On Wednesday, while I was in Miami, CIP Intern Alessandra Miraglia attended a House Armed Services Committee hearing. There, the head of U.S. Southern Command, Admiral James Stavridis, gave his annual "Posture Statement" about the security situation in Latin America and the Caribbean. He then answered questions from the assembled members of Congress.
The admiral’s prepared testimony is available here as a PDF file; Ms. Miraglia’s thorough and quite interesting notes are below.
The commander in charge of U.S. military operations in Central America, South America and the Caribbean, Admiral James Stavridis, testified on Wednesday March 21 before the House Armed Services Committee about “the Fiscal Year 2008 National Defense Authorization Budget Request.” Also on the panel were General James E. Cartwright, the Chief of U.S. Strategic Command, General Norton A. Schwartz, USAF Commander from the U.S. Transportation Command, and Admiral Timothy J. Keating, U.S. Commander for NORAD and USNORTHCOM.
Committee Chairman Ike Skelton’s (D-Missouri) opening statement:
“Although the challenges which we face in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere consume much of the energy, resources, and attention of our nation and our Committee, we ignore other parts of the world and other issue areas at our peril. For the sake of brevity, I will mention only a few key issues in each COCOM.
In Colombia, we have spent over $4 billion since 1999 to stem the flow of illegal drugs into our country and aid the Colombians in their fight against home-grown terrorists. But, according to the latest figures from the Justice Department, the supply and purity of illicit narcotics on our streets has not changed much in the last several years.
The Administration of President Uribe is also currently embroiled in a criminal investigation into a seemingly widespread conspiracy between high-ranking government officials and leaders of the terrorist paramilitaries.
I fear that this scandal and the underlying unholy alliance, if proven to be true, will severely undermine the ability of the Colombians to assume greater responsibility for combating narcotics trafficking and taking the fight to the terrorists, both of which may place a larger strain on our American forces during this time of war.
Finally, with regard to Guantanamo Bay, I would like to begin a discussion on whether we should continue to use the U.S. Naval Station there as a detention facility and venue for the military commissions.
Although recent legislation, Supreme Court decisions, and Department directives have probably improved the nature of interrogation and detention at Guantanamo, I think that it may be a little too late.
Guantanamo, like Abu Gharib, has become, in the minds of many of our allies, a textbook example of how NOT to run a detention facility. There are hardened terrorists who must be detained and tried, but the name Guantanamo has come to reflect on the well-deserved, sterling reputation of our armed forces.”
Adm. Stavridis’ opening statement:
The Admiral thanked the Chairman, Ranking Member Duncan Hunter and the distinguished Members of the Committee for the opportunity to discuss both the challenges SOUTHCOM faces and its ongoing operations in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Ranking Member Duncan Hunter (R-California) pointed out that the U.S. is increasingly facing conventional and regional threats coming from the continent. Among them, he mentioned drug trafficking, narco-terrorism and Venezuela’s close relationships with Cuba and Iran. He stressed the danger of President Chávez’s importation of arms from Teheran and harboring of radical Islamists. Congressman Hunter also commented on Guantánamo, describing the detention center as a beautifully run facility, where good health and food conditions are guaranteed to the prisoners. Highlighting the danger of moving terrorists to the United States, he favored isolation as the appropriate means to ensure U.S. security. He asked Stavridis to comment on how US Southern Command will address the aforementioned challenges.
Stavridis replied by stating that SOUTHCOM’s mission in the region is to promote security cooperation. He explained that the ability to accomplish this “is significantly influenced by our understanding of the diversity and culture down south, and that’s an important part of what we seek to do at U.S. Southern Command.” He said that partners in the region are making progress but, given the non-military nature of some of the challenges they are facing, the command needs to strengthen interagency links in what he defined as a “shared home” and not just the U.S. backyard.
Chairman Skelton pointed out that the UN, various U.S. congressmen and other international organizations expressed concerns about the interrogation methods at Guantánamo. He asked Stavridis whether, in his opinion, the detainees could be held in other detention centers.
