of ignoring them long enough for them to become someone else’s problems.

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