Few in Washington would have predicted until recently that the Caribbean would become a focal point of so many national-security challenges for the United States. But a series of recent events in Haiti, Cuba, and Venezuela, on top of long-standing political and humanitarian crises in each country, has propelled the region into the wider security conversation.
What is largely missing from the national conversation about these challenges, however, is the fact that multiple U.S. adversaries have established a political and economic foothold in the latter two, and the former is extremely vulnerable to the same type of exploitation.
There have been multiple concerning security developments coming out of Haiti of late. This year, the July 7 assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse plunged the country into further chaos following an earthquake that killed nearly 3,000 people, and the arrival of Hurricane Grace immediately after.
Then in late September, U.S. special envoy to Haiti Daniel Foote resigned in protest of mass deportations of Haitian migrants at a time when the country was grappling with civil unrest on the heels of Moïse’s assassination, compounded with spiking economic insecurity after both natural disasters. In October, political turmoil in Haiti came to the forefront of the news again after 17 U.S. and Canadian missionaries were kidnapped and held hostage by the powerful 400 Mawozo gang in Port-au-Prince.
When Washington looks at Haiti, it increasingly sees migration as the most urgent security issue. But despite what politicians and the public fear migration from Haiti may bring—the proliferation of drug trafficking, organized crime, etc.—what should most concern Washington is the vulnerability of Haiti to influence from U.S. adversaries.
At least for now, our adversaries are not intervening in Haiti. However, the instability driving much of the migration from Haiti to the U.S. and other countries in the region is exactly what actors such as Russia, China, and Iran would look to exploit.
That exploitation has been playing out in Venezuela for years. Russia, China, and Iran have all increased their involvement in that country’s economic affairs, and they all have been establishing closer diplomatic ties. The United States has struggled to respond to the dire humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, and to the authoritarian rule of Nicolás Maduro that caused it. But its rivals have accepted it at face value in order to take advantage of Venezuela’s vast oil reserves, the largest in the world.
The petroleum industry has been the country’s insurance against total collapse, despite qualifying as a failed state by most metrics. It makes the most sense for the Maduro government to pursue any opportunities with countries that consider its rule legitimate that could facilitate more oil exports.
Russia has presented serious security risks to the U.S. in Venezuela before, and the threat has never completely disappeared. Russian defense involvement in Venezuela seemed to peak in 2019, when Moscow sent fighter jets to provide defense support to the Maduro government as Caracas’ tensions with Washington were heating up and the Trump administration seemed to be discussing regime change.
This year, Maduro announced that Venezuela would be entering into a ten-year partnership with Russia that would establish closer ties between their respective health, finance, education, energy, food and security sectors. “We are demonstrating the great strength of the comprehensive, working and cooperative relations that exist between Russia and Venezuela,” said Maduro.
Similarly, Iran just entered into a two-decade economic cooperation agreement with the Maduro government, and the leaders of both countries are scheduled to meet in Tehran by the end of the year. Iran is also in an “oil swap” agreement with Venezuela, where condensate from the former is bartered for crude from the latter to alleviate pressure on oil production created by sanctions on both countries.
However, the influence of China in Venezuela’s economy runs the deepest by far. China has been gaining economic influence throughout Latin America in the last two decades, but its role in Venezuela is outsized in comparison to the rest of the region, which the United States needs to remain wary of when Venezuela is so close to the U.S. mainland.
Beijing has loaned the Maduro regime around $60 billion, more money than it has lent any other country. China continues to loan Venezuela money while turning a blind eye to the virtual collapse of the economy itself. It is highly unlikely that Venezuela will ever repay those loans, essentially keeping it in debt to China in perpetuity. As long as China has access to Venezuelan oil, this dynamic will sustain itself.
Though it is far from the imminent risk to national security it was during the Cold War, Cuba has appeared in the news lately for brutal government crackdowns on opposition protestors. Simultaneously, Cuban leadership has become more outspoken in its criticism of the U.S. than it has been in many years. Leading up to nationwide protests planned for November 15th, Cuban president Miguel Díaz-Canel has accused the United States of organizing and financing the protestors, stating that they were part of “a plan orchestrated by the exterior.”
This rhetoric is a concerning echo of similar statements made in Russia throughout the last two decades. Since assuming the Russian presidency in 2000, Vladimir Putin has accused the West of attempting to sabotage the country’s return to its previous great power status.
Russia has not remained uninvolved in Cuba, either. In the wake of the protest and the Havana government’s criticism of the U.S., Moscow has indicated that it plans to “review the state of bilateral relations” with the island. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov was also sent to Cuba on behalf of Vladimir Putin. His office issued a statement on October 13th pledging a humanitarian aid package to Cuba, which it referred to as a “strategic partner.”
According to the statement, “Russia delivered several batches of humanitarian aid to Cuba during the pandemic. These are food products, as well as basic necessities and medicines, artificial lung ventilators, oxygen stations and other items."
Migration And The Coast Guard
Most of what the U.S. public has heard about the Caribbean in recent months is likely related to migration. This is a consistent theme in the domestic political landscape, whether we are discussing migration from Mexico, Central America, or any other country. Migration receives the most media coverage and the most attention from policymakers because of the issue’s polarizing impact in U.S. national politics.
There is no doubt that the displacement of millions of people from multiple countries in the Caribbean will provoke a heightened presence of the U.S. Coast Guard. Increasing USCG prioritization of apprehending migrants, particularly from Haiti, would mean the deployment of more Coast Guard cutters. The Coast Guard Cutter Diligence, for example, is just one of seven Coast Guard cutters that have patrolled the Caribbean in recent months to apprehend migrants.
Diligence alone apprehended 600 Haitian migrants during its 54-day tour. According to Commander Jared Trusz, Diligence’s commanding officer: “In response to a challenging mission, they supported national security objectives by deterring illegal maritime migration, while ensuring the safety of life-at-sea. The crew provided humanitarian care for those interdicted and treated all migrants with dignity and respect as we safely returned them to Haiti.”
Cutters like Diligence are also constantly monitoring the area for drug trafficking and illegal fishing, and conducting search and rescue operations. There is no doubt that the cutters’ role is critical in deterring any form of organized crime that may be carried out at sea.
However, Washington should be more wary of the long-term threats presented by its great power rivals gaining footholds in vulnerable countries in its own traditional sphere of influence. It should certainly be wary of focusing on migration to the point where it loses sight of the long-term geopolitical threats on its doorstep.
Where migration could become a turning point of future great power tensions in the Caribbean is if Russia decides to “weaponize” migration there, thus replicating current tensions on the Polish-Belarusian border, which it more than likely had a hand in. Belarus, whose government is now essentially absorbed by Russia, has been accused of funneling refugees to neighbors such as Poland and Lithuania in what the European Union has termed a “hybrid war.”
Ultimately, it is not difficult to imagine that Russia, in a scenario where its influence in the Caribbean spreads, would weaponize migration in the region as a way to inflame political divisions in the United States and further undermine its democracy and relations with countries in the Western Hemisphere.
Sarah White, M.A., is Senior Research Analyst and Editor at the Lexington Institute. The views expressed are the author's own. The views expressed are the author's own.