Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on Tuesday cast Venezuela’s ongoing wave of 1 million refugees fleeing across its borders so far as a destabilizing, anti-democratic force in South America, but he stopped short of offering military assistance to what he defined as a regional crisis.
“We stand with Brazil and others in the region against this instability that is crossing borders, just as we stand with the people of Venezuela, in the midst of the tragedy forced on them by a power-hungry, oppressive regime that forces refugees into Brazil, Colombia, and elsewhere,” Mattis said at Brazil’s War College in the first leg of a four-nation tour to promote closer ties with South America’s four leading civilian controlled militaries — those of Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Colombia.
The Pentagon has mostly avoided responding to the outpouring of Venezuelans fleeing food and medicine shortages in the nation led by President Nicolás Maduro.
Instead, the United States has provided more than $60 million in overall assistance, something defense officials have emphasized particularly since President Donald Trump announced last summer that he was not ”ruling out a military option” to solve the Venezuelan crisis.
Later, en route to Buenos Aires, Mattis told reporters that despite his discussions on the topic with South American defense ministers, the Venezuelan crisis is “not a military matter.”
“The regime’s actions in Caracas are of concern all across the hemisphere from Ottawa to Buenos Aires. This is not what we stand for in the Americas; we stand for democracy, freedom,“ he said. “The resolution of this is ... to get back to democratic principles inside Venezuela.“
In his speech, the retired Marine general who has fought alongside international coalitions in Afghanistan and the Middle East, continued his support of a regional assistance approach to the humanitarian crisis, hailing Brazil’s “prudent response to Venezuela’s destabilizing actions” through a regional response in the so-called Lima Group and through the Organization of American States.
At the beginning of his five-day, four-nation tour to strengthen ties with the South American military leaders, Mattis declared the U.S.-Venezuelan relationship “probably weaker than ever.”
This is his first visit to South America, including during his 41-year career as a Marine, and with Brazil in the midst of a polarizing presidential campaign of about a dozen candidates, he cast the trip as a listening tour.
One candidate, Jair Bolsonaro, models himself after Trump and recently announced that he chose a just-retired general as his running mate. On the other extreme, former President Luiz Ignacio “Lula” da Silva, a leftist, is so far the Workers Party nominee, seeking court approval to run while serving 12 years for corruption.
Mattis’s remarks mostly steered clear of internal politics but he told reporters joining him on the trip that the Western Hemisphere’s democracies can sometimes be “very raucous,” including “our own right now.”
”But the bottom line is, that’s what a democracy is. That’s how people get their voices heard. And it’s a system that listens to its people in Brazil,” he said contrasting it with “the Cuban or Venezuelan model that penalizes people for speaking out.”
To a question at the war college speech from a Brazilian colonel on the proper place of former military officer in politics, Mattis pointedly said he had no role in the Trump campaign, but accepted the civilian post as defense secretary, after Congress passed a routine waiver, and out of a sense of national duty. Some in the war college audience squirmed, possibly in light of retired Brazilian Army Gen. Antonio Hamilton Mourao’s role as the No. 2 in the Bolsonaro campaign, when Mattis warned the audience that neither retired nor active duty military should participate in election campaigns.
To the war college students, he offered what he called “ a few observations from an old U.S. Marine,” including that the Americas are populated by “a rowdy bunch ... who have fought fiercely for our freedoms.”
“Where I come from in the American West, we have a saying: ‘Ride for the brand,’” said Mattis, who is from Washington state. “It means loyalty only counts - and certainly counts most - when there are a 100 reasons not to be loyal. You do this daily, by imposing reason over impulse in extremely hard circumstances, and so much rests upon your shoulders in terms of stability in our hemisphere.”
Mattis appealed to them as fellow brothers in arms.
“Our native languages may differ, but four decades of military service has persuaded me that the profession of arms has a language of its own and a way of turning strangers into family. So while I do not know you personally, I do know your character. For you have chosen a path defined by discipline and danger in service to the land you love and the principles we share – principles which underpin a prosperous, collaborative, and secure hemisphere.”
In his first stop in the capital Brasilia and also here in Rio, Mattis invoked an unambiguous period of partnership in U.S.-Brazilian history — fighting on the same side against fascism in World War II, notably with troops fighting in the mountains of Italy — to emphasize a common bond between the U.S. and Brazilian militaries.
Brazil, Mattis noted, was “the first South American country to send an expeditionary force across the ocean, led by officers who had trained alongside the U.S. Army at Fort Leavenworth.” To commemorate that chapter, Brazil Defense Minister Joaquim Silva e Luna gave his U.S. counterpart a collection of World War II military uniform patches. After his speech Mattis visited a monument to Brazil’s World War II dead, just Iike Leon Panetta did in 2012 after his war college speech.
“We seek to strengthen a cooperative, strategic partnership that is transparent, trustworthy, and steady because we see
a bright future ahead – for Brazil and for our hemisphere,” Mattis said. “We see this future reflected in Brazil’s demonstrated global leadership, from demining missions in Central and South America to peacekeeping missions in Haiti, Lebanon, and Africa.”