Stavridis responded negatively, as he does not consider any other location as secure as Guantánamo. He went on to define the prison as a transparent, humane and well-run facility, which also adheres to article 3 of the Geneva Convention.
Congressman Geoff Davis (R-Kentucky) asked Admiral Stavridis to comment on current non-military security threats.
Stavridis replied that modern security challenges require more than straightforward military responses: “We are not launching Tomahawk missiles in SOUTHCOM, we are launching ideas and we need interagency partners to help us do that.” He mentioned the importance of the new established directorate J-9, which is devoted to interagency cooperation. He concluded by assuring the committee that everything SOUTHCOM does in the continent is based on the collaboration with several partners, including the State Department, Homeland Security, Coast Guard and DEA.
Congressman Solomon P. Ortiz (D-Texas) expressed his concerns about the possible expansion of terrorist organizations, especially Hezbollah, in Latin America. Worried about the current lack of appropriate U.S. military forces to respond to a potential crisis in the region, he asked Stavridis whether the U.S. could do more in respect to the current security situation in the Mexican Gulf’s territorial waters.
Stavridis responded by stating that SOUTHCOM relies on the support of both a Navy aircraft carriers and multiple ships for counter-terrorism and counter-narcotic exercises. He informed the committee of the deployment, in the summer, of a US Navy hospital ship, tasked with humanitarian assistance. He also mentioned a SOUTHCOM-managed program called ‘Enduring Friendship’, “a counter-terrorism use of funds that the Congress allocated […] and that puts radars, boats, and command and control apparatus in place in 8 different nations in the region which I think are helpful.”
Congressman John Kline (R-Minnesota) noted that Stavridis does not speak fluent Spanish. He asked him to elaborate on his staff’s confidence in Spanish.
Stavridis informed the committee members that he is currently studying Spanish, 1 hour per day. Acknowledging the importance of learning and speaking the language, he reassured the committee of SOUTHCOM’s intention to raise the total level of Spanish speakers in his staff from the actual 40% to 60% in the near future. He also said that SOUTHCOM is already putting serious resources into that, i.e. computer programs, classes, etc.
Representative Kathy Castor (D-Florida) emphasized the importance of working on partnership both at an economic, military and political level. She invited Stravridis to elaborate on several issues, including the Panama Canal, Cuba, Haiti and medical readiness and humanitarian assistance.
Stavridis replied by affirming that SOUTHCOM constantly focuses its attention on “the beating heart of the economy of the Americas.” He considers the facility to be excellently and safely run by Panamanians. He also informed the committee members about PANAMAX, an annual multinational security exercise which focuses on the defense of the Panama Canal from terrorism threats. He explained that the exercise, in which 20 countries from the region will participate, focuses on the interoperability of nations to help Panama both protect and guarantee safe passage and ensure the canal’s neutrality.
Regarding Haiti, Stavridis praised the achievements of UN peacekeeping mission (MINUSTAH) to the island, the poorest country in the region. Despite the lack of a significant US investment in the country, the admiral thought Haiti is more stable than in the past.
He described the situation in Cuba as “an interesting moment”, as he defined the recent developments in the island, especially Fidel Castro’s health and his brother’s political take over, as a “big question mark.” Despite the impossibility of making an accurate prediction, he reassured the committee that SOUTHCOM “will continue to watch the situation closely.”
Regarding medical readiness and humanitarian assistance, the admiral mentioned the “New Horizons” training exercise, an initiative in which US military personnel cooperate with host-nations’ militaries in the construction of schools, clinics and water wells throughout the continent. He also discussed Medical Readiness Training Exercises (MEDRETEs), designed to train medical personnel by providing medical assistance to more than 250,000 people in 2006. He considered these exercises to be “very successful as a means of both exercising the military and of undertaking the kind of strategic communication we’re talking about here about launching ideas into the region.”
