GW strike group to train in Caribbean.

The aircraft carrier George Washington strike group moved into the Caribbean this week for two months of training and joint military exercises, in what the military hopes will be a show of its commitment to the region.

[A]nalysts say the show of force sends a strong signal to Chavez and other Latin American leaders — as well as to China, which has a growing presence in the region — about the U.S. commitment there.

The deployment is part of Operation Partnership of the Americas and will also focus on threats such as drug and human trafficking, according to the Miami-based U.S. Southern Command, which oversees military activities in Latin America.

The training is standard, but the United States could have picked several other areas to conduct the exercises.

Brig. Gen. Kenneth J. Glueck Jr., the Southern Command’s chief of staff, called the tour “a good opportunity for us to touch base with our partner countries,” adding, “there’s no other symbol of American power like the carrier that conveys our commitment to the region.”

Ships in the strike group, led by the nearly 1,100-foot-long Nimitz-class carrier, made their first port stops Monday and Tuesday. The destroyer Stout stopped in Curacao, while the frigate Underwood docked in Cartagena, Colombia.

Although the group has no plans to dock in Venezuela, top officials from the U.S. Embassy in Caracas met Sunday with the head of Southern Command, Gen. Bantz Craddock, aboard the George Washington.

The meeting of Southern Command leaders was a routine quarterly meeting, but the high interest from Venezuela in the deployment prompted the diplomatic participation, according to a source close to the operation who did not want his name used because of the current tension in U.S.-Venezuelan relations.

The carrier will arrive at its first stop in St. Martin on Friday. Other countries on the tour include Honduras, Nicaragua, Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, Curacao, Aruba, St. Kitts.

Daniel Erikson, a Caribbean analyst for the Inter-American Dialogue policy institute said the selection of the Caribbean is important for several reasons.

Since 2002, countries that do not sign an agreement with the United States guaranteeing that its citizens will not be handed over to the International Criminal Court, risk losing millions of dollars in U.S. military support.

In the Caribbean, where a number of the countries have not signed the waiver, many are concerned about future U.S. military support, Erikson said.

“Washington has been trying to figure out ways, without backing down, to show the U.S. is still willing to engage with allies in the region,” he said.

The deployment also sends a signal to China that the United States is fully aware of Beijing’s incursion into the region, Erikson said.

Last March, Craddock testified before Congress that China’s increased presence in Latin America “must not be ignored.” Craddock cited Chinese government statistics showing that in 2004 nearly half of the communist country’s overseas investment was in Latin America.

The Norfolk-based strike group also includes the cruiser Monterey and a 60-plane air wing. The George Washington last deployed to the Persian Gulf in 2004.

[Source: By Laura Wides-Munoz, Navy Times, Aboard the USS George Washington, 11apr06]

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