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Productive Partnerships Make Region Stronger

December 02, 2008

For the past two years at U.S. Southern Command our approach to security cooperation with the 45 nations and territories of Latin America and the Caribbean has been simple -- ''real and vibrant partnership for the Americas.''

We try to do this while supporting and complementing the activities conducted by the State Department, Agency for International Development, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Coast Guard and others. So looking back over the past two years, is there real and vibrant partnership in the Americas?

I'll start with an ongoing example of cooperation and commitment that we call Continuing Promise 2008 -- a training and civic assistance mission that partners regional and U.S. military personnel with other U.S. government agencies, partner-nation government agencies and nongovernmental organizations, like Project Hope and Operation Smile to train and contribute to our hemisphere.

Last year, for the first time, we sent a U.S. hospital ship -- the USNS COMFORT -- on a four-month tour of the region to conduct medical training and treat patients in 12 countries. It was a great success, with almost 380,000 patient treatments, 1,170 life-changing surgeries, more than 20 community-improvement projects, 17,772 livestock vaccinations and more than 25,000 dental patients treated. We learned a lot from the experience. Of note, we decided to repeat the mission the following year with increased mission duration, longer time in each port and the integration of more partners for the undertaking.

Humanitarian missions

Thus was conceived Continuing Promise 2008. This year, the Navy provided two large amphibious ships for a combined seven-month visit to the region with a mix of military, interagency, multinational and even nongovernmental medical and health specialists. Along with this diverse medical team, we embarked military engineers, construction experts, Navy and Marine Corps helicopters and crews and military training experts. This uniquely designed team was tailored to conduct both training and humanitarian missions, but had the flexibility to easily transition to disaster-relief efforts should the need arise.

The USS Boxer completed the Pacific phase of Continuing Promise with superb results: 65,200 total patient treatments, including 127 surgeries, 4,000 optometry patients treated, 14,000 dental procedures, medical and military training for thousands of host-nation students and construction projects at almost a dozen sites. The second ship, the USS Kearsarge, is about to complete the Atlantic phase of Continuing Promise with almost double the results from the Pacific phase. We project Kearsarge will sail home shortly after completing more than 150,000 patient treatments in six countries.

As an example of the flexibility of this venture, just last month, after Haiti was struck by successive tropical storms and Hurricane Ike, the Kearsarge diverted from its planned stop in Colombia to respond to the evolving humanitarian crisis in Haiti. Supporting U.S. relief efforts led by the AID Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance, the Kearsarge and its crew delivered 3.3 million pounds of food, water and other relief supplies to Haitian communities devastated by the storms.

Multilayered focus

Continuing Promise is merely one example of this partnership. Some of our other recent activities include:

• Training and exercises with 22 nations in PANAMAX 2008, an international and interagency exercise to support the security of the Panama Canal, co-hosted with Panama and Chile.

• International human-rights training for militaries throughout the region.

• An exercise called to train counterterrorism forces throughout the region, with more than 15 nations participating.

• Demining efforts in Central America and the Andean ridge.

• Disaster-relief work in Central America and the Caribbean, and an associated international exercise to help all our militaries train to support civil authorities in these challenging situations

• Assistance to various peacekeeping training efforts for partner militaries in Central and South America, including a large international exercise

• Counternarcotics work with more than a dozen partner nations via our center in Key West, leading to interdicting more than 220 tons of cocaine this year

So, is there a real and vibrant partnership for the Americas? As we learn together from each training exercise and every cooperative opportunity, this partnership will only get stronger, more capable and more diverse. Are there disagreements and controversies? Of course. But together, all the nations of this region can continue to forge a true ''Partnership for the Americas'' in the years ahead.

Admiral James Stavridis is commander of the U.S. Southern Command.