Congressman Mark Thornberry (R-Texas) asked the SOUTHCOM commander whether the United States is making progress in Colombia.
Stavridis replied by stating that the answer depends on how and where you start measuring the progress. He said that if the measure starts in 1996-1997, moving forward to 2000, the answer is affirmative. The admiral pointed out that Colombian police presence in all of the country’s 1,098 municipalities increased and that AUC has demobilized. He added that there has been a decline in both FARC membership and approval rating, respectively by 30% and 10%. He also informed the committee about a 76% decrease in kidnappings and a 52% reduction in homicides, with a consequent greater freedom of movement in the region. Finally, he mentioned President Uribe’s solid popular support, which stands at around 75%. Despite these achievements, Stravridis described the situation in Colombia as “far from perfect”, as a political scandal is unfolding in the country. However, he declared that the Colombian government continues “to strive to improve their human rights record. They are dealing now with a political problem associated with folks who perhaps had interactions with some of the right wing insurgent groups, but they are dealing with those in mature, sensible way – the way a strong democracy does… So my sense is Colombia is a nation on the move, and they are doing well”. He concluded by stating that the U.S. should be very proud of the military assistance provided to the country.
U.S. Representative Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas) invited Stravridis to elaborate on the current problem of corruption in Colombia. He also asked him whether this issue hampers U.S. ability to work with Uribe’s administration.
Stavridis stated “I am not an expert on that” and advised Mr. Reyes to discuss the issue with the current U.S. ambassador to Colombia. Nevertheless, he affirmed that in Colombia there is a willingness to deal with the problem, as people have been charged and there has been media coverage. He also added that the unfolding political scandal does not hamper U.S. support to counter-narcotic operations and ability to cooperate with the Colombian government.
Congressman Mike Rogers (R-Alabama) invited Stravdis to comment on the progress achieved by the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC). He also asked him whether the training facility had been successful in spreading values such as democracy and respect for human rights.
Stavridis responded by describing the Institute as a superbly run institution that offers a great opportunity for Latin American military, law-enforcement and civilian personnel to foster mutual knowledge, transparency, confidence, and cooperation. He explained that in WHINSEC classes are thought in Spanish and Portuguese, and that the curriculum includes the study of human rights as a fundamental component of every class. He concluded by encouraging the committee members to come and visit what he described to be an “exemplary institution.”
Congressman Walter B. Jones (R-Carolina) asked the admiral whether there is a migration of Arab-Islamic population to Latin America.
Stavridis replied affirmatively. Although unable to give exact numbers, the SOUTHCOM commander estimated a total ranging from 3 to 6 million (1% of the entire region’s population). He said that the bulk of the Arab-Islamic population is mainly composed of Lebanese immigrants, settling in both the tri-border area shared by Paraguay, Argentina y Brazil and in some cities in Southern Brazil, especially São Paulo. He stressed that almost all of the Middle Eastern population is living in peace and trying to integrate, although there are some indications that Hezbollah “is financing, recruiting and proselytizing.” Nevertheless, he reassured the committee that “our intelligence folks are working closely with their counterparts in those countries as a part of the global war on terrorism.”
Congressman Kendrick B. Meek (D-Florida) queried Stavridis on the situation in Haiti: “where are we there?”
Stavridis responded by stating that there is an excellent UN mission there, composed of 6,600 peacekeepers coming directly from elsewhere in the region, and that SOUTHCOM needs to encourage regional solutions. However, he affirmed that, in order to cope with a growing narcotic concern, SOUTHCOM needs capabilities and partnerships to avoid having the drug trade undermine Haiti’s fragile democracy.
Congressman Meek asked Stravridis to comment on the two pending Free Trade Agreements.
Stavridis replied by stating that there is strong support for them, as they are perceived as a means to strengthen our relationships in the region.
Finally Chairman Skelton asked him about Afghan units training in Colombia in the near future.
The admiral replied that he did not have any details on the subject.