WASHINGTON (AFP) — The US Navy has raised the profile of its operations in Latin America, reviving the US Fourth Fleet after nearly a 60-year slumber.
And some, beginning with Cuba's Fidel Castro, are asking why.
The ailing Castro raised the question in a column published Monday in the Communist Party newspaper Granma, suggesting it signaled a return to gunboat diplomacy.
"The aircraft carriers and nuclear bombs that threaten our countries are used to sow terror and death, but not to combat terrorism and illegal activities," he wrote on Monday.
Evo Morales, president of landlocked Bolivia, called it "the Fourth Fleet of intervention" in an interview with Cuban television.
The US Navy insists the re-establishment of the fleet is only an administrative measure that assigns no permanent naval assets to US forces in Latin America.
US warships and submarines will come under the fleet's control as they pass into the Caribbean and waters off the coast of Central and South America, the navy says.
The move also puts the US naval command for the region, which is headquartered in Mayport, Florida, directly under the chief of US naval operations, positioning it to compete bureaucratically for assets and resources, officials and analysts say.
Unlike the other US fleets, which are led by three star admirals, the Fourth Fleet will be led by a two star, Rear Admiral Joseph Kernan, when it goes into operation July 1.
Re-establishing the Fourth Fleet in itself is largely symbolic, analysts say.
Rear Admiral James Stevenson, the current commander of US naval forces in the region, said it "sends the right signal, even to the people that you know aren't necessarily our greatest supporters."
But what is the signal?
"On the one hand in the region there are those who make the argument, "Uh, Oh, here we go again," said Frank Mora, a professor at the National War College.
"The United States' obsession with Venezuela, Cuba and other things indicates they are going to use more military force, going to use that instrument more often," he said.
The opposite view, one that Mora said he shared, is "this is not about the United States trying to use this military instrument to invade or cooerce any country, but to actually work together with other countries to deal with common threats and challenges."
The United States has watched with concern as leftists have been elected to power in a string of Latin American countries, sometimes with an assist from oil-rich Venezuela and its vehemently anti-American President Hugo Chavez.
Venezuela's acquisition of high performance fighter aircraft, attack helicopters, and diesel submarines also have raised flags for the US military.
But since becoming head of the US Southern Command in 2006, Admiral James Stavridis has taken a soft power approach to the region, pushing exercises, port visits and humanitarian missions to better US relations.
An amphibious assault ship, the USS Boxer, is currently working its way down the Pacific coast of Central America and South America with doctors, dentists and engineers to work on community health care and construction projects.
The USS Kearsarge, another amphibious assault ship, will deploy from August through November on a similar humanitarian mission with stops in six countries in the Caribbean and South America.
The aircraft carrier USS George Washington made a port visit in Rio de Janeiro at the end of April, and took part in exercises with the Brazilian and Argentine navies.
"This doesn't have to be seen as some kind of deterrence, or as threatening things for countries. That's not the intent," said Jay Cope, a retired army colonel and former chief of staff at the US Southern Command.
Stavridis' aim is broader than that, he said.
"Maybe once upon a time, back in the Cold War era, we liked to be able to think of this as sort of our backyard. The fact is today that is really a bad way to look at this region. It's not our backyard.
"We have got to compete with other countries of this world for our relationships with the countries of this hemisphere," he said.
Peter Hakim, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, said the muted US response in March when Venezuela and Colombia nearly went to war over a raid against leftist guerrillas in Ecuador "suggests that the whole notion of a backyard is gone really."
"Is it because the US now recognizes Latin America is more mature, that it can deal with its problems on its own, and that it's giving it space to do so? "Or is it that basically that the US doesn't care right now, it just doesn't feel threatened by all this? It's impossible to know at this point," he said.
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